I was recently listening to a CD mix I put together several years ago. It’s comprised of songs by bands that never quite hit the big time but, in my opinion, deserved to be bigger than they were. And it got me thinking. Why do some truly talented singers/musicians/songwriters never achieve the success they struggled so hard for? What prevented them from earning the attention, critical praise and/or chart success that other artists did?
From rock and roll’s beginnings to the present day, there are hundreds of examples of artists who never achieved the fame and fortune many people think they should have. (There are also scores of examples of groups who inexplicably garnered attention and Top Five albums/singles that were wholly unwarranted, but that’s another essay for another day.)
Like many discussions of rock music, this is a very subjective area. If I were to say, for example, that Humble Pie wasn’t as big as they should have been, there are those who might say, “Humble Pie?! They sucked!” One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and so forth. But we all have our favorite under-the-radar artists who we believe should have made it big. “I LOVE this band, why doesn’t everybody else??”
Bands missed the limelight for good and bad reasons. Some were victims of bad timing; their music was perhaps ahead of (or behind) its time. Others had bad management or promotion; some were plagued by internecine warfare that broke them apart too soon; some didn’t seem to care about fame and fortune, either because they shunned the spotlight or were more interested in art than dollars; and a few came up with one or two great songs or albums but couldn’t sustain that level of quality.
Any music lover can name specific artists whose concerts or albums hold a special place in their hearts, but the general public has never heard of them. The list is almost endless. To help me identify some of these “shoulda been big” groups, I conducted a very informal survey of a couple dozen friends and associates who grew up listening to a lot of rock music in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. They each offered at least a half-dozen examples of bands they felt were underrated by the critics, the buying public, or both.
Here is the composite list:
Spirit, Moby Grape, Audience, Laura Nyro, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Camel, Batdorf and Rodney, Rory Gallagher, Michael Stanley Band, Crowded House, Jonatha Brooke, Strawbs, It’s a Beautiful Day, Humble Pie, Cold Blood, Kenny Rankin, Be-Bop Deluxe, Savoy Brown, Free, Donovan, The Replacements, MC5, Sons of Champlin, Blodwyn Pig, Incredible String Band, Spooky Tooth, Thin Lizzy, Sanford and Townsend, Electric Flag, Danny O’Keefe, Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Andy Pratt, The New York Dolls, Nazz, Gentle Giant, Leon Russell, The Rainmakers, Pousette-Dart Band, Dixie Dregs, Electric Flag, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Atomic Rooster, Brian Auger, Lighthouse, Delaney and Bonnie, Jann Arden, Alan Parsons Project, Blue Cheer, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Aztec Two-Step, Frank Zappa…
It’s far from a complete list — I’ve focused on the ’60s and ’70s here, with a few ’80s groups for good measure — but it serves to point out the number of artists who never made the charts, or failed to be as successful as they probably deserved.
A few artists had stage fright and weren’t really interested in performing. The gifted Laura Nyro is perhaps the best example of this; she performed at the iconic Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, but she felt uncomfortable on stage, and it showed, even to the mind-altered crowd that assembled there. She made a few neglected records but mostly withdrew into a more isolated life as a songwriter and gained plenty of critical praise for her excellent songs made famous by others (“Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Eli’s Comin’,” “And When I Die,” “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Stoney End”). She died in 1997, and has been too often criminally overlooked when the names of major female artists are mentioned.
Some bands never achieved success because they were handled by people who were either clueless or had hidden agendas. It’s a Beautiful Day was a great San Francisco-based group who could’ve been as big as the Jefferson Airplane or the Grateful Dead but were shuffled off to Seattle to play in their manager’s brother’s clubs there instead of the hot Bay Area clubs where they had a following. Cold Blood, Sons of Champlin and Quicksilver Messenger Service were three other Bay Area groups that, in a parallel universe, might’ve been huge.
Some groups, frankly, were train wrecks in the making: Their members couldn’t seem to get along, so there was a revolving door of musicians coming and going, and this lack of stability meant they could never get any kind of momentum going. Savoy Brown, an excellent British blues rock band from the 1966-1975 period, comes to mind. They reached the US Top 40 in 1972 with their “Hellbound Train” LP, but are mostly forgotten (although three members went on to form Foghat, who had modest success in the mid-’70s). Same goes for The Flying Burrito Brothers, one of Southern California’s best and most influential early country rock ensembles, whose short-term alumni includes such luminaries as Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman (of The Byrds) and Bernie Leadon (of The Eagles).
There were artists with great energy and enthusiasm (and notable guests onboard) who somehow didn’t score that big hit. Delaney and Bonnie, a Southern rock/soul outfit who worked with icons like Eric Clapton and George Harrison in 1969-1970, are largely unknown to most rock fans. LA-based Spirit offered a wonderful mix of rock, jazz, pop and blues during its five-year tenure (1967-1972), and even Top-40 appearances on the singles chart (“I Got a Line on You”) and album charts, but they were never exactly household names.
