Music/Popular Culture

TunesDay: oh, how the mighty rock stars have fallen…

For some time – a few years, to be honest – I’ve been trying to imagine how some artists get better with age (or at least retain the level of energy and creativity they exhibited when they were younger), while others go completely to hell. Peter Gabriel, Graham Parker, Van Morrison, Don Dixon, John Hiatt (and even Bowie, to a lesser extent) – these are people you can still count on, even if you think that the old stuff was better. All of them have had high spots in recent years that at least nudge the 4-star mark, and you might justifiably nurture a sense that the next thing they release could turn out to be brilliant.

This column isn’t about those folks. No, this little list is dedicated to the First-to-Worst Club, a set of artists who once ruled, but somehow found a way to deteriorate as the years passed. In some cases – and these are the ones you’ll find at the top of the list – you have people or bands who went from legitimate greatness to breathtaking suckitude. In other cases you have people who simply lost their edge or were abandoned by their muse. They may not be forging new frontiers in suck, they’re just muddling along, mere shadows of their former selves.

So here it is – S&R’s Oh, How the Mighty Have Fallen list, with thanks to a few friends who contributed suggestions and pointed out artists I had somehow overlooked (or repressed, as the case may be….) The criteria are subjective, as always, but fairly simple – who soared the highest, then fell the lowest?

1. Elton John
Up until about 1976 or so – I tend to draw the line right after Rock of the Westies, but some people think the slide started earlier – Elton John was simply god. He and Bernie Taupin were an incredible songwriting team, one whose best work occasionally rivaled even that of Lennon and McCartney, and his concerts were the stuff of legend.

Now he cries himself to sleep every night over Princess Di. Poor sensitive little man. To his credit, he has admitted in interviews that he knows he’s sucked since the Ford administration, but so far this newfound self-awareness hasn’t produced a Goodbye Yellow Brick Road for the 21st Century.

I’m not holding my breath, either.

2. Sting
The gods help me, because The Police were one of the most amazing bands in the world, and they were hands-down my favorite band. Their white reggae innovations helped fuel the New Wave, which remains one of the most interesting little revolutions in the recent history of popular music, and they forged a sound that nobody, nobody, has ever quite been able to emulate. Now he’s devolved into, well, Sting®. His first three solo albums weren’t bad, but by the time Ten Summoner’s Tales rolled out you could smell the froot booty in the air. He teamed up with Rod Stewart and Bryan Adams in an ultimate Best2Worst Trifecta Moment to do that damned song for the Three Musketeers soundtrack, and if you weren’t convinced by then that the train had jumped the shark, all you had to do was pick up 1996’s Mercury Rising. Give that a listen, then get back to me.

3. Rod Stewart
At one time, Rod Stewart was rightly considered one of the best singers in all of rock, and he wasn’t a bad songwriter, either. He’d been in Long John Baldry’s band (something he has in common with Elton John, in fact, although Baldry now tells Rod Stewart jokes during his shows: what’s the difference between a bull and Rod Stewart? With the bull, the horns are up front and the asshole is in the back). Rod’s stint in the Jeff Beck Group was just unbelievably awesome. He was the singer for The Faces, a group that bands still imitate. And his early solo career was damned good, too, up until about 1977 or so.

Then something went horribly, tragically, epically wrong. In a nutshell, he seems to have grown more concerned with stardom and less concerned with creating music that was worth a fuck. Now he has legions of frustrated middle-aged housewives heaving their high-waisted XXL panties at him, and he seems to enjoy it.

More power to you, Rod. Of course, now we hear word that he and Beck are reuniting, and it’s hard to know what to think. Can Jeff set Rod at the top of the Best to Worst and Back to Best List, or can we look forward to Beck’s guitar work on “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”? Enquiring minds want to know cringe at the thought….

4. Beach Boys
Pet Sounds to “Kokomo.” “Good Vibrations” to “Wipeout” with the Fat Boys. The top of the creative world to the county fair circuit. I could go on forever, really, but it all boils down to this: Brian Wilson to Mike Love is about as best-to-worst as it gets, and Wilson’s solo work in recent years proves it.

