Today I take up a question of pop-culture history: which performers made the most unexpected left turns with their careers?  I farmed this question out awhile back to readers of this blog, and today I start filing the results based on my own subjective assessment.  Debate and criticisms are welcome in the comment section (or, better yet, on your own blog).

First, a word about the underlying concept of career reinvention and subsequent criteria for nomination.  The history of pop culture is punctuated with episodes of artists or bands embracing a radical change of approach — an unpredictable dynamic that destabilizes the conservative, mass-production trajectory that the music industry typically prefers.  In the era of the pop group, the most common way this happens is that bands break up so that members can pursue solo careers or (less often) form new groups.   Sometimes this pays off big time, but more often it doesn’t, with the worst outcome being the diminishing of the original group’s commercial momentum to something approaching one-hit wonder status.

Performers with solo careers to begin with typically have a higher road to climb: their commercial legacies are intertwined with their personal names, which audiences and industry alike come to associate with particular styles or sounds.  Thus, a solo artist’s career reinvention makes for exciting moments of pop-music drama, as artistic or commercial success requires creative vision and strength of character.  A group’s reinvention under the same group name is maybe even more difficult to pull off, since it further requires coordinating multiple egos — a task often achieved by sacking members or taking on outside collaborators.

Of course, by now radical reinvention is something of a (post)modern norm in pop music, thanks to such visible examples as Bob Dylan, David Bowie, and Madonna.  While these episodes seem to illustrate radical reinvention in the short term — recall the mass hysteria that accompanied the “death” of Ziggy Stardust — over the longer haul subsequent reinventions paint a different picture: the artist as restless explorer or (more pejoratively) stylistic chameleon.  That this view of creativity has become something of a cliché is its own significant achievement, but for the successful artist or group it no longer constitutes the career cleavage I have in mind here — continual left-turns making for something like a straight line after awhile.

Thus, the criteria for “career reinvention” and eligibility for inclusion here are:

  • This change is sustained within the same career, i.e., under the same solo or group identity.
  • So, no reformation of Joy Division into New Order, Uncle Tupelo into Wilco, etc.
  • No launching of solo careers out of a group’s break-up: no Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Bjork et al.
  • And (this is obviously easier stated than observed) based around a single reinvention that cleaves a career into two recognizable periods, an obvious before-and-after.

Sidebar: what does this have to do with musical urbanism?

And now… a very subjective survey of the 50 greatest musical career reinventions.  Let’s begin at the end:


50. King Crimson

The group is almost ineligible from this poll because with hindsight King Crimson’s career has settled into a pattern of extended hiatus followed by reformed activity.  But they surprised everyone the first time they did this — at least everyone who paid attention — in 1981.  In 1974 guitarist/leader Robert Fripp brought King Crimson to a halt in a remarkable display of musical integrity, realizing he wanted nothing more to do with the progressive rock milieu that they came from.  And that was it; the prog-rock giants were a dead issue for six years.

In the interim, Fripp pursued solo work, collaborated with Brian Eno, worked on Eno’s projects with David Bowie and Talking Heads, and most importantly observed the arrival of punk and new wave.  Mark II King Crimson were not a new wave band, but the influence of the Police on their astonishing album Discipline is undeniable: a lean, sinewy sound dedicated to compositional minimalism and harmonic nuance.  New members Adrian Belew and Tony Levin (both Americans) brought several new tricks to the band, while Fripp and drummer Bill Bruford deleted many of the group’s old habits.


49. Tim Buckley

A singer-songwriter originating from the Southern California circuit of the late 1960s, Buckley’s early albums are pleasant but rather tepid.  His songwriting chops are evident, his voice is remarkable, and he incorporated elements of coffee-shop jazz in some interesting ways, but nothing seemed to be happening for Buckley, despite the odd endorsement of Frank Zappa and the Monkees.  Maybe he thought he had little to lose, because starting with 1970’s Starsailor Buckley threw out the milquetoast elements of his earlier work and recorded several albums of highly charged, still bracing music that fuses folk rock with free jazz and (especially by Greetings from L.A.) funk.

It’s an unfair comparison, but if the son Jeff Buckley (who in fact never knew his father) arguably made a superior album, he still never exposed himself emotionally to the same extent that Tim did.


48. Rod Stewart

The epitome of rock’n’roll career shift as sell-out — not even Elton John fell as far as Rod Stewart.  And all because his 70s work with the Faces as well as those first few solo albums was so great!  If anything, punk rock’s rejection of all the old rock dinosaurs gave Rod a relative pass, because his lapse of musical integrity into wince-worthy rock and pop (almost all coinciding with years spent in Los Angeles as a tax exile) exceeded anything achieved by his 70s rock contemporaries.  Does it matter if “If Ya Think I’m Sexy” or “Infatuation” are kind of okay, or if millions of fans still buy whatever Motown covers album he releases?  I say not, although Rob Sheffield (in Turn Around Bright Eyes) might persuade me otherwise:

So maybe this is all a reason to see Rod as a case of betrayed principles.  He should have quit while he still had some dignity  Maybe he’s an argument that rock starts should have mandatory early retirement.  But what can I say?  I love Rod because I hate dignity.  I do not believe rock stars should retire gracefully.  I believe in milking it, running it into the ground, flogging the dead horse.


47. Ted Nugent

The epitome of career reinvention via political demagoguery, the likes of which Pink Floyd’s The Wall could only hint at.  The Nuge still tours and releases an occasional new album, the cover photos and song titles of which reveal continuity with the 70s Nuge we all remember on classic rock radio.  But Ted Nugent makes the compelling case that the only way to sustain the cultural jolt of his Motor City Madman years was to move entirely into a new occupation, that of right-wing reality TV star.  Only supreme douchebag Gene Simmons comes close, and the Nuge beat him to reality TV by about three years.  I don’t suppose any of the militia schtick, anti-animal rights advocacy or casual racism is an act for Nugent, but the journey in weltanschauung from “Wang Dang Sweet Pootang” to suggesting the President “suck on my machine gun” is one we ignore at our peril.


