A very random line from a post over at Indie Moines set me off on something that has been weighing on my mind for some time now: who is the recording artist who has gone from doing the most good to doing the most harm? I mean good and harm not just to his or her own reputation, but to the culture as whole. There are singers and bands who are great, and who are mediocre, and who are terrible, but there are very few well-known artists who occupy both ends of the spectrum.
Early on, one of my prime candidates for this distinction was The Standells. Best remembered for “Dirty Water” and “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear Black,” their debut album was almost proto-punk, raw garage music that was lucky enough to catch the public fancy while so many others would have to wait for “Nuggets” and “Back From The Grave” to receive any recognition. It was a great debut. And their second album was more of the same, except for the songs that took a weird left turn into the very pabulum that it seemed like their sound was rejecting, including some very Dean Martinesque crooning. And then there was their execrable live album, which made them appear to be the worst frathouse-ready Searchers tribute band ever. Even discovering their music years after its release, I found their arc phenomenally disappointing. How could you go from the crazy rave-up of “Rari” to “Peppermint Beatle” (you don’t want to know). But they did, and it was awful. However, the damage was limited, because other than their one hit single and a bizarre appearance on “The Munsters,” who had ever heard of The Standells?
So instead let’s talk about the Jefferson Airplane, from ground zero of the ’60s San Francisco psychedelic jam band movement. A string of incredible hits, running the gamut from angry to soulful, and tremendous live performances from a band that could really rock. A few changes and they became Jefferson Starship, with a much more middle-of-the-road approach that of course their hardcore fans had to resent, but which still wasn’t quite bad music. More changes, and they were just Starship, and they committed one of the greatest cultural crimes of our time: “We Built This City.” On rock ‘n’ roll, if you didn’t know. We can’t lay all the blame at Starship’s feet, as Elton John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin had a hand in writing this monstrosity. How could any of the same people who made “It’s No Secret” and “3/5 of a Mile in Ten Seconds” even learn to play a song like this? It’s unfathomable, and I’d argue that if the output of the early Jefferson Airplane weren’t so phenomenal, it would have been swamped by the wave of awful that was the output of Starship.
But at the absolute top of the “more harm than good” category: Rod Stewart. If you have any love for ’70s rock at all, then Faces have got to hold a special place in your heart. The digital age has gifted us with songs and performances we never got here in the States, reinforcing early impressions that here was a truly great rock ‘n’ roll band. Songs like “Cindy Incidentally,” “Stay with Me,” and “Ooh La La” deliver everything that brand of rock had to offer, without dipping into the self-indulgence that would soon weigh it all down. Rough, energetic, inventive, and with those awesome raggedy vocals of Rod Stewart out front – he knew when to growl, where to howl, and he pulled off glam with cheeky panache. Rod’s solo career (with many of the same backers) started off with brilliance like “You Wear It Well” and “Maggie May.” But then came “Hot Legs.” And then came “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” And then came stuff that, worse than awful, was forgotten as soon as the record stopped playing. Somehow Rod stayed around anyway, and remade himself as a singer of standards. And now Christmas music. Perhaps he’ll venture into klezmer next, or Britney Spears covers. It really doesn’t matter. It’s enough that I’ve had to take him off my Sirius alerts, because nine times out of ten it will be a song I seriously do not want to hear.
There is a difference between reinventing yourself over time and just bouncing from pole to pole.