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Braving the Boos: Bob Dylan and 10 More Artists Unafraid to Piss Off Their Fans

"Soon as I pay the electric bill, this thing's going in the dumpster."
"Soon as I pay the electric bill, this thing's going in the dumpster."

Forty-seven years ago this week (wow!), a '60s folk icon by the name of Bob Dylan made his third and final appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, R.I. It was a highly anticipated set -- Dylan was the de facto leader of the American folk-music revival at the time, and his folkie flock expected an acoustic sermon befitting the occasion. That wasn't quite what they got.

Dylan had explored electrified rock sounds on his 1965 album, Bringing It All Back Home. On a whim, perhaps, he decided to perform with a rock band.

Now, Dylan must have known this would be a provocative move; to many folkies of the day, rock and roll was drugged-out teen pap. Folk music was the sound of the revolution. When Dylan's band plugged in, a lot of people booed and kept booing. For folk obsessives, taking up the mantle of rock felt like betrayal.

Bob Dylan went on to explore many other musical styles and sounds in his long career, and he never worried about pissing off his audience in the process. His repeated reinvention of his own sound has served as a model for other ambitious artists ever since, but there's only one Bob Dylan. Not everyone who followed his lead got off as easily with their fanbases as he did.

In honor of Dylan's bold kiss-off to the folk scene, Rocks Off has collected ten more superstar artists who have shocked fans with abrupt shifts in musical direction. Some of them went on to huge success; others watched their careers wither overnight. But all of them took a risk. We like that.

10. Beastie Boys

The Beastie Boys rocketed to the top of the pop charts with their snotty, frat-rap classic License to Ill, but the MTV addicts who made that record a smash had no idea what to do with the Beastie's second LP. Gone were the giant, jokey hooks and rock beats of Licensed to Ill. Instead, Paul's Boutique was groundbreaking in the depth and breadth of the sampling on display, and the three MCs littered their lyrics with obscure references and name-drops. Fans didn't quite know what they listening to.

Within a few years, of course, hip-hop fans' tastes caught up to Paul's Boutique. Today, it's remembered as perhaps the apex of '80s hip-hop. In 1989, though, it looked like the Beasties might shape up to be one-hit wonders.

9. Black Flag

Black Flag rose to prominence in the West Coast punk scene on the back of their speedy, intense brand of hardcore. The band's 1981 Damaged album was a watershed moment for the punk movement worldwide, and the band's fast 'n' tight sound inspired an entire generation of copycats. Little wonder, then, that the band abandoned it on their 1984 follow-up, My War.

Suddenly, the ultimate punks were slowing down and getting heavier, daring to grow out their hair and inserting pummeling metal influences into their music. The band continued to explore new directions until their breakup in 1986. They alienated punk fans at every step of the way, but their later records are now seen as proto-grunge landmarks.

 

8. Kiss

Disco was big business in 1979, and you can bet that KISS was all over that. Chasing a hit for their album Dynasty, Paul Stanley wrote the disco-rock frivolity "I Was Made for Lovin' You." The risky swipe as success worked: the single charted and Dynasty became the band's most successful LP in years.

But the obvious disco influence also turned off many longtime fans for good, outing KISS as calculating businessmen rather than rock-and-roll true believers. It didn't help that the song flat-out sucked, even by KISS standards. Who the hell was dancing to this dreck?

7. Jewel

Jewel's 1995 debut album, Pieces of You, was a monster. The record went 15-times platinum, spawned three hit singles and crystalized the image of the 21-year-old singer as an organic, soulful white girl who sang from the heart. In short, it was hard to top.

Possibly under pressure from her label, Jewel turned to a new pop direction in order to match Pieces' success. The egregious "Intuition" from 2003's 0304 was closer in sound and image to Christina Aguilera than the barefoot acoustic guitarist from "Who Will Save Your Soul." The song cracked the Top 20, but longtime fans shat on it.

