10 unlikely, unusual songs that made it to No. 1 in the 1980s

TV themes! Greek electronic instrumental! Phony German rappers!

Over thirty years ago, the most popular song in America was an a cappella track made my a middle-aged jazz vocalist. Over a bed of beat-boxing, whistling, snaps and scats, Bobby McFerrin implored us all to "don't worry, be happy." 

It's not a terribly weird song, per se, but it's not one the label likely pegged as a worldwide sensation. It stood out in an era when synth-pop and hair-metal ballads dominated the charts.

The big names dominated Billboard in the Eighties – George Michael, Madonna, Bon Jovi, Phil Collins, Lionel Richie. But a few oddball slipped upward through the cracks, rising all the way to No. 1.

There were instrumental Hollywood themes, TV child stars and rapping Germans that topped the charts. Let's take a look at (and listen to) the most unlikely songs to rocket all the way to the top.

1. Stars on 45 - "Medley: Intro 'Venus' / Sugar Sugar / No Reply / I'll Be Back / Drive My Car / Do You Want to Know a Secret / We Can Work It Out / I Should Have Known Better / Nowhere Man / You're Going to Lose That Girl / Stars on 45"

June 20, 1981

In case you are wondering, yes, that is indeed the longest song title to ever appear on the Billboard charts. Essentially a series of rapid needle drops, like the most attention-deficit wedding DJ, "Stars on 45" spits huge, familiar hooks from the likes of the Archies and the Beatles. It's both the last gasp of disco and the first foray into postmodern pop mash-ups.

2. Vangelis - "Chariots of Fire"

May 8, 1982

Wah-wuhnnn. T-tchh-ch-ch-ch-ch. Instrumental pieces by Greek electronic pioneers are hardly the stuff of Top 40 radio, even those that come from Oscar-worthy prestige films. And yet, the iconic theme to "Chariots of Fire" glided gracefully up the charts. Perhaps because, in a way, it was a meme. At least, when we were young we would crank it up and run in slow motion across the living room.

3. Jan Hammer - "Miami Vice Theme"

November 9, 1985

Another European electronic musician, this time from Czechoslovakia. As television aficionados, we know the song as well as our high school fight song. But if you step back, it is rather strange for a song like this to become such a sensation. It's all neon, synthetic steel drums and guitar solos. It would also be the last instrumental TV theme to ever make it to No. 1. ("How Do You Talk to an Angel" from The Heights topped the charts in 1992.)

4. Falco - "Rock Me Amadeus"

March 29–April 12, 1986

Austria had its moment in the 1980s. Arnold flexed his muscles in blockbusters, while this theatrical singer caused a sensation with his ode to Mozart. His "Vienna Calling" (whoa-oh-oh) also had a moment.

5. Billy and the Beaters - "At This Moment"

January 24–31, 1987

A piano ballad recorded in a nightclub back in 1981, "At This Moment" could thank television for its surprising rise to the top six years later. As Alex P. Keaton romanced his girlfriend Ellen on Family Ties, "At This Moment" became "their song," played in tender moments throughout the season. (The actors, Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan married in real life a year later, which perhaps added to the public fascination.) A major label snatched up the tune, reissued it, and here we are.

6. Ready for the World - "Oh Sheila"

October 12, 1985

You probably thought this song was Prince. If it was Prince, it certainly would not be weird to see it at No. 1. But it was merely a blatant Prince knock-off, one that went so far to use the name "Sheila," so as to cause confusion with Prince's percussionist Sheila E. Most listeners assumed it was Prince and went through life thinking it was the Purple One. It's the closest thing to a hoax pulled off on the pop charts that decade.

7. Bobby McFerrin - "Don't Worry, Be Happy"

September 24–October 1, 1988

And so we arrive to the most popular a cappella song of the era (perhaps outside of the theme to "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?").

8. Will to Power - "Freebaby (Baby, I Love Your Way / Freebird Medley)"

December 3, 1988

If the Stars on 45 medley didn't count as a mash-up, this dance cut certainly did. An unlikely cocktail of Peter Frampton, Lynyrd Skynyrd and synthesizer schmaltz, "Freebaby" found a way to mine '70s nostalgia in the most '80s way possible.

