"One-hit wonder" can sound like a pejorative term, and maybe it is if you're comparing someone to The Beatles or Michael Jackson. But seeing as the vast majority of people are zero-hit wonders, the musicians who created even a single song that stands the test of time can take pride in their work. If you've ever found yourself singing along to "Too-ra loo-ra too-ra loo-rye-ay" or chanting "Oh, Mickey, you're so fine" when nobody's around, you know the power of the one-hit wonder. By definition they are usually catchy as heck, and can capture a moment in time in a way that a more long-lasting artist's oeuvre doesn't.
The artists themselves, of course, have mixed feelings about these songs. Depending on the artist, those feelings run the gamut from gratitude to pride to dislike to sheer exhaustion. Here's what some of the biggest one-hit-wonder artists have said about the songs that broke them out into the mainstream for one glorious moment.
- Photo: Epic
In 1982, West German singer Nena (born Gabriele Kerner) and the band she fronted created a song that somehow managed to combine a Cold War fear of nuclear annihilation with an irresistibly danceable New Wave beat. The marriage of sound and subject matter made it a perfect time capsule of early-1980s culture.
Originally in German, the song wasn't planned to go international, as Nena's record company didn't feel it was commercial enough. But it started to get airplay on the Los Angeles radio station KROQ.
It eventually became a smash hit in both Europe and the US, where it was released in an English version (although the German version also got plenty of airplay and was in fact the version that peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100).
Talking to the New York Times years later, Nena recalled the song took very little time to record:
I said, "I want to sing it right away." We did the song in one hour. And then we decided to release it as a single in Germany. Our record company said please don’t do that; there’s no chorus, it’s not commercial enough. But we were all so touched by the song.
- Photo: Chrysalis Records
The thing for which Toni Basil is most famous - the hit single "Mickey" and its associated music video - is really an anomaly in her long career. Singing was strictly a sideline for Basil, who made her career in choreography long before and long after her stint on MTV's heavy rotation.
Already an accomplished dancer by her teens, she was an assistant choreographer on the Elvis Presley vehicle Viva Las Vegas, a gig that propelled her career in Hollywood. In the 1970s she developed a nightclub song-and-dance act that caught eyes when she performed it on Saturday Night Live.
Basil was approached in 1979 by Simon Lait to do a three-song collection for a "video album" his label, Radial Choice, had in the works. Working from a song by Nicky Chinn originally called "Kitty" - but renamed to suit a female singer - Basil conceived of the project as a marriage between music and video, drawing upon old cheerleading routines she had grown up with. The video actually predated the birth of MTV, but it proved a perfect fit with the fledgling channel and catapulted the single to #1 in the US in 1982.
Basil claims the song earned her about $1,500 in royalties. She didn't receive a songwriting credit because her only contribution was the "Oh Mickey, you're so fine" chant, which apparently was too minor to justify a credit. "It changed my life, but it hasn't changed my bank account," she quipped.
After a few failed attempts to replicate the pop success of "Mickey," Basil went back to choreography. In 2019, she choreographed Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, teaching Leonardo DiCaprio some 1960s dance moves. If she's bitter about not getting rich off "Mickey," she doesn't show it. Looking back on her career, she says, "I actually go, 'Wow! How lucky can a girl get?'"
- Photo: Mercury Records
Dexys Midnight Runners actually had a UK #1 single, "Geno," before achieving across-the-pond stardom with "Come On Eileen." With its sprightly string hook, its hard-to-sing verse melody that clambers drunkenly up and down the octaves, and its interpolations of an Irish lullaby, "Eileen" certainly didn't sound like just another New Wave tune from the second British Invasion. Its pub-friendly chorus, which defied anyone not to sing along, propelled it to the top of the Billboard Hot 100.
Dexys front man Kevin Rowland had previously been in the punk band The Killjoys, but with Dexys he and his bandmates were exploring a more soul-inflected sound that relied on acoustic instruments rather than the fashionable synthesizers of the era. Rowland recalled that the success of "Eileen" was no accident; the band put everything they had into making a great record:
I was hankering after pop success at that point. I’m not saying we wrote it with that in mind. Oh, that I would be that clever. But we did write it, like everything we did, the best we possibly could. We worked our arses off. Every detail counted.
- Photo: EMI-Manhattan
Bobby McFerrin isn't really a pop singer; he has made his career with eclectic music that draws on jazz, folk, and classical influences. So it was surprising that his wispy lullaby, "Don't Worry, Be Happy," became a #1 hit in 1988 and won the Grammy for Song of the Year. The a capella tune, which consists entirely of overdubbed vocalizations and whistling by McFerrin himself, describes a series of comical misfortunes while advising the listener to maintain a positive outlook even in the face of adversity.
McFerrin is pretty much over the song, though. "I got tired of singing it," he revealed in a USA Today interview. "I sang it millions and trillions of times." There's a nifty version on his official website, though, which lets you turn off the 8 vocal tracks one by one to hear how the song was put together.
- Photo: Island Records5539 VOTES
The Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star" was, for reasons not hard to deduce, selected as the first music video to air when MTV went live at midnight on August 1, 1981.
The song had been released almost two years earlier, in September 1979. The duo of Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, at the forefront of the techno-centric New Wave sound, envisioned The Buggles as a sort of robotic riff on The Beatles. "Video Killed The Radio Star" was a showcase for all their production expertise.
"Everything we’d learned in studios went into the recording," Horn recalled to the Guardian. "I once worked out it would take 26 people to re-create the single live." Added Downes: "We wanted to cram as many ideas as we could into a pop song."
Sound engineer Gary Langan recalled Horn's drive and perfectionism during the recording and mixing sessions:
My work on "Video Killed The Radio Star" seemed to go on forever. I must have mixed that track four or five times. Remember, there was no total recall, so we just used to start again. We'd do a mix and three or four days later Trevor would go, "It's not happening. We need to do this and we need to do that."
- Photo: EMI / Universal / Republic
If you were conscious in 1997, the punchy, aggressive chorus of Chumbawamba's smash hit "Tubthumping" was inescapable. It came at you from car radios, at parties, in bars, on MTV. Surrender was the only option.
Chumbawamba, an anarchist punk collective formed in 1982, are probably one of the odder bands to have ever achieved an international mega-hit. "The success of that song came as a surprise, really," recalled co-founder Danbert Nobacon in an AV Club interview. "We had similar-sounding songs which we played live, certain uplifting songs that the audience recognized. It taking off like that was a shock."
Vocalist Alice Nutter noted that the process of writing was done collectively - as all things were with Chumbawamba. "Someone would do the music and we’d sing nonsense nursery rhymes over it, and we would have to write the lyrics. Quite a few of us would do that... We were more of a gang than a band." The song was inspired by the sound of a drunken next-door neighbor warbling "Danny Boy."
Nutter is still proud of "Tubthumping": "That song still has a life, and I still love it."