The Joy of Being a Single

Whether you’re streaming mp3s out loud on the tinny speakers of your mobile on the back of the nightbus like a badass nightbus nightmare, or reverentially sliding out a slab of 7 inch vinyl for your retro hipster stereo, the single is always king. Stuff the album fillers and the hoary “deep cuts”, we want the hits! After all, the best tunes on the album are the ones released as singles, right?

Or are they? What about those world-famous classics that were never actually singles? Here, then, is your top ten, Pop-Pickers:

  1. The Stranglers- Hanging Around

In 1977 a gang of misfits calling themselves The Guildford Stranglers got it together to release their debut album: Dead on Arrival. As luck would have it, both the album and the band got a titular makeover (you heard me) before Rattus Norvegicus was unleashed. The Stranglers went from touring around in their drummer’s ice cream van, to pissing about on Top of the Pops with one of the first punk albums to go platinum.

Rattus Norvegicus spawned two double A-sided singles, the most notorious being the wonky reggae of their first top ten hit, Peaches (sample lyric: “All this skirt lappin’ up the sun/ Lap me up, why don’t you come on and lap me up?”). The next single from the album was intended to be the fan-favourite, Hanging Around, but the punk movement moved pretty fast and, by then, they had already recorded and released their second album, No More Heroes, and the single got shelved.

Hanging Around featured lyrics by Hugh Cornwell about the pub rock circuit they came up in, with venues like the Nashville and the Red Cow where Thames Television filmed Minder. The song also details the dalliances of his bandmates in London’s gay pubs such as the Coleherne, where famous serial killers once stalked for victims. Hugh Cornwell admits that the track’s duelling guitar-versus-keyboard solo was inspired by his idol, Robby Krieger of The Doors, whom he regarded as the world’s greatest rhythm guitarist. Just for the record: Hugh Cornwell modestly reserved the spot of World’s Second-Greatest Rhythm Guitarist for Hugh Cornwell. The song was eventually released as a single in 1981, in a cover version by his former girlfriend, Hazel O’ Connor, but failed to chart.

Despite the best efforts of karate black-belt bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel’s shiny black leather jacket and spikey black leather hair, the band were never officially accepted as punks. This is most likely due to a spot of argie-bargie the night they were supporting the Ramones at Dingwalls. Legend has it that Jean-Jacques Burnel took the liberty of karate-chopping Clash bassist, Paul Simonon, for gobbing on him during the show, and it all kicked off, ending with the Strangler’s keyboardist pinning Johnny Rotten by his throat up against the ice cream van.

It is hard to imagine a band being any more punk than that, but the battle lines were drawn, and the history-makers picked their sides while the band packed their PA into the ice cream van and drove off into the night. Well, back to Guildford anyway.

  • The Rolling Stones- Gimme Shelter

Gimme Shelter was the opening track on the 1969 album Let It Bleed. It was originally spelt “Gimmie” on the artwork, which changes the meaning slightly as the word variously means an easy putt on the golfing green or, depending on the company one keeps, a cocktail of cannabis and crack cocaine. Come to think of it, I am sure Mick Jagger would be happy either way.

Gimme Shelter features the Stones’ most cinematic intro, with nearly a whole minute of spooky guitar noodling moodiness. The track is also singular for the haunting backup vocal, performed by Merry Clayton. Clayton was the daughter of a Baptist preacher and a gospel singer who had cut her teeth with artists like Ray Charles. She was fast asleep in bed one night, pregnant and quite far along, when the phone rang, rather unexpectedly. It was midnight. A producer she knew was on the other end of the line, asking her to come down to the studio and sing something for the Rolling Stones. Merry Clayton had no idea who they were. She promptly hung up and went back to sleep, but was eventually roused and dispatched to the studio. Clayton arrived in the middle of the night, her hair still in curlers, and, according to some accounts, still in her pyjamas. Sitting on a stool in the vocal booth to take the weight off her belly, she had her first look at the lyrics about rape and murder and wondered what the hell she had gotten herself into. She nailed the vocal in three takes of intense passion and then went back home to bed, but, tragically, the story goes that she suffered a miscarriage after the session as a result of the exertion.

Whether it is true or not, the story is typical of the darkness and sorrow that swirled around the band at the time. Keith started recording the song while Mick was away filming Performance with Keith’s then-girlfriend, the sex scenes of which apparently involved very little actual acting. Keith may even have been stalking them outside the film set in his car when he observed the storm that inspired the title. Keith’s guitar literally snapped in half on recording the very last note of the song and, within months, fellow bandmate Brian Jones was dead and the Stones were heading for the bloodshed of Altamont.

