The highs and lows of artists who refuse to stay their lanes
This is a post by associate editor Blake Madden.
In the liner notes to one of Miles Davis’ explosive 70s acid-funk albums, a friend of the trumpeter recalls a furious debate with a coked-out, reclusive Miles over what day of the week it was. He finally proved himself correct by presenting a newspaper without fanfare, and a dejected Miles pointed to a shelf full of music awards, saying: “See that? The only reason I have those is because I can’t remember a damn thing.”
It’s true that a musician’s longevity is a matter of practiced forgetfulness as well as a kind of Darwinism – not just ‘survive and adapt’, but ‘adapt and evolve’. The public’s memory is short and its thirst is unquenchable. It’s no coincidence that pop music’s busiest and most adept chameleons (Madonna and David Bowie come to mind) tend to enjoy the longest, most-sustainable careers, rolling into their valleys at times, but enjoying regular peaks as well, where conservative and one-dimensional artists are lucky to hit even one.
Adaptation and evolution are no easy game (homo sapiens is certainly still bumbling its way through things). In music, it’s about striking the right balance: be familiar enough that they remember you, but different enough that that familiarity never breeds the proverbial contempt.
To do this, some swing big, diving into a new or previously foreign genre, employing a high concept, or collaborating with an unexpected outside force. And the misses can be as spectacular as the hits.
Neil Young – Trans
Crossover Attempt: The most authentic man in Rock and Roll goes synthetic.
For years, Trans has been a go-to music history joke: Neil Young is seen not so much overstepping his musical boundaries as flying over them in Doc Brown’s Delorian. In fact, Geffen (Young’s label at the time) would later sue Young over his output under their contract, claiming that it was deliberately made to be inaccessible and non-commercial. But there’s only one problem with all the hate and snide commentary aimed at Trans: it’s actually a halfway decent album.
Sure, fans and critics who hoped the next song around the corner would be a reprise to“Cinnamon Girl” were outraged that Neil had just discovered Kraftwerk and Vocoders. But the music holds up surprisingly well when compared to the heavyweights of Young’s new genre du jour. Save for the guitar, songs like “Computer Age” could easily be quality Kraftwerk or Giorgio Moroder B-sides, if you can forget for a moment that it was Neil-Freaking-Young who made them.
Like Kraftwerk’s Computerworld, Trans’ theme was one of communication – or lack thereof – in the blossoming digital age. The recording began as another Young and Crazy Horse effort, except Young ended up dissecting the underlying tracks without telling the band, reassembling them with the help of his new toys.
Unbeknownst to almost anyone else, from 1980 – 1982 Young spent most of his time in therapy sessions with his son Ben, who was born with cerebral palsy and unable to speak. The extensive use of Vocoder on Trans was a metaphor for Young’s attempts to communicate with Ben:
“At that time he was simply trying to find a way to talk, to communicate with other people. That’s what Trans is all about. And that’s why, on that record, you know I’m saying something but you can’t understand what it is. Well, that’s exactly the same feeling I was getting from my son.”
While we give the haters a few moments to stare down at their shoes sheepishly, we’ll remind them that Trans even had a few ‘traditional’ Young tunes awkwardly sprinkled in for their benefit. Album opener “Little Thing Called Love” is a fresh and poppy Young, featuring a riff he would transpose verbatim into “Harvest Moon” a decade later, while the 8-minute closer “Like an Inca” plays like a PG-Rated “Like a Hurricane”.
Crossover Rating: 6.5 Sacha Baron Cohen characters.
Cut out the songs that actually sound like Neil Young, wear a blindfold, and pretend that you have the one Kraftwerk album that nobody else knows about. Either that, or accept that Young is a shapeshifter and an iconoclast by nature. He has never – and will never – follow the musical career path we expect him to.
Judgment Night Soundtrack
Crossover Attempt: (Mostly white) Boyz bring tha noize to Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood
Unless you were a 13-year old boy in 1993, and even then, unless you were me specifically, Judgment Night was a mostly forgettable Emilio Estevez action thriller. But its soundtrack was enough to turn famed rock critic Robert Christgau’s head, and its reverberations are still being felt in today’s music.
