It’s not unusual for music artists who start off as truly edgy or rebellious, resisting the mainstream, to then try to broaden their audience by making more conventional music with a much wider appeal. This can be a good thing: Sonic Youth, Nirvana, even Blondie, made all their best music after they effectively “sold out.” But it can also be bad — Weezer is the one who springs to mind.
But what about artists who start out writing pop music, who then turn to the avant-garde? I’m not just talking Kanye West being a bit abrasive on Yeezus, or Miley Cyrus’ lo-fi stoner pop on her Dead Petz record. I’m talking artists who start dabbling in some really left field stuff. An electro synth pop band writing an avant-garde opera based on Darwin’s The Origin of the Species. An alt-rock singer-songwriter releasing an album of pure feedback. A heartthrob crooner releasing an album of nonsense poetry and throbbing industrial electronics.
While deliberately alienating your audience and fans could result in career suicide, none of these artists destroyed their legacy by trying something different. In the case of Lou Reed, they may return to traditional rock music after, but excursions into the experimental should certainly be welcomed. Just imagine Kendrick Lamar dropping an album of free jazz overlaid with beat poetry, Florence and the Machine going noise rock, or Sia working with an avant-garde composer. That’s something I’d like to see.
These are five artists who started out what could be called ‘mainstream’, and then later opted for, or at least experimented with, a more avant-garde sound.
Before: Sunday Morning — The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) This one’s kind of cheating. The Velvet Underground & Nico can hardly be called a mainstream album. Through it, Lou Reed and John Cale practically invented alternative rock music and without it we wouldn’t have anything from Bowie to Siouxsie and the Banshees. That being said, cuts like Sunday Morning and Femme Fatal are sweet jangly 60s pop songs that you would be quite happy playing to your mum.
After: Metal Machine Music, pt. 1 — Metal Machine Music (1975) However, less than ten years later, Lou Reed releases a sixty-three minute album of pure looped feedback and noise. It’s practically unlistenable — described in Rolling Stone magazine as sounding like “the tubular groaning of a galactic refrigerator” and a listening experience as unpleasant as “a night in a bus terminal” — but it is widely considered as a forerunner of industrial music, noise rock, and sound art. Nico also released some pretty weird material after her collaboration with The Velvet Underground. Check out the album The Marble Index (1970) for some super dark death-themed musical musings.
Before: The World’s Strongest Man — Scott 4 (1969) Scott Walker back in the day used to be a real crooner. With his key audience being teen girls and middle-aged mums, his music consisted of orchestral baroque pop with lyrics about girls and heartbreak.
After: SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter) — Bish Bosch (2012) …but today his music is some of the weirdest out there. I like to think of his album Bish Bosch as a one-man surrealist opera. He retains his charming croon, but with lyrics such as “No more dragging this wormy anus ‘round on shag piles from Persia to Thrace I’ve severed my reeking gonads fed them to your shrunken face,” laid over pummelling and screeching electronics, it’s both bewildering and a bit terrifying. It’s either the sound of someone having a laugh, or a genius madman given absolute free reign. I think it’s a bit of both.
Before: Love Me Do — Please, Please Me (1963) We all know what traditional old school Beatles sounds like: catchy, three-chord, loved-up pop songs. It’s ground breaking in terms of pop music, but hardly avant-garde or experimental.
After: Revolution 9 — The Beatles (White Album) (1968) But not everyone knows about The Beatles occasional excursions into experimental music. Revolution 9 — an essentially non-musical sound collage of tape loops, sound effects, and snippets of reversed musical performances, put together to create an audible image of a revolution. Pretty edgy, huh?
Before: Heartbeats — Deep Cuts (2003) Although most of us know this song for José González acoustic cover, it was originally a synth pop drank by the electronic dance duo The Knife…
After: Epochs — Tomorrow, In A Year (2010) … who, a few years later, went onto write a baffling, impenetrable experimental opera based on The Origin of the Species.