Sep 232011

The single stiffed, but…

Every once in a while I get to thinking about songs that everyone knows–or, at least that have achieved huge popularity and recognition–that were not hit singles. My case in point is The Romantics‘ “What I Like About You.” Everybody knows that song. It didn’t make the Top 40, though.

There are various reasons why such a song might take off later rather than sooner: maybe it had poor distribution or bad PR in the first place, maybe later it gets used in a commercial or movie or (now) videogame.

I have a few criteria in mind.

  1. I am talking about songs that were released as singles only–so no “Stairway to Heaven” and what have you. No album tracks. That’s a separate category.
  2. By “not a hit single” I mean it didn’t make the Top 40. I know that the invocation of Top 40 skews the discussion away from modern times when the Top 40 as we knew it has ceased to have any meaning whatsoever. Special pleading is welcome.
  3. Most subjective is “everyone knows it.” Use your judgement. Polling data are not required. A once-obscure song that is later used in a movie or commercial does not necessarily translate into a song that everyone knows. The 13th Floor Elevators‘ “You’re Gonna Miss Me” is known by a lot more people because of its use in High Fidelity, but most people don’t know it. We’re looking for major penetration into people’s brains here.

  67 Responses to “Once and For All: What’s the Most Popular Non-Hit Single Ever?”

  1. pudman13

    “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” (top chart position #69) comes to mind. Oldies and Classic Rock radio are full of songs that somehow became classics while never being hits. I’ve always wondered how, say, Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason” (top chart position #68) got to be a radio standard. Strange that you mention this now because just yesterday I was thinking of a song that fits this bill and now I forget what it was.

  2. misterioso

    pudman, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” may be a good choice. It is pretty widely known, that’s for sure. It is hard for me to say whether it has reached the level of Song That People Know Who Don’t Listen To the Radio or Like Rock and Roll, but maybe.

    “Never Been Any Reason” is probably in a different category, songs that, as you say, were not hits but became “radio standards.”

  3. According to Wikipedia, “Should I Stay or Should I Go” only reached 45 on something called the Hot US 100, but was #1 in UK charts. It’s all very confusing to me


  4. tonyola

    I assume we’re talking about US Top 40, right? In that case, “Breakfast in America” by Supertramp got as high as #62 but is quite well known.

  5. misterioso

    Ah, yes. Another flaw of my criteria is that it is hopelessly U.S.-centric. This does tend to confuse matters. I would say “Should I Stay or Should I Go” is a pretty good call, though.

  6. misterioso

    tony, I’d put that in the not a hit but became “radio standard” pile.

  7. diskojoe

    The song that comes to my mind would be “Sail On Sailor” by the Beach Boys, which failed to reach the Top 40 twice (in ’73 & ’75), but I remember hearing a lot on the radio back in the day.

  8. tonyola

    I remember it getting a lot of airplay in 1979 on its release.

  9. What about Iggy and Bowie’s Lust for Life? According to Iggy’s Wiki page it, charted in Holland, upon original release and that’s it.

    I would also submit The Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop — now a stadium standard to rally the home team.

  10. Not sure “Lust for Life” counts, since its resurgence began with its use in Trainspotting.

  11. misterioso

    Oats, that is no disqualification by my criteria. Doesn’t matter how it became well known. I don’t think Lust for Life quite makes the grade but Blitzkreig Bop might: and that and others that come to mind have made me wonder how much of this has to do with sporting events.

  12. misterioso

    Folks, let me reiterate, or clarify: I mean much more than a song that has achieved FM AOR or classic rock airplay despite lack of chart success. I mean a song that almost everyone you meet knows and knows well–even if they don’t know the name. I mean, probably many people would give you a blank look if you ask them about The Ramones’ “Blitzkreig Bop.” But prompt them with an “Eh-Oh Let’s Go” and see if they don’t respond.

  13. machinery

    Modern English’s “I Melt with you” (?) fits this bill I think. It never made the top 40 in the US, but is played incessantly.

    I hold this song in high regard actually. It’s well written, catchy and could be in the dictionary under “new wave song.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard ANYTHING else by this band. They could have written one song and one song only and still take the crown. I never turn it off when it comes on the car radio.

  14. tonyola

    The Ramones got virtually no airplay in the US in 1976, and their songs really didn’t enter the public conscience until after the UK punk revolution. Iggy Pop didn’t get much airplay either and according to Wikipedia, “Lust for Life” was never released as a single. I’m beginning to think this whole exercise is flawed because it’s too dependent upon inaccurate and selective memories. How do you objectively define a “non-hit hit”?

