Last week, from the little radio on a colleague’s desk, I heard the dulcet tones of Lindy Layton, as lead vocalist on the 1990 Beats International hit Won’t Talk About It. Never heard of it? Or her? Or them? That’s not entirely surprising—it was 27 years ago, after all.
In mid-1990 UK outfit Beats International just missed the Australian Top 10 with their début single Dub Be Good To Me; Won’t Talk About It was the follow-up, but it stalled at number seventy and was largely forgotten, as were Beats International and poor Lindy. Of course, both songs had been hugely successful in the UK, and because I was into anything that was big in the UK back then, Won’t Talk About It became—and remains—one of my favourite songs of all time.
Somehow, it’s made its way onto the playlist of one of those “90s, noughties and now” classic hits radio stations, in spite of the fact that it was never actually a ‘hit’ here—at least not in the most commonly accepted meaning of the word.
But lovers of pop culture have always been a fickle bunch. What’s red-hot one minute is often passé the next—or vice-versa, depending on which end of the timeline you’re looking at it from. For pop music, in particular, it’s near impossible to define the required ingredients for even the most fleeting success, let alone lasting popularity. This makes some of today’s
For pop music, in particular, it’s near impossible to define the required ingredients for even the most fleeting success, let alone lasting popularity—which makes some of today’s favourite “classic hits” something of a mystery.
Said “classics” belong to that disparate collective of songs that get the punters at karaoke bars and work Christmas shindigs a bit too moist. You know them—the ones that get excitable folk shrieking and whooping and falling over each other to get onto the parquetry, where they proceed to kick up their dancing heels, badly mimimg select portions of misheard lyrics, and making comically exaggerated eye and hand gestures. Go on, you can admit it: we’ve all been there.
The tendency to call them “classics” leads to all kinds of misremembered truths. Unless you’re au fait with such things, you’d probably just assume they were all huge hits when first released and that they’ve simply stood the test of time, as pop music sometimes does. Why else would people who weren’t even born when a song was originally released still love it today?
It’s not an entirely unreasonable assumption—but neither is it entirely correct.
While many pop music gems somehow defy the transient nature of pop-culture, some of the songs that now have gaggles of girls (and guys) drunkenly singing along while dancing around piles of shoes and clutch purses, were never actually big hits at all; some of them were never even released.
How, then, did so many of these golden oldies attain “classic” status if they were never all that popular to begin with? And is this a phenomenon we can expect to see more of in the future?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the olden days, the success of any release was, with very few exceptions, almost entirely down to radio, such was that medium’s might over many decades.
The Buggles conjectured that video had already killed the radio star by 1979, but the end of radio’s hit-making dominance was still more than two decades away. In many ways, radio and video worked together to fuel some of the biggest album sales of the 80s and 90s.
The passing of time has, in some cases, seen the reputation of an iconic million-selling album morph into the mistaken impression that all of its singles (real or imagined) were also hugely successful—et voilà! A “classic hit” is created.
But not all the high-rotation favourites of today’s Classic Hits radio playlists originally featured on immensely successful albums either, so how they achieved their latter-day “classic” status is a bit of a mystery.
Let’s take a look at the evidence…
Exhibit A: Cold Chisel’s 1978 début Khe Sanh. It was a massive number 1 hit for months and months and months, right? Wrong! Khe Sanh just missed the Top 40 on its first release, radio airplay was banned on account of its “controversial lyrics” and the album it came from—the band’s—stalled outside the Top 30. Eighteen months later, a new recording of the song appeared on the band’s second album, which flew off record store shelves in huge volumes.
Cold Chisel went on to immense success before splitting in late-1983, but lead singer Jimmy Barnes’ solo career took off the following year, so it’s perhaps no coincidence that Khe Sanh became colloquially known as Australia’s ‘unofficial national anthem’, despite never having been a massive seller in its own right.
Exhibit B: the four singles from Fleetwood Mac’s bazillion-selling 1977 album Rumours. They must’ve been the biggest hits of the 70s, right? Wrong! The album outsold all others in Australia that year and it’s still the world’s 8th-highest-selling album of all time. But while none of the singles generated huge sales of their own, all four of them—Go Your Own Way (chart peak #20), Dreams (#19), Don’t Stop (#30) and You Make Loving Fun (#65)—certainly pulled their weight where Rumours‘ overall sales are concerned.
