Monday, June 4, 2012

Top Ten Rock Music Reinventions

It's been a long time since I've hit y'all with a top ten list, and I thought I'd go with the top ten rock music reinventions. Some acts, like AC/DC, are famously consistent, sticking with an established formula for decades. (In their case it's mid-tempo blues riffing, no-fills drums, women and "rocking" as the main lyrical subjects, and a screaming lead singer.) Others have managed to undergo stunning reinventions. Today I'd like to consider the ten reinventions I consider the most effective and/or influential.

1. Dylan Goes Electric. Yeah, I know, pretty obvious. But who can deny how important it was for his lyrical sophistication, which leaped from folk song topicality to a poetic voice along the lines of Whitman? (It's a long way from "The Times They Are a Changin'" to "Visions of Johanna.") His songs were becoming less political and more personal on Another Side of Bob Dylan, but adopting the "thin wild mercury sound" seemed to do even more to open up his muse. Without going electric Dylan would have remained King of the Folkies, by revolutionizing his sound he became the most crucial single figure in American rock music.

2. The Bee Gees Go Disco. I'll admit it, I love the Bee Gees, who have suffered so much undeserved ire over the past 30 years due to the overexposure in the late 70s afforded by their disco-propelled rocket ride to the top of the charts. On their early records the brothers Gibb crafted beautifully baroque pop songs steeped with winsome vocals and weeping strings. Then, for some blessed reason, they decided to get super funky in the mid-70s and sing in a distinctive falsetto style. Their first R&B infused songs like "Nights on Broadway" and "Jive Talkin'" were great, but then they shot into the pop music stratosphere with the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. "You Should Be Dancing" and "Night Fever" are two classic slices of propulsive disco, and "Staying Alive" stands as THE definitive pop hit of its era.

3. Wilco Goes Indie. Assembled from the wreckage of Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Tweedy's Wilco put out two great alt-country albums before entering more avant-garde waters with Summerteeth. Things only got better with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, perhaps the best album of the last decade.  For the past decade, they have been the definitive independent rock band, and one of my favorites.  While Jay Bennett got kicked out of the band and is sadly no longer with us, he should at least get credit for helping this transition along.

4. The Hawks Become The Band. Alternatively, The Band hit their stride by delving into country and roots music after years of rocking hard as The Hawks. The former's blazing version of "Who Do You Love?" with Ronnie Hawkins may be definitive, but it can't hold a candle to "The Weight."  In the process, The Band practically invented the Americana genre of music and provided a needed, rootier antidote to the excesses of psychedelia.  

5. Bowie Hooks Up With Eno. David Bowie has been rightly famous over the years for his ability to switch personaes. He started as a mod, became a folkie, went glam, tried out Philly soul, and then morphed into The Thin White Duke. His most interesting and enduring music came only after spending some time in Berlin and teaming up with maestro producer Brian Eno for Low and Heroes, albums that sound fresh and innovative even today. Too bad he switched out of this phase for Let's Dance and sold out to the Top 40. Despite attempts to be avant-garde again (Tin Machine, anyone?) he's never managed to totally get the magic back.

6. John Lydon Goes Post-Punk. When he was Johnny Rotten, Lydon embodied the gob spitting ranting of the first wave of punk more than anyone else could possibly hope to. Yet somehow this blowtorch-voiced prophet of doom became an anxious-sounding wailer backed by PiL's unsettling wall of Jah Wobble bass and Keith Levene sculptured feedback. The more I listen to Metal Box the more brilliant it sounds.

7. The Byrds Go Country. Line-up changes can precipitate unexpected musical alterations, and the Byrds are hardly an exception. Adding the god of country rock, Gram Parsons, to their line-up turned these purveyors of electrified folk into a Nashville act by way of the California counterculture. I don't care if their cover of the Louvin Brothers' "The Christian Life" is playing it straight or not, I just know that I love it more than all their prior work combined (and that's saying a lot.)

8. Marc Bolan's T-rextasy. Marc Bolan's early music with Tyrannsaurus Rex is the kind of saucer-eyed Tolkein steeped stuff that gives folk music a bad name. Somehow he managed to break out of the land of unicorns to form T. Rex and blast out the best and most enduring glam rock ever recorded. Rock on!

9. Jimi Hendrix Jettisons the Experience. Although Jimi didn't completely reinvent himself when he formed Band of Gypsies, he certainly got a lot funkier and less wedded to the traditional pop song format. This comes off best with Machine Gun, a song that expresses the horror of war more viscerally and believably than any other I know.

10. Fleetwood Mac Adds Buckingham and Nicks. As much as I try to deny it, I have a growing spot in my heart for Fleetwood Mac. Sure, they were a soft rock band, but they rocked mellow in better and more interesting ways than anyone else. What makes it all the stranger is that they did it after starting off as a heavy blues band led by the blockbuster guitar playing of Peter Green. Drop him, add California kids Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, stir in a mountain of cocaine and a dollop of studio magic, and you get gems like "Gold Dust Woman."

No comments: