- Mar 2 2021The late '70s & early '80s was a great time for one-hit wonders. Here's a bunch of our favourites including The Vapors, Martha & The Muffins, Donnie Iris and more!
Memorable One Hit Wonders From The Late 70s And Early 80s
Memorable One Hit Wonders From The Late 70s And Early 80s
The late ‘70s & early ‘80s was a great time for one-hit wonders. Music was in a state of flux; punk/new wave and disco had shaken things up late in the ‘70s and the biz was still trying to figure what was happening. A good tune could still cut through though, so whilst all sorts of unlikely candidates were picked from obscurity and given their shot, some got their 15 minutes of fame, and we got some great tunes. Here’s a bunch of our favourites.
Donnie Iris “Ah! Leah!”
Who was he? Where did he come from? Where did he get that yellow suit? Eugene Levey/Dick Smith lookalike Donnie Iris wasn’t in the Australian pop spotlight long enough to answer any of these questions, but if he had been we would have found out that he’d actually been a later member of Wild Cherry who’d had the hit “Play That Funky Music White Boy” (no doubt written in anticipation of the instructions Donnie would need when he joined) and before that, in 1970, he’d written and performed the hit “The Rapper” - and no it wasn’t a rap song - as a member of The Jaggerz. We laughed when we read that there is actually a Donnie Iris documentary out there called “King Cool”, but his sole Australian hit “Ah! Leah!” was a pretty cool one at that… Sorry for the teasing – we love you Donnie.
The Waitresses “I Know What Boys Like”
Devo and the B-52’s proved that American art-pop and kitsch could appeal to the masses, so when the Waitresses appeared out of Akron Ohio – Devo’s hometown – with an insanely catchy and smart-funny tune that could appeal in very different ways to both boys and girls, a hit single was assured. The tune was written by the band’s guitarist who’d previously been a member of significant Ohio avant-garde groups the Numbers Band and Tin Huey (whose sax player, the sadly recently deceased Ralph Carney, went on to fame playing with Tom Waits, and was the uncle of Patrick Carney from Akron’s recent favourite sons the Black Keys). The Waitresses drummer at the time they hit was Billy Ficca, formerly of Seminal New York band Television.
Martha & The Muffins “Echo Beach”
More post-punk art pop, this time from Canada. I remember “Echo Beach” getting flogged on Melbourne’s 3RRR before 3XY picked up on it – it’s angular rhythms were very much in keeping with the local post-punk Australian scene that produced other female-fronted groups like Pel Mel and Do-Re-Mi. “Echo Beach” reached #6 in Australia in 1980, but, despite a succession of further hits at home, they weren’t heard down here again.
Phil Seymour “Precious To Me”
A fabulously breezy example of the sub-genre of 60s inspired guitar pop that aficionados call ‘power pop’, “Previous To Me” seemingly got picked up by commercial radio here out of nowhere. Certainly, it wasn’t to do with any local success Phil may have had as the oft-singing drummer in the Dwight Twilley band, whose 1976 US hit “I’m On Fire” did nothing here, and surely it had nothing to do with the fact that amongst the handful of power pop fans around the country, Phil was already a hero. Maybe it had a little bit to do with Phil’s high voice having prominently featured on two early Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers classics “Breakdown” and “American Girl”; Petty was hot property at the time and Phil’s music was of a similar sort. As great as it was to hear this track blasting out of radios in 1981, it was a real shame nothing else from Phil’s fabulous first solo album was picked for play. Even sadder was Phil’s passing a dozen years later at the age of 41.
Tommy Tutone “867-5309 / Jenny”
A more meat & potatoes approach to the power pop idiom, this one followed in the obscure but notable ‘60s idiom of telephone number songs ("634 5789" by Wilson Picket, “6654321” by the Troggs). This Californian band assumedly took their name from the UK ‘60s-influenced ska label (home to the Specials, British Beat etc) and their skinny tie look from the Knack. They were one of numerous power pop type bands signed up in the Knack’s wake and, along with the Romantics, one of only a handful that cut through. It didn’t last long for them, but the song has staying power for sure.
The Vapors “Turning Japanese”
Moving across to the UK… Rat-tails and generic punky pop sounds could not stand in the way of a catchy non-sensical chorus, which, once it was revealed or at least rumoured to be kind of naughty and smutty, became irresistible and unforgettable. It certainly didn’t hurt that the band was discovered by the Jam’s Bruce Foxton (who assumedly was flattered the band’s singer was copying his haircut) who co-managed them with the Jam’s manager (Paul Weller’s dad); the Jam were one of the biggest bands in England at the time and starting to commercially impact internationally. The single, of course, made #1 here but the album didn’t even chart – a classic sign of One Hit Wonderdom if ever there was one…
Tom Robinson Band “2-4-6-8 Motorway”
Funny what was considered “punk” by some back in the day. I guess it was all timing and associations. And politics. But “2-4-6-8” is a great straight-ahead rocker that made the most of Tom’s very limited voice, and I’m surprised it doesn’t show up more on classic rock radio. Perhaps Tom shot himself in the foot with the subsequent “Glad to be Gay” – a very brave track that would have gone down like a cup of sick in the very blokey and bigoted halls of the Australian Music industry at the time. Tom was a genuine activist though, and a respected enough a songwriter to have been signed by Ray Davies pre-punk and working with Elton John by the end of the decade. Since the mid-80s he’s been a much-respected presenter on BBC radio, and he released a new album in 2015 with Billy Bragg guesting.
Sniff ‘n’ the Tears “Driver’s Seat”
In a different world, these guys could have been megastars and “The Sultans of Swing” could’ve been a one-off hit. They had some of the same influences and the same laid-back but nuanced feel as Dire Straits, and came from the same London pub rock scene at around the same time. Singer Paul Roberts certainly had a more visual appealing than comb-over than Mark Knopfler had too. What Sniff’n’the Tears didn’t have, I’m guessing, is Knopfler’s chops; Dire Strait’s popularity was driven as much by FM radio and from the guitar heads who flipped over the playing as much as it did from the singles-buying kids. That said, “Driver’s Seat”, which made the Top 10 here in late ’79, remains a cracking track with a great guitar line and vocal hooks galore.
The Motors “Airport”
Also from a London pub rock background, the Motors looked even less likely than Dire Straits – singer Andy McMaster was pushing 40 and looked like he just walked out of some weird monastery and main-man Nick Garvey (who would later produce the Sunnyboys’ third album) looked like a school rugby coach. Both guys had a shared background in an influential pub band called Ducks Deluxe, whose rough and tumble guitar driven sound was at odds with the ELO-like sound of the Motors. “Airport” was a moderate Australian hit in late ’78. Motors guitarist Bram Tchaikovsky (perhaps not his real name) went onto solo success and record one of the all time great power pop singles “Girl of My Dreams”.
City Boy “18.104.22.168”
Mining the same musical fields as the Motors, maybe with a bit of Supercharge thrown in, and doing the phone number thing a few years before Tommy Tutone, City Boy were Robert John “Mutt” Lange’s first UK Production charges after he moved from South Africa. “22.214.171.124” fell just short of cracking the Top 10 here, and then they were done as we’re as we were concerned. It’s worth noting though that singer Steve Broughton became a successful songwriter and producer, under the names Steven Broughton Lunt and Steve Lunt. He co-wrote Cyndi Lauper's hits "She Bop" and "The Goonies 'R' Good Enough", and later became the Vice-President of A & R at Jive Records, where he worked with such artists as 'N Sync, Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys.
If you love these track, you'll love our Hits of the 70s playlist on Spotify...
- David Laing
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