We all like the comfort that comes from a degree of consistency in our lives and our musical diet. But here at the Song Bar we also like to doff our caps to those musicians with the bravery to try something different, surprising their listeners, their bank managers and maybe themselves. In some cases, it’s a brief, momentary, experimental fling; in others, it can be a more sustained personal reinvention, musically and even spiritually.
Picture then a world where adherence to one’s chosen musical path is rigidly enforced. Imagine a special police unit that rounds up suspected genre-busters and a justice system that punishes the most serious offenders ...
The helicopters are circling right now above a theatre in Amsterdam. The police have a tip-off that Faith No More frontman, Mike Patton, has holed himself up with a 40-piece orchestra and 15-piece backing band. This cannot bode well. When the cops break down the barred theatre doors, what they find is astounding. Patton has a secret passion, it transpires, for fifties and sixties Italian pop. He’s going to face a stiff custodial sentence for Che Notte! The drum solo alone breaches at least half a dozen state regulations. But does he care? Hell no. He’s singing and grinning with delirious abandon and goading on his trumpeter to ever dizzier heights.
Reports are coming in from South Carolina of another rock singer violating his probation order. Darius Rucker has served 20 years at the helm of Hootie & the Blowfish, pounding out heartland rock to packed stadiums. He’s already received a community sentence for a 2001 R&B album, and he’s now throwing caution to the wind with a slew of country music records, including Wagon Wheel. In a defiant courtroom speech, Rucker makes an impassioned plea against musical boundaries: “There’s so many African-American people who say to me, ‘You know, I always wanted to like country music, but I didn’t want my friends to give me a hard time’.”
Undercover detectives have bugged a recording studio in south-east London. The Blood have been ambling along contentedly as a conventional, cider-drinking Oi! band. But iconoclasm now strikes. Their first LP transmutes their punk heritage into what the Crown Prosecution Service describes as a dangerous new form of pomp rock. Sewer Brain is the first forensic specimen heard in court. The jurors’ attention is drawn to the deft drumming, the glam-rock stomp, the prog stylings and … gasps from the public gallery ... yes, arpeggios. Really now, what came over you, lads?
A nervous young policeman knocks on the door of Dusty Springfield’s house. I’m most awfully sorry, Miss Springfield. I’ve been asked to have a quiet word about your latest recording, What’s It Gonna Be. We’re sure this was an innocent mistake. You can’t have realised that you’ve strayed into a style of soul music that’s causing some very distressing behaviour in Manchester, Wigan and Blackpool. I can’t say much more at this point, but talcum powder is said to be involved. Dusty laughs derisively and shows the young fellow the door.
It’s 1982, and since parting company with his friends Peter Tosh and Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer has been reliably cranking out roots reggae with the best of them, telling tales of social oppression, personal struggle and spirituality. So how’s he going to explain this? Back to School suggests Bunny has been listening to Grandmaster Flash and Dr Seuss. Off to the penitentiary, if there’s any more of this behaviour, Mr Wailer.
Talking Heads have had a few brushes with the music police over the years. They are straying into their most dangerous territory yet with The Great Curve from ‘Remain in Light’. It blends their jerky, twitching trademark new wave style with African polyrhythms to create something quite unlike their previous or future work. The authorities also have their eye on a certain Adrian Belew, whose wild, synthesizer-treated guitar solos are further fuelling this stylistic cataclysm.
It’s 1978, and undercover surveillance teams are working overtime to keep track of all those previously respectable popsters cashing in on the disco craze. Some plain clothes officers have infiltrated a Larry Levan night at the Paradise Garage. They’re meant to be apprehending Tony Orlando, but – if truth be told – they’re having a damn fine time of it on the dancefloor. Orlando spent most of the 1970s turning out cheesy pop hits, but has inexplicably come out of a brief retirement to create Don’t Let Go, a monster groove that’s sending Levan’s New York congregation into raptures.
Roll forward 35 years, and disco is still luring musicians off the straight and narrow. Serafina Steer is a harpist who’s already on the Met’s watch list for her early dabbling in folktronica. Goaded on by that ne’er-do-well, Jarvis Cocker, she’s now gone and … well, listen for yourself to Disco Compilation. That unmistakeable four-to-the-floor, that off-beat hi-hat, that syncopated bass line. The plod won’t have much trouble wrapping up this case.
