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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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