OK, given—One of the true joys of being a music critic is introducing people to bands and sounds that they may never have encountered, and sharing the guttural thrill of hearing new music. One of the most frustrating things about being an opinionated reader of music criticism is hearing lazy memes about bands and artists being regurgitated that marginalize and keep people from discovering great music… Dexys Midnight Runners were a one-hit wonder, Afghan Whigs were just a grunge band, the Move were just a pop band, Rod Stewart had 2.3 gallons of man-juice pumped out of his stomach, etc.
Today’s Top 5 is posted in defense of underrated bands. Obviously this is a subjective list, but it’s also a call to bring awareness of lazy critiques that dismiss a band as pop (so … was … every band) or a one-hit-wonder (plenty of great bands were no-hit wonders) or something of the like as a legitimate criticism. I have selected artists that have had their day in the court of pop culture over-analysis and been given a bum sentence. Therefore, bands that are a little too obscure, either new (like my pals Mahjongg) or old (like any foreign musician that no one’s heard of) aren’t on the list.
05. Blue Öyster Cult
The BÖC have wedged a place in hipster/frat boy culture through the admittedly hilarious Will Ferrell/Christopher Walken “More Cowbell” sketch, and I’m sure it’s given a bounce to the band’s never-ending county fair touring schedule that guitarist Buck Dharma and co. probably don’t mind. But if the band gives a whit about its deserved place in rock history, it should stop feeding into the stereotype that they were just another goofy and wacky ’70s band whose musical worth extended as far as their bass-player’s mutton chops.
BÖC were, in their heyday and before their biggest pop moments (“Don’t Fear the Reaper”, “Godzilla”, “Burnin’ for You”), a tremendously gifted group of players whose associations with various writers and poets (Richard Meltzer, Patti Smith, and Michael Moorcock) helped create one of the most singular lyrical worlds in all of rock, filled with hellbound bikers, drug-addled teen killers, extra-terrestrials, Nazis and vampires. They also just had some of the plain coolest song titles ever: “7 Screaming Diz-Busters”, “Flaming Telepaths”, “Veteran of the Psychic Wars” and “Mistress of the Salmon Salt (Quicklime Girl)” are just a few of my faves.
The three-guitar assault of Buck Dharma, Eric Bloom and Allen Lanier influenced both punk and metal in the ’80s, which explains why bands as diverse as Metallica, Mötorhead, Radio Birdman and the Minutemen are all outspoken fans. The band also was the first to pioneer the gratuitous umlaut!
Here’s a video of an early song, “Cities on Flame With Rock and Roll” that explains why the breezy “Don’t Fear the Reaper” was somewhat of an anomaly in the band’s discography:
And here’s a proto-punk blast from the same album as “Reaper” (Agents of Fortune), “This Ain’t the Summer of Love”:
Unfortunately, BÖC never made the truly outstanding album that critics could easily cling to and prop up—the band’s third album, Secret Treaties, comes close but has a bit of filler, and its breakthrough fourth album, Agents of Fortune, doesn’t have any bad songs on it per se, but it’s decidedly more posh than their defining earlier stuff.
Start with: Agents of Fortune (1976), then move on to BÖC’s self-titled debut (1972) and Secret Treaties (1974).
04. Teenage Bandwagon
It’s a shame that the band that holds the standard for power pop in the ’90s is Weezer, who released two great albums, a decent one and then went off the f***ing deep end. Because Teenage Bandwagon were clearly the best power pop band of the ’90s, and unlike their peers (Weezer, Sloan, Matthew Sweet), they’re still releasing great albums to this day.
The Fanclub started out modestly as one of a gallery of shoegaze bands (see “Every Picture I Paint” from their debut A Catholic Education, which I included on my mixtape last week) but by its masterful second album, Bandwagonesque, Teenage Fanclub had become capable of writing classic British Invasion-style pop tunes along with the burgeoning overgained guitar sound of grunge. Bandwagonesque retuned the pop geek chic of power pop for the slacker generation.
Since then, the band has stayed true to its roots, creating songs that wouldn’t sound out of place if they were on an album by the Turtles, the Hollies, the Byrds, Big Star, etc. It’s hard to pick some faves, but here’s a couple to give the beginner a taste …
From Bandwagonesque, “The Concept,” an epic track with delightfully glib lyrics and thrashing guitars:
A song curiously titled “Gene Clark” that would more fittingly be called “Neil Young”:
From their 2000 album Howdy!, “I Need Direction” is a pure blast of ’60s harmonies:
Start with: Bandwagonesque (1992), and then move on to Thirteen (1993) and Songs From Northern Britain (1997). TF is in desperate need of a compilation for the newbs, which may explain why the band has yet to be canonized.
