The term "one-hit wonder" was apparently coined in the late 1950s by disc jockeys around the U.S. "Nobody's ever claimed ownership of the phrase. The term is normally used in a derogatory sense," says Timothy White, publisher of music industry magazine Billboard, in a recent Reuters/Variety article. Billboard defines a one-hit wonder as a musical act that has won a spot on the magazine's Top 40 chart just once. The ultimate one-hit wonder is "Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen, a song (and the only song) which will forever identify the band. More recently, "Macarena" by Los Del Rio tops many "flash in the pan" charts.
In celebration of the one-hit wonder phenomenon, VH1 has a recurring program, Billboard has released books and even staged a one-hit wonder tribute show featuring, among others, Elvis Costello and Sheryl Crow performing their favourite one-hit wonder tunes.
While the term may have originated in the 50's, it seems the trend escalated and by the eighties, one-hit wonders were a hot commodity. See if you can name even one other song by any of these "one-hit wonder" artists: "Tainted Love" - Soft Cell; "Whip It" - Devo; "Cars" - Gary Numan; "Funkytown" - Lipps Inc.; "Mexican Radio" - Wall of Voodoo; "Too Shy" - Kajagoogoo; "Come On Eileen" - Dexy's Midnight Runners; "In A Big Country" - Big Country; "Der Kommissar" - After The Fire; "She Blinded Me With Science" - Thomas Dolby; "Puttin' On The Ritz" - Taco; "99 Red Balloons" - Nena; "Life In A Northern Town" - Dream Academy; "Live is Life" - Opus; "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades" - Timbuk 3; "Lean on Me" - Club Nouveau; "Shattered Dreams" - Johnny Hates Jazz; "867-5309/Jenny" - Tommy Tutone. The list goes on... such perennial targets of mockery as Milli Vannilli and MC Hammer have been intentionally omitted to protect the not-so-innocent.
Although many of these bands barely deserved their one hit, just as many had devoted, possibly even cult followings, yet their success was established by a single huge hit. Many of these songs have found new lives in the current eighties-revival context in clubs and on radio. Some of these acts even continue writing and recording to this day, although unfortunately their newer work remains obscured by the shadow cast by their blip, however brief, on the popular radar. Moving into the early nineties we have such classics as "I Touch Myself" by the Divinyls, "Groove Is In The Heart" by Deee-Lite, "Right Here, Right Now" by Jesus Jones and "Unbelievable" by EMF. Sorry EMF, your one-hit-wonder status is quite believable.
Then there is the type of band that appears to be screaming "I WANT to be a one-hit wonder", such musical treasures as Boys Don't Cry (I Wanna Be A Cowboy), Baltimora (Tarzan Boy), Bobby McFerrin (Don't Worry Be Happy) and the oh-so-memorable Buckner and Garcia with their timeless hit "Pac-Man Fever".
The ultimate one-hit wonder has to be the recycled song which manages to make a one-hit wonder out of not just one, but two bands; witness "Funkytown" by both Lipps Inc. and Pseudo Echo, "Lean On Me" by Bill Withers and Club Nouveau, "Spirit In The Sky" by Norman Greenbaum then Doctor and the Medics; "Everyone's A Winner" by Canada's own Bootsauce and originally by Hot Chocolate, or how about "Major Tom" by David Bowie then Peter Schilling. No, those aren't even the same song; just making sure you are paying attention.
Although it seems that the one-hit wonder may have had its heyday in the eighties, the trend continues unabated. Here we present a run-down of one-hit wonders which have appeared since the creation of the so-called "modern rock" radio station, proving that the one-hit wonder phenomenon is a timeless one and likely to endure into whatever musical trends arise in the coming decade. Yet with the demise of the single as we know it, no longer can we go to our local record store and just buy the one song, we get stuck with an album full of filler. At least in the eighties a song could be bought alone, without being bundled with others we didn't necessarily want. And the record industry wonders why MP3 piracy and downloading has flourished...
Although the following songs may not all meet the one-hit wonder definition in the strictest sense (charting as a top-40 hit), they were all nonetheless omnipresent in cars and on radios for a time, likely brief. Without further ado, the modern rock one-hit wonder run-down...
Radiohead, "Creep", 1993
"I'm a creep, I'm a loser"
OK, this one will probably raise the hackles of a few readers... yes Radiohead are considered one of the pioneering rock bands of the nineties and continue to evolve, but ask people on the street what they play and I would bet that very few of those randomly polled could name another Radiohead song. No one ever said commercial success and having "hits" was necessary to establish a fan-base and a well-respected career in music, as proven by Jimmy Hendrix and the Grateful Dead.
Deep Blue Something, "Breakfast At Tiffanys", 1995
"I said what about Breakfast at Tiffany's"
I said, what about a follow-up single? Released another album in July, 2001. May have played one show in 2002, according to their web site, but the last news update on the site is from May, 2001.
