Monday, 3 January 2011

1, 2, 3, 4: an introduction

In his recent tome 17 - a document of one maverick figure’s quest for musical novelty - the writer and former KLF man Bill Drummond is given cause to wonder why there haven’t been more one-hit wonders over the years. He knows this terrain well, of course: as the creative force behind The Timelords (“Doctorin’ the Tardis”, no. 1, 1988), the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (“It’s Grim Up North”, no. 10, 1991) and, more recently, 2K (“Fuck the Millennium”, no.28, 1997), Drummond can claim to have been involved with more one-hit wonders than just about anyone other than Jonathan King, perhaps - and who, save Jonathan King, is counting Jonathan King these days?

The more pressing question Drummond’s mental meanderings sparked was: well, how many more do you want? The latest edition of The Virgin [previously Guinness] Book of Hit Singles suggests there are presently around 1,500 of these unique beasts, with more being made and downloaded (and then promptly forgotten about) each week. It was in a spirit of similar musical (mis)adventure, therefore, that I decided to compile as definitive a list of one-hit wonders as the official record would allow, and - because I had little more pressing to do at the time - to try to track down and listen to as many of the songs as I could physically source, or bear, in a bid to figure out what exactly makes a solitary chart hit great.

The idea was that there might be a book, or a blog, or at least a fun article in it; you might choose to see it as my own personal remake of Julie & Julia, only more of a guy thing, and with Steve Lamacq instead of Meryl Streep. It was an enterprise aided by the YouTube and iTunes revolution, of course: surprisingly few (only around 200-300) of the songs on the list had fallen into complete, irretrievable obscurity. What drew me in was the cherishable idea of the one-hit wonder: that single moment of creative inspiration - a flash of unrepeatable genius - realised to momentary perfection. (Admittedly, an idea that becomes slightly less edifying listening to songs by Freddie Starr and the Crazy Frog.)

What I discovered was an extraordinary diversity of styles, performers and themes, surely far greater than we might find on any comparable list of number one singles. The complete list of 1,500 songs encompasses recordings by actors, directors, soap stars, TV presenters, cartoon characters, sports squads and political activist groups; it features both experimental noise projects and Ibizan party songs. I’ll have time - probably far too much time, as it happens - for any list that can contain both Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” (no.2, 1981) and Las Ketchup’s “The Ketchup Song” (no.1, 2002), where Craig from Big Brother (“At This Time of Year”, no.14, 2000) sits alphabetically between Cradle of Filth (“Babylon A.D.”, no.35, 2003) and the Cramps (“Bikini Girls with Machine Guns”, no.35, 1990).

For all the novelty, a good number of credible artists turned up - Burt Bacharach (“Trains and Boats and Planes”, no.4, 1965), Crosby, Stills and Nash (“Marrakesh Express”, no.17, 1969), Etta James (“I Just Wanna Make Love To You”, no.5, 1996) - suggesting that, whatever their influence elsewhere, these legends only really caught Joe Public’s ear once, and even then, sometimes, with the aid of a soft drink commercial. What we have here, then, is an alternative history of pop: one that may occasionally seem as harsh and unfair as the real thing, yet which celebrates those trends that fell by the wayside, those bands and performers that couldn’t - or simply didn’t want to - sustain a successful commercial career. (For that, and many other reasons besides, I’d take almost every one of these artists over the Black Eyed Peas.)

I set myself some criteria, because nobody else was going to. (Warning: matters are about to get even sadder. Readers of a less sensitive nature are advised to skip two paragraphs ahead.) I’ve taken one-hit wonder to mean those performers who had one record enter the Top 40, for however long it stuck around. The full list went up to early 2008, which allowed newer acts time to establish themselves as more than one-trick ponies; to take an example, its survey included Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day” (no.2, 2005), but not, say, Sara Bareilles (“Love Song”, no.4, May 2008) or Owl City (“Fireflies”, no.1, 2010), however fond I might be of these singles, and however much they have “one-hit wonder” stamped all over them.

To the consternation of some of my associates, I disallowed singles by solo artists who had previous success as part of groups (Jarvis Cocker, Bruce Foxton, David Gilmour, etc.), on the basis these individuals could rightly claim to have enjoyed more than one chart hit. (In this respect, groups often trump solo artists here: Bill Drummond can say he’s had more than one hit, but the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu - whoever their constituent members, and whatever they went on to be - remain one-hit wonders.) Otherwise, I operated a flexible entrance policy: a couple of the acts on the final Top 100 would come to have additional hits in a different form, or under a new name. It’s a nerdy science, not a precise one.

In deciding the exact positions of these final 100, three factors held sway: historical significance, musical accomplishment, and my own personal tastes. Increasingly, as what follows will bear out, this latter became the tie-breaker. This is my list, after all, so if you’re wondering where, for example, “Spirit in the Sky” (Norman Greenbaum, no.1, 1970) got to, well, all I can say is: no. 110, because - while I recognise it’s considered a classic - it doesn’t speak to me personally as much as Hipsway’s “The Honeythief” (no.17, 1986; and no. 109 on my long list) or Black Box Recorder’s “The Facts of Life” (no.20, 2000; and no. 105 on the long list) do.

Given that the songs falling just outside this Top 100 also include a well-known terrace anthem; a top-notch parody record; the quintessential indie chick under the direction of Ethan Hawke; not to mention an early run-out for John Shuttleworth, hopefully you’ll agree the standard is high - or at least higher than you might expect from a selection of recordings from acts who singularly failed to set the charts alight. Listen without prejudice, and feel free to comment/second guess/disagree accordingly.

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