Hot 100 Renegades: 5 Classic Songs That Were Never Hits

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By Sarah Grant

As Pete Seeger once said, “The right song at the right time can change history.”

But what does history do when the right song comes at the wrong time? We begin by asking that about “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” Bruce Springsteen’s rumbustious romance tale packaged for AOR (Album-Oriented Rock) audiences. First released on his second album The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, “Rosalita” was the staple in The Boss’ live act back in the day (and sometimes still).

Today, Springsteen no longer needs to coast on Rosie for cheers; classic rock radio chases the beautiful father-fearing ghost by the hour. How did some of the most widely recognizable melodies, like “Rosalita,” rise to the top without actually being at the top? Read on to find out, through the lens of five “hits” that weren’t actually hits.

The Runaway Hit
The song: “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” by Bruce Springsteen
Released: 1973
Charted: (outside U.S.) 1979
Why? Before 1975′s breakthrough Born To Run, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band was primarily a live act. If you were fortunate to see the young tramps play in their formative years, you certainly knew “Rosalita.” It was the “introductions” song and set-closer. After ’75 (once that “big advance” came through), FM stations were more amenable to chopping Springsteen’s seven-minute rock opuses down to radio-single size, but it was too late for “Rosalita” in the States. Rosie must have traded San Diego cafes for stroopwafel stands, as the song was only released as a single in the Netherlands, six years later no less.

The Lazarus Hit
The song: “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac
Released: 1975
Charted: 1998
Why? Unlike Bruce and the E-Streeters, Fleetwood Mac was well-established by the time their 1975 eponymous album rang in the band’s Lindsay Buckingham/Stevie Nicks-era. Had there been a fourth single after the trio of Top 20 singles “Over My Head,” “Rhiannon” and “Say You Love Me,” Nicks’ pensive ballad probably would have fared well. But the band was getting older and their patience was getting older, too.

Twenty-three years later, a live reunion album put “Landslide” at a lazy No. 51 on the Billboard Hot 100. But the song’s cultural stock with a new generation wasn’t established until 1993, when The Smashing Pumpkins’ lissome acoustic version went straight to No. 3 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart. Nine years later, the Dixie Chicks adapted the song for the country crowd, but the banjo-driven adaptation went the crossover route, reaching No. 7 on the Hot 100. These days when Stevie goes to question her mirror in the sky, plenty of other singers are up there, staring back.

The Bubble Bath Hit
The song: “Isn’t She Lovely?” by Stevie Wonder
Released: 1976
Why? The song never charted, because a certain proud father said so. It seems uncanny that the tootling harmonica melody that defines Childhood Itself was never released as a single (much to the chagrin of Motown Records). Wonder refused to relinquish the song’s joyful bubble bath intro for the sake of a 45-RPM single. Not that the album Songs In The Key Of Life was aching for hits. The double LP had five chart-toppers, hit multiplatinum status, and was the second best-selling album of 1977 (behind Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours). But it was the quaint jazz pop lullaby that improbably became the most recognizable melody of Wonder’s masterpiece. It looks like father knows best, as Wonder told Oprah: “The sound of my daughter Aisha splashing in the bathtub created a picture. That was emotion stuck in a moment, and that can never, ever be taken away.”

The Ghost Hit
The song: “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne
Released: 1981
Why? Unlike the other song examples, “Crazy Train” was released as a single. In fact, it was the first single off Osbourne’s wildly successful solo debut Blizzard of Ozz, which went platinum four times and sold 6 million copies worldwide. Yet “Crazy Train” never cracked the Hot 100. Even in Osbourne’s native UK, the song peaked outside the Top 40, at at No. 49.

“Crazy Train” was unequivocally off the rails. The crazy thing? The song owes its current mainstream status to, of all things, the New England Patriots and Trick Daddy. Daddy’s 2004 hit  “Let’s Go” features Twista and Lil Jon spitting rhymes over Ozzy’s kooky “ay ay ay ay”‘s and Randy Rhoads’ major riffage. “Crazy Train”’s reincarnation as a jock jam eventually earned the song Hot 100 vindication, all the way to No. 7, courtesy of “Let’s Go.” Mr. Crowley works in mysterious ways.

The Hero Hit
The song: “New York State of Mind” by Billy Joel
Released: 1976
Why? No album immortalized Billy Joel’s hometown-love more than Turnstiles. It was his triumphant goodbye-to-Hollywood, hello-to-the-Hudson Line return. According to interviews, Joel said that when he read about New York City sliding into default with no help from Washington (as the Daily News put it, “Ford to New York: ‘Drop Dead’”), he bought a one way ticket east. “New York State of Mind” is one of many odes on Turnstiles, which wasn’t mined for hit-singles because Joel wasn’t really a “hits”-artist yet (that would change with his back-to-back gems The Stranger and 52nd Street two years later). In terms of commercial success, “New York State of Mind” technically charted the best with Lea Michele and her Glee cronies at the helm, reaching No. 24 on something called Billboard’s Bubbling Under Hot 100 Singles chart. But for anyone alive in the last 20 years, “New York State of Mind” resurfaced as a touchstone for tragedy relief. Joel performed the ballad at the Concert for New York City following the 9/11 Attacks and more recently, at 12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief following Hurricane Sandy.

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