The big rock bands wanted to be taken seriously in the late 1960s and they sometimes regarded the singles market as a bit childish. Perhaps it was to do with growing up in public, but by 1969 they were seeking the chin-stroking critical kudos of the album reviewers and did not want to be seen dogging after the teenyboppers anymore. Perhaps for this reason, the only single the Stones released that year was the riffy workout, Honky Tonk Women, which wasn’t even on the album at all. Either that, or nobody thought the radio stations would play a song with such dark lyrics. Merry Clayton certainly thought so.

  • Rhianna- Higher

This song could also feature on a list of songs recorded when the singer was sozzled (although to be fair there will be a lot more of The Doors and The Pogues on that one). The tale of a late-night drunk dial, the vocal delivery owes a lot to Nick Cave’s Green Eyes, although not so much the actual lyrics themselves (choice snippet of Green Eyes: “This useless old fucker/ with his twinkling cunt”).

Higher swaggers in with a sort of soggy rnb mashed together with bits of The Soulful Strings that could have soundtracked one of the Steve Albini/Shannon Wright comedown collaborations. It more or less wraps up Rhiana’s 2016 album, Anti, which was dominated by the number one floorfiller, Work, and would have been a better choice than the follow-up flop, Kiss It Better, which failed to make anything better.

  • Here Comes the Sun- The Beatles

OK, so this one is fairly low-hanging fruit. Here Comes the Sun is a famous song and beloved of buskers the world over, as it is easy to play on acoustic guitar. Apart from the tricky bit. Which isn’t. But the Beatles have more famous songs than pretty much anybody else and they can’t all have been singles, especially by this point in their career. The Beatles had gone from issuing dozens of singles every year to barely releasing one per album. Their most famous album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, for example, did not contain a single single until many years later when the Beatles lost control of their back catalogue. Here Comes the Sun was on 1969’s Abbey Road and the only 45 that came out of it was the Double-A side of Come Together/Something.

Still, this is one of their most enduring songs and it is hard to imagine not wanting to get it into the charts in its own rights. It was penned by George Harrison on one of Eric Clapton’s many guitars in the back garden of one of Eric Clapton’s many houses. It was a beautiful day and Harrison was bunking off from the tedium of running the Apple corporation (no, not that one).

It finally made it to the charts in the US in 1971 as a cover version by Richie Havens, and then in the UK as the final hit from floundering glam rockers, Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel, in 1976. To be fair, the original version was issued as a single in Japan in 1970 as a B-side, but this is why search engines are ruining the pub quiz. According to the new streaming and download rules introduced in 2007, any track can enter the singles chart based on download sales alone and does not have to be specifically released as a single. So, when the Beatles made it to iTunes, the song did eventually make it into the Official UK Singles Chart. At number 58.

Probably left it too long.

  • N.W.A.- Fuck tha Police

“Fuck the police/ Coming straight from the underground/A young nigga got it bad ‘cause I’m brown.”

LA’s finest unleashed their debut album, Straight Outta Compton, in 1988. It was driven by the hard beats of Dr. Dre, fresh from a stint with the electro-funk pioneers, World Class Wreckin’ Cru, and the even harder lyrics of Eazy-E and Ice Cube (yes, that’s right, the stepdad from Are We There Yet). The album featured a brawny opening salvo in the form of Straight Outta Compton, Fuck tha Police and Gangsta Gangsta, all singles apart from Fuck tha Police, which does seem weird for such a well-known number. So what happened?

The track is a timeless example of rapportage, documenting the everyday oppressions of a racist police force. But it was so controversial that it provoked the FBI to write to their record label to complain about lyrics endorsing violence against the police. A year later, NWA were arrested for performing the song in Detroit by, er, the police. Two years later, the world was shocked by the videotaped assault of Rodney King being beaten senseless by a gang of LAPD cops and the subsequent failure to stick them with any convictions, an event which triggered the 1991 Los Angeles Riots and a $1 billion cleanup bill for the city.

The song was not released as a single mostly due to the difficulty of bleeping out all of the swearwords: there were 64 at the last count. The one radio station that did rebel, Australia’s Triple J, were banned from doing so after police complained to the owners. When one DJ was fired for violating the ban, the station responded by playing NWA’s Express Yourself a cheeky three hundred and sixty times in a row.

