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When The Sound Changes: 5 Of The Best, 5 Of The Worst

As the Kings of Leon ready themselves for their comeback album Mechanical Bull, many wonder what incarnation of the band listeners can expect. Few in recent memory have endured such a critical lashing for altering their sound, while simultaneously becoming massively popular. Their debut Youth and Young Manhood saw them celebrated as a southern fried Strokes with their Tennessee road side bar rock fitting neatly into the garage explosion of the last decade. Cut to a couple of releases later and the Kings of Leon are embraced by the mainstream, their album Only by the Night garners a couple of Grammies, and shifts 6 million. However, purists winced at the perceived change in sound, with its emphasis on the populist power ballad, and U2-esque stadium rock. To them, this was their “Rod Stewart putting on his spandex for the first time” moment.

You certainly can’t please everybody. Below are some instances of artists changing their sound that almost did, and some that certainly didn’t.

CHANGE IS A GOOD THING…

BOB DYLAN

When John Lennon said that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, he misspoke. If any musician of the sixties could have compared himself to the sandal wearing son-of-a God, it was Bob Dylan in 1965. Dylan had inadvertently achieved near deification on the folk scene by mid-decade, slapped with the weighty label of voice of a generation thanks to classics like “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”, “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’”. Then, without warning, he appeared at the ’65 Newport Folk Festival with a full backing band, and an electric guitar. The rest is history.  Hardline folkies booed, wept and heckled their messiah (Pete Seeger even tried to pull the plug), slamming him as a sellout, a back stabber and most famously a year later, “Judas”. History would prove Dylan right, his output ’65 – ‘67 producing arguably the greatest run of songs ever put to record  - though Pete Seeger might disagree.

PRIMAL SCREAM

Their first two albums saw Scotland’s Primal Scream cast themselves as sub-par Rolling Stones / Stooges wanabees . Their devolutionary mimicking of past greats, sat awkwardly with the burgeoning indie scene of jangly guitars and rave music. Then came Screamadelica, well actually, first came ecstasy, as singer Bobby Gillespie and the band dove minds first into the acid house scene of the late ‘80s with producer Andrew Wetherall. What emerged from this pharmaceutically nourished relationship was the album Screamadelica, a genre morphing of sounds from the past, present and future, coolly straddling guitar rock and acid house with a confidence that suggested they’d been doing this kind of music for years. It won Primal Scream the inaugural Mercury Music Prize (which they subsequently misplaced mid celebration) and set the band on a road of sometimes incredible genre defying albums; Vanishing Point, XTMNR, Evil Heat.  Occasionally they still hark back to their karaoke Mick ‘n Keef days, (see Give Out, But Don’t Give Up and Riot City Blues) but new release More Light suggests we can still expect the unexpected from Scotland’s finest.

THE BEASTIE BOYS

Initially a run of the mill hardcore band, the Beastie Boys applied the attitude, angst and mischievousness of punk to hip hop with 1986’s Licensed to Ill. Though the album brought the New York trio’s sound to the masses, their 1983 12-inch single “Cooky Puss” should be seen as the watershed moment, when they replaced thrash guitars with deftly pilfered samples and irrelevant intelligent goofiness. They would bound forward bombastically with Paul’s Boutique and everything after, though their punk distain for status quos never really left them.

 

THE BEE GEES

The most startling thing about The Bee Gees in the late ‘60s was not their music, (flaccidly warbled ballads), but their immaculately large teeth, seemingly more at home on a Steinway piano than in the mouths of young Mancunians. By the mid ‘70s the brothers Gibb seemed to be going nowhere very slowly. Their high pitched balladry fell somewhere between outdated acts like Donovan and Engelbert Humperdink. After urging from manager Robert Stigwood, and producer Arif Mardin the boys turned to the bright lights of disco and never looked back, defining this era as much as any other act did. However, The Bee Gees of the late ‘70s were more than Saturday Night Fever, coiffed manes and chest hair. Fundamentally, their songs are fantastic. Who cannot help but strut a la Travolta when they hear the propulsive funk laden riff of “Stayin’ Alive”?  What pedestrian office party cannot be transformed into a Studio 54-esque disco extravaganza by the harmonized whispers of “Jive Talkin’”? And if you are a child of the’80s, you might well have been conceived to the lush, romantic strains of "More Than A Woman” after a woozy night of chocolate fondue and one too many Harvey Wallbangers.

 

T-REX

As frontman of Tyrannosaurus Rex, Marc Bolan pranced around the late ‘60s as the trippiest of folk minstrels, with album titles as catchy as My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair... But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows. Imbued with a desire to make it big, and an electric guitar, the abbreviated T-Rex set early Britain alight like no-one since The Beatles.  Albums The Slider and Electric Warrior are full of monster riffs, a glam more glamorous than even Bowie, and an innate sense of what good pop-rock should sound like.

