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Popularity is not an indicator of the quality of art, and music is no exception. Record labels focus on sales because ultimately for them it’s about making money. While for the artist, some are sales and money-focused no doubt, but for many it’s about artistry and self-expression, making the music they want to make. If the album is a flop, sometimes the artist gets dropped from the record label early (this even happens to A-list musicians too) or when the contract’s up, it’s not renewed.
Poor sales or poor chart performance doesn’t always mean bad music. Sometimes it’s poor promotion and marketing, bad timing, or bad luck. Record labels are going to promote the artists that they know are popular and successful and not invest as many resources on the smaller acts, which involves taking chances. Sometimes the world isn’t ready for such a groundbreaking album or song or maybe the timing was bad because a very popular musician released an album the same day and people buy that one instead of a less popular musician’s album – people only have so much money. Sometimes the music is good, but people see it as a cheap copy of someone else’s music because of the timing of the release or comparing the musician with their better known and established contemporaries.
For our purposes, we will be defining “flop” in this article as a song that was a commercial failure. It does not necessarily have to be something panned by critics. Sometimes critics love the music, but mainstream audiences don’t. Some of these albums and songs are obscurities, while others are quite well known and were sleeper hits, becoming popular way after the fact. Regardless, these are all songs and albums I love and I think are worth checking out if you haven’t already.
Without further ado, here are some of the best “flops” in classic rock:
1. Wednesday Morning, 3 AM – Simon and Garfunkel (1964)
This is the album that nearly was the end of Simon & Garfunkel, and their career was only getting started! The two were classmates in secondary school who formed a musical duo called Tom & Jerry (named after people they knew, not necessarily the cartoon) in the late 50s and they had some success with the single “Hey Schoolgirl”, which got some airplay because of payola. The two continued their studies and recording music as solo musicians, when one day they got discovered at a gig at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village. Columbia Records staffer Tom Wilson liked their songs “Sparrow”, “He Was My Brother”, and “The Sound of Silence” and so he got them signed to the label. Their debut album was initially such a flop, only selling 3,000 copies on release, that the two parted and Paul Simon ran away to London to record some solo music and get into the folk scene there, meeting Bert Jansch, Sandy Denny, Martin Carthy, and Al Stewart. Art Garfunkel continued his studies at Columbia University, but they reunited in 1965 because one of the songs on the album became a hit, once remixed. You’ll know one of the songs on this album, no doubt, but you probably have heard a different version of it and that one is “The Sound of Silence”, which has since become a meme too. The original on this album was acoustic, while the version that became a hit was overdubbed with electric guitars and released on their 1966 follow up album Sounds of Silence. This remix launched the folk rock duo’s career. If you’ve seen The Graduate, this song is one of the best known songs on the soundtrack, along with “Mrs Robinson”.
If you want to add this album to your collection, here’s where to purchase Wednesday Morning, 3 AM.
2. All The News That’s Fit To Sing – Phil Ochs (1964)
Phil Ochs was pretty much the socialist Bob Dylan and not only did he talk the talk, he walked the walk. He got political while studying journalism at Ohio State University, where he befriended folkie and socialist Jim Glover. The two performed as the Sundowners and the Singing Socialists before they moved to New York. Phil Ochs arrived in New York the year after Bob Dylan did and he started performing his topical songs. He would show up to pretty much any rally or protest he was invited to and while he really wanted to be as popular and successful as Bob Dylan, he also wanted to make the world a better place and spread his socialist messages through his music. In the 1960s, he was an incredibly prolific songwriter, with Bob Dylan once saying of his music that it just keeps getting better and better. In Phil Ochs’ early years, he liked to watch the news and read the newspaper and write songs based on the news, being a singing journalist. The title of this album reflects that with a nod to the New York Times‘ slogan coined by Adolph Ochs (no relation), “all the news that’s fit to print”. Well, I know how I’d rather get my news… from the singing journalist! If politics isn’t your thing, Phil Ochs sang Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells”. While not one Phil Ochs album has gone gold, this one’s gold in my eyes.
If you want to add this album to your collection, here’s where to purchase All The News That’s Fit To Sing.
