The no-hit wonders that music refused to forget
As the latest 'failures' to be discovered long after their demise are rehabilitated on CD, Chris Mugan selects some of the other bands it took us a long, long time to appreciate
Friday 21 March 2008
A compilation of just about the entire recorded output of famed Manhattan punk-funkers Liquid Liquid is the latest stage in a remarkable rehabilitation. During their lifespan in the early Eighties, this enigmatic foursome released but three EPs, so the forthcoming 20-track set is augmented by live shows.
The percussion and bass group have gone on to become one of dance music's most influential proponents. The bassline to their echo-laden "Cavern" formed the nagging hook of one of hip-hop's most memorable tunes – Melle Mel and The Furious Five's "White Lines". Glasgow's eclectic Sunday night shindig "Optimo" is named after another track, while almost every band from the Big Apple in recent years, from LCD Soundsystem to Vampire Weekend, owe them a debt of gratitude.
These days, whole subcultures can rise up around an artist who never came close, or even had the intention, of hitting the charts. Artists can remain undiscovered until they capture a well-connected acolyte's imagination, whether a crate-digger rummaging through dusty record collections or a questing artist looking for a new sound. Here are some other no-hit wonders who have made good in the end.
At their creative peak, most people had little clue that the bunch working with Andy Warhol could be influential beyond their New York home. Yet such is the disparity between their influence and initial success. Brian Eno is supposed to have said that a few thousand people bought their first album, almost all of whom formed bands. At the time, though, their confrontational stance and atonal drones were at odds with the peacenik hippie vibes and hallucinogenic visions emanating from the US west coast. David Bowie, who namechecked them on Hunky Dory, repaid his debt by producing Lou Reed's breakthrough solo work Transformer. It was with punk and new wave late in the decade, though, that the Underground's relevance was assured, witnessed when the band reformed in the early Nineties to huge excitement.
Originally just another Detroit garage band, the Motor City Five's manager John Sinclair nurtured their devotion to free-jazz exponents Pharoah Sanders and Sun Ra, along with an interest in White Panther radical politics. They eventually became figureheads for the movement. Elektra dared to sign them in 1968, but many retailers refused to stock their debut live album with its outburst, "Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!". Unable to digest that lesson, the Five retaliated by putting out an ad criticising a local record shop with the straightforward slogan "Fuck Hudson" and found themselves summarily dropped.
The band survived until 1972, after which guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith married punk poet Patti Smith, while his band's attitudes percolated through her artistic generation. Surviving members reformed in 1991 at a memorial gig for singer Rob Tyner, after his death from a heart attack, following which the co-guitarist Wayne Kramer embarked on a well-received solo career.
Nowadays she is idolised by the new folk scene but, during the mid-Sixties, Bunyan, a descendent of the Pilgrim's Progress author John, tried to make it as a pop star.
Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham shaped her in the manner of another English waif, Marianne Faithfull. When that failed, she took a horse-drawn caravan to Skye to join a commune set up by folk-pop star Donovan. While the commune came to nought, Bunyan had written songs that would appear on her debut album Just Another Diamond Day, recorded with the help of influential producer Joe Boyd.
While this record did earn favourable notices, it failed to attract an audience, so Bunyan took early retirement. The album, though, became a cornerstone of the folk revival, inspiring the likes of Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom. The former wrote to Bunyan asking if he should continue in music. Bunyan went on to collaborate with him and Animal Collective, eventually releasing her 30-year follow-up record Lookaftering, while the title track from her debut was used to soundtrack an advert for a mobile phone.
To complete the triumvirate of US alternative rockers, we return to Michigan and a group that made up for their lack of political nous with a gargantuan appetite for drugs and excess. Signed to the same label as the MC5 by the same A&R man, the band led by Iggy Pop soon developed a reputation for reckless behaviour.
While Pop wanted to redefine the blues to mirror his own experiences, audiences saw a half-naked man writhe around in peanut butter.
The band imploded in the wake of critical derision, until Bowie got them back together temporarily for 1973's Raw Power, though it was as a solo artist that Pop made his mark. The Stooges myth, meanwhile, grew, thanks to the likes of the Sex Pistols covering "No Fun", and eventually led to pressure for the band to reconvene. The sight of their fans storming the stage remains one of the most memorable moments from Glastonbury 2007.
Despite punk's iconoclastic energy, and the short-term success of The Slits and X-Ray Spex, it is hard to dismiss the feeling that sexism remained rife. Many female-dominated acts, ignored at the time, have gone on to be praised as brave pioneers, from Manchester's Ludus to Swiss upstarts LiLiPUT, but it is The Raincoats who made the most impact by mixing sonic eccentricity with put-downs of consumerism and patriarchal society.
After the failure of 1984 album Moving, founder member Ana da Silva turned to dance as a means of expression, while the band's records awaited a more favourable time. That was the early Nineties, when the Riot Grrrl movement opened doors for female musicians and Kurt Cobain walked into Rough Trade to buy a copy of their first album. He was directed to Da Silva's house round the corner. A reformed line-up would have supported Nirvana if Cobain had not committed suicide, but The Raincoats still went on to play some other occasions, among them Robert Wyatt's Meltdown in London and Leeds Ladyfest.
The Fire Engines
It was all over in 18 months for this Edinburgh outfit, which makes their future influence all the more surprising compared to their peers, especially Edwyn Collins's Orange Juice, who mixed pop and soul to popular affect. The Fire Engines remained, during their short span, in thrall to post-punk's darker side, especially The Fall and New York's no-wave scene. Signed by the person who discovered the Human League and Gang Of Four, their bubblegum gem "Candyskin" made waves on the indie chart, but "Big Gold Dream" failed to live up to its promise and the band disbanded in 1981.
Almost every Scottish band of note that has followed in their wake has namechecked them: the Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream and, most emphatically, Franz Ferdinand. After a 23-year hiatus the band reformed to record a split single with their young admirers and have intermittently played live since. A compilation of their output came out last year.
Few have heard their original, once hard-to-find punk funk, but fans of Beastie Boys, Wu-Tang Clan and Gang Starr, among many other hip-hop artists, will have heard them sampled. ESG were based around three, then four, mixed-race daughters from South Bronx, given instruments by their mum to keep them out of trouble. They developed their own pared-down sound that somehow chimed with more arty concerns, eventually seeing them taken under the wing of Factory Records producer Martin Hamnett.
Their visit to its Hacienda club was not well thought-out, and the band disintegrated after their label, 99 Records, also home to Liquid Liquid, went under in the wake of an unsuccessful sample-clearance suit over "White Lines".
Since reforming in the early Nineties, the band have made more successful returns to promote reissues, with original members' daughters filling in where necessary.
When she succumbed to melanoma, aged 33, in 1996, this Washington DC-based artist had released one album but was unknown beyond her home city. That changed four years later when Terry Wogan starting plugging her cover version of "Over the Rainbow" on his Radio 2 show and a rough film of her live performance did the rounds. Subsequently, a compilation, Songbird, topped the UK album charts.
This was partly a case of finding the right time for the gentle acoustic reveries, though she has had a remarkable impact on a new generation of solo artists, most notably Katie Melua, who wrote "Faraway Voice" about her and last year contrived to duet with Cassidy on her Christmas single, a cover of Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World".
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