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The 11 Best Classic Rock Singles Without Albums

A handful of music's most magnificent bastards.

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Sometimes songs, just like people, simply don’t fit in amongst the company of others. They’re the singles, B-sides, and freebies that, despite scoring airplay and acclaim, never made it onto a proper studio album. These are the lone wolves, the loners of a band’s catalog. Some are iconic and easily recognizable, while others tend toward obscurity and cult status. Maybe the reason for alienating these songs was strategic marketing, or profit maximization, or perhaps just lousy planning.

But whether we’re talking about “Ghost Town” or “Hey Jude”, a slew of truly exceptional songs can only be found on the flip-sides of 7’’ vinyl, gaudy greatest hits box sets, or the cold abyss of cyberspace. So in celebration of these isolated gems, we’re counting off the greatest classic rock ditties never to enjoy comfort and companionship within the friendly confines of a studio LP.

This one goes to 11.

11. “Little Johnny Jewel”

Television

Television’s seminal 1977 album Marquee Moon managed to be both loose and meticulous, a brilliant amalgam of punk-rock sloppiness and art-rock knottiness. It’s therefore understandable why the band omitted “Little Johnny Jewel” from the original tracklist, choosing only to throw it on as a bonus cut for the reissue: it would tip the scale in favor of punk-rock sloppiness. More than anything else from Marquee Moon, “Little Johnny Jewel” feels unedited and unfiltered, as if the band recorded it in one ramshackle take a la “Sister Ray”. “Now Little Johnny Jewel/ Oh, he’s so cool,” squawks singer-guitarist Tom Verlaine, as Fred Smith’s bassline falls off the metronomic wagon underneath. Stop the tapes? Never. –Dean Essner

10. “Hey Hey What Can I Do”

Led Zeppelin

The only non-album track officially released by Led Zeppelin, “Hey Hey What Can I Do” was actually a B-side to the “Immigrant Song” 7” single. Recorded during the Led Zeppelin III sessions, the track reflects the band’s folkier tendencies at the time, relying on acoustic guitars and melody rather than bombastic riffs. Ostensibly, the band felt that it didn’t fit with the rest of III — it’s a little tame by their standards — though hindsight tells us that it probably would’ve performed well as an A-side. Because of increased exposure via box sets and reissues, “Hey Hey What Can I Do” is now in heavy rotation alongside Zep’s biggest hits on most classic rock radio stations. –Jon Hadusek

10. “Ghost Town”

The Specials

Mirroring both the internal struggles of The Specials as well as the external world in which they lived in, “Ghost Town” has been described as “an elegiac portrait of the band’s Coventry home town.” However, the song’s theme resonated far beyond the Midlands of the UK. Less than three weeks after its June 20, 1981 release, the song took on an entirely new meaning when serious rioting and unrest broke out in over 35 locations and at least 13 metropolitan areas across the UK, including London, Manchester, and Liverpool. This unexpected pairing led to many contemporary reviews calling “Ghost Town” an example of “instant musical editorial.” –Len Comaratta

09. “Honky Tonk Woman”

The Rolling Stones

There’s no question “Honky Tonk Woman” would’ve fit fine on Let It Bleed, the 1969 album that, instead of this electric-blues stampede, included the notoriously less fashionable “Country Honk”. Keith Richards explained it by saying the latter, an acoustic shuffle, was the original composition, as inspired by Jimmie Rodgers hallmarks of the ‘30s sans yodeling. But “HTW”, released five months before Bleed and first performed during the Stones’ compulsively YouTubable Hyde Park show in ‘69, comparatively oozes with Jagger’s playboy swagger. The beery lust isn’t essential to the strength of the melodies, but it is essential to the song being as huge as it was — and in line with the public enemy image attached to the Stones as they entered their most debauched and dangerous period, playing to thousands of 15-year-olds as well as knife-wielding Hell’s Angels and Black Panthers — when it was. –Mike Madden

08. “Don’t Do It”

The Band

Normally, it’d be a sin not to have a proper studio recording of what’s become one of The Band’s signature songs. Then again, the live Band was the best Band, and it only seems appropriate that the definitive version kicks off the double-whopper concert album, 1972’s Rock of Ages. Originally a hit titled “Baby Don’t You Do It” for Marvin Gaye, the Canadians (and one Arkansan) dropped the “Baby” and made it their own with the double helix harmonies of Levon Helm and Rick Danko, set ablaze by a climatic guitar solo from Robbie Robertson. The moment of pure sublimity arrives at 3:15, when everything drops out except Helm’s backbeat and Allen Toussaint’s whip-smart horn arrangements. The whole group kicks back in several seconds later, rendering any attempt at a studio rendition futile. The Band would close out the final encore of The Last Waltz with “Don’t Do It” six years later, but they sound a little slower, a little more tired. Rock of Ages captures them in their heyday, making it required listening for any fan of classic rock — and maybe even Motown. –Dan Caffrey

07. “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)”

John Lennon

Legend has it that John Lennon wrote and recorded “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)” in a single day. And if you’re still not impressed, the song hit UK shelves less than two weeks after that. Produced by Phil Spector, “Instant Karma!” ascended to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the first single by an ex-Beatle to top a million in US sales. Employing Eastern philosophy to expose solipsism as shallow and shortsighted, Lennon exhorts us to embrace solidarity or face the karmic consequences (“Better get yourself together darlin’/ Join the human race). But you best not tarry; Lennon’s karma is more instantaneous than a cup of Maxwell House mud. –-Henry Hauser

06. “The Fever”

Bruce Springsteen

Accidents don’t get happier than this. Hastily recorded as a demo during The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle sessions, “The Fever” was initially filed away, only heard by fans in concert and on a rare 7″. It became a hit a year later when radio stations began spinning it in anticipation for Born To Run. But despite this gradual success and a cover by The Pointer Sisters, the song wasn’t properly released in any format until 1999’s box set highlights collection, 18 Tracks.

