Great Second Helpings From “One-Hit Wonders”
Okay, technically it passed on Sept. 25, but, really, every day is “National One-Hit Wonder Day” in Ross On Radio. Also, “National Local Hit Day.” Also, “National ‘Oh-Wow Oldie’ Day.” And “National Songs That Sound Vaguely Like Each Other Day,” too. And now I’m declaring October 12 to be “Worthy Songs That Should Have Given an Artist Their Second Hit Day.”
Many “One-Hit Wonders” have their second hit already, of course. Go through any list of “one-hit wonders,” and you’ll see Eddy Grant, A Flock of Seagulls, Quarterflash, John Parr, Animotion and any number of others whose follow-up, or follow-ups, did well enough to disqualify them, even if one song endures more than the others now. (My own chart cut-off point is usually somewhere in the low 20s, but even then, not all No. 28 hits are created equal.)
There are One-Hit Wonders in America who were no such thing in the rest of the world, from Madness to Midnight Oil to Right Said Fred. In the U.K., “Heart and Soul” isn’t even T’Pau’s biggest hit. There are One-Hit Wonders who were so consistently successful on the R&B chart (Dazz Band, Patrice Rushen) that you would never think of them as having only one big moment. Working with Canadian radio, you have to remind yourself that Tom Cochrane or Bruce Cockburn had only one American pop hit.
Whenever an act is referred to as a One-Hit Wonder publicly, my wife now knows enough to head me off by asking, “Were they really a one-hit wonder?” But, yes, some were. Which doesn’t mean they have only one song I like.
Toni Basil, “Breakaway” (1966) – I was obsessed with “Mickey” from the first time I heard it on the BBC Chart Show in 1982, six months before it gained traction here. Eighteen months later, when “Mickey” had made Basil’s pre-stardom single impossible to find, I happened upon it in a San Diego thrift store for less than a dollar, seconds ahead of a friend who wanted it too, and would have gloated way more than I did if the situation had been reversed.
“Breakaway” is the mid-‘60s Northern Soul cult record penned by ex-Four Preps member Ed Cobb that didn’t go on to become “Tainted Love,” (now one of the top five covers of all time by most measures). That it garnered so little attention at the time just shows you how many great swinging ‘60s female pop records were waiting in line during that era. And while “Mickey” (and the video concept album and TV special that supported it) made Basil an acknowledged pioneer in music video, she had actually started much earlier than 1982 as this R-rated clip shows.
Barbara Acklin, “Just Ain’t No Love” (1968) – For some readers, Acklin may be better explained as the co-author of the Chi-Lites’ “Have You Seen Her.” Or the artist whose minor R&B hit “Am I the Same Girl” was a bigger hit as Young-Holt Unlimited’s instrumental “Soulful Strut” and a Smooth Jazz standard decades later for Swing Out Sister. Acklin’s biggest hit, the effervescent “Love Makes a Woman,” came out squarely amidst the tumult of summer 1968, but perhaps it was written earlier. “Just Ain’t No Love” almost certainly was not. It gives every appearance of being a soundalike follow-up until you get to the jaw-dropping opening line. And would that it were only a relic of its times.
Walter Egan, “Only the Lucky” (1977) – One of the first Fleetwood Mac-related side projects to surface in the wake of their superstardom, “Only the Lucky” landed in June 1977, just a week before “Dreams” went to No. 1. Propulsive country rock, with the already recognizable Buckingham/Nicks sound, “Only the Lucky” didn’t make much of a dent. So the duo gave Egan another assist, and finally a hit, on “Magnet and Steel.” Unlike some of the acts here, Egan’s follow-up, “Hot Summer Nights,” wasn’t quite a career killer. Nine months after mid-charting, it resurfaced as a hit for the band Night. “Only the Lucky” is still my favorite Egan single. And once you hear the opening riff, you will never hear the common iPhone ringtone called “Strum” the same way again. Because it’s also “National Songs That Sound Vaguely Like Ringtones Day.”
Wild Cherry, “Hot to Trot” (1977) – Years ago, I interviewed Wild Cherry leader Robert Parissi for a Rhino Records funk compilation. His intended follow-up to “Play That Funky Music” was the band’s cover of the Commodores’ R&B hit “I Feel Sanctified.” Or the first album’s ballad, “Hold On.” Instead, he said, his label insisted on a soundalike, “Baby Don’t You Know.” By this next single, the momentum was pretty much gone. I like this one, despite its goofiness. You might prefer “Hold On,” which finally became a single on the next album under the title “Hold On (With Strings).” (There was no intended pun in the new title; it was apparently one of those “Badge”-type engineers’ notes on the tape box that became a song title.)
Carl Douglas, “Run Back” (1978) – In the U.K., his career was more than “Kung-Fu Fighting.” There was also this British chart hit that was on the radio around the same time as the Bee Gees’ “Saturday Night Fever” hits; in other words, right about when they would have started writing their next album. But even if it didn’t presage “Tragedy,” (and here, the resemblance is more than vague), there’s a similar feel to Billy Ocean’s mid-‘70s British R&B hits that makes this appealing.
