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One-Hit Wonders

by Dave Gourdoux

The ultimate one-hit wonder?

"In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes."             
                                                                            -Andy Warhol

For years now, one of the enduring iconic stories of the rock and pop universe has been the rise and fall of one-hit wonders. We’re all familiar with the story arc – the stars of time and fate and luck and talent all suddenly align in such a way as to propel previously unknown acts into fleeting and temporary superstardom, and then they crash and fade just as quickly as they emerged. As long as there is a pop music scene, there have always been and there always will be one hit wonders, either waiting on the fringe of the culture to rise to the top or spiraling uncontrollably out of the public consciousness.

Who are these fireflies that so quickly burn out, and what is their story? Well, as we’ll learn in this brief look at eleven of my favorite one hit wonders, with stories of rapid rises and fantastic falls, "the possibilities are endless."

About this list: as old as I am, the list is heavy with songs from my youth, the sixties and seventies. I’m old and grumpy enough to offer no apologies for that.  Obscure and cheesy as some of these selections may seem to younger generations, they all occupy permanent residence in my memory.

Hear then, in chronological order, eleven of my favorite one-hit wonders:

1. “96 Tears,” by ? and the Mysterians, 1966

With its infectious organ riff and low-budget production, "96 Tears" ranks right up there with the best of the '60s garage band songs. At the time the song was recorded, the band was exactly that: a completely unknown garage band, consisting of the sons of migrant workers who’d settled in the Saginaw, Michigan area. Somehow they recorded "96 Tears," and drove around promoting it to local radio stations around Michigan. It first became a regional hit  until they caught their break and signed a deal with a big record company, and the rest is history.

A couple of follow-up singles were moderately successful, reaching as high as 22 on the U.S. charts. The band has survived many breakups and lineup changes to persist to this day. The only constant has been the lead singer, Question Mark, or ?, who claims to be from Mars and to have walked with dinosaurs.

2. "I Fought the Law," by the Bobby Fuller Four, 1966

One of the most covered songs in rock history (most notably by the Clash, and in a politically charged 1978 re-write by the Dead Kennedys), the song also inspired John Mellencamp to write (or rip-off?) his 1983 single, “Authority Song." The song features the familiar, almost percussive guitar styling of the late, great, Buddy Holly.

The reason it sounds so much like Buddy Holly is that it was written by Sonny Curtis, who was a friend and high school classmate of Holly. After Holly’s death, Curtis replaced him as singer and lead guitarist in Holly’s band, The Crickets. He later penned the theme song to the Mary Tyler Moore Show, "Love is All Around."

The reason Fuller never had another hit was that a few months after releasing “I Fought the Law,” his dead body was found in an automobile parked outside of his Los Angeles apartment. There were no signs of physical trauma, and though an autopsy was performed, the cause of death remains murky, with both “accident” and “suicide” boxes checked with question marks after them on the death report. Speculation abounds that he was actually murdered. Theories have persisted that the culprits were either the Manson clan, the LAPD, or the mafia.  Whatever the cause was, Fuller’s death remains one of the great unsolved mysteries in rock and roll history.


3. "Israelites," by Desmond Dekker, 1968

Though Dekker had a long and distinguished career in Jamaica as a Reggae master, "Israelites" was his only entry on the U.S. charts. Aside from being a wonderful little piece of music, "Israelites" is noteworthy in that it is probably the first reggae song to hit the U.S. top forty, ahead of Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” (1970), Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” (1972)  and Eric Clapton’s cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” (1973).

Whether the song is technically reggae or its predecessor, ska, it is indisputably unique when compared to anything else we’d heard on American air waves before. The guitar work is subtle and accents the off beat, while the vocals are sung with a heavy Jamaican accent, making the lyrics difficult to understand.

Dekker said he wrote the song after hearing a young couple arguing about money, and how the work the young man was doing wasn't paying enough. This explains the opening lyrics, "get up in the morning slaving for bread, sir / so that every mouth can be fed." From there the song becomes something of a Rastafarian anthem, a lament for the impoverished and the destitute.

Dekker passed away in 2006. Although he didn't make the U.S. charts again, he remained musically active, and was held in high esteem in the reggae community.

4. "Pictures of Matchstick Men," Status Quo, 1968

The opening guitar lick to this weirdly infectious little gem is so ridiculously easy that even I could play it. But then the rhythm guitar, bass and drums kick in, and the effect is pretty cool. The lyrics are vague and psychedelic, and the chord progression and that silly little four note guitar lick are just catchy enough to stick in your head long after you’d ever want it to.

The song has been covered a few times, most notably by Ozzy Osborne in the late '70s. As for the band, Status Quo, it appears that they put out a few albums and vanished, and I couldn’t find much of anything of any interest about them. "Pictures of Matchstick Men" is so weirdly bizarre  that it speaks for itself.


5. "Spirit in the Sky," Norman Greenbaum, 1968

One of the great guitar-driven gospel tinged songs ever recorded. The guitar riffs create a groove that evoke Jimmy Page, while the lead guitar fills in the spaces with just enough cosmic-ness to evoke the great beyond.

Lyrics like “I’ve got a friend in Jesus” bely the fact that Greenbaum was, and is, Jewish. He wrote "Spirit in the Sky" after watching Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner sing a gospel song on television. The song has since appeared in numerous Hollywood sound tracks, perhaps most famously in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13.

