22 Great One-Hit Wonders Of The 1980s

Nobody knows anything: 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 probably 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 hey – if one hit single doesn’t make for a lasting career, with a bit of luck it can still be a cash cow. So join us now for a trawl through some of the best one-hit wonders of the 1980s, starting with a bona fide pop classic…

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 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 the top 10 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.

The Curse Of 1986?

The critical consensus: 1986 was the worst music year of the decade, perhaps of any decade. But is that true?

There was certainly a vacuum between the end of New Pop/New Romanticism and the Rock Revival of ’87, exploited by one-hit-wonder merchants, TV soap actors, Europop poseurs, musical-theatre prima donnas, jazz puritans and Stock Aitken & Waterman puppets.

Also most pop records just didn’t sound good. The drums were too loud, the synths were garish, ‘slickness’ was the order of the day. Perhaps nothing emphasised these factors as much as The Police’s disastrous comeback version of ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’.

But listen a little harder and 1986 seems like a watershed year for soul, house, go-go, art-metal, John Peel-endorsed indie and hip-hop. Synth-pop duos were back on the map, the NME C86 compilation was a lo-fi classic and there were a handful of groundbreaking jazz/rock albums too. So here’s a case for the opposition: a selection of classic singles and albums from 1986. Not a bad old year after all.

Stump: Quirk Out

David Bowie: ‘Absolute Beginners’

Mantronix: Music Madness

PiL: Album

Rosie Vela: ‘Magic Smile’

George Michael: ‘A Different Corner’

Eurythmics: ‘Thorn In My Side’

Al Jarreau: L Is For Lover

XTC: Skylarking

Duran Duran: ‘Skin Trade’

George Benson: ‘Shiver’

Erasure: ‘Sometimes’

Cameo: ‘Candy’

Chris Rea: On The Beach

Europe: ‘The Final Countdown’

David Sylvian: Gone To Earth

OMD: ‘Forever Live And Die’

The Real Roxanne: ‘Bang Zoom’

The The: Infected

Half Man Half Biscuit: ‘Dickie Davies Eyes’

Anita Baker: Rapture

Michael McDonald: ‘Sweet Freedom’

Prince: Parade

Talk Talk: The Colour Of Spring

Luther Vandross: Give Me The Reason

Pet Shop Boys: ‘Suburbia’

Chaka Khan: ‘Love Of A Lifetime’

Gabriel Yared: Betty Blue Original Soundtrack

The Pretenders: ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’

Janet Jackson: Control

Run DMC: Raising Hell

Beastie Boys: Licensed To Ill

Miles Davis: Tutu

Iggy Pop: Blah Blah Blah

Courtney Pine: Journey To The Urge Within

ZZ Top: ‘Sleeping Bag’

George Clinton: ‘Do Fries Go With That Shake’

Talking Heads: ‘Wild Wild Life’

Kurtis Blow/Trouble Funk: ‘I’m Chillin”

The Source ft. Candi Staton: ‘You Got The Love’

James Brown: ‘Living In America’

Gwen Guthrie: ‘Ain’t Nothing Going On But The Rent’

The Housemartins: ‘Happy Hour’

Peter Gabriel: So

Mike Stern: Upside Downside

Steps Ahead: Magnetic

It Bites: The Big Lad In The Windmill

The Crap Movie Club: Heaven’s Gate (1980)

It’s difficult to view a film like ‘Heaven’s Gate’ these days shorn of all the hoo-ha that accompanied its troubled production and disastrous cinematic release (outlined in the definitive book and documentary ‘Final Cut‘). But let’s give it a try.

It was of course the notorious movie that destroyed United Artists and pretty much ended the New Hollywood ideal of director-as-auteur; the $44 million turkey which grossed just $1.2 million at the box office. Writer/director Michael Cimino went looking for ‘the poetry of America’ in his film about the Johnson County War of 1896, when the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association decided that new settlers – mainly poor, immigrant homesteaders – were stealing cattle, decreeing that 125 of these so-called thieves be hunted down and either hung or shot.

Though Cimino’s film ends with a battlefield bloodbath (including many horses in apparent physical peril which led him into a further unwanted lawsuit), history records that ‘only’ two people lost their lives in the Johnson County War. But, defending his screenplay and movie to the end, Cimino clung steadfastly to one of his directing/writing credos: ‘I use history freely’.

But, historical license aside, how much of a turkey is ‘Heaven’s Gate’ really? Can any movie starring Kris Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken, Brad Dourif, Mickey Rourke, Sam Waterston, John Hurt and Isabelle Huppert really be such a dog? Yes. ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is that special kind of crap movie, the indulgent folly that spews elongated scenes out all over the place in the hope that something will stick.

Vilmos Zgismond’s camerawork is of course gorgeous; grainy and sepia-tinged, frequently reminiscent of the era’s stills photography. The movie frequently delivers the awesome image, including one famous panning shot across immense smokestack chimneys and hoards of wandering, displaced immigrants. The Oxford-filmed opening graduation ceremony is also plush, striking and gloriously evocative.

Jeff Bridges. Isabelle Huppert and Kris Kristofferson

But then there’s the inaudible dialogue and strange, schizoid reaction shots. As the film progresses, Kristofferson becomes more and more inactive and dramatically impotent, while Bridges, Dourif, Hurt and Rourke are chronically underused. Huppert is virtually incomprehensible in a fairly thankless role (turned down by every major female star of the era including Jane Fonda and Diane Keaton).

Cimino’s war metaphor in ‘The Deer Hunter’ was Russian roulette, but this time it’s endless cock-fighting, waltzing and rollerskating. He clearly feels that the film says something important about America’s treatment of its poor and disenfranchised (and it’s certainly interesting viewing that aspect through modern eyes), but unfortunately the scenes of political wrangling/bargaining are interminable.

Pauline Kael memorably said that it was easy to think about what to leave out of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ but hard to think what to leave in. That’s the impression left with this writer too. Quite frankly, apart from the stunning photography, one of the few pleasures watching the film again was spotting the gorgeous Rosie (‘Roseanne’ in the credits) Vela’s small but important cameo (see below). ‘Magic Smile’ indeed.