Musical Chameleons – Artists Who Cross The Genres
What sort of music is it?…
How many times have I been asked that? It’s the same dilemma when someone says ‘what type of music are you into?’ For me there is no type of music I listen to. I could give you some examples of music I don’t like, but describing the music I do like is almost impossible. All I really ask is that it holds my attention, and is made with an honest intention that someone might like to listen to it more than once.
Over the years I've interviewed a few musicians and bands, and the one thing they all have in common is that they started making music that they wanted to listen to; it didn’t matter whether anyone else was listening. I suppose the closest I ever get to finding out what type of music I like is when friends tell me, “you have to hear this track; you’ll love it”. The most recent posing of the ‘what sort of music is it?’ question came about when I was invited to the forthcoming concert at the City Hall by Ludovico Einaudi, and I asked my wife if she wanted to come along. I’ve been asked to go and write a review, and was recommended by one of the guys from Animat as someone who might appreciate the evening.
Sure enough, even though I hadn’t listened to him before, as soon as I read the list of ‘similar artist’ on Spotify, I knew there was a very good chance I’d like him. Michael Nyman, Clint Mansell, The Cinematic Orchestra and Philip Glass were all listed as making comparable music, and collectively they beckoned me in. This guy seems to move in classical circles, but also in the realm of film music, and has worked with electronic performers as well as players of more traditional instruments.
He has quietly become one of the world’s most successful musicians, selling over 1.5 million records, selling out venues such as the Royal Albert Hall, and even had a top 40 hit thanks to Radio1 DJ Greg James. Minimalist, alt-classical, ambient, contemporary; all these words and more are used to describe his music, so he seems to fall into my comfort zone quite neatly, and it put me in mind of a few other artists I listen to who defy any pigeon-holing. Here are a few of them, and I’ve put together a Spotify playlist should you choose to further enhance your listening pleasure, which I’ll include it at the end of this piece.
I’ve just got me a concert ticket for perhaps my most enduring musical obsession, Todd Rundgren. Sadly he’s not played in Sheffield since 1982, but he’s someone I will travel great distances to see. If there was ever an artist who changed his spots from album to album, it must be the old Todd-meister. From a very early stage in his recording career he made it clear his greatest wish was never to repeat himself. If anyone asks me ‘what sort of music does Todd Rundgren make?’ the best answer is, ‘it depends which album you listen to’. His only chart success was I Saw the Light, back in the Seventies, a Carole King style 3-minute slice of pop-magic, and the album it came from was a collection of pop and rock styles, any one of which could be the launch pad for a pop career. Here he is, many years later, playing his ‘hit’ with Daryl Hall.
True to his word, the follow-up album confounded his fans (and the bosses at his record label) and was in part a dazzling stream-of-consciousness kaleidoscope mix of tunes and snippets of songs which spanned the entire first side. In the days of LP records it was literally one long groove, with no gaps. Todd’s musical cannon went on to encompass prog-rock, soul ballads, electronic music, orchestral concerts and a capella and more. He is also a mean lead guitarist, and often made entire albums on his own long before Prince had a go. To top all that, and to help maintain a steady income, he has produced artist including Hall and Oates, XTC and Patti Smith, and through his own visionary belief in music, put his own money into starting the recording careers of Sparks and Meatloaf.
He has achieved what many musicians can only dream of; he has made music his living. His family home on the slopes of a mountain in Hawaii is a testament to the virtues of having more than one string to your musical bow.
When I first heard Rufus Wainwright he’d just released his Want One album; arguably his most complete and listenable album release, and the one which started my admiration and brief obsession with his music. He’s included here because he was another artist who the more you scratch the surface, the more you find other artists hiding there. There wasn’t much Rufus material available back then, and I managed to borrow the rare and valuable first album he recorded with his family in 1998, The McGarrigle Hour. Quick trivia alert: it’s Bob Dylan’s favourite album. On this he sang folksy songs, very much reflecting the influence of his parents, Kate McGarrigle and Louden Wainwright III.
