The USA is the largest music market in the world (with Japan and the UK coming in second and third place), which means that artists from around the world often want to make it big in America. But the States can be a tough nut to crack for international acts, particularly if they don’t sing in English. Here are 10 acts who scored one hit in America and then quickly fell from favor yet found lasting success in their own country.
10 Dexys Midnight Runners
Currently known as just Dexys, Dexys Midnight Runners soared to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1983 with their Celtic-sounding single “Come on Eileen.” Later that year, they managed to chart another song in America, “The Celtic Soul Brothers,” but it only reached No. 86, after which they weren’t heard from again in the States.
It was a different story back in their native UK, though. “Geno” hit the No. 1 spot a couple of years before “Come on Eileen,” and they had a handful of other Top 20 hits across their career. Frontman Kevin Rowland told NME he’s “grateful for ‘Eileen,’ and the money means I can live and do other projects.” He also said, “It can be frustrating that in America we’re seen as a one-hit wonder, but here and in Europe, it’s not like that, especially amongst music fans.”
OMC (which stands for Otara Millionaires Club) topped the charts in New Zealand with their 1995 song “How Bizarre.” It became a global hit soon afterward and managed to snag the top spot on Billboard’s Mainstream Top 40 in 1997. It was excluded from the Hot 100 because a commercial single of the song wasn’t available to buy, meaning it didn’t qualify for the chart. Despite that technicality, the song was a massive hit. It was also recently revived by going viral on TikTok.
In most people’s minds, OMC was a one-hit wonder, but the story is a little different in New Zealand. Calum Henderson, the deputy editor of The Spinoff, a Kiwi online magazine, declares, “Any New Zealander who claims OMC were one-hit wonders deserves to be thrown in a skip.” Three of their follow-up singles cracked the Top 40 in New Zealand, with “Land of Plenty” even making it to the No. 4 spot.
Falco (real name Johann Hölzel) established himself as a star in Europe with the release of “Der Kommissar” in 1982. After the song’s success, he lamented, “It just makes me sad because I know that I will never achieve such success ever again.” Little did he know that 1985 would see “Rock Me Amadeus” conquer music charts around the world and that in 1986, it would spend three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
His follow-up single, “Vienna Calling,” only managed to get to No. 18. Then he never charted in America again, but his music career continued in Europe. The 1986 single “Jeanny,” which was controversial because it was sung from the point of view of a stalker who was a possible rapist and murderer, went to No. 1 in various European countries. Falco also continued to score Top 10 hits in his home country of Austria.
7 S Club 7
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, S Club 7 (later known as S Club after one of the members left to join a metal band in 2002) was inescapable in the UK. They regularly hit the No. 1 and 2 spots on the UK charts with singles such as “Bring It All Back,” “S Club Party,” and “Reach.” But in America, they are only vaguely remembered for their ballad “Never Had a Dream Come True,” which climbed as high as the No. 10 spot on the Hot 100 in 2001.
The pop septet was desperate to make their mark in America, releasing four TV shows—Miami 7, L.A. 7, Hollywood 7, and Viva S Club—set in Miami and Los Angeles. They also starred in the movie Seeing Double (2003). While these efforts helped them gain popularity with younger audiences in the UK, they left no impression in the States.
6 Gary Numan
English synth-pop musician Gary Numan is remembered in America for just one song, “Cars,” which hit the No. 9 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1980. But back in the UK, he’s managed to score 23 Top 40 songs, including “Complex” and “I Die: You Die,” and sustain a decades-long music career.
In a 2010 interview with Songfacts, Numan was asked whether being a one-hit wonder in America frustrated him. “In a way it does,” he replied. “But you have to be realistic; better to have had one than none.” As well as just enjoying the process of making music, he also said, “Luckily for me, there’s been other countries—the UK obviously—where things have gone differently and much better. And it’s enabled me to keep on doing it, to keep on earning a living from it.”
5 Midnight Oil
In 1988, Australian rock band Midnight Oil claimed the No. 17 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 with their politically-charged song “Beds Are Burning.” While the song didn’t chart as highly as some of the other songs on this list, it was undeniably a hit. They scored two more songs on the chart, but at less impressive positions: “The Dead Heart” came in at No. 53, while “Blue Sky Mine” hit No. 47. Although one-hit wonders in America, in their native country of Australia, Midnight Oil is ranked as one of the country’s greatest rock bands.
