Innovators and Imitators

While waiting in vain for the next music messiah, I thought I’d reflect on some of the true originals who changed life as we know it, and the imitators who followed in their wake.

I’m actually a little too young to have been an Elvis fan when he burst on the scene. I have no memory of his from-the-waist up appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. By the time I really became aware of him, he had already squandered his promise and brand equity in a series of embarrassing movies and songs that became increasingly irrelevant in the long shadow of the Beatles. For me, that changed with his 1968 comeback special, where I finally got a taste of the charisma and talent that had made him such an iconic figure. One song in particular, the deeply emotional “If I Can Dream,” harkened back to Elvis’s gospel roots and hints at the artist he could have been. I find it equally exhilarating and sad.

Elvis, as much as any performer, spawned his share of sound-alikes (and I don’t mean the impersonators who ply their trade in Vegas and Branson). I’m talking about wannabes who are always the unfortunate by-product of greatness, from pure imitators like Ral Donner (“Girl of My Best Friend”) and Terry Stafford (“Suspicion”) to Conway Twitty (“It’s Only Make Believe”), who somehow managed to transcend his early pretender status. As late as 1971, Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds released “Don’t Pull Your Love,” still, to my thinking, the best song Elvis never sang.

People are tired of me talking about Dylan, so I’ll save him and the countless performers he influenced for another day. For now, be sure to check out Jackie Greene, a legitimate heir to the throne.

I was never a Madonna fan, but I can certainly appreciate her marketing savvy and knack for reinvention. Not so the dozens of young women who followed in her footsteps with even less singing ability (if that’s even possible).

Nirvana was probably the last band that changed everything. I didn’t connect with any of the other grunge groups, from Pearl Jam to Stone Temple Pilots. The exception for me is Foo Fighters, but they’re more of an extension than a rip-off.

I saved the Beatles for last. You could make a case that they influenced every group that came later. (Some literally, such as Badfinger, were the recipients of songs written by McCartney.) At the very least, post-Beatle bands had to take the Fab Four into account, if only to say, “We’re not going to sound like the Beatles.” Right after the Beatles invaded America, they were followed in short order by the likes of the Dave Clark Five, Chad and Jeremy, Peter and Gordon, Herman’s Hermits, and dozens of others. People forget that early Who (“The Kids are Alright”) and Kinks (“You Really Got Me”) sounded like tribute bands before developing sounds, styles and attitudes of their own.

Ray Davies, in particular, quickly stamped his own quirky brand of originality on the music scene. I believe he’s one of the most under-appreciated innovators in the history of rock. Stay tuned for my next post, in which I bestow upon Mr. Davies the coveted “Real Men of Genius” award.

I know he’s tired of waiting.