3. The Remains – The Remains (1966)
Boston garage rock band The Remains have been dubbed America’s lost band, one of the best bands you’ve never heard of. If you’ve never listened to them before, I hope that changes today because their debut album is great. They were so close to stardom, opening for The Beatles on their last American tour in 1966 and appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show and Hullabaloo, but never had that true breakthrough. Not one song in the top 40, and when you listen to their only album, you’ll be surprised that not one of these songs was a chart hit. Unsurprisingly with so little success, the band were short-lived, breaking up at the end of 1966. Granted, there was a lot of competition in those days, so many good bands, only so much space in the charts. Thanks to the inclusion of the soulful “Don’t Look Back” on the Nuggets compilation album put together by future Patti Smith Group lead guitarist Lenny Kaye, the band’s music was being exposed to a new generation of rock fans and there was a revival of interest in the group. Thanks to the internet, obscure bands of yesteryear finally get the love and attention they deserve.
If you want to add this album to your collection, here’s where to purchase The Remains.
4. “River Deep-Mountain High” – Tina Turner (1966)
When you listen to this song, it’s easy to tell how much went into it. The production is top tier with Phil Spector’s famous “Wall of Sound” and the orchestral arrangements, the Wrecking Crew playing on it, and on top of that you have the Queen of Rock and Roll Tina Turner singing on it. The recording sessions allegedly left Brian Wilson speechless. You’d think it’d be a hit, but actually it was so much of a commercial flop that Phil Spector went crazy when it went nowhere in the charts, only reaching a disappointing #88 on the Billboard charts. It was completely slept on at the time it came out, and Ike Turner speculated that racism was a factor because Tina Turner is black, this song was classified as R&B rather than rock or pop and in those days the charts were segregated. He was envisioning it as his magnum opus as a producer, but he became disillusioned and quit producing for two years. It wasn’t a complete flop though because it performed well on the charts across the Atlantic, but the music markets in Europe are not as big as the good old US of A.
5. Forever Changes – Love (1967)
If you want to add this album to your collection, here’s where to purchase Forever Changes.
6. The Velvet Underground and Nico – The Velvet Underground (1967)
Once again, this is one of those perfect, no-skips albums. It is now considered highly influential, but when it came out in 1967 it was a commercial flop, only selling 30,000 copies in the first five years. The world wasn’t ready for The Velvet Underground yet – as Marty McFly said in Back to the Future “Guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet, but your kids are gonna love it”. This album is easily one of those ahead of its time albums and one that inspired many an aspiring musician to start their own rock bands. With an album cover designed by Andy Warhol, how wasn’t this album selling like hotcakes? Don’t people love his art? Well, for starters, the song lyrics weren’t radio friendly and with no radio airplay, it’s hard to get the music out there. The lyrics sometimes touched on taboo topics like drugs, kinky sex, and prostitution. You’re not gonna have a song called “Heroin” playing on the radio because in those days even songs that vaguely referred to drugs with coded language and metaphors were censored and banned on the radio. We’re talking about a time when “Louie Louie” was seen as a dirty song. Lou Reed’s intention wasn’t shock value, but rather that the beats, who were a huge inspiration to him, wrote about those topics and he thought it would translate well into rock and roll (he’s right). It didn’t help that the band’s label, Verve, did a horrible job at promoting the album. Finally, in the 70s, once Lou Reed achieved fame as a solo musician, rock critics retrospectively reviewed the album and it got the praise it deserved. If you haven’t listened to it yet, what are you doing? Drop everything and listen to it now.
If you want to add this album to your collection, here’s where to purchase The Velvet Underground and Nico.
7. The Village Green Preservation Society – The Kinks (1968)
A list of great rock and roll “flops” wouldn’t be complete without this album. This album came out during The Kinks’ American touring ban, during a time when The Kinks went on their own path creatively, embracing their Britishness and old school influences and this album is the perfect example of that. The Kinks aren’t a band that go with the trends, they make music that’s unapologetically themselves. It’s an album that I’d say is a proto-cottagecore, nostalgic album that takes you to the village green, a place far from the hustle and bustle of the city, where there’s nature, and there’s still the uniqueness and charm of the olden days. It’s one of those albums that gets better when you listen to it again as you get older because you understand the themes of it more with more life experience. While the album was loved by critics and Kinks “kultists”, it was the band’s first album to not chart in the UK or US or even anywhere in Europe. One factor that worked against The Kinks is that the album came out the exact same day as The Beatles’ White Album. Bad luck! The Kinks were signed to Pye Records and their deal was so bad that Ray Davies wrote a concept album about it, Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround and spent a lot of time in court trying to free themselves from an exploitative contract. Pete Quaife decades later in an interview called Pye “the most incompetent record company in Britain” and that they “Took, took, took, took! And never gave anything back”. This was the last album with Pete Quaife as bassist, as he left The Kinks in early 1969 – still, Pete Quaife described the album as being a high point in his short music career – he never returned to playing music professionally after leaving The Kinks. However, there is a silver lining. Just like The Velvet Underground and Nico was a huge influence to punk rockers, goths, and experimental musicians, The Village Green Preservation Society was much loved by musicians from the mod revival and Britpop scenes.