Their undoubted contribution to its success was textbook in terms of promotional singles doing their job. Those four songs are still among the most recognizable pop tunes of the 70s, and Fleetwood Mac’s perennial radio presence ever since means they’re all considered “classics”.
Exhibit C: some songs are successful just because they are, others almost by default thanks to the popularity of the artist or album (or the movie, TV show or advertising campaign) that spawned them. And then there’s Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1974 single, Sweet Home Alabama—the “classic hit” status of which has more arcane origins. It was the band’s first U.S. Top 10, but it was never released in Australia. The album it came from barely caused a blip on the Australian charts and the band itself never had a high-profile here at all.
Even after a third of the band was killed in a plane crash in 1977—a tragedy which virtually guarantees sales for even the least-known of artists in today’s globalised world—any significant increase in local Lynyrd Skynyrd sales was still years away. Yet somehow, Sweet Home Alabama consistently made it onto radio playlists throughout the 80s and 90s—alors, a “classic hit” without ever having been one.
Exhibit D: they’d had some success over several years, but in 1977 The Eagles’ Hotel California only reached #60 on the Australian singles chart. It was the eighth Eagles single to chart locally, but none of the previous seven had been big hits—although they’d all gone significantly higher than #60. Even though this one went Top 10 virtually everywhere else in the world—it even hit number five in New Zealand—somehow it tanked in Australia.
The album of the same name, which the song came from, reached #1 six months before the single was released. While the two previous Eagles LPs had seen notable success, neither was exactly a ‘massive’ hit; Hotel California, on the other hand, spent twelve consecutive weeks at #1 and charted for an entire year—a bona fide massive hit, then, and very possibly the source of the song’s eventual “classic hit” status as well.
Exhibit E: seven Pink Floyd albums had charted in Australia by the end of 1979, the first three of which were relatively minor hits, while the last four all reached the Top 2, with two of them hitting #1. So it’s surprising to learn that Pink Floyd’s first appearance on the Australian singles chart was with Another Brick In The Wall in February 1980; no Pink Floyd single had ever charted here previous to that.
Eight years earlier Money, from the near-million-selling Dark Side Of The Moon album, charted in Europe and went to #13 in the U.S., but it was never released at home in the UK, nor here in Australia. Yet somehow it’s gone on to become one of Pink Floyd’s most recognised tunes. The band only achieved relatively modest success beyond 1980. There were no hugely successful compilations, and there certainly wasn’t another juggernaut on the scale of Dark Side Of The Moon so, presumably, Money’s “classic hit” status is solely due to the success of that album.
The 80s and 90s offered their fair share of “classics” that were also driven to radio either by volume-selling albums, or for reasons just as mysterious as for some of their earlier brethren.
Exhibit F: pretty much anything by Crowded House. There’s a long list of Crowded House songs that were never significant hits in their own right, but which nonetheless wound up indelibly etched on the Australian music psyche, thanks in very large part to ongoing TV and radio exposure and some massive album sales. Two albums by Australia’s
Two albums by Australia’s favourite adopted Kiwis are among our biggest sellers of all time. But, believe it or not, only three of the 24 Crowded House singles released between 1986 and 2016 actually made the Top 10—Don’t Dream It’s Over peaked at #8 in 1987, Better Be Home Soon reached #2 in 1988, and Everything Is Good For You (arguably one of the least-recalled Crowded House singles) spent a single week at #10 on début in 1996.
So what about all those other Crowded House songs everyone seems to know at least part of? There was also Weather With You, Something So Strong, Into Temptation, Fall At Your Feet, World Where You Live, Four Seasons In One Day, It’s Only Natural, Now We’re Getting Somewhere and Distant Sun—almost inevitably you know some part of each and every one of those songs, without any of them ever having been huge hits.
Exhibit G: anything by Hall & Oates. Hall & Oates have been the darlings of AOR/MOR radio ever since their releases were brand new. They only ever had two Top 10 singles (Rich Girl in 1977 and Maneater in 1983) and one Top 10 album in Australia. And four of their best-known hits—Kiss On My List (1981), Private Eyes (1981), I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do) (1982) and Out Of Touch (1984)—all missed the Top 10.
But with their inoffensive melodies and catchy singable choruses, they achieved almost permanent “classic hits” rotation.
Exhibit H: Hit Me With Your Best Shot by Pat Benatar. Released in early 1981, Hit Me With Your Best Shot was the second single from Pat Benatar’s second album and her fourth single to hit the local charts. Thirty-five years later it feels like it’s always been around—surely it was a massive hit, a cracker classic of the 80s?—and yet, it only went as high as #9 in the U.S. and, despite spending four months on the Australian singles chart, it stalled at #33 here.
