Pop culture is forever playing tricks on us. What we perceive as an unrivalled classic that defined an era, in reality, quite often had a difficult upbringing sullied by capricious circumstance before fate decided it had been held down too long and unleashed it upon the world. Sometimes it would seem that the masses weren’t quite ready for these culture-changing epics. Other times it would seem that the fist of fate was unwilling to release the record from its ruthless grasp. We’re taking a look at the top ten times in which a record nearly sunk completely before it swam its way to gold.
First, though, let us ask why such a mind-boggling phenomenon happens so often? How on earth can such paragons of brilliant pop-culture have been initially condemned to the doldrums of the dismissed, unloved or misunderstood? Sometimes it’s like Google Glasses, and the world just isn’t ready. On other occasions, like trying to get into a bar after a few too many, there’s a bastard in the way. And the final key factor is that sometimes the littlest is always last in line, as talent gets wrestled out of the limelight by those already basking in it.
Fortunately, when it comes to these first-time floppers, they survived the test of fickle fate and wormed their way to the top. Without further ado, let’s have a look at the ten that will leave you head-scratching and wondering how such classics ever flirted with failing.
10 iconic albums that initially flopped:
The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (1966)
You leaf through any given record collection, from a Disco loving auntie to a death metal crazed co-worker, and you’ll still more than likely find Pet Sounds. ‘God Only Knows’ remains one of those ubiquitous masterpieces that has lost none of its glory through countless overplays. ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ is still the soundtrack to a million sunny days, and the rest of the album tracks form a fabulous supporting cast. Pet Sounds is a much-loved behemoth of the music world. It is an album that spawned the art-rock and indie that would follow it. In fact, it is a record so influential that it would be hard to imagine these genres without.
However, at the time, the band’s new sound was a little too challenging for some. The departure from their early doo-wop tales of surfing and sports cars resulted in the groups lowest charting album since their 1962 debut. It wasn’t necessarily a commercial flop upon release, but the band’s transition into trippier terrain resulted in a decline in sales, a remarkable thought in retrospect.
Ramones – Ramones (1976)
Ramones, the quintessential New York punk band that spawned as many copycats as they have T-Shirt sales, struggled to get off the ground like a helium-filled cow. The leather-clad band raced through an album of classics that have since been distilled from their raucous roots to sports stadium anthems in record time and eventually changed music with it.
How many copies did this iconic album sell in its first release? A measly 6000. Admittedly, the band did have a lot of external factors to contend with, from sex work to drug addiction; thus, the promotion campaign was always going to be hampered, but 6000! There are videos of people taking pictures of ten years worth of lunches on YouTube with more views than that.
David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
Of course, music is wildly subjective and individual opinions must be respected, but if you don’t think Ziggy Stardust is one of the greatest albums ever, then in the words of Chris Morris, “You’re wrong, and you’re a grotesquely ugly freak.” Aside from the start-to-finish brilliance of the record, it’s chameleonic creative intent has had a lasting influence on music that’s hard to ignore.
The very fact that the record initially only peaked at five in the UK is dementing enough, but over in the States, this seismic masterpiece climbed to 75 in the Billboard charts upon release and not a single place above, yet another blot on US foreign policy record. The only explanation is that something so otherworldly takes a little while to adapt too.
The Stooges – The Stooges (1969)
In a recent interview, we chatted with Charlie Steen of Shame, who described The Stooges as sounding like a band that had nothing to lose. “Only three albums to their name,” he stated, “And these three records seem to have altered the fate and direction of so much that came after them.” But the most notable quote he attributed to The Stooges was, “They had no willingness to sacrifice their sound in hopes of achieving a high rank in the charts.”
The rank that their self-titled debut achieved in the US charts was a pitiful 106. Apparently, 105 better albums were kicking about in record shops in the summer of ’69. This flop was mainly due to critical lambastings of the record. Rolling Stone Magazine called it “loud, boring, tasteless, unimaginative and childless” – the word ‘boring’ in there sticks out like a sore cock at an orgy. Fortunately, tracks like ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ and ‘Real Cool Time’ are the surviving middle finger to the diatribe it was met with.
