At an industry panel in 1992, radio host Rick Dees explained the popularity of Right Said Fred’s tongue-in-cheek disco confection “I’m Too Sexy”: “Everyone is so busy they don’t have time to devote to memorize [rap songs]. With Right Said Fred you know he is too sexy for a dozen things, and in a week I can memorize that.”
The song’s upbeat vibe and simple, percussive lyrics helped it implant itself in the minds of Top 40 radio listeners, hitting Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks. Since then, it’s been a cultural touchstone, the declaration of being “too sexy” for something now part of the American pop cultural fabric. It received a lyrical shout-out from Jay-Z on his era-defining 2001 LP The Blueprint, was part of the dialogue on The West Wing, soundtracked The Smurfs 2 and added a touch of glitter absurdity to a pitch for the Toyota Camry. Its profile recently roared back to life when Taylor Swift’s Number One hit “Look What You Made Me Do,” interpolated the ticky-tack vocal rhythm that helped make it catchphrase-ready. Brothers Richard and Fred Fairbrass, the British music lifers who came up with the song after living through New York’s go-go Eighties, still perform the song at retro-minded festivals today.
Here, the Fairbrass brothers and other characters discuss the song’s improbable rise to the top.
Fred Fairbrass, Right Said Fred: We never really fit in. When everyone else was doing post-punk New Wave, we were busy doing sort of … acoustic power-pop. Which just didn’t fit. We toured with Suicide and with Joy Division. We were just on the road in the U.K. mostly, from ’78, ’79 right through to when we moved to New York in ’86, ’87. Like most musicians, we had part-time jobs – we worked in video production, we both worked in gyms. People always thought we were going to do something, and we never did.
I saw a documentary on Twisted Sister and there were quite a few … parallels with things that went wrong, yeah. People falling out and people becoming ill or just moving out of the country. You sign to somebody then they get picked up by another company and you’re left with an A&R guy that hates you. All the stuff bands go through. What was interesting about New York in that period, it was very hedonistic. Big parties like [the drag hangout] Jackie 60. Richard worked at [nightclub] Nell’s. I worked at [the punk-rock clothier] Trash and Vaudeville. We just did a load of stuff – we went to a lot of really dodgy parties.
Richard Fairbrass, Right Said Fred: Every party was dodgy.
Fred Fairbrass: So when we got back to London, we started writing slightly different stuff. A bit more cynical and lyrically cynical. “I’m Too Sexy” was the first song we’d wrote with this guy we’d met, a guitarist named Rob Manzoli. We told Rob, “We’ve been through the mill. We don’t want to use anything that we’ve written before. We want to write a brand-new song. No old ideas, nothing.”
Richard Fairbrass: We’d got really bored with acoustic music.
Fred Fairbrass: And musicians.
Richard Fairbrass: Really, we just wanted a beat and …
Fred Fairbrass: And keep it cheap. … We started programming with Brian [Pugsley]. We had this song going around which was a bass line and we were trying to write a melody. But the bass line was actually the “I’m Too Sexy” melody. … We had had a few drinks and stuff and Richard jumped up and was walking around Brian’s flat, and then came back into the studio with his shirt off. Because we had been down at the gym, we were training quite hard and we were in quite good shape. He took his shirt off and started singing “I’m too sexy for my shirt” to the bass line. Rob and Richard thought it was very funny. I was less convinced initially. I thought, “This is a bit of a stupid idea.”
Richard Fairbrass: He’s a Bob Dylan fan, that’s why. Sense of humor bypassed him.
Fred Fairbrass: No, Bob Dylan’s got a great sense of humor.
Phil Spalding, bass: When you listen to “I’m Too Sexy,” the bass strings sound like rubber bands. I’m a really hard player – I really hit the guitars I play. And when you tune a bass down [by a fifth], you can’t hit it so hard. I did it in one take, so what you hear on the record is me playing from beginning to end. And I made it up as I went along. If you actually analyze it and listen to it, there’s loads of places where I’m pulling the bass out of tune, because the strings are too loose. Every time I hit it hard, it goes a bit sharp.
Fred Fairbrass: We then hooked up with Ian Craig Marsh, who had worked with Heaven 17.
