So, Megan blogged a conversation we had earlier today about “one-hit wonder” bands, and the trickier category of the “two-hit wonder,” asking her readers to come up with more instances of the latter. (Don McClean was the one that had sprung to my mind.) Many came up with good examples, but I think others are adopting an excessively formalistic definition of one-hit and two-hit wonders.
The Grateful Dead, if I recall correctly, actually only broke into the pop charts once, with “Touch of Gray.” But I hope it goes without saying that the Dead were not a “one-hit wonder,” and that, indeed, it would be sort of ridiculous to class them that way. As we normally use the term, a “one-hit wonder” is a band that sort of came out of nowhere, produced one song that almost everyone recognizes, and then dropped off the face of the earth again. A decent rule-of-thumb test is that almost everyone will know the song, but most people will be hard-pressed to name the artist: Sing “Eight-Six-Seven” in a pub, and just about everyone there will holler back “Five-Three-Oh-Ni-ee-iiine,” whereas “Tommy Tutone” will probably just get you blank stares. If the name of the artist is as familiar, or more familiar, than any of their “hits,” you’re probably not dealing with a “wonder.” Bands with long careers and loyal followings who earn consistent critical acclaim don’t count, even if they only have one or two songs that cross over into mainstream radio. As this list makes clear, just going by charts would (preposterously) entail that Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin, the Beastie Boys, and the Allman Brothers were all “two-hit wonders.”
This, of course, is what actually makes the category difficult. Anyone can get lucky once—it’s bound to happen all the time. But multiple hits usually indicates either actual talent or at least some knack for producing music that resonates with a significant chunk of the public. A true two-hit wonder has to be a case of lightning essentially striking twice, a double-fluke. Genuine instances of that are going to be vanishingly rare.