In March 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the Strategic Defense Initiative, known as the “Star Wars” program, a proposed missile defense system. In June, astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. In October, the United States and a coalition of six Caribbean countries invaded Grenada. Times were tough in 1983 as the U.S. unemployment rate reached its highest since 1941.
Hidden Valley launched its shelf-stable bottled ranch dressing, and the Cabbage Patch Kids were all the rage. Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock premiered on TV, and the final episode of M*A*S*H drew 125 million viewers. The top-grossing flicks of ‘83 were Return of the Jedi, Tootsie, and Flashdance. The top three Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles were The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and Irene Cara’s “Flashdance…What a Feeling.”
The one-hit wonders of 1983 were exceptional. Many of the following seven songs command plenty of airplay 40 years later. Remember, to qualify as a 360°Sound one-hit wonder, an artist must have notched only one Top 40 entry in the Billboard Hot 100. Ladies, throw on your shoulder-pad suits, and fellas, don those Members Only jackets and get ready to crank these totally-tubular 1983 one-hitters.
Musical Youth – “Pass the Dutchie”
Songwriters: Jackie Mittoo, Fitzroy “Bunny” Simpson and Lloyd “Judge” Ferguson
Billboard Hot 100: #10 on February 26
Formed in Birmingham, England in 1979, reggae-pop group Musical Youth were comprised of two sets of teenage brothers, Freddie Jr. and Patrick Waite and Michael and Kelvin Grant.
“Pass the Dutchie,” their debut single, was a cover/medley of two reggae songs, U Brown’s “Gimme the Music” and the Mighty Diamonds’ “Pass the Kouchie,” a reference to a ganja pipe. Since it was a kid band, the drug references were removed.
“Pass the Dutchie” sold over 5 million copies and topped the charts in the UK, Canada, Belgium, Netherlands, Ireland, New Zealand and Switzerland. Their second album, 1983’s Different Style!, failed to make the Top 100 on the pop charts, but did crack the Top 50 of the R&B charts. Musical Youth provided backing vocals for disco queen Donna Summer’s 1983 single “Unconditional Love,” which peaked at #43. [Check out our review of the new Summer doc].
Constant infighting as well as financial and legal woes led to the group’s dissolution in 1985. However, three decades later, the group reunited and dropped their third album, 2020’s When Reggae Was King.
Saga – “On The Loose”
Songwriters: Ian Crichton, Jim Crichton, Jim Gilmour, Michael Sadler and Steve Negus
Genre: Progressive rock
Hot 100: #26 on February 26
Canadian prog rockers Saga recorded their fourth studio album, Worlds Apart, in a barn in England. Produced by Rupert Hine (The Fixx, Howard Jones, Tina Turner), Worlds Apart was the group’s biggest commercial success and spawned their sole top 40 hit, “On the Loose.”
Singer Michael Sadler wrote the lyrics to the rock anthem, and he reportedly changed the chorus and title nearly 50 times before landing on “On the Loose.” Interestingly, Hine asked Sadler to record his vocals 35 feet above the ground from one of the barn’s crossbeams, apparently to help capture the angst and anger of the track. Saga would go on to release over 20 albums.
Dexys Midnight Runners – “Come On Eileen”
Songwriters: Kevin Rowland, Jim Paterson and Billy Adams
Hot 100: #1 on April 23
Dexys Midnight Runners took their name from Dexedrine, a popular amphetamine, and “midnight runners” referred to people dancing all night on said drug. Fronted by the inimitable Kevin Rowland, Dexys possessed a distinctive fusion of revved-up classic R&B and Celtic folk-rock.
They had a hit with “The Celtic Soul Brothers” in their native UK, but when they followed it up with “Come On Eileen” they had a worldwide smash. “Eileen” topped the charts in the UK, United States, Australia, Belgium, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa and Switzerland. This uniquely hooky track features many tempo and key changes, and slyly salacious lyrics (“My thoughts, I confess. Verge on dirty”). The monster chorus has been prompting drunken singalongs for four decades now.
“I’d think of the key I wanted the song to be in, get the band to play that, and then get them to play it over and over again in every key I could think of,” Rowland told M Magazine in 2011. “[Trombonist Jim Patterson] left the band over this song actually, he couldn’t handle how obsessed I’d become. And I sacked our saxophone player the same day for expressing doubts over whether it’d work; the song had come to mean so much to me.”
Thomas Dolby – “She Blinded Me With Science”
Songwriters: Thomas Dolby and Jo Kerr
Hot 100: #5 on May 14
“Science!” exclaims British television personality Magnus Pyke on Thomas Dolby’s synth-pop classic “She Blinded Me With Science.” This tune is quintessential new wave; the synths and drum machines epitomize the sound of 1980s.
