Secret Hits

Chris’s comments about Madonna’s chart history, and how her incredible run of top-five singles was interrupted by “Oh Father,” got me thinking about how she never actually released “Into the Groove” as an American single, even though it was everybody’s favorite Madonna song circa 1985 and (I feel confident) would have hit #1. Which then got me wondering: what’s the biggest potential hit other acts never released as a single? With Nirvana, I would nominate “On a Plain,” which always sounded like the third-catchiest song on Nevermind to me (after “Teen Spirit” and “Lithium”). Who else left a smash hit on the table?

posted 11 May 2011 in Tasty Bits and tagged , , . 24 comments

24 Comments on Secret Hits

  1. Chris M. Says:

    Thanks for spinning off my little bit of trivia into a post. I can discuss this stuff all day…

    The one that leaps to mind is by Fleetwood Mac. Ask any modern adult-contemporary radio listener, “What’s your favorite Fleetwood Mac/Stevie Nicks song?” and chances are they’ll all say “Landslide” as if it’s been their favorite for decades. (I would not be surprised if ASCAP/BMI data showed that “Landslide” now gets more U.S. airplay than even “Dreams” or “Don’t Stop.”) But confoundingly, that 1975 song (from the self-titled Mac album that debuted Buckingham/Nicks) was never a single.

    In fact, until Billy Corgan resurrected “Landslide” in 1994 by covering it for Smashing Pumpkins’ Pisces Iscariot, “Landslide” was an obscure fan favorite that wasn’t even consistently played at Mac concerts. The Mac’s own live version from their 1997 comeback album The Dance, and the smash Top 10 cover by Dixie Chicks in 2002, sealed its radio permanence.

    When you consider that none of the three singles that were released from Fleetwood Mac even made the Top 10 (both “Rhiannon” and “Say You Love Me” topped out at No. 11), the idea that they, to use your term, left “Landslide” on the table is just nuts.

  2. Gavin Says:

    You want to know something crazy about that Pumpkins cover of “Landslide”? Before the album was released, Corgan (via his reps at Virgin) was insisting that he wrote it. I remember a crazy conversation with a publicist who would give no ground to the notion that this was a familiar song.

  3. Chris M. Says:

    That’s a great story, and it only backs up my point of how obscure “Landslide” was before Corgan covered it (he, um…at least deserves that much credit).

    I once got into a small argument with a Boomer-rock fan who insisted she’d loved “Landslide” forever, and when I asked whether she was a Mac diehard or had the album it was on, she said no, and I had to insist she probably didn’t really know it before the ’90s.

  4. Gavin Says:

    Was thinking about Michael Jackson, and I don’t think there’s any song he didn’t squeeze until it bled… but I do wonder how well “Baby Be Mine” would have done if he had released it at the end of the Thriller cycle.

    Similarly: Bruce Springsteen with “Bobby Jean,” Hootie and the Blowfish with whatever was left on Cracked Rear View, etc.

  5. Chris M. Says:

    Michael actually had a few left-on-the-tables. From Off the Wall, “Working Day and Night” — played like a hit on some stations, never a single. (On Thriller, I agree nothing worthy was left un-singled, but “BBM” is indeed an excellent song.) Much later, from Bad, Jackson did a video for “Leave Me Alone” and got a ton of MTV play for it, but it too was never a single in the States, despite the fact that it’s a better song than some of the tracks that were singles (IMHO, “Another Part of Me,” “Dirty Diana” or even “Bad”).

    But probably the most infamous left-on-the-table in the Jackson canon is the Jermaine duet “Tell Me I’m Not Dreamin’,” which went unreleased as a single because of a pissing match between Epic and Arista (Jermaine’s label) over profit splits and credit. The song’s Wikipedia entry confirms a story I’d heard years ago that it would’ve been at least a Top 10 smash on airplay alone if the labels could’ve come to agreement and dropped a 45 of it.

  6. Gavin Says:

    Ooh, good pick.

    Okay, how about Prince? Lots of candidates, because he’s always been too prolific for his own good. “Housequake”?

