BECOMING A ROCK CHAMELEON - THE INHERENT DIFFICULTY OF MUSICAL REINVENTION
ARCTIC LION OPINION
Does a chameleon disguise itself to blend into its environment or is trying to make itself seen? The chameleon’s unique ability is not simply to adapt to its surroundings; it can fundamentally change without becoming something else entirely.
David Bowie’s untimely passing on January 10th 2016 marked the sad end of the life of a true musical chameleon. With his death he could rest in the comfort of his own words – “I have done just about everything that it’s possible to do”, having shed his skin nearly every year throughout the 1970s as he took on a brilliantly fascinating array of characters from Ziggy Stardust to The Thin White Duke. He reinvented himself with each persona and album – from glam rock on Diamond Dogs one year to cocaine-fuelled krautrock Station To Station the next via soul and jazz on Young Americans. He kept people guessing and entertained whilst many of his peers settled instead for a comfortable niche; never straying far from what gave them an initial taste of success. Into the 1980s, his albums were still well received critically but none possessed the metamorphic magic and genius of the decade before. His forays with the Tin Machine showed flashes of his former self but he was becoming more and more one dimensional as his musical palette narrowed into a lukewarm mixture of pop and synthesiser-heavy dance rock.
Remarkably, it wasn’t until the months before his passing that he decided to leave us with a final swansong that wouldn’t have stood out of place alongside his best work. Blackstars’ opening track is an astonishing 10 minute farewell song in which Bowie, undoubtedly a standout star in the night-time sky of popular music, explodes like a supernova in one final flourish. It’s a reminder that some of us may reach stardom at some point in our careers or lives, but not all are reborn in the wake of the legacy we leave behind. Ryan Dombal of Pitchfork echoed this sentiment: “This tortured immortality is no gimmick: Bowie will live on long after the man has died”
It’s incredible to think that, nearly 50 years on from Space Oddity which sparked his cast of wonderful characters and startlingly original music, Bowie reinvented himself one last time and was actually successful in doing so. He used his decaying body and mind, as well as repeated listens of Kendrick Lamar’s seminal 2015 hip-hop album To Pimp a Butterfly, as motivation to address his inevitable departure and find a flicker of light amidst the darkness. Even those who worked alongside him during his last days battling liver cancer couldn’t tell he was sick – such was the revitalising effect music and creation had on him. Only Bowie could have given birth to something whilst he was dying.
To put Bowie’s extraordinary life and career into context, it has proven difficult for anyone since to follow up just one great album with another whilst changing their sound. From my generation I can only think of a single artist who has managed to change direction without sacrificing greatness. However, before one can be as clear-cut so as to label an artist’s work as either a success or failure, the notion of reinvention itself raises some important questions. Is it worth risking losing a fan base and your own focus by changing your sound? Should a winning formula be changed? Do artists need reinvention to stay challenged, fresh and to evolve with the times? Is an attempt to do so commendable even if it doesn’t work out?
Radiohead’s first iteration, 1993’s debut album Pablo Honey, is tame and straightforward by their later standards but throughout Jonny Greenwood’s crunching riffs you can hear clear ambition and a willingness to trade rock convention for something more interesting. Their next two albums, The Bends and OK Computer, more than qualify the band as heirs to Bowie’s throne as true rock chameleons. Both were released over twenty years ago and to this day we are yet to hear anything that stands out without sacrificing the seeds of greatness in the band’s DNA (in this case, the seamless marrying of Yorke’s haunting falsetto with the Greenwood brothers’ foreboding guitars – perhaps only Morrissey and Marr have ever blended the guitar and voice as interchangeable instruments). The band would go on to trade guitars for electronica briefly, before In Rainbows and A Moon Shaped Pool drew upon both to cement the Oxford quintet as the band U2 and Coldplay wished they had become – transcendent artists who make compelling music without feeling the need to tell everyone about it.
The process of musical reincarnation is complex and the journey can take many forms, with Radiohead and Bowie merely two extreme examples to show how difficult it is to get right. It’s a delicate balance and the ingredients have to be just right – like a concert setlist containing enough of the older hits whilst gradually introducing new material. Sometimes circumstances at a much larger scale than the music itself have a direct influence, and at other times it might be better to simply quit whilst ahead. It’s also possible for artists to successfully try something new once or twice before fading away. In the former case, Oasis should have realised their internal feuds were destroying the chance of ever producing anything as good as their first two albums. In the latter, Arcade Fire managed to make three great and different albums in a row – culminating in nostalgic concept album The Suburbs – but 2017’s woeful Everything Now sounds like a budget ABBA tribute band and has left them in a difficult place not many return from. Hot Fuss, The Killers’ electrifying debut, is perhaps the youth-defining album of anyone born in the late 1980s, but they too are at risk of disappearing without a trace – even after second album Sam’s Town was more experimental and hinted at the possibility of pastures new. We’ll never know what might have happened to Nirvana or The Smiths – both were cut short for different reasons – but they were successful in never straying far from grunge and jangly British guitar rock respectively.
It’s hard to say what gives you a better chance of success as an artist – and that of course depends entirely on how you define success. For bands like Muse whose songs come alive most in concert, their fan base might be the most important factor – and this could be at risk if the band strive too hard for innovation. The first time Bob Dylan played “Like A Rolling Stone” backed by an electric band in 1965 at the Newport Rock Festival, some sections of the audience booed the performance. Dylan was good enough to convince the world that this was a good venture for him going forwards, but not everyone would have been able to adapt.
There’s something to be said for honing and then staying true to a unique style (like Nirvana or The Smiths), but reinvention is necessary for those more interested in creating a lasting legacy than assuring cult status. Like Bowie gaining inspiration from an unlikely source in Kendrick Lamar, Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys turned to Dr Dre and G-funk samples from LA in the early 1990s to shape the hip-hop beats on 2013’s AM. This was a clever way of freshening up the Monkeys’ sound - retaining their witty and relatable lyrics whilst finding a way to keep up with modern trends. They were able to change without becoming something else entirely.
Reinvention in itself does and should not guarantee success, but credit should always be given to those who attempt to avoid repeating themselves. The difficulty lies in knowing what to change, by how much, and when. Still, being an artist is a full time job like any other. Making the decision to embark on new musical adventures if early material has secured record deals may be a question of keeping up momentum. It’s a shame that bands like The Arcade Fire and The Killers have lost touch with what made them great in the first place, but maybe it’s too much to ask that everyone who shows early promise go on to morph and change colours like David Bowie or Radiohead.
James Armstrong 21st March 2018