When it comes to reputations context is everything, we filter the past through the prism of the present. When I was and impressionable teenager ‘Sgt Pepper’ was officially not only the best Beatles LP but the best long playing record ever. By the 90’s the general consensus was Revolver was superior but perhaps not the best ever LP. Today there seems to be a move to put the White Album in the premier post. The Beatles are a good example, they’ve not done too much to affect our decisions since their split in 1970 but our own tastes have changed.
If a band is overrated it’s hardly their fault it’s you and me, the public that are at fault we’re the ones who rated them.
So, with this in mind let’s start with a no blame culture. The next 5 bands/Artists are all fine, at least in parts. When I started to consider the whole overrated/underrated thing the more I thought about it the more difficult it became. I soon decided to stick to the UK and the 70’s, at least this time round (watch out America !) so at least I’ve got an equal perspective. So here are 5 overrated bands, all potentially heroes of my childhood whose reputation, in retrospect became a bit overinflated.
I’ve written about this before
When we think of the mighty Zep we locate them in our memory banks frozen at their peak in 1974. Robert Plant is stage centre, open shirt, leonine hair, Jimmy Page is working his crooked riffs on a low slung Les Paul and behind them is the mighty thump of Bonzo. We ignore the later period when Plant was developing a mullet and the others started to dress like gentlemen farmers.
It was clear the band were running out of ideas before John Bonham’s death but their records were pretty patchy anyway. Unlike AC/DC for example the bands were about more than skull crushing riffs but that’s what they are remembered for and whenever Jimmy Page reached for his open tuned guitar things were guaranteed to get just a bit dull.
Their reputation has been cemented by concentrating on just a few mighty tracks, ‘Rock and Roll’, ‘Black Dog’, ‘Trampled Underfoot’ etc and the fact that John Bonham is now widely regarded as the best ever rock drummer. There’s a Zeppelin sound which they managed to distil into one of their final tracks ‘In the Evening ’ which condensed the Zeppelin sound into 4 minutes of brutally compressed drums and an unstoppable guitar riff.
It’s all seductive and influential but also limited. Zep also developed a management model which created and fiercely protected what would later be termed their ‘brand’. Like with Queen there’s been a re writing and reinterpreting of the past through a ‘School of Rock ‘mentality and through that filter Zeppelin are bound to look good.
Nothing wrong with Zeppelin but simply not as good as we now think they were.
When Robert Fripp first saw Greg Lake perform he was so convinced of his star quality he knew he had to have him in his band Giles, Giles and Fripp. Even to the point where Fripp would leave the band and Lake would replace him. It didn’t happen of course, it was bass player Michael Giles who got the push and GG&F became King Crimson.
It seems incredible now but by the time Lake joined Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer he was regarded as a superstar joining a bunch of similar geniuses. For the first half of the 70’s ELP were huge. During my research (yes really!) I have forced myself to listen to the band and was quite shocked at how much of their music I remembered, especially as I never actually listened to their music on record.
In retrospect Lake was really the weakest link. His songs were pretty drippy at the best of times and didn’t give the other members of the band to show off, so inevitably a Lake ballad would be followed by 20 minutes of tiddly keyboards and rat a tat drumming. Although the weaknesses were apparent ELP were massive and famously toured the USA with a juggernaut for each member and an orchestra.
Unlike Zeppelin their reputation hasn’t really survived the passage of time, it’s amazing that a band so huge in the 70’s is largely forgotten today but that’s probably due to the fact that they were hugely overrated even at their peak, by 1975 we had realised we had made a huge mistake and shuffled off in an embarrassed manner hoping no one would notice our faux pas.
Thanks to everyone who has contributed their own Overrated/Underrated thoughts. After careful consideration I have to bow to popular opinion and include Mr Eric Clapton. I was reluctant since I think he is almost an underrated guitarist.
I went to see Ana Popovic a week ago, it was a good gig and she’s a stellar guitarist but despite all her technical skill she didn’t really move me. Clapton has managed to distil the essence of the blues without over refining it which is why, whatever he plays he sounds great. However, can we ignore 40 years of an active career in which he’s produced almost nothing of any value?
We can’t; and that’s why Eric Clapton is overrated
Almost by definition, for a band to be overrated they must be pretty famous, too famous one might argue. Wire is an exception to that rule. Regular readers will know how much I hate to be sold a duff record (I’ve never forgiven the Beach Boys for that in 1972). In the 90’s I was working in a town where the only daytime entertainment was a visit to Woolworths (now closed obviously). The store would often sell off its old cassettes at a knock down price which I could listen to on my car cassette player as I drove round east Derbyshire. One of my purchases was a Wire cassette for 99p. I may have listened to it once, but it was just so dreary I just couldn’t face it again. I had parted with 99p for a really duff cassette, I never forgave Wire.
From the beginning the critics loved Wire and it’s easy to see why. The band first came to light on a live at the Roxy album which was a quick attempt for the ailing punk club to make some money and featured the 2nd or 3rd rate bands who had appeared there (the good ones all had record contracts by this point). In such company Wire really shone like a diamond in a turd. Their first LP Pink Flag was full of short sharp songs with some interesting lyrics and competent playing. I bought the record and it was pretty good. The next couple of LPs raised the bar considerably. The band had bought some new effects pedals introduced some keyboard effects (which haven’t really dated) they has also written some intriguing songs. With Chairs Missing and 154 they had made a huge leap forward in their sound and established a stellar trajectory which they failed to maintain for the next 40 years.
But wire have remained the ultimate Guardian readers band. Clearly intelligent and arty they have constantly engaged in projects which are left of centre including fairly dull collaborations and solo projects. The hyperbole outweighs the reality though, to quote from Spotify, the band have focussed on ‘experimentation and process’ and their ‘musical identity constantly changes’. Just like ELP I have been listening to the band and I hear some really good songs from their first 3 LPs and a whole lot of fairly dull stuff from the rest of their career. It feels like one of those modern art exhibitions that have to be justified with extensive notes. In effect Wire have done what every band has done and moved with the times which means in the 80’s they sounded like a less danceable New Order and in the 90’s they started to look towards shoe gazing. There’s nothing actually that wrong with it but really, it’s pretty ploddy pop with the same 4/4 beat it’s not really experimental it’s what all bands do.
Sir Elton John
Sir Elton is a late entry prompted by the fact that there is a new biopic or at least a ‘re imagining of real events’ coming our way. Lets hope it’s as good as Dirt and Bohemian Rhapsody.
For me Elton is the sound of the early 70’s, a mashup of rock, glam and singer songwriter. It’s nice to hear his songs on the radio but I’ve never been tempted to listen to an entire album. During my week on Mull with only a record player and a limited supply of vinyl I did listen to one side of Goodbye Yellow Brick road only to find that it contained a track entitled ‘Jamaica Jerk off’, I was quite shocked.
If you’re going to have a millionaire Rockstar it might as well be Elton. He’s a genuine music enthusiast whose done a lot for charity but when you look at bit closer there’s not a whole deal of substance in his back catalogue. I like the sound of his voice and the sound of his records and the sound of his band in the 70’s but songs like ‘Bennie and the Jets’ ‘ ‘Honky Cat’ and ‘Crocodile Rock’ are not going to give Dylan and sleepless nights.
And remember he only wrote 50% of those!
Elton was in the right place at the right time and with a matter of luck and personality (and good management) he’s stayed at the top for so long we’ve almost forgotten what he’s famous for.
So am I right, am I wrong ?
Have I missed someone really obvious, does Sir Elton really write load of brilliant songs, DO Zep deserve their adoration, who are Wire anyway?
Let me know