Unbelievable by krin.jpg

Date Aired
June 17, 2013
Running Time
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Todd plays "Unbelievable" on the piano.

A one-hit wonder retrospective

After playing the last notes, Todd motions to...

Video for "Unbelievable"
Andrew Dice Clay: Oh!

Todd: Welcome back to One Hit Wonderland, where we take a look at the full careers of bands and artists known for only one song.

Todd (VO): And today, we're going back to those wacky early 90s. Now, here's some context that you absolutely need to know, and believe me when I say this. The first year and a half of the 90s was...

Todd: ...miserable.

Clip for Amy Grant - "Baby, Baby"
Amy: Baby, baby
I'm taken...

Todd (VO): Absolutely miserable. The musical landscape was dominated by acts like Color Me Badd, Vanilla Ice, Michael Bolton. It was awful!

Todd: You need to know all that because...

Back to "Unbelievable"

Todd (VO): ...it was in the middle of that mess that five lads from Gloucestershire set the world on fire with their eclectic mix of dance music, psychedelia, funk and indie rock. They were EMF, and for a brief moment in time, they were the newest, hottest, and most promising act that the alternative rock scene had going on.

James Atkins: You're unbelievable
Andrew: Oh!

Todd: Yeah, I know what you're thinking, right? These guys?

Todd (VO): With the dorky hat and the shorts? The ones that, in retrospect, seemed no more important than Marky Mark or C + C Music Factory? How do they even count as a rock band at all?

Todd: Well, sit down and shut up because I'm about to tell you.

Todd (VO): Yes, today we are going to look at a genre that could've been the defining sound of the decade, yet ended up just a brief little blip on the radar, and we're gonna do it through the lens of its most abrupt career casualty.

Todd: EMF—their song was "Unbelievable", and their career was unbelievably short. Let's take a look.

James: You're so unbelievable

Before the hit

Montage of pictures of EMF

Todd (VO): In 1989, four teenagers got together and started throwing raves out in the forest outside their dead-end little town. Later they met a local singer named Ian Dench, who suggested they ought to start writing songs. What kind of songs? Their only real musical idea was "dance stuff with guitars."

Todd: They were not the first to come up with this idea.

Clips of The Charlatans - "The Only One I Know", Stone Roses - "I Wanna Be Adored", and the documentary Madchester

Todd (VO): In England in the late 80s, all the tastemaking music magazines were hyping up the Manchester dance scene. It was all about rock bands mixing psychedelic funk rock with house and rave music. Have any of you ever seen [poster of...] 24 Hour Party People? You should, I highly recommend it. Anyway, bands like the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays and a few others were absolutely blowing up around this time. Manchester bands were absolutely the new hotness of 1989 and 1990. And the music press called the whole scene Madchester. This genre of music was also called baggy because...

Todd: ...well...

Clip of EMF performance

Todd (VO): ...you can imagine why it's called that. Look at the EMF guys' gigantic shorts! You could sail a yacht with those things.

Todd: So you can see why a bunch of small-town ravers would latch onto that.

Now they chose the name [logo of...] EMF. They've always been a little coy about what it stands for, but officially they were named [album cover of greatest hits album] after a local New Order fan club, the Epsom Mad Funkers. However, they've always been dogged by rumors that EMF actually stands for Ecstasy Motherfuckers.

Todd (VO): There have been other explanations for it, but, yeah, that's a big one. That's followed them around for decades now. And you know what?

Todd: I would like to clarify the truth of the matter right now. Duh! Of course that's what it stands for.

Footage of rave

Todd (VO): Look, ecstasy was the drug of choice in the Madchester scene. These people practically invented the rave. The main club where it all started out, went out of business because no one was buying the drinks because they were all dropping E. One group wrote a nonsense song just so they could sneak in a reference to ecstasy.

Clip of The Shamen - "Ebenezer Goode"
The Shamen: Eezer Goode, Eezer Goode
He's Ebenezer Goode
Eezer Goode, Eezer Goode
He's Ebenezer Goode

Todd: "E's are good." Get it? Ha ha? So, an indie dance band calling themselves EMF, and it's not an ecstasy reference? I'll believe that about as much as I believe [picture of...] a reggae band calling themselves [picture of "I [pot leaf] THC" t-shirt] THC and claiming it's not a pot reference. Bullshit! They're called EMF cause they were on ecstasy, motherfucker! And if you need any more evidence, they eventually wrote this.

