Sleeping Satellite, and a better name for one-hit wonders [October 19, 1992]
Plus: Alice In Chains, Bizarre Inc, Bon Jovi, and Arrested Development
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋 Welcome back to the week of October 19, 1992.
📰 In the news this week, massive protests in London as 150,000 miners march against proposed pit closures.
📽️New films in the cinema include Baz Lurmann’s delightful debut, Strictly Ballroom.
📺On TV, BBC audiences are introduced to a new character called Mr. Blobby on Noel’s House Party. The man in the pink suit is Barry Killerby, an actor with a background in Shakespeare.
🎶 And we have a new Number One! ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ slips to third place, giving way to…
This week’s Number One: ‘Sleeping Satellite’ — Tasmin Archer
A while back, a friend of mine (who is sadly no longer with us) wrote a beautiful little piece about seeing Janis Ian live, and wondering what it feels like to have creatively peaked you were a kid.
Janis Ian started her recording career at age 13 with the song ‘Society’s Child’. At the age of 22, she released what would become her best-known song: ‘At Seventeen’.
In the intervening years, Ian has released 24 studio albums, including one this year (it’s pretty good). But, for all of her success, she never again wrote anything remotely as commercially successful as ‘At Seventeen’.
Lots of people can name one Janis Ian song. Few can name two.
So, in a sense, you could argue that Ian is a one-hit wonder. But can you really say that about someone with 24 albums? And what does “one-hit wonder” even mean, anyway?
Towards a taxonomy of one-hit wonders
I recently had a Twitter conversation about whether Tasmin Archer is a one-hit wonder, seeing as she never really matched the success of ‘Sleeping Satellite’. Lots of people disagreed, but I am far from the first person to suggest this.
It got me thinking: we really need a better term than “one-hit wonder”, which is such an ugly, dismissive term. It’s fine for novelty acts like Mr Blobby or The St Winifred’s School Choir, but you can’t say that about serious musicians.
No, we need a different term for people like Tasmin Archer or Janis Ian. In fact, we might need a whole taxonomy to describe the various kinds of people who have too-brief chart careers.
So, let’s do it! Here are some proposed categories to replace the term “one-hit wonder”:
The One-ders: An act that reaches Number One and then never make the Top 40 again. Very few artists qualify this category, especially if you discount things like charity singles. Probably the greatest One-ders of all time are Althia & Donna, who blessed us with ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ and then vanished from the charts forever.
Chart tourists: Artists who are successful in their home country, but internationally regarded as one-hit wonders. Examples include Nena (dozens of hits in Germany besides ‘99 Red Ballons’) and Jon Secada (one of the biggest Latin American artists, but only really known here for ‘Just Another Day’). Lots of UK Top 40 heroes are considered one-hit wonders in the States: T Rex (‘Get It On’), Blur (‘Song 2’), and even S Club 7 (‘Never Had A Dream Come True’.)
Wombles: Underground legends who go overground with a single hit. Janis Ian qualifies here, but the apotheosis is Lou Reed, who is technically a one-hit wonder thanks to the chart success of ‘Walk On The Wild Side’. However, you would never actually refer to Lou Reed as a one-hit wonder because he is Lou fuckin’ Reed. God only created one universe; are you gonna call him a one-hit wonder?
Side hustles: Some one-hit wonders are actually side projects helmed by established artists. For example, ‘Tetris’ by Dr. Spin was a sneaky cash-in by multi-hit wonder Andrew Lloyd Webber. The Timelords were technically a One-der (they hit Number One with ‘Doctorin The TARDIS’ and never released anything else) but that’s basically a KLF record.
Mayflies: Bands that fall apart just as they hit the big time. The Vapors became stars with ‘Turning Japanese’, but behind-the-scenes drama caused them to split within a few months. Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes were the first band on MTV with ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’, but they both then immediately quit The Buggles to become members of prog-rock giants Yes.
