Career Killers: “On Every Street” by Dire Straits

There are two types of “one man bands” in rock music. There are literal examples like Nine Inch Nails, World Party or Five For Fighting, which each consist of one permanent member and are, essentially, solo vehicles in all but name. Foo Fighters started out as a one man band before Dave Grohl decided to make it into an actual group.

Then there are the bands where one member does, virtually, all of the work. John Fogerty was the primary songwriter, lead singer and lead guitarist for Creedence Clearwater Revival. Same with Kurt Cobain for Nirvana, Billy Corgan for Smashing Pumpkins and Syd Barrett for Pink Floyd. Meanwhile, The Cure’s Robert Smith sings, writes, plays guitar, bass, keyboards and other instruments, produces the albums, and decides who will stand with him on stage. Usually what happens is either the other members of the band get fed up and quit or the person in charge realizes he or she doesn’t need the others and goes solo.

For Dire Straits, both of those things happened.

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Career Killers: “Synchronicity” by The Police

Most of the time, an album that kills off a career is either a critical failure, a commercial flop, or both. Rarely is it a smashing success that captures an artist or band at their absolute peak. And it’s almost never an album that establishes an act as the biggest in the world – putting them at the level of The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin or even The Beatles. After all, that kind of an album usually prolongs rather than shortens careers.

That makes Synchronicity by The Police the rare example of an album that both made, and destroyed, a band.

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Career Killers: “18 ‘Til I Die” by Bryan Adams

Plenty of musicians have successfully reinvented themselves – arguably, all great artists have to do it in order to sustain long careers and remain relevant. Radiohead went from Nirvana wannabes to fearless experimentalists. The Beastie Boys stopped doing hardcore punk and became world-famous rappers. U2 changed up their sound in the 1990s, successfully going from fading force to culturally relevant powerhouse while perfecting a template that many others continue to follow. Heck, Madonna has made it into an art form to the point where successful reinvention has become part of her overall brand.

But what about artists that fight reinvention, either because they’re determined to stick to their guns and continue doing what they had always done (and been quite successful at) or because they aren’t ready to become the thing that they know they will have to?

Bryan Adams, I’m looking in your direction.

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Career Killers: “Switch” by INXS

Plenty of bands choose to soldier on after the death of an iconic, seemingly-irreplaceable lead singer.

Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen went with established singers, touring and recording with Paul Rodgers of Bad Company fame before moving onto “American Idol” alum Adam Lambert. AC/DC took the opposite approach, hiring then-unknown Brian Johnson to replace Bon Scott. The Eagles did a bit of both, replacing Glenn Frey with country superstar Vince Gill, as well as Frey’s son, novice musician Deacon. Bands such as Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Sublime, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and even the Grateful Dead have carried on in some form, with mixed results.

Other bands chose not to try and replace the irreplaceable. Nirvana broke up after Kurt Cobain died by suicide – as did Mother Love Bone following Andy Wood’s fatal heroin overdose (although two members of the band ended up forming Pearl Jam). Joy Division never replaced Ian Curtis, instead guitarist Bernard Sumner moved into the frontman’s role and the band became New Order, one of the most acclaimed and popular synth bands of the 80s.

Then there are some bands that give it a go with new singers, only to flop badly, ruin their legacy and confirm to everyone that they should have just let their band die with their late vocalist.

INXS was one such band.

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Career Killers: “The Final Cut” by Pink Floyd

When we think of the most accomplished and popular rock bands, they tend to have one or two people in charge – usually the songwriters. Glenn Frey called it “song power” and used it to explain the power dynamics in The Eagles:

“A rock band is not a perfect democracy. It’s more like a sports team. No one can do anything without the other guys, but everybody doesn’t get to touch the ball all the time.”

Glenn Frey, History of the Eagles.

History tells us that, at some point, the other guys in the band will often get fed up with being in the background and either leave the band or raise such a stink that they get some concessions. Stu Cook and Doug Clifford forced John Fogerty to let them write songs for a Creedence Clearwater Revival album with disastrous results. Jason Newsted quit Metallica. Alan Wilder left Depeche Mode while Dave Gahan threatened to unless he was allowed to write songs for the band’s albums. As for the Eagles, Frey and Don Henley may have been happy in their roles as was benevolent dictators, but others in the band, particularly Don Felder and Joe Walsh, resented being underlings and this underlying tension was one of the main reasons why the band broke up.

Pink Floyd was no different, and when things finally came to a head in the early 1980s, it touched off years of litigation, decades of inconsistent artistic output from all parties involved, and sustained personal enmity and hatred that not even the promise of a triumphant one-off reunion at the biggest charity concert of the 2000s could fully fix.

This is the album that started all of that.

