Since its inception 30 years ago, Billboard‘s Alternative Songs airplay chart has reflected the format’s unique platform as a springboard for acts that have gone from relative obscurity to global superstardom.
Imagine Dragons‘ first No. 1 song? “Radioactive,” on the Alternative Songs chart. Lorde‘s? “Royals,” Alternative Songs. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Alanis Morissette, twenty one pilots? Each of these acts first snagged a chart-topping song at the alternative radio format before becoming renowned worldwide.
But, in the early days of Alternative Songs, the tally wasn’t just a tastemaker for the potential next big thing in music, with acts like R.E.M., Jane’s Addiction and Green Day reaching new audiences. When the chart was first published in the Sept. 10, 1988, Billboard issue, certain established acts, some of which had already achieved vaunted, perhaps even fabled, status through some of their earlier work, had yet to earn No. 1 hit in America.
Bear in mind, after all, that although the chart began in the late ’80s, alternative music had been growing the world over, from the jangly, synth-driven sounds of The Smiths and their British peers to New York City punk rock. The genre didn’t just appear out of nowhere; musicians, many of whom had influenced those making the music on the first Alternative Songs chart, had been creating what came to be known as alternative music for years, and as such, there were veterans of the scene.
Here are a select 10 of those artists.
Lou Reed, “Dirty Blvd.”
Perhaps the most remarkable example is The Velvet Underground‘s frontman Lou Reed, who had not only released five LPs with his old band, but also 14 solo albums pre-Alternative Songs. Of course, The Velvet Underground’s lack of commercial success in its time has been well-reported, and Reed managed the classic top 20 Billboard Hot 100 hit single “Walk on the Wild Side” in 1973 and one top 10 album, 1974’s Sally Can’t Dance, on the Billboard 200, but he wasn’t exactly topping charts, either.
In February 1989, just months after Alternative Songs’ creation, that changed for Reed, as “Dirty Blvd.” ascended to No. 1 for four weeks, becoming Reed’s first leader on any Billboard chart. It was no fluke, either; in addition to a pair of top 20 hits on the tally in the ensuing year-and-a-half (including one, the No. 13-peaking “Nobody But You,” with former Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale), lightning struck again for Reed in the form of 1992’s “What’s Good,” which ruled the list for three weeks.
Kate Bush, “Love and Anger”
Kate Bush became the first solo woman to rule Alternative Songs, and she did so a decade after her first-charting title on a Billboard ranking. When “Love and Anger” reached No. 1 in December 1989, it followed 10 years of intermittent appearances by Bush on various charts. First there was “The Man With the Child in His Eyes,” which peaked at No. 85 on the Hot 100 in March 1979. Then came the enduring “Running Up That Hill,” which hit No. 30 in 1985, and “Don’t Give Up,” with Peter Gabriel (No. 76, 1987).
Unlike some of her contemporaries on this list, Bush’s Alternative Songs No. 1 remains her only leader on any Billboard chart, song- or album-based, to date, although she added three more Alternative Songs top 10s (plus a No. 11-peaking cover of Elton John‘s “Rocket Man”) through 1993.
Mick Jones — Big Audio Dynamite, “Just Play Music!”
When Jones formed Big Audio Dynamite in 1984 following his removal from his post as The Clash‘s lead singer and guitarist, he had no No. 1s to his name with his former band (which still boasts no chart-toppers to this day). But Jones and co. were among the first to take advantage of the newly formed Alternative Songs chart, as “Just Play Music!” became the list’s second No. 1 (after Siouxsie & The Banshees‘ “Peek-a-Boo”), in September 1988.
The band was fairly successful on the ranking in its first few years of existence; in addition to “Music!,” Big Audio Dynamite (eventually named Big Audio Dynamite II and then just Big Audio) scored an additional No. 1 with “Rush,” which samples The Who‘s Baba O’Riley,” in August 1991 — and after, three more top 10s.
Johnny Marr — Electronic, “Get the Message”; Morrissey, “Tomorrow”
If there’s any band that best exemplifies alternative without actually having a single song on the Alternative Songs chart, it’s The Smiths, whose period of music-making (1982-87) completely predates the list’s existence. But that doesn’t mean that its members didn’t go on to achieve Alternative Songs success. First came guitarist Johnny Marr, whose Electronic project with New Order‘s Bernard Sumner snagged Marr’s first-ever Billboard No. 1 in the summer of 1991, the two-week leader “Get the Message.”