46. ZZ Top

We’re really burning through 70s rock at this point in the list, aren’t we?  ZZ Top produced deathless hard rock with a Texas swing that none of their southern contemporaries could manage.  Their songs about vice, those cryptic lyrical references, and their hirsuteness may have appealed to the masses in the 1970s, but who would have thought that, of all the rock bands comprised of ugly guys with guitars, ZZ Top would be the ones to make an evidently effortless transition to the MTV era?  Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers did as well, but ZZ Top showed special genius in distilling and visualizing their schtick for the new format.  And they’ve shown continual savvy for sartorial self-presentation and lifestyle branding ever since.  Someone get these guys a cable cooking show!


45. Tony Bennett

Anthony Bennutto began his recording career hemmed in by industry standards.  No doubt signed as another Italian popstar in the young Frank Sinatra mold, he fell under the influence of producer Mitch Miller, who remolded him into an even blander Perry Como imitator.  The 1951 single “Cold, Cold Heart” (the Hank Williams song) merits historical interest as an early effort at mainstreaming country music, but otherwise it makes for an embarrassing listen.  Bennett’s evolution into jazz vocalist and beloved figure was steady if slow, transpiring largely under the pop culture radar; 1975’s Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album provides evidence of his appreciation of the genre’s demands and innovators.

If anything, Bennett’s transformation into bona fide icon with 1994’s MTV Unplugged broadcast is a bit of a red herring.  Yes, this was the space that he was supposed to occupy at the beginning of his career, but originally that was envisioned on terms other than his own.  The more significant reinvention is his earlier pursuit of jazz — not all that rarified a muse for his generation, but his focus on the less popular small-combo format in order to suit his style of intimate singing remains an admirable episode of career redefinition.


44. Shakira

Columbia’s Shakira has always had Lebanese sounds and belly dancing in her repertoire, but her recording career originally came to prominence for presenting roc en español’s own Alanis Morissette.  Fans on both sides of the U.S. border embraced her for her moody, slightly goth demeanor and earnest, slightly goofy lyrics; few might have expected the blonde bombshell associated with “Hips Don’t Lie” and The Voice today.  Perhaps cries of “sell out” still ring out in Spanish, but Shakira’s transformation into the biggest Spanish-language female crossover popstar is complete and undeniable.


43. Simple Minds

I plead guilty: my obsession with the early, postpunk era of Simple Minds on this blog is well documented.  They wind up on this list for the well-known conclusion of that period: their reinvention into the flashy 80s rock band remembered from the “Breakfast Club” soundtrack and Live Aid.  The irony is that most American fans won’t recognize that this band represents a reinvention, so lost to the ages is their early work (particularly before New Gold Dream), while those who remember that period are often likely to disown what came before.  But you know that now, don’t you?

Here, let’s recognize some forgotten accomplishments of post-1984 Simple Minds.  For a brief year or two they were U2’s rivals on the European festival circuit, plying an echoing, un-bluesy style of stadium rock that nudged Bono et al away from the plodding, Alarm-ing rock heard on War toward more postpunk directions.  U2 found Brian Eno while Simple Minds found Jimmy Iovine.  If the former collaboration eclipsed the latter one artistically speaking, nonetheless Simple Minds helped Iovine along a path away from the American rock of Petty and Springsteen toward an “alternative” style that his later role as Interscope Records CEO encompassed further.


42. Gary Numan

Gary Webb was just a third-rate punk rocker at the tail end of Britain’s punk explosion when indie label Beggars Banquet sent him into the studio to lay the Tubeway Army’s set down on tape.  That’s not exactly what you hear on their debut album; synth tones are already texturing this “pseudo-electronic punk album.”  But Numan’s discovery of the minimoog synthesizer at the recording studio remains one of the most fateful meetings of man and machine in pop music history, surpassed only by Eno’s or Kraftwerk’s, auguring his nominal reinvention as Gary Numan.

It would be an overstatement to say that new electronic music that Numan refined over his next two albums (Tubeway Army’s Replicas and his solo debut The Pleasure Principle) set in motion the development of British electronic music proper.  The Human League, the Normal, and many other electronic acts had already released milestone recordings.  But Numan was the first to take the music to the top of the charts (with 1979’s “Are Friends ‘Electric’?”), and the “Numanoids” that he inspired were a notable, if now largely forgotten, subculture in post-punk England.


41. Underworld

Originally Underworld looked like a weak imitation of Sigue Sigue Sputnik, playing a music only a little less derivative than that would suggest.  Well, scratch that — originally Underworld were Freur, the British band with the odd 1983 hit “Doot Doot.”  (Yes, yes, previous bands fall out of the domain under consideration here… but what a band photo, huh??)  Five years later, their prospects as Underworld seemed to be fizzling when founders Karl Hyde and Rick Smith added a third member, rave DJ Darren Emerson, and renamed themselves…  Lemon Interrupt.


Karl Hyde, Rick Smith, and the other members of Freur.

This still-inauspicious origin story finally became auspicious after the group revived the Underworld moniker, signed to dance labels Junior Boys’ Own (in the UK) and Wax Trax! (in the U.S.), and released 1993’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman, one of the essential albums in UK rave’s ascent from illegal gatherings to music festivals.  With the “Born Slippy” single’s inclusion on the “Trainspotting” soundtrack, Underworld were placed at the forefront (along with Aphex Twin, the Orb, the Orbital and a host of junglists) at what was then being peddled as electronica, but what today we might recognize as the commercial origins of electronic dance music.