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1. Mickey – Toni basil, Word of Mouth (1981)
The original lyric in the chorus was Kitty instead of Mickey and recorded by a group called Racey. While it’s a one hit wonder for Basil, the songwriters have other hits with Love Is a Battlefield and Ballroom Blitz. Basil got the idea for the video before she found the song to accompany it. The video was produced, directed, and choreographed by Basil – she was the first to do this for her own video and did not disappoint as the song hit #1 in December 1982. Basil is an accomplished choreographer. She’s worked on dance numbers for many TV shows and movies, often appearing on camera herself. She worked on the ’60s show Shindig and was a guest star on Laverne and Shirley. She has also directed videos, including the Talking Heads “Once In A Lifetime,” where she taught David Byrne his wacky dance moves. She did choreography for the movies That Thing You Do and My Best Friend’s Wedding and worked on the Gap commercials that featured swing dancing.
In the Friends episode “The One Where They’re Up All Night,” Phoebe distracts herself from her beeping smoke alarm by singing this, only it gets stuck in her head.
2. The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades (1986)
Pat MacDonald (writer) revealed on VH1’s 100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders of the 80s that the meaning of the song was widely misinterpreted as a positive perspective in regard to the near future. Pat somewhat clarified the meaning by stating that it was, contrary to popular belief, a “grim” outlook. While not saying so directly, he hinted at the idea that the bright future was in fact due to impending nuclear holocaust. The “job waiting” after graduation signified the demand for nuclear scientists to facilitate such events. Pat drew upon the multitude of past predictions which transcend several cultures that foreshadow the world ending in the 1980s, along with the nuclear tension at the height of the Cold War to compile the song.
Although this was the bands only mainstream hit, it ended up charting at #19 on Billboard’s Top 100 List in the 80’s.
3. Jenny, 8675309 – Tommy Tutone (1982)
Charted at #4, this song is about a guy who gets Jenny’s number off the bathroom wall. He can’t work up the courage to call her, but thinks he can have her if he ever does. Songwriter Alex Call came up with it while sitting under a plum tree. He said, “Despite all the mythology to the contrary, I actually just came up with the ‘Jenny,’ and the telephone number and the music and all that just sitting in my backyard. There was no Jenny. I don’t know where the number came from, I was just trying to write a 4-chord rock song and it just kind of came out.For years Tommy Tutone has used a story that there was a Jenny and she ran a recording studio. They have also said it was inspired by a real girl who band member, Tommy Heath, met in a nightclub and 867-5309 was the phone number of her parents. None of this is true, but it got them a lot more media attention, since it made for a much better story.
Before he wrote this, Alex Call (songwriter) was lead singer in a San Francisco band called Clover. Huey Lewis was the harmonica player, and John McFee, who later joined The Doobie Brothers, was the guitar player. They released 4 albums, the last 2 produced by Mutt Lange, who went on to produce Shania Twain, AC/DC, Foreigner and Def Leppard. Nick Lowe was one of their mentors, and brought Clover to England, where they played on Elvis Costello’s first album, My Aim Is True. The band broke up in 1978.
Fun Fact: 8675309 is a prime number. The chances of choosing a random 7-digit (telephone) number and finding that it is prime is about 13 out of 200 (about 6.5%)
4. I Want Candy – Bow Wow Wow (1980)
Actually a cover by Strangelove, released in 1965 the song was rerecorded in 1980 and charted at #62. Former Sex Pistols manager McLaren persuaded Barbarossa (also known as Dave Barbe), guitarist Matthew Ashman and bassist Leigh Gorman to leave Adam Ant and form a new group under McLaren’s management. As the band embarked on a six-month audition process for a lead singer, Liverpool session musician, music director, and talent scout Dave Fishel heard 13-year-old Lwin singing along to the radio at the laundromat where she worked and convinced McLaren to audition her to be the lead singer of his new band. Shortly after Lwin joined the group, second lead singer George Alan O’Dowd, dubbed “Lieutenant Lush,” was added by McLaren (in an early version of “Mile High Club”, Annabella referred to herself as “Captain Lush”). His stay proved short-lived, however. O’Dowd soon formed a new band called Culture Club, and went on to superstardom under the name “Boy George“.
