The 1980’s had an abundance of one-hit wonders, partly because MTV (which started in 1981) had to hunt for enough videos to fill their programming. That included pulling in artists from other countries. Typically, the term one-hit wonder is applied to artists who literally only charted one song (still a major accomplishment), or artists who had one big hit that overshadowed the rest of their career (at least in the USA).
One of the most popular songs and videos was by a Norwegian group, A-ha, who performed “Take On Me”. The song hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the video was ground-breaking in it’s use of film and graphics. The animation, which was done in the United States, took nine months to complete. They had only one other minor U.S. hit, “The Sun Always Shines On T.V.”, but charted over 20 hits in Norway.
Germany gave us “99 Luftballons” by Nena. It went to #2 in 1984. The German version was the most popular, but some radio stations played the flip side, which was the English version, “99 Red Balloons”. The guy on the left seems to be seriously crushing on Nena.
Another German-born artist was Peter Schilling. His 1983 #14 hit was “Major Tom (Coming Home)”, which was a follow-up to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” from a decade earlier. The chorus started with a countdown: ”4-3-2-1 Earth below us, drifting, falling…” Hopefully that helps you remember it.
The song that leads off my 80’s playlists is “I Melt With You” by U.K. group Modern English. It was featured prominently in the movie Valley Girl, and was performed just last week on TV’s Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. The main line is…”I’ll stop the world and melt with you”. I grabbed my Top 40 reference book to look up the 1983 song, and it’s not there! The song only made it to #76 on the Hot 100. It did make it to #7 on the less significant Mainstream Rock chart.
The second song on my first 80’s playlist is “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell, an English duo (Marc Almond & David Ball). The song peaked at #8 in 1982, and still holds up today. “Always Something There To Remind Me” by Naked Eyes was another #8 hit, but in 1983. They actually had a second significant hit with “Promises Promises”, #11 that same year.
A true one-hit wonder group was Devo. Those are not flower pots on their heads, but “Energy Domes” they designed to give them an odd sci-fi look, or as one member said “kind of like a Lego”. Their #14 hit is “Whip It”, which had a bizarre video. This one didn’t make any of my 80’s playlists. They get credit for finding a way to get noticed, but the novelty wears off quickly, and despite the lyric “Whip it good”, it’s not.
Another one-hit group was proud they didn’t have anything weird on their heads…Men Without Hats. The Canadian group (with an American lead singer) had an even bigger novelty hit by taking “The Safety Dance” to #3 in 1983. By the way, the similarly named group, Men At Work, had five major hits in the 1980’s, including “Down Under” & “Who Can It Be Now?”…both #1’s. The bands missed a chance to combine for a big…Men At Work Without Hats…tour.
A band from San Francisco, Tommy Tutone, created the most famous phone number in history with “867-5309/Jenny”. It was a #4 hit in 1982. Above are the single and “Jenny” from the video. In real life, people who had that phone number in various area codes had to change numbers, because of all the calls they received from people asking for Jenny.
The band Madness had a #7 hit in 1983 with “Our House”. It wasn’t a very very fine house like the one in the Crosby Stills Nash & Young song, but that might have been because it was located “in the middle of our street”. Maybe they really meant it was in the middle of their block. Madness was very popular in their home country of England, where they had 15 Top 10 hits.
There are always bands with strange names, and A Flock Of Seagulls fits the bill. The song they’re known for is “I Ran (So Far Away)”, #9 in 1982. That was when bands like this were called “New Wave”. They did chart a couple more minor hits after that.
“I hear the secrets that you keep, when you’re talking in your sleep.” is the main line of “Talking In Your Sleep” by The Romantics. It reached #3 in 1983. You may also remember their song “What I Like About You” which only made it to #49.
Among the quirky novelty songs from the 80’s is “She Blinded Me With Science” by Thomas Dolby. It reached #5 in 1983. The song’s video featured Dolby as a mad scientist dramatically saying the title, followed by almost random sounding notes on a synthesizer. Synthesizers were prominent in 80’s music, and the terms synth-pop and synth-rock were used to categorize the music.
Harold Faltermeyer is a Grammy-winning film composer, with synthesizer being his main instrument. He had an instrumental hit with “Axel F” which went to #3 in 1985. It was the theme for the movie Beverly Hills Cop starring Eddie Murphy as Axel Foley. If you can ask Siri or Alexa to play the song, you’ll probably instantly recognize the melody.
One of the one-hit 45’s I bought in the 80’s was “Captain Of Her Heart” by the band Double. I always liked the cool piano part, as well as the laid-back vocal. It reached #16 in 1986. In researching for this article, I discovered Double was a Swiss band, and their name is actually pronounced doo-Blay.
Sometimes I took a chance and bought the whole album by a new group. In this case, it was a German band, Freiheit. Their 1988 song, “Keeping The Dream Alive”, didn’t make the Top 40, but did get airplay on some radio stations, and was a hit in other countries. It was also included in the 1989 movie Say Anything. When American Idol was still a juggernaut in 2009, “Keeping The Dream Alive” was featured several times. The sound of the song is very Beatles-like, and it was even recorded at Abbey Road Studios. The album has more good songs, but no other hits.
Another Beatles-sounding 80’s song is “I Don’t Mind At All”. It barely edged into the Top 40 (#38) in 1987, but also made the Top 5 on the Adult Contemporary chart. The group was Bourgeois Tagg (which are the last names of the two guys who formed it). They were from Sacramento, California. The song was produced by recent Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame inductee Todd Rundgren.
Speaking of Beatles-sounding, Julian Lennon had a short burst of popularity in 1984-85 with three hit singles…”Too Late For Goodbyes” #5, ”Valotte” #9, and “Say You’re Wrong” #21 (those are my record sleeves above). John’s son, Julian, was just 21 at the time. Volotte was his only platinum album, but he did have two more moderately successful albums.
The 80’s had quite a few artists like Julian Lennon who had multiple hits, but not really enough to have their own 20-song playlists, at least at a hit-quality level. But it’s great having 80’s songs on the list like “I Love Rock & Roll” (#1, 1982) and “I Hate Myself For Loving You” (#8, 1988) by Joan Jett & The Blackhearts. Plus songs by The J. Geils Band, The Go-Go’s, Eurythmics, The Stray Cats, Blondie, The Bangles, Rick Springfield and more.
Rick Springfield is an artist whose popularity surprised me. I mainly think of him for the 80’s classic “Jessie’s Girl”, a #1 hit from 1981. I figured he had another three or four hits, but when I looked I my Top 40 book, he had seventeen Top 40 hits.
Of course the 1980’s had huge hit songs and albums by artists like Tom Petty, Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen, The Police, Billy Joel, AC/DC, Paul Simon, Michael Jackson, U2, Van Halen, Phil Collins, and many more. But, a lot of the distinctive musical flavor of the decade came from artists who had more modest success.