Monday, 24 November 2014

Darwin, "chameleons" etc; transformative careers in popular music

Some artists - some whole genres even - are defined by the ability to endlessly create something new out of the same elements. The consistent vision and approach of bands like AC/DC or The Ramones makes for discographies whose worst moments are boring failures rather than daring ones. The temptation was to reference Lou Reed's Transformer in the title of this article, but despite Metal Machine Music, Reed was one of those artists whose good albums are essentially good versions of his bad albums and vice versa.

On the other hand, there are many artists whose work underwent a distinct, fundamental change (or several) at some point and never quite reverted back to its original form. Here are some;

Tom Waits

For the first few years/albums of his career, Tom Waits was a beatnik-influenced bluesy, jazzy, barroom type singer and raconteur with a somewhat husky voice and a penchant for Bukowski-esque vignettes; and he was great.
Throughout the 1970s the singer lived an unsettled, Kerouac-like existence marked by periods of heavy drinking, and over the series of albums he recorded for Asylum records in the 70s his voice got progressively more gravelly and the music eventually became darker, less jazz and more blues/rock-inflected.
As the 70s ended, the danger of becoming a water-treading clichĂ© loomed, but around the time he married screenwriter Kathleen Brennan (a major influence on his subsequent work), Waits began simultaneously to strip his music down to its basic components, while also incorporating new (and mostly musically archaic, pre-rock) elements and instruments . This not only gave Waits a new beginning and a new audience, it also made his music innovative, belonging to no particular tradition but borrowing from vaudeville, folk, rock, blues and even industrial music.

Definitive early work:
Nighthawks at the Diner (Asylum, 1975)

This album, recorded live in front of a small audience, showcases Tom Waits' beatnik raconteur style perfectly; though the songs aren't as consistently great as on the previous year's Heart of Saturday Night or indeed the series of albums that was to immediately follow it, the warmth and humour of his performance makes this probably the most representative  Tom Waits album of the 70s. (The best Tom Waits work of the 70s is probably '76's Small Change).

Definitive later work:
Swordfishtrombones (Island, 1983)

Swordfishtrombones was the first of the new style Tom Waits albums, and it's a microcosm of what was to follow: stripped down, feral blues (Gin Soaked Boy), bizarre, edgy and clattering first-person songs tapping into the alarming lives lived on the fringes of society (16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six, Trouble's Braids), evocative narratives (In The Neighborhood, Soldier's Things, Town With No Cheer) and tender ballads (Johnsburg, Illinois) all enriched by the strange textures of unusual or archaic instruments alongside the usual pianos, bass and guitars.


Back in the early 90s, Satyricon were among the teenage black metal fans/musicians on the fringes of the notorious church-burning scene, and their music, great though it was, is exactly what one would expect. Towards the end of the 20th century, Satyr Wongraven, like many of his contemporaries, began to feel constrained by what had come to be seen as the trademarks of the Norwegian BM sound (and indeed the whole tired idea of 'True Norwegian Black Metal') and stripped the band's work of the kind of folksy, medieval, romantic, vampiric aspects that had by now been adopted by black metal worldwide, and stripped the music to its essentials, adding forceful rock-influenced riffing and the occasional industrial bit; not always successfully, but something needed to be done to avoid stagnation and they did it.

Definitive early work:
Dark Medieval Times (Moonfog, 1994)

Simply one of the great albums of the 90s Norwegian scene, Satyricon's debut is as cold, grim and frostbitten as one could want, with added atmospheric medievalism; forests, castles, snow, mist, pestilence; everything about it is exactly right, despite the extremely perfunctory NWOBHM style sleeve art.

Definitive later work:
Now, Diabolical (Roadrunner, 2006)

Far from universally adored, especially by wrong people, Now Diabolical, is perhaps the modern, commercial black metal album. Commercial by BM standards that is; though the riffs here are catchy and anthemic, the tightly controlled tunes on this album are definitive examples of intense, aggressive metal.

David Bowie

Bowie is a special case; he has transformed his style and appearance successfully more than perhaps any other artist. Nevertheless, it's not unfair to say that up to a certain point he was an innovator and after that point he wasn't. Unlike most people here it's impossible to name one definitive early work, so here are a few:

Definitive Early Work(s):
Hunky Dory (RCA, 1971)

Bowie's fourth album (and his last pre-glam/pre-fame one)is possibly his best album, just a great collection of pop and rock songs of various kinds
Aladdin Sane (RCA, 1973)

Arguably the definitive Bowie glam album, more 'rock' than predecessor Ziggy Stardust, but also more subtle and eclectic

Definitive mid-period works:
Young Americans (RCA, 1975)

This collection of 'plastic soul' songs was one of Bowie's most surprising reinventions, in some ways more commercial (in the US at least) but also a bit more peculiar. Especially great as a reissue that includes bonus track 'Who Can I Be Now?', possibly the best song on the album, when it's on it.
Station to Station (RCA, 1976)

Hugely atmospheric and at times seriously creepy, Station to Station is one of the oddest accessible records made by a commercially successful artist ever.