If Run DMC opened the door to rap/rock collaborations with their early guitar sampling and team-up with Aerosmith on “Walk This Way”, then Public Enemy and Anthrax kicked it down with “Bring Tha Noize” (perhaps the genre’s best entry). Meanwhile, the Judgment Night soundtrack brought everyone inside for a house party that was alternately tense, groundbreaking, and awkward.
The movie’s plot, in which a group of mostly white friends go out to tailgate in a luxury Winnebago before a prizefight, instead end up lost, and spend a lovely evening in the ghetto, was meant to be echoed by the Soundtrack. Each cut brought together a respective heavyweight of ‘rap’ (that’s what the kids called it then) and ‘hard rock’ (some people still call it this now) to put rhymes over loud guitars and real drums. It was still a novel concept at the time.
Some entries succeed in a predictable-yet-respectable and workmanlike way. Helmet/House of Pain, Onyx/Biohazard, and Faith No More/Boo-yaa T.R.I.B.E. are among those. Some fail in equally predictable ways: Pearl Jam seems both out of their league and out of their element, phoning it in underneath Cypress Hill. Mudhoney and Sir Mix-a-lot, despite their Seattle connection, only succeed at making each other sound sillier. Run DMC is back where they started, rapping over heavy guitar lines, this time provided by Vernon Reid and Living Colour.
A few entries hit home runs, though: The nerd-hop pairing of De La Soul and Teenage Fanclub produced the catchy “Fallin’”, a memorable single in its own right. And you can practically smell Sonic Youth and Cypress Hill getting high together on “I Love You Mary Jane.” Its intro features a scratched guitar string doubling as a bong hit, before Kim Gordon moans “Sugar come by/ Get me high”.
Crossover Rating: 5 Mark Wahlberg acting careers.
High moments. Low moments. Mostly so-so moments. As the soundtrack was more memorable than the movie, the concept was more memorable than the soundtrack. Years later, acts like Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit would pulverize and sanitize the idea to great success.
Paul Simon – Graceland
Crossover Attempt: Mrs. Robinson goes to Africa, LadySmith Black Mambazo goes to Scarborough Fair
Paul Simon wrote the book on the successful crossover, or rather, made the album.
In the midst of a collapsing personal life and a creative and professional lull, Simon traveled to apartheid-era South Africa to track down musicians from his favorite mixtape and jam with them. The idea made sense to few – that is, if anyone were paying attention to begin with. The industry considered Simon a ‘cold’ artist at the time, and he credits that status as a burden lifted, and one that allowed him to go about his musical exploration unmolested.
The story of Graceland is one of natural, free-flowing development, edited and polished and manicured under the microscope of a grand technician: Simon himself. The documentary Paul Simon: Graceland features several clips of Simon and large African bands engaging in endless rhythmic jams that would make up the underlying themes of the songs on Graceland. After recording these sessions, Simon would nitpick through them to see what he could turn into three-and-a-half minutes worth of music with a verse and a chorus. The result earned Simon a #1 album and two Grammys.
Of course, the huge success of Graceland was not met without criticism. Some accused Simon of exploiting African culture, its music, and its musicians without giving back enough in return. Others felt it glossed-over or even ignored the hardships of Apartheid South Africa. Still more found the collaboration itself a violation of the ‘cultural boycott’ against apartheid.
In Paul Simon: Graceland, Simon calls the album “accurate but certainly not complete.” He implies that the music serves to highlight the culture’s joy and beauty despite its existence under an oppressive regime, rather than endorsing the regime itself. Graceland guitarist Ray Phiri calls the influence of African music on American and vice-versa the ‘sharing of information’, saying that “We used Paul as much as Paul used us. There was no abuse.”
To this day, nothing in American pop music sounds like Graceland (possibly because at least half of it was concocted in Africa), and it’s unlikely anything ever will again. Simon calls the title track the best song he’s ever written.
Crossover Rating: 9 Trent Reznor Oscars.
Graceland is seamless and flawless, glistening with intricate rhythms, lush arrangements, and unique sounds and styles of playing that just aren’t heard in American popular music. Its only drawback is on the other side of the cultural coin: In America, Simon is hailed as a genius for blending African influence into his music. But a sampling of music from several African groups of the time would reveal many more of these same sounds and rhythms, suggesting that Simon might have produced 3 or 4 more Gracelands by simply making up his own lyrics to more and more traditional African tunes .
