Eve of Big Country Law Destruction
(It's really 14 One-Hit Wonders. I lied.)
The world of popular music is filled with gems called “One-Hit Wonders”.
These are records that blazed brightly for one shining, glorious, sometimes raucous moment and then their creators disappeared from the charts (and in one special case on this list from the planet itself), never heard from in any meaningful way again.Credit: Vic Dillinger, 2015
What’s a One-Hit Wonder?
Some one-hit wonders were meant to be just that—a one-off, a lark, something someone just had to get out to the world.
Novelty tunes and one-off acts filled a certain niche. These tended to be related to popular subjects of the time.
A prime example of this sort of one-hit wonder is The Hollywood Argyles (not a real band, but a construct thrown together for the sole purpose of recording the goofy tribute to comic-strip caveman “Alley Oop”, hugely popular then).
More often, though, these classic moments in time were not intended as the artist’s only lasting contribution to music. For whatever reasons, some acts just don’t make it into the world of sustained musical longevity.
It’s tough to be in a band—barring the handful of “overnight sensations” the harsh reality is that most bands spend, on average, close to a decade before making a serious impression in the music world. That’s several years of slogging it out, building a fan base, traveling around in crappy vans, lugging your own gear, crashing on people’s couches and floors, and constantly being broke.
A prime example of the tough road is The B-52s. When they were nominated for a Grammy® in 1990 in the category of “Best New Artist” (!) they had been recording since 1978 and had several full-length albums under their belt. [I just gotta throw this one in to show how stupid the Grammys really are: in 1979 or 1980, I don’t remember which, the choices for “Best New Artist” that year included The Pretenders. Christopher Cross won the trophy!! Heard anything out of dat fat boy lately?? Nope? Yet, The Pretenders went on to achieve huge stardom. I’m hoping Cross is flipping burgers somewhere as penance for the schlock that won him a Grammy. Hell is full of Grammy winners, Christopher Cross—just ask Milli Vanilli!]
So, while some one-hit wonders are meant to be just that many acts kept plugging away with little or no success.
I’ve selected a cross-section of one-hit wonders. The performances here are in chronological order, not in order of favorite.
Nor is this an exhaustive list—I know, I know, you want Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling”.
I do, too, but this is a short list. Get over it.
It is sung with a level of sincerity no Selena Gomez could ever muster; the lead vocals on the track were done by a 15-year-old girl. Not a woman, a girl.
These five Catholic school chicks from da Bronx (the oldest 16, the youngest was 13) named themselves for a neighborhood Catholic church, St Francis de Chantelle.
The record’s original song-writing credit goes a team (“Casey-Goldner”; George Goldner was the owner of End Records). The song credit ultimately lapsed to Richard Barrett, its producer.
The reality is the lead singer, Arlene Smith, probably wrote it.
I can’t see Goldner or Barrett (a notorious slimeball of the era) having the aching, young-girl angst in their hearts that Arlene sings passionately with on this track. She was probably just ripped off for the final song credit, an unfortunate fact of life in the earliest days of rock ’n’ roll (may they burn in Hell).
This record has a timeless quality about it, and it’s still a great listen. Rolling Stone magazine had named this lament #199 of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.
Sputnik got us off our duffs. Within a scant few months of its launch, not to be outdone we launched the first of the Explorer and Vanguard satellites. The Space Race was on, and frankly, there has been no cultural or social development more exciting than that.
The Final Frontier holds wonders almost beyond our imagining, and capturing that sense of adventure and fascination musically is difficult.
The Tornados did it, though.
In a futuristic and fresh-sounding instrumental (with some murmuring backing “vocal” hum/mumbling) “Telstar” (released just five weeks after AT&T put the telecommunications’ satellite of the same name in orbit) captures the thrill of discovery and the inspired sense of adventure of early space exploration.
The droning effects are from a keyed instrument called a clavioline which sounds like a synthesizer. The Tornados also threw in some bleeps and blips in the studio for special effects as well.
The Tornados, with this record, became the first British band to have a Number One single in the US.
They opened a floodgate.
Occasionally, the story behind a song transcends the one-hit wonder itself.
The Strangeloves were three independently wealthy Australian ex-sheep farmer brothers named Giles, Niles, and Miles. They had created a new breed of sheep called the Gottehrer—NOT!
But that was their story and they were sticking to it.
The British Invasion was in full force by 1965, and many American bands couldn’t get arrested. The formerly hugely popular Four Seasons struggled to hold their pride of place in the face of more sophisticated acts coming from Britain. That doesn’t mean there was no talent in America; the popular culture of the time just made it harder to break a new American act.
Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein, and Richard Gottehrer were three hotshot Jewish songwriters and producers who’d engineered and written some of the early 1960s’ biggest hits for other people. They had a collection of tracks they wanted to do as a group, but they knew calling themselves “The New York Jew Boys” just wouldn’t play in the current market.
So, they came up with a plan.
They found some hipster clothes, some mop-top shag wigs, and created The Strangeloves, complete with the back-story of being Australian. Since the public knew nothing of Australia, except that it was equated with Britain, they ate it up! The Strangeloves’ story even included some claptrap about the drumming on their record being “traditional” Australian Aboriginal rhythms. [It wasn’t, of course, it was just a revamped version of the classic Bo Diddley beat.]
The most fun thing about The Strangeloves is they got away with it!
They toured in the wake of the hit, “I Want Candy,” schmoozed with the press (using fake Aussie accents), and no one believed any differently. [The same thing was done successfully by two Hispanic groups, one from Texas the other from Detroit. To at least get heard, a Tex-Mex band recast itself as the British-sounding Sir Douglas Quintet and had a huge hit with “She’s About a Mover”. Similarly, some Motor City Mexicans assumed the odd identity of ? & The Mysterians and scored with the great schlock-rock tune “96 Tears”.]
“I Want Candy” is joyous and stomping and raucous. It is truly a killer single. Bow Wow Wow’s cover in the early 1980s was faithful but lacked the joie de vivre of The Strangeloves’ original practical joke.
A final irony about the song: it failed to chart in either Britain or in The Strangeloves’ “homeland” of Australia!
“I Fought the Law” [The Bobby Fuller Four, 1966]
1965 was a year of transition in rock music.
Remnants of the earlier doo-wop coexisted uncomfortably with the British sound.
The Trashmen (frat boys from Minnesota), for example, made one of the stoopidest records of all time with “Surfin’ Bird”. This disc is pure punk rock at its core. And The Trashmen hold a special place in my heart that gives me a warm-and-fuzzy for one other reason beside their classic song: they were the first to say the word “boogers” on television. Even better, they did it on American Bandstand. Even better still was watching Dick Clark (1929-2012) (whom I have met) almost vapor lock over it.
Others, however, wanted to recapture the former glory of American rock ’n’ roll, and Bobby Fuller was that guy.
A huge talent, with his band, The Bobby Fuller Four, he took up Buddy Holly’s mantle and ran with it.
The result was “I Fought the Law”, an anthemic, glorious rocker written by Sonny Curtis (one of Buddy Holly’s Crickets and recorded by The Crickets after Holly’s tragic death in a plane crash in the late 1950s).
The remake was a hit.
The guitar work in this song is still sharp-sounding and glistening even today.
Unfortunately, the potential of The Bobby Fuller Four would never fully be realized; Bobby was found dead in a car behind his apartment at age 23 on July 18, 1966, just four months after “I Fought The Law” had struck pay dirt. Inside the car on the seat was an open gasoline can. The details and circumstances of his death are complex, but in brief the coroner’s report charged it off to accident/suicide.
Petechial hemorrhaging in his eyes, however (noted on the coroner’s report but not explored), suggests he might have been forcefully suffocated even though no marks or bruises were found on his body.
His case is officially closed, but conspiracists believe foul play at the hands of an unknown was at work.
“I Fought the Law” has been covered by many bands, most sincerely by The Clash on their début album in 1979.
It is one hell of a legacy to leave behind—thanks, Bobby Fuller.
“Eve of Destruction” [Barry McGuire, 1965]
The mid 1960s tend to make people recall the burgeoning Vietnam fiasco and protest songs.
No matter how precious some might think “protest” songs are, the majority just weren’t very good songs or even passably good records. Too much peace, love, and understanding with no conviction behind it is nothing more than hollow lip-service. [A prime example of such dreck with no conviction behind it, just mewling tag-lines, is what has to be one of the absolutely worst songs ever pressed, 1968’s hit single “Reach out of the Darkness” by the husband-and-wife duo, Friend and Lover, a horrifically terrible song with an excruciating vocal performance!]
“Eve of Destruction” is committed, however, and it is absolutely the angriest song ever made. Even the mighty Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” (and “Anarchy . . . ” packs quite a sneering wallop) does not carry the tragic, bilious weight of this song.
And it is Barry McGuire who voiced that raging, Stygian howl.
