Wednesday, March 23, 2016

ONE AND DONE: THE WACKY WORLD OF ONE HIT WONDERS

Walk up to me on the street and ask me who had a top 20 hit with the song "Hot Smoke and Sassafras" and I’ll immediately spit out the name The Bubble Puppy. Try to stump me with "In the Year 2525".  Not a chance, Zager and Evans had a number one hit in 1969 with their apocalyptic tale of future doom and gloom. I don’t even have to think about it really, this information is stored forever in my brain, as if someone had plugged a 4 gigabyte memory stick of songs into my temple when I was a teenager. It could lead you to believe that if a giant bag of Cheese Doodles spilled open in front of us I could tell you how many were lying on the floor without having to count. Unfortunately, I don't possess that talent, nor am I an excellent driver, just for the record. I do seem to have a Rain Man-ish ability to remember songs, especially songs of the obscure one hit wonder variety. It’s easy for most people to remember hit songs by the iconic groups of that era, The Beatles, Kinks, Stones, and The Doors. All those bands went on to great success and multiple hits. Zager and Evans on the other hand most likely ended up headlining The Tiki Lounge in the Passaic New Jersey Holiday Inn by the time the 70’s ended. It would have been nice to be able to apply this savant like memory to some kind of academic success, but that wasn’t the case. For this reason, I am now using the brand spanking new updated Microsoft Word 2016 to write these blogs. Sure I can tell you in a second that it was The Electric Prunes who had a top 20 hit with the song "I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night" in 1966, but try to remember that singular subject needs singular possessive adjective.?. ugh!!. With all apologies to my favorite teacher and grammar guru Mrs. Marjorie Dempsey, sorry but that makes my head hurt. Tiki Lounge notwithstanding, In the Year 2525 is actually a very good song, combining some elements of the indie Tex Mex band Calexico, with Arthur Lee and Love's signature album Forever Changes. So why did this duo fizzle out after just one hit. Could be that their next release, a song called "Mr. Turnkey",  which tells the tale of a rapist who nails his own wrist to the jail wall as punishment for his crime (now there’s a cheerful little ditty) was not exactly the best career choice.


   

What is it about these songs that keep them firmly rooted in the recesses of my medulla? Is it the goofy names, the aforementioned Electric Prunes, The Strawberry Alarm Clock "Incense and Peppermint" The Lemon Pipers "Green Tambourine".  Apparently wandering the produce section of the grocery store provided great inspiration for band names in those days. Is there a world of difference between The Music Explosion's 1966 number two hit "Little Bit of Soul", and Tommy James and the Shondells number one song from the same year "Hanky Panky"? As standalone songs probably not, yet Tommy James went on to have a slew of top 20 hits while The Music Explosion, well, they blew up good.
Some of these flashes in the pan are easier to explain. No one expected The Singing Nun to hire a couple of roadies and head out on the tour bus after the success of her only hit "Dominique", which topped the Billboard charts in 1963. The Archies, who had a number one hit in 1969 with the song "Sugar Sugar" were not a band at all, just a group of studio musicians assembled by Don Kirshner of Midnight Special fame. Speaking of The Archies, they characterize another interesting aspect of the one hit wonder phenomena. They managed to record two additional songs that became top 40 hits, "Bang Shang-a Lang" and "Jingle Jangle", (I believe Dylan covered Jingle Jangle   on his epic double album Blonde on Blonde) which essentially amounted to remaking Sugar Sugar with minor tweaks to the hit making formula. In my book it’s still one hit, albeit  with three different titles. They were not the only group who employed this strategy in an effort to keep the ball rolling once a formula proved successful. The record holder for most hits derived from one song would be Gary Puckett and the Union Gap who managed to take the basic template behind their 1968 hit "Woman Woman" and parlay it into 5 top ten singles, never wandering too far away from the original hit.  They could have become the first group to sue themselves for copyright infringement.



Similarly Tommy Roe was so thrilled to have a top ten hit in 1966 with the song "Sweet Pea" that he recorded it again and called it "Dizzy". 
   One of the more peculiar entries into the one hit wonder club is The Buoys 1971 hit "Timothy", written by Rupert Holmes, apparently after  consuming one too many of the Pina Coladas he sang about a few years later. Hidden behind an innocuously catchy folk rock melody, is the grisly tale of three boys trapped in a mine with no food. The lyrics suggest that when the boys are rescued a week later, their bellies are full, and poor little Timmy is nowhere to be found, surely the first and only top 40 hit about cannibalism. Cannibal and the Headhunters "Land of 1000 Dances" doesn't qualify

Trapped in a mine that had caved in
And everyone knows the only ones left
Were Joe and me and Tim

When they broke through to pull us free
The only ones left to tell the tale
Where on earth did you go?
Timothy, Timothy
God why don't I know?

Hungry as hell no food to eat
And Joe said that he would sell his soul
For just a piece of meat

Water enough to drink for two
And Joe said to me, 'I'll take a swig
And then there's some for you.'

