9 Signature Rock Songs That Weren’t U.S. Chart Hits

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We love these songs. Every time we hear them, we either sing along or crank them up. Or both. When we see these artists in concert – those that are still touring – they are on our very short list of songs we absolutely have to hear.

Yet not only were none of these hit singles in the U.S., three of them never charted. You can win a lot of bar bets with these.

9) “Surrender” by Cheap Trick – This one has a reasonable explanation: it was the band’s first charting single and thus Top 40 radio was initially skeptical of the pop rockers as the song peaked at only #62 on the Hot 100 in 1978. The success of Cheap Trick at Budokan and the live singles, “I Want You to Want Me” and “Ain’t That a Shame” were still a year away. Bonus points: Raise your hand if you knew the line “Before we married Mommy served on the WACS in the Philippines.”

Related: Cheap Trick’s rise: The inside story

8) “Young Americans” by David Bowie – The man of many personas enjoyed eight Top 15 singles but this wasn’t one of them, topping out at #28 in 1975. (Bowie’s very next single, “Fame,” was a #1 chart hit.) The song features great sax playing by David Sanborn and memorable backup vocals by none other than Luther Vandross. Bonus points: The song briefly quotes The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”

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7) “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd – Okay. Instantaneous success with The Wall which tops the Top 200 Album sales chart for weeks in 1979. Check. Monstrous hit with first single “Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2),” which scores a #1 pop hit. Check. Hugely successful arena tour. Check. Follow-up singles fail miserably, with “Run Like Hell” reaching just #53 and “Comfortably Numb” failing to even chart. Bonus points: The Wall topped the Album sales chart for 15 weeks and has gone on to sell well over 20 million copies in the U.S. alone.

6) “Pride (In the Name Of Love)” by U2 – This is always a huge crowd pleaser at the band’s concerts and the sound of the recorded version rarely fails to elicit goosebumps. This tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was released on the group’s fourth studio album, The Unforgettable Fire, and while it was their highest charting pop single to date, it stalled at #33 in 1984. (It would be three more years before the Irish band became pop stars.) Bonus points: Chrissie Hynde sings back-up vocals.

5) “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” by Billy Joel – Though it’s one of his signature tunes and a huge fan favorite, “Scenes…” never cracked the Top 30 or even the Top 100. For whatever reasons – and its 7:37 length was certainly a factor – Columbia Records never released the song as a single. Joel’s breakthrough 1977 studio album The Stranger had four hit singles – including “Just the Way You Are” which earned Grammys for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

4) “Hot For Teacher” by Van Halen – By 1984, these rockers were kings of the hill and their LP, 1984, was an enormous hit. Earlier singles from the album – including “Jump,” the band’s first and only #1, and “I’ll Wait” and “Panama” which both peaked at #13 – made them rock and pop staples all year. When the video for “Hot For Teacher” with Waldo and the bikini-clad instructor began playing on MTV every 20 minutes, it appeared that chart success was assured. Not so. Maybe Top 40 was burned out; “Teacher” peaked at only #56. Bonus points: Former Playmate of the Year Lillian Müller played the lust object of Waldo and his classmates.

3) “Under Pressure” by Queen & David Bowie – It seemed like a no-brainer: two of the biggest names in the British pop-rock landscape collaborating for one song in 1981. With an unbelievably catchy bassline, finger snaps, and powerful vocals from Bowie and Freddie Mercury, the only question was how many weeks would it log at #1. Though it did top the U.K. singles chart, the song only reached #29 in the U.S. Bonus points: The songwriting credits for “Ice, Ice Baby” originally failed to acknowledge Queen and David Bowie as its co-authors.

2) “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra – British rockers ELO were underappreciated during their heyday by both the press and Top 40 radio. Though they earned seven Top 10 hits, only one went top five. So no surprise perhaps that this song topped out at #35 in 1978. Bonus points: Pop radio also turned its back on “Handle With Care” from the Traveling Wilburys, which featured ELO founder Jeff Lynne as one of its five members.