If you want to add this album to your collection, here’s where to buy The Village Green Preservation Society.
8. Odessey and Oracle – The Zombies (1968)
This album is another all-time favourite of mine, one of those perfect, no skip albums, and when I found out it was a flop when it was released, with The Zombies breaking up just after the release of it, I was shocked. Unlike a lot of the previous albums above, there was a hit single from the album, “Time of the Season”, which is one of The Zombies’ best known songs. However, that didn’t result in a lot of album sales, with the album only barely making the Billboard Hot 100 while Rod Argent and Chris White were in prog/hard rock band Argent. Before the album came out, The Zombies had been dropped by their label, Decca Records. They only released one album while signed to them, Begin Here and the reason that there was no album released for three years was because they had no chart success, even though they recorded enough songs between 1965 and 1968 to release another album. While the album is beautiful and a masterpiece, behind the scenes things got ugly and there were a lot of conflicts between the band members, just like when Love recorded Forever Changes, and it didn’t help that the band were on a tight deadline and having to fund the recording sessions themselves. This album was released on CBS Records in the US and the head of the label during that time, Clive Davis, originally didn’t want to release it. Keep in mind, Clive Davis is known as “the man with the golden ear” and he usually has a good ear for hits, but sometimes you get it wrong. The Zombies never toured to promote the album, even after “Time of the Season” became a hit, leading to them being screwed over by dishonest promoters who put together fake “Zombies” groups. They also made the mistake of not trademarking the band name at the time. There is a happy ending though. Since then, Odessey and Oracle has finally gotten the praise and acclaim it deserved and The Zombies have reformed and continue to play shows and have an active social media presence – yes, they even have a TikTok! The whole album is amazing, but I especially love the songs “Maybe After He’s Gone”, “Brief Candles”, “Hung Up On a Dream”, and “This Will Be Our Year”.
If you want to add this album to your collection, here’s where to buy Odessey and Oracle.
9. Astral Weeks – Van Morrison (1968)
By 1968, Van the Man had quite a few hits under his belt, “Gloria” and “Here Comes The Night” with Them and as a solo artist, “Brown Eyed Girl”. He released his sophomore album, Astral Weeks exactly a week after The White Album and The Village Green Preservation Society came out and a week before The Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet came out. Talk about a crowded field! Christmas was right around the corner and what better gift for a music fan than an album by their favourite musician? Not only was the album a flop when it was released due to poor promotion by the record label, critics didn’t give it glowing reviews either. There were difficulties behind the scenes with Bert Berns, the owner of the record label Van was signed to – Bang Records, dying of a heart attack and him wanting to get out of his record deal because he felt limited creatively. As you can hear on the album, he wanted to do more folk, blues, and jazz influenced songs with stream of consciousness poetic lyrics, not pop songs with cliched lyrics. Ultimately, he got a deal with Warner Brothers Records, but he still had some obligations to Bang Records and so he recorded a nonsense album to fulfil his contractual obligations, with one of the songs “Thirty Two” being a diss track of sorts – Mike Oldfield would do a similar thing with Amarok, hiding a Morse code message in the album that said “Fuck off RB”. In the UK, the album didn’t chart and in the US it only had a cult following. One critic, Nick Logan of NME, called Astral Weeks an imitation of Jose Feliciano’s Feliciano! album, released the same year. Since then, the album has been re-evaluated and is loved by critics for its song cycle structure and was an inspiration for musicians like Bono and Bruce Springsteen. Now people think of it as a top tier classic rock album. Definitely one to listen to from start to finish.