5. Aerosmith
Then: Get Your Wings. Toys in the Attic. Rocks. Now: Steven Tyler sits beside the star of Gigli and dispenses wisdom on how to be a pop star to kids whose names you won’t remember three days after they’re voted off the island.

Maybe we should have smelled this coming when Steve and Joe Perry helped Run-DMC cover “Walk This Way.” I’m willing to let bygones by bygones if the four surviving members of EmbAerosmith evict Tyler and find another singer. In the meantime, they can suck on my big ten-inch…record of a band that plays the blues.

6. Jefferson Airplane/Starship
The Airplane was one of the most important and influential bands to emerge in the US during the ‘60s, and their legacy still endures despite the best efforts of goddamned Mickey Thomas and Craig Chaquico. I go to shows now and I hear echoes of Grace Slick in the oddest places, and sometimes I wonder if the artists working that vein are even aware of the debt they owe. But in the ‘70s the band started fragmenting, and Jefferson Airplane became Jefferson Starship (an iteration that had some decent moments, notably 1975’s Red Octopus), but then in the early ‘80s Paul Kantner left and, after some intense lawyering made sure that the “Jefferson” part of the name went with him, we were left with “Starship.” Kill me.

You might remember “We Built This City,” and if you saw them live on that tour you know that they both opened and closed the show with that masturbatory homage to the band they were pretending they still were. You also know that Chaquico had abandoned time-wasting activities like practicing in favor of posing, strutting, and prancing shirtless in front of his mirror (a strategy that drove the teenage girls wild, by the way). And you know that Grace, who was back on board, had been reduced more or less to Mickey’s backup singer (they did let her do “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love,” but only after the crowd was forced to endure a five-minute synthesizer intro wank).

If there’s a hell, Mickey Thomas is not only going there, he’ll be the music director.

7. Metallica
Hands-down the most important metal band of the ‘80s, and probably the second or third most important metal band ever after Zeppelin and/or Sabbath. Kill ‘Em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, and the black album – hell, did even Zep do four in a row that were that good?

But then James Hetfield’s contract with the devil expired. The aptly titled Load, then Reload, then St. Anger – and somehow they made time to become spokestools for the RIAA.

Pay Lars, indeed, but not for this crap….

8. Van Halen
There’s some argument here, so I’ll give you a choice. My take is that when they replaced Diamond Dave with Sammy Hagar they went straight to hell. Dave seemed to get the joke, whereas Sammy didn’t realize there was a joke.

Others thought Hagar was fine, and some believe, against all reason, that he was even better than Roth. So for those folks, we have a second option: when Hagar left and they replaced him with Gary Cherone, the band went straight to hell.

See, bipartisan compromise!

9. The Eagles
From Desperado, One of These Nights, and the landmark Hotel California to Hell Freezes Over…. The band seemed to have a pretty good idea after The Long Run that the gig was up, and had they had the sense to leave it alone they wouldn’t be on this list.

10. Chicago
Chicago had significant commercial success throughout its career, with chart albums in five straight decades. The critical value of their music was less consistent, however. Their early success was built on an inventive blending of styles, with the whole emerging as something decidedly larger than the sum of the parts.

But after Terry Kath’s death, the band devolved into the ass-creature from power-ballad hell, and the head of the beast was Peter Cetera. Each effort was schmaltzier than the last (which took some doing) and after Cetera got too big for the band and moved on into solo suckdom, Chicago reacted by…finding a guy who sounded like Cetera so they could keep flogging the formula.

Sad, sad….

11. Bryan Adams
I heard Adams’ Cuts Like a Knife and thought, damn, this boy has got something. Unfortunately, that something turned out to be a smoldering desire to be Michael Bolton.

12. The Bee Gees
This is less about the successes that the band once attained (which were noteworthy, if not the stuff of legend) than it is the unspeakable depths they plumbed as the house band for the disco era. Many bands have soared higher, but none have sunk lower.

13. The Rolling Stones
No questioning the “heights soared to” part of the equation, is there? The Stones are one of the greatest bands in rock & roll history. But when was the last time they were relevant? Tattoo You in 1981? Some Girls in 1978? Exile on Main Street in 1972?

