Thursday, 13 December 2012

Jumping the Rock and Roll Shark - The Top 10

I have long thought about the astounding creative heights that some musicians are able to achieve and how a once prolific output inevitably levels off and, unless you are Led Zeppelin, declines into a comfortable rut of everything after your greatest hits years. To put it in easy T.V. terms that those of us over 30 can relate to…they’ve jumped the shark. You know the story. The Fonz, in his leather jacket and short shorts, jumped over the shark tank and Happy Days had thusly reached its apex. It could go no higher, and anything after the fact was just a sad footnote which would eventually lead to Joanie Loves Chachi.
This happens time and again in the music world, where I suppose some artists have earned the right or perhaps feel compelled to year after year put out a bunch of less than stellar records. I refer to the type of release where there is one half decent single that gets some radio play, and the rest if simply filler.
 It does seem unrealistic for us to expect Exile on Main Street or Automatic for the People from our musical heroes year after year, but when exactly does this fall off in production occur and what precipitates it? I understand that one can only come up with the riff for Seven Nation Army or Sunshine of Your Love so many times in a career, but it begs the question of why does that creative well run dry?
In musical terms, bands often have a brilliant stretch of magic, where everything they produce turns to gold, and then inexplicably things go sideways. It happens to pop bands, metal bands, nut jobs like Michael Jackson- who spent the latter part of his career trying to make another Thriller -and everything in between. Hall and Oates must have had fans at one time, and then one day, those fans must have said, “This new record is crap. Give us more songs like Maneater.”                                                             
Point being, somewhere along the line, one expects that there will be no more “Thrillers” and we are forced to witness the slow descent into a mad world of plastic surgery and duets with your  sister Janet who looks eerily just like you.
The exact moment of jumping the shark is painfully obvious in certain cases, whereas in others the line is somewhat blurry. For example, I can’t quite pinpoint when the Tragically Hip stopped doing it for me. Sometime between Trouble at the Henhouse and Phantom Power. After that, I couldn’t be bothered to buy another CD. With each new release, my disinterest grew, forcing me back to my old favorites Road Apples, Up to Here and Fully Completely.
As a more abrupt departure, I could cite someone like David Bowie, who seemingly stopped dead in his tracks after 1983’s Lets Dance. Since then, Bowie has put out 10 albums and I defy you to name one of them. Exactly. So what happened? The man that gave us Heroes and Fame, has spent the last thirty years at work and is only able to offer up marginally entertaining schlock.
Also to be mentioned is the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. Three men who between them practically invented rock and roll and all still perform to this day in varying degrees. Between 1955 and 1960 they had more hits than is believable and they created and perfected a musical genre that is still revered and copied to this day. Suffice it to say, if they all jumped the shark by 1960, it was due to extreme creative overload and awesomeness. We can’t fault them for that.
Not jumping the shark is possible, but it requires an impeccable sense of timing and strong fortitude to resist the public demand for more crap. This club includes such notables as The Police, C.C.R. and Blind Faith. Yes, occasionally musicians go out at the top of their game either by death or misadventure, such as Nirvana or Sam Cooke, but sadly, that list is too long to get into.
As a final note before the list, I’m not referring to a bands prowess at live performances either, but rather the act of songwriting and recording. Many bands are still able to absolutely kill it live, long past their recording due date. The Allman Brothers for example, can melt your brain on any given night yet it has been a long while since they released anything of consequence, other than live albums.
The following bands are my choices for major Shark Jumpers. To protect myself, as always, they are in no particular order
10.The Clash – Combat Rock 1982

The beginning of the end for a pioneering punk band. At least it was a short death, without lingering around the entire 80’s.  Can you imagine the Clash deteriorating into soppy ballads, new wave stylings or hair metal? They came, they saw, they kicked ass and when things started to get weird after Combat Rock, they shut it down. The one release after 1982, Cut the Crap, was not particularly well received and it was clear that their best days as a band were behind them. Combat Rock may not have been the second coming of London Calling, but it was damn good, and it marked the point after which the Clash were no longer relevant in an F@#$ You Punk sort of way.