03. Ian Hunter/Mott the Hoople
I, like many of my generation, was introduced to the name of Mott the Hoople by a tossed-off line in the song “Man On the Moon” by R.E.M., and until I heard the album Mott, I kind of just thought of them as one of the lesser early ’70s glam acts.
But clearly they were more than a glam act. In fact, they were like the Velvet Underground, David Bowie, T. Rex and every great late-’50s R&B track rolled into one—sly, urbane and crass, they performed winking-at-the-microphone songs about the rock and roll life propelled by muscular guitars and boogie-woogie inflected piano. At the center was lead singer Ian Hunter, who himself went on to an excellent but under-noticed solo career after the band’s dissolution.
Mott the Hoople was originally the brainchild of manic British producer Guy Stevens, who was looking to form a band that mixed the white boy blooz of the Rolling Stones with a Dylanesque lead singer. He pulled together a struggling band called Silence and a guy named Ian Hunter, who billed himself as a pianist/songwriter, but couldn’t actually play more than three chords on the piano. The band teetered on the brink of failure through the duration of its first four albums, which barely charted even in the UK. Mott was about to call it quits until it was convinced to record a fifth album by fan David Bowie (who had recently shifted his vocal style from a fey British music hall dandy to a rougher-hewn rocker very identical to Hunter).
Here’s an early pre-glam track, “Midnight Lady”:
The Bowie-produced album All the Young Dudes brought the band the fame it deserved, though it sadly didn’t last much longer. The group released its best album, Mott, as a followup, and soon after guitarist Mick Ralphs left to form the awful Bad Company. After recording the band’s seventh album, The Hoople, Hunter left the band to start his own career. He found some mild success in the wake of the punk explosion as a revered proto-punk godfather, releasing several classic albums such as All American Alien Boy and You’re Never Alone With a Schizophrenic (which featured Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band as backup).
From the last album with Hunter, The Hoople, “Roll Away the Stone”:
When The only Mott track that ever gets played on the radio in the States is “All the Young Dudes”, written by David Bowie (he asked the band to choose one of his recent compositions, they turned down “Suffragette City”, asked for “Drive-In Saturday”, and Bowie compromised with “All the Young Dudes”). It’s a shame, because so many of their songs are on par or better than tired singles by glam rockers like Queen and Kiss.
“Once Bitten Twice Shy”—Ian Hunter with Mick Ronson, from Hunter’s first self-titled solo album:
From All American Alien Boy, Ian Hunter with Freddie Mercury, “You Nearly Did Me In”:
Yep, it’s weird: Barry Manilow’s last US Top 10, “Ships,” hit was written by Ian Hunter and first appeared on Hunter’s You’re Never Alone With a Schizophrenic. Here’s a classy YouTube slideshow with audio:
Start with: Mott (1973), then check out Mad Shadows (1970) and All the Young Dudes (1972). As for Ian Hunter, his first four solo albums aren’t a bad purchase; they’re usually hanging out in record store bargain bins.
02. The Only Ones
The Soft Boys, Magazine, Young Marble Giants, The Slits, Gang of Four, the Undertones—what’s missing from this list of essential second-wave punk bands? The f****** Only Ones! The Only Ones are remembered (if they’re remembered at all) for their song “Another Girl, Another Planet,” arguably one of the greatest rock singles of all time, and certainly on par with “Teenage Kicks,” “Blank Generation,” “Born to Lose,” “Final Solution,” “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” and other great punk singles.
The Only Ones formed in 1976 after lead singer Peter Perrett, who had been kicking around demos recorded with various musicians (including future Squeeze leader Glen Tilbrook), hooked up with guitarist John Perry, bassist Alan Mair and drummer Mike Kellie (former drummer for Spooky Tooth, another great underrated British band). The first single the band released, “Lovers of Today”, is a classic that predicts the wiry alternative guitar rock of the ’80s. The band’s proto-slacker sound is attributable to Perry’s guitar work and Perrett’s slurred, drugged-out vocal delivery (Perrett was more like an NYC punk in that he was fond of heroin).
