By Darren Johnson
It seems every band we hold now in high esteem had at least one radio song — one Billboard Top 40 hit — no?
I mean, even counter-culture bands like The Grateful Dead had “Touch of Grey,” which hit No. 9 in 1987; and Public Enemy had “Give It Up,” which hit No. 33 in 1994.
However, there have been some bands that are widely respected today — and even sold a decent amount of albums in their era, and packed places like the Nassau Coliseum and Madison Square Garden — but never charted.
Here they are, in no particular order:
Morrissey/The Smiths — The Smiths were considered one of the most authentic bands of the 1980s, starting with their haunting self-titled debut and followed by teen melancholia favorites like “The Queen Is Dead” and “Louder Than Bombs.” Then lead singer Morrissey broke free and put out several more amazing albums. However, the best he ever charted was No. 46 in 1994 with “The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get.” Poor Moz has cancer now, but is still putting out very lyric-heavy screeds. I like them. He’s also a cult favorite in Mexico.
The Violent Femmes — This three-man band has some songs that often appear in movies today, like “Blister in the Sun,” “Kiss Off” and “Add It Up.” They also are played on Sirius XM’s First Wave Channel 33 a good deal. But none of these songs did much of anything in their day. The band’s self-titled first album was often memorized by hip teens in the 1980s.
The Ramones — The members of this band all took on the surname Ramone, and they were tremendously popular in the New York Metro Area in the 1980s. Their “Blitzkrieg Bop” even made it into the megapopular “National Lampoon’s Vacation” movie. Lots of teens and young adults wear Ramones T-shirts today. While the Beach Boys get a lot of credit for being a “genius” band, the Ramones used just-as-intricate vocal arrangements and their songs were much catchier and edgier. However, the best they ever charted was “Rockaway Beach” at No. 66 in 1978. In fact, while the highly overrated Sex Pistols (who only had one album) get credited with starting punk music, the Ramones were already doing all that — and better — years before.
Bob Marley (and the Wailers) — While also adorning lots of T-shirts today, the highest this reggae legend charted was No. 51 with “Rock, Roots and Reggae.” Though the late Jamaican’s “Legend: The Best of Bob Marley and The Wailers” greatest hits album remains on the Billboard Top 200 Albums Chart. Only Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” has had more popular longevity. Both are also popular with stoners.
Courtney Love/Hole — I wrote a good deal about Courtney Love and Hole in our December issue, and it’s amazing that this band never caught on. “Malibu” is a well-polished radio song by any definition, and its video is well done, but it only hit No. 81 in 1999. The best this grunge band placed was “Doll Parts,” which hit No. 58 in 1995. The band also gets short shrift today on SiriusXM’s grunge channel, Lithium Channel 34, rarely getting any play, while lesser bands like Weezer are played to excess. Hole has two superb albums, an interesting lead singer — to say the least — and they were a rollicking concert band. However, their singles never sold. At least Love still owns much of the Nirvana catalog.
Black Sabbath — Some argue that I should have metal band Black Sabbath on this list. And it’s true, they do rock and “Iron Man” only got to No. 52 in 1972. It’s such an iconic song. How is this possible? Though front man Ozzy Osbourne did have much pop success with his solo efforts.
King Crimson was a psychedelic band that had notable albums in the early 1970s, the band took a break, and came back a bit more commercial in the early 1980s — but, yet, they never had a hit single. The trippy, 7-minute “Court of the Crimson King, Part I” made it to No. 80 in 1970. I guess they didn’t get many repeat customers, because “Part II” is almost impossible to find on YouTube today. They deserve better.
The Replacements only hit No. 51 in 1989 with “I’ll Be You,” but who’s to say — with all of their well-crafted alternative songs — why this band isn’t as big as, say, U2? Is it that U2 has that much better marketing? Because, surely, the music is comparable.
Doug E. Fresh/Slick Rick — When I posted my ideas for this article on Facebook, it was suggested I add a rap group. I do listen to all kinds of music and wracked my brain over this. The issue is, when rap first hit, it was rather obscure, so it may be wrong to list a Grandmaster Flash or Curtis Blow, amongst others, who set the stage for the genre. Then several bands, like Run DMC, Public Enemy and even the Fat Boys, did have at least one radio hit. But of that more mainstream era, I feel the combo of Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick (The Get Fresh Crew), along with their solo efforts, had disappointing sales. They were ripped off a bit by the more parent-pleasing Will Smith vehicle DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Insiders know that Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick were the real deal — they were played on college radio stations in the 1980s, even. Today, these two are heavily sampled by other artists — many of these sampled songs are chart toppers — but the best these two did with a whole song was having Snoop Dogg cover their “La Di Da Di,” which hit No. 63 in 1994. “The Show” is another tremendous song of theirs that deserves better.