Was 1980 the last year of the ’70s or the first year of the ’80s? We continue our exploration of the greatest one-hit wonders in the history of the Billboard Hot 100. First we looked at the pre-Beatles pop and doo-wop of 1960, then the psych-rock and heavy blues-rock one-hitters from 1970.
Fast forward to 1980 and we hear a marked increase in the use of synths and keyboards. The excesses of hard rock begin to give way to new wave music, post-punk, and the beginnings of hip-hop. Funky post-disco and mellow West Coast adult-oriented rock – known decades later as “yacht rock” – also flood the airwaves.
To meet 360°Sound’s qualification for one-hit-wonder-dom, an artist must have notched just one Top 40 hit in the Billboard Hot 100. We have selected eight notable one-hit wonders from 1980, and provided a bit of backstory for these classic tunes, as well as songwriter and chart information.
So, let’s see what sort of brave new decade we were entering…
Utopia – “Set Me Free”
Songwriters: Todd Rundgren, Kasim Sulton, Roger Powell and John “Willie” Wilcox
Hot 100: #27 on April 19
Utopia was a four-piece prog-rock band founded by the uber-talented singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer Todd Rundgren in the mid ‘70s. Utopia released 10 studio albums between 1974 and 1985. “Set Me Free” was written and sung by bass player Kasim Sulton and featured on their fourth album Adventures in Utopia. The bouncy, catchy tune is more pop than prog, sounding a lot like the many AOR acts of the early ‘80s. “Hammer in My Heart” (1982) and “Crybaby” (1983) made appearances on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, and Rundgren has hit the Top 40 five times as a solo artist, the biggest hit being 1973’s “Hello It’s Me.”
Gary Numan – “Cars”
Songwriter: Gary Numan
Genre: Synth-pop/new wave
Hot 100: #9 on June 7
New wave legend Gary Numan has notched dozens of hits in his native UK over the last 40 years, but he could only do it once in the US and Canada. “Cars” was a global smash. It topped the charts in the UK and Canada, went to #5 in Ireland, #9 in Australia, and #9 in the US, spending 17 weeks in the Top 40.
Starting with one of the great synth-pop intros, “Cars” has an odd structure as only about a minute and a half of is the song proper, and it ends with a super long fade out. While Numan owed a great deal to German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk for his sound, he deserves credit for helping to usher in the new-wave era and inspiring countless synth-pop acts.
Last year for the 40th anniversary of The Pleasure Principle album, Numan spoke with Billboard about how “Cars” came to him right away after he first got a bass guitar in his early twenties.
“I took it out of the case, I put it on my lap, and I played [the first four notes of “Cars”]. And I thought, “Oh, that sounds all right.” The very first thing! The very first four notes that I played when I picked the thing up, having not been a bass player, was fucking “Cars!” There is no way you can put that down to any kind of talent. That is just as lucky as you can get! It took me 10 minutes to write that entire song, all the parts for it. I mean, there’s only three. [Laughs]”
Numan went on to say in the interview that “Cars” remains the most poppy song he’s ever written.
“I do not think I have a talent for pop music. It’s too light for me, for my taste in music. It’s too…happy. [Laughs] I’m just not very good at it! I’m much better if I slow it down a bit, make it a bit menacing, add a hint of mystery or oppression, I’m in my element at that point!”
Rodney Crowell – “Ashes By Now”
Songwriter: Rodney Crowell
Hot 100: #37 on July 5
Rodney Crowell has placed plenty of songs on the country charts throughout his 40-plus year career. His outstanding 1988 album Diamonds & Dirt produced five No. 1 country hits! But “Ashes By Now” was his only crossover hit. The song, which features a young Ricky Skaggs on fiddle, was initially released as a B-side to his recording of “Elvira” (soon to be a big hit for the Oak Ridge Boys). In 2000, “Ashes By Now” was recorded by Lee Ann Womack, going to #4 on the country charts and just missed the pop Top 40.
