I have come to the conclusion that the artists that have stood the test of time have been chameleons. They have bucked trends, done the unexpected and taken risks. They have put out material with little concern for if the masses will like it. They have followed up great successes with risky experiments.
Who falls into this category? Rush certainly does. They seem to entirely change their approach every few albums. So does U2, and so has Neil Young. Neil is a great example actually. Since the late 60s, he has sort of rotated between hard rock (with Crazy Horse) and country/acoustic, but along the way he has taken such insane side roads as rockabilly, big band, and the totally bizarre "Trans" album which had Neil singing everything through a vocorder. To illustrate the severity of Neil’s vinyl mood swings: Geffen Records sued him in the 80s for ‘making non commercial albums.’ That is pretty funny if you ask me.
But I guess Bob Dylan is in my book the best example of an artist who has done whatever the hell he’s always wanted throughout the course of his more than 40 year career, to great success. Dylan has reinvented himself over and over again and is right now on a creative roll he hasn’t known since the 70s, and I am really enjoying it.
I realize a lot of folks who read this Blog don’t care for Dylan. Truthfully, it’s hard to get into him because where in the hell do you even start? He’s put out 52 albums (so far) for God’s sake. I have always enjoyed a smattering of the more popular ones: Blonde on Blonde, Blood On The Tracks, Infidels, Oh Mercy. But I finally bit it and went to the very beginning and ordered all of Dylan’s 60s albums and listened to them in order. Wow. The dude has a major gift.
One way to start with Dylan is to read the autobiographical Chronicles Vol. 1. Even if you never spin a Dylan CD in your life, it is fascinating reading. He is such a vivid storyteller and writes with such poetry. The dude is in a league of his own.
Many bands played the reinvent game for a while and then fizzled. The Who ended their creative run in 1978 with Who Are You. The Stones in 1982 with Tatoo You (which was actually a compilation of dusted off rejects from their 70s albums, if you can believe that!) And Pink Floyd in 1979 with The Wall. Yes, Floyd (and Waters and Gilmour) have put out some nice work since, but none of it sounded very different from the formula they finally settled on with The Wall. Everything they put out since then has been pretty derivative of past work. The Police for sure pulled it off but disintegrated in the process. Sting, whatever you think of him, has been pretty varied, too, ever since he left The Police. Wasn’t his last album some sort of Lute instrumental thing? Whatever.
But this is why I still get all geeked up when a new Rush album is coming out. You have NO IDEA what it’s going to sound like. Sure, you are bound to be disappointed now and again – no band can hit it out of the park every time. But at least you aren’t getting a regurgitation of whatever formula worked the first time (see Yes’ brilliant 90125 and the crap fest follow up Big Generator to see what I mean). With Rush, I guess I only have to wait a month more to find out. But I did get my tickets!