Portland-Born Smash ‘I Can’t Wait’ Turns 35

The plastic-disco thumper by Nu Shooz was an early MTV staple.

With Conner Reed April 1, 2021 Published in the Spring 2021 issue of Portland Monthly

Nu Shooz in 2016

“You know, the story of every top 10 hit is weird,” says John Smith, half of Portland husband-and-wife duo Nu Shooz. He would know. Thirty-five years ago this spring, his band’s plastic disco thumper “I Can’t Wait” topped the Billboard dance charts.

In 1985, Bay Area label Hot Trax scooped up “I Can’t Wait”—a regional hit that launched Nu Shooz  to the top of Portland’s vibrant downtown scene—to include on a DJ subscription record. Not much later, Dutch music execs stumbled on that LP in a bargain bin and tapped producer Peter Slaughuis to remix “I Can’t Wait.” He swapped the original’s delicate funk for thick robo-synths, and voilà: a smash was born. The song exploded in New York and, by spring 1986, had set the charts on fire and landed Nu Shooz a singles deal with Atlantic Records.

Nu Shooz in 1985

Northwest filmmaker Jim Blashfield (who’d logged work for Talking Heads and Joni Mitchell) directed the track’s surreal video, which features vocalist Valerie Day doing things like pulling a shark out of a coffeepot. “I think to this day I’m probably the only pop singer that’s doing small appliance repair in an MTV video,” she says. It was shot on a soundstage off N Vancouver Avenue, in a building that would eventually house her son’s school.

Right now, the couple is laying low. When Portland Monthly spoke to them, they were packing up for Bellingham after nearly five decades together in Day’s native Portland. Unlike a lot of acts with a no. 1 to their name, though, Nu Shooz doesn’t resent “I Can’t Wait.” A few years ago, Icona Pop and Questlove covered the song for a Target commercial. “I walked into Target one day, and the whole wall in the electronics section exploded into this plaid video of ‘I Can’t Wait,’” Smith says. “And I just walked around Target going, ‘Haha, nobody knows I wrote that.’"

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