One-hit Wonders (Novelty songs)

I don’t know if the people who made these tunes really thought of them as novelty songs. (Well, one of them definitely is.) Maybe they were dead serious. In any event, each of them was some level of hit, exactly zero of them are “Witch Doctor” by the Chipmunks or “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” Next time maybe. 

–This brief story has an interesting factoid. (Or two.) In 1971, a South African singer-songwriter named John Kongos did a song called “He’s Gonna Step On You Again.” Not quite sure what it’s about exactly but the words go something like this:

Hey rainmaker, come away from that man
You know he’s gonna take away your promised land
Hey good lady, he just want what you got
You know he’ll never stop until he’s taken the lot

According to the blogger’s best friend, Wikipedia: The song was cited in the Guinness Book of Records as being the first song to have used a sample. However, it is actually a tape loop of African drumming and tape loops and instruments using pre-recorded samples were well established by this time. The song was produced by the late Gus Dudgeon who worked a fair amount with Sir John of Elton.

Spotify link

Factoid #1. Kongos’ sons have a band named Kongos and forty years later had a minor hit with the song “Come With Me Now.” Factoid #2: The song was re-recorded by the Manchester band Happy Mondays as “Step On.”

–The Crazy World of Arthur Brown is a band that formed in the Sixties, had one hit and is apparently STILL GOING. Brown used to wear a metal helmet that which caught fire one day (methanol-soaked colander) and then it became a thing.

The album was produced by The Who’s manager Kit Lambert with an assist from Pete Townshend. Townshend had actually discovered the band as a sort of talent scout for Lambert’s Track Records label. According to Brown, Townshend was quite instrumental in putting together the album as by then he had a fair amount of studio experience.

The song “Fire” was a massive worldwide hit. I used to, for some reason, love it but that’s all sort of worn off. You can see the “God of Hellfire” at work below in the video from Top of the Pops. Somebody in the comment section said this and it tickled my funny bone:

“I’ll never forget how this song scared the living daylights out of me many years ago (when the song was on the charts): I was still living at home, and had to get up at 6:00 in the morning to go to work. I had forgotten that I had turned the volume way up on my clock radio the night before, so the first thing I heard at FULL BLAST at 6 AM was “I AM THE GOD OF HELL FIRE!!”

My bedroom nearly had a skylight that morning, as I jumped so high out of the bed, my heart POUNDING! Normally, I love this song, but I sure didn’t love it that morning! LOL”

Spotify link

–And now we come to the “masterpiece,” which is none other than Napoleon XIV, aka songwriter/producer Jerry Samuels. He explains to Songfacts how the song “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haa!” came about:

We were doing 60-second spots for some advertising agencies using a device called a variable frequency oscillator. I realized that if you hooked it up to the 4-track, you could do things that weren’t done before. I would be able to raise or lower the pitch of a voice without changing the tempo by hooking it up to that 4-track machine.”

“Based on that, I came up with the idea for ‘They’re Coming To Take Me Away.’ I was sitting in a nice easy-chair one night. It had a little vibrator on it and I was stoned because I loved to smoke grass. What popped into my head was the old Scottish tune, ‘The Campbells Are Coming.’

“It took me nine months to finish it. I wrote one verse and the chorus, and immediately I realized I was writing a sick joke. So I said, ‘This is no good, I’ll put it away.’ Three months later it was still running through my head; I pulled it out again and wrote the second verse and it was an even sicker joke.

Finally about 6 months after that I decided I was going to finish it, and I was going to do something in that last verse that would throw things off a little bit, so I referred to the object – ‘They’re coming to take me away because of what YOU did – I referred to YOU as a dog. The dog ran away. By doing that I felt I was lightening the sickness of the joke, and I probably was and it probably did some good for me, but that was the reason I went for that afterthought.”

“They’re Coming to Take Me Away” was released in 1966 and was actually, believe it or not, a hit, reaching #3 on the Billboard 100. Of the song, no less a personage than Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh has said it was the, “…most obnoxious song ever to appear in a jukebox,” claiming the recording once “cleared out a diner of forty patrons in three minutes flat.” High praise indeed:

Spotify link

My wife used to work at a company where the salespeople would come in and ask for the impossible. She and her co-workers would sing this song and to this day she knows all the lyrics. I could hardly be prouder.

Note that the flip side of the single was called “!aaaH-aH ,yawA eM ekaT oT gnimoC er’yehT” and it consists entirely of the song in reverse. The song had been a hit for a while when, alas, it was eventually banned by radio stations who felt it was insensitive. I dunno, that seems crazy to me.

 

 

 

 

 

25 thoughts on “One-hit Wonders (Novelty songs)

    1. Wow, great story, thanks for that. Filled in some knowledge. I had moved back to Philly (from NYC) in late 1973 and lived there throughout 1974. I had no idea the Pony started that year, thought it had been open forever. My friends and I would routinely drive to the Jersey Shore, typically Wildwood, to get drunk, get laid (when possible) and wreak havoc. Never made it (to this day) to Asbury Park as that was NYC/Northern Jersey and we were Philly/Southern Jersey. Wasn’t even on our radar. Odd that Bruce didn’t really hang there till had had a couple of albums out! And he was able to go there fairly comfortably through the mid-80’s (and I suppose still stops in when he feels like it.) But in a way, it doesn’t seem like it would be the same club, the same vibe. It was a local vibe, now it’s a mecca. Bruce talks about it fondly yet at the same time somewhat downplays it as just a bunch of good bands hanging out.