AWOOSHs: Artists With One Outsized Signature Hit. It feels unfair to call these people one-hit wonders, because they often have a substantial catalogue with a smattering of modest hits. It’s just that one of their songs was massively more successful than the others. Tasmin Archer is a good example of an AWOOSH. You can see in her Spotify stats that her big hit absolutely eclipses everything else she’s done:
For the AWOOSH, their signature hit is both a blessing and a curse. It elevates them above their peers and, in some cases, guarantees a lifelong stream of royalties (you wouldn’t believe how much money Katrina and the Waves have made from ‘Walking On Sunshine’.)
But it also means they’re tied to that one song for life. There’s a great sketch in the show Big Train that shows Ralph McTell trying to sing a song other than ‘Streets Of London’, casuing the audience to react in horror:
If you’ve ever seen someone like Ralph McTell, you’ll know this sketch is rooted in reality. Audiences don’t see AWOOSHs for new stuff or deep cuts. They just want to hear The Song.
Life in the shadow of an outsized signature hit
It must be so weird to write a pop song that defines your life, especially if it’s something that you dashed off in the space of a few minutes.
The record-holder here is Edward Barton. Earlier this year, we dedicated a whole issue to the story of how he wrote, ‘It’s A Fine Day’. a tune that inspired hits by Opus III, Orbital, and Kylie. The incredible thing is that he reckons he wrote the whole song in around tow minutes—longer than it takes to perform it.
How would you feel if that happened to you? Would you be thrilled that you found gold? Or would you spend your life in frustration, wondering when that kind of inspiration will strike again?
I guess it depends how you end up in that position.
Things looked promising for Tasmin after ‘Sleeping Satellite’. The album, Great Expectations, did well and she won the Brit Award for Breakthrough Act. Unfortunately, the record label didn’t seem to have any kind of strategy to build on that success. The second single, ‘In Your Care’, wasn’t released until March 93, at which point Tasmin’s moment was kind of over.
You could end up being bitter about this. You could come to resent your one hit, which made a lot of short-term profit for executives who didn’t invest in your long-term career.
I hope that’s not true for Tasmin though. When we posted ‘Sleeping Satellite’ recently on the @twit90s Twitter and TikTok (there’s a TikTok now), it received an overwhelming response, with tons of people commenting along the lines of, “wow, I haven’t heard this in years, it still sounds amazing.” People still love this song after 30 years. Rightly so. It’s beautiful.
When my friend Danny wrote his thing about Janis Ian, he compared her live performance to that of Bob Dylan. Dylan always seems like he’s in conflict with his old tunes, trying to wrestle them into submission as if he wants to prove that he’s better today than he was at the start of his career.
Whereas Janis Ian still closes all of her concerts with ‘At Seventeen’, and she plays it with the warmth of a proud grandma showing you baby photos. Can you believe I made something so beautiful, she seems to say.
If you make something truly beautiful, regardless of how you got there, you get to feel proud for the rest of your life.
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 3 (↑ from 4): ‘I’m Gonna Get You’ — Bizarre Inc. feat Angie Brown
Angie Brown is amazing. She started out in a band called The Dirty Strangers, which also featured Ronnie Woods and Keith Richards. We’ll hear from her again in a few years, when she sings the bridge on ‘Return Of The Mack’.
Number 5 (New Entry): ‘Keep The Faith’ — Bon Jovi
The last time we saw Bon Jovi, it was 1989 and they were prancing around stage in the ‘Lay Your Hands On Me’ video, which was almost a celebration of hair metal. They went quiet after that, and for a moment it looked like they were going to be swept away in the Hair Metalpocalypse.
However, to coin a music industry adage, nobody ever got rich by betting against Jon Bon Jovi. He’s one of the smartest cookies in rock. Of course they would survive.
‘Keep The Faith’ was a big gamble, not because of the edgy lyrics like “I have suffered for my anger”, or because of the slightly funkier rhythm section, but because they had cut their hair. You cannot imagine the discourse about the hair. It was like Dylan going electric, times a million.
It totally paid off though, and the album sold 10 million copies.
Number 10 (New Entry): ‘People Everyday’ — Arrested Development
Highlight of this song is Dionne Farris, who shouts at the end of every sentence in a kind of Beastie Boys style. The way she gets under the word “manhoooood” is absolutely 👨🍳💋👌.