  15. misterioso

    Ding! That is definitely another I had in mind, machinery.

  16. misterioso

    tony, you’re overthinking this one. I don’t have an objective definition, here. This isn’t Plato’s Freakin’ Republic, bro. Work with me. A song that didn’t make the Top 40 but which, in your estimation, is known across a huge swath of society, even well beyond people who are even much interested in pop/rock music. Or suggest a refinement to the definition.

  17. How ’bout Nick Lowe’s “I Knew The Bride” from 1985 — never charted higher than number 77, but still get played at weddings, ballgames, etc.

  18. Two TREMENDOUS examples, if you ask me – and I wonder if “normal” folks who hear these songs on cruise line ads and at baseball games really know all but the snippets used in those contexts.

  19. BigSteve

    Speaking of sporting events, doesn’t that Blur “Woo-hoo” song (to call it by its popular name) fit here?

  20. hrrundivbakshi

    “Rock and Roll, Pt 2” or whatever it’s called, by Gary Glitter or whatever his name was. You all know it as the song that goes:

    (band) Naaa, na-na-na-na-na
    (Voices) HEY!
    (band) Na-na-na-na

    Repeat ad nauseum, add big sloppy drum fills in the middle somewhere, play at all major sporting events.

    I wonder how big a hit “Na-na-na-na, hey-hey-ey, Goodbye” was? I believe the band was Steam.

  21. misterioso

    Good point: you mean that eh-oh let’s go thing is from a song? I can well imagine that response. Yet another category: songs everybody knows a snippet of but which most couldn’t name in a million years.

  22. misterioso

    That is a pretty good one.

  23. misterioso

    Ah, but those were both top 10 hits.

  24. That’s got a number in the title, like “Psalm 44,” or whatever that Jethro Tull song is called.

  25. Steam hit #1 for two weeks per Wiki


  26. hrrundivbakshi

    Where was that Glitter song a hit?

  27. BigSteve

    Song #2

  28. tonyola

    It hit #7 on the Billboard Top 100 in 1972.

  29. misterioso

    And #2 in England.

  30. I’m reading that “Space Oddity” reached #124 in the US upon its 1969 release. ’73 re-release moved to #15


  31. tonyola

    John Lennon and “Mother”. The single only got to #43 on Billboard but it’s one of his signature songs.

  32. misterioso

    Not sure if that qualifies, then, but it suggests another that might: Bowie’s “Heroes.” Didn’t even make the U.S. top 100! Only made 24 in the UK! Bizarre. Pretty damn well known today, and, of course, absolutely magnificent.

  33. cliff sovinsanity

    I’ve got a winner….

    My Eyes Don’t Cry by Stevie Wonder was a single released from the album Characters AND IT NEVER CHARTED, but I will bet you dollars to donuts you have not been to a wedding without hearing it. Except my wedding, I banned it.

  34. I’m using my parents as a benchmark for common knowledge. They’re familiar with Major Tom but I doubt “Heroes”. But hell yeah, I’m up for “Heroes”

  35. “Purple Haze” #65, “Foxy Lady” #67. And with that I’m about disillusioned enough to abandon further contributions to this topic.


  36. misterioso

    Can’t argue with those, esp. “Purple Haze.”

  37. misterioso

    Wow. Never heard that piece of crap.

  38. 2000 Man

    I hate that Head East song. I hate that I had never heard it in my life, and then when WNCX here in Cleveland got a new program director from some other part of the country, they started playing it like it was Alex Harvey or some other beloved Cleveland classic. Fuck that song and the program directors that want to make me relive the Fort Wayne AOR of the 70’s.

    While I’m at it, fuck Fort Wayne, too.

  39. hrrundivbakshi

    “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Specifically the scream. Or, for that matter, the synth intro to “Baba O’Riley.” Those seem to be non-hits that successfully entered the public psyche.

  40. tonyola

    Sorry, but “Won’t Get Fooled Again” rose to #15 on the Billboard Top 100, and “Baba O’Riley” was not released as a single in the US or UK.

  41. Bronzed Nordic God

    Kiss Rock and Roll All Nite. Only reached #57 in US.

  42. First of all, what a great handle – and welcome aboard! I’m shocked that song only reached #57. It’s one of the only KISS songs that didn’t make me want to throw up when it came on the radio (or worse, over my little brother’s cassette deck).

  43. I would argue “Truckin” by the GD, or “I will follow”-U2. Can’t expect the youth of America to know these, but anyone over the age of 25 will.

