Most every music fan has their guilty pleasures and mine is the super-cheesy soft rock of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Among the guiltiest of these guilty pleasures is the band Ambrosia. Now, don’t fret if you don’t remember Ambrosia. They were big enough to garner a few Grammy nominations back in 1980 but not big enough to win.
So, here’s the weird thing about Ambrosia. Many years ago I came to the realization that Ambrosia was responsible for not one, not two, but three of the greatest tunes in soft rock history. The three tunes are:
If you gave those songs a quick listen, I’m sure that you’d agree that all of them are nothing short of incredible. Each one could easily be considered a legitimate one-hit wonder song and yet Ambrosia somehow produced three absolutely perfect tunes.
Post-epiphany, I rushed out and bought their Anthology collection. Look, if you’re a band that can deliver three 24 karat gold songs you definitely deserve my $15 for the rest of your best stuff. But then the weirdest thing happened when I listened to the full album.
It was unlistenable.
Now, I don’t mean that it was average quality music. I’m not saying that it was uneven or erratic. I’m telling you that every other song – aside from the big 3 mentioned above – was horrible. I’m talking “the Yoko songs on Double Fantasy” level horrible.
Quite honestly this blew my mind. And the more that I thought about it, the more that I realized that Ambrosia may be the only band in the history of music to accomplish such a rare feat: they produced three amazing songs and literally nothing else of quality.
Think about it. Most successful bands that are talented enough to sign a record deal, tour and maintain a career tend to deliver at a fairly consist level throughout their recording careers – barring significant line-up changes or finding god. And while many bands may be culturally significant for just a handful of popular songs, their popular songs will usually fit logically within the context of their entire catalog.
For example, my favorite band, The Black Crowes, are famous for probably 4 early ‘90s hits (‘She Talks to Angels”, “Hard to Handle”, “Jealous Again” and “Remedy”). In the case of the Crowes those songs perfectly represent the band and even though they aren’t mainstream popular anymore, they have consistently produced work of roughly the same quality for 20 years.
One-hit wonders, on the other hand, typically produce a singular song that strongly represents a moment in time where the cultural moment eclipses the actual quality of the song.
Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is the perfect example of a one-hit wonder where the song became inexplicably popular in the summer of 1988 in a way that represents the summer of 1988 much more strongly than it represents Bobby McFerrin. Most of us know Bobby McFerrin from that terrible song, but in reality he’s an accomplished musician whose work and reputation far exceeds that one song. sadly, Bobby McFerrin will always be remembered for a song that doesn’t represent him particularly well. In a way, that sucks for him as an artist. In another way, those royalty checks probably keep his mansion well-stocked in cocaine and hookers.
But most one-hit wonders don’t have the musical chops of a Bobby McFerrin. Their one-hit does accurately represent the entirety of their musical identity. In most cases those one-hit wonders weren’t able to sustain a career precisely because that one-hit gave us exactly what we needed from them. There are countless songs that fit into this category, but a great example is Toni Basil and her hit “Mickey.” “Mickey” fairly represented both the early MTV era of 1982 as well as Toni Basil’s musical vision, so we don’t need anything more from her.
The next level up from the one-hit wonder is the one-and-a-half-hit wonder. In this scenario, a band, take Extreme for example, hits it big with one huge song (“More Than Words”). Since people enjoyed that one song so thoroughly that they were more than willing to try another song (“Hole Hearted”) that showed a different side of the band. And while “Hole Hearted” became a moderate hit it couldn’t quite reach the heights of “More Than Words,” which caused people to question whether they like the band Extreme or just the song “More Than Words”. As a result, their inability to nail that second hit sealed Extreme’s fate of better than one-hit wonders but not good enough to sustain a consistent career.
In conclusion, my theory is that every band in the history of music can easily be slotted into one of those 4 categories: consistent band, good one-hitters, bad one-hitters or one-and-a-half hitters.
Except for one band: Ambrosia.
The world’s only three hit wonder.