Look out for a review of the album soon!
Number 13 (New Entry): ‘Skin O My Teeth’ — Megadeth
There’s a lovely story about an 80-something English farmer called Owen Brown, who was often cited as the world’s oldest metalhead. He used to rock out to Megadeth, Metallica and other thrash bands while he was milking his cows, and was often spotted headbanging at some of the loudest gigs in history.
When he died at 87, he got a big send-off from the metal community and his family blasted this song at the funeral. Proof, if needed, that you are never too old to rock.
Number 19 (↑ from 24): ‘Don’t You Want Me’ — The Farm
Another song from NME’s Ruby Trax compilation. The Farm do a pretty decent job, although ‘Don’t You Want Me’ is kind of hard to mess up. There is, however, something slightly weird about the way Peter sings the word “want”. Waaahhhnt. He sounds like Wario.
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Album of the Week
Dirt — Alice In Chains
Look, serious rock historians will tell you that there was really no such thing as “grunge” or “the Seattle sound”. They’ll say it was all a marketing trick, that the labels and media packaged some random rock bands together and presented them as some kind of Sad Boy Cinematic Universe.
To which I would say, “yeah, and it worked.”
As a teenager, I had no idea what was going on in Seattle, or where these bands had come from. I’d never heard ‘Man In A Box’, let alone Facelift. All I know was that these amazing rock albums kept appearing, and listening to them together felt like getting the shit kicked out of you, spiritually. I loved it.
Nevermind was a fast jab to the chin, one that rang your bells and left you punchdrunk. Ten was a haymaker aimed straight into the ribs, knocking the wind out of you.
And Dirt… Dirt was the feeling of falling, of being knocked clean on your ass. It was dark in a way that was new to me. Not devils and demons darkness; but “I want to be dead” darkness. A kind of furious hopelessness, delivered with a clarity of intent that speaks straight to the adolescent mind.
When Layne sang, “I have been guilty of kicking myself in the teeth" in ‘Down In A Hole’, my 15-year-old ass said, “yeah, man, me too.”
AIC are generally considered the weakest of the first-wave Grunge acts—some Seattlites nicknamed them “Kindergarden” (as in, Soundgarden for kids). And yes, Dirt will always be the ugly step-cousin of Nevermind and Ten, but this record does achieve some things that the other grunge bands did not.
For one thing, it’s kind of beautiful, almost? At times? AIC had two main vocalists: Layne Staley jagged yelping on lead, and guitarist Jerry Cantrell providing a smoother countermelody. When the two harmonise, it almost sounds like a hymn, as on tracks like ‘Rain When I Die’:
AIC were also more balls-out rock than Nirvana and Pearl Jam. You can’t really headbang to ‘Even Flow’ or ‘In Bloom’, but you can go bananas to the old-fashioned crunchy, chugging guitar riff of ‘Them Bones’:
As an idiot teenager, I think Dirt was my favourite of the first-wave Grunge records. It’s a logical follow-on from things like Metallica and Use Your Illusion, so it made more sense to me than Nevermind. As an older and slightly wiser adult, I can see Dirt has its limitations, but it holds up surprisingly well.
(I also now understand the overt heroin references a lot better. Yikes.)
So, my middle-aged opinion is that Dirt is a very good record, which briefly achieves greatness. The final track, ‘Would’, is astonishing: a slow-burning rumble that brilliantly deploys the two main voices, with Jerry almost whispering the verse while Layne screams the chorus.
There’s a tension in ‘Would’ that keeps building and building, climaxing in a question that Layne asks one word at a time:
There’s something genuinely disquieting about finishing an album this way. Ending on a question that’s answered by silence, by the sound of the cassette deck clicking off. What does the question even mean? The vagueness just makes it somehow more disturbing.
This moment captures the existentialism of grunge better than almost anything on Nevermind and Ten. To a depressive teenager, it was the most thrilling, terrifying thing I’d ever heard.
Madonna makes a bid to become the horniest person in history.