Five artists/bands that only later became more widely known…
We’ve all most likely heard the story. That of the artist whose talents went largely unrecognized during their creative peak. Vincent van Gogh is a classic example but in this current age where to pursue one’s creative aspirations is in no way a unique practice limited to only a few, it is hardly surprising that more and more brilliant works are hidden in plain sight, obscured by a saturated market.
We’ve wanted to post a piece dedicated to albums that were not largely appreciated initially, but have gone on to attain either a mainstream or cult following for a while now, but the saddening passing of Fergus Miller AKA Bored Nothing (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bored_Nothing) injected a sense of urgency. That is not to say Miller was not appreciated in his lifetime. The evidence suggest he very much was. As a friend. As a husband. And as a respected figure within a vibrant Melbourne music scene, not to mention across the globe where he, by all accounts, was an approachable person who impressed people wherever he took himself and his music. The eponymous Bored Nothing album was a firm favourite of many who went in search of lo-fi, bedroom-produced melancholy, or, to be less niche, brilliant songwriting and production. However, it is also notable, when discussing Miller’s records with other passionate music fans, how many people didn’t hear his music whilst he was alive and are only now discovering its immeasurable worth. So as a tip of the hat to Miller and what his music meant, and will continue to mean to us at this here blog, we give him pride of place in this piece.
Yes to our ears the Bored Nothing album proved an instant classic but there’s also a heck of a lot more to work through that Miller has left us with, the second Bored Nothing release ‘Some Songs’ being equally impressive. You might wish to start with his Bandcamp page (https://fergus.bandcamp.com/) where much of the music is free to download. Also be sure to check out the project with his wife Anna Davidson ‘Pansy’ (https://soundcloud.com/pansyband). Will Miller’s work only become more widely known now he has passed? Well, whilst it’s arguably a sad state of affairs more lovers of quality music didn’t appreciate his output during his lifetime, at the same time, it would be equally tragic if more and more people didn’t discover it from this point on. So here’s hoping they do.
It seems weird to think The Velvet Underground were relative unknowns during their active years but actually they achieved little in the way of commercial success when they were in their prime. However, the group’s fusion of rock and roll with more avant-garde leanings now makes them one of the most influential bands ever to have existed. The Velvet Underground & Nico album (1967) with its now iconic Warhol sleeve, a yellow banana on a white background, is arguably their most famous release, comprising of classics such as ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’, ‘Heroin’ and, my personal favourite, ‘Venus in Furs’. If you haven’t heard The Velvet Underground A) what the hell have you been doing with your life? B) perhaps start with this, aforementioned album. From there you’ll definitely want to check out ‘White Light/White Heat’ and also ‘The Velvet Underground’. What the heck – why not listen to all of it? And of course the solo projects of band members Lou Reed and John Cale are worth investigating too. Not least Reed’s ‘Transformer’ which was produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson. What you are waiting for? Get on with it. This piece will still be here when you get back.
Nick Drake is arguably one of the best acoustic players to have graced the British folk scene. However, he actually didn’t play live too often. This could be a key reason he failed to cultivate a large following during his lifetime. Despite finding a well known label in Island, Drake was unable to break through and achieve mainstream success. As any solo artist might tell you, playing to a rowdy audience can prove a chastening experience and, for a sensitive soul such as Drake, who increasingly suffered from manic depression, it proved too much to be able to cope with. Unable to connect with audiences or even friends and family much of the time, he increasingly retreated into himself before eventually overdosing on a prescribed antidepressant aged 26. He left behind a body of work that stands the test of time. First album ‘Five Leaves Left’ was produced by Joe Boyd and is also notable for the fact Fairport Convention guitarist Richard Thompson and Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson appeared on the record. It received mixed reviews and was arguably not marketed well enough. In an attempt to perhaps draw in an audience with a poppier approach, ‘Bryter Layter’, again produced by Boyd, and again featuring members of Fairport Convention, also includes contributions from John Cale on two songs. Again, the album didn’t achieve what was hoped and it sold less than 3000 copies initially, as well as receiving indifferent reviews. Final album ‘Pink Moon’ is a much darker record but perhaps a more honest reflection of Drake the person. This one was produced by John Wood who had acted as engineer on the previous two releases. Other than Wood, Drake was alone in the studio and unaccompanied on the songs.
When you listen to Big Star’s ‘# 1 Record’ you’d be forgiven for assuming many of the songs were massive hits. They immediately come across as the sort of tracks that should have been blasting out of millions of people’s car stereos across the US during the 1970s, before going on to achieve even greater global success. These songs tick all the boxes. Mainstream appeal without being superficial. Expertly crafted and produced. Something melodically and lyrically for, and to unite, people of all ages. Even notoriously hard to please critics such as Lester Bangs dug Big Star, in fact, he even placed them in the same bracket as The Beatles. So what went wrong? The name of the band, robbed from the Big Star supermarket chain, and the title of the record should have mirrored their reality. They should have become big stars and they should have had a number one record. With Chris Bell cutting his teeth as a studio hand he had learnt much about how to get the best out of a recording studio and also of course knew how to pen a tune. Throw on top of that the star quality of former Box Tops singer Alex Chilton, also a brilliant songwriter, and a highly proficient rhythm section in the form of Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel, and this was very much the complete package. Sadly, those responsible for marketing the record were not up to the task and the album flopped. The disappointment led to worsening band relationships and meant the original line-up just couldn’t last. Big Star continued to create great work however, despite a lack of mass acclaim, but notably without Bell, who was tragically later killed in a car accident at the age of 27.
If you’ve never heard of Sixto Diaz Rodriguez perhaps ‘Sugarman’ might ring a bell? ‘Searching for Sugarman’ is the name of a Swedish-British documentary film which came out in 2012. Perhaps there is no better film to capture this notion of the woefully unappreciated artist. Rodriguez, a US singer-songwriter, enjoyed extremely limited success in his younger days. He ended up working in demolition or on production lines but what is striking about the film is his positive attitude, the refusal to be overcome with bitterness, his determination to get an education, the respect he has garnered in his immediate community, and his role as a strong and inspirational father figure. So what person more deserving of belated fame and fortune? Unbeknown to Rodriguez, due to a complex web of arrangements which meant he never really saw any money from sales, his albums actually sold well in Australia, Botswana, New Zealand, Zimbabwe and South Africa, the latter country becoming the focal point of the film, and where Rodriguez was actually spoken of in the same breath as Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens. It wasn’t until 1997 that Rodriguez’s daughter stumbled across an Internet site that revealed to her the scale of her father’s popularity. In South Africa all kinds of myths had circulated, one of which was that Rodriguez had actually killed himself during a concert. It’s nice then that his piece can end on a happier note, with Rodriguez in fact touring abroad before eventually even finding success in his own country.
If there’s a moral to the story perhaps it’s this. Next time you see someone performing to a small audience then lend them your support and don’t be dismissive simply because they are not currently winning any popularity contests. Who knows what they could go on to achieve? Who knows what they’ve achieved already in terms of their songwriting and recordings? Artists put everything on the line, including their mental health, and the dawn of the Internet age has rendered recorded works virtually worthless in terms of monetary value. It’s important not to take all this freely available music for granted. Treasure it and treasure the people that sacrifice so much to make it. When you have the opportunity, show them your appreciation.