Been a long, long time since they did anything that enhanced their legacy, hasn’t it?

14. Bruce Springsteen
I don’t think that Bruce has stopped trying, but like the Stones, it’s been a while since he added significantly to the case for his greatness. Up through Born in the USA he could do no wrong, but then he got married, got divorced, dismissed the E Street Band, got married again, and since then he hasn’t done anything much to get excited about except The Ghost of Tom Joad (you liked The Rising? Go back and give Born to Run a spin and be honest with yourself).

I remember the line from “Dancing in the Dark” – “I’m just about starving tonight.” Right, but he’s not starving anymore, and it shows. With his second marriage he found happiness, apparently, and for some artists, happiness kills their muse. I think Bruce might be one of those people.

15. REM
With every new REM release, I keep hoping for another lightning strike, while expecting it less and less. Through the ‘80s they released six studio albums (plus the Chronic Town EP), and the worst effort in the bunch was Green. Green was an okay enough record, even though it clearly didn’t measure up to their previous work on any standard except sales. This was followed by Out of Time, another likeable effort that nonetheless didn’t quite stand up to the earlier work.

But then out of nowhere we got Automatic for the People, an absolute masterpiece and easily one of the top CDs of the decade (it was #3 on the Lullaby Pit Best CDs of the ‘90s list, in fact). So based on that comeback, I’ve held out hope for the last 18 years that they have another great record in them. And they still may – a lot of people thought 2008’s Accelerate was their best since Automatic, and it may have been the best since.

There’s a new CD on the way next month, and the tracks I have heard from it so far give me hope that we can finally get one of America’s greatest bands ever off this infernal list.

16. Pearl Jam
Actually, it didn’t take the mighty very long to start falling in this case. Ten, the debut release, was #8 on the Pit’s Best CDs of the ‘90s list and the two follow-ups were defensible efforts. Then they just jumped off a cliff, quality-wise.

I respect that they’re doing what they want to do and they’ll never be on anybody’s top sell-outs list, but sadly, artistic integrity and suck are not mutually exclusive concepts.

17. Duran Duran
This entry may seem pointless, depending on how you feel about DD. For my part, I thought they stroking along pretty well up until they split to do the Power Station and Arcadia projects. Basically, the first three Duran Duran records were pretty darned solid. Then they put it back together after their little hiatus and produced Notorious, and that was about that.

What’s eerie, though, is listening to the band talk about it. They said in an interview that they felt those first three records weren’t very good, that they were too consumed by the demands of style at the time (and by this, I assume they’re implicating the whole MTV thing), and that the newer stuff (speaking here of Notorious, as I recall) represented far better music on their part.

Hunh. So the failing with Duran Duran, then, we might chalk up to a complete loss of self-awareness.

18. Phil Collins
From Abacab to No Jacket Required to crooning loves songs for Disney. Sigh….

A Special Case

John Lennon and Paul McCartney
They were so unbelievably good that I might ought to just leave it alone, but I can’t. McCartney is trying, I think, and Lennon was certainly trying, but the primary achievement of their solo careers was/has been to prove how desperately they needed each other. Lennon by himself was a self-indulgent pseudo-intellectual whose more, umm, introspective moments would bore the tits off a brass hog. Yes, he had some fantastic high spots – “Imagine” springs to mind – but they were the exceptions, not the rule.

Macca, on the other hand, was substantively about an inch deep. All he really wanted was to hear the screams of little girls wetting their panties, and if he had to afflict us with “Coming Up” to do it, so be it. Like John, he had his moments – some of the Wings-era records, for instance, were just fantastic (I’ve always loved Band on the Run from start to finish), but after a while he just quit pretending. (Although, I have to admit that I really did like “Dance Tonight.”)

Together, they mitigated each others’ weaknesses. Paul injected some fun into Lennon’s navel-contemplation, and John kept Paul’s dingy butt from flapping mindlessly off into the ether. It was a classic case – the classic case – of one plus one equals a million, music’s ultimate collaboration.

But compare either of their solo careers to their Beatles output, and even the most rabid fan has to admit that there was something of a drop-off….