Dolby was thinking that listeners were finding his music too demanding and that he should let loose with a nonsense song that was “like everything else on the charts.” “It’s the most meaningless song I’ve ever written,” Dolby once told CREEM magazine. “It’s about a sort of fuddy-duddy old scientist who gets obsessed with his lab assistant. It’s just a sad reflection on the state of things that it was that successful.”
While I have a much higher opinion of “She Blinded Me With Science” than Dolby, I will say that it’s a shame that this was the super talented Dolby’s only Top 40 hit. The entire Golden Age of Wireless album is excellent. Highly recommend giving it a spin if “Science” is the only Dolby song you know. (Fun fact: Mutt Lange, the super producer, can be heard singing backup vocals.)
Kajagoogoo – “Too Shy”
Songwriters: Steve Askew, Nick Beggs, Stuart Neale, Jez Strode and Christopher Hamill
Genre: New wave
Hot 100: #5 on July 9
In 1983, Kajagoogoo frontman Limahl was working as a waiter in a cocktail bar in London when he met Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes. He gave him some demos, and Rhodes contacted him weeks later, signing the new wave synth-pop group to EMI.
Uber-catchy “Too Shy,” the first single from Kajagoogoo’s debut album, White Feathers, was produced by Rhodes and Duran Duran producer Colin Thurston. The groovy bassline laid down by Nick Beggs and earworm chorus made it a staple in dance clubs in the ‘80s.
As for the strange band name, Beggs told Record magazine: “It’s like something a child would say. When people say it, they can’t quite pronounce it, but once they know it, they can never forget it.”
Limahl has the distinction of being a one-hit wonder twice. After the Kajagoogoo smash, he sang on a #17 hit in 1985 with the Giorgio Moroder-produced “Never Ending Story” from the fantasy film of the same name.
Big Country – “In a Big Country”
Songwriters: Stuart Adamson, Mark Brzezicki, Tony Butler and Bruce Watson
Genre: Celtic rock
Hot 100: #17 on December 3
Scottish rock band Big Country were formed by singer Stuart Adamson and his longtime friend, guitarist Bruce Watson, in 1981. The debut single “Harvest Home” didn’t garner much attention. Then the group got with producer Steve Lillywhite, and everything clicked on their stellar debut album, The Crossing.
Big Country’s unique blend of Scottish folk and guitar rock made them stand out from the pack. As Kurt Loder wrote in his review of The Crossing in Rolling Stone: “Here’s a big-noise guitar band from Britain that blows the knobs off all the synth-pop diddlers and fake-funk frauds who are cluttering up the charts these days.” It didn’t hurt that they also had a U2 vibe going on.
Big Country’s signature bag-pipe wailing, as heard on their lone hit “In a Big Country,” was done with MXR Pitch Transposer 129 electric guitar effect. The tune’s cinematic music video is must-see MTV.
Peter Schilling – “Major Tom (Coming Home)”
Songwriter: Peter Schilling
Genre: Neue Deutsche Welle
Hot 100: #14 on December 24
Some dubbed German musician Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom (Coming Home)” a David Bowie rip-off. Schilling wasn’t having it. “It’s definitely not from Bowie, except the title, and the figure of Major Tom,” Schilling told Melody Maker. “I was inspired to write the song by a film in 1968 called Danger on the Moon with Gregory Peck.”
Originally recorded in German, the catchy, synth-heavy track topped the charts in West Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The English version topped the charts in Canada and peaked at #14 on the Billboard Hot 100.
William Shatner covered it on his 2011 album Seeking Major Tom. No offense to 360°Sound’s Trekkie editor-in-chief Chris Bisha, but it’s bad. Real bad. Avoid at all costs.
Editor’s Bonus Alert!
Taco – “Puttin’ on the Ritz”
Songwriter: Irving Berlin
Genre: synth pop
Hot 100: #4 on September 3
When I saw this list did not include Taco, I had to step in. A true one-hitter, Taco Ockerse only had one hit in the US. I truly loathed this song, as it was everywhere in the fall of ’83, but it made Irving Berlin, then 95, the oldest living songwriter to have one of his compositions enter the top 10. So, we’ll call it even.
MTV was having a major influence on the pop charts by this time. The videos for these one-hit wonders are a representative cross-section of the creative short-filmmaking and lip-synch performance clips that the labels were putting together to push singles. Truly the heyday of music videos – if you weren’t on MTV, you weren’t on the charts.