Tripping Daisy, "Got A Girl", 1995
"I got a girl who wears cool shoes, I got a girl who wears them in the nude"
From the great album "I Am An Elastic Firecracker". The follow-up "Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb" did about half as well, sales-wise. The band released their farewell CD in April, 2000 after the untimely death of guitarist Wes Berggren the previous October.
Presidents of the United States of America, "Peaches", 1995
"Millions of peaches, peaches for me..."
Although they made a mark with their first single "Lump", The Presidents of the USA will be remembered for their hit "Peaches", the best song about fruit since, well, ever. They attempted recycled one-hit wonder status with their covers of "Video Killed The Radio Star" and Ian Hunter's "Cleveland Rocks" from their B-Sides/Live/Out-takes compilation "Pure Frosting". Disbanded in 1997, reformed in 2000 and released "Freaked Out and Small", which you probably didn't even know existed. Maybe they shouldn't have included a song called "We Are Not Going To Make It" on their debut album.
The Refreshments, "Banditos", 1996
"Everybody knows that the world is full of stupid people..."
The album was called "Fizzy, Fuzzy, Big and Buzzy." What were they thinking? They released a follow-up album in 1997 before disbanding amidst the typical record company disputes. Singer Roger Clyne now fronts a band called Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers. That band name could be another clue as to why The Refreshments broke up: perhaps the other members did not want to be called Roger Clyne and The Refreshements?
Spacehog, "In The Meantime", 1996
"Maybe in the meantime wait and see... We love the all the all of you, Our lands are green and skies are blue"
A song possibly more distinctive for its guitar riff than for its lyrics, nonetheless catchy and somewhat memorable... Like most other bands here, they did release a follow-up album. And another. Then they split up.
Harvey Danger, "Flagpole Sitta", 1997
"Been around the world and found that only stupid people were breeding... I'm not sick but I'm not well..."
They did release a follow-up album in 2000: the first single was "Sad Sweetheart of the Rodeo". Remember? No? That's my point.
Chumbawumba, "Tubthumping", 1997
"I get knocked down, but I get up again..."
Actually from the band's ninth album, Chumbawumba probably expected this hit less than anyone. Playing together as an anarchist collective in various forms since the 1980's, members also recorded as notable indie political punkers Crass. They have released 2 more major-label albums since then, with nary a hockey arena anthem between them.
Marcy Playground, "Sex and Candy", 1997
Released a second album in 1999 and have a third in the works. Apparently.
Eagle-Eye Cherry, "Save Tonight", 1998
It seems only fitting that Eagle-Eye should join his sister Neneh "Buffalo Stance" Cherry as a one-hit wonder. Has released another album since, and is currently recording a third, with a tour slated for 2003.
Semisonic, "Closing Time", 1998
"I know who I want to take me home..."
From their second album "Feeling Strangely Fine". They subsequently released an EP (couldn't write enough songs for an album?) and eventually another album in 2001, by which point no one could remember who they were or what song they did previously. No tour dates on their site, singer Dan Wilson has a solo CD, the bassist plays in a band called The Flops: seems telling.
Fastball, "The Way", 1998
"Everyone could see the road that they walked on was paved with gold, it's always summer, they'll never get cold"
They released a follow-up album in 2000 and toured with Collective Soul (ouch) and seem to have all but disappeared. They last toured in April, 2001, one of the singer-songwriters has left the band, yet they have a "Greatest Hits" package, culled from their huge catalog of 3 CD's, coming out just in time for Christmas!
New Radicals, "You Get what You Give", 1998
"Fashion shoots with Beck and Hanson, Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson, You're all fakes run to your mansions, Come round here we'll kick your ass in!"
Only released one CD, then disbanded in 1999. The singer decided to focus his efforts on producing other acts. With name-dropping lyrics like that, seemed destined for one-hit wonder status and apparently knew when to bow out.
American Hi-Fi, "Flavour of the Weak", 2001
"Her boyfriend, he don't know, anything about her, he's too stoned, Nintendo"
Although their hit is recent, American Hi-Fi seems destined for the one-hit wonder bin... no tour dates upcoming, the band's front-man is actually a drummer (previously for Veruca Salt), their hit has a pun in the title, the title is almost a synonym for "one-hit wonder", there is a video game reference in the chorus... all sound like ingredients in the one-hit wonder recipe.
For more one-hit wonder lists by decade (up to the 90's) check out OneHitWonderCentral.com
Some hilarious user-posted one-hit wonder followups (e.g. "Sunday Night's Also Alright For Fighting", "I Would Continue Jumping Around But I Have a Cramp", "OK, we're alone already, I checked", "Seriously, Eileen, Come On", "Bust an Additional Move") can be found at:
Stephen K. Donnelly is a freelance writer, musician and photographer in Ottawa. Although he has played in bands for decades, he has still not secured his one-hit wonder status. His writing and photography has appeared in The Ottawa XPress and Thrust magazine. He is also the editor of TuneVault.com and edited the short-lived fanzine Who Really Cares in his high-school days.