One Hit Wonders (not!)
Yesterday (Sept. 26) was the 50th Anniversary of Abbey Road, the Beatles last recording session together and the second last album before Let it Be was issued May 8, 1970. And also Happy belated One Hit Wonder Day! (Sept. 25th) so I thought it would make a good blog topic.
The simplest definition I found is from music journalist Wayne Jancik “an act that has won a position on a national, pop, Top 40 record chart just once.” This from the ‘The Billboard Book of One-Hit Wonders’ (1998). So we aren’t talking one #1 hit. It’s not a term I like as it implies (and some truth to that) these artists have had just a brief moment in the spotlight, perhaps undeservedly so and then fallen off the music map. I know other and deeper definitions are a bit more broad and go beyond the absolute single hit idea. They also consider many artists that have still maintained a quality career and just not reproduced another ‘top 40 hit’ song and or may be from another country/language and snuck in a single hit, enter ‘Nena’ who (including her band “Nena”) had a very respectable career in her native Germany but just the one english language version of “99 Luftballons“. In some cases the definition includes a single song that listeners strongly identify with to the point of ignoring the artist (that may have had other hits). I think this strays way off the path of the ‘one hit’ concept. Strongly ‘identified’ song does not mean in my opinion that the artist is a “one hit wonder”. If you ask 10 people to name one Led Zeppelin song 9 are going to say “Stairway to Heaven”. Most lists should be labelled “American One Hit Wonders” but I give examples below that disqualify songs from that list as well.
Clearly when looking at the songs we see the phrase is a bit US and Billboard Top 40 pop ‘music centric’ and therein lies one of it’s biggest flaws as a legitimate term. Contrary to the belief of some (Americans) and I won’t name names but the world of Music does not revolve around you! Ok maybe just a bit. I think we need to consider how the artist charted in other markets at least, such as; the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, not to mention how well english language songs do in all of Europe, Norway as an example has a big english music market. Sorry to my readers in South America and Asia and elsewhere but chart info is harder to find, however I know you do listen to english language music also.
Regardless I still think it sounds like a negative term so I thought I’d try and demonstrate how some of these songs (and artists) were a bit more than just “one hit wonders”. Not surprisingly I will use some cover songs while I attempt to make my point. When considering the list I do ponder whether the term is still relevant or if anyone really cares that much as it’s been awhile since anyone has made a substantive list of such songs. As a result and perhaps inevitable coming from the writer most of my references will be ‘older’ songs anyway.
As reference there are lists from the above mentioned Billboard, Wikipedia, Rolling Stone Readers poll, VH1, Consequence of Sound, my feeble memory and a few other sources cited at the end. I tried to find some songs that appear on more than one list and look a bit closer at its global impact and, the artists other well known tunes to challenge the “one hit wonder” label they have been given.
Soft Cell, “Tainted Love” is a great place to start. Firstly it is a cover version of the song written by the prolific Ed Cobb and released by Gloria Jones. It was the ‘B’ side to a song called “My Bad Boy’s Comin’ Home” (1965). According to Secondhandsongs it was done by two other artists before Soft Cell in 1981. This version of the song appears in the top 3 of most “one hit wonders” lists but here is my problem with it, Soft Cell themselves had another song hit #31 on Billboard, “Torch” written by the duo (Marc Almond, David Ball) which also did well internationally. Indeed they have had a dozen top 40 hits in the UK and several in other countries. Granted they never had another #1 but hardly “one hit wonders” either. The song “Tainted Love” would be revived once again when Marilyn Manson charted well internationally with it in 2001. In total the song has been covered over 120 times and as recently as May 10, of this year.
“The Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats was written by the lead singer Ivan Doroschuk. It was a worldwide hit reaching #1 on the US Hot Dance Club play list in 1983 as well as #1 on Cashbox, #3 Billboard and a Certified Gold hit in Canada. Ivan, who grew up in Montreal was inspired to write the song after getting kicked out of a dance club for “pogo dancing“. Apparently this was quite the issue with people being asked to either stop or leave dance clubs everywhere for pogo dancing. While not as strong a contender for ‘not’ a one hit wonder they also had five other top 40 hits in Canada and four years later in 1987 “Pop Goes the World” hit #20 on Billboard, #27 on the Dance chart in the US, #2 in Canada and Sweden, #1 in Austria and #3 in South Africa. Ok so maybe they are two-hit wonders.
‘a-ha’ had a huge hit in 1985 after re-releasing and re-recording their original 1984 song “Take On Me” written by the band (Magne Furuholmen,Morten Harket and Pål Waaktaar). To say this was a smash hit is a bit of an understatement as it was #1 in 14 countries and top 3 in several more. Yet another song leading many “one hit wonders” lists. Thing is they had a #20 hit in the US that same year and in their native Norway up to 2005 they had eight more #1 hit songs. Many of them charted anywhere from #1 to top 10 in countries like Ireland, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, Germany and the UK. And when a song like “Take On Me” gets covered over 110 times it has to go beyond the one-hit wonder status on it’s own. Pentatonix (2017), Weezer (2019).
While “Never Gonna Give You Up” (written by the Brit trio of Stock, Aitken and Waterman) was a huge #1 hit song (1988) in many Countries for Rick Astley, it was not even his only #1 song in the US. “Together Forever” also reached #1 in June of 1988, perhaps not as memorable but unmistakable as a Rick Astley song when you hear it. In fact apart from the two #1 songs he had five top 10’s and nine songs in the top 100. In the UK alone he had 7 top ten hits and four of those hit #1 in Canada. Once again a song and artist that has no place on any “one hit wonders” list yet featured prominently on several. Covered about 40 times, “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Scary Pockets feat. Reeve Carney, what a great rendition!
There are plenty of legitimate “one hit wonders” out there so I don’t understand the need to add ones that are not, but hey that’s just me! Some of these lists include songs like “Sugar Sugar” from the Archies (my 1969 blog), I do wonder who compiles these things, for crying out loud of course they didn’t have another hit song they were not a real band, it was studio singers and musicians being comic book characters!
One of my favorite real “one hit wonders” if we must call it that, is “Spirit in the Sky” written and performed by Norman Greenbaum (1969). If you are only going to write one hit song it’s hard to imagine getting any better than this, #333 on Rolling Stones list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Not the first Jewish songwriter to turn Christian references into a great song, he was inspired by watching Country Legend Porter Wagoner sing a gospel song on TV. He thought to himself, I can do that, and he did, he wrote the words in 15 minutes and while he produced four albums with some pretty decent songs he didn’t need another song to make a career in music. Covered just 37 times The Kentucky Headhunters (1991).
Check out this well researched list from Tom Nawrocki of “True One Hit Wonders” of more obscure hits, with the exception of “Spirit” none of the above songs appear here. I do have to take exception to his addition of Mr. Acker Bilk on the list, while Bilk only charted the one song “Stranger on the Shore” on Billboard (Peaked at #1 on 5.26.1962) he had 10 top 40 hits in the UK and was far from “obscure”. Hey, according to my British buddy Darren when he was growing up everyone had at least one Acker Bilk album! And yes, I do have an Acker Bilk Album 😲
References: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page, Secondhandsongs.com, https://www.ranker.com/list/greatest-songs-by-one-hit-wonders/ranker-music, https://www.billboard.com, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-lists/rolling-stone-readers-pick-the-top-10-one-hit-wonders-of-all-time-14391/, https://consequenceofsound.net/2016/09/the-100-best-one-hit-wonder-songs/, https://www.insider.com/best-one-hit-wonders-2018-5#i-melt-with-you-by-modern-english-1982-17, bobborst.com.
images: star2.com, nitro records
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