The Aging Punk 016

Sunday, 29 August 2010

A month ago I listed the artists I thought were the most overrated in rock music. Among the many responses I got to that were a number of people who wanted to know what I thought were the most underrated artists. The problem with attempting to compile such a list is that there are just too many to choose from. Every band which I love and you have never heard of (and believe me, there are plenty) is, almost by definition, underrated. So I have tried to limit this list to artists which are generally known. As you shall see, I don't entirely succeed, but I do try.

The first three artists on my list have one thing in common: many people have some notion what the band is about but that notion, while not entirely inaccurate, is only a fraction of the full picture.

King Crimson is probably not well known to the modern rock audience. Those people to whom the name means anything probably think of early Seventies prog rock, which is true; Crimson were one of the founding bands of prog (along with ELP, Yes and Genesis), but their career goes so far beyond that. There were actually three incarnations of Crimson: prog Crimson (early Seventies), new wave Crimson (early Eighties) and neo-prog Crimson (early Nineties). Along the way, they proved themselves capable of the complexities of prog, the power of punk, and jazz-like levels of improvisation.

Except for new wave Crimson, the band never had a stable line-up. Instead, founder and lead guitarist Robert Fripp incorporated whatever musicians he thought would best suit his musical vision into the band. At the band's outset in the 1970s, the list of contributing performers included such luminaries as Greg Lake (of ELP) and Bill Bruford (Yes) and, in the Eighties and Nineties, in addition to still using Bruford, Fripp utilized Tony Levin (who played bass on records by John Lennon, Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel) and Adrian Belew (who played guitar for Frank Zappa, David Bowie and Talking Heads). Fripp's vision included a jazz-like approach to rock music, an ability for both tight ensemble work and loose improvisation. The resulting music was, across all incarnations, complex, intense and virtuosic (if a bit cerebral at times). Relegating them to prog rock does not do justice to the broad spread of what King Crimson produced.

When people think of Frank Zappa, they usually think either “weird” or “gross,” or some combination of the two. Again, like the popular impression of King Crimson, that's not entirely inaccurate but, again, only a narrow slice of what Zappa created over his lifetime. Personally, I think Zappa is one of the greatest geniuses of all rock music, on  par with (seriously) the Beatles.

Zappa wrote everything from straight doo-wop to classical symphonies (which were actually respected by the classical community). His satire is unsurpassed in rock music, even if it tended towards the scatological. He was also one of the most innovative guitarists in all of rock.

And yes, he played some pretty weird music. But even his weird was brilliant weird. In 1968 – the same year the Beatles gained so much attention for “Revolution #9” and its' sample of musique concrete – Zappa included two such cuts on We're Only In It For the Money, and they were integral parts of the album, not just a throwaway at the end. Not only that, he also released Lumpy Gravy, an entire album of the same, that same year.

The thing is, for Zappa “weird” was never weird for its' own sake, it was just another tool in his musical repertoire; one he brought out when necessary. Granted, he may have felt it was necessary more often than most of us, but a lot of what gets labeled weird in his work is just complex on a level most rock fans aren't used to.

Ween are considered by many to be a novelty band (based on their long ago hit, “Push Up the Daisies”). That's fine, if you consider it a novelty to be able to play any style of popular music, and not just as parody but as loving tribute. From prog rock to straight country, Philadelphia soul to jamming booge-woogie, snarling hard rock to bouncy reggae, they cover it all. And that's just on record; they throw it all in the blender on stage, and out comes an incomparably diverse and rousing show.

Amongst the general public, most of those people who have even heard of Nels Cline know him as the “new guitarist” in Wilco. Although his recordings with that band (especially Live in Chicago) give a taste of his talents, it is only a taste. My experience with Nels Cline is that he can play anything. I have seen him play hard rock with Mike Watt, straight country licks with Carla Bozulich, and free jazz freak-outs with Banyan. I also saw him do a show (at the Smell in Los Angeles) where he did everything imaginable to get sounds out of his guitar except play it, and still produced a show of interesting and entertaining music. His recordings, solo and with the all instrumental Nels Cline Singers, get classified as Jazz, but only because they explore truly uncharted musical territory. If the concept of guitar god has any meaning in the new millennium, Nels Cline fits it.