If you want to add this album to your collection, here’s where to buy Astral Weeks.
10. S.F. Sorrow – The Pretty Things (1968)
Another album from 1968? Yup! It was quite a strong year musically with lots of great releases. Sadly, S.F. Sorrow didn’t get the commercial success it deserved. The Pretty Things were formed in 1963 as an R&B group in the same style as The Rolling Stones, with a groundbreaking blues rock sound and hair length that pushed the boundaries, most notably seen on their frontman, Phil May, who was said to have the longest hair of any rock star at that time (looking at photos in 1964, I’d believe it). The Pretty Things were no one-trick ponies, they were creative and they wanted to take their music to the next level and go psychedelic and hard rock and that’s what they did in 1968. Some people think The Who’s Tommy was the first rock opera, but the truth is there were two bands that beat The Who there, Nirvana with The Story of Simon Simopath and of course, The Pretty Things with S.F. Sorrow. Like The Zombies, The Pretty Things moved from one record label to another, in their case going from Fontana to EMI. By the end of 1967, they were going proto-metal with the heavy psych homoerotic song “Defecting Grey”, musically a sign of what to expect from S.F. Sorrow. The album starts off with a more acoustic psych sound on “S.F. Sorrow is Born”, some raga rock on “Bracelets of Fingers”, some fuzzy guitars on “She Says Good Morning” but you really hear the heavy stuff on “Balloon Burning” and “Old Man Going”. The band recorded the album at Abbey Road at the same time as Pink Floyd recorded A Saucerful of Secrets and The Beatles recorded the White Album. Once again, there were problems behind the scenes with personnel changes and band members leaving not long after the album’s release. During this time The Pretty Things were quite broke and released music under a different name, Electric Banana, to make ends meet. One of the big things working against the album can be seen in its name – it’s a very sad story about a man named Sebastian F. Sorrow who is born in a humdrum industrial town in the North of England and he falls in love with this girl in his neighbourhood, but as he plans to marry her, he is drafted into WWI and he ends up traumatised from that and decides he wants to start a new life in America. His wife comes over in a zeppelin and the zeppelin crashes, like the Hindenburg. She dies and he sinks into an even deeper depression where he encounters Baron Saturday and he takes him on a trip into his subconscious. After that trip he finds that he can’t trust anyone and he cuts himself off from the world, dubbing himself the loneliest person. Politically, 1968 was a turbulent year and the last thing people needed was depressing music to remind them of the depressing state of things, although some find comfort in listening to sad music. This is also not helped by the poor promotion of the album and the fact that with a rock opera it’s hard to release singles because you need the context and the story to understand the songs. It wasn’t released in the US straight away and when Motown decided to distribute it under their Rare Earth label, it was after Tommy came out and S.F. Sorrow was seen as a copycat album, even though it came out first. Lester Bangs called the album ultra pretentious. On top of that, the album was a studio creation, making it difficult to perform live even though it had potential as a theatric show. Thankfully now, the album has gotten more recognition for its groundbreaking sound. It’s one of those albums you have to listen to as a whole to truly appreciate. Also I love the bonus track “Walking Through My Dreams”.
If you want to add this album to your collection, here’s where to buy S.F. Sorrow.
11. “Shake” – The Shadows of Knight (1968)
The Shadows of Knight are a rock band from Chicago best known for their version of Them’s “Gloria”, which was a one-hit wonder for the group, reaching the top 10 in the US, being more of a commercial success than the original. I remember years ago I came across this other song by the Shadows of Knight and I was amazed. It’s so energetic and a great party song, why didn’t it chart? Poor promotion? I suppose because during this time their label tried to push them in a more bubblegum pop direction even though “Shake” sounds way more garage than bubblegum. The song just about made it into the top 40… in Canada. I tried looking for it on Spotify and funny enough, it’s hidden because of the typo in the band’s name as you’ll see above. They added an extra ‘i’ in the Shadows of Knight. Anyway, thought it would be a good inclusion in this list.
