10 Worst Introductions to Classic Rock Legends
Before we begin, it’s important to note that these are the 10 Worst Introductions to Classic Rock Legends – not the 10 worst albums by some of the best artists in rock history (that’s a whole different list). Below you will find LPs that, for one reason or another, are unrepresentative of the musicians’ larger body of work. As such, if a friend of yours wanted to get an idea of what the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Eric Clapton or Bruce Springsteen were all about, you wouldn’t hand them one of the albums on this list. Well, maybe you would, if you were a really bad friend.
The Rolling Stones
The Stones’ detour through psychedelia isn’t without its fans, but you won’t find anyone in the band that’s too keen on it because ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’ is unlike any of the band’s other albums. Without a producer to rein them in, the Stones were never more experimental in their musical approach. Brian Jones plays mellotron, woodwinds and anything else that was handed to him in an apparent quest to equal ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.’ Some of the results were great (‘She’s a Rainbow,’ ‘2000 Light Years from Home’), but too often the record melts into formless psychedelic goo. Regardless, the swirling aesthetic of this album was light years away from the sharp riffs and pulsing rhythms that form the bedrock of the Stones’ sound.
By the time Clapton put out ‘Pilgrim’ in 1998, it had been nearly a decade since he had released an album of original material (something that’s easy to forget given how big his ‘Unplugged’ album was in the ’90s). Some fans might have been willing to wait quite a bit longer after hearing the album’s lead single ‘My Father’s Eyes’ – a track so slick, it makes ‘Pretending’ sound like Robert Johnson. So goes the entire album, where Slowhand so often buries his fiery and soulful guitar talents under an ocean of synthesizers, drum machines and other mechanical tricks best left to ‘Pure Moods’ compilations. Overproduction is not next to godliness.
Yes, as great as the Beatles were, the lads can still land a spot on the 10 Worst Introductions to Classic Rock Legends list. If the ‘Yellow Submarine’ soundtrack was your gateway to the Fab Four, you’d probably think they were a folk group who wrote songs for little kids – campfire sing-alongs (the title track and ‘All Together Now’), tunes about animals (‘Hey Bulldog’) and ditties about loving everybody (‘All You Need is Love’ is the proto ‘I Love You, You Love Me’). Of course, you’d probably wonder why one member kept wandering off in a psychedelic drone (George Harrison’s ‘Only a Northern Song’ and ‘It’s All Too Much’) and why half of the album was George Martin’s instrumental score for the animated feature. On the other hand, 1999’s ‘Yellow Submarine Songtrack’ – featuring almost all of the songs and none of the orchestral stuff from the movie – is a solid entry point into the Beatles’ most fertile creative period.
For a man who embodies the glory, exhilaration and deliverance of rock and roll in his concerts, there is no less exciting place to dig into Bruce Springsteen’s oeuvre than this dour folk album. It’s not that the Boss hasn’t sung about hard times, sad sacks and desperate measures on other albums. Heck, it’s not like he hasn’t done that in a stripped-down, mostly acoustic setting. The difference between ‘Tom Joad’ and ‘Nebraska’ or ‘Devils & Dust’ is that he didn’t appear to forsake melody in the down-and-dirty reaches of those stark works. There are compelling stories and heartbreaking lyrics to be discovered on this album, but there’s hardly an inkling of Springsteen’s knack for crafting a full-blown track. This passion project can wait until you’ve shuffled all the way down E Street.
Speaking of depressing passion projects, ‘The Final Cut’ served as Pink Floyd bassist/singer/songwriter Roger Waters’ grand treatise on the horrors of war. While this wasn’t the first time Waters had waded into matters both personal and political, on previous records the other members of Pink Floyd had helped balance the venom with startling musicality. Even albums with subject matter as dark as ‘Animals’ and ‘The Wall’ are enlivened by the band’s knack for interstellar overdrive. But there’s little melodic respite on ‘The Final Cut,’ which might as well be Waters’s first solo record (no other members wrote songs for the album and Waters left shortly after its release). If you wanted to learn about Roger’s deeply held beliefs about warring nations, this record is the place to start. If you want to get into Pink Floyd, it’s best to begin anywhere else.
Bob Dylan’s 10th album has taken its share of crap over the years, even from the bard himself. After the double-LP was greeted with utter contempt by fans and critics, Dylan claimed he had essentially taken a dive to distance himself from the “voice of a generation” tag. In later years, he would change his tune, suggesting that the hodge-podge of cover songs, live recordings and originals was an attempt to create an official “bootleg” album. No matter the intention, if you’re looking for an inspired Dylan, he’s not here. Instead we get indifferent folk and pop covers (his hurried take on Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘The Boxer’ has to be a prank), plodding live tracks (far from Dylan and the Band’s finest moments) and a mere five original songs (two of which don’t even feature Bob on vocals). Dylan sang ‘I Threw it All Away’ on his previous album, but he almost did on ‘Self Portrait.’
If you were at a party and you put on this album, there is no way that anyone would ever come close to guessing it was a Doors album. First, there’s no Jim Morrison. After the Lizard King’s death, the other three members soldiered on to record a few more albums with guitarist Robby Krieger and keyboardist Ray Manzarek on vocals. Second, is that a bass guitar I hear? Yes, in a 180-degree turn from the band’s classic, bass-less sound, the Doors collaborated with a revolving crew of bassists on ‘Full Circle.’ Third, the first song is a boogie-woogie called (unironically, I believe) ‘Get Up and Dance.’ So much for dark and mysterious. Elsewhere, the album veers into extended jazzy workouts, turning it into the real world equivalent of Spinal Tap’s ‘Jazz Odyssey.’
Despite having to overcome the loss of drummer Keith Moon (who died in 1978) as well as Pete Townshend spreading his songwriting a bit thin between the Who and a promising solo career, ‘Face Dances’ is an underrated Who album. But it’s no way representative of the band’s “maximum R&B” thunder, longform storytelling capabilities or stadium-shattering epics. No, this is sort of Who-lite. You get the sense that Townshend was tailoring the tunes, some of them rather intricate, to suit new drummer Kenney Jones’ timekeeper approach. The decision forced Roger Daltrey to pull back on his roaring vocals and the band lost some much-needed wattage. ‘You Better You Bet’ and ‘Another Tricky Day’ are fine songs, but if that’s all you heard from the Who, you’d have probably guessed they were a flash-in-the-pan new wave act.
This entry in the 10 Worst Introductions to Classic Rock Legends list comes from the no man’s land that exists between the blues-rock genius of the Peter Green era and the chart-topping pop-rock mastery of Fleetwood Mac‘s Lindsey Buckingham/Stevie Nicks years. ‘Future Games’ is one of about six records they made during this transitional time, as the band tried to latch onto a sonic direction as well as solidify a revolving bunch of singer-guitarists (who include Danny Kirwan and Bob Welch on this outing). There’s some good stuff here – as on many of these “middle” Mac albums – but it’s missing the grimy power of the early stuff and the undeniable craftsmanship of the later hits. Most of all, it lacks focus.
An album that confounded critics, fans and even label head David Geffen (who famously sued him for deliberately making uncommercial music), ‘Trans’ finds Neil Young exploring the computer age via experiments with a Synclavier and vocoder. Neil’s journey into electro-rock came about not just because he had been listening to a fair amount of Kraftwerk, but also because of his struggles to communicate with his son, who recently had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy and was unable to speak. In electronically masking his own voice, Young was working his way through a deeply personal matter. While all of that sheds light on how Neil went from Crazy Horse to Donkey Kong, it doesn’t make this deviation any more representative of the ragged glory of his brand of rock and roll.