5. Puttin’ On The Ritz – Taco, (1983)
Another Cover, this was originally written in 1929 by legendary composer Irving Berlin (“God Bless America“). Harry Richman introduced it in the 1930 movie musical Puttin’ on the Ritz and had a #1 hit. It famously became a hit for Fred Astaire in 1946 when he performed it in the movie Blue Skies. Taco pays homage to Astaire by including a tap-dance solo in the middle of the song.
The well-known version is about the upper-crust citizens of New York’s glitzy Park Avenue, but the song has a racially charged backstory. In the 1930s it was fashionable for affluent white folks to go “slumming” in Harlem, a poor black neighborhood where the jazz scene was hot. The original lyrics, heard when the song was performed throughout that decade, reference the locals who pretended to be wealthy by donning their flashy duds (i.e. puttin’ on the ritz) and hanging out on Lenox Avenue in Harlem:
The success of Taco’s cover made 95-year-old Irving Berlin the oldest living songwriter ever with a single in the Top 10 of the Hot 100. Berlin was 101 when he died in 1989.
6. 99 Luftballons – Nena (1984)
Another Cold War Song. This was one of the songs in the ’80s meant to make a point about the brinkmanship and paranoia/hysteria surrounding the issue of war. The song talks about Nena and the listener buying 99 Balloons in a shop and letting them go for fun. These balloons show up on the radar as unidentified objects and both sides scramble planes and go to full alert to counteract a perceived nuclear attack, when in fact it is the most childlike of things, a bunch of balloons.
This was released in Germany, where Nena was from. Their record company had no intention of releasing it in America until a disc jockey at radio station, KROQ in Los Angeles found a copy and started playing it. They recorded an English version (the original words are in German, and yes, “Captain Kirk” in German is still “Captain Kirk”) with the title translated as “99 Red Balloons” and released it in the US, where it was a big hit.
Nena is a true one-hit-wonder outside of Germany, where she didn’t even come close to another hit. The German-language version was used in the 1997 movie Grosse Pointe Blank when John Cusack, playing assassin Martin Blank, disposes of a dead body. The Clash’s Joe Strummer compiled songs for the film and composed the score. While this appeared prominently in the movie, it wasn’t included on the official soundtrack.
7. Tainted Love – Soft Cell, (1981)
Charted at #8, this is a cover of a 1964 song by the American soul singer Gloria Jones, whose original version was released as the B-side of her single “My Bad Boy’s Comin’ Home.” A club DJ named Richard Searling picked up a copy in Philadelphia in 1973 and started playing it in his sets at Va Va’s, a popular club in Bolton, England that was very influential on the UK northern soul circuit. The song found new life, and Jones recorded a new version in 1976 that was released on her album Vixen. This version was produced by her boyfriend, Marc Bolan of T-Rex (Jones joined the group as a backup singer and keyboard player in 1974). Jones was driving the car [a Mini] at the time of the accident that killed Bolan in Barnes Common, South London in 1977. This was devastating to Jones on both a personal and professional level, and her career never recovered. She later started the Marc Bolan School of Music in Sierra Leone.
Almond recalls, “Dave (Ball) introduced me to the record and I loved it so much and we wanted an interesting song for an encore number in our show. Dave loved northern soul and it was a novelty to have an electronic synthesizer band doing a soul song. When we signed with our record company, they wanted to record it. They told us to put bass, guitar and drums on it as they said it was too odd. They put it out anyway and the next thing it was gathering radio play and then it was #1. I was fascinated that it was originally by Gloria Jones, the girlfriend of Marc Bolan and I’d always been a T-Rex fan.”
As AIDS began to spread, this song took on new meaning. Marc Almond said: “It was the first time we’d heard about this then-unnamed disease that was affecting gay men in America. It wasn’t an intentional tie-in, but as the record hit the American charts, it took on this other meaning.”