Lou Reed and Metallica – Lulu
Crossover Attempt: The Coney Island Poet and the WalMart of Heavy Metal team up to make an album together.
Parents looking to warn their kids about the dangers of drugs an alcohol need only a locked room, a pair of headphones, and a copy of Lulu.
Lou Reed and Metallica have done quite well in their careers despite their past demons – hard drugs for the former and heavy boozing for the latter. But all of that impaired long-term judgment may be what turned Lulu from an amusing non-sequitur (“Hey, what if Lou Reed made an album with Metallica??? Man, I need to stop smoking…”) into 87 minutes of actual music. Now that’s something that will scare the kids straight, indeed.
When collaborators as far-flung as Reed and Metallica have at it, you can hope (vainly) for only a few things: Maybe they’ll accentuate each other’s strengths in weird and unexpected ways. Just maybe, they’ll push each other with positive tension, ala the Judgment Night soundtrack. They might even miraculously form that new hybrid sound – the one everyone was praying for when they cooked up the scheme.
Unfortunately, Lulu achieves not one shred of any of this. In fact, it barely plays like a collaboration at all. The cast of “We Are the World” sounded like it had been together longer than the Reed-and-Metallica combo. In this case, neither artist enhances the other, and the parts just don’t mesh.
Reed – who was never a vocal virtuoso, but was at least once a tuneful singer – has now all but given up on singing, and instead yelps paranoid rants over Metallica dirges that have become as plastic-coated as Lars Ulrich’s drum sticks.
Who this album is supposed to appeal to is unclear. Metallica fans are unlikely to embrace the crazy old homeless man withering through their power-thrusting, and the Lou Reed fans who may get into his poetry after a bit, if only they could ignore the grinding grooves in the background, will never be too far from an obligatory James Hetfield chorus, which now seems somehow out of place in its own music.
Reed and Metallica first hit on the idea of collaborating after a performance at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, deciding to base the album on the life and work of German playwright Frank Wedek….–Aw, who cares? This album is extremely unpleasant to listen to and should only be used in warfare or in a grade-school D.A.R.E. program.
Crossover Rating: 1 cassette tape featuring Reed’s “Machine Metal Music” intercut with 20 second audio clips from this 1990s Eddie Murphy song featuring Michael Jackson.
Garth Brooks in … The Life of Chris Gaines
Crossover Attempt: The Reigning Good Ole Boy of Country masquerades as an emo pop star with a soul patch.
The large majority of Garth Brooks’ career has been unassailable in terms of both his continued chart success and his genuine likeability. Those who haven’t been fans of his would have trouble denying he’s had a few surprisingly good turns as an SNL host.
So maybe Garth is just one of those people who can’t stand having good things happen to him all the time, which would explain why, in 1999, he decided to alienate everyone by creating the alter-ego Chris Gaines: a person that most of his then-fanbase would want to beat up, and a person that much of his hopeful future-fanbase would also want to beat up.
Brooks reportedly developed the Gaines character for a movie about a fictional pop star called The Lamb, which he was then working on with his production company. The plan was to release the album Garth Brooks in … The Life of Chris Gaines before the movie and then ride the wave of publicity all the way to… oops.
More than anything the move confused fans, who couldn’t figure out if it was a joke, a stunt, or if Garth had lost some precious cognitive ability in his frontal lobe. The Chris Gaines album earned mixed reviews, middling sales (for a Garth Brooks album), and a frightened audience. Unsurprisingly, the movie was axed after the album’s poor reception.
The ironic epitaph of the Chris Gaines fiasco is that despite it universally being branded a conceptual and creative disaster, it actually landed Brooks (Gaines?) his first and only Top 40 US pop single with the song “Lost in You”.
An idealist might say that Brooks created the Gaines character specifically to take the hit for his own genuine desire to experiment with a new style of music that his fanbase would not yet be ready to accept if it came from the down-home Brooks himself. A realist might counter that Brooks could not possibly have been so stupid as to think his fanbase would find his moonlighting as a guy with a soul patch that wears turtlenecks more tolerable.
Crossover Rating: 2 ice-dancing ballets based on the story of King Arthur, arranged by Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman.
It’s not something you’ll see every day, but maybe there’s a reason for that.