Timothy, Timothy
Joe was looking at you
Timothy, Timothy
God, what did we do?

I must've blacked out just 'bout then
'Cause the very next thing that I could see
Was the light of the day again

My stomach was full as it could be
And nobody ever got around
To finding Timothy

Timothy, Timothy
Where on earth did you go?
Timothy, Timothy
God, why don't I know?

Rupert Holmes was 20 when he intentionally wrote these unsettling lyrics, in an effort to benefit from the publicity generated by radio stations banning the song. That part of the plan succeeded, as radio stations became aware of the subject matter they  removed Timothy from their playlists. Curiosity as to why of course led to a growth in the songs popularity, reaching a high of 17 on the Billboard charts. Unfortunately, this didn't translate into any future success for the carnivorous Buoys, apparently Hannibal Lecter plays well in the cinema but not so much in the music industry.
   
The advent of MTV in 1981 spawned a whole new era of one hit wonders, of the video variety. It's an extensive field that will need to be covered in a future blog. For now, my only comment on the subject is "Rico!! Suave!!"

 Finally, in the spirit of Rolling Stone Magazine, there must be a best and worst of the one hit wonders. What song stands out as special, and what song  leaves you scratching your head wondering who the hell liked this.? My personal favorite would be "Come On Eileen", released in 1982 by the British Band Dexys Midnight Runners. It was an early MTV hit as well, and reached a high of number seven on the US Billboard charts. It also placed third in a VH1 poll of the 100 greatest one hit wonders of all time. If I'm doing lists ,as I often will, Come on Eileen always manages to sneak into my top ten songs, based on its banjo and fiddle infused Irish tone, and the fact that it never fails to make me happy when I hear it. Surprisingly they weren't able to follow up on the success of the song and never charted again. Another British Band, Mungo Jerry hit it big in 1970 with a song called In the Summertime, which sold over 30 million copies worldwide. It was a number one hit in the UK and several other countries while reaching a high of number three on the US Billboard charts. Funky lyrics behind a New Orleans style zydeco shuffle; it was the perfect summer song, Beach Boys with a Cajun flavor. The band was never able to catch on in the US but was wildly popular in their  home country, with several top ten hits and a fan base rabid enough that the British press took a page from The Beatles and coined it Mungomania.


   
As far as the worst one hit wonder of all time, I was prepared to bestow the honor to Gilbert O'Sullivan  and his left-at-the-altar suicide lament, Alone Again Naturally which somehow managed to stay at number one for six consecutive weeks in 1972. I was shocked and dismayed however to discover that Gilbert struck gold again the very same year with an equally awful song titled Claire, which charted at number two on the Billboard 100.
Paul Anka's  She’s Having My Baby (my choice for the absolute worst song of all time with no close contenders) is eliminated as is Bobby Goldsboro's Honey,  based on the fact that they both had multiple top 40 songs. Terry Jack’s 1974 hit Seasons in the Sun,seemed like the next logical contender, but I discovered that it was adapted from an earlier Jacques Brel song with lyrics by Rod Mckuen.  Brel was a big influence on some of my own  musical heroes, Leonard Cohen and David Bowie , so its pedigree eliminated the song from contention despite the fact  that I would rather listen to someone drag their fingernails slowly down a blackboard than listen to the Terry Jacks version.
So, by default, but not because he hasn’t earned it, the title of absolute worst one hit wonder of all time goes to…. Drumroll please , Kenneth “Hutch” Hutchinson, AKA David Soul , one half of the famed TV police duo  Starsky and Hutch,  and singer of  the 1977 number one hit Don’t Give Up On Us Baby.
The song lasted one short week on top of the  Billboard 100 ,the fact that it made it there for even one week is perplexing.  To me it is the musical equivalent of the pivotal moment in the movie Love Story when Jenny tells Oliver that “love means never having to say you’re sorry”.
    When senility does set in, and at times it feels like it may be lurking just around the corner, I'm sure these songs will continue to rattle around in my brain. I can picture a scenario where a nursing home attendant walks into my room to ask me  what condition I'm in and me  blurting out "Kenny Rogers and The First Edition, 1968. Or maybe, just maybe, it will be as Napoleon XIV prophesied in 1966, one day I'll look up and, well, this will happen.


 
Okay well I have to go now, it's 4:56, 4 minutes to Wapner.






2 comments:

  1. One of the first concerts I went to was one of those one hit wonder compilations put together by a record company. All I remember is Bobby Goldsboro and The McCoys, but everyone came out and sang their one song. Then there was the 90's movie That Thing You Do about just this very subject, with Tom Hanks as the recording company guy trying to make as much money as he possibly can off of a band's one hit song. Great post, I really enjoyed reading this!!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks Sandy,it was fun to write it, I think I was one of the few people who liked That Thing You Do, I really related to it.

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