Marc Almond’s vocal is the first take he recorded. That take was actually a run-through so they could tweak the settings, but it had just the right emotion, so that was the one they used.
Gloria Jones has said that she considers the Soft Cell version to be the best one. “I loved the emotion in his voice,” she said. “Their version was far better than mine.”
8. Unbelievable – EMF, (1990)
This song uses a sample of raunchy comedian Andrew “Dice” Clay saying “Oh,” followed on the album version by “What the f–k was that!” Clay also appears twice in the song saying, “It’s unbelievable.” These samples were taken from bits on his 1989 album Dice.
On their only American tour, EMF played this multiple times at every show. It was the only song most of the audience had heard of, hitting #1 in the charts in 1990.
Tom Jones played this at some of his live shows, to the delight of the band. Jones performed the song with EMF on a British TV show where he told them about how he sang it in Vegas. According to the band, Jones got them really drunk that night.
The CD single for this contains a song with no title, it only says “EMF live at the Bilson,” and contains the lyric: “Ecstasy Motherf–ker From us to you.” This adds fuel to the rumor their name means Ecstasy Mother F–ker.
9. Come On Eileen – Dexys Midnight Runners, (1981)
While the song will fit nicely in an ’80s music time capsule, it sounded nothing like the other hits of the era. There are no synthesizers on the song, but there is banjo, accordion, fiddle and saxophone. As it hit #1 in the charts, in an interview with Kevin Rowland, he explained how the song came together:
“This song is based on a true story. Eileen was a girl that Kevin Rowland grew up with. Their relationship became romantic when the pair were 13, and according to Rowland, it turned sexual a year or two later.”
Rowland was raised Catholic and served as an altar boy in church. Sex was a taboo subject, and considered “dirty” – something that fascinated him. When he wrote this song, Rowland was expressing the feelings of that adolescent enjoying his first sexual relationship and dreaming of being free from the structures of a buttoned-down society:
“Come On Eileen” was their first single issued in US, and was the only American hit for the band.
The band’s name was inspired by the amphetamine drug Dexedrine, which is commonly known as “Dexys” contrary to popular belief, the band’s name does not have an apostrophe). The band itself steered away from drinking and drugs, saying nothing should interfere with their dedication to music.
10. Love Is Strange – Mickey & Silvia, (1956)
Mickey & Sylvia are McHouston “Mickey” Baker and Sylvia Robinson (at the time, she was Sylvia Vanderpool). Their version was a drastically different take on the song, turning Bo Diddley’s call-and-response portion into a conversation between Mickey and Sylvia. The spoken word portion of the song where Mickey asks, “How do you call your loverboy?” and Sylvia responds, “Hey, Loverboy,” made the song quite memorable and was especially racy for the time, perhaps giving the song that push to rise to #11 in the charts. The coy sexuality of this portion helped advance the storylines of several famous movies, including the 1972 adult film Deep Throat, the 1973 movie Badlands, and the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing, where the main characters played by Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey mimed the song to each other.
This was the only hit for Mickey and Sylvia. More significantly though, she started Sugarhill Records and put together The Sugarhill Gang, who had the breakthrough Hip-Hop hit “Rapper’s Delight.”
11. Turning Japanese – The Vapors, (1980)
Topping at #36 in the charts, one of the more misinterpreted songs of all time, word was that “Turning Japanese” refers to the Asian facial features people get at the moment of climax during masturbation. In a VH1 True Spin special, they asked The Vapors about this song, and they explained that it is a love song about someone who lost their girlfriend and was going slowly crazy. Lead singer Dave Fenton said: “Turning Japanese is all the clichés about angst and youth and turning into something you didn’t expect to.” It was inspired by Fenton’s relationship problems.
