One of the keys to long-term commercial success in the world of popular music is establishing a characteristic “sound” with enough appeal to keep fans coming back for more. In fact, repetition of a sound that varies little from one band to another–much less within one single band–is the foundation of modern country music in which you would be hard-pressed to identify individual songs based on the music alone. With that reliance upon a signature sound that varies little over the course of a career in mind, it is certainly true that one of the keys to establishing a legacy that transforms a band from mere popularity to bona fide legend is the ability to move beyond that singular identifying voice while still pleasing their core audience and expanding their reach to brand new fans.
The Ramones prove that you can reach legendary status without ever moving much beyond that original sound. The Smithereens are just one of many examples of a great band in which every song sounds pretty much the same that were never able to inch closer to becoming rock legends. When it comes to the band evolved to a point where their music sounded almost nothing like the stuff that made them popular in the first place, the iconic example has to be, as it almost always is, The Beatles. Fans grabbed up “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club” with all the ravenous lust that made “Love Me Do” a number one hit despite the fact that nothing on that psychedelic album sounds anything all like the early hits that birthed Beatlemania.
The legacy of Led Zeppelin is that of being one of the most influential artists in the history of hard rock and heavy metal. Led Zeppelin certainly kicked off their career with a defining bluesy sound, but unlike many of those they influenced, this band regularly experimented with that “sound.” My own favorite Zeppelin song is “Kashmir” which features music that sounds more at home on a Mercan Dede album than supporting Robert Plant’s high vocals and the rock drumming of John Bonham. The Middle Eastern instrumentation apparently did not bother the group’s devoted “Stairway to Heaven” fans as its eight minutes became just as much a concert staple as that far less appealing rock anthem. The ultimate version of “Kashmir” is the one performed with full Middle Eastern instrumentation on MTV’s “Unplugged” and which can be found on the album “No Quarter.”
Elvis Costello started out as punk rock’s Angry Young Man and while his first four albums definitely fit that punk rock strain, he was much closer to Zeppelin in experimenting within the confines of the genre than he was to the repetition of the Ramones. And then came a little album titled “Almost Blue.” While Zeppelin was content to test the patience of their hard rock fans with eight minutes of Middle Eastern music on a double album, Costello was asking for a whole lotta love from his punk disciples.
“Almost Blue” in its original vinyl LP form came with a sticker attached that read: “WARNING! This album contains country & western music and may produce radical reaction in narrow minded people.” Rather than relying on his backup band the Attractions to provide him with the tight punky rock of his previous albums, Elvis Costello made an audacious grab for legendary status by daring to release an album that contained nothing but covers of old-school country music songs written the likes of Hank Williams, Sr., George Jones and Merle Haggard. Subsequent CD releases have included an ever expanding collection of bonus country songs.
While country music stars by the dozens have tried crossing over into rock’s mainstream, very few rock stars have attempted to reverse. And none with the bravado shown by Elvis Costello, legend.