Greenbaum continues performing to this day, and has recorded a few albums over the years, but never had any level of commercial success that approached the  magnitude of “Spirit in the Sky.”

6. "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” Steam, 1969

This was just solid, mainstream pop music, performed by a band that never existed (similar to another great one–hit wonder, the fictitious “The Archies” and the big hit single, “Sugar, Sugar.”). The song was written and recorded by a couple of studio musicians who supposedly thought it was so bad they didn’t want their names associated with it. So the fictitious band “Steam” was assigned to the song, and when it surprisingly went to number one in the charts, a real band was hastily put together. This manufactured band lacked anything remotely resembling a stage presence (as the video shows).

Despite all that, I still love the song and the innocence it conjures up in me. It reminds me that I grew up in a time where not only such sweet and innocent music could chart, but also that times were so innocent that record companies would throw together a bunch of guys who had nothing to do with the recording of the song and send them out on tour to support it. For some reason I can’t adequately explain, now, almost fifty years later, it all feels more sweet than cynical.

7. "I Can See Clearly Now," Johnny Nash, 1972

Probably the biggest selling reggae song of all time, although the off-beat is buried a bit beneath a poppy arrangement, meaning you have to listen a little bit closer for the reggae rhythms than on “Israelites.” But the song, with Nash’s soaring falsetto and its hypnotic hooks, was a huge hit, dominating the top-forties airwaves for what seemed like months.

Nash had a long career, recording from 1958 thru 1985, and it’s a little bit unfair to call him a one-hit wonder, as he had several other songs hit the U.S. charts, with the follow-up single to “I Can See Clearly Now”, a song called “Stir it Up” that I have no memory of now, briefly reaching number twelve on the U.S. charts. He makes the list because “I Can See Clearly Now” was so huge that one is left wondering why in such a long career he never approached the top ten again.

8. "Last Song," Edward Bear, 1972

Some songs bring back memories that are so vivid they overpower any attempt to hear them objectively. “Last Song” is, for me, such a song. I know it’s terrible, schmaltzy pop, but it was on the radio at a time when I was susceptible to its gooey sentimentality, and hearing it now takes me back to the time when I’d just turned fourteen, at the height of my pubescent, shy and lonely misfit period, and the endless list of cute girls I had hopeless crushes on.

As for Edward Bear, it was neither man nor beast, but rather an unexceptional Canadian pop-rock band that was around for a couple more unexceptional years, years that included lineup changes and members dabbling in Scientology. The highlights of their career appear to be limited to achieving fame for “Last Song” and for once opening for Led Zeppelin. The name Edward Bear was taken from the “proper” name of Winnie the Pooh.

9. “In a Big Country,” Big Country, 1983  

For a brief time in the early '80s, Big Country was Scotland’s answer to Ireland’s U2, gathering critical acclaim for their unique sound, making electric guitars sound like bagpipes. They made it all the way to a guest shot on "Saturday Night Live" and a world tour, but were never able to follow the anthemic “In a Big Country” with a second hit single.  After playing on the Band Aid project “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and backing Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend in separate solo projects, they fell out of fashion, and found themselves dropped from their record company in 1991. They hung around for the rest of the nineties and finally broke up in 1999, with alcoholism playing a role in their dissolution.

10. "Take On Me," Ah-Ha, 1985

The song is unexceptional but catchy '80s new wave, notable for its keyboard-driven riff and the singer’s Roy Orbison-like, octave-crushing falsetto. What makes it stand out is the song's video, one of the great videos of the MTV era. A rare combination of art, charm and humor, the video transcends the song even while remaining faithful to its catchy rhythm. It's impossible to watch the video and not smile.

Although "Take On Me" has been the band's only U.S. hit, they are still together and have remained very popular in their native Norway, winning 10 "Norwegian Grammy" awards over the years.

11. “A Girl Like You,” Edwyn Collins, 1994

No, this song wasn’t, as is often assumed, recorded by Iggy Pop or David Bowie, although it’s an easy mistake to make, given Collins baritone vocals,the disco-punk rhythms, the infectious groove, and the hypnotic guitar licks.

Collins has never charted again in the U.S., but he still performs in his native U.K. This might not seem like a big deal until one considers that in 2005, Collins suffered and survived two cerebral hemorrhages that resulted in aphasia, an inability to comprehend and formulate language because of damage to specific brain regions. He was left able to speak only four phases (“yes”, “no”, “Grace Maxwell” (his wife’s name), and “the possibilities are endless”). Amazingly, he recovered and within two years was able to resume playing music and performing.

•  •  •

From the tragic mystery of Bobby Fuller to the rise and fall of Big Country to the steady perseverance of Desmond Dekker and Ah-Ha to the inspirational triumph of Edwyn Collins that renders any position on any top 40 chart as the meaningless distraction it really is, stories of one-hit wonders prove that the possibilities are indeed endless, that fate really is fickle, and that in the grand scheme of things, our fifteen minutes of fame aren't really that important.

So there you have it, my latest little list.  I know there are dozens of more one -hit wonders in the annals of popular music history ("99 Red Balloons" and "Chevy Van" immediately come to mind, although in the case of "Chevy Van," it won't leave soon enough), but these eleven have, to me, at least, some value, whether artistic (like "Israelites") or sentimental ("Last Song"), to me personally. I'd be interested in what one-hit wonders that you find any value or interesting stories in.