There’s a little meme doing the rounds on my Facebook where people are posting up lists of the five worst bands to have had major success. I thought I’d join in. The danger of this, of course, is that you peeve a lot of people who consider these bands to have secured that success deservedly. But I laugh in the face of such danger.
I’ve defined “worst” not merely in terms of bare output, but also in terms of the legacy they have bequeathed, and particularly the influence they have had on other bands – most of whom have been considerably worse than the original. It doesn’t mean, then, that I consider these the worst five bands to have achieved commercial success full stop.
So here you go, without further ado:
1. The Velvet Underground
The only difficulty here was whether they had “major success”. Obviously they didn’t make much of an impact commercially while they were active, but I imagine that the royalties they’ve accrued over the 40-odd years since they stopped have been fairly substantial.
I quite like the Velvet Underground, but listening now to the barrel-house clatter of “I’m Waiting for the Man”, it just sounds amateurish, especially when you consider it was released in the same year as Sergeant Pepper, Axis: Bold as Love and Forever Changes. The beauty achieved by the band on tracks like “Candy Says“, if it had been replicated, would have made them something more. But if you want that, you have to look at John Cale’s solo work.
The impact of the band is legendary. In short, this was where rock music left behind its roots in blues and jazz and do-wop and became something dominated by skinny white boys. It was where lyrics became dominated by neurosis and tension, and the music, far from being a release, became something just as often sinuous and constricted, with singing that sounded so casual it was almost comatose, and spindly, droning guitars. On balance, they belong in this list, for sure.
2. Sonic Youth
It’s probable that even now, many fewer people have heard of Sonic Youth than the Velvet Underground. So, again, there was a question here over whether their success was sufficiently “major” to merit inclusion in this list. Sonic Youth represent a strand of American rock that encompasses hardcore punk, noise rock, and no wave, which eventually gave birth to the full flowering of “alternative rock” that subsequently became the mainstream, or something approximating it.
The problem is that their music largely isn’t very good. Take “Teen Age Riot“, for example, the lead single from Daydream Nation – often regarded as their most successful album. It has an endearing sense of energy to it, and a structure that approximates something akin to what we would expect of a modern rock song, but it’s hard to hear it as anything other than a quite joyful messy jangle. When I tell you (assuming you aren’t a Sonic Youth aficionado) that this is probably their most accessible single, and that it’s actually a lot less challenging than the majority of their output, you might get a sense of the failings of this highly influential but painfully overrated band.
3. The Sex Pistols
The band that released only one album, inferior to many other contemporary works even within their own genre. The same year, 1977, saw David Bowie put out both Low and Heroes; The Clash had put out their own eponymous debut album in April.
Yet Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols remains a classic to this day. Each time I put it on – which isn’t very often – it sounds phoney to my ears. Perhaps it’s knowing that Sid Vicious, the man recruited to replace the only “middle-class” member of the band, Glen Matlock, couldn’t even play a note; that Matlock was drafted back in for the recording sessions. Or maybe it’s the highly muscular sound of the Pistols, which in one sense compares favourably to the scratchiness of the Clash or the Jam, but in another feels… dare I say, glammy?
I think the worst thing about the Pistols was the fact that they convinced everyone they were thicker than they were. The lyrics are often witty, sardonic and cutting; the musicianship is far more accomplished than the champions of the punk aesthetic would have liked to admit. Listening to Never Mind the Bollocks now, I get the uncomfortable sense I’m listening to a band jumping on a bandwagon, and certainly not one starting a movement.
4. Joy Division
Following neatly on from the previous entry, Joy Division were formed immediately after a Sex Pistols gig. But they soon outgrew their punk roots and developed a sound that was far darker and more complex. They were a truly “post-punk” band, relying on new instrumentation and production, and led by Ian Curtis’ troubled personality, dogged by depression and epilepsy.
That aspect of Joy Division is why it often feels cheap to criticise them, even though on the other side of things it arguably explains the cult-like status afforded to their two albums. The first, Unknown Pleasures, has become a defining artifact of British popular culture; the sort of album whose cover now graces a million tee-shirts worn by people who probably can’t name a single song on the record. (They might suggest “Love Will Tear Us Apart“, but that famous single featured on neither of the band’s long cuts.)
But it is precisely the themes of alienation, darkness, despair, etc, that make Joy Division so difficult to listen to. As a teenager I really tried to like them. Even now, I admire them, and recognise the power of their sound and what they achieved. But ultimately it isn’t for me, and it worries me when I see others obsessed with them. Their contemporaries U2, who are much-maligned, represent a better and more optimistic side of the post-punk movement; one that didn’t close in on itself but kept an open mind and offered an open heart to the waiting world.
The worst thing about having gone to University College London is that I was aware all through my time there as an undergraduate that a few short years before this was where Coldplay had begun.
They started out as a decent enough post-Britpop band. Taking their cues from Radiohead, Jeff Buckley and especially Travis, they ploughed an honest furrow purveying average-to-good songs, which occasionally featured piano (hey! different!) and always featured “soulful” vocals and lyrics that shot for profound but always landed on pretentious.
Somehow, though, this became so monumentally popular that they had to innovate. After the good Parachutes and the decent A Rush of Blood to the Head – both of which I enjoyed at the time, as pleasant enough records – they began to reach. On their third album, X&Y, it became apparent that they had run out of real melodic ideas and had settled, instead, for piano riffs that verged on ringtones and straight plagiarism from true visionaries – most painfully, lifting the jingly, instantly recognisable intro to Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love” for the awful sub-U2 earnestness of “Talk“.
The less said about the later albums the better. When a band has to find a new wardrobe to go with a new record, it’s never a good sign – unless you’re David Bowie. And let’s just bask in Wikipedia’s synopsis of Mylo Xyloto:
Mylo Xyloto is a concept album and a thematic rock opera. The album tells the story of a war against sound and colour by a supremeist [sic] government, set in the world of Silencia, an Orwellian society. Silencia has been taken over by a supremacist government, led by Major Minus, who controls the population through media and propaganda.
Their collected output makes me feel like Ethan Hawke here:
Finally, it should never, ever be forgotten that Coldplay were originally called Pectoralz. I’m just saying.