 

THE NOT SO GOOD…

LAURYN HILL

Four years after her Grammy winning, 13 million selling, and bona fide classic debut The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the former Fugee should have swaggered to the throne as the new queen of hip hop / nu soul. However, by 2002, disillusionment with the record industry and the pressures of fame had set in, as well as the throb of ever swelling egotism. Her follow up, if it can be really called that, Unplugged 2.0 saw Hill replace the sure footed fusion of ‘70s soul, reggae and socially conscious hip-hop, with tuneless, ad-libbed, self-indulgent folkish meanderings. Tracks rambled on for 9 minutes, where Hill would encourage her audience to be free spirits, while simultaneously chastising them for not being more like her. There’s even a moment while ruminating about God for what seems like a Biblical age, where she suddenly bursts into tears. Such pretentiousness made even Wyclef Jean appear down to earth.

 

ROXY MUSIC

Piercing the dope smoke of sixties hippydom, Roxy Music seem to come from outer space in the early ‘70s.Their first four albums were a wild mish mosh of ‘50s rock n’ roll, Velvet Underground anti psychedelica, and avant-garde glam rock. Tracks like “Do The Strand”, “Virginia Plain”, “In Every Dream a Heartache” and “Street Life” show them at their most flamboyant, experimental and downright weird.  Bryan Ferry was the wry narcissist at the front of the band; slick, cool, and ever so slightly creepy. Brian Eno, dressed like some Martian drag queen, produced sounds further out than anything that had come from the last decade. Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and Paul Thompson, contributed to a sound that was simply peerless. No one sounded like Roxy Music. Then as the decade wore on they appeared to lose everything that had made them so arresting in the first place. Though Eno had left after their second album For Your Pleasure, it really wasn’t until later records Flesh + Blood and Avalon where the Roxy sound had degenerated into M.O.R. radio friendly, professionalism. Lipstick and glitter were replaced by sickly smooth pap, their art pop shifting from aural Pollack to aural Kincade.  Chris De Burgh was listening…

 

KEVIN ROWLAND

It was a relief that Dexy’s Midnight Runners made such a wonderful comeback last year with the album One Day I’m Going to Soar, as for a while many thought frontman Kevin Rowland had lost the plot. His 1998 solo album My Beauty had lovers of the man who penned “Come On Eileen”, “Geno” and other Dexy’s greats, talking for all the wrong reasons.  Rowland’s saccharine, melodramatic covers of “The Long and Winding Road”, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and perhaps most bizarrely, Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” were inaudible to Dexy’s purists. Some viewed it as a joke - an eccentric genius having a laugh at us, like Lou Reed did with Metal Machine Music, his unlistenable white noise follow up to Transformer. Then there’s the cover. Rowland dressed in drag, showing his panties to the camera, a reason in of itself not to purchase the album. "No matter what they take from me, they can't take away my dignity" crooned Rowland on “The Greatest Love of All” – we can only hope there was irony there.

U2

This year saw the 20th anniversary of U2’s woefully underrated Zooropa. Once called “the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree”, the album represented the full realization of an image change that began with the industrial fuzz of 1991’s Achtung Baby and was made flesh with the mind blowing Zoo TV tours. They were suddenly interesting; in tune with the indie scenes of Manchester and the clubs of Berlin. The over seriousness with which the band stomped around America in 1988’s Rattle and Hum was replaced by a welcome flippancy.  They were willing to laugh at themselves, as well as the world around them, while sounding fresh, exciting and innovative. However, when the band’s follow up Pop got mediocre reception and poor sales (by U2 standards), Bono and the boys appeared to have gone through some horrific over reaction, removing tongues from inside their cheeks and reverting back to the sound and earnestness that had drawn such contempt in the first place. 2000’s All You Can Leave Behind sold by the bucket loads, but saw the words “Bono” and “twat” being mentioned in the same breath again. Later records underscored this. The Joshua Tree had somehow regrown.

THE ROLLING STONES

Much has been made of the Rolling Stones’ post Exile on Main Street slide into jet set mediocrity, but their first flirtation with a critical hammering occurred with 1967’s Their Satanic Majesties Request. In a blatant attempt to catch up to a scene, the Stones made a psychedelic record that had detractors smugly suggesting they were trying to ape Sgt. Pepper’s (see the album cover) and they received a severe chastising for abandoning the R n’B sound that had made them so visceral, threatening and vital in their early records. Keith Richards has since dismissed it as “crap”, and their next albums, from Beggar’s Banquet to Exile… saw the band lather themselves in filthy blues with awesome affect.

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Tags
Bob Dylan
Dexy's Midnight Runners
Kevin Rowland
Kings of Leon
Lauryn Hill
Primal Scream
Roxy Music
T. Rex
the Beastie Boys
The Bee Gees
The Rolling Stones
The Stooges
The Strokes
U2

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