The song covers typical topics of the average protest song in the “Gee-the-world’s-a-messed-up-place” vein.
It had been recorded before, though it wasn’t a hit (it was also offered to The Byrds before Barry McGuire, and they rejected it). It is Barry’s take on this tune that makes this song greater than what it probably ever hoped to be.
The song opens quietly with a martial thrumming for underpinning. Barry’s opening line is delivered almost as if he’s reading a newspaper: “The Eastern world, it is explodin’ . . . ”.
But then his snarling rage begins to build, and by the end of the track Barry McGuire is apoplectic—his voice is stripped raw by the power of his spewing. It is an orgiastic venting of spleen the like of which I have never heard on record because it is very real. Barry McGuire is that guy who deeply feels the world’s ills, and he cannot suppress his anger and frustration over his inability to change it.
He later went on to do Christian music (presumably in a less volatile manner).
But this song (barring some contemporary references to Selma, Alabama, and to changes in the voting age, etc.) plays out as if it could have been written yesterday. We’re in the exact same boat now as then: “Take a look around you, boy / it’s bound to scare you, boy”.
“This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ to Glide” [The Kings, 1980]
Canada always reminds me of Gilligan from Gilligan’s Island: they’re our “Little Buddy”. I like Canada. I like most Canadians (except for Justin Bieber and those hyper-snooty Frenchies in Quebec).
Musically, they haven’t given us too much, though. Sure, there’ve been a few good rockers from Canada but not that many (April Wine, Rush, William Shatner).
So it was with the hope of great things to come I heard The Kings début single in 1980 as a kid in high school. They were Canadian, and they sounded pretty damn good. Their début album, The Kings Are Here (while not a title as in-your-face as Never Mind The Bollocks) still made a statement. It was as if they thought we really were all out there just waiting for them with bated breath and finally—whew—here they were!!
But, alas, greatness for The Kings and Canada was not to be.
Their follow-up tanked, Elektra Records dropped them, and they soldier on to this day recording in fits and starts.
The opening tracks on their début, though, formed what is one of the best two-sided singles of all time, “This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ to Glide”.
The keyboardist in the first part of this double-sider noodles all over the place, making like the guy in “96 Tears”. It’s silly, self-aggrandizing, and fun. The second part is more bombast and power pop.
Combined, they’re two great songs that sound great together. [And I had the supreme joy, beyond my wildest imaginings, of The Kings’ lead vocalist saying, “Thank you” through a separate channel after getting wind of this piece in 2013.]
“Driver’s Seat” [Sniff ’n’ the Tears; recorded in 1978, released in 1979]
Troglodytic grunting background “vocals”, snappy guitar work, and a weirdly eerie set of lyrics makes this one-hit wonder a dark classic.
There is, however, something “off” about this tune . . .
The band is really a one-man show, British artist Paul Roberts and whoever happens to be around to back him up. He is the painter of all the artwork featured on their album covers.
Their début LP Fickle Heart Credit: Paul Roberts, 1978was recorded in 1978, but wasn’t released until 1979. The lead track “Driver’s Seat” found an audience quickly. Roberts’ fey, wispy vocals set a somber tone.
Though it may sound like it on its surface, this is not a bright, sprightly record. It rocks, but darkly. There is something murky lurking beneath the surface—I don’t know what it is, and I probably never will, but it’s a haunting piece that I still enjoy listening to often.
The version of Sniff ’n’ the Tears that recorded “Driver’s Seat” broke up almost immediately after its release. Roberts reincarnated the band again and again over the years for other records with different line-ups but with no great success.
We just have “Driver’s Seat” with its grunting and its references to a woman named Jenny, who we learn “ . . . was sweet / She always smiled for the people she’d meet / On trouble and strife / She had another way of looking at life . . . ”
I think she died, or the singer killed her, and she’s in the trunk of his car, and that’s what creeps me out about this song.
And it is also what keeps me listening.
“Into the Night” [Benny Mardones, 1980 & 1989]
Ahh . . . the lusts of the full-grown man for jailbait.
Nabokov gave us the self-destructive Humbert Humbert in his incredible novel, Lolita (in the book she is 12; in the movie, Lolita is 14—both ages are illegal). The band Kiss covered the topic (less tastefully) in their late 1970s’ song “Christine 16” (“She’s been around / But she’s young and clean” . . . you’re kidding me, right?). Benny Mardones, though, is a Cleveland, Ohio, native who, while living in Noo Yawk, made the distasteful scenario of borderline pedophilia sound truly romantic.
