Big In Birmingham… A Bust In Baltimore

179 views

Reading Tom Breihan’s Number Ones column, I’ve been exposed to a fair amount of acts that I’d never heard of that never troubled our own Top 40. Obligatory Big Hello to Eddie Rabbit!

Hello, JJ.

Which got me thinking about it from the other side:

Specifically, what are the biggest British acts never to never have touched any of the Billboard charts?

It’s taken some doing, using The Official Charts website, Billboard, Wikipedia and more. 

There are plenty of acts that were massive here, but barely registered in the US.

Status Quo spent 50 years rocking all over the world but their US chart legacy is two singles in 1968. This was well before they found the sound that would sustain them for decades.

Those lonely entries rule them out of this selection.

And then there are the acts where I thought: “There’s no way they crossed the Atlantic,” … but somehow: there they are.

Case in point; The Wombles got to #55 with Wombling Summer Party in the mid 70s.

It’s mind-blowing enough that out of an animated kids show about some overgrown furry litter pickers they scored 11 top 40 hits here. I assume the animated series was shown in the US leading to that one chart incursion. If it wasn’t then I have no explanation for how it came to be wombling up your charts.

In no particular order then, eyes down: Look in for Part One of:

The Biggest British Acts You’ve Never  Heard Of.*


Alvin Stardust / Shane Fenton

The Singles:
Top 40 = 15
Top 10 = 7
#1 = 1

Albums:
Top 40 = 2
Top 10 = 1

Alvin / Shane’s career was marked by a series of unlikely and, in one case, unfortunate events. His was a career by accident. Twice filling alter egos created for someone else. He was born Bernard Jewry but had his first brush with success as Shane Fenton.

Here’s where it gets complicated. He wasn’t the first Shane Fenton.

Then again, the first Shane wasn’t Shane either.

He was Johnny Theakstone, who with his band The Tremeloes (not The Tremeloes that were successful later in the 60s), were looking for their big break. Bernard, as he was at that point, was a friend and helped out as roadie.

Tragedy turned into Bernard’s opportunity. Johnny died suddenly as a result of a heart problem and the band broke up – only to receive a request to perform on BBC radio. Johnny having sent in an audition tape before he died which he’d credited to Shane Fenton.

The band reconvened to take up the opportunity and Bernard became Shane. They got a record deal and as Shane Fenton and The Fentones, had a run of four hit singles trading off a skiffle sound in 1961 / ’62 all peaking between 19 and 38. After that though as The Beatles changed everything they were left behind, a string of singles through to ’64 missed the charts and they split up.

Continuing to Iive and perform as Shane Fenton, Bernard went under the radar for a decade.

Until another random opportunity fell his way. 

In 1973 Peter Shelley (not the one that would shortly be part of Buzzcocks- I told you this was complicated) wrote and recorded the song My Coo Ca Choo. It owed something to the guitar sound of Spirit In The Sky fed through a glam rock filter.

For extra glam resonance, he released it under the persona of Alvin Stardust. It went straight into the charts… but with a slight problem that Shelley didn’t want to actually be Alvin Stardust, despite having already made one TV appearance in the guise. That’s where Bernard / Shane came in, his agent put him up for the role and as the song climbed to #2, he slotted into another new identity.

This identity had a striking image: black leather jumpsuit and gloves, platform heels and thick black hair with huge sideburns. He was an imposing sight on stage with a gloved fist wrapped over the microphone, looking off to the side with a curled lip.

The second single, Jealous Mind, written again by Shelley but this time with Bernard / Shane / Alvin’s voice reached #1. It retained the fuzzed up riffing guitar, but harked back to early rock n roll and vocals that had a touch of Roy Orbison about them.

There were six top 20 hits across two years. But by 1975, Alvin had stopped charting. Once again his career took a left turn, but without a name change this time. He signed with Stiff Records, home to Ian Dury and Madness, which didn’t seem an obvious fit.