Clip of "EMF"
EMF: E - ecstasy
M - motherfucker, motherfucker
F - from us to you
E - ecstasy
M - motherfucker, motherfucker
F - from us to you

Todd: I hope that settles that.

Todd (VO): After about four gigs, EMF got signed to EMI, the world famous label who said that, after the Sex Pistols and the Pet Shop Boys, EMF were the best band they'd ever signed.

Todd: Let's see how well that bore out.

The big hit

Video for "Unbelievable"

Todd (VO): EMF released their first single towards the end of 1990 and immediately became the next big thing in England.

Todd: In fact, you could say that their rise was...

James: Unbelievable

Todd: Oh! Heh? Heh? Clever.

James: You burden me with your problems
By telling me more than mine

Todd (VO): Clearly, Great Britain bought the hype, as "Unbelievable" quickly became a Top 10 hit, but it became an even bigger hit a few months later when it hit the states. By July of 1991, EMF had the #1 in America. What is it about this song that made it so big? Well, let's look at the lyrics.

James: You burden me with your questions
You'd have me tell no lies

Todd (VO): "Unbelievable" is about a mean girlfriend that EMF are sending on the first train to Dumpsville.

James: I'm going to shoot through
And leave you

Todd (VO): Because...because she's awful. I mean, listen to the lyrics. She belittles him, she's demanding.

James: You'd have me tell no lies

Todd: She won't even let him lie. The nerve of some chicks, am I right?

James: The things you say
Your purple prose just gives you away

Todd: Yeah, your purple prose totally gives you away, you pretentious bitch.

Todd (VO): But no, that's not really what it's about. I mean, technically, it's about a nagging girlfriend, but...

Todd: ...in actuality, this song is about one thing and one thing only.

James: You're unbelievable

Todd: Oh!

Todd (VO): I mean, it sounds like a compliment, doesn't it? He means "unbelievable" like...

Todd: "God, you're unbelievable, you know that?" What he sings is, "you're unbelievable. [thrusts] Oh!" I bet his girlfriend doesn't even know she's being insulted.

Todd (VO): The lyrics don't matter because the effect of "Unbelievable" is that it pumps you up and is exciting in a very unspecific kind of way.

Todd: It's a perfect Jock Jam, in other words.

Clip of montage of 1991 Minnesota Twins

Todd (VO): I mean, when your local arena plays "Unbelievable" when local sports player hits a home run or something, they're not doing it because they think he's a hectoring nag with purple prose.

Todd: All they're thinking is, "Oh!"

Todd (VO): That "oh!", by the way, is a sample of the comedian Andrew Dice Clay.

Brief clip from his stand-up routine
Andrew Dice Clay: Oh!

Todd (VO): Another wildly successful act in 1991 who [poster of The Adventures of Ford Fairlane] dropped off the face of the earth afterwards. Yeah, "Unbelievable" is your classic disposable pop hit. You can see very easily why this became one of the biggest songs in the world, why it got played over and over again. And at the same time, you can't imagine anyone saying this was their favorite song ever for any reason.

Todd: In retrospect, EMF were basically the digestible, pop sellout version of the Madchester scene.

Todd (VO): They were pretty boys wearing the latest fashions that would look impossibly stupid just a couple years later. They were like a 90s version of Duran Duran, basically. But being a new Duran Duran is not a bad thing at all, and they were also still a real rock band. Even as "Unbelievable" topped the Hot 100, it was also a Top 5 hit on the alternative charts too.

Todd: They were legit and they captured the hearts of millions. Clearly, EMF's brand of dance-inflected indie rock represented the future of alternative music in 1991.

Clip of Nirvana - "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
Kurt Cobain: With the lights out, it's less dangerous
Here we are now...

Todd: Nirvana killed a lot of careers, people.

The failed follow-up

Todd: To be honest, I don't really know why they didn't get a second hit.

Video for "Children"
James: Hold on take your life

Todd (VO): I mean, yes, Nirvana happened, but these things don't change overnight.

