More obscure than a one-hit wonder? The legends who never had a hit
I've been policing Sirius XM's "Onederland" this week, their pop-up channel devoted to one-hit wonders and so far, I'm pleased to note, they've mostly been playing one-hit wonders. With so many artists reduced to a hit or two by Classic Hits radio, many are misremembered that way. But the closest I've come to an act that doesn't really count is Hanson. ("Where's The Love" sure seemed like a hit in the wake of "Mmmbop," but it was never officially a chart single.)
It is, of course, better to have charted and disappeared than never to have scored a hit at all, but hearing one-hit wonders in concentration has gotten me thinking about the "stealth hit wonder." Those are the acts that get regular airplay or are part of pop culture now, but never managed even a single chart hit at the time. Some have the same trivia-question status of a true one-hit wonder. Some are acts for whom the lack of a hit single became well beside the point.
Bob Marley & the Wailers - He was a regular U.K. singles chart fixture and a world superstar, but Bob Marley's biggest U.S. chart hit during his lifetime was "Roots, Rock, Reggae" (No. 51), meaning that son Ziggy actually did better by taking "Tomorrow People" to No. 39. The song that sounded like the most obvious bid for a radio hit, "Could You Be Loved," came out at the heart of top 40's early '80s backlash against "disco" (but really, most black music). Marley became a staple of "greatest hits" stations and AC radio around the world; he's still mostly played on alternative stations in the U.S. although classic rock has opened up a little lately. And if you're reading this and saying that Marley is too massive to be included here, you're probably thinking that because of his posthumous catalog sales, more than his album chart footprint during his lifetime.
Sublime - Like Marley's "Legend," the legend of Brad Nowell grew posthumously as Sublime's debut album became a standard part of college orientation over the next decade. For a while, you could hear "Santeria" on top 40 stations and these days you can hear it some of the "Classic Hits" (nee oldies) stations that are creeping into the '90s. But it wasn't a pop song at the time. "What I Got" did make Billboard's Airplay chart as a current, but was never a Hot 100 single. That was partially because of the then-label-strategy of not issuing singles as a way of protecting an act's alternative credentials (and album sales).
Israel "Iz" Kamakawiwo'ole - You'll notice that reggae or other island music figures are prominent among the acts mentioned here. Much of it existed on minor labels, and thus off radio's radar. And this one was never entirely ratified by radio. During the '00s, it was TV and advertising syncs that elevated songs like "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" to a prominent place in pop culture. Despite this, it still gets only a handful of radio spins, mostly at Adult Contemporary stations.
Buster Poindexter - For all the acknowledged influence of the New York Dolls (on Kiss, '80s hair metal, and others) in the early '70s, the closest David Johansen got to the top 40 was No. 45 with the 1987 cover of Arrow's soca (disco-calypso) hit, "Hot Hot Hot," a song which has popped up on the Sirius XM channel this week. It's never been really acknowledged, but the Poindexter alter ego seemed to be a parody of the then-red-hot Robert Palmer: same suave guy persona; same mix of R&B and exotic covers; same pompadour.
Ramones - The biggest chart hit during their late '70s blitz was "Rockaway Beach" (No. 66), but "I Wanna Be Sedated" and "Blitzkrieg Bop" are the pair that sneak in on Classic Rock and Adult Hits stations (like "Bob-" and "Jack-FM") these days. While "Sedated" probably captured the spirit of classic top 40 radio better than most songs, I didn't actually hear it on the radio until the mid-'90s when it became one of the secret weapons for the then-emerging alternative/top 40 hybrid stations.
Vanity 6 - It's long forgotten now, but Prince's first bid for radio airplay on his protégés was the Go-Go's-like "He's So Dull." When the follow-up single, "Nasty Girl," emerged in fall '82, Prince hadn't yet broken through at pop radio, but his 1999 album was already becoming a fall book event for Urban. Say what you will about the conservatism of Cincinnati, but that market's WKRQ (Q102) was one of the few pop stations that played "Nasty Girl" at the time. Both Vanity and her Prince-appointed successor Apollonia had chart records during the subsequent purple reign, but nothing of that magnitude. And it was really Sheena Easton who got the true "Nasty Girl" follow-up with "Sugar Walls."
Alphaville - "Big In Japan" was the closest they got to a top 40 American hit (No. 66), but "Forever Young" took just a few years to become the stealth "Stairway to Heaven" of early alternative radio in the mid-to-late '80s. "Forever Young" peaked at No. 93 on its first release. In the late '80s, a period during which songs were being constantly reissued, it could still manage only No. 65. But it was always a secret handshake among alternative fans. And these days, I see evidence that it's better known than ever, thanks perhaps to being interpolated by Jay Z's "Young Forever."
Modern English - You almost certainly remember "I Melt With You" as a hit now. But it was No. 78 the first time and No. 76 during the same late '80s/early '90s spate of bringbacks that almost revived "Forever Young." But the first time around, it was just one of a slew of MTV-driven new-wave pop goodies that PDs could choose from. The second time, it was on an indie label (TVT) when indies were making inroads but still facing resistance getting chart hits at pop radio.
Marcia Griffiths - "Electric Boogie" has several of the characteristics of stealth hits. It also came out twice, in the mid- and late-'80s. Like "Hot Hot Hot," it endured through the years as the "Electric Slide" became a party staple. And it's Caribbean. "Electric Boogie" had built up a little following in the mid-Atlantic region, particularly Washington/Baltimore, its first time around in 1984. Then it was reissued in 1989, but overshadowed by an overabundance of rhythmic pop as well as other reissues.
Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock - Technically, "It Takes Two" made it to No. 36 on the Hot 100, primarily on singles sales, in the last moments before monitored airplay and SoundScan sales tracking would have made it a much bigger chart hit. (Indie Profile Records had already cracked the top 40 by that time with Run-D.M.C. and others, but each song was a new battle for a small label at the time.) "It Takes Two" really was a song that radio didn't acknowledge until later. It would show up in a new market every few months over the course of the late '80/early '90s. In the Twin Cities, it was one of the secret-weapon songs when WLOL segued to a rhythmic pop/hip-hop/R&B format in its last years.