10 unlikely, unusual songs that made it to No. 1 in the 1980s
TV themes! Greek electronic instrumental! Phony German rappers!
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.