Former Smiths frontman Morrissey, who first reached Alternative Songs as a solo artist in 1989 with the No. 3-peaking “The Last of the Famous International Playboys,” followed a year later with “Tomorrow,” his first Billboard leader, a six-week No. 1 beginning in August 1992.
John Lydon/Public Image Ltd., “Disappointed”
John Lydon — or Johnny Rotten, if you’d like — formed Public Image Ltd. in 1978 after leaving the Sex Pistols earlier that year. His old band hadn’t scored much Billboard chart success, but then again, neither did PIL for a while, failing to crack the top 100 of the Billboard 200 with its early releases.
“Disappointed,” however, became Lydon’s first, and to date only, Billboard No. 1 when it ascended to the top of Alternative Songs for one week (July 29, 1989). PIL was a regular presence in Alternative Songs’ early days, snagging five top 20s in all between May 1989 and March 1992.
Elvis Costello, “Veronica”
He’d been around the block quite a few times by the time Alternative Songs came into existence, but Elvis Costello nonetheless lacked a Billboard No. 1 before March 1989; he had notched a top 10 album on the Billboard 200, Armed Forces, as well as a handful of appearances on the Hot 100 and the Mainstream Rock Songs airplay chart.
Costello, of course, was probably always going to benefit from Alternative Songs’ creation; ever since 1977’s My Aim Is True and his rebellious 1977 Saturday Night Live performance of “Radio Radio,” Costello had been associated with the very spirit of the genre. And when “Veronica” ruled the airwaves in 1989, it paved the way for three more top 10s on the list, including a second No. 1, “The Other Side of Summer,” in 1991.
Notably, an act not necessarily associated with alternative co-wrote “Veronica” with Costello: Paul McCartney. The pair also penned McCartney’s “My Brave Face,” with both songs reaching the Hot 100’s top 40 in 1989.
The Cure, “Fascination Street”
The Cure began appearing on Billboard‘s Dance Club Songs chart in 1980, and the Robert Smith-fronted U.K. act was fairly prolific on both that list and the Billboard 200 in the 1980s, leading up to the band’s first Hot 100 appearance, “In Between Days,” in 1986, and its first top 40 hit, “Just Like Heaven,” in early 1988.
The Cure didn’t claim a No. 1 prize stateside, however, until “Fascination Street,” a seven-week ruler of Alternative Songs from 1989’s Disintegration. And more was to follow; in all, The Cure nabbed four leaders on the list through 1992.
The B-52s, “Channel Z”
Ever heard of being big in Canada? The B-52s sure were … well, somewhat. “Rock Lobster,” first released in 1978 from the new-wave Georgians’ debut album, performed modestly in the United States, peaking at No. 56 on the Hot 100 in 1980, but it led RPM’s Canada Top Singles chart that year, in addition to becoming a top three hit in Australia.
Despite those early inroads, the band never managed a chart-topper in America until “Channel Z,” which led Alternative Songs for three weeks beginning on the Aug. 5, 1989, tally. To date, the band earned each of its No. 1s on a Billboard chart on Alternative Songs, with “Love Shack” (a No. 3 Hot 100 smash) and “Good Stuff” also reigning.
Peter Murphy, “Cuts You Up”; Love and Rockets, “So Alive”
Following the extinction of Bauhaus in 1983, the post-punk quartet broke into two pieces: frontman Peter Murphy struck out on his own, while Daniel Ash, David J and Kevin Haskins formed Love and Rockets.
Each former Bauhaus member eventually enjoyed a trip to No. 1 on a Billboard chart, and each on Alternative Songs. Love and Rockets’ “So Alive” led in summer 1989, and Murphy’s “Cuts You Up” followed in winter/spring 1990.
Talking Heads, “Sax and Violins”
Yep, that’s right: for all the success that the Talking Heads had experienced throughout the late 1970s and the duration of the ’80s (they even released their own concert film, Stop Making Sense), the band never notched a No. 1 song until its final single, “Sax and Violins.” Not “Burning Down the House,” a No. 9 Hot 100 hit. Nor “And She Was,” which reached No. 11 on Mainstream Rock Songs. At last, “Sax” topped Alternative Songs in February 1992. Call it a pinch-hit homer in the bottom of the ninth.