Some bands live on, in influence, not sales

October 24, 1993|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Given its status as a popular art, you'd think the most important and influential rock and roll also would be among the most commercially successful.

And to a degree, you'd be right. After all, there's no disputing either the sales base or stylistic impact of acts like Elvis Presley, the Beatles, James Brown, Michael Jackson or Madonna.

Even so, there are still some bands that have been enormously important to the sound and shape of rock despite the fact that their albums didn't sell squat.

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND

Named after an obscure S&M tome and drawing from the drone-driven sound of avant-gardist LaMonte Young, the Velvet Underground was so far ahead of the pack that its 1967 debut, "The Velvet Underground and Nico," startles and disturbs listeners even today. No wonder the album drifted in and out of print through the '70s -- its initial sales never even topped 10,000 -- or that when the band broke up hardly anyone noticed.

Yet the Velvets' legacy is enormous. David Bowie was one of many who drew from the terse decadence of songs like "I'll Be Your Mirror" and "Waiting for the Man," while a whole generation of hardcore bands took from the blank beat and energetic din of "Sister Ray." Even traditionalists like Bruce Springsteen found inspiration in the likes of "Rock and Roll." And that doesn't even begin to approach what bands like Talking Heads, R.E.M. or the Smiths learned from their Velvet Underground albums.

FAIRPORT CONVENTION

At first, Fairport Convention seemed little more than an attempt to forge an English equivalent to the Band. And had it remained at that, the band would still have been an important focal point for the then-nascent English folk-rock scene.

But Fairport's interest in Celtic music, combined with an uncanny ability to translate those old melodies into rock and roll, allowed the band to cast a shadow far larger than its commercial success would suggest. For not only did Fairport ease the way for acts like Jethro Tull and inspire an entire generation of Irish bands, its influence was felt everywhere from early Traffic to the acoustic side of Led Zeppelin (that's Fairport's Sandy Denny singing with Robert Plant on "The Battle of Evermore").

Don't take my word for it -- pick up a copy of "Unhalfbricking" or "Liege and Lief" and hear for yourself.

KRAFTWERK

Even though Kraftwerk (German for "electric generating plant") did not make the first attempt at synth rock, it pretty much wrote the book on the style.

A lot of that has to do with the band's arch sense of humor, which so happily embraced the emotionless deadpan of cyborg futurism that the band once spoke seriously about having robots perform its concerts. But mostly, it was the group's ability to capture the electronic aesthetic through its lean melodies and a clock-like, sequenced pulse.

In the process, Kraftwerk actually grazed the charts a couple of times, most notably with "Autobahn" and "Trans Europe Express." But its influence on others was far more important, inspiring everything from the synth-driven sound of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" (which, in turn, spawned the whole Hi-NRG dance sound) to the cheesy electronic thump of Soul Sonic Force's "Planet Rock" (which became the blueprint for "Whoot, There It Is" and its Southern Bass ilk).

BIG STAR

Even though Alex Chilton had a name and a track record (courtesy his work with the Box Tops) when he put Big Star together, the band still sank virtually without trace. Even fans had trouble finding "#1 Record" and "Radio City," while "Third," the group's final album, wasn't released until well after the group was gone.

No matter. Though the members of Big Star may never have become big stars themselves, the band's sound lives on nonetheless. Between Chilton's arch-and-aching vocals and the effervescent jangle of songs like "September Gurls," Big Star left its mark on a host of post-punk guitar bands, including the dBs, R.E.M., the Bangles (who covered "September Gurls"), the Replacements (who actually had a song called "Alex Chilton"), and Teenage Fanclub. Without Big Star, college rock could never have achieved the success it currently enjoys.

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