Todd: Where exactly did it all go wrong?

James: Children, I know

Todd (VO): I think it might be that alternative rock on the pop charts was still kind of a novelty. There were quite a few acts like that who were big in the UK alternative scene like Sinead O'Connor, Jesus Jones, the La's, Siouxsie and the Banshees, who could only ever manage to notch one Top 40 hit in America and then just disappeared. And I guess their other singles are solid enough, but they didn't have that killer hook or the Andrew Dice Clay sample, so...

Todd: ...more pop success just was not in the cards for them.

Video for "I Believe"
James: I believe
I believe sometimes I touch

Todd (VO): And Nirvana did, in fact, completely ruin EMF's chances to stay popular on the alternative charts too. I mean, this was just a year after the Milli Vanilli scandal, the 80s had been going on for fifteen or twenty years at that point. Music fans wanted something real, so they were suspicious of these doofy-haired teen idols with their samples and their synthesizers.

Video for "Lies"
James: You said too much
And what you said, it was a lie

Todd (VO): Now in the UK, where they broke earlier, they had more time to get out some more singles, so they did notch a few more hits before the definition of alternative rock changed dramatically. But they must've been stung by the distrust because around this time, they started hanging out with [picture of...] Jane's Addiction and they decided [album cover of Stigma] their next album was gonna use no samples.

Todd: It was gonna be darker.

Video for "They're Here"

Todd (VO): Always a good idea, a dark album.

Todd: Plenty of allegedly lightweight acts have achieved greater success when they made a darker album such as...



(band name not found)

I'm sure there's at least one.

Todd (VO): But I've watched a lot of Behind the Music, and the darker, more adult album is generally the two-thirds mark of the episode, where things start going bad, and EMF was no exception 'cause...

Todd: ...who the hell wanted a darker EMF?

Clip of "It's You"

Todd (VO): Also bad news for EMF was that the Madchester just kind of abruptly died for no adequately explained reason. Just...the big names either just went to shit or went on hiatus or jumped on the Britpop bandwagon when Blur and Oasis took off. That's a whole other kettle of fish, you know what i mean.

Todd: So yeah, just a few short years later, the landscape had shifted in British rock too, from baggy pants to [brief clip of Oasis - "Wonderwall"] giant monobrows, and EMF were left by the wayside.

Did they ever do anything else?

Todd: Uh...

Video for "Perfect Day"

Todd (VO): One more album in '95. It didn't do well either. They pretty much broke up after that. Although they did have one more charting hit.

Video for Reeves and Mortimer ft. EMF - "I'm a Believer"
Vic Reeves: I thought love was only true in fairytales
EMF: Oi!

Todd (VO): See, England had this weird thing going on where they would let their famous comedians sing songs for some reason. So there was this comedy duo, Reeves and Mortimer, who teamed up with EMF to do a cover of "I'm a Believer".

Vic: Then I saw her face
Vic and EMF: Now I'm a believer

Todd (VO): Let this be a lesson to you, famous bands—covering "I'm a Believer" is when your band's career ends. [Clip of Smash Mouth cover] It happened to EMF, it happened to Smash Mouth. Don't cover "I'm a Believer".

Live performance of "Unbelievable"
James: You're unbelievable

Todd (VO): They reunited in 2001 and went on tour to promote their Greatest Hits album, but then their bass player Zac Foley died, so they broke up again. They go on tour every now and again still.

Todd: Yeah, the EMF story kind of squitters to a halt. You're sadly all too believable. Oh?

Did they deserve better?

Todd: Look, they had one hit in America and a few hits in England. I really don't see how they could have realistically hoped for more.

Todd (VO): They caught the tail end of a dying genre, and they weren't exactly the most original or talented or worthwhile. This is exactly the kind of band that becomes a flash in the pan, and I would recommend their stuff only if you're really, really interested in the whole baggy scene and you've already heard of better-remembered bands.

Todd: I guess my final verdict is...eh. [Band logo] Eh. Meh. Feh...? But they had "Unbelievable", and you can't take that from them. [Long pause] Okay, one more time. Oh!

James: You're unbelievable

Closing tag song: Tom Jones - "Unbelievable"

"Unbelievable" is owned by EMI Records
This video is owned by me

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