Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays: Welcome To Our New Direction

Greetings pop pickers. It’s Tay Tay Time!

Welcome to tonight’s Fabulously Flamboyant Friday and another of our fortnightly dibbers in the gently sloped gardens of musical magnificence.

This week, as we mark International Non-Binary Parents’ Day, we’ll doff our caps and acknowledge a few of our many musical trans-genre artistes: those brave and noble souls who voluntarily transition from one musical genre to another, and those tragically driven by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to take arms against a sea of tribbles and radically reinvent themselves.

And so, without further ado, laydees and gentlebodies, we hope you enjoy our new direction. Not ‘arf!

Traditionally, of course, Friday night was Tay Tay night, so that’s where we’ll begin this evening’s festivities.

Taylor Swift (blessings be upon her) is quite simply a pop music phenomenon: a multi-Grammy award-winning singer/songwriter and one of the world’s best-selling artists. With well over 200 million records sold, she is currently the most successful singer/songwriter on the planet.

However, the poptastic Tay Tay (named after James Taylor, don’tcha know) began her career as a country and western singer. Her first three albums were full of banjos, boots an’ good ol’ boys; lap-steels and resonators, denim jeans and pick-up trucks. It was still pop, but it was finger-licking country-pop. She stayed true to her C&W roots for about the first three albums. But then, encouraged by her production team, she began her journey towards the bland and bouncy, teeny-pop princess we know and love today.

It’s hard to be critical because, duh! – it’s Tay Tay. Plus, in addition to her thoroughly-deserved status as a true Puffin icon, she has also managed to achieve (at least in music industry terms) pretty much complete and utter world domination. Last time I checked the UK album chart it contained no less than eight Taylor Swift albums. That’s seriously impressive: country girl done good, pop princess done way, way better.

And there is, of course, only one person on the planet who could possibly claim to have operated in the same rarefied musical stratosphere as the blessed Tay Tay: the man, the legend, the musical maestro and all-round diamond geezer that is Phil Collins. However – before the usual foul abuse begins – we shall sidestep the musical magnificence of the maestro’s solo career and will instead consider the extraordinary musical transformation of his alma mater, Genesis.

Starting life as prog rock pioneers, Genesis helped shape a musical era in which lavish concept albums containing 40 minute song-cycles about phantasmagorical adventures, performed in 7/9 time by a vocalist dressed as a bulbous alien with a pneumatic cock, were simply de rigueur darling. But all that changed in 1976 when vocalist, frontman and founder member, Peter Gabriel, jumped ship for a successful solo career.

Peter Gabriel was of course replaced by the band’s drummer – the one-and-only Mr. Phil Collins – and for Genesis, from that moment on, everything changed – except it didn’t…

The history of Genesis is seen as two distinct eras: the Peter Gabriel years and the Phil Collins years, with Peter’s era being prog and Phil’s being pop. But it really wasn’t that simple. The truth is the first two albums of the Collins era (Wind & Wuthering and A Trick of the Tale) sounded remarkably similar to the Gabriel era. It was the typical progtastic material we had come to expect from the band and it really did feel like business as usual. It was in fact the departure of guitarist Steve Hackett (and their first post-Hackett album, And Then There Were Three) which appeared to trigger the big change in their musical direction. But whatever the cause, Genesis never looked back – successfully transforming themselves into middle-aged, dad-dancing, pop superstars, who subsequently enjoyed the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed period of their career.

This is of course where I should place a Phil Collins video. Unfortunately, whenever I do, the appalling personal abuse I receive from the sundry ne’er-do-wells and assorted musical philistines that frequent this site is a wonder to behold. Therefore, we shall sidestep most of that unpleasantness with a video of the man Mr. Collins replaced (it also gives me an excuse to post this truly magnificent example of the Video Editor’s art).

And, as we’re temporarily in a prog groove, we should give honourable mentions to Robert Fripp, who successfully re-invented King Crimson on multiple occasions; Pink Floyd, who overcame the departure of guiding lights Syd Barrett and Roger Waters, yet still went on to enjoy ever greater fame and fortune; and Yes, who transformed themselves from burnt-out 1970’s prog rock dinosaurs into a slick, middle-of-the-road, MTV outfit who subsequently enjoyed a very successful second career in the lucrative US AOR market.