The Velvet Underground and Nico – The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
Sticking in the realm of Bowie and his mates, let us consider for a moment the quintessential iconic flop. As Brian Eno once said, “I was talking to Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet, that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!”
Whilst Eno’s figures might not be exact, his point certainly remains. One of the most important albums ever peaked at number 171. The prophetic album seems like a prognostication of where music would go, but upon release, the perceived image we have of the liberal swinging sixties obviously wasn’t liberal enough for overt tales of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Likewise, by the time of the follow-up, the populous was still behind the curve as White Light/White Heat performed even worse, charting at 199.
Bruce Springsteen – Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973)
When Bob Dylan heard ‘the next Bob Dylan’ he said, “He better be careful, or he might go through every word in the English language.” Springsteen’s debut was presented to the world with the PR tagline of ‘the next Dylan’. The issue was that Dylan had hardly gone anywhere.
This failed attempt to sell the record’s all-American heart through comparison to others rather than championing the LP’s originality led to a poor chart position. It peaked at a moderate 60 in the US and failed to travel well overseas, but the likes of David Bowie heard it, and thanks to that, The Boss didn’t stay quiet for long. The album might capture as many headlines as Born to Run and others, but it is certainly one of his best.
Love – Forever Changes (1967)
It is a reality often forgotten that the success of a record does not hinge on the quality of the music alone. In-fighting and acrimony may well have served as fertile soil to draw inspirational nutrients for the record, but it was also a double-edged sword. Trouble has remained with the band’s frontman ever since, with a criminal record list that would make Tony Soprano blush.
The album may well be a masterpiece that blended folk with rock and propagated scintillating poetry, but it sadly flopped. The band’s previous records had been successful, but much like Pet Sounds, a change in sound for the better was met with a reaction for the worse. A year after its initial release, it peaked at 154 in the States and number 24 in the UK.
Big Star – #1 Record (1972)
There are a plethora of records out there that underperformed through a tragedy of fate, the likes of Karen Dalton and Rodriguez spring to mind, but very of those records can be considered iconic in the true sense of the word. However, even away from scrupulous music circles, Big Star’s #1 Record cuts a highly recognisable album cover, and ‘Thirteen’ is a much-loved classic.
Sadly back in the day, the ill-fated title proved an ironic portent of the future. Three albums later, the band would disband and fade even further from obscurity. Back in their native Memphis, a small band of followers still thought they had their very own Beatles, and slowly but surely, this faithful following would spread, eventually pushing the record into the realm of ‘iconic’ come the early nineties.
The Clash – The Clash (1977)
Punk records were almost made to fail. The Clash’s debut was written and recorded in three weeks and cost £4,000 to put together. The band burst into life in a searing hot bolt with ‘Janine Jones’, one of the best opening tracks to a back catalogue ever. They continued in that viscerally energetic vein throughout their iconic debut, and it did just enough to land them moderate success in the UK.
The album eventually peaked on British soil at solid 12. However, the album wasn’t even released in the States until two years had passed, making the pond in 1979. The initial fear that it was just too British failed to come to fruition, and the album that was deemed “not radio-friendly” by the label went on to be a huge hit.
Bob Dylan – The Times They Are a-Changing (1964)
In retrospect, it can be easy to see Bob Dylan as an all-conquering hero who was instantly catapulted to ‘voice of a generation’ status through his politically provocative wit. And whilst this absolute classic may have fared brilliantly in the UK where the Bond Street beatniks pushed the record up to number four, over in the US the Greenwich Village crowd had a larger populous to convert, and they failed to get the record into the top 20 upon initial release.
It is hard to think of a more iconic and influential record than this. It transcended music and impacted the world at large, but like all the others on this list, it needed the right wind to blow its way in order to do so.