You know it, I know it, and all but the most diehard aficionados of reality TV know it. We don’t watch TV for reality, we watch it for fantasy. Still, when you’re pop culture obsessives like we are, we can sometimes be swayed to get involved in one of these God-forsaken programs when they involve a cast of celebrities, and in the case of CMT’s new show, “Gone Country,” the premise is eye-catching as well: take six musicians from decidedly different genres and watch as they attempt to reinvent themselves as country music artists. After watching the first episode and finding it disconcertingly enjoyable, we found ourselves thinking about others in music history who’ve taken a stab at career re-creation, only to have it go horribly, horribly wrong.
Yes, while putting together our list, we snickered. A lot. And now it’s your turn.
Ethel Merman as Disco Diva: “Anything you can do, I can do better,” once warbled Merman; as it turns out, she really believed it. How else to explain 1979’s The Ethel Merman Disco Album, which found the 70-year-old Merman adding new meaning to the word “Mermania” by laying down vocals over discofied versions of old show tunes?
Ego — or advancing senility — might account for the album’s creation, but only America’s insatiable appetite for the worst of everything can explain the fact that it’s currently in print, or the existence of lovingly assembled tributes like this one:
Of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t provide you with the album’s must-be-heard-to-be-believed rendition of Miz Merman’s signature tune: “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” Put on your dancing shoes, kids!
Debbie Gibson as Grown-Up: Too old to pose with a teddy bear and a happy face drawn on her knee, but too young for her inevitable Playboy spread, Gibson tried to (ahem) straddle the middle ground with her fourth album, 1993’s Body Mind Soul, swinging around a stripper pole in the video for leadoff single “Losin’ Myself” while still falling back on bouncy bubblegum pop like “Little Bird.” And actually, “Losin’ Myself” isn’t so bad; it’s crap like the hilariously misguided “Shock Your Mama” (download) that heralded Gibson’s imminent transition from perfume-hawking Top 10 mainstay to Broadway belter.
Still, you’ve got to hand it to her — compared to Britney Spears’ Blackout, Body Mind Soul doesn’t seem so bad, does it? (Plus, Britney will never, ever do anything as double-pronged cool as Gibson’s providing of backing vocals to the Circle Jerks’ cover of the Soft Boys’ “I Wanna Destroy You.”)
In 1980, Alice teamed with Roy Thomas Baker (the producer best known for putting the New Wave chrome sheen polish on The Cars’ first three albums), ditched the horror costuming and eye make-up and became “Alice Cooper ’80,” releasing Flush the Fashion, a full-tilt New Wave album very much in the synth-based Gary Numan vein. And it wasn’t half bad.Now, the album’s title could be seen as an ironic statement, since Alice was certainly embracing current fashion, or was perhaps making a sincere effort to hold on to his existing fanbase, who might have blanched at such genre-hopping. He shouldn’t have bothered — that was going to happen regardless once those fans heard the first single:
“Clones (We’re All)” was written by songwriter David Carron and brought to Alice via Baker, who thought it would make a terrific single, with its menacing tale of clones taking over human society, only to discover the loneliness of being just like everyone else. Baker was right — “Clones” is an excellent song, a tight, hook-filled number with just enough guitar crunch to offset the synthesized proceedings. It also became Alice’s first hit in two years, just squeaking into the Top 40. Despite this, the Flush the Fashion album soon dropped off the charts, but Alice didn’t quite give up on New Wave yet. As his alcoholism spiraled out of control, Cooper’s next three albums (Special Forces, Zipper Catches Skin, and Dada) grew more wildly experimental — and some would argue, unlistenable — before Cooper grabbed the mascara and retreated back to pop metal in the mid-’80s.
The Scorpions as Roxette: Ah, the Scorpions, those legendary purveyors of German metal, best known for such lighter-friendly rockers as “No One Like You,” “Rock You Like A Hurricane,” and others. What on earth made these dependable, albeit ham-fisted and Spinal Tappish, heavy metal legends decide to team up with producer Peter Wolf (the writer and producer of “We Built This City,” need I say more?) and go the Roxette route?Even with advance warning, one listen to the lead-off track “Mysterious” — with its growly synth bass and C + C Music Factory drum machine rhythms — will still have you scrambling to make sure you didn’t accidentally put the wrong CD into the player. Don’t believe me? Try “To Be No. 1” (download).