Change – “A Lover’s Holiday”
Songwriters: Davide Romani and Tanyayette Willoughby
Hot 100: #40 on July 19
This groovy single featuring rising star Luther Vandross was taken from Change’s excellent debut album The Glow Of Love. While it just barely made the pop charts at #40, it was a dance smash, topping the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart for eight weeks.
The S.O.S. Band – “Take Your Time (Do It Right)”
Songwriters: Harold Clayton and Sigidi Abdallah
Hot 100: #3 on August 16
Interestingly, when songwriters Harold Clayton and Sigidi Abdallah first brought “Take Your Time (Do It Right)” to the Atlanta-based funk group, the group hated it. They thought it sounded too much like Anita Ward’s disco hit “Ring My Bell.” After all, this was 1980, and in the eyes of many, disco died at Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in Chicago the previous summer. But Sigidi insisted and, fortunately, he was able to convince them to record the funk/post-disco classic, which went on to sell two million copies.
S.O.S. Band were mainstays on the R&B charts, charting fourteen Top 40 R&B hits. But this, their debut single, would be their lone Top 40 pop hit. They came close again in 1986 when “The Finest” (#2 R&B) went to #44. For most of their run, S.O.S. Band’s 808 drum machine-infused singles were produced by hitmakers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
Benny Mardones – “Into The Night”
Songwriters: Benny Mardones and Robert Tepper
Genre: Soft rock
Hot 100: #11 on September 6
“Into The Night” is one of only 10 songs in pop music history (and the only one of the 80s) to get into the Top 20 twice. Mardones, who began his career as a songwriter, co-wrote “Into The Night” with Robert Tepper, best known for the Rocky IV anthem “No Easy Way Out.” The soaring love song was included on Mardones’ second album Never Run, Never Hide.
In 1989, a DJ in Phoenix started playing “Into The Night” as if it were a new ballad; other stations picked it up and it went to #20 in June 1989. Mardones died at age 73 earlier this year following a 20-year battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Devo – “Whip It”
Songwriters: Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh
Genre: New wave
Hot 100: #14 on November 15
Contrary to popular belief, the new wave classic “Whip It” is not a song about masturbation or S&M (as the music video would suggest), as reported by Evie Nagy, author of the 33 1/3 book on the Freedom of Choice album. On the contrary, according to bassist Jerry Casale, “Whip It” is a tongue-in-cheek pep talk satirizing hollow American optimism.
Said Mark Mothersbaugh: “We wrote it as a ‘you can do it, Dale Carnegie’ pep talk for President Carter. We were afraid that Republicans were going to get in there, and they sounded very nasty at the time.” [Editor’s Note: Right on both counts, Mr. Mothersbaugh.]
The Vapors – “Turning Japanese”
Songwriter: David Fenton
Genre: New wave
Hot 100: #36 on Nov. 29
Here’s another song that’s not actually about masturbation. (The phrase “I’m turning Japanese” is widely believed to be a racist way of describing the “O” face.) However, according to singer/guitarist Dave Fenton, the song is actually about teen angst and alienation.
“It could have been Portuguese or Lebanese or anything that fit with that phrase. It’s nothing to do with the Japanese,” Fenton reportedly said in an interview. “It’s actually a love song about someone who had lost their girlfriend and was going crazy over it. The title is just all the cliché’s about angst and youth and about turning into something you didn’t expect to.”
Interestingly, because The Vapors had a feeling that they had a hit on their hands with “Turning Japanese,” they waited to release it until they had recorded a follow-up single. They were fearful they’d be one-hit wonders. Well, the follow-up didn’t even chart.
The Vapors shouldn’t be dismissed as quirky one-hit wonders, though. Their debut, New Clear Days, is solid revved-up pop-rock in the vein of The Jam, who they opened for on the Settings Sons tour in 1980. The Vapors released their third album and first in 39 years, Together, in April 2020.