Richard Fairbrass: And that was the first time I had ever heard sampled brass. I didn’t even know you could do that.
Fred Fairbrass: We knew it needed a bit more of a beat to it. … I knew a DJ named Tommy D, and we took the song to him and he basically created a new backing track. There was a studio we found that was actually gone into receivership, so it was closed. But if you gave the janitor guy some money, he’d open it up at night, on the understanding you didn’t put any lights on and you didn’t put on the heating.
Richard Fairbrass: And it was freezing.
Fred Fairbrass: We had to work from the lights that came off the equipment and the little spotlights in the studio.
Fred Fairbrass: Finally, we started playing the song to some record companies and all the record companies said, “No.” Every single label said, “Yeah, this isn’t going to work.” And we just thought, “They’re not right.” … But then there was Red Bus Studios in London, and their receptionist heard the song. She said to us, “I’ll tell you what, I think this is a hit record. … If I can get this on the radio, I want to manage it.” She was only 18, 17? A real young kid. But really ballsy and a lot of spark about her. We said, “Hey, if you can get us on the radio, you can manage us. Take your 20 percent, we’d be happy.”
Tamzin Aronowitz, manager/PR, Right Said Fred: I knew [record promoter] Guy Holmes through the record company that I was working for. I persuaded him to give me a lift home. … And then I just put the cassette in his car and we had a listen to it on the way back. He loved it, he jumped from it.
Fred Fairbrass: Fortunately, Simon [Bates, BBC Radio 1 DJ] and his producer were very open-minded, and they played “I’m Too Sexy” off the acetate, and the phones went mental. The audience were A&R, if you like, and we had no record deal. So we formed a little independent label with the plugger to service this one record. We didn’t sign a deal, it was just a handshake, really. A gentleman’s agreement. And from that moment, the record just went insane.
We were funding everything – we borrowed the money through friends and a bank loan. And the record just started going mad. It just had a life of its own, like “Gangnam Style” or “Moves Like Jagger” – these big songs that come out of nowhere. The minute it got onto radio, it just started getting massive numbers. It broke everywhere on import, even before it was licensed [to Charisma Records].
Joe Cortese, host, Retro Pop Reunion; DJ and producer, CBS Radio: The UK is always about six to eight months ahead of us for trends and fashion and music. And when I first heard “I’m Too Sexy,” I thought it was a novelty song. Others thought it might have been another Milli Vanilli, after that debacle.
When it came out, music was kind of tripping on itself, and the times were kind of in a tailspin. And there was this fun song that came out. People were calling for it because it had a great beat, and then the 12-inch mixes started coming out. And people’s immediate reaction was, “Yeah, can you play that song? Can you play that song?” Because at that time, the only place you could get that song [in the U.S.] was radio.
Fred Fairbrass: It just went insane. We weren’t promoting the song; we were trying to catch up with it. It’s the first time I’ve ever just experienced being chased by that whole mania thing – being chased by girls and storming hotels. All this craziness, which we actually didn’t like, I’ve got to be honest with you.
Richard Fairbrass: I don’t think we were very good at it, actually.
Aronowitz: It was a learning curve, definitely, for all of us. Nobody expected it to go so big. I think we did our own PR to begin with. It was just literally me sitting at my desk when I should’ve been working and phoning up all the old pop magazines like Smash Hits. … All the costumes they wore, were actually by an incredible stylist named Peter Hawker. He was putting them in all these crazy, outrageous bubble-wrap costumes. People had never seen anything like it.
Fred Fairbrass: As I said, we’d just come back from New York. It was making fun, if you like, of that hedonism. People forget now how famous Cindy Crawford was.
Richard Fairbrass: And Christie Brinkley.
Fred Fairbrass: And Jerry Hall. Just big, big stars. “Sexy” was not really making fun of those people, but making fun of people who thought they were those people. Because we delivered it with our shirts off, we had actually had people think that we …
Richard Fairbrass: Thought we actually thought that we were too sexy. They didn’t get it.
Fred Fairbrass: They didn’t get the cynicism and the joke. But the idea of the song is that obviously you can’t be too sexy, right? No one can be too sexy.