Sometimes bands were victims of circumstance: They were signed to labels with other acts they chose to devote their promotional budgets to instead. For example, in the fall of 1973, MCA Records released three albums: “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” by Elton John, “Quadrophenia” by The Who, and “Friends and Legends” by Michael Stanley. The first two probably would’ve gone Top Five without spending a dime of promotion, but that’s where the money went anyway. In my opinion, they should’ve spent their marketing dollars on their rising star, Cleveland’s Michael Stanley, who had great songs like “Let’s Get the Show on the Road” and the likes of Joe Walsh and others helping him in the studio. Why not promote the up-and-coming guy instead of the already established artists? Sigh… And it gets worse: Between 1975-1990, The Michael Stanley Band went through multiple labels, each mishandling the promotion of this great Midwest band, who flirted with stardom in 1980 with the Top 40 hit “He Can’t Love You,” but never grabbed the brass ring.
Another critics’ darling from Northeast Ohio that should have done better was The Raspberries, a Beatles-esque pop band in the early ’70s (“Go All the Way,” “I Wanna Be With You”). This essay’s title references their final minor hit, “Hit Record (Overnight Sensation),” which speaks explicitly about how frustrating it is to try for, and not quite reach, stardom. The band’s lead singer-songwriter Eric Carmen did pretty well later on as a solo artist, but with middle-of-the-road pop like “All By Myself,” “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again” and “Hungry Eyes.”
Or let’s take the singer-songwriter genre — acts like Aztec Two-Step, Kenny Rankin, Jonatha Brooke or Batdorf and Rodney. Most people I know have never heard of them. But if you enjoy singer-songwriter music from the early ’70s (Crosby Stills & Nash, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, America, Seals and Crofts, Loggins and Messina, et al), you need to check out the songs on Batdorf & Rodney’s phenomenal 1971 debut “Off the Shelf.” Just try the opening track “Oh My Surprise.” Oh my, indeed. Then try “Can You See Him,” one of my top 25 favorite songs of all time. Why weren’t these hits? Why weren’t Batdorf and Rodney more famous? We’ll probably never know.
Other acts missed out on stardom because they didn’t really seek it. Progressive rock bands were less interested in commercial appeal than musical exploration, so it’s not really surprising that most of them — with the exception of Yes, Pink Floyd, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and a few others — never achieved widespread fame. Still, groups like Gentle Giant, Camel or King Crimson could have, or should have, been more popular than they were.
If R&B-laced rock tunes in the Bruce Springsteen/Van Morrison vein is more to your liking, you have to agonize over the failure of New Jersey’s greatest-ever bar band, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, to hit the big time. Johnny Lyons was a buddy of Springsteen in the Jersey Shore bars; they jammed together, shared band members, and Springsteen contributed a dozen or more songs to Southside’s repertoire (“The Fever,” “Talk to Me,” “You Mean So Much to Me”) as they struggled in the late ’70s and early ’80s under Springsteen’s ever-growing shadow. They released seven albums on four different labels between 1976 and 1986, but they never cracked the Top 40 charts (album nor singles). Sometimes I think his connection to The Boss did him more harm than good, as critics sometimes called him “a poor man’s Springsteen” and the like. But if you ever saw this band in concert, you would beg to differ. They get my vote for most overlooked band ever.
Canadian bands tended to get short shrift in the US market as well. The Guess Who, Gordon Lightfoot and transplants like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young achieved plenty of commercial success here, but there were others worthy of our dollars: Lighthouse and Five Man Electrical Band, for example, had modest hits but perhaps deserved more attention.
Some might question the inclusion of better known acts like Donovan, Leon Russell or Frank Zappa on this list. After all, they had some decent chart hits and are often mentioned in historical retrospectives of their eras. But diehard fans will claim they should have received far more notoriety. Donovan was a much bigger star in England than in the US, for instance; we know him mostly for “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow,” but his work deserves closer scrutiny. Zappa gets plenty of credit as an iconoclastic trailblazer but sold precious few records during his long career. And most people don’t know Russell was an important behind-the-scenes musician in the ’60s whose early ’70s albums were underappreciated. Superstar Elton John so idolized Russell that he was moved to work with him on “The Union,” an excellent 2010 duet album (also sadly overlooked).
You might think most of these artists are bitter that they didn’t make it big, but many look at their careers philosophically. Perhaps they didn’t become millionaires, but they got to make a living creating music — albums, TV show themes, movie soundtracks — that appealed to a core audience, and that was plenty satisfying. Maybe the many trappings of fame — the paparazzi, the business negotiations, the nasty critiques in the press, the constant pressures — wouldn’t have been worth it anyway.
I recommend you take a closer look at any or all of the artists mentioned above and discover some of the amazing music they made that never quite reached the mainstream marketplace. It may not be in your wheelhouse, but then again, it might very well light your fire.