Completing this trilogy, Blondie appear in the dock, charged with wantonly abandoning their punk and new wave roots. The judge is incandescent with rage. Did you have no thoughts for the feelings of your fans? There are youngsters who saved up pocket money for this, expecting another ‘Parallel Lines’ or ‘Eat to the Beat’. And you, boy! Yes, I’m looking at you, Clement Burke: do you have a licence for that beard? As they’re led away to the cells, Debbie and the boys bop insouciantly through the courtroom, a mischievous glint in their eyes. Rapture is an utter gem.
Dion is best known for the 1960s doo wop of ‘The Wanderer’ and ‘Runaround Sue’. In 1974, he entered the studio to produce the rock album ‘Born to Be with You’. After reportedly tempestuous recording sessions, featuring Phil Spector and others, Dion disowned the record and voluntarily gave himself up to the authorities. Fortunately for us, though, he refused to reveal the secret location where he had stashed New York City Song (one of two tracks not produced by Spector), now unearthed by Song Bar detectives and presented here for your delectation.
‘Pablo Honey’? All present and correct. ‘The Bends’? Move along folks, nothing to see here. ‘OK Computer’? We may have to take that one in for questioning. ‘Kid A’???! The Police National Computer system combusts, immediate warrants go out for Radiohead’s arrest, and politicians gather in the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms to discuss the threat to national security. Everything in its Right Place? You’ve got to be kidding us.
The FBI have brought in psychological profilers to try and fathom out how The Walker Brothers, who brought you ‘Make it Easy on Yourself’ and ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’ have come to create the immense, majestic Nite Flights. Gosh darnit, turns out they weren’t even brothers, either. Scott throws the sniffer dogs off his trail and keeps running through the night. He’s got a few more musical borders he needs to cross.
Back in the real world, we finish with Diego El Cigala, a Spanish flamenco singer, who had the courage to team up with an Argentinian rock musician and rework classic tango music, performing the results at the Teatro Gran Rex in Buenos Aires. Garganta con Arena was the first song of the evening, and Diego admits he was bricking it. So just look at his joy and relief when the audience starts applauding mid-way through. Try something a little brave – and see if it puts a smile on your face too!
The amazing, audacious A-list:
Mike Patton – Che Notte!
Darius Rucker – Wagon Wheel
The Blood – Sewer Brain
Dusty Springfield – What’s It Gonna Be
Bunny Wailer – Back to School
Talking Heads – The Great Curve
Tony Orlando – Don’t Let Go
Serafina Steer – Disco Compilation
Blondie – Rapture
Dion – New York City Song
Radiohead – Everything in its Right Place
The Walker Brothers – Nite Flights
Diego El Cigala – Garganta con Arena
The brave, bodacious B-list:
Joshua Bell & Friends – Short Trip Home – classical violin to chamber folk
The Move – Brontosaurus – psychedelic popsters produce proto metal
Scritti Politti – The Word Girl – Marxist post-punk to synth-pop/reggae
AFI – Girl’s Not Grey – horror punks acquire poppy edge
Cliff Richard – I Can’t Ask for Anymore than You – Sir Cliff goes falsetto
Shakti – La Danse du Bonheur – Hindustani/Carnatic/jazz fusion
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss – Your Long Journey – Percy perfects country
Steve Hillage – 1988 Aktivator – progster plies punk
Bobby Darin – Me & Mr. Hohner – bobby sockster invents Beck
Sonic Boom Six – Sunny Side of the Street – hyperactive genre-changers
Kiss – I Was Made for Lovin’ You – loveable scamps nail disco
Buddy Holly – True Love Ways – Buddy’s orchestral farewell
Bob Dylan – Subterranean Homesick Blues – Judas!
Guru’s wild card:
Neil Michael Hagerty spurted out dirty garage rock with the band Pussy Galore (1985 to 1990). With Jennifer Herrema, he formed the mighty Royal Trux (1987 to 2001) who produced nine albums of drug-fuelled and at times experimental rock music. Cut to 2001, and Hagerty’s debut solo album throws us this curveball – all one minute and 15 seconds of it. I saw him at London's Cafe OTO last year and can vouch for the fact that he’s moved on again!
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic: Brilliant, bold or embarrassing? Uncharacteristic, genre-switch songs. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.