Although parts of the track featured a sample from the go-to hiphop staple, Funky Drummer by James Brown, the main body of Fuck tha Police is actually taken up with a sample from the intro to Feel Good by forgotten English pop band, Fancy. Fancy were fronted by a former Penthouse Pet and Feel Good was also sampled by outfits such as the Beastie Boys but, honestly, nobody ever got past the first ten seconds of the song.

On a final note, Fuck tha Police did made it to the singles chart in 2015 as a download following the release of the hagiographical biopic, Straight Outta Compton, directed by F. Gary Gray, but that’s cheating and doesn’t count. Move along. Nothing to see here.

  • Stevie Wonder- Isn’t She Lovely

Former child prodigy Stevie Wonder wrote Isn’t She Lovely in 1976 for his eighteenth album, Songs in the Key of Life. He was coming round from a string of hit albums such as the classic, Innervisions, but was fed up with the music business and threatening to emigrate to his ancestral homeland of Ghana. He even went so far as to organise a farewell concert. This panicked Motown so much that they ponied up $13 million to keep him: the biggest contract in musical history. He settled down for the next two and a half years to deliver a double-album that was inspired by a dream. He recorded two hundred songs with hundreds of musicians, including a random choir of Hare Krishnas they just pulled off the street.

The most well-known song to come out of the sessions was Isn’t She Lovely. It was inspired by the birth of his first daughter, Aisha. Consistent with his prolific work-ethic, Wonder has racked up eight more kids so far.

Today the song sounds unlistenably upbeat with an extra slice of cheese, but it proved so popular with fans that Motown decided to release it as a single. Wonder objected to the idea, on the basis that the song would have to be cut down from its six and a half minute’s running time to fit with commercial airplay, and used his beefy new contract to block the move. The label compromised by providing radio stations with 3:12 edit for promotional purposes only. It was not until Geordie-boy David Parton’s cover version was put out the following year that the song got some chart action.

Six and a half minutes may sound long, but the record for duration is held by The Orb’s Blue Room, released in June 1992 and clocking in at 39:57, just three seconds shy of the maximum permissible length dictated by the UK singles charts. Blue Room was an ambient house tune, back in the days when that was much less offensive than it sounds. During a notable performance of the song on Top of the Pops, The Orb’s Alex Paterson and Kris Weston irked some viewers by just sitting down and playing chess during the playback. The footage is not repeated much on the BBC but, if memory serves correctly, they were bedecked in the not-especially-popstar attire of matching white boiler-suits.

  • Led Zeppelin- Stairway to Heaven

If you’ve only ever heard of one Led Zeppelin song, it is this one. A worldwide favourite, and not just amongst wannabe guitarists noodling away to impress the other local guitarists in your local guitar shop, although, admittedly, mostly, yes. It was the most requested song on American FM radio stations throughout the 1970s, eventually clocking up over three million plays and has been polled as the greatest rock song of all time and yet it was never released as a single. So what gives?

The record company, Atlantic, was certainly keen to do so, but apparently at the time it was the band’s manager, Peter Grant, who said no. Jimmy Page told Rolling Stone magazine that they were “careful never to release it as a single” as it “crystalised the essence of the band.” So that’s cleared that up, then. It was certainly a long song by the usual commercial radio standards, but this did not prevent it being played endlessly.

The song starts off as an acoustic ballad before neatly segueing into a proggy electric rock anthem, a sleight of hand that meant Jimmy Page had to bust out a double-neck guitar if he wanted to play it live. Over the years, that guitar became something of an albatross around his neck and an emblem of everything that was wrong with stadium rock. This was best exemplified by the B.C. Rich Doubleneck Bass, the beast of a bass guitar played by Derek Smalls of Spinal Tap and immortalised in the song Big Bottoms, where all three guitarists in the band play bass guitars.

Stairway to Heaven has been dogged by rumours that it was ripped off from another song and by rumours that it contained backwards Satanic message. The legal case concluded that Stairway to Heaven did not sound like a ripoff, but, in retrospect, it really did not make as much of an effort not to be as it could have done. It is also true that Jimmy Page was fairly obsessed with Alesiter Crowley and, although Crowley wasn’t technically a Satanist, in retrospect he really didn’t make as much of an effort not to be as he could have done, shall we say.