  7. Chris M. Says:

    Hrmm, Prince. Maybe “Girls and Boys” from Parade? In ’86, Z100 New York was playing that track like it was a single. It was the B-side to “Anotherloverholenyohead,” but according to then-current Hot 100 rules it didn’t chart at all — and it’s a better song than its A-side.

    I really like “Housequake,” but if we’re talking about lost hits on Sign ‘O’ the Times, personally, I’ve never understood why “Strange Relationship” wasn’t released as a single — maybe to follow up “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.” Of course, by then, Prince had dropped Lovesexy, so maybe the promotional cycle for Sign had just run its course.

  8. Gavin Says:

    I think they played “Erotic City” even more, although I understand that the mores of the time made it hard to release as a single. But in this post-Cee-Lo world, I think it’d be ripe for somebody to cover.

    I just remember there being this pent-up desire for “Housequake”–a lot of people put it on a lot of dance tapes that year.

  9. Gavin Says:

    BTW, one of the obvious examples of unreleased singles is Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”–except I’m not sure it would have done that well on the charts.

  10. Chris M. Says:

    Well, as I pointed out in my February PopCon paper, Zep IV‘s “Black Dog” made it all the way to No. 15 on the Hot 100. And if song length is your concern, remember that by 1971 radio had already played the hell out of two chart-topping songs that were each about seven minutes: “Hey Jude” and “American Pie.” So I don’t see why “Stairway” couldn’t have made the Top 10, easy.

    While we’re discussing classic rockers, the list of unreleased Beatles should-been-singles would be a mile long. To name just one: George Harrison’s never-hit “Here Comes the Sun.” We’ve had a useful test of its market prowess just in the past year, with the release of the Beatles catalog on iTunes. “Sun” is the second-best-selling Fabs track there overall, and if it weren’t competing on iTunes with the combined sales of two different versions of “Let It Be,” “Sun” would actually be the Beatles’ digital best-seller.

  11. Douglas Wolk Says:

    One obvious possibility: “Suffragette City.” (Eventually the B-side of “Young Americans,” but not at the time.)

    Another one: “Love Vigilantes”!

  12. Gavin Says:

    I was mostly thinking about length, so I do take your point with “Hey Jude” and “American Pie.”

    Weezer: “My Name Is Jonas.”

  13. Randy Says:

    Oh, where to start with Prince! I’m not going to get into the b-sides that shoulda been a-sides — that’s a whole other discussion:

    Dirty Mind: “When U Were Mine” was never officially released as a single, but is now regraded as one of his early classics. “Gotta Broken Heart Again” is an R&B-pop-rock gem that doesn’t get nearly enough shine.

    1999: “D.M.S.R.”, “Lady Cab Driver” and “International Lover” – all never released as singles, but “Automatic” was? What up with that?

    Purple Rain: “The Beautiful Ones,” “Darling Nikki” and “Baby I’m A Star” were never released as singles

    Sign o’ the Times: “Adore” and “Forever In My Life”, two of Prince’s greatest love songs, never released as singles. Also: the aforementioned “Strange Relationship” and “Housequake”. ALSO: “Slow Love”, “Starfish and Coffee” and ‘The Cross”. He also never *toured the US* with SOTT — a major fucking mistake, if I were writtng the history. That album coulda been milked for more hits if there was a tour.

    Lovesexy: “When 2 R In Love” coulda been a hit, I think.

    The Black Album: when it finally was offically released had no singles. “Cindy C” and “Rock Hard In A Funky Place” coulda been radio hits (and this is the album where ‘When 2 r In Love” came from, so throw that in there to).

    Emancipation: “Right Back Here In My Arms”, “Damned If I Do”, “i Can’t Make U Love Me”, “In This Bed I Scream”, “One Kiss At A Time”, “Let’s Have A Baby” “Freind, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife”, “La, La, La Means I Love U” and “Sleep Around” all are hits in some alternate universe where Emancipation was released by an actual label that released singles.

    Musicology: “On The Couch” and “The Marrying Kind”

  14. Phil Says:

    Gavin & Chris:

    “A Different Point of View” was my favorite song on Very, and that wasn’t a single.

