If you’ve ever considered investing in the stock market (or going in on that pyramid scheme your kind-of acquaintance from high school sent to you on Facebook), you should be well aware that past results do not necessarily guarantee future success. Just because something worked once, you can’t be 100% certain that it’s going to work as well if you try it again, and that applies to most pursuits in life, not just financial ones. One day in Canada, for example, Mr. and Mrs. Gretzky got together and created their son Wayne, who scored an NHL-record 2,857 career points. A few years later, they created his brothers Bret (four career points), and Keith (who never played in the league), and while they probably wanted them to exist for reasons other than just playing hockey, the thought “Hey, this first son is working out really, really well for us — let’s try it again” probably entered their minds at some point along the way.
That same mentality is one that’s often embraced in the world of music, where an artist can spend years grinding along and looking for that big break before suddenly dropping a hit single that launches them into the stratosphere. Say you find yourself in that position, and your now-massive audience is demanding to hear more — what do you do next? Why not try the same thing that worked before? It’d be foolish not to, right?
While the great ones know it’s often best to leave a good thing behind (which is why, despite our pleas, Lou Bega is yet to release a “Mambo No. 6”), many try replicating that magic formula one more time (at least), unfortunately finding an audience that’s far less receptive the second time around. These are the tales of five musical acts that, after towering success, went right back to the well, albeit with significantly diminished results.
The Marvelettes — “Twistin’ Postman”
As long as there have been companies hired to transmit messages, there have been songs about people in love offering unsolicited customer feedback, and in 1961, seven years before Jerry Butler’s “Hey Western Union Man” (and 23 years before New Edition’s “Mr. Telephone Man”), four high-schoolers from Inskster, Michigan hit the scene with “Please Mr. Postman.”
Motown’s first No. 1 hit, “Please Mr. Postman” shot to the top of the Billboard Charts in 1961, and while the Marvelettes carried postman-themed music to unprecedented popularity, songs about twisting were still enjoying their run of global dominance. Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” reached No. 1 in June 1960 (and again in January 1962), and his 1961 follow-up “Let’s Twist Again” was a boldly successful double-down the likes of which we may never again see so long as we live. (Dude rolled into the studio the summer after “The Twist”, literally sang “Let’s Twist Again, like we did last summer,” and made it a top ten hit.) Finally, “Twist and Shout” was recorded in 1961, covered by The Isley Brothers in 1962, and finally covered by The Beatles in 1963, the same year they covered “Please Mr Postman” as well. Long story short, people in the 60’s loved songs about twisting and songs about postmen, so it only made sense that the Marvelettes tried to cash in with 1962’s “Twistin’ Postman.” In the tale of “Twistin’ Postman,” a young woman, nervously awaiting a letter from her boyfriend, spots her mailman doing the twist and meandering down the street, just taking his sweet, sweet time. It’s not exactly the height of professionalism, but fortunately it all works out in the end.
With singles such as “Slow Twistin’” by Chubby Checker, “Hey, Let’s Twist” by Joey Dee and the Starliters, “Twistin’ the Night Away” by Sam Cooke, “Peppermint Twist — Part 1,” also by Joey Dee and the Starliters, “Percolator (Twist)” by Billy Joe and the Checkmates and “Dear Lady Twist” from Gary U.S. Bonds atop the charts at the time (not to mention Checkers’ original “The Twist”), “Twistin’ Postman” climbed no higher than 34th before it began its fall, passing “Twist Twist Senora,” “Soul Twist,” “Twistin’ Matilda” and “The Alvin Twist” (that’s Alvin as in Alvin and the Chipmunks) on the way down.
Bobby “Boris” Pickett — “Monster Rap” (and several others)
When Bobby Pickett was a child, his father worked as a manager at a local movie theater. With Dad in charge, Bobby enjoyed access to all the latest horror movies, and in turn began to master his impression of actor Boris Karloff, the horror legend best known for playing Frankenstein’s monster (but better known today for narrating “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”). Pickett began working as a singer in the early ’60s, a bandmate suggested they write a song featuring his Karloff imitation, and in 1962, “Monster Mash” was born.
“Monster Mash” reached the top of the charts in time for Halloween, and from that point on, Pickett really dove in head first to the whole “monster” thing. His first sequel, “Monster’s Holiday,” reached No. 30 in December 1962, and it’s pretty much “Monster Mash” with a Christmas theme. (The “Monster Holiday” B-side “Monster Motion” is basically just “Monster Mash” again, albeit this time with the gift of self-awareness — “He’s locked in his lab, counting his cash, that he made on his dance called ‘The Monster Mash,’” says Pickett.) Unfortunately, once you get past Halloween and Christmas, your fun holidays really start to dry up (especially if monster participation is required), and Pickett had to leave the gimmick behind for good.