Categories: Music/Popular Culture

29 replies »

  1. The Van Halen i knew and loved ended with what’s-his-face (1984 wasn’t bad but it certainly showed the slide into pop instead of Aquanet Rock). Anyone who claims they got better with Hagar is a Communist.

    I don’t even count the Black Album as real Metallica, and when i found out that they stopped putting Am I Evil on Kill ’em All they became dead to me.

    It was funny to see Jagger dressed up in a shiny jacket and old-man orthopedic shows in order to absolutely ruin “Someone to Love” at the Grammys.

    Speaking of those. WTF? It was like half country music. The redneckification of America not only continues but appears to have toppled into decadence. Nashville hipsters? Granted, that pretty much busts the irony-meter but still….

  2. Too many musicians either never were aware or forgot that, as a form of rebellion, rock ‘n roll is not just a lifestyle, but a political or existential statement.

  3. Your scholarship is lacking in accuracy … JEFFERSON STARSHIP founded by PAUL KANTNER continues with vitality … performing opera, symphony, the authorized Woodstock retrospective at Bethel Woods … 1,500 concerts in 21 countries over the last 20 years. Perhaps you have confused this with Mickey Starship or Cobra Starship?

    • My scholarship is fine. You just need to read closer. I know what Paul did. But he left at one point and took the name with him, leaving Mickey with just Starship. Airplane was great. JS had some great moments. Starship sucked. And best of luck to PK in whatever incarnation he’s playing with now.

      I’m not at all sure how you got confused. I’ve never said a bad word about Paul Kantner in my life.

  4. Elton John is still a favorite whipping boy for those rock critics who, despite the motto at the top of your page, don’t spend much time thinking, or doing their homework.
    One: Elton never said that he hasn’t put out anything good since the Ford Administration. Nor has he said that he hasn’t put out anything good since the 70s. The closest he has ever gotten to such a bogus acknowledgment is characterizing the first five years of his career as a “purple patch” which would be hard to recapture.
    Two: In fact, Elton’s output of the last decade has been acclaimed, not reviled, by critics. And Elton is justifiably proud of it. Songs from the West Coast (2001), Peachtree Road (2004), The Captain and the Kid (2006), and his recent collaboration with Leon Russell, The Union (2010), have all been lauded as a return to form. The Union even earned a five-star review from Rolling Stone magazine. True, the first three albums of the decade did not do that well commercially, but I’m sure you would agree that commercial success has little to do with artistic merit.
    Three: I would argue that Elton is among those rock stars, some of whom you listed at the beginning of your column, who has improved with age. This is a matter of opinion, of course, but if you consider the quality of his recent studio albums; his compositions for stage and screen (including Billy Elliot: the Musical, which has been hailed as one of the best musicals ever staged in London’s West End and on Broadway); and the variety of concert formats he offers fans – including with band, with orchestra, with just his piano and a percussionist, and with his piano only – it’s hard to fault him for his versatility and ambition.
    If you don’t like Elton, that’s your prerogative, but how about being a little more original in your criticisms? Or more informed? Or not relying on the default position of lazy rock critics by pointing with disdain at Elton John? One might surmise that you haven’t had an original thought since the Ford Administration yourself.

  5. When it comes to music, it is one thing to have an opinion and another to attack for whatever reason you may have for disliking someone. I can agree with some on the list, but your first choice is so far off you come across immediately as an uninformed biggot. Re-read what Liz said above for Facts. Sting also should not be on this list. Rod Stewart?? Hell Yes!! 5 American Songbook Crap CD’s and more to come?? He should be #1, but he is “Crying” All the way to the bank…. Thats all for now, Good Day 😉

    • Attack for disliking someone? Seriously? Most of these bands and artists were among my FAVORITES. This is about divorcing the critical faculty from like and taste and rendering honest judgments, even where you’re treading on those you love.

