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This one goes out to those who appreciate the work of the New York Yankees, Microsoft, and Mcdonald's. Who cheer on the scrappy go-getters like Sony Music and Amazon.com and cheer on Mark Zuckerberg when his bank account swells up another $10 million.
OK, not really. But yeah, kinda. History, after all, is written by the winners, and there are times when winners must get their due. Especially when the whole overshadows the individual parts. This is very much true in the music world, where the brilliant work of individual musicians can get overlooked from time to time for any number of reasons.
Is it possible for someone who’s part of a group that’s sold millions of records and made untold sums of money to be considered “underrated?” I say, in certain aspects, yes. I believe there are some groups that have achieved certified legend status that have members who still don’t quite get the full credit they deserve. Like these five....
The Smiths are one of the most important bands in Rock history, credited with helping put guitar-based rock back on the map during a time of New Wave synth dominance and doing it with a singular style. A lot of artists and bands have borrowed the Smith’s ethos and attitude over the years. But why do few, if any, bands sound like them? It’s because few bands have a bass player as good as Andy Rourke.
Listen closely to a Smiths song and it won’t take long to hear Rourke’s bass being every bit as melodically active as Johnny Marr’s famous jangly guitar as he lays down the kind of complex rhythms and tricky intervals usually reserved for higher-octave instruments. You can really pick it out on songs like “The Headmaster Ritual” or “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.”
No doubt, Morrissey’s persona and voice and Marr’s guitar went a long way in making the Smiths stand out from the crowd, but Rourke’s bass work went a long way in making sure few others could follow them.
Take a look at Rolling Stone’s list of their Top 100 Greatest Guitarists, a list no doubt designed to incite arguments up and down the Internet. It’s a wide-ranging list with all the usual suspects from across the Rock spectrum: Jimi Hendrix (#1, as he should be), Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Duane Allman, Eddie Van Halen, Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck, Slash, The Edge, etc. etc.
Nowhere among this list of accomplished ax men will you find the name Neal Schon, lead guitar player for ‘70s/’80s Arena Rock gods Journey. Which is too bad, because other than Hendrix, Schon is as good as or better than all of them.
Starting out as a member of Carlos Santana’s band at age 15(!!!), Schon developed into the kind of all-around Lead Guitarist who's just as comfortable laying back and adding musical touches when needed instead of just waiting around for his next screaming solo. And in an era when the guitar solo reigned supreme, few other guitarist’s solos made as much melodic sense as his.
Schon’s problem (if selling millions of records and filling stadiums all over the world can be considered a “problem”) is that he spent his entire career playing with a band that became known more for Top-40 power ballads and entrancing your little sister than “rocking” in the modern dude sense. Throughout his career, Schon has never came across as a gritty Blues acolyte or wigged-out experimentalist. He isn’t a Bad Boy with a violent streak and/or raging drug habit. And like many über-talented artists, he makes what he does look easy.
Rock drummers tend to come in two varieties: the ones whose personality and/or playing style can take up the whole stage (Phil Collins, Lars Ulrich, Neil Peart) or basically anonymous players for whom the best thing you can say about them is they can keep a beat.
Budgie (born Peter Edward Clarke), who played drums for New Wave proto-Goths Siouxie and the Banshees, should be in the drummer pantheon, and he does get lots of love from his musical peers. The fact that he did it playing in a Post-Punk area where percussion usually alternates between mechanical and morose, makes it that much more impressive. Pairing him with Siouxie Sioux's exceptional voice all but guaranteed a sound that could not be ignored. He’s like the Louie C.K. of percussionists, a “drummer's’ drummer” whose style proved that wearing black doesn’t automatically mean being moody and plodding.
Even though she sang for arguably the biggest Pop band of the 1970s and she has eight solo albums to her credit along with dozens of other collaborations, conversations about Stevie Nicks will dwell on her Goth-Hippie wardrobe and tumultuous inter-band love life before (if ever) getting to the fact that she’s one hell of a musician and songwriter.
Her Pop instincts are unquestionable. Until she and Lindsay Buckingham came around, Fleetwood Mac was a moderately successful UK jam band that would soon flower into powerhouse hit machine thanks to songs that included the Nicks-penned “Rhiannon,” “Dreams,” and “Silver Springs.”
With her distinctive gravel-and-whiskey voice, Nicks did more than OK on her own terms as well, collaborating on hit songs with Kenny Loggins (“Whenever I Call You Friend”), John Stewart (“Gold”), Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (“Stop Dragging My Heart Around”) and Don Henley (“Leather and Lace”) while also releasing her own albums and hit singles (“Edge of Seventeen,” “Stand Back”). Even if she had never joined The Mac, her accomplishments would merit her a significant place in Rock history.
In the mid ‘90s, R.E.M., the band for whom the term “Alternative Rock” was invented, was still going strong from their Athens, GA start. In 1997, Bill Berry, their drummer, amicably left the band for personal reasons. After that, the group released five more albums before calling it quits. None of these records reached the no-question legendary status of Berry-ful records like Fables of the Reconstruction, Lifes Rich Pageant or Green.
Is it coincidence? Is it a case of a band simply having said all they have to say? Or maybe it’s the whole being more than the sum of the parts. Either way, I think it’s not unfair to look at Berry’s contributions as a key part of what made R.E.M. great. His no-frills drumming was the Yang to the Yin of Peter Buck’s gentler guitar work (which included his increasing infatuation with the mandolin). On top that were his songwriting contributions to tracks like "Perfect Circle", "Driver 8", "Can’t Get There from Here," "Everybody Hurts," and "Man on the Moon." R.E.M. had always had a sense of how to craft quieter moments, but they were first and foremost a Rock band, and when Berry stopped playing an important part of the equation was lost. Berry’s absence reminds me of a saying I once heard about music groups: If you don’t have (the right) drummer, you don’t have a band.
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