1) “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan – It’s one of the most treasured songs in the Dylan canon and it’s been recorded by the likes of Stevie Wonder (who enjoyed a Top 10 hit with it in 1966), Dolly Parton, Sam Cooke and Ziggy Marley. Folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary released it as a single in 1963 and it went all the way to #2. Dylan’s own version that same year didn’t do as well, failing to even chart. Bonus points: Dylan would go on to release 12 songs that reached the pop Top 40, though none since 1979’s “Gotta Serve Somebody.”

Related: Part 2—Nine more signature classics that weren’t pop hits

Greg Brodsky

23 Comments so far

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  1. Matt S.
    #1 Matt S. 4 September, 2015, 07:55

    We agree ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky belongs on the list as it’s one of the band’s lower charting singles, yet has emerged as a signature tune. The column author’s band discussion is a bit odd, though. ELO is not quite the sad sack implied.

    Underappreciated by critics during its prime (since re-evaluated and re-assessed by the same press)? Sure. Pop radio, though? No one could escape ELO on pop/rock radio between 1975 and 1982, and currently on classic radio.

    From 1972 to 1986, ELO accumulated 27 Top-40 hit singles in both the UK and the US, with 20 Top 20 UK singles and 15 Top-20 US singles. The band also holds the record for having the most Billboard Hot 100 Top 40 hits, 20, of any group in US chart history without ever having a number one single.

    Hard to shed a tear for Jeff Lynne and the guys.

    Reply this comment
    • Greg Brodsky
      Greg Brodsky Author 4 September, 2015, 10:21

      Thanks for taking the time to Comment, Matt.

      IMHO, part of the reason it was hard to escape ELO on the radio was because they were so prolific. But a song hitting the Top 40 is a lot different than reaching the Top 10 and a lot different from the Top 5. I’m a huge ELO fan but their chart success pales in comparison with a similarly prolific band like Chicago whose dates closely overlap ELO’s. Cherry-picking, admittedly, but 21 vs. 7 in terms of Top 10 U.S. singles.

      Reply this comment
  2. Shawnuel
    #2 Shawnuel 8 September, 2015, 19:16

    I would mention the group Squeeze and their song, “Tempted”. Not only did it never chart, (and is the only Squeeze song MANY people in the USA know) but the single’s main vocalist, Paul Carrack, didn’t sing lead on any other Squeeze song.

    Reply this comment
    • Guy Smiley
      Guy Smiley 14 March, 2017, 21:01

      “Tempted” is an excellent choice. Squeeze later had one or two actual Top 40 hits later on, but who remembers those? “Tempted” is the only Squeeze song on my iPod. And it’s a GREAT song.

      Reply this comment
    • Bradley Olson
      Bradley Olson 11 June, 2017, 21:47

      Tempted peaked at #49 on the charts.

      Reply this comment
    • Hans
      Hans 11 October, 2023, 11:24

      He was vocalist on Loving You Tonight when he briefly rejoined Squeeze in 1993

      Reply this comment
  3. Greg Brodsky
    #3 Greg Brodsky Author 8 September, 2015, 23:01

    Thanks for the input, Shawnuel. “Tempted,” while not a hit, actually reached #49 on Billboard’s Hot 100. (And we’re big fans of Paul Carrack.)

    Reply this comment
  4. Guy Smiley
    #4 Guy Smiley 14 March, 2017, 21:27

    So… Mentioning “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” (GREAT song, BTW) not cracking the singles charts is kinda silly since, as you point out, it was NEVER a single. It couldn’t have charted!

    Might as well add “Stairway To Heaven” to the list. It also never charted. Nor did, say, “Funeral For a Friend,” “Thunder Road,” or the studio version of “Maybe I’m Amazed,” as none of those were singles either.

    Now, “Piano Man” or “Born to Run” are interesting examples. Those were Billy and Bruce’s first hits, both become their signature songs, but neither cracked the Top 20.

    “Piano Man” peaked at #23, “Born to Run” at #25. Respectable, but, given what classics they are now, kind of surprising they didn’t chart higher.

    As for “Comfortably Numb,” well, Pink Floyd was (like Zeppelin) more an album act than singles act. “Another Brick in the Wall” was something of a fluke. Almost disco-friendly Floyd. “Comfortably Numb” wasn’t Top 40 friendly at all. No surprise there.

