In music, there are no fail-safe formulas for “making it”. But the life of a one-hit wonder – an act that strikes gold before returning to relative obscurity – is uniquely disorienting and strange. Many become permanently associated with a particular song, long after they've outgrown it or moved on. For others, their hit sets them up for life and they never look back.
For Chumbawamba, an anarcho-punk group who formed in 1982 while living together in a Leeds squat, the idea of mainstream success was almost inconceivable. But in 1997, after signing to EMI, they belatedly gatecrashed the charts with “Tubthumping”, a chaotic singalong anthem of triumph over adversity inspired by their working-class roots. Even if you're too young to remember the 1990s, you'll probably recognise the song's catchy chorus (“I get knocked down, but I get up again / You are never gonna keep me down”).
“The single just went absolutely massive around the world,” remembers lead singer Dunstan Bruce. “Those lyrics apply right across the board. It crossed all ages, classes and political viewpoints. It just seemed like quite an innocuous, uplifting song.”
Bruce isn't wrong. “Tubthumping” had mass appeal, soundtracking everything from lairy nights out to sporting events and political rallies. It reached number one in several countries, only kept off the top spot in the UK by Will Smith’s “Men in Black.” Chumbawamba very quickly found themselves swamped by global media interest, performing on the Brit Awards and various American talk shows.
“It was completely crazy and a new experience for us,” says Bruce. “Most of us were in our mid-30s, so we weren’t sucked in like maybe we would have been if we were teenagers or in our early-20s. We were cynical enough to understand what was going on, but, at the same time, we made compromises.”
Within just a few years, however, mainstream interest waned. EMI wanted them to replicate the success of “Tubthumping,” but they were more interested in remaining political, like pouring a bucket of ice-cold water over Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and encouraging fans to steal their CDs from large chains if they couldn't afford them. Eventually, in 2001, they were dropped by their label.
“They realised that we weren’t going to play that game anymore,” says Bruce. “When it was obvious that we weren’t going to have another massive hit, we weren’t that upset. We’d made enough money to be able to continue doing what we wanted to do, so creatively it opened up loads of doors.”
Even so, nearly 25 years later, Chumbawamba are still riding high on the royalties rolling in from “Tubthumping”, which has been used in a number of high-profile adverts, TV programmes and video games, even to this day. The song gave Bruce and his bandmates the freedom to pursue other projects – not always the case for musicians.
That said, for others, securing a one-hit wonder isn't always a positive experience. Leanne Brown, singer of Sweet Female Attitude, says that mega garage hit “Flowers”, released in 2000, contributed to the collapse of the band. There was also a lot of regret and recrimination about not being able to replicate its success.
“We were very naïve,” remembers Brown, who was just 17 at the time. “We thought that our management had our best interests at heart and could take care of everything whilst we were off touring. We just took our eye off the ball. We were upset for a while after that. Everyone had their own perspective on why things didn’t work out. There was a lot of finger-pointing from all of us. It just got a little bit petty.”
Originally a cutesy ballad, “Flowers” wound up being remixed by Sunship to become the quintessential UK garage track we all know and love. “It was a shock when I first heard it because I was so used to the song,” recalls Brown. “It was written three or four years earlier and I’d heard it many, many times in different R&B guises – never anything that was sped up. Garage music was very new to my ears, so it took a bit of adjustment. But when we got down to London to perform it, we realised its infectiousness.”
Very quickly, the track blew up and Sweet Female Attitude blew up with it. The band received a platinum certification from the British Phonographic Industry for the track, which peaked at number two in the UK charts. “We got wrapped up in the whirlwind of touring, doing interviews, photoshoots and late-night gigs,” says Brown. “Lots of travel, not much sleep. I hated having pictures taken and being in videos and I still do. It feels false to me, like I have to put on a persona.”
Eventually, their one-time success began to feel like an albatross. “I think the people who bought ‘Flowers’ wanted to hear more of that type of thing,” says Brown. “About five months later, we came back with a follow-up single (‘8 Days a Week’) [also remixed by Sunship], which I didn’t think was anywhere near as strong. It didn’t do as well, and the scene had changed.”
Real life took priority. Brown moved to Manchester, had a baby and focussed on music education and songwriting. “I’m not that preoccupied with trying to get another hit record,” she says. “If I write one that happens to do well, in the same organic way that ‘Flowers’ did, then amazing, but I’ve certainly got no ambition to lay everything on the line for that.”
For Nizlopi, a folk duo from Warwickshire, success wasn't so overnight. Their gentle track “JCB”, released in 2005, first sold “around 600 copies.” But some combination of internet hype and multiple news stories about how people were gunning for these “unknown buskers” to reach Christmas number one, sales started to shift. “Once the media picked up on this thing about people betting on it to be Christmas number one, and the video started being passed around, we sold 600,000 copies six months later,” remembers Luke Concannon, the band’s singer and guitarist.
“It felt like we were on this quite natural, organic trajectory and we got this super boost,” he continues. Ultimately, the band's feelings were mixed. “It made us really tired, stressed and overwhelmed, but really happy and grateful to get to share our music on that scale.”
Concannon feels as though they didn't really fit in with the music industry's expectations. “After the ‘JCB’ song was a hit, we had a meeting in London. I remember saying something like, ‘We don’t just want to do what everyone else does. We want to be happy and authentic. We don’t want to take flights all over the place because we care about the environment. This is what we’re about.’
“I remember the look on the PR person’s face. She was just laughing. It was like, ‘I know how this game is, and either you play it like a competitive performer, and take every opportunity you can, or goodbye.’ The problem with the rat race is that, even if you win, you’re still a rat, which isn’t the kindest phrase, but it has some truth to it.”
Now, Concannon feels ambivalent about the success of “JCB”, which was never replicated – although they continued playing as a band for some years on their own terms. “It gave us these incredible opportunities and we could actually afford to pay for a mortgage. It was amazing, and it broke us. There’s something about prioritising happiness and the truth, and that’s super hard when there are all these expectations around.”
Brown also looks back with conflicted feelings. “I hate that term,” she says, referring to ‘one-hit wonder’. “It has a negative connotation, doesn’t it? It makes it sound like that’s all you’ve ever done in your life and that’s all you’ll ever be. But, at the same time, I think it’s nice to have had one song that’s been so iconic and is still going… I think it’s bittersweet for all of us.”
Like Brown, Concannon withdrew from the industry to prioritise his well being. He wound up getting into hitchhiking, making his way from Senegal and Palestine, where he volunteered as a peace worker in the West Bank. He also coaches songwriters. “It’s a privilege to get that time in the spotlight because it’s almost like it sets up a shop that we can live out of for the rest of our lives in some way,” he says.
Meanwhile, people still get in touch with Chumbawamba to say just how much “Tubthumping” meant to them. “They’ve got positive memories of it, which is really lovely,” says Bruce. “Some people who are one-hit wonders see their hit as some sort of misrepresentation of them, or an albatross around their neck. Luckily for me, and I think for the rest of the band, we’re all really proud of that song.”