Definitive later work
The Next Day (ISO/Columbia, 2013)

Less self-consciously fashionable-sounding than most latterday Bowie, but even more self
referential, this album easily stands up to at least second-division classics like Scary Monsters or "Heroes", if not among his true classics.

Depeche Mode

From the Vince Clarke-penned camp synth-pop of their debut to their current somewhat middle-of-the-road rock, Depeche Mode, like The Cure, have been through more changes than most bands, but without ever losing their core identity, thanks both to Dave Gahan's instantly recognisable voice and Martin Gore's not-always-great but heartfelt lyrics.

Definitive Early Work:
Construction Time Again (Mute, 1983)

Pretty much as radical as a catchy, chart-friendly synth-pop album can be, Construction Time Again is recognisably the band who made A Broken Frame (and even Speak And Spell) but with proto-industrial sampling and glacial critiques of big business and 80s capitalism.

Definitive Later Work:
Songs of Faith and Devotion (Mute, 1993)

Although the band had been using guitars since the mid 80s (but most notably on their masterpiece Violator), this was the album where the industrial and rock aspects came together without one aspect swamping the other.

Suicidal Tendencies

Suicidal Tendencies were part of a whole generation of bands marrying hardcore punk and metal (D.R.I., Agnostic Front, Cro-Mags etc etc) but whereas many such bands brought social and political themes to the sometimes fantastical world of metal, ST brought their own melancholy themes of alienation and personal angst; it worked really well.

Definitive Early Work:
Suicidal Tendencies (Frontier Records, 1983)

Pretty much a hardcore album, even if a peculiar one, the band's debut consists of short, angry songs, some ('Fascist Pig') typically punk in outlook , others like the classic 'Institutionalized' being perfect encapsulations of Mike Muir's troubled vision.

Definitive Later Work:
How Will I Laugh Tomorrow... If I Can't Even Smile Today (Epic, 1988)

NOT the perfect punk/thrash crossover, but definitely the perfect ST/thrash crossover; all the misery, enhanced by Muir's better-than-ever vocals, but backed by catchy, commercial thrash riffs: great.


After creating one of the most immediately identifiable musical and aesthetic styles in alt. rock, Pixies main songwriter Black Francis (later Frank Black) switched to something equally distinctive, if less good.

Definitive Early Work:
Come On Pilgrim (4AD,1987)

The band's first release (eight songs from their demo) is as good as anything they released; all the trademarks are there; the acoustic strumming, jagged leads, primitive bass and smooth/screeched vocals, plus the Spanish language-enhanced seedy atmosphere, captured perfectly in Vaughn Oliver's sepia artwork

Definitive Later Work:
Bossanova (4AD, 1990)

Gone were most of the jagged edges, plus the moody artwork, replaced by catchy,
idiosyncratic pop/rock songs, surf guitar and (already a theme in their earlier work) aliens and UFOs, now matched by bright, colourful artwork with only hints of the unsettling, totemic quality of earlier releases. As alt. rock albums of its era go, it's pretty great nonetheless.

Scott Walker

From ever-so-slightly-square 60s pop star to avant garde performer whose work is the epitome of 'acquired taste', Scott Walker is always worth a listen.

Definitive Early Work:
Scott 2 (Phillips, 1968)

A strange mix of Brel songs of various hues ('Jackie', 'Next', 'The Girls and the Dogs') and highly orchestrated, thoughtful baroque pop songs, Scott 2 follows a pattern set by Walker's debut solo album, although each of his first four (numbered) albums was darker than the last.

Definitive Later Work:
The Drift (4AD, 2006)

Bizarre, claustrophobic, unmelodic and deeply unsettling, The Drift could never be accused (as his early work sometimes is) of being easy listening, but it's a memorably harrowing piece of work.

The Beatles

Probably the first pop musicians to have a career long enough to go through major stylistic changes and have the artistic control to instigate them, The Beatles set the template for rock music as an artistic as well as commercial path.

Definitive Early Work:
With the Beatles (Parlophone, 1963)

The definitive Beatlemania album, With the Beatles is a collection of rock 'n' roll, soul, pop and even show tunes, all Beatles-ified to form a coherent whole.

Definitive Later Work:
The Beatles (Parlophone, 1968)

Like With the Beatles, the White Album brings together many disparate styles (and the distinctive voices and songwriting approaches of the four Beatles) in a way that is somehow cohesive.

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