Jack White & Insane Clown Posse – “Leck Mich Im Arsch”
Crossover Attempt: Platinum-selling garage rocker overprotective of his street cred recruits cred-less clowns of hip hop to sample Mozart
Do you believe in miracles? The internet can be a cruel house of lies, promising that Bill Murray will come to your birthday party, that Morgan Freeman is dead, and that Olympian McKayla Maroney hates everything.
That’s why when news first broke that Jack White and Insane Clown Posse would be collaborating to ‘cover’ Mozart, fans of the former searched for signs that the promotional pics were photoshopped and that this was all some sick joke. Media outlets covered the story adding qualifiers like “Really” and “Seriously” to their headlines to assure us that this was in fact, a thing that was happening.
The song – the title of which supposedly translates to “Lick me in the arse” – is of course the least newsworthy aspect of this unholy alliance. I’m still waiting for Insane Clown Posse to remove their makeup and reveal that they are actually Ashton Kutcher and his secret identical twin playing out a career-long episode of Punk’d.
The Jack White faithful who praise the man’s raw realness, or his real rawness, or his “reawlness” as the case may be, found themselves looking around nervously, wondering if they should delete that last “Jack, U R a musical genius!!!” comment from his Facebook fan page. Was Meg really the brains of the operation after all?
Watch ICP explain the collaboration, and it still seems weird. And tense. Even to them.
Crossover Rating: 4 early rehearsals of that Spider-Man Broadway musical with the music by Bono.
Even if your end result isn’t as atrocious as anticipated, sometimes you need a friend to tell you early on when you are having a bad idea-gasm.
Crossover Attempt: Take Judgment Night Soundtrack. Replace “rap” artist with “electronic” artist. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Culled from yet another awful movie outshone by the novelty of its soundtrack, the music to the movie Spawn took the arranged marriages of Judgment Night and replaced rap acts with the heroes of 90s electronica.
It is easily less inspired and less revolutionary than its predecessor, and so, has less to offer. Marilyn Manson overwhelms a soon-to-be-irrelevant Sneaker Pimps. Henry Rollins mumbles his way through Goldie’s jungle beats. Incubus and DJ Greyboy and Filter and The Crystal Method all morph into one continuous blob of 90s culture best described as The FilCuBus GreyMethod, a mess of frosted tips and silvery Maui Jim sunglasses.
There are a few bright spots: A mildly interesting DJ Spooky remix of Metallica’s for “Whom the Bell Tolls”. Metallica’s Kirk Hammett slashing his way through “Satan” alongside the Orbital. And, a surprisingly cohesive Moby/ Butthole Surfers collaboration, that hints at the unlikely success of the Surfers’ only hit, “Pepper”.
Kudos also go to Slayer, the only act to be featured on both the Judgment Night soundtrack (alongside Ice T) and the Spawn soundtrack (on an obnoxiously fun romp with Atari Teenage Riot)
Crossover Rating: 3 Donnie Wahlberg acting careers.
Get good at one thing first. Then maybe try and do two.
Steve Martin’s Bluegrass Career
Crossover Attempt: Comedic legend fingerpicks his way to banjo heaven
Only some of us remember a time when comedy legend Steve Martin was still interested in being funny. Fewer remember that long before Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld and Dane Cook, it was Martin who was packing stadiums full of fans. And almost no one seems to remembers that throughout it all, Martin often slung a banjo around his neck – and played it damn well.
Martin’s string of gold and platinum stand-up albums in the 70s all featured extended banjo bits. Sometimes they were in service of a joke, and at others they served only as earnest and original compositions. His last stand-up album, The Steve Martin Brothers, devoted an entire second side to bluegrass banjo. And in 2009, Martin went full-monty with his first all music album, The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo.
Like the Jack White/ ICP collaboration, some fans might have hoped this was a joke (mainly because Martin was very good at telling jokes for a long time). But Martin proved to be the real deal. The Crow won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album, and Martin embarked on a tour with the band The Steep Canyon Rangers, all with absolute sincerity that belied his days of plastic arrow headbands and gag songs about King Tut.
Crossover Rating: 8 of Eddie Murphy’s bank deposit receipts.
If you’re no longer funny, you can at least still be good at what you are doing with your life.