Legendary acts missing out on getting a number one song is nothing new. Creedence Clearwater Revival famously notched five singles that topped out at number two. Bob Dylan only ever got as high as number two in America with ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and number five in the UK with ‘Lay Lady Lay’. Getting a number one song is hard: you’ve gotta have the perfect balance of massive crossover popularity and strange, uncontrollable luck. But if there’s one artist who surprisingly never got to the top of the charts, it would be Bruce Springsteen.
The Boss has been America’s (or at least New Jersey’s) poet laureate for five decades. Bringing the struggles of blue collar workers and imbuing them with uniquely nuanced views on patriotism, responsibility, and escape, Springsteen was the perfect figure to plug into the anxieties and triumphs of the average Joe in the 1970s and ’80s.
On top of his lyrical genius, the man also had a sound. Credit the E Street Band, whether it’s musical caporegime ‘Little’ Steven Van Zandt, the manic ‘professor’ Roy Bittan, the steady groove of ‘Mad’ Max Weinberg, or the larger than life presence of ‘The Big Man’ Clarence Clemons. Or look at Danny Federici, Gary Tallent, Nils Lofgren, Patti Scialfa… there’s no slack in the E Street Band, at least not when Springsteen is running the ship.
Starting with 1975’s Born to Run, Springsteen was an instant American folk hero, but his success as a mainstream singles artist only really took off in 1980 when ‘Hungry Heart’ landed on number five on the Billboard Hot 100. It was Springsteen’s first top ten hit and seemed to signal that the singer was making the transition from AOR stadium rocker to big time pop star. At least until he followed up The River with Nebraska, an incredibly dark and sparse LP that was about as uncommercial as an album could be.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Springsteen was purposefully torpedoing his mainstream appeal, but just two years later, The Boss reappeared. Newly divorced, with jacked muscles and a willingness to play ball with synthesisers and modern pop production, Springsteen unleashed Born in the U.S.A. in 1984, statistically the most patriotic year in American history after 1776 (according to me). This was Springsteen at his most crowd pleasing: big hooks, big gated reverb, and big stories about homeless veterans, fraught race relations, and bygone glory.
But who could pay attention to those dour themes with all that anthemic music behind it? Born in the U.S.A. was a goldmine for Springsteen, notching five top ten singles in the US and two in the UK. ‘Cover Me’, ‘I’m On Fire’, ‘Glory Days’ and the title track all hovered around the middle-to-low end of the top ten in the US, but ‘Dancing in the Dark’ was the one that almost pushed him into the elusive number one spot. Unfortunately, the dance-pop track stalled out at number four in the UK and was stuck at number two in the US, prevented from reaching eternal chart topping glory thanks to ‘The Reflex’ by Duran Duran.
Although inarguably Springsteen’s commercial peak, he steadily landed top 40 hits on both sides of the Atlantic for another decade and change. But his last real possibility of reaching the top came with the song ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ which won Springsteen an Oscar in 1993. Boosted by the awards show buzz, ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ climbed to number nine in the US and all the way to number two in the UK. What groundbreaking track was keeping Springsteen from his number one song? ‘Doop’ by Doop: the genuinely terrible novelty track pairing big band music with electro-house. That one looks like a bit of a slip up in hindsight.
In the age of streaming, Springsteen could theoretically land that number one single nowadays. God forbid when the man eventually passes away, the sudden boost of grief could easily take ‘Born to Run’ to the top of either chart. But as it stands, Springsteen is among the surprisingly long list of artists whose careers have actually eclipsed the singles charts.