A-Ha, Dexys, Madness, and The Correct Definition Of One-Hit Wonder


A-Ha, Dexys, Madness, and The Correct Definition Of One-Hit Wonder

When it comes to music, there are many things that frustrate me…

… Established bands releasing covers as singles

… Paperless ticketing

… Drum solos

… The Video Music Awards

At the top of this rundown of vexation is when artists are referred to as “one-hit wonders” when they’re really not one-hit wonders.

It’s sloppy, ignorant, and lazy scholarship. 

It’s like ill-using “irony” or not knowing the meaning of “literally.”

The misapplication of “one-hit wonder” irks me because the phrase has negative connotations.  Using it inappropriately can besmirch an otherwise good artist.


This recently happened in a post on a USA Today blog about Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III being demoted to second string.

Later in the article, the author speculates that Griffin will become “the NFL’s version of Dexys Midnight Runners.”

In other words, the author is calling Griffin a “one-hit wonder.”

Assess Griffin’s talents how you will, but Dexys Midnight Runners are not one-hit wonders! 

Sure, “Come On Eileen,” which went to number one in 1982, is the band’s only top 20 hit in the U.S., but Dexys had seven top 20 hits in the U.K.

Beyond that, they’ve made some good music.  Check out the album containing “Come On Eileen,” Too-Rye-Ay, it’s solid.

Dexys Midnight Runners’ Other Great Songs
"The Celtic Soul Brothers"
“Let’s Make This Precious”
“Plan B”
“There, There My Dear”

Yes, Dexys only had one chart-topper in the U.S. but they are much better than your typical “one-hit wonder.” 

The unflattering cognomen doesn’t apply to them and many other acts that have compiled a respectable musical corpus but haven’t experienced chart success.

So What Exactly Is A One-Hit Wonder?
If we go by how many Top 40 or Top 20 hits an artist has to their credit then we run into problems.  That system doesn’t really speak to an artist’s output.

If we only count acts that have cracked the Top 40, but not the Top 20, then Rush, Korn, Frank Zappa, Iggy Pop, The White Stripes, and Roxy Music are all one-hit wonders. 

But those acts are not one-hit wonders.  They are influential artists with a huge catalog of great songs.

If we only count acts that have cracked the Top 20 then Jimi Hendrix, The Clash, The Grateful Dead, Talking Heads, Kings of Leon, T. Rex, and Smashing Pumpkins are all one-hit wonders. 

But those acts are not one-hit wonders.  There are legends, icons, and superstars that have changed the face of music.

We usually think of one-hit wonders as artists who had fleeting careers—blink and you missed them.  Yet, there are several bands that have technically never even had a “hit” but are the cornerstones of popular music.

Artists that have never had a top 40 hit include Bob Marley, Phish, Leonard Cohen, Morrissey, The Ramones, Pixies, and Iron Maiden.

Here’s further proof that the charts are an inaccurate measurement of an artist’s output…

>>Bob Dylan has never had a number one single.
>>Lil Wayne (64) and the Glee Cast (51) have more Top 40 singles than The Beatles (50).
>>Mariah Carey is tied with Elvis Presley for the most weeks at number one (79).
>>Rihanna (13) has more number one singles than The Supremes (12), Madonna (12), and Whitney Houston (11).
>>Drake (91) has as many if not more Hot 100 entries than James Brown (91), Ray Charles (80), Aretha Franklin (73), and The Beatles (71).

One Song
Obviously, we can’t only use chart success in determining “one-hit wonders.”  It creates too many problems, exceptions, and paradoxes.

We also must be careful to assume that a one-hit wonder is an artist whose entire career is based on the popularity of one song.   

After all, where would Weezer be without “Buddy Holly,” Everclear without “Santa Monica,” Sinead O’Connor without “Nothing Compares 2 U,” or A-ha without “Take On Me?” 

Heck, where would KISS be without "Rock and Roll All Nite?"

Going back to A-ha, they are NOT a one-hit wonder.  In fact, they’ve reunited to release their tenth studio album and are preparing to collect concert tickets via a European tour.

A-ha had three top 20 hits in the U.S. and eight number one singles in their native Norway.

To define the term “one-hit wonder,” and to keep its negative connotations, we must say that it applies to artists who are artistically, commercially, and historically known for just one song.

If we use just the main singles chart, the Billboard Hot 100, then there are hundreds of one-hit wonders including the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Buffalo Springfield, Lou Reed, Randy Newman, Kate Bush, Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, and Liz Phair.

Using my definition, which is infinitely more accurate, than there are actually very few one-hit wonders. 

That makes sense since most acts can parlay the success of one hit into another.  And truth be told, most artists actually have enough talent to put together a decent music career.

Still, not everyone can be U2, Coldplay, or Taylor Swift.

>>Brewer and Shipley, whose only Top 40 hit is “One Toke Over the Line,” have released 11 studio albums and are still performing live.  Therefore, they are not a one-hit wonder.

>>A Flock of Seagulls released three straight top 40 singles in 1982—one of them being
“I Ran (So Far Away).”  They’ve also won a Grammy Award.  Therefore, they are not a one-hit wonder.

>>Madness is best known for “Our House,” which peaked at #7 in 1982, but they sent “It Must Be Love” to #33 in 1981.  Therefore, it’s madness to call Madness a one-hit wonder.

Also, Madness owned the charts in their native U.K.  From 1979 to 1986, they charted twenty Top 20 singles.  If you’ve heard Madness then you know they are far more substantial than any one-hit wonder.

Actual One-Hit Wonders
Steam – “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye" (1969)
Zager and Evans — “In the Year 2525” (1969)
Mountain – “Mississippi Queen” (1970)
Starland Vocal Band — “Afternoon Delight” (1976)
The Vapors — “Turning Japanese” (1980)
Tony Basil – “Mickey” (1982)
Michael Penn – “No Myth” (1990)
Lou Bega — "Mambo No. 5" (1999)
Baha Men — “Who Let the Dogs Out?” (2000)
Daniel Powter — “Bad Day” (2005)

My Recommendation
I recommend the author of the blog post drop the Dexys reference; it doesn’t make any sense (the band is not a one-hit wonder).

In its place, I’d suggest referencing The Georgia Satellites.  Their only hit was “Keep Your Hands to Yourself.”  It went to #2 in 1986.