And if that weren’t enough, song titles like “Yellow Butterfly,” “Mind Like A Tree,” and, ahem, “Freshly Squeezed” do nothing to prepare the listener for the Lisa Lisa-less Cult Jam of the senses that is Eye II Eye. My ears, my ears!
Ron Keel as Ronnie Lee Keel: Ron Keel must have cried in his empty Skoal tin the week Bon Jovi netted a country #1 single — when it comes to craven Nashville pandering, the onetime Keel frontman had the boys from Jersey beat by a decade. In the early ’90s, sensing that time was running out on his B-level metal band, he rechristened himself Ronnie Lee Keel and started releasing country records, including the (possibly unintentionally titled) Western Country.
Can you believe tracks like “My Horse Is a Harley” (download) weren’t country hits? You can, can’t you?Of course, by the time the late ’90s hairenaissance started, he was quick to drop the cowboy hat and resuscitate Keel. These days, he alternates between fronting a new country band, flogging Keel’s desiccated corpse, and selling framed autographed lyrics on eBay. Yeehaw!
Def Leppard as Relevant Post-Grunge Band: In the face of stone-faced self-absorption that came with the grunge movement, Def Lep drained all the frat-boy fun out of their schtick and got “serious” on 1996’s Slang… meaning that they desperately tugged at a garage-rock ethic, put one-armed drummer Rick Allen back behind a real kit, stripped out their stacks of guitar and vocal harmony, added in elements from all over the map and did their best to walk away from the glam-rock glories of Pyromania and Hysteria. It didn’t help. Their newfound earnestness failed to win new fans and alienated old fans. These days, the band does their level best to vice-versa things by pretending Slang never happened, but the Internet is not Lep’s friend — check it out:
KISS as Prog Nerds: What do you do when you’re one of the biggest rock/pop acts of the 1970s and have alienated a huge chunk of your fan base by 1981? That’s right, you alienate them further with a concept album. However, if you’re KISS, it’s nearly impossible to get cerebral when the content of your output has largely been based on the following formula: 25 parts sex, 3 parts cold gin, and 53 parts bombast. To say that Music from “The Elder” is a shit sandwich is a given. But are there any redeeming qualities to songs such as “A World Without Heroes” (download)? Are there any signs that the old KISS is lurking somewhere in this guano stew? Or that a new, better KISS is emerging from this career makeover?
Sadly, the answer is no. KISS doesn’t know what it wants from this album. Check out these bits of “Fanfare” (Also known by many KISS fans as “What the fuck is this shit”) (download), “I” (As in “I don’t know what the hell all of this means”) (download), and “Under the Rose” (KISS saying “Hey, Rush opened for us back in the mid ’70s, we should have the right to copy them now that we need some heft”) (download) — it’s like Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons grabbed The Who’s Quadrophenia, Rush’s 2112, and a coked-up Bob Ezrin (who produced this mistake) brought in a copy of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. They took elements from each of these recordings, put them in a blender and hit frappe. Individually, the concept albums mentioned above are great. However, blended together, heated over a stove by wealthy idiots, and served up on an attractive platter as something of substance, they can’t hide the fact that shit is still shit when you get right down to it. Even KISS figured out the record sucked pretty quicklly — here’s one of the band’s only appearances in support of Music from “The Elder,” on the short-lived sketch comedy show Fridays:
MC Hammer as Bump-Pumping Gangsta: Looking back, it’s sort of hard to fault MC Hammer for trying to slip under rap’s West Coast border fence — four years removed from helping hip-hop go mainstream, he was a laughingstock; a Saturday morning cartoon in clown pants. His only shot at retaining some semblance of relevancy was to record something harder-hitting, which he tried to do with 1994’s The Funky Headhunter.
It actually worked for a minute — the leadoff single, “Pumps and a Bump,” was sort of a hit, helped along by MTV’s refusal to play the original video (thank you, MTV):
But rap was moving faster than Hammer could follow, and before the end of the year, he was all dried up. On the bright side, he got another gold record for his troubles — but he had to leave behind crap like “Somethin’ for the O.G.’s” (download) in the process.