The Vapors were a British pub-rock group formed by David Fenton (vocals), Edward Bazalgette (guitar), Steve Smith (bass) and Howard Smith (drums). They were discovered and managed by Bruce Foxton of the Jam. Ironically The Vapors enjoyed a bigger hit in America with this song than The Jam would ever have. The Vapors’ did not chart again in the US, however they had a couple of other minor hits in the UK. After releasing another album in 1981 they called it quits. Once the band disbanded, Fenton retired from creating music and went to work in the music industry as a lawyer. Bazalgette became a television producer at the BBC.
12. Wipe Out – The Surfaris, (1963)
The Surfaris were a band of teenagers with less than enough pocket money to record their work. The group was actually composed of the following young artists: Jim Fuller (lead guitar), Robert Berryhill (rhythm guitar), Ron Wilson (drums), Jim Pash (saxophone) and Pat Connolly (bass). Pash, however, did not take part in the initial recording of the song that hit #2 in the charts. The breakthrough belongs to Wilson, who did such an excellent job on the long drum solos that it became one of the most famous drum solo breaks played and recorded. Wilson would later set the world record for continuous drum soloing at 104.5 hours!
The story of The Surfaris is a little sticky, and there’s some dispute over who played on their album and who owns the publishing rights. Apparently, “Wipe Out” and “Surfer Joe” are the only songs The Surfaris actually played on the album Wipe Out. The others were performed by another surf-rock group called The Challengers. Over the years, The Surfaris occasionally reformed, and even re-recorded “Wipe Out” for a K-Tel album in the ’70s. According to The Billboard Book Of One-Hit Wonders, Berryhill and Pash are now both born-again Christians, Fuller became a guitarist for the Punk band The Seeds for a short time, and Pash also invented and manufactured an instrument called The Gitsitar. (Thanks to Kent Kotal at Forgotten Hits for help researching this.)
13. Video Killed The Radio Star – Buggles, (1979)
This was the first video to air on MTV. The network launched August 1, 1981, and this provided the first evidence that MTV was going to make it.
The song was a big hit in England in 1979, but pretty much unknown in America, where it peaked at #40 in December 1979. When MTV went on the air, it was on only a few cable systems, but record stores in those areas started selling lots of Buggles albums. Radio stations weren’t playing the song and almost no one in the US had heard of the Buggles, so it was clear that MTV was selling records – an early indication of the network’s influence.
Russell Mulcahy directed the video, which had more production value than most others MTV had to choose from. At the time, if artists did make videos, they were usually just scenes of the band performing a song. Mulcahy used a lot of theatrics in his work, and went on to make videos for Duran Duran – including “Wild Boys,” “Rio” and “Is There Something I Should Know?” – before directing the 1986 film Highlander.
Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes of the Buggles replaced Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson in Yes in 1980. The Buggles did record a second album in 1981. While recording the album, Downes was invited to join the band Asia; Horn decided to finish the album with musicians from both Yes and The Camera Club.
When MTV went on the air and started playing this video, Trevor Horn was on tour with Yes. It took him awhile to figure out why kids were recognizing him.
Trevor Horn’s wife agreed with his assessment that he was “dumb-looking” in the video. After his stint with Yes, she persuaded him to leave performing and go full-time as a producer.
14. Genius of Love – Tom Tom Club, (1981)
Tom Tom Club is the side project of Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, the drummer and bass player of the Talking Heads. They married in 1977 and released the first Tom Tom Club album in 1981.
“Genius Of Love” was a bigger hit than anything the Talking Heads had done to that point.” Chris Frantz thinks this may have extended the life of the Talking Heads by convincing David Byrne to keep the group together, the song peaking at #31 in the charts.
As seen in the concert documentary Stop Making Sense, Talking Heads performed this song on their 1983 tour (switching into Tom Tom Club mode). With Tina Weymouth taking over on lead vocals, David Byrne would leave the stage to change into his famous giant suit.
How did David Byrne react to the success of this song? According to Chris Frantz, he basically ignored it. Frantz says that the only time Byrne mentioned the song was when they went to the popular New York dance club Studio 54 after watching the premiere of The Catherine Wheel, which Bryne worked on. When they entered the club, “Genius Of Love” was playing, and the crowd was going nuts. At this point, Byrne made his one and only comment about the song: “How did you get that hand clap sound?”