And so onto Alanis Morissette, whose first successful career was as a child actress. She released her first song aged 10, signed her first record deal aged just 14 and then had a moderately successful second career (in Canada) as a teeny pop star, with the juvenile mall-rat vibe of Tiffany or perhaps Debbie Gibson. Unfortunately, during these formative years, Morissette’s career allegedly included some deeply inappropriate guidance and handling.

Morissette has expounded on her early music industry experiences in a frank (and highly recommended) HBO documentary that details her misadventures and her subsequent feelings of shame and humiliation. It is the bile, anger and trauma of this period that drips from Jagged Little Pill, her third and thoroughly cathartic album. The album, recorded when she was just 19, was a radical departure from her previous work. She took the personal and private, made it resonate universally, and created a raw, scathing and explicit album that sold in astonishing quantities.

Propelled by lavish helpings of adolescent angst, bile and furious indignation, Jagged Little Pill sold over 33 million copies, became the 12th best-selling album of all time, with no less than half the tracks on the album becoming international hit singles. It also transformed an obscure North American pop singer into a global superstar of the post-grunge era.

And we can’t consider radical transformations without taking a look at Fleetwood Mac. But – oh my days – where to begin? This band’s shambolically turbulent, soap opera history really is worth an article of its own.

Originally formed in 1967 by (the rather splendid) guitarist, Peter Green, Fleetwood Mac turned out some cracking early material and were soon having significant chart success. Unfortunately, Mr. Green was rather fond of LSD and a bad acid trip seemed to trigger a serious decline in his mental health. Sadly, in 1970, he decided he’d had enough and quit the band.

Without their founder, song-writer and guiding light, the band regrouped and decided to carry on. They upped their game, changed direction and began to re-build their reputation. And they didn’t do too badly at all. They put out some pretty decent stuff in the early ’70s and were beginning to build momentum – particularly in the US – when, unfortunately, they lost their second member.

During their ’71 US tour, guitarist Jeremy Spencer seemed somewhat unsettled. One day he announced he was popping out to get a magazine and simply never came back. Several days of frantic searching ensued, before the band eventually tracked him down and discovered he had joined a religious cult and would not be returning.

Somewhat taken aback by this turn of events, the band recruited Bob Welch (an American guitarist and songwriter) and once again regrouped. Under the influence of Welch they changed musical direction and began producing a less bluesy, more melodic style of rock music – one that was actually well suited to the American market of the time.

Unfortunately, next out of the door was Danny Kirwan – yet another guitarist and primary songwriter. This time a victim of alcohol dependency and a nervous breakdown. However, his departure was merely a symptom of a band that was – by this time – falling apart in a sea of alcohol abuse, infidelity and failing marriages. It was, as the band would later recall, a total bloody shambles. They eventually decided to call it a day and split up in 1973.

The band’s manager, perhaps unsurprisingly, was thoroughly displeased by this development. Bizarrely, he persuaded an unknown band called Legs to change their name to “The New Fleetwood Mac” and told them to simply carry on from where the original band had stopped. Legs were apparently pretty good, but this move did not go down well with either the public or the original band members. M’learned friends sniffed the air, scented blood, and the litigation began.

Eventually, matters were settled. The genuine band reformed and once again were sounding pretty good. Then, in 1974, the next big change took place: Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks jumped on board and the sound of the band was utterly transformed. Within a year this line-up had recorded and released Fleetwood Mac, their first album together. The album showcased yet another big change in style, but this time it was a major breakthrough, reaching No. 1 in the US and selling over 7 million copies.

Joy was unconfined, backs were slapped, and it was cheerful trips to the bank for one and all. Unfortunately, fame and fortune brought neither happiness nor harmony to the band. Within a year they were in complete turmoil once more and in real danger of disintegration yet again: drugs, alcohol, infidelity, failed marriages and fractured working relationships reigned supreme. Read any of their biographies and you’ll discover this lot did nothing by halves – and if you look in the dictionary for a definition of rampantly unbridled hedonism, you’ll probably find a picture of Fleetwood Mac.