9. Martika - "Toy Soldiers"

July 22–29, 1989

Marta "Martika" Marrero came up on the musical children's show Kids Incorporated. She also appeared in Mr. T's aggressively motivational Be Somebody... or Be Somebody's Fool! video. Today, we are used to pop singers springing up from kids TV. Heck, that seems to be the only way to make it. Call Martika a pioneer.

10. Milli Vanilli - "Baby, Don't Forget My Number"

July 1, 1989

Even before they were revealed to be frauds, Milli Vanilli was a bizarre proposition. Straight out of Munich, West Germany, with a name like an ice-cream flavor, Rob and Fab sported tight bike shorts and braids. This, their somewhat forgotten first smash, featuring stilted rapping and kooky dance moves far easier than Fortnight.

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DocForbin 60 months ago
I think the song Falco will be best remembered for is "Der Kommissar", which would later be covered by After The Fire, Suzy Andrews and Dale Bozzio of Missing Persons fame and served as the basis for Laura Branigan's reworked version "Deep in the Dark".
WILD 60 months ago
They ruined a pair of great classic songs with one swift breath. The deceased members of Skynyrd are still turning over in their graves over this. Peter Frampton must have cried when he heard this trash.
Amalthea WILD 56 months ago
I totally and completely agree. I can't listen to that dreck without cringing.
Lacey 65 months ago
I am proud to say I do not have ANY of these songs on 45s though I have quite a few from this era.
RobCertSDSCascap 66 months ago
Stars on 45 was a Dutch novelty pop act that was briefly very popular throughout Europe and in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia in 1981. The group later shortened its name to Stars On in the U.S., while in the U.K. and Ireland it was known as Starsound. The band, which consisted solely of studio session musicians under the direction of Jaap Eggermont, formerly of Golden Earring, popularized medley recordings made by recreating hit songs as faithfully as possible and joining them together with a common tempo and underlying drum track.
With the bootleg recording obviously already circulating in dance clubs on both sides of the Atlantic, van Kooten decided to "bootleg the bootleg" and create a licensed version of the medley by using soundalike artists to replicate the original hits and therefore contacted his friend and colleague Jaap Eggermont.
daDoctah 66 months ago
That first one, by Stars on 45, was put together by producer Jaap Eggermont, formerly of Golden Earring, bringing his Dutch presence to the charts for a second time after also scoring big with "Radar Love". And "Venus", one of the few non-Beatles songs in the medley, was originally by yet another Dutch band, the Shocking Blue.

(It's too bad this article is limited to the 80s. A one-hit wonder with an interesting TV connection came in '92 when the theme from "The Heights", "How Do You Talk To An Angel?", got to #1 just as the show it was featured on got cancelled. There were a few red faces at the Emmys that year.)
Amalthea 66 months ago
Just like I don't get the appeal of the incredibly bland and vanilla Ace of Base, I will NEVER understand the appeal of the horrible Will to Power "Freebaby (Baby, I Love Your Way / Freebird Medley)". Taking two of the greatest rock songs of their era and mashing them up into a boring, generic synth-pop tune? Just...bad.
JamesB 66 months ago
Miami Vice theme is still intense and cool...! The version here sounds like it has some extra sounds from the toolshed, but still gets it done. The others are, well, other. I prefer this 1988 classic by Shona Laing whose straight-up vocals, bouncy beat and soaring synth strings really captured the late '80's angst - Soviet Snow. Radiation over Red Square! ;) https://youtu.be/901-aseuixM
RobCertSDSCascap JamesB 66 months ago
Are you familiar with Hammer's Escape From Television?
It has 13 tracks from Miami Vice, with notes on which episodes
they appear in. Forever Tonight is my favorite.
Barry22 66 months ago
Yeahhhhhh, Miami Vice!!!! Jan Hammer was a member of the Mahavishna Orchestra, and recorded some good fusion albums with Jeff Beck. Chariots of Fire was pretty good too, and has been used in some other movies also, usually as a comedy device. That Will To Power song, pure garbage.
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