Singer/guitarist Bill Wadhams of the Los Angeles synthpop band Animotion remembers the first time he encountered the song that would become the group’s famous hit for all time. During the mid-’80s, when Animotion was working on its debut album, band producer John Ryan phoned Wadhams about a new song that had hit potential. The name of the work was “Obsession”, and when Ryan played the original version of it over the phone, Wadhams wasn’t impressed upon what he heard.
“I held my hand over the phone,” he says. “There was a friend of mine in the room, and I said, ‘I can’t believe they’re telling me this could be a hit song — and I will be speaking it, not even singing [like on the original]. And [Ryan] said, ‘We like you to record this.’ Essentially, half of the budget for the album went into this one song. It really got the royal treatment. This one was more like layer by layer by layer was laid in there, and then it became the song that it is.”
“Obsession”, which features on Animotion’s self-titled 1984 album, entered the Billboard Top 40 chart on 2 March 1985. Accompanied by a stylish if campy video, the song eventually peaked at number six. With its driving rock sound and urgent lyrics, “Obsession” defined the glorious bombast that was the ’80s. This year marks the song’s 30th anniversary, and the group — which consists of Wadhams, singer Astrid Plane, guitarist Don Kirkpatrick, and keyboardist Greg Williams — are commemorating the occasion by performing a series of scheduled live dates on the West Coast and Canada.
The opportunity to revisit “Obsession” came about 15 years ago when Animotion reunited with Wadhams and Plane — the group’s original lead singers — returning to the fold. Wadhams, who is a graphic designer living in Portland, says that being in Animotion for the second time around has been more harmonious than in the past, when the band faced pressure to record another major hit after “Obsession”.
“I remember our keyboard player Greg saying to me, ‘They want another “Obsession,”’ and I argued, ‘Nah, they just want another great song.’ When we were approaching our second album there was a big question about, ‘How do we follow this up?’ Things began to change in terms of band dynamics. One of the main reasons was that I was the only writer within the band, and after everyone in the band saw how the money is distributed, everybody became writers… and everybody was lobbying to get their song onto the second album.”
During Animotion’s heyday, the relationship between singers Wadhams and Plane was strained due to battling egos, but now it’s a different story. “We were kind of wrestling for front-person time,” Wadhams recalls, “Like, ‘Here’s my songs, and here’s your songs.’ ‘I’m up front, you take a backseat.’ Now she and I just love doing this and all of the competition between us is absolutely gone. We’ve finally come to the terms with what made the two of us as singers interesting was that we are different and that we play with each other on stage… The differences between us now have turned into a strength, and we accepted each other.”
The story behind “Obsession” and Animotion began in 1979, when Wadhams — who was originally raised on rock ‘n’ roll and jazz rock– moved to Los Angeles from the East Coast to pursue a music career. Through a friend, he hooked up with a recording studio owner who had his own recording school. Liking Wadhams’ songs, the owner invited the singer to record at a 24-track studio. At this school, Wadhams met a man named Larry Ross who was managing a band called Red Zone that included Astrid Plane and the other future members of Animotion. “Larry took the class and saw me in this class,” Wadhams says, “and then when Red Zone broke up, he approached me and said, ‘Hey, I got this band and they just broke up, but I want to stick with this woman named Astrid.’ So he put me together with Astrid and we started rehearsing.”
This new group called itself Animotion, based upon seeing the word “animation” in a dictionary, and began rehearsing in Los Angeles. “Then our demo tape was sent to Polygram Records,” continues Wadhams, “and a guy [in artist and representation (A&R)] named Russ Regan heard it and came down to see us in a rehearsal studio. When he looked at us, he said, ‘You guys could be like a Fleetwood Mac for the ’80s because you are a guy and a girl, you sing some songs together, you sing some songs apart. I think we could go some place with this idea.’ So he signed us on that concept, the guy-girl thing.”
Animotion was recording its debut album at Sound City and had completed half of the album around the time producer John Ryan visited England, where Frankie Goes to Hollywood was the hot band thanks to its hit “Relax”. It was then a publisher passed Ryan a song called “Obsession”, which was originally written by Michael Des Barres and Holly Knight and recorded for a movie called A Night in Heaven. In a recent interview with PopMatters, Des Barres explained the origins of the song:
So everybody’s walking around and saying “obsession”… and it just struck a chord with me. It suddenly made sense. I was obsessed with narcotics, but I wrote it about lovers. And Holly just created this beautiful track. An A&R man heard it and gave it to the band Animotion, and they did their version of it. It was a tremendous hit, and an annuity for my many relationships. [Laughs]
Wadhams never really met Des Barres in the years after Animotion’s hit version, only recently reaching out to him through social media. “I said, ‘This is Bill from Animotion. By your Facebook [page], I’m guessing you wrote the lyrics because I didn’t really know the story behind it. And I’m gonna guess you wrote the lyrics.’ And he said, ‘Yes I did’. I said, ‘Tell me about it’. He said that he had just become clean and sober and he said he was obsessed with everything. It’s more about an addictive personality.”
