“Creative work of any kind involves risk. Creativity is risk. You can’t do creative work and play it safe. That’s the whole game. Writing is a risk. Traditional publishing is a risk. Serializing your novel on Substack, same deal. Your work might suck. You might not find a publisher. You might not find an audience. Either way, there’s risk involved. It’s all a gamble. It all takes guts. You have to be prepared to fail. Which makes publishing of any kind a mix of bravery and madness. So take as many risks as you can handle. Swing big, aim high, and forget the rules. If taking a risk for you means traditional publishing, then great. Go for it. Work hard and keep going. If risk means baring your soul to a single subscriber and never making a penny—perfect. Godspeed. Punch a hole in their inbox.” - Dan Dalton, writer
Bravery and madness
I picked up this quote from an article about the serialisation of book publishing on Substack. It made me think how similar creating music is to writing.
In my previous article, To stream or not to stream, I touched on a point which is very close to my heart: the liberty of artists to release work regardless of commercial success, the response of critics or existing supporters.
Dan’s quote encapsulated my thinking and I particularly like the phrase “Which makes publishing of any kind a mix of bravery and madness”.
Damn the torpedoes
I thought it would be fun to contextualise these thoughts by discussing four of my favourite albums, which at the time were almost not released by record labels, slated by critics or where die-hard fans walked away from an artist they loved.
Each album exemplifies a disregard for everything, except the art.
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Kid A - Radiohead
I have been a staunch Radiohead fan ever since hearing Pablo Honey and the single that changed it all for them, Creep.
Following that first record, their musical journey was mellifluous. I couldn’t take The Bends off the turntable and distinctly remember sitting in the car outside Bleakholt Animal Sanctuary, just outside Ramsbottom (yes, that is a real place) listening to Johnny Walker on his Radio 1 Saturday show play OK Computer. I was spellbound.
Following the tremendous success of OK Computer and Thom’s subsequent breakdown, the band were in turmoil and decided to take a new and totally avant-garde approach to their music. Kid A was released on October 2nd 2000.
The anticipation was palpable in the Campbell household. Both James and Joe - our two sons - were also massive fans and when we played it for the first time were shocked and confused. Where was the follow-up to OK Computer? What had happened? We read the mixed reviews and talked to our mates about it.
Its departure from Radiohead's earlier sound divided listeners, and some dismissed it as pretentious, deliberately obscure, or derivative. However, it later attracted acclaim; at the end of the decade, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and the Times ranked Kid A the greatest album of the 2000s, and in 2020 Rolling Stone ranked it number 20 on its updated list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.1
Years later I realised Kid A is a masterpiece ahead of its time, but I just wasn’t ready for it. Have I been influenced by tastemakers, or did we all just catch up?
It’s interesting to read two sides of the critic’s story; Brent DiCrescenzo’s magnificent review in Pitchfork, which many say changed music journalism forever - and Mark Beaumont’s “vitriolic, sweary shoeing” in the now defunct weekly music paper Melody Maker, revisited by The Guardian in 2010.
Now, the double 10” vinyl is rarely absent from our turntable and every time I hear those opening bars played on the Sequential Prophet 5, I luxuriate in the devastatingly brilliant production of Nigel Godrich - who along with Daniel Lanois, is my favourite producer - and the genius of Yorke, the pair of Greenwood’s, Selway and O’Brien.
If you want to really immerse yourself in the band around this period I seriously recommend reading Steven Hyden’s excellent book - This Isn’t Happening.
Spirit of Eden - Talk Talk
I was never a huge Talk Talk fan. Their early work was cool and I really got into the singles, but never bought an album. This all changed when I heard Spirit of Eden, their fourth studio album, released in 1988.
The songs were written by vocalist Mark Hollis and producer Tim Friese-Greene and the album was compiled from a lengthy recording process at London's Wessex Studios between 1987 and 1988. Often working in darkness, the band recorded many hours of improvised performances that drew on elements of jazz, ambient, blues, classical music, and dub. These long-form recordings were then heavily edited and re-arranged into an album in mostly digital format. Spirit of Eden was a radical departure from Talk Talk's earlier and more accessible albums. Compared to the success of 1986's The Colour of Spring, it was a commercial disappointment. Despite its mixed reception, the album's stature grew more favourable in subsequent years, with contemporary critics describing Spirit of Eden as an early progenitor of the post-rock genre. In 2013, NME ranked Spirit of Eden at number 95 in its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.2
I know quite a bit about this record as it was engineered by our good friend Phill Brown who detailed the torturous recording process in his superb, must-read book, Are We Still Rolling?