It is not everyone’s favourite tune, though. Even Robert Plant has admitted that it is pompous and once gave $10,000 to a radio station as a donation for never playing it again. Perhaps the last word should go to legendary music critic, Lester Bangs, whose initial review of the track coined the memorable phrase “a thicket of misbegotten mush”.

  • Jimi Hendrix- Voodoo Child (Slight Return)

We’re slightly cheating by including Voodoo Child (Slight Return) as not only was it released as a single, but it got to number one. However, this was only done as a cynical cash-in after Hendrix’s death and they even got the name wrong.

Voodoo Child (Slight Return) was originally the final track on the final Experience album, 1968’s Electric Ladyland, preceded on the disc by their cover of Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, which was their biggest single to date but far less representative of where the band was at.

The intro alone is a classic, with the lone wah-wah guitar and hi-hat creating an ocean of space and anticipation. The track emerged by accident, with the band improvising for the cameras on a Muddy Waters jam they wrote the day before, entitled Voodoo Chile, which also appeared on the album.

Just a few weeks after Hendrix died, the record company rushed out Voodoo Child (Slight Return) as a single, but they changed the title to Voodoo Chile, further muddying the muddy waters. Whatever: Voodoo Child (Slight Return) was not released as a single with the album and, given the name change, it has technically never been released as a single. So there.

  • Bruce Springsteen- Thunder Road

A lot of the songs in this list can safely be filed under Classic Rock, and there is a reason for that. Whereas pop artists like Katy Perry or Madonna regularly release five or six singles from just one album, the serious rockers tend to just put out one or two at the most, so it is easier for the occasional future anthem to get overlooked. Except when you consider Bruce Springsteen, who issued a whopping seven singles from albums like Born in the USA and The River but somehow failed to release his most quintessential anthem, Thunder Road, as a 45.

The two singles from the album, Born to Run, were: Born to Run (natch) and, weirdly, Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, a funky blues song that is as pedestrian as it is meaningless. It is worth noting that Thunder Road is ranked #86 on Rolling Stone magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”, whereas Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, by contrast, only reached #83 on that week’s pop charts.

Thunder Road is a cinematic epic, opening with a plaintive harmonica over arpeggiated piano chords and a series of visual images that culminate in that classic American drama of busting loose from a deadbeat town and making a getaway on the mythic blacktop. The song has legs, working just as well played as an acoustic torch-song as it does a big bombastic showstopper. Thunder Road feels like a standard, even without a straightforward verse-chorus format. It did get airplay but was mysteriously denied the chance to hit the highway.

  1. Pink Floyd- Wish You Were Here

There are a fair few songs that didn’t make the list: would you believe Venus in Furs wasn’t originally a single? Or how about There Is a Light That Never Goes Out? Or even Oh! You Pretty Things? But all of these pale by comparison to Wish You Were Here in terms of their place in the rock canon. Composers Roger Waters and David Gilmore, never two men to agree on anything if at all possible, both agree that it is one of Pink Floyd’s best. This is especially significant coming from Roger Waters, a man who wouldn’t even piss on himself if he was on fire.

For some unknown reason, the band chose Have a Cigar as the single, even though it wasn’t sung by Waters or Gilmore and fell far short of the emotional punch of the title track. It was also eclipsed by the album’s other classic non-single: Shine On You Crazy Diamond, written for benighted bandmate and 60’s waymarker, Syd Barrett.

In 2010, Pink Floyd sued EMI for allowing iTunes users to download individual tracks from the album, insisting that listeners should experience the piece as a whole. It wouldn’t have been such an issue if it weren’t for people’s desire to pick out Wish You Were Here itself from the rest of the album. Pink Floyd’s previous outing, 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon, had been experimental but still accessible, with its standard tracklist of ten songs. 1975’s Wish You Were Here album, on the other hand, is built around a four-note melody and contains about four actual songs, a lot of atmospheric instrumentals, some radio static and an expensive set of analogue keyboards bouncing around a tumble dryer. It’s no wonder the hoi polloi found it a bit difficult and wanted to zoom in on the juicy bits, to whit: the open-mic emo anthem of two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl.

Then, in 2013, Spotify announced that it would unlock Pink Floyds entire album catalogue once fans had streamed the song one million times. That sounds a lot, by the way, but in terms of royalties it would only net you about £4K max. Lady Gaga, for example, claims she only got £108 for that many plays of Poker Face. Either way, the track managed that many plays in just three days. Not that they need the money. Get back.