Musicians are welcome to embrace different styles
For centuries, even millennia, there has always been some kind of evolution in musical genres. Without it, everyone would still be listening to the sound of the first caveman stubbing his toe.
Artists are given the freedom to try new things. Some of my favorite musicians have made chameleon-like changes with every album. Joni Mitchell, for example, turned off most of her pop audience by leaving the folk movement for jazz and world pop experiments in the late 1970s. Paul Simon went all the way to other continents in his search for new sounds during the 1980s.
It always seems okay for solo artists to do this. There have been some group experiments through the years, but they can sometimes be seen as hostile takeovers.
An early example would be the Syd Barrett version of Pink Floyd, which lasted for an album or two before David Gilmour joined the band. Roger Waters’ bleak and bitter lyrics developed an identity for the band, and other members Rick Wright and Nick Mason provided atmospheric music that matched the words. Gilmour’s alternately lyrical and slashing guitar heroics eventually gained more popularity than the dark subject matter; Waters and Gilmour parted ways. Gilmour, Mason, and Wright carried on the Pink Floyd name with much success as they lightened the heavy material, while Waters staked out more depressing territory as a successful solo artist.
Three Dog Night was perhaps the American singles band of the early 1970s. They introduced many great songwriters to the mainstream and had a truly unique sound. A seven-piece band with a three-way lead singer situation, they sounded like no one else. Cory Wells, Danny Hutton and Chuck Negron had one hit after another for several years. However, Negron left and the group soldiered on with two lead singers under the name Three Dog Night, occasionally borrowing David Clayton-Thomas (formerly of Blood, Sweat, & Tears – another band with a complex identity) to do the name of the band justice.
There are many others, too numerous to mention (Journey, Foreigner, Black Sabbath and more). But there are three bands I would like to point out that had their personality completely changed when a particular member, or members, joined the band.
Exhibit A: Fleetwood Mac. When Mick Fleetwood and John McVie named the band in the ‘60s, they must have seen their future. The original incarnation was a British blues band led by Peter Green. They recorded some legit stuff worth seeking out; however, success eluded them. They brought in Danny Kirwan and Bob Welch for the next version, and while the songs were becoming less freeform and more along the lines of the soft rock of its day, the group was still missing something. In 1975, they moved their home base to Los Angeles and hired Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks to become a part of the band. Never in recorded history has there been such a complete, total takeover of a band. From the first track on the first LP they recorded with this lineup, it was clear that Buckingham-Nicks had made their mark.
Exhibit B: The Doobie Brothers. The Doobies of the early ‘70s were a hippie biker band, popular on the west coast. Their chugging guitar rhythms and repetitive choruses made for some of the best Allman Brothers-styled jams of their era. Tom Johnston led this version of the band and shared songwriting duties with Pat Simmons. In 1975, Michael McDonald was asked to join the band when Johnston fell ill. McDonald immediately changed the sound of the Doobies – his burry lead vocals and soulful jazz arrangements couldn’t have been more different from the original incarnation of the band. And yet, the revamped sound was everywhere and earned #1 records, Grammys, etc. To this day, there are the pro-McDonald and anti-McDonald listeners, destined to never agree on which Doobie Brothers were best.
Exhibit C: Eagles. The Eagles were a convergence of Linda Ronstadt’s backing band plus country-rock hybrids such as the Flying Burrito Brothers and Poco. This laid-back crowd set the template for what came to be known as the California sound of the ‘70s. Bernie Leadon was a fine singer and a gifted player – he could play bluegrass banjo or steel guitar as well as participate in electric guitar pyrotechnics common of that time – but he entered into conflict with the other Eagles as they pushed further into rock territory. He was replaced by Joe Walsh of Barnstorm and The James Gang. And no disrespect to Leadon, but Walsh was the perfect foil for the occasional pomposity that was coming out of Don Henley and Glenn Frey during the late period of the band. Bassist and high tenor Randy Meisner was gone soon, as well, meaning that all that was left of the original band was Henley and Frey. Which makes sense, as they wrote and sang most of the songs. But their iconic classic “Hotel California,” heard every few minutes on a radio station somewhere, would have been impossible to consider without Joe Walsh. He provided the Eagles with the rock cred they were seeking.
And there you have it: three examples of rock band takeovers. Next time you listen to these groups, consider the before and after.
Michael Bird is assistant band director for Tallassee City Schools.