12. Shazam – The Move (1970)
The Move were one of the precursors to ELO with members Roy Wood, Jeff Lynne, and Bev Bevan starting ELO as a side project only to find it surpassed The Move in popularity. The Move were formed in Birmingham in 1965 by Roy Wood, Trevor Burton, and Ace Kefford and their goal was to put together a band made up of great musicians from Birmingham. Later, Carl Wayne and Bev Bevan joined the band. Their influences included The Who, The Byrds, and American R&B musicians. They had a residency at the Marquee Club in London in 1966. Eventually, the band started writing their own music with Roy Wood becoming their main songwriter. They had multiple songs in the UK top 5: “Night of Fear”, “I Can Hear The Grass Grow”, “Flowers in the Rain”, “Fire Brigade”, and “Blackberry Way” (topped the charts in 1968). After the band’s first album came out, Ace Kefford left the band because of mental health and drug problems and Trevor Burton left the band in 1969 because he didn’t like the direction the band was going and he got into a fight with Bev Bevan. The Move toured the US once in 1969, opening for The Stooges, but they didn’t have much support from their label or manager and they ended up coming back to England early after the tour was a total disaster because the band had to sort out transport, travel, and planning themselves and therefore missed a bunch of gigs. The band’s recording of Shazam also came with drama and creative differences with vocalist Carl Wayne feeling like he was being drowned out and he ended up arguing with Roy Wood a lot. While Bev Bevan said it was his favourite Move album, Roy Wood felt like the album was a miserable one to record and didn’t sound great because of the band not pulling in the same direction. Carl Wayne left the band after the release of the album. The album was a commercial flop, but some critics liked it. Like other albums in this list, it was influential to groups like Cheap Trick (who covered “California Man”) and Kiss. If you want to know something else that made matters worse for The Move, they never ended up receiving royalties for “Flowers in the Rain” because Prime Minister Harold Wilson sued the group for using an image of him naked in bed with his secretary Marcia Williams with him in a publicity stunt. To this day, royalties from that song still go to charities of former PM Wilson’s choice. Only one song on Shazam was a hit, “Hello Susie”… or rather a cover of it by Amen Corner – the original though is very hard rock and sounds quite heavy for the time. Other highlights of the album are “Cherry Blossom Clinic Revisited” and “Fields of People”.
13. Outlander – Meic Stevens (1970)
And here’s a psychedelic folk album you don’t know, but once you hear it, you might end up loving it, especially if you’re a Bob Dylan or Donovan fan. Singer-songwriter and bard Meic Stevens is one of the most famous Welsh-speaking musicians, often dubbed as the Welsh Bob Dylan and the Grandfather of modern Welsh music, Early on in his career, after being discovered in a Manchester folk club he sang music in English, under his Anglo name Mike Stevens with the single “Did I Dream” b/w “I Saw A Field” – it was produced by session veteran and future Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. After that flopped, he suffered a nervous breakdown and went back to his hometown of Solva, in Pembrokeshire. While back in Wales, he was in a group called Y Bara Menyn (Bread and Butter) before recording as a solo artist and producing the first Welsh record to be recorded on a multi-track machine, the political song “Dŵr” by Huw Jones. In the late 60s, he hung out with lots of folk and rock musicians in London. He notably was with Jimi Hendrix the night before he died. They were drinking at the Scotch of St James bar in Mayfair with Eric Clapton, Gary Farr, and Jim Cregan. He even met Syd Barrett when the Pink Floyd founding member visited Wales. Anyway, sometime in 1969, he signed a lucrative record deal with Warner Brothers to release a few albums in English, but only one album materialised from this contract and that album is Outlander, the only English language album he recorded for 40 years, when he released Love Songs in 2010. The album has some great psychedelic folk songs like “Rowena”, “Love Owed”, “The Sailor and Madonna” (raga rock/sitar fans will love this one), “Yorric” (my personal favourite, love the sitars on this one too), “Ghost Town”, and “Great Houdini” (he also recorded a Welsh version, “Yr Brawd Hwdini”). Great music in its own right. When the album flopped, Meic Stevens walked away from the lucrative deal, which he later said was a mistake and that he could have made millions had he stayed with Warner Brothers. From that point onwards, he decided to sing in his native Welsh because he always thought it was important to do so because it’s a minority language and the Welsh are a minority race. He recorded everything on his own terms, never taking grant money or subsidies from the government, even criticising Welsh language TV station S4C as the “worst TV station in Europe”. Decades later he relocated to Canada to live with his girlfriend and learn more about indigenous people and see what he can do to improve the situation for Welsh people. When you look at the history of Wales, the treatment of Welsh people was quite similar to that of Native Americans because they had their land and culture stolen from them. I guess I’ll leave you with a nice little bonus, Meic Stevens covering underrated folk singer-songwriter Jackson C. Frank’s “Blues Run The Game”.