 9. Rush – Signals 1982

Jack Black stated in the documentary, Beyond the Lighted Stage, that “Rush is just one of those bands that has a deep reservoir of rocket sauce. A lot of bands - they've only got so much in the bottle. They use it up sometimes in one song. These guys were the real deal. Their bottle was so big and so filled to the brim, they were shaking it literally for decades. And still there was sauce coming out.”
While that may be partially true, I would have to counter that the sauce coming out as of late has been more like Mayonnaise Lite  than rocket sauce.
Rush has put out 11 studio releases since 1982’s Signals, the break off point for many fans. This is a divisive time period where many of the older fans decided that whatever was coming out of the bottle now was less palatable than before. A common argument one hears is that the band started using synthesisers around this time, but that is not accurate.  There are synthesizers in Moving Pictures and 2112, but they are also full of much better songs. The reason that people stopped buying later albums is because the songs on them are mediocre compared to what came before.
Rush did pick up many new fans throughout the 80’s and beyond, but it was often on the back of the older releases.
8. AC/DC  - Back in Black 1980

AC/DC was on a roll from its inception through to the death of Bon Scott in 1980, shortly after the release of his last effort with the band Highway to Hell.  Amazingly enough, this disastrous event did not reduce the band to rubble as would be expected but rather steered them in a different direction, with a new singer. Brian Johnson came on board and what happened next was pure serendipity. Back in Black was born, and things in the rock and roll world ain’t been the same since. It has sold an estimated 50 million copies and is second only behind only Thriller in all time sales, anywhere, ever, period.
 Unfortunately, a creation of this magnitude was more like jumping a flaming pit filled with sharks, crocodiles, and velociraptors, blindfolded, while riding a tricycle. That’s a big jump. 
1981’s For Those About to Rock was good, very good even by some standards but, look at what it was up against. Each subsequent release after 1980 has a great song or two on it, but nothing really to compare to Back in Black.  Fortunately, AC/DC proceeded to put on live spectacles that kept fans coming back year after year. Enjoy them for what they are, and don’t expect another masterpiece.

7. The Cult - Sonic Temple 1989

The Cult burst onto the scene in the mid-eighties as a sort of crossover band, appealing to all sorts of music lovers from rockers to punks and those in between. Their catalogue can basically be cut in half with whatever came before Sonic Temple being mostly great stuff and everything after being mostly not. Sonic Temple had the songs to carry it, the band wasn’t fighting, and Ian Astbury still had long hair. To date, there has been no monumental comeback album, and as such, if you have everything up to Sonic Temple on your iPod, you don’t need to panic.
6. U2 – Zooropa 1993

I can’t claim to be unbiased in the U2 department, having a rather strong preference for the first five or six releases, however, I have done my research on this band and the general consensus seems to be that Zooropa represents a turning point in their history. This is the start of the new U2, where they lean more on electronica and spectacle rather than a good old rock and roll band thrashing around songs of injustice. While U2 may have kept the gravy train going for the last 20 years, they have done it as a different kind of band. U2 the latter (1993 to present) somehow seems less relevant than U2 the former (1976-1992).
5. Stones – Tattoo You 1981

My first love. There was a time when I was all things Stones, blindly snatching up new releases such as 1984’s Undercover of the Night and the 1986 release Dirty Work. I even replaced Emotional Rescue on CD when the cassette wore out. Eventually I came to the realization that Emotional Rescue on CD, while better quality than Emotional Rescue on cassette, was still crap. The Stones weathered the disco storm and still had enough rocks to cobble together a really good bunch of songs on Tattoo You. Granted, many of them were extras from earlier recording sessions that had been collecting dust for years, but at least they saw the light of day. The Stones had a great run up until this point, and were able to cap off the 70’s as the greatest rock and roll band in the world. They certainly could have cruised through the 80’s and 90’s as a touring band without having to release any of the substandard stuff that they did.                                                                                 I said “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Whooo…they jumped the shark with Tattoo You.”
4. Tragically Hip – Phantom Power 1998