15. What I Am – Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, (1988)
The New Bohemians hail from Dallas, Texas, where they started life as a Ska band with Brad Houser on bass, Eric Presswood on guitar, and Brandon Aly on drums. They all met at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts – Edie Brickell also attended there, but she didn’t connect with them until much later. Brickell has been married to Paul Simon since 1992.
This song got a huge bump when the band performed it on Saturday Night Live, perhaps maintaining its #7 spot in the charts. The actor Matthew Modine and the abrasive, chain-smoking talk show host Morton Downey Jr. also appeared on the show, making it the highest-rated episode of 1988. The show is also notable as the first time Brickell met Paul Simon.
Carter Albrecht, who played keyboard and guitar for The New Bohemians, along with other groups, met a tragic end in 2007 when he apparently got intoxicated and took a dosage of the drug Chantix (an aid to stop smoking). The combination allegedly sent him into a drunken rage, during which time he showed up at a neighbor’s house and, this being Texas, was shot with one to the head through the neighbor’s door. Some investigation was conducted into whether there was undue interaction between the drug and alcohol.
16. All Right Now – Free, (1970)
This is the first hit song with vocals by Paul Rodgers, hitting #4 in the charts. He later joined Bad Company and also played with The Firm and Queen.
This song really took off after Free’s performance at the Isle of Wight Festival on August 31, 1970 at the East Aftom Farm, Aftom Down, where over 600,000 people attended. Los Angeles disc jockey Joe Benson told Paul Rodgers during an on air interview that “All Right Now” is playing over the airwaves somewhere around the world once every 45 seconds.
Free weren’t able to follow up this song with another hit, as the next single, “Stealer,” stalled at #49 in America and didn’t chart at all in the UK. In a Songfacts interview with Simon Kirke, he said: “It became a bit of an albatross around our necks, I have to say. Even though it elevated Free into the big leagues, it became a bit of an albatross because we couldn’t follow it. It became a huge hit all around the world, only because we wanted to have something that people could dance to, but then, of course, we had to follow it up, and Island Records were desperate for us to follow it up.
17. Do You Love Me – The Contours, 1962
This was written by Motown president Berry Gordy, who wrote it for The Temptations, but they failed to arrive for the recording session. At the same time, but in a different Motown studio, The Contours arrived to record “It Must Be Love,” but Gordy had other ideas – he asked them to cut “Do You Love Me,” (soon to be #3 in the charts) instead. The song became one of Motown’s first hits, its sexy sound standing out among the much more tame offerings on the charts, which were dominated by artists like Neil Sedaka and The Four Seasons.
As for The Temptations, it was another two years before they finally released their hit (“The Way You Do The Things You Do“), but when they did, they became the premier male act on the Motown roster.
This song peaked in popularity just as Motown launched their first “Motortown Revue” tour to showcase their acts. The Contours were stars of the show, igniting crowds with “Do You Love Me.” Lower on the bill were some other Motown acts that had yet to hit, including Marvin Gaye, Little Stevie Wonder, and The Supremes
18. I Melt With You – After The Snow, (1982)
While the song was never a big chart success, it has stood the test of time and is considered a new wave classic. The song gained some traction when MTV gave the video plenty of airplay. It was also featured in the 1983 movie Valley Girl.
This was the only hit for Modern English, but it wasn’t typical of their sound. They were a punk band, and most of their songs were a lot more raw than this one. “We’d normally been more of a punk rock band, more edgy, so this was one of our first forays into verse, chorus, verse, chorus,” Robbie Grey said. “We didn’t really understand that songwriting thing.”
There is some famous humming in this song, which takes place after the bridge around the 3-minute mark. This was producer Hugh Jones’ idea.
The song charted at #78 US in 1983 after it was first released. When Modern English re-released it in 1989, it did a little better, placing at #76.