Now it's time to cram in a bunch of artists I love which no one else has ever heard of. If you're curious, I was introduced to most of these through writing CD reviews, one of the few rewards the occupation offers.

THE WALKABOUTS – Seattle natives who have since moved to Europe in search of a more receptive audience, The Walkabouts sound like X might have if they had been Neil Young fans instead of Doors fans. They have the same combination of sharp-edged hard rock and languid country, with a few more guitar solos. Walkabout songs tell stories of the underbelly of society – drug deals, gambling and murder – with a haunting accuracy. Good luck finding their CDs; grab them if you do.

CHUCK PROPHET – Former lead singer for the cowpunk band Green on Red, Prophet writes tunes based on roots rock, but with enough stylistic variety to be unclassifiable. He brings elements of straight folk, funk and psychedelia to the mix. The key is, whatever format he works in, Prophet is a great songwriter.

DONOVAN'S BRAIN – Sounding like a cross between Pink Floyd and the Cure, at first listen I assumed these guys were British. Imagine my surprise to find out they are from Montana. In any event, a perfect balance between catchy and spacey.

THE CLEAR/ SUPERMAN LOSES THE GIRL – Two bands fronted by L.A. poet Matthew Niblock (now Matthew Mars) I seriously believe both of these bands deserved superstardom. Niblock has one of the best voices in the business, and the bands behind him (both bands included many of the same musicians, including guitarist Mark Smith and vocalist Jennifer Hardaway) produced music both subtle and powerful. The folkier The Clear often dealt with issues of faith and religion with an intelligent, non-didactic point of view. The more electronic Superman Loses the Girl focused instead on popular culture, especially television and Hollywood. Both produced memorable music which deserved a much bigger audience than they found.

HONORABLE MENTIONS – Lindsay Smith, Kanary, Instagon (Google them).


I was going to list Television's Marquee Moon as the most underrated album of all time, but I'm not sure it qualifies. Every rock critic in existence (or so it seems) has pushed this album, yet the public refuses to bite. So mark it as underappreciated, rather than underrated. And I move on with a much more unlikely choice.

The first three albums by BLUE OYSTER CULT. Although BOC were my favorite band in high school, I will readily admit that, around the time they released '”Godzilla,” they turned into a cartoon of a heavy metal band. Actually, their decline started a year earlier, with their biggest hit, “(Don't Fear) The Reaper,” and its' accompanying album, Agents of Fortune, a blatant attempt to take their sound in a more commercial direction.

Nonetheless, their first three albums (Blue Oyster Cult, Tyranny and Mutation and Secret Treaties) stand as some of the best hard rock ever recorded. What set BOC apart was the intelligence and complexity of their music, especially when compared to other hard rock bands, of their time or since. Rather than straight riffage with some guitar solos thrown in, their songs had actual structure, which allowed everyone in the band to strut their stuff.

Not that they neglected guitar solos. BOC's guitarist, Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser is one of the best in the business. He played fluid, clear and yet fierce licks and solos. On these albums, his solos built logically and smoothly, yet he could also spit out rapid fire notes like Eddie Van Halen would do a few years later.

All three of these albums showed off these strengths to great effect. My personal favorite is Tyranny and Mutation, their second album, but I think that has much to do with the production as the songs. T&M has a dark but sharp sound to it, whereas the other two are just a smidge too clear and bright. But any of the three would serve as a great introduction to the talent and potential BOC once had.

Once again, I'd love to hear from you. First, what you think of these artists (or if you've even heard/heard of them). More importantly, what are your favorite underrated artists. There is so much great music out there being ignored by the musical powers that be, music we should all be familiar. Share some of your favorites.

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