Even more unlikely, Pete Waterman (yes, that one, but long before he became a super producer) suggested Alvin record Pretend, a song Nat King Cole had popularised in the early 50s and seven years after his last appearance he was back in the top 10.

Two more top 10 hits came in ’84, now with a much more mature pop sound than his 70s heyday. 1984 was the last time he would appear in the top 40. There was no fourth act to his music career, but he did branch out into acting, radio and TV presenting. He remained a familiar figure until his death from prostate cancer in 2014 at the age of 72.

That isn’t quite the end of the story as Alvin’s son has gone on to have his own successful career as producer, DJ, drum and bass label boss. He has scored four top 40 hits under the name Adam F.

Essential Track – My Coo Ca Choo


Atomic Kitten

The Singles:
Top 40 = 15
Top 10 = 13
#1 = 3

Albums:
Top 40 = 4
#1 = 2

Atomic Kitten were a three piece girl band put together in the late 90s by Andy McCluskey and Stuart Kershaw better known as part of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. They’re a tangled web of intersections. As is typical in the world of manufactured pop, members came and went. One of the original three; Heidi Range later reappeared in Sugababes. Kerry Katona left on becoming pregnant, going on to marry Brian McFadden from Westlife before divorcing him and moving onto a torrid tabloid lifestyle of drink, drugs and mental health issues. Kerry was replaced by Jenny Frost, formerly of girl band Precious.

Keeping up?

Good. Because having split in 2005…

• They reformed in 2012
• With Kerry back in place rather than Jenny
• Had to hire in Michelle Heaton, once of Liberty X to replace Liz McLarnon on overseas tours due to Liz’s fear of flying
• and then Kerry left again to be replaced by Jenny. Again.

They’re still going on the nostalgia circuit, a description that applies to quite a few of these acts.

They weren’t in the same league as Girls Aloud, more of a “girl in the pub next door” feel. There was a reliance on cover versions. Two of their three #1s were Eternal Flame and The Tide Is High.

But their calling card and high point at least was an original song; Whole Again. You’d never guess OMD were behind it. In pop music: fact is often stranger than fiction.

Essential Track: Whole Again


Ruby Murray

The Singles:
Top 40 = 10
Top 10 = 8
#1 = 1

Ruby Murray has a unique legacy. I can’t tell you much about her music. Lost in the pre-history of modern music, her chart career spanned 1954 to 1959.

She did achieve the Beatles-esque feat of having five songs in the top 20 at the same time in 1955. It’s not her music that she’s remembered for though. In rhyming slang:
Ruby Murray = curry

And over 60 years after her last hit? Her name is synonymous with Indian cuisine. Even though most of those who say it will be clueless as to who Ruby was.

Essential Track: I have no idea.

Anyone fancy a Lamb Bhuna?


JLS

The Singles:
Top 40 = 12
Top 10 = 10
#1 = 5

Albums:
Top 10 = 6
#1 = 1

Proving that winning isn’t everything JLS took the same route as One Direction. Beaten finalists on X-Factor that went onto do a whole lot better than the series winner. Male four piece vocal group JLS entered the 2008 series under the name UFO and emerged at the other end as JLS (representing a British pop influenced take on new jack swing and standing for Jack the Lad Swing).

Alexandra Burke was the series winner but JLS outdid her from the off, their debut album went 4 x Platinum and they capitalised quickly releasing four albums over four years. While sales gradually declined the final album still went Gold and made #3 and five chart topping singles over that period makes them one of the most successful reality show alumni.

They called it a day in 2013 for solo careers, TV and radio work and for JB a complete left field turn into farming. And then the almost obligatory comeback which went more successfully than many as a new album in 2021 put them back in the top 5.