This song is a horn-dog’s version of the great virgin ’plaint, “Maybe”, by the Chantels.
Never mind the opening lines (“‘She’s just sixteen years old / Leave her alone,’ they said”). Pay more attention to the powerful musical arrangement, the chunking guitar, the trilling piano runs, and Mardones’ gut-wrenching declarations of love for this teenage girl.
“Soaring” is the best word for the end part where he is literally singing his intestines out through his esophagus—the vocal histrionics are so over the top they’re mesmerizing.
This song also has a place of honor in pop music for having charted on two separate occasions (a feat only managed by nine other tunes, one of which is Chubby Checker’s “The Twist”, charting in 1960 and again in 1962). “Into the Night” hit in 1980, and was resurrected in 1989 when a radio segment of obscura revived interest in it. The tune took off all over again.
And if I could fly, I’d take that girl up, too, provided she was at least 18 years old (and could show me a valid driver’s license to prove it).
“Bird’s Fly (Whisper to a Scream)” [Icicle Works, 1982]
This is one of the most brilliantly executed one-hit wonders ever.
The opening drumming, yet another incarnation of the Bo Diddley beat, follows a lilting guitar and bass intro.
The vocals are superb, and it’s just a great song.
No more of merit was heard from Icicle Works, though they continued to record under different incarnations.
This song always sounds fresh to me, and everybody I’ve ever met plays air drums to the intro.
That’s what a good song does—gets you involved even if you do look like a dweeb doing it.
“In A Big Country” [Big Country, 1983]
This song charted as an edited single.
The album version is the better track, though, because it has a lengthy, John Phillip Sousa trash-drum intro setting a tub-thumping pace with the guitars gearing up to do their crazy/cool job over the next few minutes.
And for the love of all that is sacred and holy have you ever heard such skronking, rockin’ bagpipes as part of the main sound on any rock record?
That’s because the “bagpipes” you hear on this iconic track are guitars!!
In your face, Bieber!!
“Sleeping Satellite” [Tasmin Archer, 1992]
Although not intentional, this song is really a darker bookend to the ebullience and hope of “Telstar”.
It has a sense of atmosphere and adventure; it is a very mature sound for what really is a mid-tempo dance record, pristinely engineered and haunting.
Tasmin Archer is a British songstress (and co-writer of this track), and her voice is crystalline and spectrally lush.
It’s a pity more people have never heard of her or have heard this song, although it did make the US Top 40 in 1993. Tasmin has enjoyed minor international success, but not at the level she probably deserves in this world of Biebers.
“Chick Habit” [April March, 1998]
Her real name is Elinor Blake, she is from California (born in 1965), and her profession is animator (she worked on the original Ren & Stimpy and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse).
As a junior high kid she went to France as part of a student exchange program. While there she developed a love for early 1960s’ French pop music. She is a vocalist and a die-hard Francophile. Having formed and disbanded a few groups in the US, Elinor started doing her own thing as a solo act.
The result is the wonderfully modern, yet retro, “Chick Habit”, which Elinor recorded under her nom de guerre, April March. The song is a French tune, and although she covers it in French as well, it is the English version that gets me.
Everything about this song screams late 1950s, all-girl, juvenile-delinquent exploitation movies like Reform School Girl. Elinor’s vocals are overdubbed and reverbed in classically overwrought early rock fashion.
A more joyful racket you never heard.
“Milkshake” [Kelis, 2003]
They just plain don’t get any stoopider or unintentionally funnier than this “nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah” bragfest by a woman who knows what she’s got and knows you want it.
Pharrell Williams produced this song. Though an award-winning behind-the-scenes guy he went on afterward to have an unfathomably successful solo career as a performer based on one obnoxious hit, “Happy” (from 2014). [His visual trademark is a busted-up “Smokey the Bear” hat that, if I ever met him, I’d deadpan, without comment, pimp-slap off his acorn squash-shaped head and silently DARE him to do something about it!]
Spoofed on Fox TV’s animated sitcom, Family Guy, “Milkshake” makes “Surfin’ Bird” sound positively scholarly by comparison. Its barely-metaphored lyrics and the mid-song la-la-la’s (because of their strangely-pitched, deadpan, Middle Eastern-inflected tunelessness) hooked me on it.
The rest of it got my attention because . . . um . . . uh . . . well . . . Kelis is pretty hot.
So, yeah, I’d climb her fence to get all up in her yard any time.