Why Do All Great Bands Abandon The Sound That Made Them Famous?

There's something that has always bugged me about all the great bands in rock & roll.  They start out sounding like no one else, make one or two albums that succeed in getting everyone's attention, and then they start to slowly drift right smack dab  slowly into the middle as they go from recording albums with a Mitch Easter (R.E.M.) or Jeff Murphy (Material Issue) to the Steve Lillywhites, Rick Rubins and Danger Mouses of the music world.   It's like they all reach a point where they look at the team that got them there and go "Eh."

Sure, they may call wanting to work with other people part of the artistic process, but who are we kidding? The Beatles did everything.  All these other bands do is mistakenly stumble upon some path the Beatles blazed forty years ago and presume they somehow created something new simply by following it.  So let's stop with such nonsense.

There is no other band that best demonstrated this malady than R.E.M. who recorded their first two full-length albums with Mitch Easter, who happened to own a very affordable recording studio in North Carolina (where their manager Jefferson Holt was from).  In Easter, the band found a kindred spirit who not only understood them more than they themselves probably did, but singlehandedly crafted the murky, effusive sound that ultimately defined the band.

Imagine R.E.M. walking into any other studio in the area.  Some other producer/engineer would have probably tried to beef up their sound, told Stipe to enunciate, and potentially killed the band's spirit in the process.  To think of how many great bands never became they legends they deserved to be because they didn't have access to the one guy who "got" them.

So when R.E.M. started working with producers like Don Gehman and Scott Litt, making albums that brought them closer and closer to the mainstream, the albums were still good, but, let's face it, this was the sound of a different band.  If you'd have told the four guys who made the beautiful and evocative "South Central Rain" in 1983 that six years later they'd be foisting songs like "Stand" upon the world, they'd have broken up in disgust.

What kind of band would R.E.M. be regarded as today if "Monster" had been their first album and not their ninth?  Yeah, yeah, I know, you can't expect a band to work with the same producer for nine albums.  Or can you?  After all, the Beatles cut eleven records with the same producer.

Of course, no such conversation would be complete without mentioning The Jesus And Mary Chain, whose debut single "Upside Down" turned Britain on its ear and ruled the UK indie charts for over a year.  Imagine a Shangri-La's song drenched in piercing shards of unbridled distortion and feedback and you'll have some idea of the sonic mayhem for which the band was known.  The formula, if you will, was later employed on their debut album, Psychocandy, which yielded such singles as "You Trip Me Up", "Never Understand" and "Just Like Honey".

Sadly, by 1987 and the release of their second album, Darklands, the band had all but abandoned the feedback-drenched sound.  While the song quality remained high, the sonic impact of songs like "April Skies", "Cherry Came Too", and "Happy When It Rains" was downright conventional.

By 1989's Automatic, the band's trademark sound had been replaced by a more streamlined rock sound; sort of a British Ramones with drum machines.  A listen to the band's final studio album, Munki, reveals a downright conventional, almost faceless JAMC.

Of course, seeing a band like the Ramones slowly drift to the middle was sad to witness as albums like Leave Home and Rocket To Russia that had bristled with the same sense of danger and exhilaration as a walk through the Bowery circa 1978 eventually gave way to albums like Too Tough To Die and Animal Boy that tried to reclaim their punk cred while, at the same time, offering synth-driven material meant to attract mainstream listeners.

The fact that the same band that recorded the monolithic punk anthem "Blitzkrieg Bop" would, by 1985, be reduced to cutting schmaltzy dreck like "Something To Believe In" is heartbreaking.  While many critics would accuse the band of making the same record over and over in the early years, the truth of the matter is that there is something to be said for consistency and sticking to one's guns, but even the Ramones proved this to be easier said than done in the end.

There isn't a single great band that has managed to escape this malady unscathed.  Kiss went from Destroyer to Music From 'The Elder', Metallica went from ...and justice for all to performing with a symphony orchestra.  U2 gave the world War and the painfully derivative Rattle And Hum within five years of one another.

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