The First Hit is the Deepest: 5 Great Artists Who Never Matched the Chart Position of Their First Hit Single

Many fantastic artists took a bit of time before hitting their stride. But every now and again, artists have come out of the gate with all cylinders firing. In some cases, these artists proved to be the one-hit wonder types. Some, however, went on to have long, successful careers full of well-known singles, none of which rose to quite the same level commercially as their first big bang. Let’s explore this phenomenon with five artists whose first hit single remained their biggest smash.

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Buddy Holly, “That Will Be the Day”

Obviously, you could put an asterisk next to this entry, as Holly’s career and life were tragically cut short by that infamous plane crash in February 1959 when he was still only 22 years old. The Texan likely would have churned out many more massive hits that could have battled for the title of his biggest ever. Even considering his abbreviated recording stretch, Holly still put together an incredible run while he was alive. He peppered the Billboard charts with seven Top 40 singles in 1957 and 1958 alone. But none was any bigger than his first. Borrowing the title from a John Wayne catchphrase, Holly sang “That’ll Be the Day” with a hint of defiance that was welcome at a time when politeness tended to rule the radio waves.

The Zombies, “She’s Not There”

Many people know The Zombies for their psychedelic masterpiece of an album Odessey and Oracle, released in 1968 at the height of flower power. Yet that album actually represented an ending of sorts for the band, who had been plugging away since the start of the decade. Frustrated with a lack of record label support, they disbanded after its release (and before the single “Time of the Season” became a smash). In actuality, their biggest commercial success came when “She’s Not There” introduced the band to the world in 1964. The song captured a jazzier feel than most other British Invasion fare of that time, and the band’s chief elements (Rod Argent’s nimble keyboards and Colin Blunstone’s soulful vocals) were very much in place at the start. “She’s Not There” reached No. 2 in the U.S., ranking a notch higher than even “Time of the Season” managed, to stand as the Zombies’ biggest hit ever.

Asia, “Heat of the Moment”

Asia emerged as one of the first supergroups of the ’80s, with the members all coming from various progressive rock outfits. Realizing that the musical times were changing, chief songwriters John Wetton and Geoff Downes streamlined matters for what would become their first single. “Heat of the Moment” blasts off with guitarist Steve Howe’s power chords and eventually rises into a rafter-rattling chorus. The group had essentially defined the formula to which it would return for much of their time together. They dented the charts with regularity in the first half of the decade. But “Heat of the Moment” was the biggie, rising to the No. 4 position at Billboard in 1982. Give credit to these guys for effectively bridging the gap between the sounds of their former bands and the style of the MTV era—with that first big hit setting the tone.

Pet Shop Boys, “West End Girls”

Pet Shop Boys actually took a couple of shots at recording this classic single. The first take gained some notoriety as a dance track. Once the duo of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe connected with producer Stephen Hague, “West End Girls” transformed into the version that has been entrancing audiences ever since its release toward the end of 1985. It’s a track that juxtaposes Tennant’s moody, half-rapped pronouncements with an elastic bass line. The song mesmerized audiences and launched the Pet Shop Boys into the second half of the ’80s and beyond, and they did indeed become reliable and versatile hitmakers. Yet the chart success of “West End Girls” was never matched by the duo, although they came close several times with three other U.S. Top 10 hits.

Radiohead, “Creep”

Just to be clear, “Creep” is Radiohead’s biggest U.S. hit; they’ve had several go a bit higher on the UK charts. It’s somewhat unique on this list because it’s an example of a band whose most well-known song (to the vast majority of the public, anyway) is wildly different from most of the rest of their catalog. The song, as catchy and inventive as it was, made Radiohead sound like grunge latecomers. Yet the quintet quickly veered away from that template by the time they released their second album, The Bends, in 1995. Radiohead sort of disowned the song for a while, but they returned it to live performances after a while. It might represent a road not taken for much longer by this groundbreaking band, but it nonetheless works its magic as an outsider’s lonely lament.

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Photo by Steve Oroz/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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