  44. For your Enjoyment- U2

  45. Guess not, I tried to post a link! ; (

  46. ladymisskirroyale

    Thank you, BigSteve. Someone has to be dignified here.

  47. ladymisskirroyale

    Gloria by Them. Every single person seems to know some version of G-L-O-R-I-A…

  48. 2000 Man

    The Shadows of Knight hit the Top 10 with Gloria, though.

    I’ll go with Cinnamon Girl. Mostly because it’s stuck in my head, but it only hit 55.

  49. Bronzed Nordic God

    Favorite story about that song. My friend always thought the chorus as a kid went “I want to rock and roll all nite, and part of everyday”. I can’t listen to the chorus now without laughing.

  50. pudman13

    I think I have a winner: “Surrender.” Top chart placement, #62.

    Maybe you could vote it out on a technicality, that the live version, which was not a US single, is why it’s so well known, but if you ask me, that’s pretty specious.

  51. cliff sovinsanity

    Are you pulling my leg again?

  52. I saw The Romantics last night open for Blondie (I had no idea they were the opener until I got there) They closed with What I Like About You (of course) but the highligh was their cover of She’s Got Everything by The Kinks. Turns out that was a non-hit single for them as well (I don’t know much about The Romantics outside of One in a Million and Talking In Your Sleep). They were a good Smithereens/Knack/Cheap Trick type show though

  53. That’s, “HEY HO Let’s Go!”, misterioso.

  54. Happiness Stan

    It was a big hit for Dave Edmunds (who was in Rockpile with Nick Lowe at the time) in about 78 here in the UK. Is Nick Lowe’s version big in the US? (I’ve never heard it on radio (or at weddings) over this side of the pond).

    This is a fascinating thread, but I’m feeling a bit “don’t know where to start-ish” from a UK point of view, as I could probably rattle off 50 songs which are now well known over here that were huge hits in the States but never did anything in the UK, if they were ever released at all. I won’t do it because I’d then have to check them all on Wikipedia or some fancy chart site and then I wouldn’t get to bed tonight.

    Since this thread’s pretty US-centric, the obvious one which jumps to my mind is “River Deep Mountain High”, which was huge in the UK but bombed in the US. (Was it ever re-released and became a hit? Google is failing me here if it did…)

    Space Oddity’s been number one twice over here, too…

  55. I heard Violent Femmes’ Blister In the Sun at a Nats game today . . . another song that has become part of the culture and it was never a Top 40 hit.

  56. Man, what did they look like? I saw them 23 years ago and thought the lead guy was wearing a wig back then.

  57. shawnkilroy

    Never Let Me Down Again by Depeche Mode

  58. misterioso

    Undoubtedly you are correct.

  59. misterioso

    No! I don’t doubt you are right, though. It’s awful. Perhaps in the same vein, Paradise by the Dashboard Light, which I had no idea had taken on a life as a wedding song, either, until someone told me. I live a sheltered life.

  60. misterioso

    Good one.

  61. I was at Penn State’s game today and they kept playing Blur’s “woo-hoo!” chorus. They played some other bits from more modern hip-hop type songs that I realized I only know from sporting events and sports-talk radio and that are probably full songs.

  62. I like your line of questioning, funoka!

  63. “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys. OK, I admit that I’m sneaking this one in because it actually got as high as #39 in Billboard but there were also radio stations that wouldn’t play it upon its 1966 release because of the word “God” in the title. Now, of course, it’s known as one of their all-time greatest songs.

  64. pudman13

    That song is the best AOR song ever and the worst AOR song ever at the same time. Truly godawful slick harmonies and possibly the worst lyrics ever. But man…that has to be the greatest use of synthesizer in the history of mainstream pop, even better than the Cars.

  65. They had a young(er) drummer who did Keith Moon tricks while he played. The bassist looked like “The Ox” circa 1978 and held his bass like him too. The singer? no wig that I could tell, a little puffy due to age, hair still black. One guitar player looked like 1982 Ben Orr, the other (who also played bass, ALONG WITH the other bassists for 1/2 the songs??) had long-ish hair and a garage rock look (striped shirt, townshend moves, sneakers). I took some video I can post on the RTH facebook page. They did the 1980 meets British Invasion thing with the retro guitars (ric, tele, vox) I’d see them if they played a club.

  66. There is a decent comp CD out of this list ” Best of Top 40 failures”

  67. 2000 Man

    I hate the She-Man vocal. I can’t tell if that due’s a chick, or that chick’s a dude.

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