Imagine for a moment that you found a magic bottle at an estate sale somewhere, and when you rubbed it, out popped the Pop Music Genie, eager to grant you your biggest wish.
You might want to think twice before saying something like “I want to be famous and have a huge hit song!” Genies are notorious for taking things literally.
Your lack of disciplined semantics might have just transformed you into a one-hit wonder, that undervalued and much-maligned purveyor of temporary and largely forgettable entertainments that hit big, sink quick, and then end up being excavated for wedding play lists, once enough time has passed for them to be viewed through the lenses of irony and nostalgia. (“Play That Funky Music,” anyone? Anyone?)
Sept. 25 is set aside as “One Hit Wonder Day,” which might seem like a glorified excuse for the endless repackaging of several decades’ worth of tunes analogous to the Baha Men’s awful “Who Let the Dogs Out?” but is in fact something far more cruel and insidious – a damning with the faintest praise and the gifting of a proverbial scarlet letter to pin to your uniform - in this case, a big old “L,” for loser.
Don’t wanna be a loser? Then just say no. Todd Rundgren did.
“I am grilled with questions like, ‘You had a hit record with ‘Something/Anything’ and if you’d continued making records like that you’d be a big hit,’ ” Rundgren told an interviewer from Noisecreep in 2013.
“My rejoinder is, if I did that, it’s likely that I would have no real career, because … if you let the audience or the marketplace dictate certain songs or a certain style, then your fate is completely in their hands. And so if they decide something is more interesting to them, then they leave you and you have to go away for 20 years before coming back as a retro act.”
Rundgren should know. He’s not technically a one-hit wonder – he had some big hits in the ’70s, though most of them failed to bother the Top 40 – but in the minds of casual listeners, he’ll always be that dude who sang “Hello It’s Me.” That Rundgren is in fact a tireless musical explorer driven by abundant curiosity and artistic wanderlust is known to his worldwide cult audience, but to the general public? Not so much.
Pop music history is littered with the remains of artists who struck gold only once, and then spent the rest of their lives wondering what they had done wrong, or pulling an MC Hammer and urging housewives to put the hammer down and use some sort of sticky stuff to mount their artwork on the wall. (If you haven’t seen this television commercial, check YouTube; it’s both hilarious, and a little sad.)
The “lucky” ones get to play State Fairs or perform as part of package tours, alongside their fellow one-hit wonders. The rest find other work, and continue to cash the royalty checks from their one big moment in the spotlight – checks that probably aren’t worth much these days, unless the song ends up being used in a television commercial or grabs some play during a TV series about hot young Vampires.
A moment of silence, then, for the One-Hit Wonders, who proudly served and promptly disappeared.
THE BEST OF THE BUNCH
The Knack, “My Sharona” (1979)
The Knack’s first album is a power-pop masterpiece. “My Sharona” has some creepy lyrics, but man, what a hook!
Spacehog, “In the Meantime” (1995)
I truly thought this Brit-pop/Nu-Glam outfit was going to be huge, but this Bowie-esque gem turned out to be the band’s sole hit.
Norman Greenbaum, “Spirit in the Sky” (1969)
I liked it as a little kid. I still like it.
Dee-Lite, “Groove is in the Heart” (1990)
Funky dance-pop featuring the great Bootsy Collins and the freaky front-woman Lady Miss Kier? Yes, please! A killer club track.
Terry Jacks, “Seasons in the Sun” (1974)
Totally melodramatic and more than a bit maudlin. But it reminds me of being 5 years old, so I like it.
M, “Pop Muzik” (1979)
Early electro! Still fun.
Sniff ‘n’ the Tears, “Driver’s Seat” (1978)
Possibly the worst band name ever, but I bought this power-pop 45 when it came out, and on occasion, the melody still pops into my head for no apparent reason.
Mountain, “Mississippi Queen” (1970)
It’s hard to believe Mountain had only one real hit, but hey, if you’re only gonna get one shot, it might as well boast one of the coolest rock guitar riffs ever.
Kraftwerk, “Autobahn” (1974)
I can’t believe this German techno-minimalist art project scored an American hit. The '70s were awesome, because of inexplicable occurrences like this one.
Starz, “Cherry Baby” (1977)
More yummy power-pop. Starz should have been huge, but signing to the Kiss management team when Kiss was at its peak left them in the “second-best” slot. A shame.