My dad had a bootleg cassette of “The Fever” growing up, and, to me, it was one of The Boss’ most instantly memorable songs: the jazzed out hiss of the cymbals, the foggy duel of the piano and organ, and especially the smoky backing harmonies, anchored by Clarence Clemons’ swamp-deep register. It might be the only E Street tune where his voice stands out more than his saxophone. –Dan Caffrey

05. “Shape of Things to Come”

Max Frost & The Troopers

Looks like the hippies just pulled off a coup d’état! Max Frost and his troops laced Congress’ drinking water with reams of LSD, corralled throngs of tripping legislators into the Capitol, and forced those dementedly grinning zombies into lowering the voting age to 14 so a rock icon could snatch up the Presidency. Now what? Release a national anthem, of course! That’s essentially the plot of 1968’s campy youth-exploitation flick Wild in the Streets, which launched battle cry “Shape of Things to Come” to No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Drawing heavily from The Yardbirds’ “Shape of Things” and Austin psych rock group 13th Floor Elevators, Max Frost’s “Shape of Things to Come” pairs early ‘60s folk protest lyrics (“There are new dreams/ Crowdin’ out old ree-al-ah-tees/ There’s revolution/ Sweepin’ in like a fresh new bree–heeze!”) with late ’60s West Coast psychedelia. Written by prolific husband-and-wife duo Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (whose writing credits span The Drifters’ 1963 hit “On Broadway” to Hanson’s top 10 single “I Will Come To You”), the track is experiencing a revival 45 years after its release courtesy of Janelle Monåe’s sparse, haunting cover.

But there’s simply no substitute for the original version, featuring the explosive drum work of Stanley X (played by a young Richard Prior) and sex symbol-cum-political power broaker Max Frost’s furious warning to those “blind and deaf and dumb” fools over 30. –Henry Hauser

04. “Positively 4th Street”

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” just might be the most devastating putdown song ever. Setting a scathing indictment of his erstwhile companions against Al Kooper’s blithe, lackadaisical Hammond B3 organ and Mike Bloomfield’s smooth, velvety guitar lines, Dylan presents a quasi-schizophrenic vision of relationships gone sour. Recorded during the Highway 61 Revisited sessions, the track was released as a 7″ single just one month after the LP and immediately shot up the charts.

Blasting ex-lovers and onetime pals for talking trash behind his back and delighting in his misery, an icy Dylan causally reveals his venomous desire: “Yes, I wish that for just one time, you could stand inside my shoes/ You’d know what a drag it is to see you.” Rather than hankering for calamity, injury, or death to fall upon these posers, Dylan merely longs for them to suffer a fleeting glimpse of what he’s forced to endure every day.

The combative folk troubadour just wants these leeches to slip into his skin and feel, if only for a moment, just how exhausting and enervating it is to see their own pretentious, phony, ugly mugs. Ouch. –Henry Hauser

03. “Dark Star”

The Grateful Dead

A May 1967 composition by Jerry Garcia, “Dark Star” was reshaped a few months later by Robert Hunter — who would go onto become a longtime collaborator with the jam band. At its core a psychedelic blues excursion, Hunter supplied the track with an equally heady set of lyrics: “Dark star crashes, pouring it’s light into ashes / Reason tatters, the forces tear loose from the axis / Searchlight casting for faults in the clouds of delusion.” The original 2:44 cut was released as a single in 1968, but it didn’t take long for the track to take on new epic lengths.

During the Grateful Dead’s early history on the road, “Dark Star” helped define the band’s improvisation efforts. Throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s, the track would often reach lengths in excess of 30-minutes. Thusly, the track was a massive crowd favorite, and thanks to the many tapers within the Deadhead fanbase, countless live versions can be found. To truly solidify the legacy of the single, Phil Lesh approached music collage artist John Oswald in 1993 to do a project with “Dark Star.”

With over a hundred different performances of the song from between 1968 and 1993, Oswald set out to create one track that encompassed the expansiveness of the Dead’s improvisational movements. The resulting project, dubbed Grayfolded, would stretch to just under two hours, and is the only recording known to include performances by every member of the group. –Len Comaratta

02. “Hey Jude”

The Beatles

Enough good things have already been said about “Hey Jude”. The 1968 McCartney-penned piano ballad is one of the closest things to a universally-known sing-a-long and one of the Beatles’ best songs. The origin story of “Hey Jude” is also well-known: originally called “Hey Jules”, Macca wrote the tune for Lennon’s five-year-old son, Julian, to comfort him during his parents’ divorce. Despite the personal nature of the lyrics, the song strikes a resonant chord with most people, solidifying its place as an exceptional standalone single. Without an album, “Hey Jude” was still The Beatles’ highest-selling American hit, placing No. 1 on the U.S. charts for an amazing nine weeks (the record at the time). –Josh Terry

01. “Love Will Tear Us Apart”

Joy Division

Examples of great and successful non-album singles from the classic rock era are few and far between, but there are even fewer examples of bands whose one most successful, enduring, and (yes) best song didn’t crack an album. It’s even more peculiar when every album made by the band in question ended up an all-time essential. Okay, Joy Division only made two albums, and maybe it’s playing it fast and loose to pin “classic rock” on them. But the stretch of impact from 1979’s Unknown Pleasures and 1980’s Closer was unquantifiable almost immediately, and yet somehow a song that wasn’t on either will rightfully remain Ian Curtis’ condensed legacy to most. –Steven Arroyo

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