Two of my favorite Hip songs come from this release, which is one of main reasons I didn’t place it in the post shark jumping era. Poets is the first and the second, Bobcaygeon, has become a veritable Hip anthem. I think they’re still a great band, and I would see them live at the drop of a hat, but I’m cutting them off at Phantom Power in terms of the high point in their writing career.
3. Guns and Roses - Appetite for Destruction 1987

Guns and Roses in 100 words or less? First album was a groundbreaker, smashing all the existing hair metal bands to smithereens. Shortly thereafter, came the much anticipated, but less groundbreaking Use Your Illusion pair. Shortly thereafter, infighting, drugs and craziness led to The Spaghetti Incident. What followed was various incarnations of temporary band members led by the increasingly reclusive Axel Rose, producing the mostly disastrous and final release to date, Chinese Democracy. Talk about setting the bar high on your first jump.
2. Rod Stewart – Blondes Have More Fun 1978

Okay….wow. I picked the Rod Stewart album with a giant disco hit on it, and I’m not entirely sure this was his shark jumping moment, but here goes. From Rod’s tenure in the Faces up until 1978, we have a plethora of good material to choose from the early Stay With Me and Maggie May to Gasoline Alley and Mandolin Wind. Rods whiskey and cigarette tinged voice was complimented with an always great backing band and that made for some very memorable songs. The guy had a pretty good thing going for most of the 70’s and what a way to finish it off by stacking up a pretty good album that was Blondes, and top it off with a chart topping disco hit. There was much much more great stuff before this record but there was very little great stuff after it. Rod went on a spree of covers, ballads, adult contemporary, pop standards, Christmas songs, big band remakes and probably some other crap which I haven’t got the spine to look into. So there it is. You make some history with some killer songs, you jump the shark smack dab in the middle of the disco era, and you ride out your days singing Gershwin standards.
1.Elton John – Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy 1975

Before and up until Captain Fantastic, Elton would be remembered for the likes of Rocket Man, Yellow Brick Road, Tiny Dancer, and Candle in the Wind. After this prodigious period, he would be remembered for Don’t go Breaking My Heart, Can You Feel the Love Tonight and a remake of Candle in the Wind for Princess Di, which pretty much ruined it.  Similarly to Rod Stewart, a string of duets, Christmas songs and general schlock ensured that our man Elton jumped the shark long before his legend ever did.

Your homework should you choose to accept it:
Rod and The Faces leaning into a really great cover of Maybe I'm Amazed. Rod hits the mic at 1:10 and if you don't get a shiver...well, you ain't got ears.

3 comments:

  1. Too bad there are no comments here; it's a great topic.

    The one that intriques me is Rush. I absolutely agree with your assessment. They were a really great band from their inception in 1974, when they were plating bluesy heavy metal often compared to Led Zeppelin, through Moving Pictures.

    Along the way they truly evolved, creating a sound like no other band before or since.

    Then with their 1982 release "Signals" they all of a sudden took a sharp turn towards bland synth driven pop. They still managed two decent songs on that album (Subdivisions and New World Man) but the album was stunningly bland.

    They only got worse afterwards.


    The interesting part though is that most Rush fans know they jumped the shark with Signals, but many will deny it in a manner reminiscent of religious apologetics.

    There are other bands whose fans will deny jumping the shark, but none are so committed to this denial or so bad at making convincing people that they actually like their post Signals material.

    Their last tour (R41 in 2015) was awesome however precisely because it featured 90 minutes of material from their pre-Signals albums.

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    1. Very astute observations Joseph. I have not seen rush play live for many years, but the last time was when they were doing a 2112 celebration as part of the show so it was all good! Also, Geddy's voice was still in top shape back then. Around 1997 I think???

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