This time, fortunately, they refused to give up. They girded their loins, went back into the studio, focused their angst, anger and turmoil, and managed to create an absolute monster of an album: Rumours.

Critically acclaimed, it won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, generated multiple hit singles, sold 40 million copies, became the eighth best-selling album of all time and earned the band a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Fleetwood Mac were bona fide superstars and could seemingly do no wrong – so, inevitably, they decided to have yet another radical change of direction and produced Tusk. But we wont talk about that. Least said, soonest mended.

And now it’s time for some Radiohead – a personal favourite of mine. The band emerged in the mid-90s and developed their sound with a magnificent run of three top-notch albums, culminating in 1997’s OK Computer – a bloody magnificent album IMHO. The public bought it by the truck load, the critics loved it and Rolling Stone called it a “stunning art-rock tour de force”.

OK Computer was their first number-one UK chart debut, it brought them international success and earned them their first Grammy. In just three albums they had developed and perfected their unique style and it had generated tremendous reward. So naturally, they abandoned it and changed direction.

Radiohead’s fourth album, Kid A, was released in October 2000 and was not what people were expecting. To the surprise of many it was a significant departure from OK Computer, featuring minimalist arrangements, diverse (and often obscure) instrumentation, programmed electronic beats, brass instruments and string arrangements.

It was a very divisive album. It has been variously described as a masterpiece, a commercial suicide note, intentionally difficult and pretentious twaddle. Fans seemed to be divided between those who were appalled, mystified or delighted. Many saw it as the band’s best work, while others saw it as their worst and longed for a return to the bands original sound. Thom Yorke (vocalist and guitarist) later acknowledged the mixed reactions, saying, “we were not trying to be difficult… but we did seem to piss off a lot of people”.

However, despite its very bumpy ride, the album has gone on to become a firm fan favourite and has subsequently been ranked as one of the band’s best by various publications including Time Magazine, Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, and The Times newspaper later declared it to be the “album of the decade”.

And, of course, we simply cannot leave the topic of changing musical direction without acknowledging the complete master of the art: the chameleon: the late, great, and much-missed David Bowie.

I’m not going to consider Bowie’s many soundtrack and live albums here, but will instead focus on his run of studio albums that began with Davie Jones and his odd, Anthony-Newly-meets-music-hall, style of presentation. It wasn’t a particularly successful period and only lasted for one album, his 1967 eponymous debut, David Bowie.

Bowie successfully changed direction for his next three albums (his stylistic and thematic chapters would often seem to encompass a three album period). He moved away from music hall and embraced a more acoustic and folk rock style for Space Oddity (also released as David Bowie in many territories), The Man Who Sold The World and Hunky Dory. Hunky Dory is the standout album of this trilogy and marks the end of his folk-inspired period. It was now time for Bowie to embrace glam rock and completely reinvent his image.

The cumbersomely titled Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars kicked of his glam rock period, as Bowie embraced a character created (he later claimed) by combining the persona of Iggy Pop with the music of Lou Reed. The character of Ziggy – a bisexual alien rock star – was abandoned after just one album and Aladdin Sane became his next glam rock persona. Aladdin Sane was inspired by a combination of the mental health struggles of a close relative and the on-the-road experiences of Bowie’s first North American tour. This character would also last for just one album and his next, Diamond Dogs (a post-apocalyptic concept album), brought an end to Bowie’s glam rock trilogy.

Bowies next album, Young Americans, showcased another significant change of direction. By this time deeply infatuated with soul music and R&B, Bowie recruited artists such as Luther Vandross and members of Sly & the Family Stone to help develop his new direction. It brought him considerable success in the US, but (much later) he was very critical of the results, calling it his “plastic soul” period, “as written and sung by a white limey”.

