Arts/Literature

TunesDay: obscurity and influence

Who are the most influential bands and artists in the history of rock? Well, start with The Beatles and Elvis, I guess, and for good reason. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, The Stones, of course, The Who and David Bowie. The big names. All of them signed their names on our culture with a fat permanent marker, and in doing so insured that just about all future artists would have to navigate their legacies in one way or another.

The funny thing, though, is just how influential some far, far lesser known artists became. Many people have heard of Velvet Underground, although comparatively few have actually listened to them, but if you factor VU’s overwhelming influence out of our collective cultural history would we have had Bauhaus, Echo & the Bunnymen, Lenny Kravitz, Sonic Youth, Jesus & Mary Chain (and subsequently Black Rebel Motorcycle Club), Galaxie 500 (and the army of bands that followed their lead) and REM?

How about Big Star? I’d wager that not many contemporary listeners have even heard the name, but their influence on a generation of guitar pop musicians is just about impossible to calculate. Put it this way – if you hopped in a time machine, went back to Memphis in the early ’50s and erased Alex Chilton from the ranks of the living, when you got back to 2008 almost nothing would sound the way it did before you left.

Influence is a funny thing. Huge artists can leave almost no footprint for future acts to follow and relatively obscure bands can change the audial landscape forever. Which leads me to another band that a lot of people these days don’t know: Joy Division. Sure, everybody’s heard New Order, which in 1987 released Substance, arguably the greatest dance album ever. But before New Order was Joy Division, which featured the guys in New Order plus their creative leader, Ian Curtis. JD was interested in expanding the sound of punk, and it embraced a range of dark, melancholy tones that served to comment on the bleakness of European industrial life in the ’70s.

In May of 1980 Curtis committed suicide. There’s no way of knowing how big Joy Division might have been commercially, and until the last couple of years I couldn’t have imagined how great their artistic influence would be. But all of a sudden, over 25 years later, there’s been an explosion of new acts that are clearly beholden to Curtis’ brooding legacy of despair. Interpol and The Killers are easily the best of the lot (The Killers cover “Shadowplay” live and on their recent B-Sides collection), and if they were the only examples we could dismiss the Joy Division Effect easily enough. But the truth is that we’re seeing a significant movement within “indie” rock that simply wouldn’t exist without the influence of band that barely lived long enough to get off the ground and that died before Reagan was elected.

So today, in our inaugural TunesDay, we pay tribute to all those bands out there – the JDs, the VUs, and the Big Stars – whose vision exerted an impact on the world of music that far exceeded their individual commercial successes. Here’s Joy Division with their video for “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

Here Interpol performs “Slow Hands.”

The Killers’ reverence for JD is evident in this homage.

She Wants Revenge is a lot of fun, but at times they’re almost a tribute band.

Then there’s Editors, whose An End Has A Start was one of my Gold Award CDs for last year.

And The Mary Onettes…

And finally, “1981” by The Flaws.

We’ll conclude with a Rock 101 exam question: Enduring artistic influence is better than commercial success or critical acclaim. Discuss.

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

16 replies »

  1. I think your reaction says a lot about the whole string from JD to now, Elaine. The last two are the most accessible, and JD wasn’t ever going to have a string of Top 40 hits, I don’t think. It sort of forces me to contemplate, as I often do, the difference between what I like and what I think is great (and to lament that my heart and head aren’t in better alignment….) 🙂

  2. Not at all. The Beatles were one of the most accessible bands in history, and my CD collection is chock full of accessible. It’s just interesting how sometimes very successful commercial bands owe so much to bands that never attracted much of an audience.

  3. I understand that. I wish more obscure influences could attain the commercial success of those they influence. It isn’t good to be hungry all the time.

  4. The JD stuff is nice, and I wouldn’t argue the power of their influence even if I thought I could. But it would have been nice to see a Velvet Underground and Big Star video among all these dance bands… After all, not all of us find the JD/NO legacy our cup of tea…

  5. It’s particularly interesting reading this post on the heels of your post on Impressionism and rebellion. I would argue that most of the influential bands you mention, Joy Division in particular, became influential precisely because they didn’t train with masters or learn from extensive copying. They figured out their own ways of playing their instruments and constructing their songs.

    Of the bands that have influenced me in adulthood, most have struck me because I couldn’t immediately figure out what they were doing. Their techniques, sound choices, and arrangements were all so unorthodox that I couldn’t help but be blown away by their uniqueness. I’m sure that most of them grew up on pop and rock music, but there was just that general intuitive connection rather than a long, consciously studied approach.

  6. Yes, but I never said that influence was necessarily a linear thing. I’m not sure how many people would listen to your music and infer your worship of The Church, for instance.

  7. Hmm, not really my cup of musical tea; however, the concept of lesser known bands being more musically influential than very popular bands is interesting. I have to think that we need to divide the types of influence into two categories. The Who certainly had more direct, cultural influence than Joy Division. But an up and coming band can’t make themselves sound like The Who because everyone will say, “pretty cool, you guys sound just like The Who.”

    So they find their influence outside the biggest names. Of course, we have to take into account that they are all musicians. Musicians dig for music that isn’t on the radio, not for influence, but because they love music. Howlin’ Wolf wasn’t exactly a superstar when the Rolling Stones were influenced by him; in fact, they probably made him a superstar. Frank Zappa used to talk bad smack about classical music, but its easy to see its influence on his composing.

    It’s hard to be completely original, but it is good enough to find lesser known influences and blend them with your own ideas. It sounds original enough, and then there’s the bonus of finding the influences of your favorite bands…and realizing that there’s even more good music out there that you didn’t even know about.

  8. It’s not exactly in the rock genre, but a number of songwriters have had quite an impact on music without the commercial success of their own recordings. Townes Van Zandt may be one of the best examples of an artist influencing future generations.

  9. “Yes, but I never said that influence was necessarily a linear thing. I’m not sure how many people would listen to your music and infer your worship of The Church, for instance.”

    Yeah, a lot of that though is just the age of the artist. Early influences for me were Click Click and Leather Strip. Magazines often compared our early material to Click Click and Leather Strip. You have copyists like me who spend years imitating. It took me years to find my own voice and sound. The influential ones find it right away because it never occurs to them to try to learn from others. Perhaps late bloomers like me could blossom into something special, but music is often a game for the young, at least commercially speaking.

  10. You think with all the different sounds and styles of music these bands incoporate they would try a different apporach to the way they sing the vocals. You could take vocals from on song and place it on another and no one would miss a beat. I’m going by the links you provided, not the ones you listed in paragraph 2, those are distinguishable. I’m not sure if the correct response was to laugh after I heard most of these songs, but it kinda did. It’s the one genere my band hasn’t covered, and it’s giving me some pretty fun ideas.