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Career Killers: “Van Halen III”

September 4, 1996. The MTV Video Music Awards are in full swing and the evening is full of historical moments. 2Pac, in his last televised appearance before his death, announced the formation of Death Row East – a provocative incursion onto rival turf at the height of east/west tensions in the hip hop world. A then-unknown No Doubt rocked the pre-show, serving notice to the musical world as to what was to come. A reeling Smashing Pumpkins gave one of their first performances since touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin overdosed on heroin and died the previous July. 

But the moment that had everyone talking was a reunion over ten years in the making, and one that fans, music executives, MTV personnel and fellow musicians had been dying for. When David Lee Roth walked out on stage with the other members of Van Halen, it was the first time he, Eddie Van Halen, Michael Anthony and Alex Van Halen had stood together on stage in over a decade. The four had made magic together, establishing Van Halen as one of the greatest and most loved bands of its era. In 1985, at the height of its popularity, Van Halen and Roth parted ways amidst plenty of recriminations and bad feelings. Sammy Hagar had taken over and had done great business for Van Halen. But Roth was the one that we all wanted to see again (heck, in the weeks leading up to the show, MTV ran a 45 second spot featuring some of Dave’s greatest music video moments set to the “Welcome Back Kotter” theme). By appearing together at the VMAs, the classic lineup was surely going to let the past be the past and record a kick-ass record that would restore them to supremacy in a musical world increasingly dominated by alternative music and hip-hop.

Instead, we got Van Halen III.

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Career Killers: “The Long Run” by The Eagles

Plenty of bands fail to follow up a career-defining album. Fleetwood Mac decided to experiment on Tusk and ended up selling only a fraction of what Rumours did. Hootie and the Blowfish rushed out their second album, Fairweather Johnson, and cemented their legacy as a “one album wonder.” Smile, the Beach Boys’ attempt to follow up Pet Sounds, broke Brian Wilson and sent the band into a long decline.

But none of those records caused the band, itself, to break up. None of those records saw a band crack so completely and thoroughly from the pressure of following up one of the most popular and critically acclaimed albums of all time. None of those records caused a rift so wide and so seemingly irreparable that, when it came time to release the contractually obligated post-breakup greatest hits compilations or live albums, band members wouldn’t even be able to be in the same state as one another, let alone communicate without going through lawyers. None of those records poisoned the well so thoroughly that band members said they’d reunite when hell froze over.

None of those records were The Long Run.

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Career Killers: “St. Anger” by Metallica

It’s been said that great art comes out of great suffering or adversity. Eric Clapton produced his masterpiece, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs while nursing a crippling heroin addiction and hopelessly in love with his best friend’s wife. Francis Ford Coppola had a nervous breakdown and allegedly threatened to kill himself multiple times while filming his classic film, Apocalypse Now. Ludwig van Beethoven composed some of his best and most-admired works after going deaf and while suffering from terrible health problems. Vincent van Gogh was, perhaps, the archetype of the tortured artist, battling mental illness for most of his career (including the infamous episode where he cut off his own ear) and produced some of the most beloved paintings in history.

Of course, sometimes, great suffering or adversity ends up producing crap – crap so bad that the artist is never quite the same afterwards. Case in point: St. Anger by Metallica.

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Career Killers: “The Spaghetti Incident?” and “Sympathy for the Devil” by Guns N’ Roses

When Guns N’ Roses announced they were releasing an album of (mostly) punk covers in 1993 to tide fans over until the next original album came out, it made perfect sense. The Gunners had always been a great covers band (for my money, their rendition of “Live and Let Die” was better than Sir Paul’s and their version of “Whole Lotta Rosie” kicks all kinds of ass) and this project promised to see them return to the kind of stripped-down, straightforward rock sound that had made them famous. Given their unsteady work ethic, any record from Axl and the boys was a good thing. Meanwhile, they were so popular and big at the time that they could have farted out an album of Osmond Family covers and it would have gone multiplatinum. Surely, whatever they did wouldn’t compromise their careers and lead to a spectacular self-implosion – of which the band still hasn’t fully recovered from, right?

Well…

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Career Killers: “Face the Music” by NKOTB

Welcome to “Career Killers” – a look at albums that were so bad, ill-conceived, or disastrous that they took down (or irreparably damaged) the artist or band that recorded them. So here’s the first entry. Let’s see how long I stick with this.

In the early 90s, faced with changing musical tastes, overexposure, an intense critical backlash, and its own fans growing out of bubblegum pop, New Kids on the Block decided it needed to change. Out went the name (they started going by more adult sounding “NKOTB”) as well as its longtime association with boyband Svengali Maurice Starr. Most importantly, it was time for a new sound. For its fourth studio album, 1994’s Face the Music, the band, which was created as a successor group to New Edition, would instead adopt the New Jack swing and hip-hop stylings of its spinoff group, Bell Biv Devoe.

It was not successful.

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