14. “Tiny Dancer” – Elton John (1971)
I know, you’re going to be like wait a minute… how is this song a flop? It’s one of Elton John’s best known songs! But did you know that when “Tiny Dancer” originally was released, it wasn’t a hit. This song is one of the most famous sleeper hits. What’s the story behind this song? Well, if you’ve seen Rocketman, you’ll remember the scene where they sing “Tiny Dancer” in California at a party. Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics, inspired by his first visit to California in 1970, noticing how different the vibes were there compared to England. There’s something magical about America, right? The muse was Taupin’s American wife Maxine Feibelman, who actually was a “seamstress for the band”. Remember how in Bohemian Rhapsody, the record executive was like the radio wouldn’t want to play a 6 minute long song? Well, that was the initial response to “Tiny Dancer”. It didn’t get much radio airplay at first because of the length of the song. Most songs on the radio were about 3 minutes. I don’t know if 6 minutes is enough time for a smoke or potty break – we all know “Do You Feel Like We Do” (Frampton Comes Alive version, obvs) is the smoke break song. It didn’t help that there was lyric about “Jesus freaks”, making radio stations hesitant to play it because they didn’t want to offend listeners. Initially, the song only peaked at #41 in the US and was not released as a single in the UK. Since then though the song has been certified 2x platinum in the UK.
15. #1 Record – Big Star (1972)
You could say that the 70s was book ended by power pop. Power pop is heavily influenced by the garage rock, beat music, and girl group music popular in the mid 60s, and later iterations of it are more punk and glam influenced. Both sides of the Atlantic had their power pop groups. One of the best known ones from America were Big Star, formed in Memphis in 1971 by Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, and Andy Hummel. Alex Chilton had fame as a teenager with The Box Tops, singing their hit “The Letter” when he was just 16 years old. Chilton had an offer to join Blood, Sweat and Tears, but he chose not to join them because he found them to be too commercial and so he joined forces with his friend from Memphis, Chris Bell, to form Big Star. The two were the main songwriters of the band. The band released their debut album #1 Record in 1972 and while it was well-received by critics, it was a complete commercial flop, only selling fewer than 10,000 copies at the time. It later became a power pop classic and there was a revival in interest in the late 70s when power pop made a comeback and it was reissued as a box set with their follow up album Radio City. In the 90s, That 70s Show sparked interest in the band with Cheap Trick covering “In The Street” as the theme song for the show. There are other great songs on the album like “Feel”, “The Ballad of El Goodo”, “Thirteen”, “Don’t Lie To Me”, “When My Baby’s Beside Me”, “My Life is Right”, and “Watch the Sunrise”.
16. Pink Moon – Nick Drake (1972)
Again this is another one of those albums that’s an essential on greatest ever “flops” lists. Nick Drake was a folk musician who never got to see his work become well-loved and appreciated in his lifetime. He was a mystery, an enigma, and there is no video footage of him as a musician, only some photos of him, and that mystery is part of the appeal. People wonder what could have been had he lived. Only after his death at the age of 26 was there an interest in his music. He was born to a wealthy family, an engineer father with the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation and a poet/musician mother. He grew up in Warwickshire, just outside of Birmingham. As a teenager, he went to boarding school and played rugby and played R&B music in a band he formed. He loved playing Manfred Mann and Yardbirds covers. Before studying at Cambridge, he spent time in Aix-en-Provençe, where he busked and started smoking pot and tripping on acid. He didn’t really apply himself at Cambridge, and instead of schoolwork, he focused more on music, getting into folk musicians like Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Donovan, and Phil Ochs. He started playing gigs in London in 1967 and made a good impression with folk musicians like Ashley Hutchings of Fairport Convention. Through him, he met producer Joe Boyd, who discovered Fairport Convention and helped launch the careers of The Incredible String Band and John Martyn. John Martyn would later befriend Nick Drake and they were rivals of sorts. Martyn sang the Robin Frederick-penned song “Sandy Grey”, which was written about Nick Drake. He also wrote the song “Solid Air” about Nick Drake. Nick Drake only released three studio albums: Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter, and Pink Moon. Over time, his mental health deteriorated and he struggled with money, often sleeping on friends’ couches. None of the albums were commercial successes, but the one that