Modern music has seen some extreme highs and lows over the years, but it's always weird when a band or solo artist suddenly throws their fans for a loop by abruptly changing their musical direction or image. Whether it's a clumsy attempt to stay relevant by tailoring their sound to exploit a new musical style that has become popular, or because a band senses that its usual schtick is growing stale, it's a risky proposition.
It has worked for bands such as Ministry, who went for a much harder industrial-rock edge when abandoning their synth-dance sound, but such a move can also alienate old fans. In the case of long-established and successful bands, such attempts often result in enough of a bad response that the group quickly abandons the experiment and gets back to doing what their fans wanted them to on the next album.
Here are some memorable examples:
6. The Grateful Dead, Shakedown Street (1978) I am not a Grateful Dead fan, but from what I can tell by studying them, this disco-era offering by the rootsy jam band is their most reviled album. The Dead already seemed to polarize people, so while releasing a disco-leaning album to capture new fans might have sounded like a good idea in some cocaine-fueled record company business meeting, it didn't manage to accomplish that and bummed out a lot of their hardcore fan base, too. If not for Jerry Garcia's vocals, the title track almost sounds like it could have come from the soundtrack to some porno film from the time. With old hippie groups like the Dead putting out disco albums, it's no wonder punk rock was getting revved up.
On the other hand, the incredibly popular clown-rock band KISS scored a massive hit with their take on disco, "I Was Made for Loving You," so I guess the Dead can't be blamed for trying. Of course, KISS soon stumbled into "Album we'd prefer you all forgot" territory too...
5. KISS, Music From the Elder (1981) The early '80s were proving to be a difficult period for KISS, who at that point had seen original drummer Peter Criss depart and experienced diminished album sales compared with their late-'70s commercial peak. Originally the band planned a return to their hard-rock roots, having softened their sound somewhat and even dabbling in disco, but that was not going to happen.
Instead, KISS's manager, Bill Aucoin, decided to bring in megaproducer Bob Ezrin to pump new life into the band's music. Ezrin was busy pumping himself full of cocaine at the time; having co-produced Pink Floyd's 1979 epic The Wall, saw fit to help KISS create a weird concept album. Thus, Music From the Elder was born.
It tells a hokey story of a young champion being trained to fight evil (naturally) by a Council of Elders belonging to "The Order of The Rose," with the boy hero apprenticed to a dude named Morpheus. The album has one or two hard-rock songs of note, but is also padded out by symphonic orchestrations and other concept-album cliches, and failed to generate much of a positive reaction among fans.
It was so poorly regarded by the band and the record label that no tour was launched for the album, while almost everyone involved quickly made excuses and decided that this new direction was a bad one. Strangely enough, this record has become a kind of legend among KISS fans, and despite its general unpopularity, the band has occasionally dusted off a few songs live in recent years.
4. Celtic Frost, Cold Lake (1988) A cold lake is exactly what longtime fans of the legendary metal band Celtic Frost felt like they'd been tossed into when this musical crapfest launched in the late '80s. The band had previously crafted a very dark image and iconic, heavy sound; a sort of precursor to black metal. The release of Cold Lake saw a new Celtic Frost lineup trying to rebrand themselves as a typical glam-metal band -- a style immensely popular at the time, but a slap in the face to most fans of the band's earlier music. Tracks like "Cherry Orchards" spun out lyrics such as:
Dancing violet dreams, During nights of satin fame, Acting jewel games, all forgiven, You streak my heart
It's not surprising that the album is considered a joke among most Celtic Frost fans, and is regarded as a huge and embarrassing mistake by the band's singer/guitarist, Tom G. Warrior.
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3. Garth Brooks, "Chris Gaines" By the late '90s, Garth Brooks was an established country-music superstar, but he apparently harbored another side to his musical ambitions and created a fictional rock singer named Chris Gaines for a movie he was developing. To help add to the character's mystique, Brooks released an album as Gaines in 1999, which produced a hit single called "Lost in You," but did not meet sales expectations.
When the planned film didn't materialize, Brooks shelved Chris Gaines, although he seems to express a certain fondness for the character in interviews on the subject. The alter ego seems to have mostly confused his country-music fans, and is considered a novelty, despite being an ambitious experiment. Honestly, for the type of music style that Brooks was shooting for, fans of pop-rock could do a lot worse.
2. The Smashing Pumpkins, Adore(1998) Released while members of The Smashing Pumpkins were experiencing what can be politely described as "personal problems," Adore broke from the guitar-heavy sound of their earlier records and added an electronic, almost dance edge to their music. It's not bad, but it definitely alienated a lot of fans and the band's visual image might have been the biggest shocker.
Billy Corgan seemed to want an almost gothic, spooky image for them, and pranced around their videos looking like a cross between Nosferatu and Count Chocula. Some people found it off-putting, I guess, because he quit dressing like an escapee from Halloween Town pretty quickly.
1. Starship, Knee Deep in the Hoopla (1985) The history of this band is a long and bumpy one, originally starting as Jefferson Airplane, one of the premier popular psychedelic-rock bands of the 1960s, then morphing into a weird pop/stadium-rock band in the '70s as Jefferson Starship and finally wading into the '80s as Starship. Knee Deep in the Hoopla was that incarnation of the band's first album, and it was a hugely popular one with the hits "We Built This City (On Rock and Roll)" and "Sara," two songs I suffered hearing over and over on the radio as a teenager in the pastel and shoulder-pad decade.
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"We Built This City" in particular is one of my least favorite songs, and I would nominate it as one of the worst mainstream rock songs ever released. But Starship was hugely popular, so why are they on this list? They're here because I imagine almost any older fan of Jefferson Airplane must have heard the schmaltzy keyboard pop of "We Built This City" and realized that any promises the '60s had offered had been broken, shat upon, and kicked in the gutter. That, and because no one should ever have to hear that song or "Sara" ever again.
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