By The Landlord
"There is nothing so stable as change." – Bob Dylan
"My music is like a spinning ball. It can turn in one direction, and then it comes back to origins." – Youssou N'Dour
"I don't know where I'm going from here, but I promise it won't be boring." – David Bowie
How does it all work? Traditionally, a band or solo performer develops and establishes a style, and, if they’re lucky, they get connected, get spotted, then sign to a record company where that profile is developed, and where they can remain, more or less, doing something in that musical ballpark, hopefully developing and improving. But creativity is never that simple. After a period of success, some then attempt to move away from this established identity and do something entirely new. That might be due to internal rifts, a breakaway member, or the record company contract ending.
The results can be mixed. They may be strange, innovative or brilliant, but for some, they could also be an embarrassing error, borne of frustration, or ivory-tower narcissism. And yet a few outstanding artists make a habit of being, as it were, characteristically uncharacteristic, constantly breaking the mould, carried along on a cycle of risk and success. Immediately you might think of David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Kate Bush, or Tom Waits, or indeed Kevin Ayers, Miles Davis, Robert Wyatt or Julian Cope. "What will, or did, they do next?" asked their fans. But what songs really broke the mould, and at the time, did not seem to be what they were all about at all? And did they confound or confirm hopes, or tastes, of what was expected of them?
So then, what makes a song uncharacteristic, or indeed its opposite? That very much depends on your view and experience of the artist and their work, when you first discovered them, and whether you explored them forwards, or back in time. It seems strange, but there are many people in the world who might think, for example, of a typical signature, identity-forming Bowie song is Let’s Dance, because it wasn’t until that the early 1980s that he gained truly worldwide success with his biggest hit. Of course others might mark his lift-off moment as Space Odyssey. Then again, was all of his work uncharacteristic in so far as his original purpose and early career was to be a quirky, comedy-style cabaret performer in the mould of Anthony Newley, and those 60s songs such as Uncle Arthur, Love Me Till Tuesday and the Laughing Gnome were the real Bowie? Such are the many musical issues we can debate this week.
So which chameleons, Corinthians, comedians and caricatures have wandered into the bar this week to discuss this topic? And where do “uncharacteristic songs” come from? Well, a few greats have drifted in and out. Bob Dylan, who has not been short of a few surprises for fans over the years, adds this. “Yeah well, Landlord, I change during the course of a day. I wake and I'm one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I'm somebody else. Yesterday's just a memory, tomorrow is never what it's supposed to be.”
Thanks Bob. No doubt more uncharacteristic moments from you to come. Your comments are not unlike David Bowie, who also said: “I feel confident imposing change on myself. It's a lot more fun progressing than looking back. That's why I need to throw curve balls.”
Curve balls are exactly what this week is all about. Who else likes to throw one? True artists of their genre, that’s who. Here’s the film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky, never afraid to try something new, nor worry about what others think: “Failure doesn't exist. It's only a change of direction.” And here’s Jimmy Dean: “I can't change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.” But if you’re changing direction, which way is it? The answer comes with an enigmatic figure propping up the bar. It’s the restless poet John Berryman: “Where next? We must travel in the direction of our fear.” So that’s perhaps why great artists have ‘uncharacteristic’ moments. They face their creative fears, of failure.
Meanwhile, another question to wrestle with is the relationships between public persona, style and song. Madonna, and later Lady Gaga, or example, have both excelled in managing an image through the media self-publicity with an extraordinary array of looks, videos and record sales, but have their songs changed, innovated and surprised their fans? And what moments in their careers, for example, have been uncharacteristic? The point here, as with all nominated songs, is these “different moments” don’t have to groundbreaking, innovative or original – although that is a bonus – but just entirely untypical of the artist in question.
But now let’s look at some specific examples, and with all your suggestions, it might be useful to contrast them with what may have been originally been expected. Perhaps the clearest way to define the uncharacteristic song is when an artist crosses from one genre into another, temporarily or permanently.
First, let’s touch on the relationship between pop and country, a transfer window that loses and gains fans in the millions. Here we may think of Shania Twain or Taylor Swift, but taking a reverse perspective, there was also Kenny Rogers. The masculine figure of country and folk wasn’t always that way. In the 1960s he was the long-haired hippie frontman of the psychedelic band First Edition, whose 1967 song retrospectively featured, and was rather wonderfully revived, in the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski, thus shining a light on Rogers’s earlier career.