19. In A Big Country – Big Country, (1983)
When they disbanded in 2000, Adamson became a country singer/songwriter, but suffered from severe depression after his second marriage collapsed. His wife declared him missing in November 2001 and the following month he was found hanged in a hotel room in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Steve Lillywhite produced this track, tipping at #17 in the charts. This came at a time when he was emerging as one of the top producers in the business, known for his work with Peter Gabriel and U2.
ALARM frontman Mike Peters has become the new lead singer of re-formed legendary ’80s rockers Big Country. Peters will step into the breach left by the Scottish band’s former lead singer Stuart Adamson, who hung himself in a Honolulu hotel room in December 2001.
The singer, who recently returned from a charity climb up Japan’s Mount Fuji, jumped at the chance to front Big Country when the call came from the group’s guitarist Bruce Watson.
He added: “When Bruce called and asked me to sing for Big Country, it was something I didn’t need to think twice about. I’m looking forward to meeting all the fans again and playing a part in keeping the spirit of Stuart Adamson alive and celebrating the music of a band I have loved from near and afar for the whole of my adult life.” As well as Watson, the new line-up also includes bass guitarist Tony Butler and drummer Mark Brzezicki, who joined the band shortly after it formed in 1981.Also, Watson’s son Jamie is now a guitarist with the group.
In America, this was the only Big Country hit of significance; it didn’t garner much radio play, but the video was huge on MTV, which was two years old and becoming a cultural force. The network ignored the group’s next US single, “Fields of Fire,” which tanked their efforts in America.
20. Play That Funky Music – Wild Cherry, (1976)
Wild Cherry frontman, Rob Parissi wanted to write a hit song and his plan was to learn from the best. He subscribed to Billboard magazine, which charts the hit songs. When it arrived each week, he would pick out a song or two to copy, making it just different enough to avoid getting sued. After some time doing this, he wrote the one that became his #1 hit. The song he copied: “Fire” by The Ohio Players (listen especially to the bassline and vocal stylings).
Vanilla Ice released a cover of this song as the follow-up to his massive hit “Ice Ice Baby.” His version hit #4 in the US, but was his last hit. Ice did not credit Robert Parissi for writing this, so when Parissi sued Ice, he received a large settlement.
This song was a topic of conversation on the 2015 episode of The Big Bang Theory, “The Skywalker Incursion.” When the song comes on the car radio, the scientist character Sheldon determines that the song is funky, and that it is requesting a white boy to play funky music. Seeing it as an example of Russell’s Paradox, he asks, “Do you think this song is the music the white boy ultimately plays?”
21. I’d Love To Change The World – Ten Years After, (1971)
This song was written by guitarist Alvin Lee, who was the centerpiece of the group. “I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do and I’ll leave it up to you. I’m just saying the world does need changing,” he said of the song in Vintage Rock. “I’d love to do it, but I haven’t got the talent. I don’t think I’m a world changer.”The song is a good look at what were considered the big problems in the world in 1971: overpopulation, economic inequality, pollution, war. Alvin Lee often said in later interviews that the song remained just as relevant despite the passage of time. Technically this song is only a top 40 hit, although albums charted.
Formed in Nottingham, England, Ten Years After made a huge impact when they played the Woodstock festival in 1969 – their performance of “I’m Going Home” made the film. They released two albums in 1969, two more in 1970, and one in 1971 – A Space In Time, which contains “I’d Love To Change The World.” Their albums sold well, typically charting in the Top 25 in America, which was their stronghold. Hit singles were not a concern; Alvin Lee had almost a disdain for them because he didn’t want his songs edited down and then talked over by a DJ. “I’d Love To Change The World” was by far their biggest hit and most enduring song. Their other charting songs in America were “Love Like A Man” (#98, 1970), “Baby Won’t You Let Me Rock ‘N Roll You” (#61, 1972) and “Choo Choo Mama” (#89, 1973). The group stopped performing in 1975 but regrouped every now and then. Alvin Lee died in 2013, but the band had been playing without him for about 10 years by that point.
The band didn’t play this song live while Albert Lee was a member, as he felt trying to recreate it on stage would be “too restricting.”