    Reply this comment
    • Greg Brodsky
      Greg Brodsky Author 14 March, 2017, 23:27

      The list could have been “99 Signature Rock Classics,” Guy, and the ones you cited would’ve certainly be on there. When I wrote the piece, these 9 jumped out at me for various reasons… For example, the juxtaposition of Columbia Records’ powerful promotion department failing to even chart with “Comfortably Numb” after “Another Brick” went to #1 is mind-boggling. I’ve been contemplating doing a Part 2 of the list. Stay tuned.

      Reply this comment
      • Guy Smiley
        Guy Smiley 16 March, 2017, 09:30

        I will keep my eyes peeled, Greg.

        I mentioned Elton’s “Funeral For a Friend.” Great song, but maybe more interesting is the case of the original “Candle In the Wind,” from the same album.

        It too was not a single, but like the many songs mentioned here, became a classic and a rock radio staple. Not unlike McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed.”

        Just like Macca, the song only became a hit single years later, in a live version. While the span between the studio and live versions for Paul was only six years, it was over a decade for Elton.

        And, then, there was that unfortunate “Candle” rewrite for Diana. Good intentions aside, it was dreadful. Strange how it became (I believe) the biggest selling single ever and now it’s more or less forgotten while the “Norma Jean” original endures.

        Reply this comment
  5. yep
    #5 yep 18 April, 2017, 02:02

    “Baba O’Riley”

    Reply this comment
  6. Robin
    #6 Robin 11 August, 2017, 13:31

    Conquistador:Procol Harum? Everyone was all over Whiter Shade of Pale and this horse got loose! Lol. It had to make charts.. somewhere. Thank you , I like these posts.

    Reply this comment
  7. Mark
    #7 Mark 8 June, 2018, 21:59

    Must take exception to the inclusion of U2’s “Pride”, which was their first Top 40 hit at a time when hit radio was sappy ballads and synthpop. It’s a triumph that this song broke through to the degree that it did, and it should rightfully be seen as a triumph heralding their future blockbusters. Interesting list nevertheless.

    Reply this comment
  8. Charles
    #8 Charles 10 August, 2018, 19:43

    Scenes from an Italian Restaurant is a “signature rock classic?” Are you sure? It’s an okay song, but I never noticed it had such a big reputation.

    And Blowing in the Wind is, of course, a folk song, so it’s just a silly inclusion. Why not include a country song, or an aria, or a Duke Ellington number?

    Reply this comment
    • Greg Brodsky
      Greg Brodsky Author 10 August, 2018, 22:48

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Charles. I wrote the piece.

      “Scenes” is one of Billy Joel’s most beloved songs. “Blowin’ in the Wind” is simply one of the greatest songs of all time, and one of 2 or 3 songs most associated with Dylan. Regardless of whatever genre someone chooses to classify it, its influence among other songwriters and its inspiration for countless rock artists is unquestioned. So I’ll definitely stick with those two.

      Reply this comment
  9. neal
    #9 neal 16 April, 2020, 07:20

    Greg – i really enjoyed reading this article – thanks for highlighting it on your newsletter. hope you are family are healthy and safe during this craziness!

    Reply this comment
  10. kk
    #10 kk 8 February, 2021, 07:29

    For me, the greatest example has to be “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John. It didn’t even make The Top 40 when it was first released … and now there is absolutely no escaping it. (Not a day goes by where I don’t turn this song off three or four times! lol) You can credit the film “Almost Famous” for that. Yes, it’s a GREAT song … but the non-stop, over-saturation has just ruined it for me. Maybe I’ll listen to it again in a few years, once my head has cleared.

    Reply this comment
  11. Bluestime
    #11 Bluestime 11 October, 2023, 12:36

    How about “Stateboro Blues” from the Allman Brothers Band? A concert opener that is loved by all Southern Rock fans.

    Reply this comment
    • Greg Brodsky
      Greg Brodsky Author 13 October, 2023, 09:50

      Bluestime… “Statesboro Blues” is a great recording but I don’t think it sounds like a hit single from that era like the others in the story.

      Reply this comment

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