Although I am listening to four full albums of Spacehog goodness this week, most people don’t know them beyond that one song. In the Meantime was a pretty big hit in the Nineties. Many people loved it. But now it has been relegated to thousands of “Best of the Nineties” compilation albums, along side Marcy Playground’s Sex and Candy and Sponge’s Plowed. For many people, this is the only thing Spacehog ever did. But many people are wrong. There’s a whole album of good songs that this one track was just a sampling of. They had a follow-up album (with the single Mungo City that did not catch on as well). They had an obscure third album. They had a comeback album a decade later. But still, mentioning Spacehog will usually spark the response of “didn’t they have that one song?”
The one-hit wonder is not a new phenomenon. It has been going on for as long as rock ‘n’ roll has been a big deal. There are lists of them stretching back into the Fifties. Sometimes it’s just a matter of a song that came around in the right time and the right place. I actually don’t think the Baha Men had a lot to say beyond Who Let the Dogs Out?, but it was the right song at the right time to catch the collective attention of the pop-culture masses. And then we moved on. That is frequently the case, and for all the good things that radio has done for the spread of music, that is one of the worst. For generations of music listeners, what the radio played was what was popular. If a band had a hit single, the radio played it into the ground. If they were able to produce another hit single, they played that into the ground, too. But rarely was it ever mentioned “if you like this song, check out the rest of the album.” I mean, why pay $10-20 for an album when you can hear your favorite song on the radio all the time? But, what if they stop playing it? What if I’m not near a radio? What if I’m not content hearing it twice an hour, what if I want to listen to it endlessly over and over and over again? And thus, the single was born.
Back in the day, this was the 45. It was a smaller sized record (usually with a bigger center hole that you had to have the adapter for) that played at 45rpms instead of the 33 and third of standard records. They even made turntables specifically for them. As the format was moving from vinyl to the excessively more portable cassette, the cassingle came into being. Later, once CDs became the dominant form of media, the CD Single (and it’s bulky brother, the Maxi-Single) followed right along where the cassingle left off. All three of these formats had a good and bad aspect to them.
The bad aspect was that you didn’t get the whole album. This was a problem sometimes, but not always. What happens if they release another cut from that album? Well, you don’t own it, so it’s either get another Single or suck it up and buy the album. What happens if they’re Mariah Carey and they release five songs as singles off of one album. You could ave just bought the album for $12.99 at the mall record store, but you’ve now payed $3.99 five times and you still only have half the album and spent more money. You lose, she wins. Well, more accurately, her record company wins, but that’s a discussion for another time.
The good aspect was a little phenomenon called “the B-side.” records and cassettes, being that they had two sides, did not usually waste that whole other side of space with nothing. But, you also didn’t want to give away the potential next single on their, though sometimes the B-side was another album track not slated for popularity. Sometimes it was a remix of the A-side track. But very often, this was a scrapped album track or live performance that you couldn’t get anywhere else. These “rarities” as affectionate fans called them were sometimes raw studio recordings, and sometimes they were covers of other artists songs that would never have seen the light of day otherwise. Some of my favorite tracks from bands have come from. Pearl Jam famously had a song called Yellow Ledbetter that was, for a long time, only available as a B-side. It became a huge radio hit, and no one could find the single it had come off of. My local Media Play, the only place I could find the then five-year old Jeremy single it was on, jacked up the price accordingly once the song became a radio play hit. Sorry Media Play, I’m not paying $10.99 for two songs.
Then came the internet, and the mp3. Now you could download one song. Sure, it took ten hours, and there was no resuming, and if your mom picked up the phone while you were downloading you got kicked off and had to start over, but you could get just the single you wanted, for “free.” But, it wasn’t convenient, or quick, and once you downloaded the song, it only existed on your computer. There really wasn’t an option beyond converting the mp3 back to a CD track and burning it onto a disc. And then Apple comes along with a decent portable player (sure, there were others before the iPod, but the iPod was better than them by leaps and bounds) and a store to buy just the one song you really had to hear without any of that album or B-side nonsense.
But we lost something in all of that. We lost track of the album. Sure, B-sides are awesome. But one of the things that makes them awesome is their autonomous “non-album track” status. Now, in fairness, not all albums are greater than the sum of their parts. There are in existence albums that exist just to crank out a series of singles. See the aforementioned Mariah Carey album for an example. But many albums are really a set of musically congruous songs that an artist presents. There are themes, there are climaxes and denouements. There are emotional songs never meant to be (over)played on the radio. There are vulgar songs that never could be played on the radio (at least not without some serious edits. I’m looking at you Closer by Nine Inch Nails). There was a time that singles existed to sell the album. The singles were just there to get you interested enough to explore the rest. Unfortunately, many people, either through apathy or because of perceived inconvenience or because they are shallow, never took that step and just stuck with the comfort zone of the single. This is why we have one-hit wonders. And it’s unfortunate.
If all you knew of Spacehog was In the Meantime and maybe (just because you were actually trying to pay attention) Mungo City, then you missed out on a lot of great tracks. You never got to hear great songs like Candyman, 2nd Avenue, Space is the Place, Good Bye Violet Race or To Be a Millionaire…Was It Likely?. And that’s sad for you, because those are really good songs. Some of them, I would argue, are better than In the Meantime. And those aren’t even my favorite songs on those first two albums. I’m terribly gald I gave them the extra shot. If I had stayed with just In the Meantime or if I had been content with just hearing Possum Kingdom from Toadies (callback to #40!), I would have missed out on some great music that has stuck with me for a long time and made enough of an impact on me to be on this very list.
Now, to be honest, the “buy the whole damn album” philosophy does not always work out for me. Brackish actually was the only good song off Kittie’s debut album Spit. The rest of it, in my opinion, was kind of not good. It was a mistake on my part to buy Orgy’s album Candyass after hearing their version of Blue Monday. That album was garbage. But more often than not, by an overwhelming margin, buying the album has been a great thing. I’ve been exposed to so much great music that I would have missed out on if I had listened to the masses telling me that someone was a “one-hit wonder.” I personally don’t care how many hits they have. If the music is good, I’ll hang out for a while.