Essential Track: Everybody In Love


Billy Fury

The Singles:

Top 40 = 26
Top 10 = 11

Albums:

Top 40 = 5
Top 10 = 3

He’s pretty much forgotten as far as younger generations go. But Billy was huge in his day, and possibly our first homegrown rock n’ roll star. He started life as Ronald Wycherley before having his name changed to the more dynamic and dangerous Billy Fury, a name more befitting his good looking, strong jawed and bequiffed look. He followed the Elvis Presley route of early notoriety for his performances before toning things down, having greater success with more palatable ballads that are from furious and starring in films. Unlike Elvis, he did write some of his own material.

His success crossed over with the The Beatles. Despite being replaced by the newer more exciting sounds coming out of Liverpool, he remained a chart regular into the mid 60s, having his last top 40 hit in ’66.

He released his last album in 1982 which generated a couple of songs that landed just outside the top 40.

But like Elvis, again: he died of a heart attack aged just 42 in early 1983. A jukebox musical of his hits still tours and keeps the flame alive for the devoted.

Essential Track: Wondrous Place


Girls Aloud

The Singles:

Top 40 = 22
Top 10 = 21
#1 = 4

Albums:

Top 40 = 8
Top 10 = 6
#1 = 2

The appearance of Girls Aloud here is the most baffling. How they didn’t manage to translate their UK dominance at least once is a mystery.

Born from TV show Popstars: The Rivals. The series whittled down contestants into a 5 piece girl band and 5 piece boy band to go head to head on the charts. The boys, named One True Voice, were managed by Pete Waterman and the girls by Louis Walsh, fresh from steering Boyzone and Westlife to prominence.

Louis chose Sound of the Underground for Girls Aloud which was modern, dynamic and exciting whereas Pete’s pop svengali touch went missing as he stuck the boys with a bland ballad. The girls easily won taking the coveted Christmas #1. The boys released one more ill chosen and ill named single; Shakespeare’s (Way With Words) before being consigned to history.

Girls Aloud just kept making history as the most successful girl band in the UK charts. Their first 20 singles went top 10. In total 12 of their singles made the top 3. Unlike many manufactured pop bands in the UK they weren’t just a singles act either: all five of their original albums went platinum.

They were less in your face than the Spice Girls, but achieved greater longevity and gelled together much better. Only Cheryl really stood out as a tabloid staple due to her marriage to a Premier League footballer.

They disbanded after a decade of success, after which Cheryl was the only one to sustain a successful solo career. (Which includes another five UK #1s – and still no Billboard chart entry despite (or due to) her short lived US X-Factor stint). 

While there were always mentions of reunions, the death late last year of Sarah Harding from breast cancer means the chances of a comeback are unlikely.

Essential Track: so many to choose from but start at the beginning, Sound of the Underground


Hope you enjoyed the selections.

Stay tuned next week for Part 2…

…to include the absolute pinnacle of UK chart success not transferring across the ocean. 


Let the author know that you liked their post with a “heart” upvote!

7

JJ Live At Leeds

From across the ocean, a middle aged man, a man without a plan, a man full of memories, a man like JJ.

Subscribe
Notify of
30 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
cappiethedog
Member
Famed Member
cappiethedog
Offline
September 29, 2022 6:33 am

I think I know who is going to be featured in Part 2. I have all of his/her/their albums. And the reissues with extra stuff. I won’t play spoiler.

ArchieLeech
ArchieLeech
Offline
September 29, 2022 2:33 pm
Reply to  cappiethedog

Possible spoilers for people who know:

whowhowhowhowho
There’s a certain group that got a shout-out during the Beatles’ Let It Be sessions that put out some enjoyable stuff, but I can’t for the life of me get their name right.

There’s another band with a Beatles connection which became a worldwide sensation but, in its original incarnation, was the concurrent final lineup for another band that was popular in the UK but not here. The earlier version of the UK band shared studio time with a third (second?) band and ended up stealing their leader, who ended up masterminding the later band’s mega-success. The mastermind’s earliest band didn’t even get hits in the UK, but their stuff was quite imaginative and charming.

I know this reads like blather, but a few of you know who, who, who, and who I am refering to. And whom, too!