Just kidding, he also had “Werewolf Watusi” and “Transylvania Twist”, among others, and by the time he got to “Monster Swim,” he wasn’t even pretending like these songs were independent concepts, which is actually refreshing in a way. Pickett kicks off “Monster Swim” by throwing “Monster Mash” right under the bus (“Now it’s a different bag, and mashing is a drag. When the lights grow dim, we now do the monster swim,” he says), and even the song’s characters are like “Wait, what happened to the mash?” Instead of a graveyard smash, he says the monster swim “was a poolside smash,” and I thought people did the swim at dances, not literally next to pools, but hey whatever. He also goes on to say, “It’s bigger than the mash,” so you have to admire his confidence even though he could not have been more wrong.
Finally, in 1985, Pickett gave us “Monster Rap,” which follows the basic story of “Monster Mash” aside from one key difference: Instead of doing a dance that the song never defines in the first place, this time the monster comes to life and starts dropping straight fire like:
“Well they shot a million volts, into my brain,
Now I’m ready to rap like a runaway train.
If you get in my way, we’re bound to clash
’Cause I’m the same dude that did the monster mash”
Unless Pickett had simply turned the same monster back on some twenty years later, the only way that last line makes sense is if:
A) The monster was brought to life and immediately took credit for Bobby Pickett’s 1962 lyrical composition, or
B) Bobby Pickett had somehow become the monster, like, the original Bobby passed away without our knowledge and his brain was saved in a jar and then placed in its head. Honestly, I don’t think we really need to get into it either way.
Carl Douglas — “Dance the Kung Fu”
In the early 1970’s, the world of popular culture grew obsessed with the art of Kung Fu (which mainly led to people forgoing the studying part and just pretending they knew Kung Fu), and from David Carradine’s Kung Fu series to Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon, fans simply couldn’t get enough. Jamaica born/England raised singer-songwriter Carl Douglas wisely concluded that while television and movies were already spoken for, the world apparently still needed a good disco track about Chinese martial arts, and in 1974, “Kung Fu Fighting” was born.
After a slow start, “Kung Fu Fighting” gained popularity throughout England, and after reaching the top of the UK charts, quickly did the same in the United States. Eventually, the song went No. 1 in over ten countries, including France, South Africa and New Zealand (A remix from a UK group called Bus Stop was released in 1998, and that version went to No. 1 in New Zealand as well; “People from New Zealand really, really love ‘Kung Fu Fighting’” is my new favorite stereotype), ultimately selling over 11 million copies.
So if you’re Carl Douglas, and the entire planet is dancing to the one Kung Fu song you’ve got on your resume, what do you do? That’s right, you go right back to the well, and you release “Dance the Kung Fu” the following year.
You’d think there wouldn’t be that much ground left to cover in a second Kung Fu song, and you’d be correct, but to be fair, Douglas adopted a different approach to his storytelling this time around. While “Kung Fu Fighting” kind of sounds like somebody giving a police report after things went incredibly wrong at a nightclub, “Dance the Kung Fu” encourages people to avoid the violence altogether, with Douglas suggesting that his vaguely described dance be used as an alternative to letting one’s temper get the best of them. In hindsight, although he admitted that seeing everyone Kung Fu Fighting was, in fact, a little bit frightening, hearing him scream, “Dance the Kung Fu! Don’t Fight!” in his second single makes me think he was a bit more frightened than he’d originally let on.
After “Kung Fu Fighting,” Douglas probably assumed that he’d found the key to success, and that the key to success was making songs about Kung Fu. Unfortunately, it seemed the public had reached its limit on songs about Kung Fu (for the record, the limit is exactly one song), and after failing to crack the American Top 40, “Dance the Kung Fu” has been largely forgotten.
Rockwell — “Peeping Tom”
Rockwell was born Kennedy William Gordy in Detroit, Michigan, and as the son of Motown founder Berry Gordy, being a pop star seemed like an obvious career to pursue. Despite the family connection, he submitted a demo under his stage name, and his father, who’d been previously unimpressed with his musical efforts, was surprised to hear that young Kennedy had been signed to Motown without his knowledge. Taking the stage name Rockwell (because he “Rocked Well” *rolls eyes harder than previously thought to be humanly possible*), Kennedy proved Dad incredibly wrong with his 1984 hit “Somebody’s Watching Me,” the wildly popular single off his debut album of the same name.
