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One-Hit Wonders. I wish there were more.

September 28, 2013

In the car last night Mrs simonsometimessays, Fiona and I were listening to a few minutes of 80s songs on the radio. In quick succession, two songs came on which in different ways captured parts of the essence of the time. Starting with Joy Division – Love will Tear us Apart (which only just creeps into the decade), and going on to ABC Poison Arrow. A few words about each.

There is a rich range of material to talk about from Joy Division. I’m going to link here to Wilderness, but it could have been Atmosphere, Shadowplay, Transmission, or just about any track they recorded. It’s all Grade A music. Perhaps not hugely broad in its range, but that must be due in part to the band’s short life; the evolution of the music after Ian Curtis’s suicide, when the group metamorphosed into New Order, suggests as much. Be that as it may. During their time as Joy Division the band released four or five singles (depending on how you count it), including one following Curtis’s death. All of them excellent.

By contrast, ABC have a bigger catalogue, getting on for 20 singles in the 80s. Perhaps half a dozen of them are familiar by name – Poison Arrow, The Look of Love, Tears are not Enough being perhaps the most obvious – and there are probably more which over the years have used up valuable space in the part of my brain responsible for music recognition. If you hadn’t guessed, let me reveal here that I am not a fan of ABC. Except for one song: When Smokey Sings is brilliant. A good tune, really strong lyrics (compare the nigh-unforgiveable lyrics in The Look of Love*) and the recurring bass line that actually makes me want to dance. That may explain why other members of the sss nuclear family don’t seem so keen on it. I like it so much, however, that despite the truly awful video I’m going to share it with you here:

Personally I would be satisfied if ABC were a one-hit wonder, with that song being the one hit. I’d be able to regard them as having made a positive impact on music, albeit brief, rather than as a generally dull band that had one good moment. Like UB40 – get rid of everything except One in Ten and you’d be left with a band whose output I would really admire. But I’m afraid I can find nothing whatever to enjoy by Simply Red. And even if I could, it could never compensate for their absolutely horrible cover of The Air that I Breathe. You may recall that that song is a favourite of Mrs sss and me, and when I played that cover to her a few minutes ago she was appalled. She too, found it difficult to understand the phenomenal success of Simply Red, regretting that we couldn’t have referred to them as “No hits, and no wonder”. But we are in the minority, I suspect.

In the world of classical music, the idea of a one-hit wonder doesn’t quite fit. A more likely position is that a composer is remembered for just one piece, but that may not reflect the popularity of their music at the time they were working. Since (I think) it is generally true that more pop and rock music is familiar than classical music, simply by being out in society at street level, so to speak. Everyone can name half a dozen songs by Elvis, Queen, David Bowie and so on; not everyone can name more than one piece by Ravel. (That would be Bolero, of course. So in the interests of all our continuing education, may I recommend this: Pavane pour une Infante Defunte, written first for piano, later orchestrated, in both cases dreamily beautiful.)

SImilarly, people would probably recognise the Toccata from Widor’s Organ Symphony no 5, without being able to name the composer. And most know at least one piece by Johann Strauss – usually without knowing whether it’s Johann Strauss I, II or III. It might be this: the Radetsky March**. But on reflection, if it were that, you would almost certainly know two pieces, the other being the Blue Danube***. I know that those two are different, but only because one of them is a waltz.

The various Strausses (who do not include the unrelated, and utterly different and wonderful Richard Strauss) contrived to give the world about 100 years of musical hits which I can’t easily distinguish. Again I am not a fan, and once again I expect that this is not the majority view. In one way, Philip Glass, whom I rate highly, could be open to the same criticism by those who don’t share my view of him. Perspective is all, I suppose; make up your own mind, and listen to this from Glassworks, which seems to complement Ravel’s Pavane quite well. It’s characteristically repetitive, with an almost liquid and hypnotic texture.

I wish there were more one-hit wonders, in the sense that I wish that some composers, bands and performers (like writers, TV personalities and politicians) had known when their talents ran out or at least needed a rest; in some cases that was very quickly. I wish that The Stranglers had never recorded the album Coup de Grace, and that The Jam had split an album or so earlier than they did. I wish that Wagner had decided that four hours of opera in one sitting was the limit of endurance. I wish that Peter Sarstedt’s one lasting hit were not the affected Where do You Go to My Lovely? but the slightly prettier and much shorter Without Darkness.

Sarstedt’s younger brother – recording as Robin Sarstedt – was a one-hit wonder in his own right, with a version of My Resistance is Low. But despite the many covers you can’t beat Jane Russell and Hoagy Carmichael giving the most slinky and sassy performance of this fantastic tune:

I have said before that there is so much music. And although there is infinite scope for more, in one respect there is already too much. We could lose too much time on the stuff which had been best left undone.

* If you judge a book by the cover / Then you judge the look by the lover / I hope you’ll soon recover / Me, I go from one extreme to another OUCH

** I, in this case.

*** II.



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