Pop casualties clad in auto-tuned armory and comically bombastic balladry now clog the mainstream airwaves. Occasionally, though, an outsider will chip away at the partition dividing the true artists from the superficial stand-ins.
The newfound fame of Detroit singer-songwriter Rodriguez, thanks to the acclaimed documentary Searching for Sugar Man, has unearthed an artistic graveyard, one where many acts–some rightfully present, others inappropriately exiled–are left to rot in inconspicuousness. Rodriguez’s heartbreaking story of crippling failure and finally receiving long-overdue artistic reparations has become an overnight sensation, with screenings cropping up across the country and Rodriguez embarking on a modest world tour.
What makes Rodriguez’s music and story so appealing is the fact that there are so many other casualties of mainstream whims like him, and many won’t be lucky enough to find redemption.
Perhaps the most unanimously underrated band of all time, The Kinks’ catalog is bursting with Brit pop gems that have sadly gone unheard. While the quartet may have enjoyed a blink of success with back-to-back singles “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night” charting in 1964, this is far less success than Ray Davies and his bandmates deserved. With its relentless riffs and ruthless attitude, The Kinks laid the foundation for now-vital genres like garage rock and loud rock.
The music industry’s passiveness toward the band was hypothesized to be the byproduct of American hyper nationalism, as The Kinks embraced its British roots much more wholeheartedly than the country-neutral Beatles and Chicago blues-embracing band The Rolling Stones. Sadly, The Kinks’ calling card has now become “Lola,” an over-commercialized song that has tarnished the members’ reputation as proto-punk Brits that could have held their own against contemporaries if they had ever been given the chance.
The Kinks left rock in a state of precocious youthfulness, so the genre still needed to be nurtured in order to reach its fullest, loudest potential. The Birthday Party undoubtedly took the liberty of fostering the volume and coaxing the darkness out of rock ‘n’ roll. Before Nick Cave’s irresistibly freaky project with The Bad Seeds, there was The Birthday Party, an Australian rock outfit boasting Cave’s kooky compositions and appealingly eccentric attitudes.
The songs adopted the tense buildup and eardrum-pounding crescendos that are now rife in the rock world. Grabbing influences from goth rock, avante garde rock, and punk, The Birthday Party was the first of many fusion bands that would go relatively unheard despite British DJ John Peel’s stalwart support. The Birthday Party’s lack of success is an anomaly even today, but the group remains a latent influence for many punk and goth-inclined bands.
While Nick Cave may have become a musical icon in his own right, he has never allowed himself to eclipse any attention that should rightfully be focused on the music. Some bands have been overshadowed by their mere iconography, forcing the music to sidestep, as is the case with The Doors.
Jim Morrison has now become a cultural icon, his chiseled face stamped on mass-market t-shirts, posters bearing his sexy stare ushering giddy teenaged girls’ coos, without much justification.
The Doors isn’t completely disenfranchised by Morrison’s popularity because it does bear some name recognition, but its bluesy, politically charged tunes have been tragically overlooked.
Before The Doors began churning out sex-swathed blues, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac was shaking knees and breaking hearts with bluegrass thumpers like “Oh Well.” In the early ’60s, before Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham were rounding out their ever-changing lineup, Fleetwood Mac’s early catalog contained classic blues structures and impeccable guitar work by Peter Green.
However, much of this work has collected dust beneath the sensationalism of the romantic relationships and dissolution within the band during the Rumours era. While many do appreciate the contributions that Fleetwood Mac has made to music, others do not realize just what an unstoppable machine the band was before the chart-topping singles and tabloid-worthy affairs.
As the mainstream’s collective ears tired of swarthy blues and cock rock, pop rock — the soundtrack to ironic self-loathing — began to take shape.
Overshadowed by the meteoric rise of bands like The Cure and U2, seminal ’80s post-punk band Echo and the Bunnymen was largely ignored by the dark rock-loving decade. Known in America for little more than contributing to highly regarded soundtracks like Pretty In Pink, the band’s extensive catalog has gone largely untouched.
Lead singer Ian McCulloch’s voice conveyed the morose overtones of post-punk, but he restrained himself from treading into uncomfortably macabre territory. Guitarist Will Sergeant’s generous amounts of reverb created an atmospheric backdrop for the band’s overall musically opaque sound. The band eventually split and reformed ten years later, but other than approval of mainstream hits like “The Killing Moon” and “Lips Like Sugar,” Echo and the Bunnymen still has cult status rather than wide recognition.
While some deserving bands vie for acknowledgment throughout the course of their careers, others downright avoid notoriety even as a successful band. Pavement, forerunners of 1990s alternative rock, may be touted as one of the most significant indie bands of the ’90s, but its music is still not integrated into mainstream culture. Classic albums like Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and Wowee Zowee have solidified Pavement’s legitimacy as a band, but it has not yet assimilated into the classic nook of musical archives.
Similarly, Smashing Pumpkins is still overshadowed by pinnacle grunge bands as far as the ’90s music scene is concerned. Nirvana seems to have become the symbol for ’90s rock, but the dynamic Chicago outfit Smashing Pumpkins has displayed an incredible virtuosity thanks to the leadership of createur extraordinaire, Billy Corgan.
Double album Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness was an unprecedented release, showcasing a vast development in the merging of grunge influences with classic rock structure. Because of its length and lack of mainstream accessibility, it seems that only the most astute ears and dedicated fans have enjoyed this quintessential album, along with the band’s excitingly imaginative catalog.
Regretfully, the public still has not learned from mistakenly shunning bands into obscurity and condemning them to a lifetime of bargain 45’s and the wonder of “what could have been.” The most recent casualty of obscurity is–regretfully–bestowed upon post-punk outfit Interpol. Bearing too much resemblance to melancholy Brit rock outfit Joy Division for the discerning ears of critics, Interpol has been wrongfully criticized and its distinctive, goth-rock sound has gone unheard by many. Joining new wave influences and New York underground sentiments, the quartet has shown it is much more than a two-dimensional cover band.
The airtight riff action and tongue-tripping vocal delivery of “The Heinrich Maneuver” displayed the band’s current indie-rock lean, while the infectious hums of “Barricade” glimmer with a sunnier side of post-punk. Dripping with emotion and shuttered in isolation, Interpol has gone mostly untouched by mainstream airwaves.
While quality music falling on deaf ears—or worse, no ears at all—is a great musical tragedy, there is a resplendent shard of prospect.
These unappreciated artists give fans something to champion for. Every passionate music fan has that one band, the industry underdog that they support without fail. It’s an exclusive club, this brand of fandom, where one will gladly cheer from a vacant sideline just to feel closer to an underrated band.
Part of this fan desperately wants to see its band rise to the top of the wading pool and become a fixture; but a sick fragment of oneself hopes that the band drowns in ignorance, leaving the talent to be selfishly appreciated only by a small cult following.
But despite fans’ efforts and a band’s determination, some music simply flounders in the sonic abyss. The reality is that there are countless casualties and plenty of remnants of fantastic music sunk at the bottom of this vast musical ocean. It’s up to us to scrounge for them and never let them fall silent, because disapproving or misunderstanding ears are better than none at all.