Out of humble beginnings, the British 80s trio When In Rome created something with lasting impact. Their debut single, “The Promise,” released in 1988, not only became a hit back when it was first released but has experienced two resurgent moments in the decades since, cementing its status as an 80s pop classic.
When In Rome first formed when singer Clive Farrington enlisted keyboardist Michael Floreale and beat poet Andrew Mann to join him in a band after his previous venture, Beau Leisure, called it a day. The fledgling groups then started working on music in the garden shed in Farrington’s dad’s garden. Although it had been converted into a studio, it was far from an ideal recording space – free space was such a rare commodity that the trio had to attach their keyboards to the walls vertically. But it was in that cramped shed that their biggest hit would come to life.
One night while jamming on ideas, Floreale was experimenting with some melodies and chords, when Farrington joined him and started singing along. After writing the first verse and the chorus, he asked Mann to write the final parts. “I’d had this tune in my head for a long while and hummed a basic melody to Mike,” Farrington said in an interview years later. “This was the intro piano part for ‘The Promise.’ Mike played it over and over, and I then sang the first verse melody over the top of a basic C chord. I then flowed into the chorus part and wrote the lyrics down.”
Although the song has become something of a wedding staple thanks to its committed lyrics (“If you need a friend, don’t look to a stranger,” Farrington sings in the first verse. “You know in the end, I’ll always be there”), the songwriter thought its words were “a little odd.” “Especially the words, ‘I’ll make you fall for me,’ because it is, of course, strange to say that you are going to make someone fall for you,” he explained.
Farrington found something unique in the instrumentation When In Rome used on “The Promise,” too. The track featured a Roland SH-101 keyboard, a Roland RE-501 loop echo, and, most importantly of all, a LinnDrum machine. “I guess what made “The Promise” so special was my (at the time) insane Linn Drum programming and Roland SH101 bass line coupled with the verse and chorus melodic vocals,” the singer wrote in his book, Confessions Of a One Hit Wonder: “The Promise” … And The Aftermath.
“I remember speaking with our producer, Ben Rogan, about this during the recording. But, five years later, when it all exploded, I realized that the nature of the song and its low and high vocals made it feel like it should be sung in a Gothic cathedral, allowing a hymn to be sent to the Gods.”
“The Promise” was initially released as a 12-inch record and quickly drew attention in the States, with it topping the Billboard Hot Dance/Club Play Songs chart. After signing with Virgin Records, the track was re-released as the lead single from their self-titled debut album and rocketed up the Billboard Hot 100 chart too, where it peaked at No.11.
It made a decent dent in the UK charts, too, landing at No.58 on the Official UK Singles Chart, but failed to repeat the song’s success across the pond. It would go on to be When In Rome’s biggest commercial success, but the one-hit wonder would come back into the spotlight on more than one occasion as the years passed.
In 2004, some 16 years after “The Promise” first found success, it came back to the world’s attention thanks to an appearance on the Napoleon Dynamite soundtrack. The movie – also an unexpected hit – propelled it back into the charts.
That wouldn’t be the last time it would strike a chord with music fans worldwide, though. Recently, the track has become a trending sound on TikTok as a new generation of listeners use it to soundtrack their videos on the app. With over 46.7k total creations using the song, it has become attached to various trends on the platform, from users sharing their love of 80s music with it to soundtracking clips of them making cocktails inspired by their exes’ bad behavior.
“The Promise” continues to live on as a perennial club favorite at New Wave nights, covers, and endless TV and film needle drops; some hits are just built to last.