In an increasingly globalised world borders are becoming more and more irrelevant, despite what some politicians might tell you. And in a music industry where digitalisation has revolutionised how we consume music, tunes fly around the world in seconds, are instantly available to everyone, and have the potential to leave a truly global footprint.
It’s hard to imagine a huge American hit of today failing to make any impression in the UK. But in the days when music made its mark at a slower pace that’s often what happened. In the ‘70s and ‘80s there was any number of rock songs that America took to its collective bosom that failed to register in the UK.
The UK was utterly dominated by pop-obsessed Radio One, but the US had hundreds of powerful stations, catering for all musical tastes. Many of them – like LA’s legendary KNAC – promoted rock 24⁄7. The whole concept of endless great songs playing on the States’ FM airwaves gave acts that didn’t follow a lowest common denominator pop format the chance to reach its audience – and deliver massive hits. America’s gain was our painful loss.
So here are 10 great rock songs that America put at Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, but conspicuously failed to make the grade in the UK.
Janis Joplin – Me and Bobby McGee
US Number 1 – Two weeks from March 20, 1971 (Failed to chart in the UK)
Co-written by Kris Kristofferson and first made famous by US singer/songwriter Roger Miller, this super-soulful version highlighted Joplin’s remarkable voice to fantastic effect. The song rose to the top of the US charts the year after Joplin died of a heroin overdose, and still serves as a poignant reminder of a talent lost too soon.
Stories – Brother Louie
US Number 1 – One week, August 25, 1973 (Failed to chart in the UK)
This story about an interracial relationship was a hit for Hot Chocolate in the UK in April of 1973. By August Stories’ version was Number One in the States. Produced and arranged by Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise (who also produced Kiss), the New York band’s version is awesome – both rocky and sophisticated, thanks to bassist/vocalist Ian Lloyd’s raw and impassioned vocal, and a superb string arrangement.
Grand Funk Railroad – We’re An American Band
US Number 1 – One week, September 29, 1973 (Failed to chart in the UK)
“We’re coming to your town we’re gonna party down.” A suitably bozo-ish party anthem from the Michigan rockers that really captures an era. It starts with some glorious cowbell, then settles into a fairly slick rock groove that feels as sleazy as the unashamed hedonism of the lyrics, where “booze and ladies keep me right”. Well of course!
Doobie Brothers – Black Water
US Number 1 – One week, March 15, 1975 (Failed to chart in the UK)
It’s hard to believe that such a downhome acoustic song (including a little fiddle solo) could have had such mass appeal, though it may have something to do with the universal appeal of the line “I ain’t got no worries ‘cos I ain’t in no hurry at all.” A song that takes you back to simpler times.
Rick Springfield – Jessie’s Girl
US Number 1 – Two weeks from August 1, 1981 (Reached Number 43 in the UK)
A pop rock classic about that age-old problem of coveting your mate’s missus. “She’s lovin’ him with that body I just know it,” fumes Springfield, clearly in turmoil. He may have started out as a teen idol, but this fella sure knew his way around an ear-wormy AOR tune.
Starship – Sara
US Number 1 – One week, March 15, 1986 (Reached Number 66 in the UK)
This unashamedly AOR-hugging ballad – with added harmonica – featured vocalist Mickey Thomas lamenting an inevitable break-up, because “we’re fire and ice, the dream won’t come true.” Despite not being written by the singer, the song was nonetheless named after his wife at the time. Guess what? They’re no longer together!
Boston – Amanda
US Number 1 – Two weeks from November 8, 1986 (Reached Number 84 in the UK)
Boston may well have appealed to the UK’s be-denimed rock fraternity. But they were never, ever mainstream here. Not so in the States, where this lighter-friendly ballad from 1986’s Third Stage was all over the airwaves. Still retaining Tom Scholz’s unique guitar tone, Amanda is guaranteed to bring a tear to even the hardest rocker’s eye!
Bob Seger – Shakedown
US Number 1 – One week, August 1, 1987 (Reached Number 88 in the UK)
This song was taken from the hit 1987 movie Beverly Hills Cop II and has proved to be legendary Detroit rock‘n’roller Bob Seger’s only US Number One to date. While Seger’s irrepressible gravel-throated delivery is all present and correct, the distinctly ‘80s song – written by Harold Faltermeyer and Keith Forsey – bears little resemblance to his regular homespun style.
Sheriff – When I’m With You
US Number 1 – One week, February 4, 1989 (Failed to chart in the UK)
A weird one. This Canadian rock band was formed in 1979, released one album in 1982 and promptly split in ’85. But this über-AOR ballad (think Styx and then some) suddenly started picking up radio play in 1989 and stormed to the top of the US charts. Incredible!
Bad English – When I See You Smile
US Number 1 – Two weeks from November 11, 1989 (Reached Number 61 in the UK)
This AOR supergroup featured Journey’s Neil Schon and The Babys’ John Waite, who both clearly knew a thing about what appealed to US radio programmers. They pooled their knowledge to come up with this big, big ballad – and the American public gave it a massive record-buying thumbs up.