In 2008, Jewel moved on to country with Perfectly Clear. It's tough to say how her original fanbase felt about that, because nobody noticed.

 

6. Green Day

While some fans got huffy when Green Day abandoned Lookout! Records in 1994 to release their major-label debut, the band was too busy become huge international stars to care much. Dookie was a mega-smash, bringing "punk" (or some version of it, anyway) roaring, belching and farting back into the mainstream. The kids loved it.

By 2000, however, Green Day was evidently sick of writing songs about masturbation and boogers. Instead, the band put out the Warning album, which more or less abandoned the group's snotty trademark punk sound in favor of gentler acoustic rock and pop. Whether it was an earnest musical exploration or simply a mad stab at continued relevance, Warning bombed. It was the lowest-selling album of Green Day's major-label career.

5. Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder's follow-up to the seminal Songs in the Key of Life should have been huge. Instead, it was painfully weird. Stevie Wonder's Journey Through "The Secret Life of Plants", originally recorded as the soundtrack to a documentary that nobody saw, was an ambitious project that had the blind soul superstar composing music to complement moving pictures that had to be fucking described to him.

The result was a strange, disconnected New Age album that made many fans question their previously unshakeable conviction that Wonder was a certified genius.

 

4. Billy Squier

Billy Squier built a fanbase in the early '80s with hard-rockin' radio hits like "The Stroke" and "Lonely is the Night." Then he smashed that fanbase with the pastel wrecking ball that was his music video for "Rock Me Tonight."

Indisputably, it was the most career-damaging promo clip in MTV history. Why an ugly, macho superstar like Squier thought he could get away with releasing an electro-pop video in which he frolicked in a pink tank top like a complete fruity-pants has never been satisfactorily answered. But he did, and he couldn't. This major miscalculation more or less ended Squier's career.

3. Metallica

Metallica enjoys an extraordinarily devoted fanbase that has followed the band through a number of stylistic twists and turns over the past 30 years. Not all of them are lifers, however.

A lot of classic thrash fans tuned out when the band abandoned speed metal for a slicker sound on 1991's Metallica, but it was the release of Load in 1996 that really had headbangers breaking out the pitchforks. Not only did the record eschew thrash entirely, it wasn't even metal -- and the band chopped their hair off, to boot.

The bluesy, countrified sound on Load ultimately proved more interesting than some of Metallica's explorations to come. But it remains best remembered as the departure point where a sizeable contingent of the band's core fans jumped off for good.

 

2. Garth Brooks

Maybe he wanted to see how far his talent could take him without the cowboy hat. Or maybe Garth Brooks was just sick of being "Garth Brooks." Whatever the reason, Mr. Brooks tried out one of the craziest ideas in the annals of pop music in 1999 when he ditched the Stetson, glued down a wig and recorded an album as "Chris Gaines," a soulful alt-rocker from Brisbane, Australia.

The move bewildered longtime fans and flopped hard amongst the country set. Pop fans likewise had no idea what to do with it. For a while, it appeared that Garth had simply lost his fucking mind, and we're still not sure that he didn't.

1. Starship

When psychedelic heroes Jefferson Airplane disbanded in the early '70s, a lot of fans followed guitarist Paul Kantner and singer Grace Slick on to their new project, Jefferson Starship. The new band's mix of electric folk and psych-rock was modestly successful, and the band remained a strong touring draw for the rest of the decade. Then came the '80s.

In 1984, Kantner left the group, taking legal action to prevent the continued use of the words "Jefferson" or "Airplane" in the band's name. Re-christened as Starship, the rest of the band responded by embracing the worst of corporate rock. It seemed to pay off initially, with the band hitting No. 1 twice with "We Built This City" and "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now."

Let's just say those two tracks haven't aged well. Today, classic-rock fans consider Starship's pop pabulum an insulting perversion of Jefferson Airplane's original counterculture ideals.


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