In 2001, the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) compiled a list of the Ten Best Australian Songs, with “Beds Are Burning” claiming the No. 3 spot. Diesel and Dust (1987)—which includes “Beds Are Burning”—remains their biggest album, but many of their albums have charted highly in Australia, including 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 (1982), Blue Sky Mining (1990), and Earth and Sun and Moon (1993).
German band Nena, named after their lead singer, found worldwide success with their hit song “99 Luftballoons,” which led to them being persuaded into recording an English version, “99 Red Balloons,” to further cash in on the song’s popularity. In the States, however, it was the German version that charted, reaching No. 2 on the Hot 100 in 1984.
Nena found longer-lasting success in Germany and other European countries. Their self-titled 1983 album Nena was a hit across Europe, as was their follow-up album ? (Fragezeichen). Although their third and fourth albums created less of a splash, Nena embarked on a successful solo career in 2002 with the album Nena feat. Nena. In 2003, a new version of “Anyplace, Anywhere, Anytime,” which included both German and English lyrics and featured British popstar Kim Wilde, became a hit in Europe. Nena continues to chart in Germany to this day with her solo music.
3 The Proclaimers
After its inclusion in the film Benny & Joon (1993), “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by the Scottish duo The Proclaimers rocketed to the No. 3 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. This is actually better than its original 1988 chart performance in the UK, where it reached No. 11. Although their follow-up—”Let’s Get Married”—failed to make as much of an impact on American audiences, they have had a successful career in Scotland in particular, but also globally. Some of their most popular songs are “Letter from America,” “I’m on My Way” (which was used on 2001’s Shrek soundtrack), and “Sunshine on Leith.”
“I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” finally reached No. 1 in the UK when it was rerecorded as a Comic Relief charity single in 2007, featuring the voices of Peter Kay and Matt Lucas. The Proclaimers have released 12 albums since their debut and continue to perform both at home and abroad. Their songs were also used as the basis of the musical Sunshine on Leith (2007), which was adapted into a film in 2013.
According to a-ha keyboardist Magne Furuholmen, it was the animated pencil sketch music video that propelled “Take on Me” to the top of the Hot 100 chart in October 1985. “The song has a super catchy riff, but it is a song that you have to hear a few times. And I don’t think it would’ve been given the time of day without the enormous impact of the video,” Furuholmen told Rolling Stone in 2010.
Their follow-up single “The Sun Always Shines on T.V.” only peaked at No. 20 in the States. Furuholmen believes their lack of sustained success in the States was because “we were three headstrong Norwegians saying, ‘No, we don’t want to record another ‘Take on Me,’ we’re doing our own thing.’”
Doing their own thing may have killed any American dreams they had, but it allowed them to score multiple Top 10 hits in Norway and across Europe. In 1991, they played to 198,000 fans at the Rock in Rio festival in Brazil, setting a record for the largest-paying rock band concert attendance. Still, this achievement was ignored by the American press. “We were excited to read the NME and the Melody Maker because we felt at least they’d have to acknowledge our popularity,” Furuholmen says. “Instead, they wrote about Happy Mondays. It made us feel hopeless. We played to the biggest crowd in the world, and they ignored it.”
1 Tom Cochrane
Tom Cochrane had made some waves as the frontman of Canadian rock band Red Rider with the song “Lunatic Fringe” (1981), but it was his solo effort that truly propelled him into the spotlight. In 1991, he released “Life is a Highway,” which proved to be a hit in Canada and, within a few months, had climbed to the No. 6 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Although he never saw the same success in America again, he remains a household name in Canada.
“I Wish You Well” hit No. 1 in Canada in 1995, and Cochrane had a number of other Top 10 hits in his home country, leading to him being inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2003. In 2016, it was announced that the 322-kilometer (200-mile) stretch of road that links Cochrane’s hometown of Lynn Lake to Thompson would be renamed Tom Cochrane’s Life Is a Highway, with the Mayor of Lynn Lake calling Cochrane “our very own national treasure and most famous export.”