5 Unlikely Smash Hits in Music History

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There are best-selling songs. And then there are songs that transcend that status and become a cultural phenomenon. These rare songs sell so many copies/downloads they defy conventional wisdom. Consider the campy song Y.M.C.A., by the Village People. This 1978 tune sold around 12 million copies — the same figure sold by the Beatles’ top-selling single, I Want to Hold Your Hand. In a rational universe, that doesn’t happen. In this world, it happens. Artists you’ve never heard of (Mungo Jerry, Psy, Trio) released singles that outsold the best efforts of U2, Prince, Springsteen, Zeppelin, Michael Jackson, etc.


5. Wind of Change (1991, The Scorpions)

Think of all the great songs by all the great classic rock bands in history, from the Beatles and Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. This surprise hit by the German heavy metal band Scorpions is the biggest-selling classic rock single of all time, with 14 million copies sold. The song, which celebrates glasnost in the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, became a worldwide hit about a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The official music video for Wind of Change on YouTube has more than 257 million views.


4. Kung Fu Fighting (1974, Carl Douglas)

Carl Douglas unwittingly released this at the perfect intersection of two rising and powerful trends in pop culture: Kung-fu movies and disco. It would go on to sell 11 million copies. Fewer than 100 songs in music history have sold more than 10 million copies internationally. Around 40 of those were hard copies (records, tapes, etc.), while 40-some are digital downloads. More than 40 years later, Kung Fu Fighting is still turning up everywhere in pop culture, from movie and TV soundtracks to commercials. Not bad for a song that was originally intended as a “B” side, and was recorded in the studio in 10 minutes.


3. Gangnam Style (2012, Psy)

Loved by many, loathed by others, South Korean artist Psy’s song strained the Internet when it came out. It became the first YouTube video to reach 1 billion views, and the dance has been copied, parodied and shared all over social media. The song has sold 13.5 million digital downloads. Wiz Khalifa’s See You Again and the Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars song Uptown Funk hold the record for most digital download sales, with 20 million downloads.


2. Y.M.C.A. (1978, Village People)

This song’s original success is especially remarkable considering its ties to gay culture, in an era when that was still a taboo subject in pop culture. Improbably, the song remains a crowd favorite everywhere from sporting events to wedding receptions. It had 12 million in sales.


1. In the Summertime (1970, Mungo Jerry)

This is the second-best-selling single since the early years of the rock ’n’ roll era in 1955, with roughly 30 million copies sold; Elton John’s tribute to Princess Di, Candle in the Wind 1997/Something About the Way You Look Tonight, is No. 1 during that period, with 33 million in sales. It’s a catchy, fun tune, to be sure, but its rise to smash hit is as improbable as the story behind the song. Lead singer Ray Dorset has said he wrote the song in about 10 minutes. “I reckon In The Summertime is probably the best-known song around the world, apart from maybe Happy Birthday and White Christmas,” he told UK’s Express.co.

In case you’re wondering, the only other single in history with more sales than In the Summertime is Bing Crosby’s 1942 version of White Christmas, the all-time best-seller with 50 million copies sold. Crosby’s 1935 rendition of Silent Night is tied with In the Summertime for third on the all-time sales list at 30 million.


One More: Da Da Da (1981, Trio)

This song by the German band Trio never caught on in the U.S., barely peaking at No. 33 on the Dance Music/Club Play Singles chart in 1982, But it turned into a worldwide phenomenon, charting in almost three-dozen countries and selling 13 million copies. Da Da Da became a cult hit in the U.S. in the late 1990s after it appeared in a popular Volkswagen commercial every bit as odd as the song itself.

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