Jewel as Pop Tart: Jewelpologists have always claimed that she was only half-serious — or making some kind of genius meta-statement on commercialism and the objectification of women blah blah blah — when she filmed the video for “Intuition,” the leadoff single from 2003’s 0304. You’ll have to forgive our cynicism, but when a fading starlet releases an album of trendy dance pop, and a video that culminates with said starlet being hosed down by a group of lip-smacking firemen…well, we don’t really see the need to do much more than take it at face value. “Intuition,” despite being a medium-sized hit (and a jingle for a feminine razor), only served to herald further sales declines for Jewel. What’s she up to these days? Making a country record, of course.
Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines: Okay, you had to know we’d put this in here — it’s pretty much the textbook definition of a bad music makeover, and since it was perpetrated by one of the most commercially successful artists in history, the schadenfreude was particularly delicious. Garth Brooks’ popularity had reached a visible plateau by the time Garth Brooks in…the Life of Chris Gaines was released in 1999, but once people listened to the record — supposedly the greatest hits of a fictional musician who was supposed to be the focus of a…oh, fuck it — Brooks’ career went Tom Cruise cold.
Almost ten years later, this shit is still funny:
Style Council as Acid House Band: Statistically, there’s always a significant likelihood that an attempt at reinvention will not only fail to revive an artist’s career but, indeed, will actually succeed in killing it stone dead. In the case of The Style Council, however, their change in musical direction proved so undesirable that it never even got released!
According to Paolo Hewitt’s liner notes in the band’s all-inclusive box set, The Complete Adventures of the Style Council, it all started with an innocent joke from Paul Weller: when asked by a journalist what he thought about the new acid house movement, he smirked that he was far more interested in “council house.” I never said it was a terribly funny joke, you’ll note, but that’s fair enough, as fans of acid house weren’t laughing at Weller’s uninformed dismissal of their music, anyway. Within a month’s time, however, Weller had changed his tune; having been slipped a compilation tape by a friend that spotlighted some top-notch Acid House material, Paul had suddenly seen the light and was envisioning the next stage of his band’s evolution. Seemingly unconcerned about how jarring it might be for longtime fans of the group to abruptly shift gears from the light and jazzy Sunday-morning pop of 1988’s Confessions of a Pop Group into an album of non-stop dance beats, Weller and his Council compatriot, Mick Talbot, dived headlong into writing and recording the eight songs which would eventually become 1989’s Modernism: A New Decade.
In truth, though, it’s far more appropriate to refer to it as 1998’s Modernism: A New Decade, since that’s when it actually saw the light of day. The band’s label, Polydor, took one listen to the record and said, “Paul, we love you and the other guy…what’s his name again? Is it Rick?…but, look, if you think we’re releasing this onto unsuspecting Style Council fans, you’re fucking mad!” Now, obviously, I wasn’t actually there for the album’s unveiling to the suits at Polydor, so as far as I know, that’s not an exact quote, but it surely must’ve been something approximating it. To get an idea of their horror, you need only listen to the first track from Confessions of a Pop Group – “It’s A Very Deep Sea” (download) — and then check out what Weller dropped as the opening salvo for Modernism: “A New Decade / Can You Still Love Me?” (download). At the end of the day, that’s probably all Polydor needed to hear to know that Style Council fans would balk, so they shelved the album. Unsurprisingly, Weller got belligerent and decided to tour behind the new material anyway, resulting in a gig at the Royal Albert Hall where he and Talbot unabashedly ignored their signature hits in favor of their new sound. As Weller recalled to Hewitt, “People ripped up their programs, calling me Judas. It was outrageous. I saw these geezers about two weeks afterwards, and they were saying, ‘What the fuck was that all about?’ Well, it was what it was.”
And what it was was the end of The Style Council. Weller, who’d already done a hell of a job in reinventing himself after his days with The Jam, proceeded to finally go solo, thereby finding a new career as an elder statesman of the punk era. Modernism, meanwhile, quickly scored a cult following, mostly because no one had ever been allowed to hear it; when they finally got their chance in 1998, courtesy of the aforementioned box set, I suspect most of them finally understood Polydor’s decision.