“Somebody’s Watching Me” spent 19 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, and climbed as high as No. 2, Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose” ultimately boxing him out of the top spot. In addition to “Somebody’s Watching Me,” Rockwell’s album featured a sort of companion song titled “Obscene Phone Caller” (“If Alexander Bell were alive today, would he want the telephone to be used this way?” he ponders), and while it didn’t reach the heights of “Somebody’s Watching Me,” Rockwell surely knew deep inside that being the victim of anonymous harassment was a pop genre with even more fertile ground to sow.
The following year, Rockwell released his sophomore album Captured, and he wasted no time at all trying to capitalize on his prior success (and hypothetical victimhood) with the album’s first track, “Peeping Tom.” While “Somebody’s Watching Me” was strictly about having the feeling that, well, somebody was watching him, “Peeping Tom” revealed that he’d been right all along — Rockwell was indeed being watched, and although he’d previously suspected his mailman or a neighbor, it turns out the culprit was a woman he didn’t know but quickly proceeded to call the girl of his dreams. “What’s she seekin’ when she’s peekin,” he wonders, “I hope she finds it, ’cause I don’t mind it.”
Well then, how about that: After all his prior concern, it turned out Rockwell was pretty cool with the whole stalking thing after all, once he got a good look at the person doing it. “Just want to get to know her, maybe then I can show her, just want a chance to hold her,” he says. No Rockwell, no you don’t. You don’t want any of those things. This is terribly unhealthy behavior for the both of you. Anyway, “Peeping Tom” failed to crack the Billboard charts, and today serves as a catchy reminder that you can literally go around committing crimes without a single repercussion, so long as you’re considered to be at least a certain level of attractive.
Sir Mix-a-Lot — “Put ’Em on the Glass”
I feel that the 1992 classic “Baby got Back” is prominent enough to avoid a lengthy introduction, so I’ll instead use this opportunity to share a fond childhood memory: Much like how others specifically remember where they were during the moon landing or Kennedy assassination, the moment I learned “Baby Got Back” had a music video will remain seared in my memory until the end of time: It’s fifth grade, I’m in Ms Chioffi’s music class, and my friend Scott, bewildered and enthusiastic, proclaims, “It’s a bunch of people dancing around on giant butts!” Life would never be the same.
“Baby Got Back” was a colossal hit (it spent five weeks atop the Billboard charts, sold over two million copies and won the Grammy for best rap solo performance; its album, Mack Daddy, went platinum), and there’s only so many private parts one can celebrate, so Mix-a-Lot quickly threw together the breast-centric “Put ’Em on the Glass” in time for his 1994 follow-up album Chief Boot Knocka.
In a 2003 AV Club interview, Mix-a-Lot was asked what inspired the single, and the answer definitely won’t surprise you:
“Baby got Back,” he said, “There’s no sense in lying about it. It was like, ‘Asses, what’s next? Titties! I mean, it really was a stupid move. I shouldn’t have done it. But shoulda, coulda, woulda.”
Entertainment Weekly gave both Mack Daddy and Chief Boot Knocka solid “B” grades, but unlike “Baby got Back,” the magazine wasn’t fond of “Put ’Em on the Glass,” calling its “puerile and sexist” topics a “turnoff.” Frankly, I’ve got to agree. Sure, there were a few unclassy parts to “Baby Got Back,” but at its heart, Mix-a-Lot was saying “Hey girl, I know there’s some people out here disrespecting your big ol’ butt, but I’m here to tell you that some of us love it just the way it is.” While you probably don’t want to hear that from a stranger when you’re at the grocery store or something, the message, in and of itself, is a supportive one. On the other hand, “Put Em on the Glass” comes from a completely different place emotionally, because it’s not like everyone was going around saying “Big breasts? Yuck! Who likes those?” at the time. The message of “Put ’Em on the Glass” is basically “If you ever see me in traffic, and you happen to have large breasts at your disposal, please let me see them,” and unfortunately, that doesn’t resonate quite the same. “Put ’Em on the Glass” failed to reach the charts, and Chief Boot Knocka peaked at 69 (so you know, silver linings, I guess), bringing Mix-a-lot’s body part rapping to an end.
Just kidding — then came “Big Johnson,” off his 2003 album, Daddy’s Home. That’s the one that officially brought Mix-a-lot’s body part rapping to an end. For good. Maybe. I don’t know, we’ll see.