Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published October 13th 2020
Different can be good
I was listening to an old album by Abba with a new friend because… reasons. Anyway, a track came on that made her stop and do a double take, go to the record player (yes., it's on vinyl) and replay the track. No, she was not hearing things. This track (which we will come to) was by arguably the best pop group ever (as opposed to rock group) and yet it did not feel like it.
This got me thinking – are there any other songs released by artists that do not match the image of artists that performed them? Well, it only took me half a day of the two of us going through my albums to realise – yes, yes there are. Oh yes, there are.
Maybe not this strange (Photo by Dominik Vanyi on Unsplash)
So, first some caveats. A lot of these are album tracks. But that's fine. They were still released by the artists. I have avoided live-only tracks – after months of being on the road, who can blame an artist for trying something different? Also, some of these tracks are actually well-known. Doesn't matter. They're still out of character.
Now, I do not mean cameo appearances on another artist's track. That could be for a bit of fun. And not a one-off track for a film soundtrack or the like. That could be for a decent pay-day, or be thrust upon the artist by powers beyond their control. These appeared on an artist's album or were released as non-album singles.
All right, the biggest thing with this list is that I have to like the song. A lot of out of character tracks have been released (or entire albums – I am looking at you Lou Reed and Machine Metal Music) that I simply do not like. So, so many. There is a reason why artists should stick with what they know a lot of the time. Of course, there are some artists who are beyond this sort of categorisation: when Queen, Frank Zappa, Bob Dylan even The Beatles released tracks (or albums) that could be considered odd, the audience could still see where they were coming from. Even The Beatles' 'Revolution 9' came out of their in-studio experimentation.
And get ready for a number of instrumentals.
That's a long introduction. Sorry. here are ten songs that do not seem to fit an artist's image.
I'll bet a few people would have thought David Bowie would have been one of those artists who would be placed in the list of people who could not release anything out of character, like Zappa. Well, yes. In fact, I did not even consider him for this list for just that reason. But… He has a novelty song in his canon. A novelty song. About a laughing gnome. Look, it's a fun bit of frippery, and I don't mind it. But does it stand against 'Space Oddity', 'Heroes' or 'Lazarus'? It sounds like a completely different person. But I guess that's the point of this list.
'Bike' by Pink Floyd (1967)
Pink Floyd released some weird psychedelic tracks in the 1960s under the guidance of Syd Barrett. 'See Emily Play' and 'Arnold Layne' are great tracks, and yet you can still hear the start of what would become the awesome prog-rock sound of Dark Side Of The Moon emerging. And then there is this track about owning a pushbike. It does not sound like anything else Pink Floyd released. Some songs might have come close, but this is just strange. So why do I like it? Yeah, some questions don't really have answers.
'Laguna Sunrise' by Black Sabbath (1972)
Black Sabbath. Ozzy Osbourne. Music to make priests rant from the pulpit. Songs that make Tipper Gore's head explode (1990s reference!). And then there is this wonderful and glorious instrumental track. It almost has the feel of surf music of the 1960s, with some wonderful guitar playing and a laid-back feel, like lying on a Fijian beach back in times when we were allowed to do things like lie on beaches in other countries (and that comment is going to date this column badly in a year's time). Hardly the same band that gave us 'Paranoid'.
'Intermezzo No. 1' by Abba (1975)
The track that started me down this particular rabbit hole. I stand by my comment earlier that Abba are one of the best pop groups ever. Their songs are surprisingly complex with incredible lyrics and really strong instrumentation. But then we have what is essentially an up-tempo piece of music. None of those amazing vocal harmonies to be found, but incredibly complex piano and guitar playing and a tune that sticks with you. Abba… virtually classical music. Sure. Why not?
'Journey Of The Sorcerer' by The Eagles (1975)
For those like me who were sci-fi nerds in the 1980s, this track will be remembered for one thing and one thing only – the title music in the BBC radio and TV adaptations of Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. While there are some of those jangly guitars (and a banjo) associated with The Eagles, the ethereal qualities of this song are so far removed from 'Hotel California' that it could be a different band. In fact, it took a good mate to actually play me the album One Of These Nights by The Eagles for me to believe it…
'Wedding Cake Island' by Midnight Oil (1980)
Political songs with a strong message, topped by the distinctive delivery of Peter Garrett, Midnight Oil were (are?) one of the greatest political bands in Australian music history. They are known in the USA for precisely one song, but in Australia, they have a canon of tracks that basically outline the troubles in the country. And then there's this wonderful instrumental. From the Bird Noises EP, this is so not-Midnight Oil that when I played it for a friend in high school, he told me I was mistaken – this could not be the Oils. Well, it is… and it's great.
'Just A Gigolo/I Ain't Got Nobody' by David Lee Roth (1985)
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Van Halen were right there amongst the top of the rock music world. Along with Eddie Van Halen's guitar, it was the instant charisma of front-man David Lee Roth that made people take notice. But Roth and the rest of the band had a falling out. Van Halen would maintain their momentum with new front-man Sammy Hagar. What did David Lee Roth, one of the best rock voices of a generation, do? He released a cover version of a 1920s standard… Look, it's a fun track but this is so not Van Halen.
'Numb' by U2 (1993)
1990s U2 was a strange beast. They moved away from their post-punk guitar-rock days and into a more experimental electronic diversion. But even amongst all of that, they were still U2 – Bono's voice, great rock instrumentation even if behind the electronica. And then there was this track. Sung by guitarist Edge, with no guitars and sparse instrumentation throughout… When I first heard it, I did not even pick it was by U2. However, in Australia it was released only as a video single "back in the day"… and I actually bought the VHS tape. And I still own it.
'What A Wonderful World' by Joey Ramone (2002)
The lead singer of one of the original US punk bands, known for their short, sharp and shiny pieces of music, did a solo cover of the Louis Armstrong classic, released after his death. The musicians try hard to be at least rock, but Joey Ramone's delivery is not punk. He is singing a straight-forward cover. I get the impression this song meant something to him, but it does not sound like anything Ramones-ish.
'Jingle Bells' by Eric Clapton (2018)
I have talked about this song before, at length, and I did say I like it, but it stands out in the middle of a collection of pretty standard Christmas songs. I mentioned in my review of the album it is a little like his work with TDF, but it goes beyond that. This is Clapton doing EDM. How on Earth did that happen? Sure, because Avicii died, but this song sounds like anyone but Clapton. And yet, I actually enjoy it…
Like I said at the start, I do like all of these. My friend dislikes two of them. This list was hard to collate because so many diversions are not good. But sometimes artists can change up and maintain their artistic integrity and the tracks stand out well by themselves. That is the sign of a good performer or band. They do not have to be pigeon-holed into one simple little category. When they extend themselves and go beyond the expectations of listeners – even their hard-core fan-base – and still produce great pieces, then we know we are listening to a true artist.