Last edited 3 months ago by ArchieLeech
ArchieLeech
ArchieLeech
Offline
September 29, 2022 3:48 pm

I don’t think it’s the one you’re thinking of, but the lemon doesn’t fall far from the tree.

mt58
Admin
Famed Member
mt58
Online Now
September 29, 2022 4:53 pm
Reply to  ArchieLeech

Jack Lemon hit the Top 40?

{Narrator’s voiceover:}

{…and then mt, who was notoriously horrible at guessing blind items, attempted to chime in…}

ArchieLeech
ArchieLeech
Offline
September 30, 2022 12:43 pm

I just realized that yes, I do think you got one who, and the whom.

mt58
Admin
Famed Member
mt58
Online Now
September 29, 2022 4:48 pm
Reply to  ArchieLeech

[Archie, rocking the spoiler feature, like a boss…]

cappiethedog
Member
Famed Member
cappiethedog
Offline
September 29, 2022 10:24 pm
Reply to  ArchieLeech

My old avatar would definitely know the answer. They weren’t alive when The Beatles were an active band, but that’s who they idolized. I couldn’t play an instrument, but I wrote lyrics. I wrote a song about spam called “Funky Luncheon Meat”, which was an ode to Prince, but once they got a hold of the lyric sheet, it ended up sounding like The Beatles. The Pakistani/English kid in Blinded by the Light was a bit like watching myself. I, too, live on an island, and a Bruce Springsteen fan, which made me a weirdo. One memorable day at an uncle’s house, I remember shouting: “Will you please listen to this?” I wish I could say it was somebody canonical like Nirvana or The Pixies. But, no, it was The Apples in Stereo.

ArchieLeech
ArchieLeech
Offline
September 29, 2022 2:45 pm
Reply to  cappiethedog

Also, …

Cometothinkofit
there’s a guy who was a huge phenom in the UK who eventually had hits in the U.S., but his legendary backing band had numerous instrumental hits in the UK, including several number 1s, with nary a spot on the U.S. charts. Come to think of it, they ALSO had a Beatles connection.

Last edited 3 months ago by ArchieLeech
ArchieLeech
ArchieLeech
Offline
September 29, 2022 4:58 pm

Not that, either – but I’ll be sticking around for the second article!

Phylum of Alexandria
Member
Famed Member
September 29, 2022 7:29 am

I didn’t know any of these. Yankee Score: 100%!

Also, I learned that OMD started a girl group (WTF?), and some weird Ziggy Stardust knockoff dude was Adam F’s father.

And speaking of esoteric, rhyming slang can be a really hard code to crack…and I guess that’s the point!

I need a Harry…

Last edited 3 months ago by Phylum of Alexandria
Virgindog
Member
Famed Member
Virgindog
Online Now
September 29, 2022 10:48 am

I’d heard of most of these without hearing their material. The Girls Aloud track is better than I expected.

I’ve never heard of Ruby Murray or JLS. I knew Billy Fury from British Invasion history (though he was pre-invasion, I think), and Alvin Stardust from the Stiff Records Box Set, but his is quite a story!

Thanks for enlightening us. I mean, thanks for enlightening U.S.

Dance Fever
DanceFever
Offline
September 29, 2022 1:22 pm

JJ, the only thing I could find for a link as to why the Wombles would have a semi-hit in the U.S. in the summer of ’74 was a syndicated show “H R Pufnstuf” from the Krofft brothers that was normally seen on Saturday mornings.
It featured an English lad (played by Jack Wild) who was lured to Lost Island by Witchiepoo and his subsequent adventures.
The many creatures look like the Wombles and I wonder if that’s where the connection was made by American audiences.
Just a guess.

thegue
Member
Famed Member
thegue
Offline
September 29, 2022 1:26 pm
  1. I love data dives, so this article was right up my alley!
  2. I do NOT know any of the songs by these artists, though I’d heard of Girls Aloud and Atomic Kitten. Kind of hard to miss the gossip when I’d spent four summers there in the early 00s, and would continue to visit regularly thru 2007.
  3. I have no idea who could be #1, so I’m excited to learn. My first thought when I read the opening lines was Cliff Richard, but he had hits here!
  4. I wonder if he has the greatest differential between success in the UK vs US (for anyone who charted on both sides of the Atlantic. I’ll let you do the heavy lifting on that one).
  5. Something I really wanted to do, and sketched out how I would do it: who was the MOST “Britpop” band?
  6. X-axis: chart success worldwide
  7. most British of lyrics.
  8. I haven’t done it, because if anyone other than Oasis or Blur won, I’d be laughed out of the park.

Thoughts?

thegue
Member
Famed Member
thegue
Offline
September 29, 2022 2:48 pm

Agreed, but then my brain took over.

What if I just drew a chart and plotted each of the bands on the chart, without trying to determine the “best”? Sort of like a “scotch chart” (which I can’t post here at school).

I still might do it…but there’s a few Britpop artists I’m not familiar with, so I’d have to dive into some obscure music…

On both sides of the Atlantic.

LinkCrawford
Member
Famed Member
LinkCrawford
Offline
September 29, 2022 4:36 pm

This was fascinating! I think Atomic Kitten is the only band you featured that I’d ever heard of, and that’s only because of discussion on TNOCS

cappiethedog
Member
Famed Member
cappiethedog
Offline
September 29, 2022 10:32 pm

That headline contains an inside joke which would be applicable to one musical act whose success was mostly UK-based. But that’s not who I have slated at #1, but maybe it is.

Aaron3000
Member
Famed Member
Aaron3000
Offline
September 30, 2022 12:49 am

Love reading stuff like this, so much to digest.

I too can’t find any info on the Wombles appearing on US television, unless it was syndicated oh so briefly. The mid-’70s were weird.

cappiethedog
Member
Famed Member
cappiethedog
Offline
September 30, 2022 1:55 am
Reply to  Aaron3000

Shields and Yarnell.

Ozmoe
Member
Noble Member
Ozmoe
Offline
September 30, 2022 5:28 pm

I LOVE THIS BLOG! (Yes, I know I shouldn’t do all caps and hate it myself, but this one calls for it.)

As for the Wombles, never heard of it being imported in any way to the United States in the 1970s, not even on our public television network. Don’t know why or how, only that if something made a pretty decent showing on the UK chart at the time, a US record company could and would promote it to American audiences as a proven property. And unlike, say, Billy Don’t Be a Hero, there was no reason for any American act to cover Wombling Summer Party because it simply made no sense to do so unless you were the Wombles.

R.S.Wonham
Member
Trusted Member
R.S.Wonham
Offline
September 30, 2022 10:47 pm

When I worked in London in the mid-90s, I was fortunate to encounter a team of female office workers that liked to administer pop culture quizzes to the auditors. These usually involved pop music and it formed my initial education into the differences in pop music tastes between countries. The ladies were rabid Cliff Richard fans and were astounded that he was not a big deal in the US. The realization was furthered when I listed from memory (pre-mass internet) Cliff’s songs that made the Top 40 in the 70s and 80s. What about Move It, Living Doll, Summer Holiday, the other hits with the Shadows???
Listening to the BBC, Capital Radio, and other UK stations, I came to appreciate the greatness of artists that were not as big in the US. Bowie immediately comes to mind. The UK also had a respect for artists that were generally snickered at back home. ABBA, the Carpenters, boy bands, and the whole dance/disco/electronic genres. Occasionally, the UK did not get things right. Prince comes to mind (1st UK #1 in, er, 1994!). The love of musical cheese still escapes me, as does the appeal of cricket and cucumber sandwiches. On the whole, I consider myself a lucky guy to have had such an experience that has exponentially expanded my music tastes and brought me immeasurable listening bliss. Cheers for your words and analysis.

30
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x