There are those who stroke their fanbases, and those who appear to delight in leaving them reeling. Some so-called “chameleons of rock and roll,” David Bowie, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan, are legendary for shedding their images (and all but their most hardcore fans) every few years to tread go new directions with new sounds. Both bands of the 60s and 70s and those of the present constantly must wrestle between appeasing their fickler fans, or daring their base to follow them to whatever depths to which they may descend.
These are tracks that I’ve selected not necessarily just because they sound different than other tracks from these artists– in some cases, they really don’t. I have chosen these tracks simply because for reasons philosophical or commercial, they freaked people out. Whether it was on purpose or not, they managed to jar at least portions of these artists’ fanbases. However, as you will see, they did so in many different ways:
We begin with the now-legendary track off from Ten Years After that depending on who you ask is either a charming example of rock and roll irony, or an affront to to the values not just of a fanbase, but of a movement.
Ten Years After, to the layperson, probably conjures fond memories of the band’s ten-plus minute version of “I’m Going Home” that is included in 1970’s Woodstock documentary. However, their most legendary hit, written in 1971, seems like anathema to the hippies’ idealism and peace-and-love attitude.
A seeming jumble of various political perspectives, from the somewhat predictable “tax the rich/ feed the poor/ ’til there are no rich no more” and “stop the war” to the somewhat revolting “everywhere is/ freaks and hairies/ dykes and fairies/ tell me where is sanity?” whatever message “I’d Love to Change the World” might have is so convoluted that it should be taken with more than a grain of salt. The overwhelming sentiment of lazy apathy in the song’s refrain, “I’d love to change the world/ but I don’t know what to do/ so I’ll leave it up to you” has been defended by singer and guitarist Alvin Lee, who wrote the lyrics. According to Lee, the lyrics were inspired because while Ten Years was a part of the “peace and love” scene, he was “very frustrated that [he] could not do anything about it.” No matter the true beliefs behind “I’d Love to Change the World,” it is considered an anthem by many. However, many still are confused and appalled by some of the song’s lyrical content.
Another lyrical affront to a fanbase– perhaps an even larger one, as it involves a total flip in philosophy, is that of Bob Dylan’s now-infamous “You Gotta Serve Somebody.”
“Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says,”Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What ?”
God say, “You can do what you want, Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run…”‘
These are not the lyrics of a bible-thumper. They are, in fact, the lyrics of one Bob Dylan, circa 1965. However, after a motorcycle accident and several years out of the public eye, things began to change– fast. By the late 1970s and the Slow Train Coming album, Dylan had become a born-again Christian, and refused to play his secular works onstage. He frequently evangelized, and regularly extolled his new faith in interviews and during public appearances. You can only imagine how his 60s fans must have responded to the sudden change in this countercultural icon.
Not only does this song’s extremely self-righteous presence seemingly drip with condescending reminders of Dylan’s faith– and he would go through several more “phases” as the years went on– but perhaps the most infuriating part of it is the quality of the lyrics in general. Despite his controversial choice of topic, Dylan’s words are still well-composed and excellently-crafted. In some odd way, it almost makes it seem more awful.
With all the unsavory characters in rock and roll, there are obviously many offensive lyrics in songs, but this next entry is more a musical and stylistic affront than a philosophical one:
After The Clash released their classic third album, London Calling, in 1979, much of their fanbase was at the very least confused at their new world-influenced, polished sound, which lacked much of the furious Punk thrash of their first album, and of their live performances. However, this album was a massive success, and while they might have lost some of their more staunchly Punk fans, they gained many more in their place. Looking to their next album, the band made a few controversial choices. First of all, they decided on a triple LP. Second of all, they decided that London Calling‘s popularity and critical acclaim meant that they could do anything. The result, the jumbled Sandinista! album of 1980, which incorporates a children’s chorus, dub, and rap among other things, has been referred to as “Punk’s greatest folly.”
In reality, the majority of tracks off of Sandinista! could be given this spot. This was an album that, to be blunt, made very few friends. The band itself admits its many flaws, and as result, it has fallen far under the radar compared to their other albums. However, context aside, “Rebel Waltz” pissed off Clash fans simply with its music. It is, if I am not mistaken, the first Clash song in waltz time, with an opening that at least to me distinctly connotated sledding through fake snow. This is not a terrible song by any means, but it is most assuredly not what fans expected from the group now most famous for their frenzied performances of tracks such as “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.” and “Clampdown.”
Next is a song I sincerely debated leaving out– it almost seemed too obvious. In fact, it was the goal of its writer, Lou Reed, to make an entirely unlistenable album. Some would say he succeeded excellently.
If any of you are listening to this as you read, you are probably wondering why this somewhat violent-sounding feedback intro is lasting so long. Well, I warn you, the uninitiated, that what you are hearing is no intro– it is the entire song. In fact, it is actually the entire album. Composed of four quarter-hour walls of noise with no keys, rhythms, or lyrics to speak of, Lou Reed sought to create the Metal Machine Music album in 1975 for the sole purpose of alienating people. Reed himself claimed that he never sat through the entire album, which he “created” and mixed himself. Ironically, while some would probably argue that this commercial flop of an album has hardly a song at all, it is probably the most influential out of all the tracks on this list. Many industrial rock, heavy metal, and noise rock acts have credited Metal Machine Music as a great inspiration– despite the fact that it is basically a auditory migraine, it has had quite a legacy, and has since been rereleased and digitally remastered.
This is a track so completely impenetrable that sitting through the entire thing has become something of a badge of honor among many young fans. It is often said to be the most returned album in history. Infamous and celebrated all at once, it is clearly an attack, but what exactly is it attacking? Probably, RCA Records, to begin with. Reed felt they were not giving him enough artistic freedom so that by this, his fifth solo album, he was simply interested in getting anything different made and out there. Besides that though, Metal Machine Music is a challenge– a dare to a near-physical onslaught of some of the vilest noises around.
Lastly, a song that one could say is equally offensive, but for what is essentially the opposite reason.
Thank god we are able to associate Paul McCartney with his often brilliant songwriting instead of this rather unfortunate Wings cover of “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” a nursery rhyme. Upon its 1972 release as the A-side of a seven-inch single, McCartney claimed that Wings recorded this song because the BBC had banned his previous political single, “Give Ireland Back to the Irish.” However, since then, McCartney has maintained that in actuality, Wings recorded this song in an honest and well-meaning effort to record a song for children. No matter the motivation though, critics and fans alike were positively merciless in their summation of this admittedly uninspiring track. Some critics even went so far as to claim that the track was recorded ironically, perhaps in some vague effort to keep their faith in McCartney intact.
I placed this track very deliberately in this list. It follows “Metal Machine Music, Part I,” which is one of the most hair-raising tracks rock and roll had ever seen in 1975. “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” though, is arguably just as unsettling for the average rock listener. One of the most interesting things about the rock and roll phenomenon is the emphasis on shock– some fans value their music more on shock and on novelty than on anything else. “Mary Had A Little Lamb” is one of the gentlest songs you can find– but the question is, is it shocking? It is certainly shocking to consider a track like this coming out of Paul McCartney, but in truth, what song could be less shocking? So, I suppose it is more for that fabulous paradox than for anything else that I include this, Wings’ early-1970s cover of what I guarantee is one of the first songs you ever heard.