got the most love posthumously is Pink Moon. Lucinda Williams covered “Which Will” in 1992, Beck covered “Which Will” and “Parasite”, and the title track “Pink Moon” was famously used in a Volkswagen advert in 1999 chosen for its beauty and how well it fit for a beautiful nighttime drive in the countryside. The album had a lot of potential to be a commercial success, but by the time of its release in 1972, Nick Drake stopped touring and didn’t want to do interviews or any work to promote it. His record label, Island Records, spent a decent amount of money buying ad space in music magazines to promote it. Critics reviewed it, but initially the reviews were mixed, criticising it for having not much motivation compared to the previous albums and being bare bones. What made it special was he was the only musician playing on the album – no backing band. It’s a short and sweet album at only 28 minutes and 33 seconds long, while the previous two albums were 41 minutes and 17 seconds and 39 minutes and 17 seconds, respectively. Since then, the album has been reappraised more favourably with it being called a masterpiece. A bleak, but beautiful album. Something you gotta listen to in its entirety.
17. Solid Air – John Martyn (1973)
Another folk rock masterpiece of an album and one that will change your life when you listen to it, I promise! John Martyn was born to a Scottish father and a Jewish mother who were both opera singers. He grew up in England and Scotland, moving a lot between the two and he had two accents and could code switch between them. As a teenager, he was mentored by folk singer Hamish Imlach before being signed to Island Records. He later married Beverley Kutner Martyn, who famously performed at Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. The two recorded an album together called Stormbringer! in 1970. In 1973, he released Solid Air, which was recorded over eight days in late 1972 with contributions from members of Fairport Convention and Danny Thompson. While the album received positive reviews at the time of release, the album did not chart. I really have no idea how this album was slept on at the time. Decades later, it was included on a top 100 list of best British albums and considered one of the best chill out albums of all time. Eric Clapton covered “May You Never” on his 1977 album Slowhand. Overall, it’s a legendary album and all the tracks are top tier, but some standouts are “Solid Air”, “Over The Hill”, “I’d Rather Be The Devil” (a Skip James cover), “Dreams By The Sea” (this one is funky – sorta reminds me of Shaft), and “May You Never”.
18. Buckingham Nicks – Stevie Nicks & Lindsey Buckingham (1973)
From their pre-Fleetwood Mac fame, this album was so much of a “flop” that it still hasn’t been officially reissued or remastered on CD or streaming, so you’re stuck with unofficial bootlegs. I have no idea what they’re waiting for because this year marks the 50th anniversary since the album came out. Come on! Before they joined Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham were in a group called Fritz in San Francisco. The group opened for popular acts like Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix. While the two wrote songs during their tenure in the band, they never performed these originals. The two moved from San Francisco to LA in the hopes of getting a record deal. Stevie Nicks was a student at San Jose State University but she dropped out to follow her dreams of being a rock star. Lindsey Buckingham spent his days honing his guitar skills while his girlfriend at the time Stevie Nicks worked various odd jobs to support the two of them. The two ended up meeting the owners of White Whale Records, who previously signed The Turtles. They got a distribution deal with Polydor Records and Nicks and Buckingham went into the studio to record Buckingham Nicks. There was a lot of promise because the two talented musicians had talented session musicians playing on their album as well as a fancy studio to record in. The album never charted and their record label put it on the back burner and didn’t do much marketing for it. However, it got some airplay on a rock station in Birmingham, Alabama and the recording helped the members of a British rock band called Fleetwood Mac find a new singer and guitarist because one day it was playing on the studio monitors at a studio Mick Fleetwood was looking at recording at in LA. Mick Fleetwood and Christine and John McVie got int contact with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks and met up with them at a Mexican restaurant in LA with Stevie Nicks arriving at the restaurant straight from work still in her uniform. Overall this is an incredibly strong album that needs an official re-release. The strongest tracks in my opinion are “Crying in the Night”, “Stephanie” (love this instrumental), “Long Distance Winner”, “Don’t Let Me Down Again”, and “Frozen Love”. During this time, the two toured the south and fan favourite “Rhiannon” was part of their setlist.