Cortese: Everybody kind of attached their own emoji to “I’m Too Sexy,” right down to, “I’m too sexy for my coffee.”
Richard Fairbrass: It became a part of the language, in a way – it wasn’t just a song anymore. I think people use that expression even if they’ve never heard the song.
Aronowitz: We did a big tour of the States, about six weeks. This was when “I’m Too Sexy” had just broken over there. I’ve probably done bigger and better things, but we were driving around in vans going to local radio and plugging away and doing … shopping centers all over the place. God knows how many states we went to – it was mad. It was so big. It was literally a different plane and a different city every day.
Richard Fairbrass: I remember a gig in America where, when we got to the gig, the carpark was full of motorbikes.
Fred Fairbrass: It was Austin, Texas.
Richard Fairbrass: Wally, our tour manager, said, “This could be a bit rough – this is a biker’s place, you know?” I at the time was wearing almost a semi-see-through body stocking thing. I thought, “We are going to get absolutely murdered in this place. This is going to be a nightmare.” And they loved it.
Richard Fairbrass: It was the first time we’d ever made any money, so we had a holiday in Saint Lucia. There was loads and loads of homophobia in Saint Lucia at the time, so we decided to leave. We were catching a plane back, sitting in this funny little airport. The phone on the wall rang in the airport, and somebody picked up the phone and said, “Is Right Said Fred here?” … That’s where we found out we were Number One. We heard the official Billboard announcement on the radio when we were in Florida.
Fred Fairbrass: We were channel surfing and we found this local Miami station, and it was just as we’d got there that he said, “Now, America’s Number One is Right Said Fred.” We’d just tuned in about five seconds before the guy said it. I have to say, that was the first moment I thought, “Fuck! That was actually pretty amazing.” An independent band with no money, making it. … Some bands had to get there if they’ve got a huge amount of debt from a major label. And they spend the next 10 years trying to pay it off. We were incredibly lucky, because everything we made was profit. Because we hadn’t spent any money. We didn’t have any.
Aronowitz: I had my 21st birthday on tour in America with the band; I had to show my passport to get a drink. I think they were celebrating being Number One, and I was going, “Yeah, I am now 21, I can now officially have a glass of something to celebrate!”
Cortese: It was an across-the-board hit. At the time, you had grunge, gangsta rap, as well as Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, very soft AC. And then you had this pulverizing song that really stood out. It was a party anthem for the times.
Richard Fairbrass: A friend and I came out of a diner in the middle of nowhere, and walking towards us across the carpark were these two heavily leather clad blokes who had just got off their Harleys. They both dropped to their knees and did the whole “We’re not worthy” thing! And we had never seen Wayne’s World. I didn’t know what “We’re not worthy” was! I had no idea.
Fred Fairbrass: To have an artist as big as Taylor Swift give you the thumbs up and introduce us to her fan base is amazing. … “I like the cynical aspect of the lyric [in “Look What You Made Me Do”], because “I’m Too Sexy” is a cynical song, and I think she channeled that quite well. … She and Jack [Antonoff, producer] sent us flowers … with a big thank you and said they want to meet at a party and celebrate. So we’ll hold them to that.”
Richard Fairbrass: It also proves the point that ‘Sexy’ wasn’t just a ludicrous ‘Purple People Eater’ kind of nonsense song. There was more to it than that.
Fred Fairbrass: “I’m Too Sexy” is one of those songs that, now, DJs and record company people all claim to be part of, and they were nowhere near it. “Oh man, I wish you’d played me that record!” Yeah, yeah, whatever, mate. Your label said “No.” We now meet people all the time who claim that they were part of it, and we don’t remember them. But it’s one of those songs that has a mythology point as well.
Richard Fairbrass: I think the weird thing with it was, it was a song that punters really liked, the public really liked, people really liked. But it was a song that irritated some musicians incredibly, because it was perceived to be stupid. Simple. Daft. Not serious. Even now, some musicians definitely look down their nose at us. I think if our first record had been all about personal pain and suffering, we would be taken a lot more seriously as musicians. But that’s just the way it is. And it’s their problem more than ours.
Additional reporting by Kory Grow.