  6. 01. suck
    02. suck
    03. really suck
    04. I figured the other Beach Boys would be playing with Brian.
    05. suck
    06. Starship is cool.
    07. Metallica, you broke my heart.
    08. suck
    09. Isn’t hell frozen over yet?
    10. suck
    11. Doesn’t count because he always sucked.
    12. Really? The you’re picking on the Bee Gees?
    13. Some people have earned the right to suck. The Stones are alive. That should be enough.
    14. Bruce was the “artist in residence” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland when I visited. He’s damn good. I’m not giving up on him yet. Dylan is still good, even if he can’t sing.
    15. Same as Bruce. Not giving up on them yet.
    16. suck
    17. Always sucked.
    18. Phil Collins is to Peter Gabriel as Clint Howard is to Ron Howard.

    Also, everyone peaks at some point. Love them for what they put on record and forgive them for cashing in on their legendary status. They’re just doing what they love. It’s like the senior PGA.

  7. I’d say the list is very accurate, with these few caveats:

    I would make the Jefferson Airplane to Starship #1. Surrealistic Pillow is one of the top 20 albums of all time. That 80s crap makes me physically ill.

    I’m not familiar enough with Metallica to give an informed opinion, but my brother-in-law loves St. Anger. Not that that means anything.

    I have to agree with Lex on Van Halen.

    Tattoo You and Some Girls are of equal value, so you either have to make the break before or go with Tattoo You. When I was in college the Stones came out with some lousy song that was getting lots of airplay. I kept complaining about how many great songs they had, yet they keep playing this thing that grates on my ears. No one seemed to listen.

    I don’t think Imagine was a high point, it’s drivel.

  8. I’d give Elton John a resounding “Meh” on his best day, so this is very much about taste. And like all matters of taste is debatable until it’s important to a person in the debate.

    So allow me to offend … Even when Sir Elton was at the top of his game, there were multiple handfuls of people/groups putting out much, much better music. So perhaps he hasn’t fallen as far as some on the list, but it’s like they say about tumbling from a curb vs. a fourth story window.

    I’m right, and i know i’m right because i know what i like. Disagree if you want, but you’re wrong.

  9. I wonder how many on this list started falling when they quit doing all the drugs they could find, drinking themselves to death, and/or fucking everything in a ten foot radius?

    The correlation between rock godliness and outright debauchery is too strong to ignore. I’m not suggesting that debauchery causes rock godliness, but lack of it (or indulgence beyond even rock extremes) could well cause the fall.

    And the only counter-example i can think of is Zappa, but he was straight from day one and a weird dude/actual genius so quite likely the exception that proves the rule.

  10. @Lex well if you thought Elton was Meh on his best day, he wouldn’t fit on this list at all for you, since the premise is ‘mighty’ and ‘fallen’. Maybe if it was the “meh to blech” list, he’d make it for you? 🙂

    @Sam & everyone

    I think Liz has done the best work here of anyone. Sure she cites Rolling Stone, a less than compelling source, but clearly implicating Rolling Stone in the company of others. She’s absolutely right, too. To place Elton at the top of the list, as if representing the greatest offender, is such a misread of his career. If you’re going to say that even Elton has called out his entire post 70’s catalog as shite, you’d do well to present SOME credible evidence on the point. If you have a reference for this claim, I’d love to see that.

    I think Liz mentions many good albums, and frankly ignoring 1983’s “Too Low for Zero” which was both a strong album and yielded multiple hits, is a telling exception. Liz’s description of his more recent output is a spot on and those instances are all truly fine albums.

    Elton performed here in Oregon recently and while he played many of his hits (including songs from “Too Low for Zero”), he also played several tracks off his recent collaboration with Leon Russell. There was not a whiff that he felt he should apologize for these tracks and frankly they stood up capably to a set list populated mostly with hits. He was a remarkable performer (this was the 3rd time I’ve seen him) and played for a full three hours.

    I could spend a similar spell talking about the Bee Gees output, and again thought your assessment was far too cursory, and far too simplistic.

    Rather, I’d argue that the Springsteen portion seems woefully underpowered. Springsteen was the first concert I ever attended and I’ve seen him a dozen plus times. That said, your description seemed to ignore so much of the post-“Born in the USA” output. I found myself quite lukewarm over much of the 90’s output, including your prized “The Ghost of Tom Joad” which offered a couple of excellent tunes, but never quite cohered into a great album to these ears. I thought “The Rising” was a strong album, but of all of his albums, feels the MOST dated and singularly tied to the events which so clearly inspired it. On the other hand, I think “Magic” is one of the finest records of his career. I think it’s a very adult evocation of the themes Bruce has worked in since the Darkness era and it’s a beautiful mix of joyous R’n’R with heartripping betrayal of shattered dreams, that dream of being a truly great nation. It took me a few turns to warm to this album, as Brendan O’Brien’s production is a bit too antiseptic to my ears, but once the songs on “Magic” take hold, you know you’re listening to an artist who is both utterly relevant and still at the top of his game.

