Between late 1979 and the end of 1989, there were nearly 500 (real) one-hit wonders of the 80s that reached the BILLBOARD Hot 100 just one time, a list that includes Soft Cell, Gary Numan, The Church, Bronski Beat, Nik Kershaw, The Buggles, The Waitresses, Ultravox and two different bands named The Silencers. Once a week, I’ll highlight a (real) one-hit wonder for you.
Hard to believe that 20 years ago this week, THAT THING YOU DO!, a Tom Hanks film he wrote and directed, was released into theaters. The film was a fictional story of a band from Erie, Pennsylvania called The Wonders, who hit it big in the Summer of 1964 with a single called “That Thing You Do!” and quickly reached No. 2 on the BILLBOARD Hot 100. The band rose and fell in about the same time, and The Wonders turned out to be a one-hit wonder (or “One-Hit Wonders”).
In reality, the song “That Thing You Do!” reached No. 41 on the Hot 100, and it was the only hit the fictional band had. It also received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Original Song, losing out to Madonna’s “You Must Love Me” (written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and from the film adaptation of the musical, EVITA).
Well, thinking about THAT THING YOU DO! got me thinking about some of my favorite (real) one-hit wonders of the 80s (and with nearly 500 to choose from, there are many of them), and one that came to mind tonight was from late 1986, and a title whose motto I’ve been a fan of for 30 years – “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” by Timbuk 3.
Formed in Madison, Wisconsin before relocating to Austin, Texas, Timbuk 3 was the real-life husband and wife team of Pat and Barbara K. McDonald. Pat and Barbara had all the instruments covered between the two of them, performing on acoustic, electric and bass guitars, harmonica, drum programming (or beat box, if you prefer), mandolin, violin, and they both shared vocals.
The success and perception for “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” was interesting to read about and witness. Yeah, it’s a great motto, and I have proudly sported my Wayfarers since before this song was ever a thought. But, instead of being a song about a positive outlook for the future, it’s oft-misinterpreted and is actually a song about a short future, albeit bright, courtesy of nuclear war. One verse in the original version of the song even referred to (then) President Ronald Reagan as a “flaming fascist.” That’d be an interesting version to hear.
Back in January 2011, I hosted a four-hour show on WMPG community radio in Portland, Maine with my dear and super-talented friend, Hope, called COLD WAR CLASSICS. It was one of THE BEST shows in the history of my little 20-year-old program, STUCK IN THE 80s (thank you, Hopey!). I can’t explain how this song did not get played, but it certainly fits the bill. “Do you remember what to do when you see the flash?” In 1951 Bert The Turtle asked that question, and 35 years later, Pat and Barbara K. McDonald lobbied for you to wear shades when you do see the flash.
“The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” (on I.R.S. Records) debuted on the BILLBOARD Hot 100 the week of Halloween 1986 at No. 85. By the week of Thanksgiving, it had reached the Top 40, and over the New Year’s 1987 holiday, it peaked at No. 19 for a couple of weeks. Shades, however, weren’t needed after 16 weeks, and Timbuk 3 sadly wouldn’t reach the Hot 100 again.
Around the globe, the Top 20 future was bright for this gem in at least Australia, Canada and Ireland. It also reached No. 21 in the U.K. and No. 29 in New Zealand.
Timbuk 3 released a total of six critically-lauded studio albums between their debut album, GREETINGS FROM TIMBUK 3 and 1995’s A HUNDRED LOVERS. A best-of compilation was released in 1992 (the great SOME OF THE BEST OF TIMBUK 3: FIELD GUIDE), and a couple of live albums were released as well, including LIVE FROM AUSTIN CITY LIMITS in 2011 (recorded in 1989, of which I am sure is beyond fantastic).
Pat and Barbara McDonald (as Timbuk 3) were nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy in 1987, and, after their big hit, put out some truly memorable songs, including “Life Is Hard” (from their debut), “National Holiday” (from 1989’s EDGE OF ALLEGIANCE album), and one of my all-time favorite holiday songs, 1987’s “All I Want For Christmas.”
The breakup of Timbuk 3 in 1995 coincided with the breakup of Pat and Barbara’s marriage, but both remained in Austin, and both pursued solo careers, which are still going strong today.
And, in today’s world where many 80s songs appear in commercials, Pat and Barbara continue to refuse to license their hit for any ads, including turning down nearly a million dollars from AT&T, and other offers from Ford, the United States Army, and even Bausch & Lomb for the Ray-Ban sunglasses.
In a 2014 interview with the AUSTIN CHRONICLE, Barbara said of turning down those offers: “I think there’s a false sense of need to own mass quantities of goods that is not healthy for the happiness of an individual, a community, or a country. What we need is good water, good food, and compassion for each other. And artistically, for me to contribute my passion about my music and creativity to something that creates isolationism by making people want more for themselves or feel the need for the newest truck or expensive pair of sunglasses goes against my intuition, my compassion, and my own happiness. Money can’t buy those things back.”
You know, some folks might call Timbuk 3 New Wave, others might consider them to be Post-Punk, whereas I’ve always considered them a kick-ass Alt-Rock band with smart, edgy lyrics who deserved more of a listen and then some beyond their one hit. I still believe that. And, even though Timbuk 3’s one big hit was more about The Cold War than a graduation theme song, I still think it’s an awesome motto to abide by. (And then he types “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” whilst wearing his vintage – and honkin’ big – 80s Ray-Ban Wayfarers. End of post.)