Debunking the Myth of the One-Hit Wonder

Men at Work’s “Down Under”, off their debut, 1981’s Business as Usual, is easily the band’s biggest hit. It’s a perfect example of a pretty common trend at work in the 80’s: band becomes big in their home country, band produces a killer video, band becomes overnight sensation in the US and proceeds to disappear from our cultural landscape. Other examples of bands with a single number one:

But a quick note on Men at Work: although their output as a group didn’t last past the 80’s, until 2012 (following the death of founding member and saxophonist Greg Ham) the band would periodically reunite with guest musicians.And disregarding their reception in the U.S., the group to this day remains huge in Australia. Also frontman Colin Hay found new life as an acoustic songwriter, incorporating “Down Under” and other acoustic Men at Work songs into his routine. He also appeared memorably on an episode of the television show Scrubs as… himself? Kind of? which turned on his music to a new generation, and showcased his current musical sensibilities.

And A-ha, while remembered primarily in the states for that video, went on to crack the top 20 in America again with “The Sun Always Shines on T.V.” (it went to number one in the U.K.) and pen the theme for The Living Daylights, a James Bond film. A Timothy Dalton Bond film, but a Bond film nonetheless. Actually, when placed in that context, A-ha sounds like poor imitators of Duran Duran, which they certainly were not. While Duran Duran continues to garner more acclaim for their facial hair than their new music, A-ha gracefully bowed out of the music game in 2011 after one final performance in their native Norway.

It may as well be a crime to call Devo simply a “one-hit wonder”, as they have enjoyed a huge cult following since their formation in Akron, Ohio in 1972, a full eight years before the world heard “Whip It”. Without going into too much detail, the members of Devo created a mythology bordering on the religious (and sometimes actually religious when performing as Dove, The Band of Love) since their first music video in 1976 concerning “The Truth About De-Evolution” (De-EVOlution, DEVO). Boosting a barge load of singles well known in alternative circles, including “Girl U Want”, “Beautiful World”, “Uncontrollable Urge”, “That’s Good”, and of course, their cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, Devo absolutely transcends the notion that one song defines a one-hit wonder. Individually the members of Devo, most notably Mark Mothersbaugh, have gone on to take production roles in music in other forms of media. Bob has written and/or produced scores for the television shows Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Rugrats, Big Love, and Regular Show, the earliest entries in the Crash Bandicoot series of video games as well as The Sims 2, and popular films almost too numerous to name. Almost. Happy Gilmore, both Rugrats movies, Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and its sequel, 21 Jump Street and its upcoming sequel, The Lego Movie, and a whopping five films by acclaimed filmmaker Wes Andersen: Bottle RocketRushmoreThe Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Moonrise Kingdom. Despite the recent deaths of two of their longtime members, drummer Alan Myers and guitarist Bob “Bob 2” Casale, Devo continues to tour as a band in their spare time with noted percussionist Josh Freese. They recently announced a “Hardcore Devo” tour, spotlighting material exclusively from before they were signed to Warner Bros. in 1978 in tribute to Bob.

Aimee Mann, besides fronting ‘Til Tuesday until their breakup in 1988, is one of the most amusing wits on Twitter and has come into quite a solo career of her own. Her unique folk-ish stylings may come as a stark contrast to her time with ‘Til Tuesday, but the video for her single “Labrador” off 2012’s Charmer directed by musically-minded comedian/host of The Best Show on WFMU Tom Scharpling, is a shot-for-shot remake of the original video for “Voices Carry”. It also “stars” Scharpling’s compatriot and partner in crime Jon Wurster (hailed as “the funniest drummer in Indie Rock” for The Mountain Goats, Bob Mould and Superchunk). She appeared, briefly, in one of my favorite films, The Big Lebowski, as the girlfriend of nihilist new-wave-kraut-rocker Uli, so it’s fantastic to see she managed to leave behind the 80’s while still maintaining a strange closeness to the genre that first made her famous. Her most recent effort, a collaboration with former tourmate Ted Leo, The Both, is available to pre-order (with bonus tracks!) from Barnes & Noble now.

While it’s easy to mistake “She Blinded Me With Science” as a novelty song, Thomas Dolby was securing his place in pop music history before he even made it. He began building his own synthesizers, showing a penchant for electronic music and sampling long before it caught on as well as providing support as a live sound engineer for legendary post-punkers The Fall as a teenager. He played the signature keyboard line on Foreigner’s “Urgent” and additional keys for Def Leppard on Pyromania. After several minor hits in the U.K., Dolby officially released “She Blinded Me With Science” in 1983. Immediately going into heavy rotation on MTV, the song was characterized by those traits Dolby was building in his teens: synths, sampling, and, well, science. Dolby became an even more sought out commodity, working with George Clinton, Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock throughout the decade. Presently, he’s a professor of the arts at Johns Hopkins University and previously served as the TED Conference’s music director from 2002 to 2012.

Gary Numan, the principal architect at the center of Tubeway Army’s synth driven new wave and pop, dropped the Tubeway Army name from his band in 1979 after the success of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” and retained the musicians.While a number one in England, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” was known almost exclusively as a dance floor hit stateside. That’s okay for our purposes, as Numan would go on to record a cross -country #1 in 1979 in “Cars”. “Cars” charted in the U.K. two more times, in consecutive decades: as a remix in 1987 and the original single would again crack the top 20 after its use in a beer commercial in 1996.”Cars” and the album its culled from, The Pleasure Principle, influenced countless others who came after Numan, but I’ll go ahead and name drop a few; Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, The Dead Weather, and Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz have all covered Numan or otherwise sung his praises in recent years. After influencing those and many more alternative acts who emerged in the 90’s, As was usual for him, Numan changed his musical direction to reflect that of his disciples, gaining a sense critical acclaim that had been absent for most of the 80’s.His most recent album, Splinter: Songs From A Broken Mind, showcases electro goth at its finest and is available wherever you buy music now.

So it would appear there is life after one hit after all. And who knows, like others on this list, Gotye or *shudder* The Lumineers may make a comeback after some time away.from the commercial side of music. I’d be interested to see what lessons the one hit wonders of the past few years take away from their forerunners 1980’s.


One thought on “Debunking the Myth of the One-Hit Wonder

  1. I think Chumbawumba is a great example of this, enjoying a long and prolific career back home, while only having one big US hit. They are typically very political, and often with issues that most Americans aren’t concerned with, so I understand why they never caught on. Still, their 2010 album ABCDEFG is definitely worth a listen.

    I haven’t dug very deep with Dexy’s Midnighy Runners. I know they weren’t tremendously prolific, and the only album I’ve listened to of theirs is Too-Tye-Ay, but to me, every song on it is just as solid as the single.

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