19. Ramones – Ramones (1976)
Once again we have an album that you’d think was a hit when it came out, but instead it got the recognition it deserved way later. I was shocked when I first started listening to the Ramones as a teenager that they didn’t really have any chart hits, yet you’ll see so many Ramones shirts and so many people rave about their music and how influential they are. This is a similar story to The Velvet Underground. The Ramones were formed in New York City in 1974 and are often cited as one of the first true punk rock bands. The band’s name comes from a pseudonym Paul McCartney would use when checking into hotels “Paul Ramon”. The band members were high school friends from the middle class neighbourhood of Forest Hills in Queens, but they didn’t play their first show as the Ramones until 1974 when they impressed audiences with their image, fast paced two minute long songs, and loudness. It was something so different from the hippie stuff of the past. Like a lot of punk bands, they would often play at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. Because they were so captivating as a live band they quickly got signed to Sire Records. In February of 1976, they got into the studio and recorded their self titled debut. Unsurprisingly, the album is short but sweet at under 30 minutes long with the longest song being the 2 minute and 35 second long “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement”. The album begins with a bang with the band’s signature song “Blitzkrieg Bop” – what an iconic way to start your discography – surprisingly though not a big hit even though you can easily recognise that “hey, ho! let’s go!” as inspired by the Bay City Rollers’ smash hit “Saturday Night”. You can hear some girl group influences on songs like “Judy is a Punk” with that playground like sing-song chanting in the vocals. The rest of the album is fire too. The album got positive reviews at the time in publications like The New York Times, NME, and The Village Voice, and Creem but that didn’t translate to commercial success with only 6,000 copies of the album being sold in its first year. Still The Ramones had a big following and toured, making history with that energetic debut album. Retrospectively, the album has been praised as influential and a landmark in classic rock history.The Ramones are an easy band to get into and so influential. It’s no surprise that they were seen as so fresh back in the day.
20. “What I Like About You” – The Romantics (1980)
We’re back in power pop territory but this time it’s late 70s/early 80s power pop. This was a song I loved listening to as a kid and when I found out recently that “What I Like About You” wasn’t a big chart hit, I was surprised. It’s so energetic and you can clearly hear the influence of bands like The Who, The Standells, MC5, and The Yardbirds. In fact, their biggest hit was “Talking In Your Sleep”, which It seems like “What I Like About You” has been everywhere: in adverts, sporting events, movies, and MTV. Two movies from my childhood even had a cover of the song by all girl rock band Lillix in their soundtrack: Freaky Friday and 13 Going On 30. However, It did very well in Australia, where it peaked at #2 and was certified gold and in the Netherlands it reached the top 10. Meanwhile in America, the song didn’t even make the top 40, but it was a sleeper hit on MTV. If you want a bonus song to listen to, I love their cover of The Kinks’ “She’s Got Everything” (surprisingly was not a hit or an A-side, it was the B-side of “Days”) from the same album as “What I Like About You”. I swear punk and power pop covers of The Kinks go hard.
Well, that’s my list of 20 classic rock songs that were flops at the time of release. You see a consistent pattern of factors: intra-band conflicts, poor marketing, bad timing, and bad luck. Any “flops” that I missed? Share your picks and thoughts in the comments section!
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By record sales standards, one of the biggest “flops” of all time would probably be The Grateful Dead. While they have arguably sold more concert tickets than any other act (definitely if you include their various side projects), they had one Top-40 hit record in a 30 year career (and another nearly 30 years for the post-Dead survivors). They are far from the highest grossing band, as they never charged outrageous ticket prices. I didn’t realize The Velvet Underground and Nico was a flop – my sister got it for Christmas that year and I always cringed wondering if my parents heard the lyrics. Since my father objected strenuously to “King Herod’s Song” from “Jesus Christ Superstar” I can’t imagine he would have approved of “Heroin”.
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Great post. Some of these flops like The Zombies, Elton John and The Ramones are particularly hard to believe. Also, I don’t think I had heard of The Remains before. Based on the Spotify snippets I heard in your post, their debut album sounds dynamite. I’m definitely going to check it out!
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Thanks! I hope you like The Remains! They’re great! I love 60s garage rock.