    Finally, please tell me a recent album that Van Morrison did that was truly good? He’s one I gave up on about 10 years ago. Much of the 80s and early 90s output were still fine.

    • Re: Elton: I wish I could find it, but a few years back I saw an EJ interview where he kind of lamented some things. I’m trying to remember the context, but he was ranking on some current pop stars a bit, I believe, and acknowledged that his work had been underwhelming for a long time. The words in this post are mine, and I’m being harsh, but the original acknowledgment came from him. I’m sure he’d agree more with you guys than he would me on the whole, but hey, everybody is entitled to their supporters.

  11. Agreed on nearly all of these. In fact, I’d say quite a few were never very good to begin with. The Eagles? Duran Duran? My God, Chicago? Pah. Some had their moments, and one or two more than that. The Stones were a great band, really, and put out some of the best music of the period, but it fell apart after Mick Taylor left, presumably because he was tired of watching his bandmates brazenly steal from other musicians they were working with. On the other hand, I’ve always felt that the Beach Boys were hugely over-rated, although I do like Surf’s Up.

    Josh, good list.

    That said, the great thing about rock and roll is that’s it’s forgiving. For example, after decades of wasting his prodigious talent, Elton John finally came through, even though it took Leon Russell to make him do it. But that’s what happens sometimes. And Robert Plant finally gave up the dross and instead starting doing what he loves, singing folk and bluegrass, and that seems to be going along wonderfully.So maybe there’s hope for Springtsteen–he just needs to pull a Mellencamp.

    And Andy Summers has always been a much more interesting musician than Sting.

  12. I have a few closing comments for Samuel Smith. Yes, I noted that Rolling Stone gave the Elton John/Leon Russell album, The Union, five stars. No, I didn’t mean to suggest that that by itself demonstrates that Elton has, indeed, aged well. It was just an example of a trend among critics. It’s telling that you have no specifics for your claim that Elton John experienced a complete fall from artistic grace post-1975. In particular, you have not shown any familiarity with one bit of Elton’s recent output,which is the only way you could make the specious, sweeping generalization you did. You can dislike Elton’s old stuff, or you can dismiss his new stuff, but you can’t say you dislike something that you haven’t heard.
    Finally, it’s worth pointing out that Elton John is a musician’s musician. Ask just about anybody in the business and you will find that he is held in the highest regard, and not just because of his early recordings. That’s because they know what it takes!

  13. And for Wufnik – just a point of information. It was Elton John’s idea to do the album with Leon Russell, not the other way around. It was also Elton’s idea to recruit T-Bone Burnett as producer of the project.

  14. Jeez, all those bands and we’re stuck talking about Elton John who sucked at his peak and probably still sucks. I mean, maybe his new stuff is great but i have no interest in finding out. I have even less interest after reading the bleating from the Elton John fan club.

  15. I’ve always had a theory that Sir Paul wrote lyrics that were intentionally bad, just to see if anyone would notice. Uncle Albert? What the hell was that all about?

  16. Thank You Liz for stating your comments so well. Elton has sounded the best he has in years, his last 4 albums are some of the best that anyone has put out in years. go listen to Songs From the West Coast, Peachtree Road, Captain and the Kid, and The Union with Leon Russell! and Yes it was Eltons idea to team up with Leon! I’m glad he did because I love Leon know, I didn’t know much about his music before but I’m loving it now!

  17. RE: The Beach Boys…The real situation there is not Brian Wilson but the loss of Carl Wilson as he was the soul of the band during the dark days when Brian was in bed. He kept the band together plus he wanted to expand into other areas of music but Mike Love just wanted to be a hit machine. That’s why Brian doesn’t want anything to do with him.