So what condition was the condition that Kenny was in back then? Was he the original ‘Dude’? And was his country breakout period actually his true uncharacteristic moment?
This opens up more questions. When artists really hit their groove and gain success, is that the moment when they are confounding expectations, even though they were already established artists doing something that’s now lesser known? So were The Bee Gees always kings of the disco falsetto superhit? No. Their earlier work was nothing of the kind, they were more of a Beatles copycat crew. Wasn’t Iggy Pop once a blues drummer before he became the semi-naked strutting god of early punk? And weren’t the mega-selling pop group Fleetwood Mac once a bona fide blues band? And although it's bizarre to put them in the same bracket, didn't the tough man in black, Johnny Cash, only do Christian songs, as did the now pop superstar Katy Perry? Here's some evidence when she was Katy Hudson:
Bjork's singing style has always been full-voiced and charismatic, but her music has changed more than once. So what landmark, ‘uncharacteristic’ songs mark out her new territory since her days of fronting the all-girl punk Icelandic band Spit and Snot in 1979 before in 1980, forming a jazz fusion group called Exodus, then in 1986, becoming singer of the Sugarcubes until 1992? But as an aside, here's a really young Bjork exploring her television set:
Out of punk? But then into what? The Beastie Boys, for example, weren’t always hip-hop innovators. In the early 80s they were a thrash punk band. It took a very long time for this to evolve into Licensed to Ill and later Pauls' Boutique. So when was their uncharacteristic moment?
And, on a different score, Belinda Carlisle became one of power pop's most successful songwriters and solo artists, but check out this clip of her old band, the Go-Go’s, rehearsing in 1979.
Some artists have gone, not from, but later, towards punk. Meanwhile hip-hop artists have evolved and crossed into many genres. Jazz is perhaps one obvious moment, with the Blue Note catalogue giving several an opportunity. But who would have predicted that the streetwise and hardcore rapper Plan B would do an album, only his second, as a rather fine, and still young crooning soul singer in The Defamation of Strickland Banks?
Second album syndrome:
Here we can raise another area of discussion. Some second albums, following up from a successful first, tend to fail because the artists have run out of ideas, or because they have been pushed in the wrong direction, trying to replicate what they did the first time too quickly, or evolve too quickly. But for others, their second album was the moment they truly found their feet. Others though, perhaps tripped up on their platforms:
Was Radiohead's Pablo Honey a step in the right direction, or just a band fumbling for the right sound until The Bends came along? And what was Lana Del Ray AKA Lizzy Grant doing before she became famous with Born To Die in 2012? What were Blur when they released Leisure? Just another indie band? And what wave were The Pixies riding on with 1988’s Surfer Rosa before 1989's breakthrough Doolittle?
Yet changes of direction aren't alway positive, even though they may be successful. They could be seen to sell out into crass commercialisation, or end up meandering down embarrassing experimental avenues that are dead ends. But that all depends on your point of view. Whatever happened, for example, to Dizzee Rascal, that young hip-hop innovator, now descended into a world of Ibiza beats? The Black Eyed Peas and Fugees were both bona fide innovative hip-hop bands before, arguably, a commercial injection changed everything. And how did Snoop Dogg do as reggae artist Snoop Lion? Did he going down in a puff of smoke? And from folk, how did Joni Mitchell survive her own highly uncommercial jazz odyssey? Was it a classic uncharacteristic moment, or did it end up like Derek Smalls’ noodle bass number in This is Spinal Tap?
So then, this topic, as you can see, opens up as many questions as it does answers, depending on whether you’re a fan, when you first got to know an artist, and at what point in their career they changed. This week then, it’s time to share and discuss.
It gives me great pleasure to announced that this week’s chairman of the characteristic/ uncharacteristic, and guru of the genre-switch, is the excellent musical umpire Uncleben. So then place your songs and perspectives in comments below, for deadline called on Monday evening UK time, for Uncleben’s results and playlists published next Wednesday. But one thing is for sure, making superb song nominations and choices is never out of character for any Song Bar customer.
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