Top 5 One-Hit Wonders That Defined the ‘80s

One-hit wonders have been a part of every era of music. But the ‘80s seemed to stand out in this particular department. Part of that was due to the impact of music videos on the charts. If you could make a memorable clip and get it cooking on MTV, you could forge a quick path to the public’s attention. In addition, the rise of the synthesizer made it easier for even novice musicians to make intriguing tracks.

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This was a tough list to narrow down to just five because of how many fantastic candidates there were. But here are the one-hit wonders from the ‘80s that we feel helped define the decade’s musical output as much as any others.

1. “Come on Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners

It helped that Dexys Midnight Runners had the requisite bizarre name that made one-hit wonders sound even more exotic. But what set them apart the most was their sound. Whereas most of the other newer bands from England were diving headlong into the New Romantic movement and relying heavily on synths, Dexys were more of an old-school outfit, one that, on “Come on Eileen,” relied on banjos and fiddles.

When you heard this song on the radio in 1982, it seemed like it was being beamed in from a planet that didn’t quite get hold of the latest technology we had on Earth. And yet the sharpness of the production, the catchiness of the tune, and the undeniable charisma of lead singer Kevin Rowland’s high-pitched yelps made the song stand out—in the best possible way. While Rowland himself has often expressed ambivalence over the way “Come on Eileen” dwarfed the rest of the group’s catalog (especially in the U.S.), ‘80s audiences couldn’t get enough of it, and it still sounds as anachronistically fresh as ever today.

2. “Take on Me” by A-ha

Crossover music success from Norway was quite uncommon when the pop trio A-ha attempted to break out with their single “Take on Me.” They initially released the song accompanied by a simple performance video, and it didn’t achieve what they had hoped. Luckily, they stuck with it, remixing the song and, most importantly, filming a new video for it.

The newer version featured a then-unique (and still pretty cool) technology that inserted A-ha lead singer Morten Harket into the pages of a comic book. That amped up the drama, which fit perfectly with the music in the song, especially when Harket goes soaring into his upper register. A-ha went on to enjoy a long career as one of the preeminent pop acts in their native country. While they never quite matched the same heights outside of Europe, “Take on Me” remains an indelible part of the tapestry of ‘80s music—if, for nothing else, as proof of the power of an iconic video.

3. “867-5309/Jenny” by Tommy Tutone

Tommy Tutone were a hard-working band from California whose music settled somewhere between arena rock and New Wave. They had already achieved some minor success when Alex Call, a friend of the band, came up with an interesting riff that sounded like it had some potential. Tommy Tutone member Jim Keller helped him flesh out the song, which ended up having a fanciful idea behind it: What if someone became obsessed with one of those random phone numbers found on a bathroom wall?

[RELATED: 10 One-Hit Wonders and the Stories Behind Their Brief Fame]

The tightness of the playing and full-throttle lead vocals of Tommy Heath sent “867-5309/Jenny” soaring up the charts in 1982, quite the coup for a relatively unknown band. Maybe it had something to do with that phone number, which caused such a stir that many people who had similar numbers were bombarded with phone calls. (Could you imagine if your name was Jennifer and you had that number?) In any case, Tommy Tutone, even though they never matched “Jenny”‘s success, made quite the impression on the dial with this one.

4. “Somebody’s Watching Me” by Rockwell

Not too many other one-hit wonders in the ‘80s had the same kind of star power helping them out as Rockwell. His given name is Kenneth Gordy, his father being Berry Gordy, legendary founder of Motown Records. And his hit single, “Somebody’s Watching Me,” featured Michael Jackson singing the chorus, when he was at the absolute peak of his popularity.

Needless to say, those connections probably gave Rockwell a leg up in terms of the exposure he could expect his song to get. But he deserves credit for putting together a memorable track, complete with his uniquely exaggerated vocals and a relentless groove. The video didn’t hurt, either. Even though it wasn’t as memorable, the horror-movie vibes borrowed from “Thriller” were a nice touch. “Somebody’s Watching Me” also was somewhat reminiscent of the paranoid pop that Men at Work rode up the charts a few years earlier with “Who Can It Be Now?” Rockwell couldn’t follow up on his first single’s success with subsequent efforts, but he certainly had the whole world watching him there for a while.

5. “She Blinded Me with Science” by Thomas Dolby

It made sense that Thomas Dolby would bring science into his biggest hit, as he had been an early adopter of synthesizers. In fact, his work with the instrument helped propel arena rockers Foreigner; he played a key part on their smash album 4 as a synth session man.

“She Blinded Me with Science” was written as an excuse to make a video, but he ended up creating a mechanical groove that worked on radio as well. He also had the bright idea to employ Magnus Pyke, a well-known scientist at the time in Dolby’s native England, to pop up every now and again to shout out the word Science!, which created an undeniable hook. The end result was a Top 5 U.S. smash for Dolby, who has since enjoyed a long, successful career in music while also dabbling in technology himself as the founder of a software company. His inimitable single is recalled with fondness by children of the ‘80s, who could forever run around annoying their parents by shouting Science! as an homage.

Photo by Brian Cooke/Redferns

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