PERHAPS ONE HIT WAS ONE TOO MANY
These crafty little novelty ditties are so horrible that they stick in the listener’s brain, become all the rage for the proverbial 15 minutes, and then return later on the playlists of wedding DJs who really ought to know better, but are all too aware that giving the people what they want is their bread and butter.
Here are 10 tunes that never should’ve been born.
Los del Rio, “Macarena” (1993)
Songs pinned to dance crazes – or meant to initiate dance crazes – are a no-no, unless your name is Chubby Checker.
Baha Men, “Who Let the Dogs Out” (2000)
We’ll never know. Happily, the dogs were safely returned to their pen 15 minutes (in fame-years) later.
Tag Team, “Whoomp! (There It Is)” (1993)
And Poof!! There it went!
Chumbawamba, “Tubthumping” (1997)
The shenanigans of “football hooligans” in the UK should never be encouraged. They don’t need anthems of their own.
Psy, “Gangnam Style” (2012)
Can we get a sigh for Sy? This song was horrible. It had to be horrible for him, too. I mean, he had to trot around the globe and actually sing it.
Rednex, “Cotton Eye Joe” (1994)
I swear, every time this tune is played at high volume during a game, the Buffalo Sabres lose. Please make it stop!
Lou Bega, “Mambo #5 (A Little Bit Of…) (1999)
I was fine with the original version, by Dámaso Pérez Prado. This tune usually signals the perceptive wedding attendee that it’s time to get going because, you know, “We only have a baby sitter until 9:30”.
Billy Ray Cyrus, “Achy Breaky Heart” (1992)
I think we can all agree, by this point, that Billy Ray’s greatest hit was Miley Cyrus. Also – line dancing! The horror!
Vanilla Ice, “Ice Ice Baby” (1991)
The birth of the “YOLO Dude,” who is often referred to by another name that begins with the letter D. Truly awful. Stealing bass lines from Queen songs should be the sole proclivity of people with actual talent.
Crazy Town, “Butterfly” (1999)
Like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, minus the funk. And the talent. And the fun.
DON'T BELIEVE THE HYPE
Measuring the value of an artist by how many hits they generate is a bit of a losing proposition, especially when it comes to artists and bands with lengthy catalogs of consistently compelling albums. Here are a few one-hit wonders whose books can’t be judged by their covers.
Thin Lizzy, “The Boys Are Back In Town” (1976)
Thin Lizzy was an album-rock band, and they released a string of essential rock albums from the mid-70s until leader and songwriter Phil Lynott’s death in 1986. This beefed –up blend of Lynott’s Van Morrison and Springsteen obsessions is only the tip of the iceberg.
The Raspberries, “Go All the Way” (1972)
Alongside Big Star and Cheap Trick, the Raspberries belong on the Mount Rushmore of American Power Pop.
Lou Reed, “Walk On the Wild Side” (1972)
That a song about drugs, gender-bending, and sex-for-money could be a Top 40 hit still amazes me. I’m glad it happened. Oh, and that bass line – magnificent.
Focus, “Hocus Pocus” (1970)
A prog-rock corker featuring yodeling and a hyper-virtuosic guitar solo. How did this end up a hit? A small and welcome miracle.
Patti Smith, “Because the Night” (1978)
A co-write with Bruce Springsteen, on a deep and dark slab of noir-Romantic rock. Smith was the coolest person in the Top 40 for a hot minute there. Then she went back to the business of releasing some of the finest rock albums of the era.
Thomas Dolby, “She Blinded Me with Science” (1982)
This is a cool song, but to truly wrap your head around the brilliance of Thomas Dolby, you need to hear “Aliens Ate My Buick.” Awesome. But it wasn’t a hit.
T Rex, “Bang A Gong (Get It On)” (1971)
Marc Bolan wrote nothing but hits, really, but this was the only one that broke Stateside. Eternally hip.
The Verve, “Bittersweet Symphony” (1997)
They got busted for stealing the main riff from an orchestral album of Rolling Stones songs, but the Verve was no flash in the pan. Check out their album “Northern Soul,” one of the coolest releases from the early 90s Manchester scene.
Devo, “Whip It” (1980)
A fluke hit, but one that, I like to believe, turned a bunch of unsuspecting MTV-watchers into Devo fans. Crack that whip!
Deep Purple, “Smoke on the Water” (1972)
The riff that launched a thousand guitarists’ careers. Far from Deep Purple’s greatest achievement, but a classic, nonetheless.