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Nirvana

Career Killers: “No Code” by Pearl Jam

There were several reasons why Neil Young got the moniker “Godfather of Grunge.”

His 1979 album, Rust Never Sleeps, featured a highly distorted guitar sound that proved to be very influential with several major grunge musicians, including Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder.

Young would become a close collaborator and mentor to Pearl Jam, performing, working and touring together throughout the 90s and 00s. Young even helped inspire the name “Pearl Jam.” According to Rolling Stone, guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament were already considering using the word “Pearl” in their band’s name, and after attending a Young show in 1991 that featured several long instrumental jams, something clicked.

But it wasn’t just his music that was inspirational. Long known as an artist who refused to play by anyone else’s rules, Young was famous, or perhaps infamous, for making music for artistic reasons without regard for commercial success. In fact, his label once pressured Young for a rock album and he delivered a collection of rockabilly songs (they didn’t specify what kind of rock they wanted). His label then sued him for making music that was “not commercial” and “musically uncharacteristic” of his previous recordings.

Pearl Jam would take a page from Young’s book for its fourth album, 1996’s No Code. The more experimental, less mainstream and barely promoted album ended their run of commercial dominance and abruptly halted their seemingly inevitable march towards becoming the biggest band in the world. However, it may have also saved them.

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Career Killers: “Adore” by the Smashing Pumpkins

Mike Love may be a good rock ‘n roll heel, but Billy Corgan is an actual heel. The longtime wrestling fan and eventual promoter and on-air authority figure made a conscious decision, from the beginning, to be the bad guy. “In the early years of the Smashing Pumpkins, I saw that I was going to be treated as an outsider,” he told Rolling Stone in 2016. “So rather than play along, which is what you’re supposed to do, I decided to play heel, in wrestling parlance, and have fun with it… I’d rather be that heel than the babyface who goes along to get along.”

He did a great job. Despite his obvious talent (the Pumpkins singer and lead guitarist wrote almost all of the songs and played, pretty much, everything except for drums on the band’s first two albums), Corgan became one of the least likable people in music. He tossed off arrogant quotes to the music press more easily than Ted DiBiase threw his money around to move to the front of the line at an emergency room, close down a public pool or buy himself a championship belt because he was upset he couldn’t win the actual one. He treated his bandmates like employees, hiring and firing them at will or blaming them for breaking up the band when he was always on the one in charge. And he certainly wasn’t humble. “Do I belong in the conversation about the best artists in the world? My answer is yes, I do,” he said to Rolling Stone in 2010.

So like watching the hated heel get his comeuppance, there was quite a bit of schadenfreude in seeing Corgan fail. And with 1998’s Adore, Corgan did so in spectacular fashion, bringing his band’s momentum to a screeching halt and ending its run as one of the biggest and most popular alternative rock bands in the world.

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Career Killers: “Cyberpunk” by Billy Idol

As we’ve seen, bad concept albums can kill careers and destroy their creators in the time it takes to throw a CD into the garbage, send it to China to be used for road paving or sell it to a used record store for half-pennies on the dollar.

In Billy Idol’s case, it did that and then some. But it also set the stage for an interesting critical re-evaluation. Was 1993’s Cyberpunk, a bloated concept album about machines, technology and consumerism that also happened to be one of the first major studio releases recorded mostly on the computer, packaged with a floppy disk containing bonus content and marketed via the internet actually ahead of its time?

Yes, it was. Without question.

Content wise, Idol’s musings about technology proved to be prescient, while his recording and marketing methods established a blueprint that almost every artist of the mid-to-late 90s and early 00s would copy and emulate, right down to the bonus floppy (although CD and DVD-ROMs predictably replaced the floppy as the technology became more ubiquitous and affordable).

But that doesn’t mean the album is good or deserved to be successful. And it’s certainly no surprise that it ruined Billy Idol’s career.

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Career Killers: “Turn It Upside Down” by The Spin Doctors

UPDATE (07/06/2021): Thanks to Todd in the Shadows for citing this review in his latest episode of Trainwreckords.