      My favorite quote: “The same week that Bruce was on the cover of Time and Newsweek, there were about 300 people lined up outside waiting for us to open. I walked out front and I looked down the line, and I stopped in my tracks. “What the hell is that?” And there is Bruce, digging through his pockets. He never carried any money, but he’s at the end of the line and is looking through his pockets to pay the cover charge, which was like $3. So I went and dragged him past the line and into the side door.”

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  1. Never heard the Kongos song, but I know the other two well. Cleveland had a popular Friday night fright flick show that often played the Napoleon XIV song (for obvious reasons). And Arthur Brown, as you may already know, has a pretty respectable rock pedigree. His band jammed at the UFO club, London’s first underground psych club, along with Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, and Tomorrow (featuring Steve Howe). The organist, Vincent Crane, later formed Atomic Rooster, with Carl Palmer as original drummer. “Fire” is definitely goofy, but the driving organ and horns lift it above most novelty songs.

    Can you imagine a song like that hitting American charts TODAY?!

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    1. Good intel there, Pete. Yeah the UFO is well=known. I think I might have kinda known about the Rooster thing as I vaguely recall discussing something about them with another blogger a while back. But I wasn’t really into them. Yeah, I used to love “Fire” but later just got tired of it. BTW, Carl Palmer is the only surviving ELP guy as you know. He’s touring and coming this way with an ELP tribute of sorts. I thought about it but have long since abandoned that type of bombast in music. But I was quite the ELP fan once upon a time and must have seen them (thanks to a friend who was obsessed with Keith Emerson) 4 or 5 times.

      I can’t imagine either “Fire” or “Take Me Away” coming out now. Certainly the latter would never get past indie or some other weird stage. I can’t believe Arthur Brown is still out there doing his shtick. As Wikipedia pointed out, his theatrics pre-dated Alice Cooper and that ilk by some years.

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      1. Four or five times for ELP? Jeez, I wish I could’ve seen them once. One of my more preferred prog bands, with that dark classical sound, and Lake was a great tunesmith and vocalist. You might like Egg, from the Canterbury Scene (similar sound, but more lighthearted, lyrically).

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        1. I was fortunate in that my high school buddies were ahead of me on the musical curve. One of the guys’ father was a jazz saxophonist and so he became a jazz bassist. So he got me into all the prog as well as jazz like Coltrane. Bear in mind I went to high school in NYC so NO bands ever skip there. And so every time ELP came to town we went, didn’t matter if we had to go over to Jersey or some college auditorium. Phenomenal shows. My buddy went on to do a lot of studio work and became the bassist for Suzanne Vega. Last I heard he’d got tired of the road and was doing bass for ‘Kinky Boots’ in NYC.

          Here’s perhaps the most memorable part of the ELP show, Keith’s revolving piano.

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        2. I’m pretty far from Kent (4 hours?). But Palmer has visited my area before, so maybe he’ll return.

          Don’t feel bad about missing Egg. I’m one of about seven people who know of them…on either side of the pond! They only made three albums. Dave Stewart (not the Eurhythmics guy) later joined Hatfield and the North and National Health, then had a few hits in England. The singer/bassist, Mont Campbell (now “Dirk” Campbell) is very talented and is now expert on various world instruments, and does film scores. Canterbury Scene prog rock is not well known, but real special to cultists like me.

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        3. Just found out Palmer is playing here TONIGHT! I looked at his band (no keyboard, but plenty of ELP stuff) on YouTube. Sound great. There are tickets and I considered it. But must see Red Sox. Next time.

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  2. That’s an intriguing collection, Jim. I’ve always dug the Arthur Brown tune – that cool organ sounds like it could be a Vox Continental. As you know, sometimes I get fascinated by gear!😀

    I didn’t know the other two songs. “He’s Gonna Step On You Again” undoubtedly is a groovy tune. Napoleon XIV is charmingly weird, yet at the same time, I can’t deny it has something. 😀

    It’s really interesting how certain artists break through with one great tune and then completely fall off the radar screen again. I guess it shows how cruel the music business can be – one day you’re all the rage, next day you’re forgotten.

    Though I suppose you’re still better off as a one-hit wonder than the countless artists who struggle all their life and never get a break. And if you score a really big hit, I guess it can help pay the bills for some time, though that’s perhaps less true today in a world of streaming music where most artists earn chicken shit.

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    1. Well, you know when you throw the gauntlet down, I have to check things out. According to Vince Crane’s bio and the song write-up, it was a Hammond organ, something about which you’ve written.

      I love the “you mangy mutt” in the Napoleon song. The tune is incredibly weird, stupid and insane at the same time. Which is, I guess, the whole point.

      As to one-hit wonders, sometimes a person can do pretty well. Consider Norman Greenbaum, originally from Malden, Mass. just outside of Boston. His “Spirit in the Sky” has been licensed so many times that by his own admission, while he’s not rich, he never has to work again. Just from that one song! Isn’t that just as good as being rich? BTW, you should learn that lick on guitar. Simple but cool.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, good to know the organ on “Fire” is a mighty Hammond after all. I actually do care about these things!😀

        Based on what I’ve heard, the Vox Continental can sound pretty similar to the Hammond.
        In fact, apparently, Vox initially hoped their organ could compete with the Hammond B3 as a low cost version that is also much more mobile and as such more convenient for the touring musician – unless of course, they have 10 roadies to schlep the Hammond!😆

        It didn’t turn out that way. I guess nothing can beat a mighty Hammond and its versatility!

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        1. Heh! What’s that blues song where they sing “She’s just 17 and has ways like a baby child.” And then it’s some fucking 80-year-old singing it. Now THAT’S pervy.

          Liked by 1 person

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