Wednesday, September 24, 2008

One-Hit Wonderdom

The existence of the one-hit wonder—a designation used within the music industry to refer to a musician or band known almost exclusively for one hugely popular hit single—undermines the (Romantic) image of the artistic genius, supplanting it with the image of the idiot savant, an individual with an extraordinarily narrow area of expertise or brilliance. Hence, the existence of the one-hit wonder is a postmodern phenomenon, destabilizing the traditional understanding of what constitutes genius, (re)defining it by the vagaries of consumer culture. While some one-hit wonders are “novelty songs,” most of them are not, the latter often characterized by their tendentiousness, that is, by being an occasional song recorded to raise money for a certain charity (1985’s “We Are the World,” recorded in order to raise funds for famine-relief efforts in Ethiopia), or by its effort to capitalize on a current consumer fad or craze (C. W. McCall’s “Convoy” (1975), exploiting the then current popularity of citizen’s band—CB—radio).

If we consider only those one-hit wonders that cannot be considered novelty songs—those that do not overtly display any occasional or ad hoc characteristics—then one-hit wonders have no identifiable characteristics other than they must conform to the material requirements of the 7” 45 rpm single—that is, the time restriction. In its more pejorative formulation, one-hit wonders are characterized as “flukes,” that is, anomalies, the evidence being an empirical one: the individual musician or band was unable to reiterate (repeat) its success subsequently. Hence one would like to say Time is the final judge, but certain one-hit wonders have shown a remarkable durability, remaining as popular as songs by bands whose work consumers have endorsed repeated times. The late, lauded auteur Ingmar Bergman—always uneasy with his fame—once remarked, “No one remembers those who built Chartres,” by which he meant, among other things, the thing that endures is the art, not the artist, and while the names of the artisans who built that grand cathedral are not remembered, their artwork is, a testament to their resilience, their commitment, and their dedication to an idea greater than themselves. One-hit wonders are proof of the same idea, that the work remains long after the artist is forgotten.

“Best of” lists are essentially an expression of individual taste and aesthetic judgment, and as such they cannot appeal to any sort of empirical verification. As the old adage says, non disputandum de gustibus est: It is not possible to make disputations about taste. The keyword here is taste, and with that in mind, here’s my list of the best, and worst, one-hit wonders, confined, arbitrarily and capriciously, to hits in the United States during the years 1960-82. Ask me to repeat this exercise six months from now, my list most likely will be different. As Emerson said, “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

The Best (with my current #1):
10. The Undisputed Truth – Smiling Faces Sometimes (1971)
9. King Harvest – Dancing in the Moonlight (1972)
8. Danny O’Keefe – Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues (1972)
7. John Fred & His Playboy Band – Lucy in Disguise (With Glasses) (1968)
6. The Seeds – Pushin’ Too Hard (1966)
5. J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers – Last Kiss (1964)
4. Jonathan King – Everyone’s Gone to the Moon (1965)
3. Sanford Townsend Band – Smoke From a Distant Fire (1977)
2. Wall of Voodoo – Mexican Radio (1982)
1. David Essex – Rock On (1973)

The Worst (but not forgotten):
10. Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods – Billy Don’t Be A Hero (1974)
9. Melanie – Brand New Key (1971)
8. Van McCoy – The Hustle (1975)
7. Alan O’Day – Undercover Angel (1977)
6. Climax – Precious and Few (1972)
5. Charlene – I’ve Never Been To Me (1982)
4. Debby Boone – You Light Up My Life (1977)
3. The Singing Nun – Dominique (1963)
2. Starland Vocal Band – Afternoon Delight (1976)
1. Millie Small – My Boy Lollipop (1964)

Recommended Reading:
Wayne Jancik, The Billboard Book of One-Hit Wonders. Revised and Expanded. 1998.


Fred said...

Interesting list. Bo Donaldson's version of "Billy Don't Be a Hero" (which my little kids LOVE) was actually a remake of Paperlace's British hit version. But I don't know if Bo Donaldson should be on the list, since a few months after "Billy", they had a hit with "Who Do you Think you are?" As for Paperlace, who had a hit with "Billy" in England and also hit it big on both sides of the pond with "The Night Chicago Died", they may also not be one hit wonders. Yesterday, the local oldies station was having a special day playing one-hit wonders, like Funky Nassau and the Floaters' Float On. Two others that I would put on your list (either good or bad depending on taste) are Vehicle by Ides of March (the world's greatest Blood, Sweat and Tears soundalike) and "I Love You More Today than Yesterdary" by Spiral Staircase, which some folks still think was recorded by Chicago.

I think the one-hit wonder shows two things: the fickle nature of pop music (where fans get into flavor of the month, i.e., the Knack) and the abusiveness of the big labels, which are more than happy to have replaceable artists. Wtih respect to the latter, it is easier for a label to deal with a bunch of generic one-hit wonders than to negotiate with Prince or Madonna, and indulge their whims.

Tim Lucas said...

10 More of My Favorites:
"Telstar" - The Tornados
"MacArthur Park" - Richard Harris
"I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night" - The Electric Prunes
"Little Girl" - Syndicate of Sound
"Sukiyaki" - Kyu Sakamoto
"Johnny Angel" - Shelley Fabares
"Mr. Dieingly Sad" - The Critters
"Have I The Right" - The Honeycombs
"In-a-Gadda-da-Vida" - Iron Butterfly
"A Walk in the Black Forest" - Horst Jankowski

And Some Least Favorites:
"Band of Gold" - Freda Payne
"Ma Belle Amie" - The Tee Set
"Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye" - The Casinos
"Turn Around, Look at Me" - The Vogues
"In the Year 2525" - Zager and Evans

Tim Lucas said...

Just want to add that I've always enjoyed "My Boy Lollipop," which deserves credit as one of the earliest charting ska records. Little Millie Small was a Jamaican gal and the girlfriend of Peter Asher of Peter & Gordon fame.