At the time, Wadhams didn’t think “Obsession” would become the hit it would turn out to be, but that view gradually changed as Animotion’s career took off. “I thought it was cool but I didn’t think it was so special that it would make the mark that it did,” he says. “Matter of fact, we were shooting the video, and there’s a scene where I’m casually dancing near a fountain next to Astrid. I remember thinking, ‘This is really remarkable. I’m in Hollywood shooting something, the Hollywood sign behind me… I don’t know where it’s gonna go.’ I kind of thought this was gonna go anywhere. I’m glad I was wrong about that.”
“By the time “Obsession” got to number 17 with a bullet,” he says later, “I said, ‘I don’t care where this came from.’ We’re taking off like a rocket. We were out on our first tour and we got the top ten at the time Bruce Springsteen’s ‘I’m on Fire’ was in the top ten, Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ was in the top ten. It was heady company, and our name was made for that time.”
Thanks to the song, Animotion joined the big leagues with appearances on MTV, Solid Gold, and American Bandstand. The group followed that hit with another song, the underrated “Let Him Go”, which cracked the Top 40. A couple of things from that period for Wadhams stood out, including meeting American Bandstand host Dick Clark and an encounter with a rabid fan.
“When ‘Obsession’ was blowing up in L.A., we were invited to a huge all ages club — 1,500 people — and we went there to lip synch two tracks. And the place was jammed with teenagers and we did our thing and it was so crowded, we could hardly move. Then they moved us over to a table where we would sign albums and this girl came up to me and said, ‘Give me something! Give me something! Can you give me anything as a memento?’ I said, ‘I don’t have anything.’ And she said, ‘Give me your shoes.’ And I said, ‘I just bought these shoes.’ And she said, ‘But you can get another pair. You’re a millionaire’ [Laughs]. And at that point, we hadn’t made any money. I thought, ‘I’m a star but I’m still broke… but people think I’m a millionaire.’ I was like, ‘Wow, that’s interesting.’”
But the tricky part came when the band tried to the follow up on its next album, 1986’s Strange Behavior, containing the singles “I Engineer” and “I Want You”. The record’s performance was hampered by internal problems at Polygram Records when it decided to scrap independent promotion following an investigation over payola, according Wadhams. When it came to work on the third Animotion record, things fell apart. The group’s A&R guy left the company, and its new management team suggested that Animotion fire Plane and bassist Charles Ottavio — who were a couple then. Wadhams and the rest of the band acquiesced. Meanwhile, the label’s new A&R person told Wadhams that although he wasn’t a fan of Animation’s music, he was willing to work with the band.
“We were going to have our album produced by Stephen Hague [whose credits include Pet Shop Boys and New Order],” says Wadhams. “We had made a deal with him, and this new A&R [representative] said, ‘No, I want to you to sound more like Heart and Starship.’ At the time, both Heart and Starship became brands that were using Hollywood songwriters, like Holly Knight. They were like, ‘Your second album tanked, we don’t trust you with songwriting, we want outside songwriters, and we want someone who worked on the Heart album.’ That was about the time I quit the thing. I was like, ‘Okay, I can’t get my own songs and everything you’re telling me, I just can’t stand it.’ So I left, and that was that.”
A revamped version of Animotion — with Cynthia Rhodes and Paul Engemann as the new lead singers — scored a top ten hit in 1989 with “Room to Move”, but broke up shortly afterwards. Meanwhile Wadhams, who went through a divorce, relocated first to Vancouver and then later Portland, Oregon. He worked as a graphic designer while still pursuing a music career. An attempt to reunite the band in the early ’90s for a new album stalled due to a lack of interest amidst the popularity of grunge rock. It wasn’t until 2001 that Animotion regrouped to perform a concert, and has remained together ever since. For Wadhams, it meant a reconciliation between him and Plane, whom he pushed out years earlier from the band.
Bill Wadhams and Astrid Plane (Press)
“I think Astrid was cautious around me because I was the great manipulator,” he admits. “I think she was very cautious about how this was gonna go. But she loves to rock, so she just dove into it. Otherwise, enough time had passed that everybody was kind of cool and we had fun. After our first gig, we sat in a hotel lobby going, ‘Wow!’”
As the band is marking “Obsession” turning 30 with some shows throughout the year, it’s also looking ahead towards the future, with a new studio album in the works. But whatever Animotion does at this point in its career, it will always be synonymous with “Obsession”, which over the years became a theme song for the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wresting Entertainment) and appeared in TV and movies including Hot Tub Time Machine, Dallas Buyers Club, 30 Rock, and Adventureland — not to mention the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.
“I think it’s the combined efforts of the writers, musicians, and producers,” says Wadhams of the song’s legacy, “to create something that’s got that special, unique quality that perks people’s ears up. I think the sound of it is awesome, and I think that Michael’s lyric also hooks people in. I think the line, ‘Who do you want me to be?’ is just brilliant. I think also people can relate to wanting something so badly, that you just start asking what you have to do to get it. So I think it’s combination of all of the efforts of everybody involved and the lyrics that people can relate to.”