There was once a time when all pop songs lived and died by their performance on the singles chart, the epicenter of which was of course the all-important Top 40. The vice which the singles chart held on pop music loosened a bit starting in the late Sixties, after free-form radio and other new and experimental on-air formats made it possible for a song, even album cuts that weren’t actually issued in the 45 rpm format, to still achieve popularity through other avenues (this greatly helped bands like Led Zeppelin, whose sound wasn’t really geared towards compartmentalized pop hits).
Nonetheless, the Top 40 singles chart remained – and remains – a crucial metric for the success of a song, and even just barely making it with a track that peaks at exactly #40 still allows an artist – and the history books – to say that they had one more Top 40 single in their career than they would have had otherwise. Here, in approximate order of release, are fifteen songs (all by major artists) which just poked their heads into the Top 40 for a week or two.
“BOWLING GREEN” – THE EVERLY BROTHERS (1968)
The Everly Brothers (Phil and Don) were one of the most vital acts of rock’s early days and then managed to have some chart success as late as the mid-Eighties. Their 1968 single “Bowling Green” actually seemed pretty trendy for the time (echoing the sound of groups like the Turtles and the Association), but still didn’t chart higher than #40 (however, the song did go to all the way to number one in Canada, despite being about a town in Kentucky).
“CALL ME LIGHTNING” – THE WHO (1968)
Originally a B-side in the UK, this 1968 Who track (supposedly one of the first songs Pete Townshend ever wrote) made it to #40 in the US. While fun and catchy, it’s hardly in the same league as the Who’s better work, and so lightening pretty much only struck once for the song, which has rarely been performed live and is typically excluded from the band’s many compilation albums (The Who Hits 50! From 2014 being among the exceptions).
“PLASTIC MAN” – THE TEMPTATIONS (1973)
One of Motown’s all-time most prominent acts, the Temptations were on a roll in the early Seventies with the number one hits “Just My Imagination” and the classic “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” However, while undeniably trendy-sounding for the time, their 1973 single “Plastic Man” might have been a bit too similar to “Papa” (both musically and thematically) and thus was only able to get stretch as high on the US charts as #40.
“STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS” – PAUL SIMON (1975)
After all these years, it’s still crazy that Paul Simon’s 1975 cut “Still Crazy After All These Years” didn’t get higher on the US charts than #40, particularly as it was the follow-up single to his “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” which had been number one (but wait, it gets even crazier: four years later Simon’s single “One-Trick Pony” also couldn’t gallop any higher than #40 on the US charts).
“GOOD TIMIN’” – THE BEACH BOYS (1979)
In case you’re not familiar with this 1979 effort by the Beach Boys, no, “Good Timin’” is not a cover of Jimmy Jones’ 1960 doo wop classic of the same name, but rather was a new song written by two longtime group members, brothers Brian and Carl Wilson. The title would prove to be ironic, since the classic Beach Boys vocal harmonies featured in the song were decidedly untrendy for the time and the song only made it to #40 on the US chart.
“(WE’RE ALL) CLONES” – ALICE COOPER (1980)
His 1980 album Flush the Fashion was Alice Cooper’s flagrant (yet perhaps ironic) attempt to sound like the new wave bands that were trendy at the time, particularly the Cars (he even recruited the producer of that band’s first two albums). The first Flush single “(We’re All) Clones” made the US Top 40 but just made the US Top 40, so the venture was either a success or a failure depending on how you want to look at it.
“BURNIN’ FOR YOU” – BLUE OYSTER CULT (1981)
Popular belief has it that Blue Oyster Cult’s only hit single was the classic “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” from 1976, but this track from the band’s 1981 album Fire of Unknown Origin just managed to make the US Top 40 (and it could have been an even closer call: guitar/vocalist Buck Dharma had originally intended the song for his solo album – which would be released the following year – but BOC’s management convinced him to give it to the band).
“MAN ON THE CORNER” – GENESIS (1981)
In 1981 Genesis advanced further into their most commercially successful period with the studio album Abacab. After two hit singles in the US (the title song and “No Reply at All”) they managed to squeeze one more track into the Top 40 with “Man on the Corner,” an understated-but-powerful ballad written by Phil Collins (and thus perhaps easily mistaken for a track from his solo career, which was also taking off at the time).
“ANGEL IN BLUE” – THE J. GEILS BAND (1982)
After more than a decade, Boston’s J. Geils Band achieved phenomenal success with their 1981 album Freeze Frame, from which the first two singles (the title track and the classic “Centerfold”) both went Top Five. Third time proved only somewhat the charm with “Angel in Blue,” a country-flavored, sentimental mid-tempo song which might have been a bit too much of a departure from the other two singles, and thus only just made the US Top 40.
“STONE COLD” – RAINBOW (1982)
Rainbow, the hard rock band assembled by former (and future) Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and at the time featuring vocalist Joe Lynn Turner could ultimately boast at least one US pop hit when this atmospheric and haunting mid-tempo track from the 1982 album Straight Between the Eyes just made the Top 40 (although we’ve always been surprised that the radio-friendly “Street of Dreams” from the following year didn’t do at least as well).
“SO CLOSE” – DIANA ROSS (1983)
The early Eighties would prove to be fairly successful for R&B’s favorite diva Diana Ross. This period included her Top 10 hit “Muscles,” written for her and produced by none other than her former protégé Michael Jackson. Unfortunately, the follow-up single from that same album (Silk Electric) wouldn’t have quite the same chart muscle, only making it to #40 (the title, ironically, being “So Close”).
“INVISIBLE HANDS” – KIM CARNES (1983)
Kim Carnes probably realized that, like the movie star mentioned in the title, her 1981 number one smash “Bette Davis Eyes” was going to be a tough act to follow. That turned out to be just the case: Carnes would never have another Top 10 single in the US. Among the handful of moderate hits she would have over the next few years was “Invisible Hands” (not to be confused with Genesis’ “Invisible Touch”) which peaked at #40 in 1983.
“LAY IT DOWN” – RATT (1985)
LA band Ratt were not only one of the early successes in the Eighties glam/hair/pop metal genre, but were actually able to achieve hit singles without resorting to the crowd-pleasing maneuver which most such bands undertook, i.e. the power ballad. After “Round and Round” had gotten all the way up to #12 the previous year, another hard rocker, “Lay It Down” from their 1985 album Invasion of Your Privacy also invaded the US singles chart, getting up to #40.
“JUST LIKE HEAVEN” – THE CURE (1987)
After years of enjoying a fiercely loyal – and growing – cult following, UK band the Cure (seen by many as the Beatles of the goth rock genre) seemed to be inching closer and closer to widespread success by the mid-Eighties. “Just Like Heaven” just barely become the band’s first US Top 40 single in 1987, but it would be two years later that the band would firmly establish their place in the mainstream when “Lovesong” went all the way up to number two.
“DON’T ASK ME WHY” – EURYTHMICS (1989)
Don’t ask us why this solid and poignant mid-tempo track (featuring an amazing vocal performance from Annie Lennox) from Eurythmics’ 1989 album We Too are One only got as far as #40 on the US charts (or why the song did only somewhat better in the group’s native UK, where it peaked at #25). Also don’t ask us why the song ended up as Eurythmics’ last single ever to chart in the US before the duo split up the following year.