The Soup Dragons, “Divine Thing” (#35, 1992)
Like Lindisfarne, this was one of those Top 40 hits that surprised me when I first got interested in tracking one hit wonders. After all, The Soup Dragons (in a more shambolic incarnation) were on the infamous C86 tape back in 1986. By 1989, the Scottish band was scoring hits in England and on American alternative radio on the back of the baggy/Madchester scene.
The song you probably know the best by these guys isn’t “Divine Thing” here, but rather this workmanlike 1990 cover of The Rolling Stones’ “I’m Free.” That cover was later used in Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, which has a soundtrack that is a who’s who of considerably better British indie bands of this era (none of whom would score a Top 40 hit in America, by the way. Not even Blur).
In fact, one of the bands on The World’s End soundtrack (and coincidentally the C86 tape) is who The Soup Dragons copied pretty much wholesale for their lone American Top 40 hit. “Divine Thing” is a blatant knockoff of Screamadelica-era Primal Scream (and particularly “Movin’ On Up,” right down to some of the melody). The song itself is fine, and with it’s gigantic singalong chorus, so it’s not really surprising per say that this squeaked onto the Top 40.
Notably, that very 90’s video up there got nominated for Best Alternative Video at the MTV Video Music Awards, where it was flattened by Nirvana. The Soup Dragons died out in the mid 90s after their fourth album flopped, and as a result of their lack of staying power, they haven’t been as remembered as many of their post-Smiths pre-Oasis peers. And yet, they’re the ones with the American hit. Go figure, right?
Public Enemy, “Give It Up” (#33, 1994)
Let me guess, you had one of three questions enter your head when you scrolled down here:
1. Wait, Public Enemy only had one Top 40 hit?
2. Wait, Public Enemy’s only Top 40 hit was this, of all songs? That literally no one remembers?
3. Wait, Public Enemy waited until 1994 to have a Top 40 hit? Long after all of their essential albums and classic singles from Nation of Millions and Fear of a Black Planet? And at a point when their relevance at the height of gangsta rap was contested at best?
Yeah, i’m at a loss for this one too, and don’t really have much to say about it. I’m actually really curious as to why this, of all songs, ended up as their lone Top 40 entry. Believe it or not they only had one other Hot 100 single, 1991’s “Can’t Truss It,” which made #50. That seems wrong, but here we are. In case you were wondering, PE had four number one hits on the Hot Rap Songs chart (none of which were “Give It Up”) and did quite well on the R&B charts, too.
PE isn’t alone in being a successful band whose lone Top 40 is a surprising single that isn’t nearly as well remembered as stuff that peaked far lower on the Hot 100. For instance, Korn’s only Top 40 single wasn’t “Freak On a Leash” or “Twisted Transistor,” but “Did My Time” from the Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life soundtrack. Likewise, the White Stripes’ lone Top 40 entry is 2007’s “Icky Thump,” a song that’s certainly more better remembered than “Give It Up” or “Did My Time,” but nowhere near as much as “Seven Nation Army” (which has become one of the most iconic rock songs of the 21st century; it made #76) or “Fell In Love With A Girl” (which didn’t even make the Hot 100). Lastly, Eric B. & Rakim, a duo often considered one of the greatest hip hop acts of all time, got their lone hit with a guest appearance on a forgotten Jody Watley song. These examples are certainly inexplicable, but it’s arguably more down to serendipity than any other factor…
The Folk Implosion, “Natural One” (#29, 1996)
…which makes a nice segue to what is, for my money, one of the most inexplicable fluke Top 40 hits in the history of the Hot 100. After all, it’s a low-key indie rock song taken from the soundtrack of Kids, one of the most controversial films of 1996 (it was even rated NC-17 before Miramax opted to forgo the rating). I’m not sure how this got onto the Top 40. Was it actually played on pop radio, or was its position because of alternative radio airplay and singles sales? If it did get pop airplay, that would actually be pretty incredible because “Natural One” would have sounded jarringly out of place on pop radio at the time.
The Folk Implosion were the lesser of Lou Barlow’s two post-Dinosaur Jr. projects; the other being Sebadoh, who are deservedly better remembered and had a couple of genuine rock radio hits. Folk Implosion never really capitalized on “Natural One”‘s fluke success: their next album was a largely lo-fi affair and released on a label so tiny that it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. Interscope scooped them up in 1999, but by that time, American modern rock radio had moved on to arguably the worst era for that format (“The Durst Years“) and bands like Folk Implosion simply weren’t welcome.
By the way, A bit of trivia akin to that Electronic song being Johnny Marr’s lone American hit: “Natural One” makes Lou Barlow the only musician from a band profiled in Michael Azerrad’s essential tome on American alternative music, Our Band Could Be Your Life, to manage a top 40 hit.
Fastball, “Out of My Head” (#20, 1998)
“Wait a second,” you’re presumably saying to yourself, “I’ll give you that Public Enemy thing, but I remember Fastball having a second hit, and one that was way bigger and better remembered than this.”
And you’d be right: Another Fastball song, “The Way,” was pretty much everywhere in 1998.
But you’d also be wrong: “The Way” never made the Hot 100, only the airplay chart.
Let me tell you about one of my favorite things to talk about and one of the most unfair practices of the 1990s: how the major labels inadvertently robbed several artists of hit singles entirely based out of greed.
See in the 90s, the major record labels were rolling in money, and were keen on getting more of the stuff. This is how we wound up with CD prices being in the $20 range and also inadvertently why Napster happened. In the mid 90s, some of the major labels got into their heads that if a song became a big enough hit, the sales of the cheaper CD single would outpace album sales. So, they devised a plan to basically destroy the physical single.
So, many huge hits simply weren’t released as physical CD (or cassette or occasionally vinyl) singles in the US, but instead serviced to radio and MTV. So if you wanted No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak,” you had to spend $20 on Tragic Kingdom. However, the problem was that even though the Hot 100 was based on both sales and airplay data, Billboard required a song to be physically released as a single in order to be eligible for the chart.
Inadvertently, this meant that several of the era’s defining songs are completely absent from the Top 40, sometimes even robbing artists of songs that should have been #1 singles. “Don’t Speak”? “When I Come Around”? “Fly”? “Closing Time”? “What I Got”? “Song 2”? “Lovefool”? None of these songs made the Hot 100 because of this. Really.
Because record labels weren’t going to stop this practice and because it was fudging Billboard’s data, they were actually forced to change the methodology for the chart in 1998 and allow airplay only singles. That was good news for The Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris,” which despite being robbed of what would have been several weeks at #1, at least got away with a #9 peak. Less lucky was Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn”; the rule went into effect as the song was at the end of its popularity and its official chart peak is #42.
Anyway, this is what caused Fastball’s first, bigger and better hit “The Way” to never make the Hot 100. “Out of My Head” charted after the methodology was changed, so i’m not sure if it charted because of this or got a CD single release and would have charted anyway. Regardless, it is technically the group’s only Top 40 single because of unfair label politics.
The moral of this story is that the record industry totally had what was coming to them a few years later when filesharing exploded. And that “The Way” is a great song and I won’t hear otherwise.