Some years later, I found myself at the Palace Theatre in Manchester for the world premier of Prima Donna. Just to throw his fans a curveball, this was a genuine grown-up opera he had written about an opera singer preparing for her comeback when she falls in love with a journalist. Sung entirely in French, and performed as part of the Manchester International Festival, it certainly went to show that Rufus would not be pigeonholed as a ‘pop’ singer, or anything else for that matter. Add to that his own personal recreation of a classic Judy Garland album and you have an artist with many sides, all of them fascinating.
The ultimate occupant of the ‘what sort of music does he make?’ box must be Brian Eno. There’s no way of ever predicting what any of his music will sound like before you hear it. He even goes so far as to describe himself as a non-musician, who instead applies treatments to musical instruments and sounds, hence his parallel (and more lucrative) career as a record producer. Just like Todd Rundgren, he will bring his own ideas to a project and try to get an artist or a band to consider moving out of their comfort zone and try something unusual.
When he started his very brief stint in Roxy Music, it was something he thought would be interesting because he realised they were a bunch of people all wanting to make different music, and was curious to see how they would sound. In their earliest gigs he wouldn’t even be on stage with them. He was controlling the sound from the mixing desk and adding to it as he saw fit. After leaving Roxy, he invented, or at least pioneered ambient music before anyone knew what it was. His own labels, Obscure Records and Ambient Records issued fourteen albums from 1975 to 82 which defined a musical revolution, (even if it was a very quite one, not to be played too loudly!). I met him around that time in Leeds after he had given a lecture about the demystification of art. Most of it went over my head, but I didn't enjoy the musical bits, which included Velvet Underground and a bit of Steve Reich, which he played to illustrate some point or other.
At the end I had a word with him and managed to get him to autograph my programme, which I’ve since discovered is something he has refused to do for years, so I was a bit lucky there. I’ve included his ‘Thursday Afternoon’ from the mid-eighties on the playlist. It typifies his desire at the time to create music which would, in his words, “influence the atmosphere of the space in which it is played, rather than be focused on directly”. It’s a posh way of saying ‘background’ music, but more specifically music which is created for precisely that role. The album was released in 1985 and was perhaps the very first to take advantage of the newly available CD technology, which enabled the listener to hear a 60-minute piece of music without getting up to turn the record over half way through (ah, the memories). All this could not be further removed from his collaborations with U2, David Bowie, David Byrne or Paul Simon. Oh yes, and he composed the start-up tune that plays when Microsoft Windows opens up.
My final musical chameleon is my long time hero, the much missed David Bedford (not the runner), who sadly died just over a year ago. There is no-one who more deftly moved between spheres of music than he did, although it was mainly in the background, and outside the world of modern classical music he was little known during his lifetime. He did have a short period of popular acclaim when Virgin Records signed him in the mid seventies, making him briefly a label mate to Captain Beefhart, Steve Hillage, Ivor Cutler and the Sex Pistols.
His avant garde modern classical music was a perfect fit to Branson’s stable of eclectic and interesting artists. Younger readers may find it hard to realise that Richard Branson once had a real influence on the music scene, and anyone he signed was always worth a listen, and would get what seemed to be an automatic inclusion on the John Peel show.
Bedford started out arranging for Kevin Ayers, while he was composer in residence at Queens College, and became an unlikely pop star with Kevin’s Whole World band. Through meeting Mike Oldfield he came into contact with Virgin, and went on to work with a diverse range of artist from Elvis Costello and Madness to Lol Coxhill and the London Symphony Orchestra. His talent was immense, as a brief sojourn through his Spotify tracks will show you. Better though to read his Wikipedia entry to get an idea of the scope of his talent. If there’s such a thing as a musical polymath, it was he.
So, there you go. When someone asks you what sort of music you like, I feel your pain if you ever try to explain it. Here’s a tip. Make yourself a Spotify playlist of your fave tracks, and send them a link. Just a word of warning though; on the 1st of February last year I did just that. I started a ‘best tracks’ Spotify playlist for those lazy times when I want to kick back and let the computer take control. I’m still adding to it. Here’s the Latest Spotify playlist (below) to accompany this blog piece.