And so on to The Thin White Duke and his highly acclaimed Station to Station album. Released in 1976, Bowie was deep into his cocaine years and the Duke reflects this. Bowie later described him as a monster in disguise: ostensibly civilized, impeccably dressed, but hollow, bitter and certifiably mad. Station to Station is a magnificent album: dark, cryptic, dense, with occult themes subverting superficially mainstream compositions.

But, once again, it was time to move on. This time to Berlin and Bowie’s burgeoning interest in Germany’s Krautrock scene, with bands such as Neu!, Can, Faust, Amon Duul and Kraftwerk tickling his fancy. Here Bowie teamed up with Brian Eno to record his massively influential Berlin Trilogy: Low, Heroes and Lodger.

Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, although critically lauded, was not hugely successful in commercial terms. Therefore it was time to be a pop star again, and he succeeded effortlessly with two crackingly poptastic albums: Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) and Let’s Dance, which produced a string of international hit singles including Scary Monsters, Ashes to Ashes, Fashion, Let’s Dance, China Girl and several others, including his collaboration with Queen, Under Pressure.

Bowie was now a bona fide superstar, but after nearly two decades at the top, he stumbled, and produced two bland, uninspiring and faceless albums: Tonight (1984) and Never Let Me Down (1987). I’ve never managed to understand these albums. They feel directionless, unnecessary and largely pointless. Additionally, around this time, Bowie embarked on his massive, complex, exhausting and poorly received Glass Spider Tour. I saw a couple of shows on that tour. They were dull, uninspired, and Bowie seemed like a chap who had run out of both ideas and energy.

Perhaps he reached the same conclusion, because his next move surprised everyone – he pressed the career reset button and ran away to join the circus. Not an actual circus, of course, but a rock band called Tin Machine.

Now seen as an important precursor to the grunge scene, Tin Machine produced two very hard-rocking albums (to very mixed reviews) and performed at very small venues (to very good reviews), before Bowie re-surfaced, now refreshed and thoroughly reinvigorated, to restart his solo career.

By the 1990s, Bowie had become fascinated by machine music: industrial, sampling, hip-hop and drum & bass. Three successful albums came of of this electronic period, Black Tie, White Noise (1993), Outside (1995) and Earthling (1997). All three were critical and commercial hits and I was particularly impressed by Earthling. However, once again, Bowie was ready to move on.

Accordingly, the heavy electronic elements of his previous trilogy were unceremoniously abandoned as Bowie settled in to what, at the time, felt like a winding down of his career: Hours (1999), Heathen (2002) and Reality (2003) all felt, at times, wistful, playful, melancholy, intimate, epic, eerie and knowing. Bowie cheerfully skipped through his career, re-visiting whatever took his fancy and having a bloody good time doing it. It felt like a trilogy of albums by an artist thoroughly at ease with himself, with absolutely nothing left to prove.

And that seemed to be that. For the best part of a decade the chameleon was quiet and most assumed we’d seen the last of Bowie the artist. However, in 2013, he surprised us all and released The Next Day. The New York Times called it “Bowie’s twilight masterpiece” and I’m not going to argue with that – it’s an absolute corker. Which, unfortunately, brings us to The Blind Prophet, Bowie’s final persona, and Blackstar, his final album.

Written and recorded while Bowie was suffering from terminal liver cancer, the album’s title was allegedly inspired by the lesions his illness produced. The album was released just two days before his death and, unsurprisingly given the circumstances, was almost universally lauded and critically acclaimed. It picked up a stack of awards, three Grammy Awards, Brit Awards – including Album of the Year – and numerous other gongs and trinkets. I adore the album, but am still entirely unable to judge its merits either dispassionately or objectively. However, it does feel like a fitting swan song for a magnificent artist and, quite frankly, one of the best albums of his career.

Anyway, that’s your lot for this week’s Fabulously Flamboyant Friday. That final paragraph was far too glum for this evening’s festivities, so I shall cheer myself up with one of my favourite Bowie bangers

TTFN, Pop Puffins – may your run-ups from the gasworks’ end be as smooth and salubrious as a freshly buttered bannister. Not ‘arf!

Featured Image: makaiyla willis, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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