[23 April 2007]
Temper tantrums are never fun to witness, whether they’re thrown by immature three-year-old children or 43-year-old bosses. But when musicians go postal, the results can be fascinating: crazy, explosive works of art spring forth and cause record-company executives to cringe and casual fans to cower.
Some artists, like Trent Reznor or Black Sabbath, operate(d) in permanent tantrum mode and placed themselves in genres where that kind of music works (hardcore punk, industrial, heavy metal). When popsters want to rebel they usually get artsy and obscure; when R&B artists break the mold they tend to go political. But more interesting are those who chose to court chaos only once, taking a lone detour down the lonesome road of intemperate explosion. Why do artists do this? Well, for some, it’s a statement of artistic independence. For others, it’s a way to transcend self-imposed musical constraints. Some artists are just plain angry and frustrated. What better way to blow off build-up bitterness than to channel it than into ear-scorching songs?
The following chronological list includes 10 albums that were out of character, in some way, for the artists who created them. Most of these albums date from the early ‘70s, probably because that’s when record company budgets were big and money (and other substances, so we’ve heard) flowed like water. The main criteria here is that the sound and feel of these efforts was substantially different than anything else released by the artists. Most threw their commercial careers off track, at least for a while. Perhaps rock fans have more conservative tastes than they’d like to think.
The Velvet Underground, White Light White Heat (MGM, 1968)
Almost 40 years on this album can still floor a listener with its sheer aggressive force. Lou Reed’s guitar solo on “I Heard Her Call My Name” is a study in mayhem, and the 17-minute “Sister Ray” defines controlled chaos, as many have noted. The album failed to chart (Velvet Underground and Nico scraped the Top 200), and the band lost any chance they ever had at a mass audience because of this LP. Johnny Ramone told me during an interview that he always thought the Velvets “sounded like folk rock.” A listen to this LP might have changed the late guitarist’s opinion.
The Who, Live at Leeds (Track, 1970)
The four-man British powerhouse was known for its louder-than-demolition live shows, but never quite captured that intensity on its early albums or its singles. This album righted that situation. Here, the Who chucks nuance and crashed through a set of meat-and-potatoes rock (“Summertime Blues,” “My Generation”) that set the standard for live albums. Ironically, the Who released this as a way to sidestep recording a follow-up to the heralded Tommy, and they wound up with a disc The New York Times called the best live album ever. Drummer Keith Moon never sounded more inspired, and they sure never rocked like this again on disc. The expanded CD reissue adds some softer cuts and diffuses the shock listeners felt when hearing the more concise, hard-hitting single disc LP.
Mott the Hoople, Brain Capers (Island, 1972)
“Brain Capers was done in the spirit of ‘We’re fucked, we’ve had it, we might as well just throw down this lot and be done with it,’ ” Mott the Hoople front man Ian Hunter told the Trouser Press in ‘80. The band’s frustration stemmed from the public indifference to its first two albums of Dylanesque hard rock. With Brain Capers, Mott and producer Guy Stevens played down the Dylan mannerisms and came up with an LP that Trouser Press called “one of the noisiest albums to assault human ears.” At least one person was listening: The Clash’s Mick Jones took this album’s relentless energy to heart and helped develop punk rock. He also picked up on guitarist Mick Ralphs’s slash-and-burn technique, and for the band’s London Calling LP, they recruited Stevens himself, who died shortly after.
The Stooges, Raw Power (Columbia, 1973)
Stooges singer Iggy Pop’s wildman reputation largely comes from his stage antics, the most famous of which includes allegedly cutting himself and rolling around in peanut butter. But Iggy’s rep was also largely created because of this album, which boasted an initial mix (by Pop himself) that was so abrasive that record company execs hauled in David Bowie to remix it. The Stooges’ first two albums definitely rocked, but in a more refined, conventional, late ‘60s manner. On Raw Power, tracks like “Search and Destroy” and “Gimme Danger” explodes with rage, inspiring countless would-be musicians to take up instruments and invent genres like hardcore punk.
Roy Wood (Wizzard), Wizzard Brew (UA, 1973)
When singer-songwriter Roy Wood led the British pop-rock band the Move, he crafted unforgettably catchy singles (“Fire Brigade,” “Blackberry Way”), and later, progressive rock (the Looking On LP). Soon, Wood and new Move member Jeff Lynne set about forming the Electric Light Orchestra, which Wood abruptly quit after an in-studio argument. Wood then formed the glam rock outfit Wizzard, which debuted with campy retro rock singles and moved into ‘50s tributes and jazz. In between all that came this rasping monstrosity of an album. It’s not all hard rock, but the songs that are (especially “You Can Dance Your Rock and Roll” and “Buffalo Station”) are mind-boggling in their noisiness. If Wood didn’t invent the concept of distorted vocals with this album, he sure helped popularize it.
