It’s usually taken for granted, when a band/artist is considered a “classic” band/artist that they were always successful. But there were times when less successful bands/artists in general, were bigger than them actually…
1) Average White Band > Hall & Oates (1974)
There was a time when Hall & Oates were just a Blue-Eyed Soul band with moderate success. They had a minor hit already with She’s Gone which reached #60 (later in 1976 it became a Top 10 hit, reaching #7), but they were miles away from the band of the six #1 hits and the streak of multi-Platinum albums. Average White Band were the biggest band of that genre by 1974, by having a #1 US hit with Pick Up The Pieces. And that was their one and only hit, remaining as an One-hit wonder band in music history.
2) Big Country > U2 (1983)
Big Country are usually compared with U2, and it’s frequently mentioned that they were never as successful as U2, even if they had pretty big success themselves, as an Arena Rock act. But for a brief period of time, Big Country surpassed U2. Although the album War by U2 was more successful than Big Country’s The Crossing, released the same year, it’s notable that Big Country scored a US Top 20 hit with the song In A Big Country, when U2’s lead single New Year’s Day (from the album War), reached only #53. Also Big Country had three Top 20 UK hits (In A Big Country, Fields Of Fire (400 Miles) and Chance), unlike U2 who had two (New Year’s Day and Two Hearts Beat As One). So yeah, in 1983 Big Country were bigger than U2.
3) Billy Satellite > Mr. Mister (1984)
Who are Billy Satellite? Just a forgotten one album AOR band for the main public, who happened to have two minor hits in 1984. Satisfy Me and I Wanna Go Back (yes, the same IWGB, that Eddie Money sung in 1986 and became a US Top 20 hit). Mr. Mister on the other hand are mostly known for their two #1 hits, Kyrie and Broken Wings, and maybe also for their US Top 10 hit Is It Love. You can say, they were the biggest band during the end of 1985/beginning of 1986. But there was a time when this big band (even, if that lasted only for a few months), was just an obscure band with one minor hit (Hunters Of The Night, #57). Although it charted higher than Satisfy Me (#64) and I Wanna Go Back (#78), Billy Satellite win, because they had two minor hits instead of one.
4) Charlie > Michael Bolton (1983)
Although Michael Bolton is known for his Adult Contemporary style and selling millions of records worldwide, there was a time when he was an unknown Solo Artist in the AOR realm. The guy had only one minor hit this year (Fool’s Game, #82), and his name was only known in AOR circles. A band called Charlie who played the same music as Michael Bolton by then, had a US Top 40 Hit with the song It’s Inevitable (#38). I wonder if Michael Bolton would still be an obscure artist, if he followed the same style he had in Michael Bolton and Everybody’s Crazy albums (1983 and 1985 respectively)…
5) The Knack > The Cars (1979)
The Cars had a Top 20 hit by then (Let’s Go), but they weren’t yet the superstars they would become with the Heartbeat City album. The Knack on the other hand were one of the biggest bands in 1979 with the smash hit My Sharona. But they remained in music history as one-hit wonders, even if they were calling them “The new Beatles” by the time.
6) Ratt > Bon Jovi (1984)
Can you believe that once upon a time,Bon Jovi were the opening act? And yes that’s true. Bon Jovi used to open for Ratt in 1984 (and in 1985 also), before BJ becoming international superstars with Slippery When Wet in 1986.
7) Saxon > Def Leppard (1980)
Both part of the early 80s NWOBHM scene, they released one album each in 1980. Wheels Of Steel (Saxon) and On Through The Night (Def Leppard) reaching #5 and #15 in the UK charts respectively. It’s notable though, that Def Leppard’s album made it in the US charts (#51), but by the time their main focus was the British market. Hench, in their homeland the bigger act was Saxon by the time who were featured in the first Monsters Of Rock Festival.
8. Sunnyboys > INXS (1981)
Although very different sound-wise, they are both Australian. INXS had an Australian Top 20 hit with the song The Loved One and their album Underneath The Colors reached #15, Sunnyboys’ Self-Titled debut was slightly more successful and reached #13 in the Australian charts. Not a huge difference, but it’s interesting to see that some virtually unknown band like Sunnyboys were once at the same level with a band that would become international superstars six years later.
9) Thompson Twins > Depeche Mode (1983)
Depeche Mode were already successful in 1983, but not the phenomenon they became since Music For The Masses. To begin with Depeche Mode lacked American success by the time, while Thompson Twins had two #1 US Dance Hits (In The Name Of Love and Lies)
10) Ultravox > Human League (1980)
If you ask someone, Name three Synth-Pop bands from the 80s, then there’s a high chance Human League will be included, especially if the person comes from other countries except the UK. Human League was also the band that brought Synth-Pop to the US market, with the smash hit Don’t You Want Me. But in 1980 Human League were more like an album band playing more experimental music and they had only a cult following. Ultravox on the other hand was the most successful Synth-Pop act of 1980, having their first commercial success with the songs Vienna and All Stood Still, which reached #2 and #8 in the UK charts respectively. Unlike Human League, Ultravox never made much appeal to the US market, having only a minor hit with the song Reap The Wild Wind in 1982, reaching only #71 in the US Hot 100.