Such was the perceived retro popularity of Hit Me With Your Best Shot that it was among the tracks released on the 2008 interactive video game Guitar Hero III, though no doubt more due to its U.S. hit status than anything else… which, come to think of it, is possibly responsible for the “classic hit” status of a load of other songs too.
Exhibit I: Sounds Of Then (This Is Australia) by GANGgajang. When you think of iconic Aussie ‘theme’ songs, a few stand out above the rest. There’s our actual and quite glorious national anthem Advance Australia Fair (replete with second verse that hardly anyone knows the words to) and, of course, the aforementioned unofficial national anthem Khe Sanh. We also have the 1988 Bicentennial song Celebration Of A Nation, and that favourite of marketers and advertisers across the land, We Are Australian, a song so utterly patriotic that there’ve been multiple pitches for it to become our national anthem. A handful of other songs, like I Still Call Australia Home, are notable for being the one-time signature tunes for Tourism Australian, the Rugby World Cup, the 1987 America’s Cup, the AFL, the NRL, Telstra, Qantas… basically, anything quintessentially Australian.
And then there’s this little mid-80s pop gem, from slightly obscure Australian band GANGgajang. It featured in a Coke ad in 1993, it was the theme for the Nine Network’s new year promo for 1996, and it’s also found its way onto numerous film and television soundtracks over the years. Yet in early 1986 it became the most successful of GANGgajang’s ten charting singles by ascending to the dizzying heights of #35.
Exhibit J: Show Me Love by Robin S. Show Me Love was a stock-standard 120bpm house tune that scaled the lofty heights of #78 in Australia in February 1994; unless you frequented nightclubs at the time, or were especially enamoured of dance music, you probably never heard it. Robin S never charted in Australia again but, elsewhere in the world, it seems Show Me Love still had legs. Aside from a handful of other songs, Robin S largely stuck with remixes and reissues of that one track: Show Me Love ’97, Show Me Love 99, Show Me Love 2002, Show Me Love 2006, Show Me Love 2008, Show Me Love 2009… talk about milking it.
But since 2003 Show Me Love has also been sampled in at least 17 other tracks—you might recall its keyboard riff throughout Jason Derulo’s 2011 Top 5 hit Don’t Wanna Go Home; it’s also been covered by countless other artists over the past decade, including Sam Feldt’s version which reached the Australian Top 20 in 2015. It’s a pretty impressive roll call for a song with a “classic hit” status that’s largely due to its success for others, rather than for its original artist.
Exhibit K: Angels by Robbie Williams. Williams had never had a significant hit here until Rock DJ went to #4 in 2000. Angels had been six UK singles earlier; it, and the intervening five singles, had all made the UK Top 4. Angels hit the UK chart at the end of 1997, where it bucked the trend of the day by taking nine weeks to hit its peak and spent 20 weeks on the chart—nearly twice as long as most singles charted at the time. Stranger still, it amassed another 46 chart weeks by the end of 1999, a feat virtually unheard of at the time—and every one of those weeks off the back of physical sales alone.
Angels was already the favourite singalong hit of drunken Brits by the time it belatedly charted here in April 1998; then, it just kinda bounced up and down between #100 and the #40 peak it achieved nearly two years later, after 24 very interrupted chart weeks. In December 2005 Williams’ Greatest Hits was certified 7xPlatinum, having made the upper reaches of the annual list of highest-selling albums two years running; by then, Australians were also loving Angels instead.
So can this whole thing of ‘old-song-becomes-classic-without-ever-being-a-hit’ carry on? Will today’s tweens, teens, and 20-somethings see the same kind of “classic hits” we see today, in another twenty or thirty years?
On the balance of probabilities, considering the variable outcomes of Exhibits A thru K, I’d say the answer is “probably not”. So many of the examples cited above seem to be considered classics on the basis of either album success, or ongoing radio airplay.
But albums hardly sell in any significant volumes anymore, and radio airplay has been largely superseded by YouTube and streaming services; it’s difficult to see how today’s “classic hits” would ever have evolved under those conditions.
Still, Aussie music lovers across the country are safe in the knowledge that Sweet Home Alabama will still have them singing along, at least to its chorus, for years and years to come… even if they’re not entirely sure how or why they actually know it.