  15. Tom Nawrocki Says:

    Nothing on the White Album was ever released as a single, although “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” obviously became a huge FM-radio staple. “Norwegian Wood” was never on a single, either.

    “Starman” was the only U.S. single off Ziggy Stardust, and it flopped, peaking at Number 65. “Ziggy Stardust” was never a single; “Suffragette City” was the B-side to “Starman.”

    Also, “Desperado” was never a single, despite its eventually being considered one of the Eagles’ finest songs.

  16. Rob Says:

    American charts only, right? Because “Girls & Boys” was a UK single, at least.

  17. Gavin Says:

    I think “DMSR” is clearly the Prince winner.

    It also, if I remember correctly, was left off the original CD version of 1999, which made no sense at all (unless you assumed everyone in America had the Risky Business soundtrack).

  18. Chris M. Says:

    @Rob: Yes, as usual, I was assuming we were talking about the U.S. charts. Although now that you mention it, it’d make more sense viz. Gavin’s premise to talk about songs that the artist/label didn’t even realize should have been singles, anywhere in the world. In which case, several of the above tracks wouldn’t count.

  19. Randy Says:

    Gavin, you do remember correctly — I have a vivid memory of the fine printnote on the CD Long Box saying that there was no DMSR on the CD due to lack of space on the disc.

    Steely Dan classics that were not singles: “Dirty Work” (!! — this one shocked me the most — the Yacht Rock station my mom made us listen to when I was a kid played this all the time), “Black Cow”, “Bodhisattva”, “Time Out Of Mind” and “Any Major Dude Will Tell You”.

    LL Cool J’s “That’s A Lie” was not a single off *Radio*, but was later covered by Too Much Joy so may have some of that revisionist history of being a single.

  20. Tom Nawrocki Says:

    I went through Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time to identify the canonical greatest songs never released as singles anywhere. They are:

    “In My Life,” the Beatles
    “A Day in the Life,” the Beatles
    “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin
    “Norwegian Wood, the Beatles
    “Thunder Road,” Bruce Springsteen

    That gets us through the Top 100. Also note that “Sympathy for the Devil” was apparently a single only in the Netherlands and France.

  21. Gavin Says:

    I was thinking “The River” as a Springsteen possibility (not released as an American single)–I’m not sure what the second single from The River should have been, other than not “Fade Away.” (Not to be confused with “other than ‘Not Fade Away'”).

    Hit us with the other 400!

  22. Tom Nawrocki Says:

    I’m wondering how useful this is; mostly, I’m finding Beatles/Zep/Dylan songs, which isn’t really what this exercise was about. Here are the never-singles from 100 to 200:

    “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Bob Dylan
    “Take Me to the River,” Al Green
    “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” the Beatles
    “Kashmir,” Led Zeppelin
    “Moment of Surrender,” U2
    “I’m Waiting for the Man,” Velvet Underground
    “Desolation Row,” Bob Dylan

    “Take Me to the River” is what we’re looking for here.

  23. Gavin Says:

    That’s a great example. I did not realize Green had not released it as a single, and it’s not that it was overlooked until rock artists started to cover it–his label (Hi) passed the song to Green’s labelmate Syl Johnson (#48 pop/#7 R&B).

  24. Tom Nawrocki Says:

    Here are the never-singles for 200 to 400:

    “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” the Band, although it was the B-side to “Up on Cripple Creek”
    “Mississippi,” Bob Dylan
    “Hallelujah,” Jeff Buckley
    “Ziggy Stardust,” David Bowie
    “Peace, Love and Understanding,” Elvis Costello
    “With a Little Help From My Friends,” the Beatles
    “Heartbreaker,” Led Zeppelin
    “Cortez the Killer,” Neil Young
    “The End,” the Doors
    “Little Wing,” Jimi Hendrix
    “Whipping Post,” the Allman Brothers Band

    This group has more of what we’re looking for, including “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Hallelujah,” “Ziggy Stardust” and “Peace, Love and Understanding.”

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