Sunday, December 15, 2013

Music Sunday: The One-Hit Wonders of the 1970s Edition

Last month, I shared some one-hit wonders from the 1960s. So, I thought it was only fair to give the 1970s equal time this month.

What seem to be novelty songs tend to make up more than a few songs on the list of one-hit wonders, which, if you didn't see the post last month, are songs by an artist or group that are the only one by that person or group in that configuration to crack the Top 40, in this case in the United States. This does not mean that the group in another configuration, or someone from the group, or a solo artist with others, did not have other hits. In fact, as I noted in that previous post, there are often some very familiar names on the list of one-hit wonders. Janis Joplin, for example, or Jimi Hendrix. Others score that one hit and are never heard from again.

For example, there is Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. Yeah, the band produced a list of albums and more than a few singles, but only "Hot Rod Lincoln" his the Top 40, rising to number 9 in 1972. Other than that, the band never had a single go higher than number 56 on the charts. The highest any of the band's albums ever reached on the US charts was number 82 on the main charts, although one of their albums managed to hit number 47 on the US country charts. Still, "Hot Rod Lincoln" is a staple on classic rock radio stations (or at least the ones I listen to). It's a silly song about a guy and his car. The thing that endears the song to me so much is it's line about "Grapevine Hill", which is a real stretch of road between Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley in California, one that I've driven too many times to count:

And speaking of novelty songs, Loudon Wainwright III had a hit with "Dead Skunk" in 1973. The song was actually released in late 1972, but didn't manage to catch on until spring 1973, when it reached number 16 on the US charts. Some say that the song was actually aimed at then-president Richard Nixon, whose administration many people thought "stunk to high heaven", but Wainwright has apparently never either confirmed or denied that rumor. On the literal level, it is a song about a skunk that gets hit by a station wagon, and it is an odd little song:

Despite his lack of chart success aside from this song, Wainwright remains active in the music industry. He's released 22 studio albums and three live albums. He's also an actor, having appeared in a number of films. For those of you who are fans of Rufus Wainwright, Loudon is his father.

John Sebastian had early success as a member of The Lovin' Spoonful, but has had only one Top 40 hit as a solo artist. In 1976, he had a number 1 hit with "Welcome Back", the theme song to the TV series "Welcome Back, Kotter":

Sometimes, artists with only one hit are quite well-respected among fans and other musicians despite their dearth of commercial success. Warren Zevon, for example, only had one Top 40 hit, but is widely known and was quite influential in the industry. That hit was "Werewolves of London", released in 1978, and it only went to number 21 on the US charts, although the album it was on, "Excitable Boy", managed to go to number 8 on US album charts. He only ever had one other single that charted, and it only went to number 57 in the US. "Werewolves of London" showcases Zevon's dark sense of humor, which I like to think he developed at least in part as a reaction to the period of time he spent living in Fresno, California:

And then there's "Spirit in the Sky", by Norman Greenbaum. The song was released in late 1969, but reached number 3 on the US charts in 1970. It is kind of an enigmatic song. At the time it was released (and still today, probably) it was taken as a statement of religious devotion, although Greenbaum is a Jew who describes himself as "never real religious". Greenbaum himself has been quoted as saying that his inspiration for writing the song was the Western films he watched as a child and that the Christian component to the song was just the vehicle he used to get at the spirituality he saw in the films, because he saw the films' characters' desire to "die with their boots on" as a spiritual thing. Whatever, I love the guitar in this song:

Maybe next month, I'll share some one-hit wonders from the 1980s.

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