Neil Young, Time Fades Away (Reprise, 1973)
In the early ‘70s, Neil Young was not known for cranky eccentricity and a fondness for garage-band chops, but for his number-one ballad “Heart of Gold” (featuring James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt) and the mega-selling, mega-mellow record on which it was featured, Harvest. So, in the first of what would be many musical left turns, Young set off on a different course with his follow-up LP: It featured eight new tunes recorded with the powerhouse unit the Stray Gators. The sludgy, overstuffed sound was supposedly recorded directly from a soundboard. Since there are no multitrack tapes, no one can do a digital clean-up, and that’s probably why it has never appeared on CD. There’s also rumors that since this LP was Young’s first artistic take on death-by-overdose of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, Young may simply not want to deal with it (although he has re-released his Tonight’s the Night LP, which also deals with Whitten). Whatever the case, the title track and “Last Dance” show Young at his possessed best.
Bob Dylan/The Band, Before the Flood (Asylum and Columbia, 1974)
On their own, Bob Dylan and the Band rarely made records that rattled walls. But when they joined forces, their combined energy was explosive. The lethal sonic combination wowed rockers and infuriated purist folkies during legendary live concerts in 1966. But the first time the general public got to hear these artists together officially on record was this live album, on which the Band plays so furiously that Dylan is forced into pretty much shouting all his vocals. At the time, Dylan was criticized for trashing his work and making ballads like “Lay Lady Lay” into unintentional comedy. But with the release of Live 1966, it became clearer that this is the way these artists worked together on stage (and that double CD would be included here if the first disc wasn’t a solo Dylan acoustic performance). Either way, nothing in either artist’s catalog at the time could have predicted the thunderous sound of this LP.
Public Image Ltd., The Flowers of Romance (Warner Bros., 1981)
You don’t need distorted guitars to make noisy music. Heck, you don’t even need guitars, sometimes! For the most part, this third effort by John Lydon/Rotten’s experimental post-Sex Pistols outfit eschews guitars and embraces minimalism, using drums and off-kilter synthesizer noises. So how can it be noisy? Because Lydon does away with his usual pop song structures and/or danceable rhythms and instead comes up with nine discordant numbers all centered around his jarring voice. Additionally, bassist Jah Wobble had recently quit, so the band simply didn’t use a bass here, making the sound even more off-balance. The Trouser Press Record Guide’s fourth edition notes that a record executive once called this LP “one of the most uncommercial records ever made at least in a pop context.” 25 years on, that assertion still rings true.
Marshall Crenshaw, Field Day (Warner Bros., 1983)
Okay, so pop stalwart Crenshaw isn’t exactly gonna challenge Beefheart for dissonance or the Who for volume. But his 1983 sophomore effort needs to be included here because of the audacity he had in following up his pop-friendly debut LP with such an odd-sounding album. Steve Lillywhite’s huge, reverb-drenched production was considered so overdone at the time it caused reviewers to blanch and the public to turn away in droves. Crenshaw was poised for pop success after his debut LP garnered widespread praise and some radio play, but this LP’s lead single, “Whenever You’re on My Mind”, flopped, as did this LP. Crenshaw scurried back into the studio to remix some of the songs (which later came out on a British EP confusingly called U.S. Remix) but it was too late, and his career never recovered. In retrospect, Field Day was a precursor to the huge-sounding productions that became a signature of late ‘80s music. Lillywhite’s production on the Psychedelic Furs’ first two LPs did edge towards “bigness”, and his work with U2 was reverb heavy. But he went all out with Crenshaw. And “big ’80s hair” hadn’t even been invented yet in 1983, much less “big ‘80s music.”
Dinosaur Jr., You’re Living All Over Me (SST Records, 1987)
Dinosaur Jr. was always a loud band, as evidenced by its room-clearing early concerts and origins as a hardcore punk group (called Deep Wound). But for its sophomore album, the Massachusetts-based trio went one step further than turning its amps up to eleven: They turned the recording volume up to eleven as well. According to Michael Azerrad’s excellent 2001 indie music book Our Band Could Be Your Life, guitarist J. Mascis and company shocked the executives at their label by handing in a master tape of this album with a level so high it “pinned” the VU meters. This extreme approach to recording gave numbers like “Sludgefeast” an almost dreamlike wash of sound. Dinosaur Jr. went on to make other great records, but none ever sounded like this. The CD is now something of a classic, and was recently reissued on CD with an alternate closing track.