(Above: Hits, as in “more than one.”)
Today is some sort of holiday called National One-Hit Wonder Day. I don’t remember celebrating this as a kid, so I suspect that it came out of social media as an opportunity for people to share forgotten songs that are fun to dig out every once in a while. That’s a premise I can get behind: after all, we do that here.
The problem is in the “one-hit” part, as people seem to be confused about what qualifies as a hit. I’d argue strongly, while standing on a copy of my dissertation on charted music, that a hit can be defined as “making the Billboard Top 40 chart.” I mean, if Casey Kasem played it on the national show, it would count, right? We could go further into the weeds: putting a record on the Hot 100 means it likely got airplay in more than one place, but might not be as well known as a huge success. And what about things not released as singles? Is “Stairway to Heaven” a hit? Sure, you all know it, but it was never put out as a single and never charted. By the time you delve into local radio station surveys – the things I love to look at to find obscure tunes – the water is muddy. (Despite Nick Lampe hitting #1 on every station in Grand Rapids, MI with “Flower Garden” in 1970, we’ll keep him listed as a no-hit wonder.)
The national Billboard Top 40 chart is a safe reference since, basically, everyone can find it. Joel Whitburn has been selling books with copies of the Billboard charts and their data for years. Billboard itself has been making chart information available on its website if you know where to look. Simply Googling the name of an artist with the word “chart” after their name usually points you to their artist page on Billboard which shows you everything they put on the chart.
So how did VH-1 get it so wrong? They did one of their many “countdown” shows on the subject of one-hit wonders. You’ve seen these shows: they’d take half as long without the witty banter by people you don’t know in-between the songs talking about how much they love them. The natural extension of the decades shows was one looking at the bands who had one hit, and that was it.
The problem is in the research. A look at the list shows me a bunch that, without looking anything up, I knew were wrong. A-Ha is at #8 with “Take On Me,” the song that everyone knows. In the US, though, “The Sun Always Shines On TV” also made the Top 40, largely driven by the success of the first hit. Do most of us remember it? Probably not. But does that mean that it didn’t happen? No.
Other entries on the list that stand out:
15. ? and the Mysterians – “96 Tears.” A huge #1 record, followed by “I Need Somebody,” which made #22. (They got robbed on the original “Can’t Get Enough Of You Baby,” which missed the top 40.
47. Gary Glitter – “Rock and Roll Part 2.” You’ve probably yelled “Hey!” along with this at a sporting event. You probably forgot “I Didn’t Know I Loved You (‘Til I Saw You Rock And Roll),” but it made #35 three months after the first single.
48. Spandau Ballet – “True.” I have no idea what they were thinking here. The song that launched a million slow dances in 1983 was followed up by “Gold,” which made #29 in January of 1984, and then again by “Only When You Leave,” which hit #34 that fall. (My favorite by them, “Communication,” peaked at #59. Robbery again.)
53. Rockwell – “Somebody’s Watching Me.” How quickly we forget “Obscene Phone Caller” – an odd subject for a hit record – which hit #35 in 1984. (Heck, the video relies so heavily on the first one, it’s as if they didn’t want us to remember it.)
72. Michael Sembello – “Maniac.” Again, the follow-up was buoyed by the success of the initial hit, and “Automatic Man” made it to #34 in late 1983. Given that the video is the stuff of nightmares, perhaps it’s best left in the past.
80. Quiet Riot – “Cum On Feel The Noize.” They didn’t do so well with spelling, but they did chart another song – “Bang Your Head” – which made #31. It got a lot of play in my high school, which leaned decidedly rock.
83. Men Without Hats – “The Safety Dance.” Maybe it’s just because I played it so often in college, but I don’t see how there was a collective amnesia of “Pop Goes the World, which got all the way to #20 in 1988.
98. Stacey Q – “Two of Hearts.” As much as I’d like to forget the badly-sampled Casiotone sound of this record, there’s another one – “We Connect” – in the same style. That one made #35 in early 1987. It would have been the third song into the countdown before the first mistake was aired.
There’s a bunch more that I’m seeing shared in various places – groups like the Strawberry Alarm Clock (who also had “Tomorrow” at #23) and Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods (whose “Who Do You Think You Are” was certainly no worse than “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” and made #15). In those cases I’m glad the groups get remembered at all, as time is the enemy of unwritten history. But if we don’t get this right – if we simply don’t do our research – it’s not a long leap to “Wait, Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?”
Besides, if you ever need a hand with the research, there’s a few of us out here willing to help.