We may remember the 90s as a turbulent period in music, full of angsty grunge and alternative bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Alice in Chains, introspective singer-songwriters like Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow, Jewel and Sarah McLachlan, gangsta rappers like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Biggie and 2Pac and superstars going through ironic and/or cynical stages like U2 and R.E.M.

But not everything was doom-and-gloom. Divas like Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Madonna and Shania Twain sold boatloads of records and dominated the pop and album charts. The 90s also brought us the extremely non-ironic and safe-for-mass-consumption Hootie and the Blowfish, who became a cultural phenomenon when they released Cracked Rear View, one of the best-selling debut albums of all time. The decade also saw 80s stars like Bryan Adams, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi and Sting reach even greater heights. Even the hip hop world found room for decidedly non-gangsta acts like The Fugees, PM Dawn, Will Smith, Arrested Development and OutKast. And of course, by the end of the decade, the biggest-selling artists were bubblegum acts and boybands like NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears.

Then there were the Spin Doctors.

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Career Killers: “Soul Dancing” by Taylor Dayne

It’s easy to forget, but at one point, Taylor Dayne was one of the biggest pop stars in the world. And for many years, it was Dayne and not Swift who was the one and only Tay Tay (you know, unless you count John Taylor, Mick Taylor, Roger Taylor of Queen, Roger Taylor of Duran Duran, James Taylor, Taylor Hanson or Taylor Hicks).

Dayne was a juggernaut from the moment she burst onto the scene in 1987, starting her career with nine consecutive Billboard Top 20 hits. In fact, each of her first seven singles hit the Top 10, including “Love Will Lead You Back,” which went to #1. She also charted well in Canada, Australia and the U.K., while several of her singles were big hits on the Billboard Dance charts. With her deep, soulful voice and dynamic range, she could seamlessly excel at a wide range of songs, including pop, R&B and ballads. In doing so, she amassed a large and devoted fan base — one that continues to support her to this day.

As the 90s got underway, it was clear that Taylor Dayne was a hit machine and pop star. What wasn’t clear, however, was whether she was an artist. Like her label-mate, Whitney Houston, Dayne’s first two albums were made up of songs from outside writers and handpicked by Arista boss Clive Davis for maximum commercial impact. For her third album, 1993’s Soul Dancing, Dayne was determined to prove she had the songwriting chops to go with her vocal and chart topping prowess.

It turns out that she did not.

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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: “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 novice musician and Frey’s own son, 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). The surviving members of The Doors continued as a trio after Jim Morrison’s death, releasing two uneven albums on their own before calling it a day. On the other hand, Chicago decided not to break up after Terry Kath’s death and became an adult-contemporary powerhouse under Peter Cetera in the 1980s. And perhaps the most famous example is New Order, which formed out of the ashes of Joy Division after frontman Ian Curtis’s death, and achieved more fame and success than its predecessor.

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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Breathing Is The Hardest Thing To Do

It was easy to dismiss Scott Weiland as a second-rate Eddie Vedder fronting a second-rate grunge band in the mid-to-late 90’s. It was easier to dismiss him as a second-rate Axl Rose fronting a second-rate Guns N’ Roses during the mid-to-late 00’s. It was, perhaps, easiest of all to dismiss him as a troubled soul whose inner demons guaranteed that he’d die a premature death and go down in history as a second-rate Jim Morrison or a second-rate Kurt Cobain.

But Scott Weiland’s talent was never second-rate. Not only was he a first-rate vocalist, he was one of the best front-men of his generation.

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Do the Evolution – A Concert Review of Pearl Jam at MSG

Concert Review:

Pearl Jam

May 21, 2010

Madison Square Garden

It certainly seems as if Pearl Jam have mellowed in recent years. They’ve started making videos again. They’ve aligned themselves with the likes of Target, iTunes, and even the makers of Rock Band. Heck, I bought my ticket through Ticketmaster, the big, evil, corporate monster (that could get even bigger after their proposed merger with Live Nation) that Pearl Jam once accused of being a monopoly.

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