The lost classic “Lovers of Today”:
The problem with the Only Ones is that their discography is so scattershot—The Only Ones (1978), Even Serpents Shine (1979) and Special View (1979) are all basically repackages of the same songs. None of them are easily available in the States. A whole slew of artists, ranging from the Replacements to the Libertines to (shudder) Blink-182. But it’s clear that the band deserves a popular reappraisal.
“Out There In the Night”:
“You’ve Got to Pay”:
Start with: If you can track it down, Special View (1979) is the best of their first three albums. Their fourth album, Baby’s Got a Gun, is far from a classic, but still worth tracking down, as is their Peel Sessions album.
01. Roy Wood/The Move/Wizzard
I’ve written about the oft-repeated cliché about the Move here before: they’re the best British band that never made it in the States. But it really is true. The Move assaulted the British charts in 1967 with five top 10 singles. They really had the whole package—tight live show, three-part harmonies, and first-rate pop songwriting from leader Roy Wood.
And it was Roy Wood that made the band a truly extraordinary one, a band that fully deserves to be mentioned amongst the greats of the era—the Zombies, the Hollies, Moby Grape, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, etc. A common critical complaint against Wood is that he was never broke any ground stylistically. Although that is arguably true, Wood competently mastered a number of different styles throughout his career.
The first incarnation of the Move created some of the most playful songs of the psychedelic era—“Fire Brigade”, “Flowers in the Rain”, “Blackberry Way” (a response to the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields”). Wood was capable of the wry comic humor of John Lennon on songs like “Walk on the Water”, which told a darkly cautionary tale of drinking (or using some sort of other intoxicating substance) and driving.
Here’s an early clip of the Move performing its first single, “Night of Fear,” whose main riff was derived from Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (Wood is a big classical buff):
The Move underwent a number of stylistic changes and lineup shifts during the late ’60s and early ’70s. The Shazam album was praised highly in the pages of Rolling Stone, and the Move even appeared doing backup vocals on Jimi Hendrix’s Axis: Bold as Love, but the band failed to break in the U.S. largely because it never toured there. During this time, Wood recorded what would become his first solo album when it was finally released in 1973. It was a folky affair called Boulders, and played nearly all the instruments by himself.
Here’s a single from Boulders called “Nancy Sing Me a Song”:
In 1969, Jeff Lynne left his band the Idle Race to join the Move, and the band soon pared down to a threesome and released its best and final album, Message From the Country (of which I have previously blogged). Here’s the last single released by the band, “Do Ya,” later a hit for Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra:
And then, from an idea that Roy Wood had been working on since hearing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Move became the Electric Light Orchestra. Its raison d’être, like many progressive groups of the time, was to create a fusion of classical music and rock and roll. The band soon became a polished pop outfit, but its first album (and only one recorded with Wood), is one of the many truly unique works that appeared in the early ’70s. Here’s a song from the album, “Whisper in the Night”:
Roy Wood left the group to form his own group, Wizzard, which mixed ELO’s experiments with hard rock, pop and jazz. The group is often remembered in the U.K. as being one of the lesser glam bands, but its songs upheld the smart, knowing style for which Wood had always been known. His bizarre dress and makeup also started making headlines even more than his music (Gene Simmons has admitted that Wood’s war-paint style get-up was a big inspiration for Kiss’ outfits), which may explain why critics have somewhat dismissed him.
Wizzard’s love of Phil Spector shone through especially on its biggest singles, “See My Baby Jive” and this one, “Angel Fingers”:
Wood’s presence was regularly felt on the British pop charts in the early to mid-’70s, but after his second solo album, Mustard, didn’t chart, he started to appear less and less. He released a few singles in the ’80s (including the brilliant “Green Glass Windows”), but was basically retired by the end of the decade. It’s my belief that much of his brilliance is overshadowed by his flashy public persona. As a guitarist and songwriter, he can easily be mentioned among peers such as Syd Barret, Paul McCartney, Frank Zappa and Brian Wilson.
Here’s a clip of Wood performing perhaps his greatest single, “Forever”, on BBC’s “Top of the Pops”:
Start with: The Move’s Omnibus singles comp or its 1968 debut album. Then pick up Shazam or Message From the Country. ELO’s first album is an underrated treat. Wizzard’s albums are a little hit-or-miss, but if you can find Wizzard’s Brew in a vinyl bin it’s worth a fiver. And Wood’s Boulders and Beach Boys-meets-Zappa concept album Mustard are perhaps his most solid LPs. The Exotic Mixture compilation is also a great start for his solo work.
So that’s it! Feel free to let me know in the comments what you think are some of the most underrated bands.