Steve Forbert, Say Goodbye to Little Jo (1980) – Forbert’s hit, “Romeo’s Tune,” was one of those folky outliers that can only become a pop hit in periods of transition such as early 1980. He was hardly expected to have a second hit, and it didn’t help that the follow-up included the line “she’s taken shit for so long,” which I remember being either badly bleeped or maybe not edited at all on the single. It’s too bad. This is a powerful, still relevant song, and the line in question (in no way gratuitous in the context of the song) would be more easily dealt with now. Mary Chapin Carpenter would later cover this live.
Soft Cell, “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” (1982) – “Tainted Love” kicked around here for six months, landing in different markets at different times, and being reserviced as a medley with “Where Did Our Love Go” before finally becoming a hit. By that time, “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” was already a British hit as well, showcasing their dark sense of humor and establishing them as not just a one-hit wonder there, but briefly phenomenal (in the way that Melody Maker and Smash Hits could make anybody briefly phenomenal). When “Tainted Love” finally ran its course in America, Sire Records went with another Northern Soul cover, “What?” which quickly disappeared. Even on KROQ Los Angeles, the Soft Cell song you heard was the more provocative “It’s a Mug’s Game.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NUim3eAIOMA Either song as a single would have given them more of a chance to show their own personality.
Mike Oldfield, “Moonlight Shadow” (1983) – In America, he landed as a contemporary classical artist whose “Tubular Bells” became a left-field hit because of “The Exorcist.” Elsewhere around the world, Oldfield’s career evolved to ethereal pop, often with guest vocalists, making him the predecessor of today’s EDM/pop producers. “Moonlight Shadow” has one of the oddest ghost-story lyrics of any hit song. And one of the greatest guitar solos. Every year, I think of spiking it for Halloween, but you’ll still hear it on AC and Classic Hits stations outside North America.
Katrina & the Waves, “The Game of Love” (1985) – They are technically spared one-hit-wonder status by “Do You Want Crying” (No. 37 on the momentum of “Walking on Sunshine”) and “That’s the Way” (a dubious No. 16 in the last days of reported airplay charts), but, really, their entire breakthrough American album should have yielded one smash after another, especially in 1985-86 when the quality of mainstream pop was getting sort of shaky. You can really choose anything on the album, including “Do You Want Crying” as a shoulda-been hit, but this album closer had the same good-time vibe as “Walking on Sunshine.”
Nu Shooz, “Point of No Return” (1986) – I’m definitely breaking my own rule by including a No. 28 hit here, especially having experienced this song on Los Angeles radio, where you would have had no idea it wasn’t every bit as big as “I Can’t Wait.” But I seize any excuse to talk about “Point of No Return.” The line between ‘60s girl group records and ‘80s female-led dance music is well-established now, but I always heard this in particular as the most Spectoresque of mid-‘80s dance hits, driven by a wall-of-sound-effects and the highest harmonies ever.
Sir Mix-a-Lot, “Square Dance Rap” (1987) – This pre-“Baby Got Back” indie label oddity played only in a few places. Seattle’s AM Urban K-Fox was one of them. So was Hip-Hop’s radio cradle KDAY Los Angeles. Like Prince and Minneapolis, this particular song had to come from a market that didn’t have a strong R&B influence. The jibes at Country aren’t a particularly inside job — Glen Campbell wasn’t having a lot of hits in 1987 — but it still provokes a smile. And Macklemore’s pre-“Thrift Shop” repertoire includes a song written from a fake redneck POV that was clearly influenced by his fellow Seattle rapper.
Sinead O’Connor, “Mandinka” (1987) – Of the available follow-ups to “Nothing Compares 2 U,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes” was probably the most linear. Certainly, if you listened to Alternative at the time, you heard it enough that it started to sound like a single. But for most Top 40 listeners, it did not, and it became a rare case of a No. 1 hit where the follow-up didn’t even chart. It’s too bad Chrysalis wouldn’t go back to “The Lion and the Cobra,” O’Connor’s debut album, which would have had several candidates. Maybe it was the line about the seven veils, but I always thought this sounded like a song Stevie Nicks should have released in the late ‘80s. And for some reason, I occasionally hear this pop up in a nearby restaurant that plays Pandora’s Classic Rock channel, in between the Bad Company and .38 Special records.
Cardigans, “My Favorite Game” (1998) – There aren’t a lot of ‘90s or ‘00s one-hit wonders on the list — maybe I’m just more attached to the music of my childhood, but it’s hard for me to find the great shoulda-been second hit from Crazy Town or Chumbawamba. But the Cardigans transcended the great-but-almost-novelty “Lovefool” with this song that somehow simultaneously both shows that they could rock and sounds a lot like Roxette. It was played by Alternative radio here, and it was a hit everywhere else in the world.
Natalie Imbruglia, “Glorious” (2007) – The U.K. follow-up to Imbruglia’s “Torn” was the Alanis-ish “Big Mistake,” which became a hit of a similar magnitude there. In America, there were discussions about whether to try to steer her to pop or Alternative, but the answer turned out to be none of the above. “Glorious” filled out a U.K. greatest hits album at a time when America had long stopped paying attention. But it’s the best of her subsequent singles for its deliberate lack of angst.