“Twelve hours a day in the dark listening to the same six songs for eight months became pretty intense. There was very little communication with musicians who came in to play. They were led to a studio in darkness and a track would be played down the headphones.”3
Hollis was sick of synthesisers and the music business wanting to do something totally groundbreaking. In hindsight, we know he achieved it, but at the time fans were confused, critics were divided and his record company (Parlophone, a division of EMI) were furious as he didn’t want to release a single, promotional video or even tour the record.
To get a taste of his vituperative rhetoric, read the 1988 interview from The Guardian. Worth a few minutes of your time.
I adore this record on many levels; the production, instrumentation, broken vocal, mix and engineering are all wonderful but the obsessive dedication to creating something totally new and fresh is deeply inspiring.
Listen alone with headphones or on a great set of speakers. It’s worth it, particularly on vinyl.
Low - David Bowie
Low is another album I struggled with at first. I had been a Bowie fan for years having bought most of his previous work and particularly loved Diamond Dogs.
This was his 11th studio album, released on 14 January 1977. RCA Records refused to issue it for three months, fearing it would be a commercial failure but when they finally did, it divided critical opinion and received little promotion from the label.
Apart from the obviously brilliant singles, the trilogy of this, Lodger and Heroes were a slow burn for me, but now embrace the raw creativity, experimentation and teamwork employed on the record.
Produced by Tony Visconti and Bowie, it features my favourite Bowie rhythm section of guitarist Carlos Alomar, bassist George Murray and percussionist Dennis Davis plus lashings of creative input from Brian Eno, who surprisingly is not credited as co-producer.
I love the quote from Alomar, who initially talked of Eno's input as "avant-garde bullshit" but eventually warmed to the experimentation.
Visconti’s use of the Eventide H910 Harmonizer on Davis’ snare really revolutionised my thinking on drums, prompting me to buy an Eventide Eclipse and H3000 which I use regularly. The fact that Daniel Lanois also uses these on virtually all his records has nothing to do with it. Honest.
In later decades, critics have rated the album one of Bowie's best works and it has appeared on several lists of the greatest albums of all time. It influenced numerous post-punk bands such as Joy Division, and its drum sound has been widely imitated. A forerunner in the development of the post-rock genre of the 1990s.4
Let’s Impeach The President - Neil Young
Getting over the initial shock of his whining vocal tone and apparent lack of electric guitar chops, Young has always been in my musical life.
After The Gold Rush, Silver & Gold, Sleeps With Angels, Ragged Glory, Freedom and Harvest - plus of course the sensational live albums Unplugged, Live Rust and Weld are all regular visitors to our turntable.
Yes, he writes songs that are generally performed in a traditional way, but listen to Sleeps With Angels, Arc, Freedom and Trans to see how he really is prepared to experiment - good or bad.
Regardless of your politics, you have to take your hat off to him with this record.
Let’s Impeach The President single-handedly alienates a vast swathe of his fan base with a lyric. Does he care? Does he fuck! He’s there to make a point, using the power of his celebrity to precipitate change and make people think.
It’s the seventh track from his 27th studio album Living With War, released on May 2, 2006 which was a musical critique of U.S. President George W. Bush and his conduct during the war in Iraq.
I love the comments from the droves of people leaving the concert in disgust. You went to see Neil Young for fucks sake. The man that gave you Four Dead In Ohio, Southern Man and Rockin’ In The Free World - what do you expect?
“Neil Young can stick it up his ass”
There you have it. Four totally different albums where the artists have expressed their creativity regardless of consequence.
I hope you enjoyed reading this week’s article and would really love to hear about your own experiences with any particular albums that you disliked on the first listen, but then learned to love.
Next week Suzy is back in the saddle: see you in two weeks!
Phill Brown from Are We Still Rolling?