Was Mr. Big's "To Be With You" Hair Metal's Last Hurrah?

Eric Martin of Mr. Big
Eric Martin of Mr. Big
YouTube Screen Capture

Every listener has guilty pleasure songs. Those recordings that we just find irresistible, despite several red flags to our better judgment.

Mr Big’s “To Be With You” should qualify as the guiltiest of guilty pleasures, but we feel no shame rocking out to it. But why is that? Could it be how it’s something of a final bow to the pre-Nirvana rock era? Is it the silliness of the video, which made us just like the band and their vibe that much more? Or is it just such a strong melody?

With Mr. Big playing Beverly Hills' Saban Theater this Sunday, we decided to take a look back at the infectious single.

“To Be With You” has become a staple of hair metal compilations, often getting featured in their late-night commercials. A five-second clip of Eric Martin sitting backwards on a chair crooning in black-and-white is a pretty convincing argument to order a double-CD off the television. The song was a legit monster hit in the early '90s. But was it also hair metal’s curtain call?

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Mr. Big was formed by former David Lee Roth bassist Billy Sheehan. After parting ways with Roth in the late '80s, Sheehan cherry-picked talented musicians from other successful bands to form his own Los Angeles all stars. Signed to Atlantic Records, they didn’t have much success stateside until their sophomore album Lean Into It and its second single, “To Be With You.” While the album was recorded in 1990 and '91, and released before Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit radio and wiped out L.A. hair metal with genocidal fury, “To Be With You” happened to eek out its success at the very end of the year, making its presence something of a holdover while the sound from Seattle was redefining the charts.

But what if we told you its success, emerging from the early '90s hair-metal graveyard, was due to it not being much of a hair metal song at all?

While the song structure of "To Be With You" does resemble the typical hair-metal ballad formula, and the members of Mr. Big all had incredible heads of hair, that’s pretty much where the similarities end. While the video shows a certain hammy-cheesiness, something Sheehan undoubtably picked up during his Roth years, the video’s portrayal of the members as goofballs during such a straightforward, sentimental song at least hints at a self-awareness. And there's a poignancy to the lyrics that really makes the song’s protagonist sound like his words are face-value honesty and not a pretty lothario’s subliminal, “I’m the one who wants to have sex with you.” Mr. Big's overall style and presentation is more that of a time-traveling '70s rock group than the big-haired, sexed-up, spandex-clad horde they’re so often grouped with.

Another thing that sets Mr. Big apart is what lead singer Eric Martin did shortly after the success of "To Be With You." A diehard comic book fan, he composed the music for the Sega-CD game Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin. One of the first disc-based video games to boast original music from an established artist, it gave us Martin’s very '80s-rock-style theme song “Swing Time,” as well as surprisingly dark rock instrumental scores for each level. Martin, a Long Island native, nailed the brooding, sinister city elements of pre-Giuliani New York perfectly.

So, were Mr. Big really hair metal? Their touring years were spent mostly with prog-rock groups like Rush and their other videos like “Green Tinted Sixties Mind” and “Just Take My Heart” really aren’t as glamorous as those of their peers. But something about “To Be With You” feels like a perfect, stripped-down coda to the hair metal era. The song’s emotive nature was, and still is, something we want to hear delivered with a comforting melody. Deep inside, we hope you feel it too.

Mr. Big perform at the Saban Theatre on Sunday, Feb. 22. Tickets and more info here.


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