Nobody knows anything: that was the late screenwriter William Goldman’s famous maxim for determining the likely commercial viability of a movie.
But it could also apply to the pop landscape of the 1980s. While the essential ingredients for a chart smash – great melodies, interesting sounds, emotional material – were intact, there were also novelty hits by the dozen. Soap-opera actors, kids and comedians were all over the shop.
But then there were the really striking, original one-time deals. Indeed the question hanging over most of the following is: why only the one hit?
Yet maybe there is something singular about these songs. Even this writer, a big It Bites fan, can – almost grudgingly – hear only too well why ‘Calling All The Heroes’ was a hit when all of their other perfectly-worthy singles stalled just outside the top 40.
But if one hit single doesn’t make for a lasting career, with a bit of luck it can still be a cash cow. So here’s a trawl through some of the best one-hit wonders (all made the UK top 40) of the 1980s…
26. Anita Baker: ‘Sweet Love’ (1986)
25. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts: ‘I Love Rock And Roll’ (1982)
24. The Pinkees: ‘Danger Games’ (1982)
23. Robbie Robertson: ‘Somewhere Down The Crazy River’ (1987)
22. Ollie & Jerry: ‘Breakin’ (There’s No Stopping Us)’ (1984)
21. Champaign: ‘How ‘Bout Us’ (1981)
20. Orange Juice: ‘Rip It Up’ (1983)
It’s mystifying why Edwyn Collins and the gang only managed one hit, but they did. And what a beauty. Reached #8 in February 1983.
19. Joe Dolce Music Theatre: ‘Shaddap You Face’ (1981)
It’s just the audacity of it, I guess – an American/Australian comes over ‘ere and makes a random, totally un-PC, comedy record. Kept Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’ off #1 in February 1981.
18. The Passions: ‘I’m In Love With A German Film Star’ (1981)
Clive Temperley’s gorgeous Echoplex-laden guitar, a great blanked-out vocal from Barbara Gogan and the early-’80s penchant for all things European ushered this into the top 30.
17. Re-Flex: ‘The Politics Of Dancing’ (1984)
Included mainly for a great vocal by lead singer John Baxter.
16. Yarbrough & Peoples: ‘Don’t Stop The Music’ (1981)
15. Fern Kinney: ‘Together We Are Beautiful’ (1980)
14. Breathe: ‘Hands To Heaven’ (1988)
A love or hate song depending on your proclivity for soppy tearjerkers, but a pretty damn committed piece of work either way.
13. Fiction Factory: ‘(Feels Like) Heaven’ (1984)
Produced by Police-helmer Nigel Gray, this Perth (in Scotland) band produced a memorable piece of sophisti-pop with a great vocal by Kevin Patterson.
12. Ashford & Simpson: ‘Solid’ (1984)
They had of course written dozens of hits for others, and Valerie Simpson had sung back-up with everyone from Steely Dan to Quincy Jones, but this was the couple’s only UK hit.
11. Furniture: ‘Brilliant Mind’ (1986)
Fronted by future MOJO music writer Jim Irvin, this was a smart, intriguing single. Will also be familiar to fans of ‘Trigger Happy TV’. And Pulp may have checked it out too…
10. It Bites: ‘Calling All The Heroes’ (1986)
9. Kim Carnes: ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ (1981)
Apparently originally written as a loping country and western tune, it was given an icy synth-rock makeover and great John Bettis lyric, and eventually reached #10 (#1 in the USA) and earned Carnes a Grammy.
8. Martha And The Muffins: ‘Echo Beach’ (1980)
7. Rosie Vela: ‘Magic Smile’ (1986)
6. The Icicle Works: ‘Love Is A Wonderful Colour’ (1984)
How did this end up being the only top 40 hit for Ian McNabb’s talented Merseysiders? When the likes of contemporaries Pete Wylie and Pete Burns were raking in the hits?
5. Will Powers: ‘Kissing With Confidence’ (1983)
Co-written by Steve Winwood, Todd Rundgren, Nile Rodgers and Jacob Brackman and featuring an uncredited Carly Simon on vocals and some brilliant stacked backups by…who? Of course Will Powers was a pseudonym for star-snapper Lynn Goldsmith.
4. Hipsway: ‘The Honeythief’ (1986)
The Glaswegians’ funky pop gem showed the way forward for Curiosity and Love & Money, but sadly they failed to follow it up.
3. Nena: ’99 Red Balloons’ (1984)
A rather excellent lyric and musically rich #1 single. The closing 30 seconds can still send a shiver down the spine.
2. Boy Meets Girl: ‘Waiting For A Star To Fall’ (1989)
Yes yes yes, it’s shiny and toothless, but anyone who loves ’80s pop surely has to like this.
1. The Lotus Eaters: ‘The First Picture Of You’ (1983)
Another Merseyside pop gem, this slow-building classic can immediately send one into the reverie of a sun-kissed, first-love British summer.