10 Bands That Are Way More Influential Than You Think
Does anyone need to hear again about how influential the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd have been on popular music? No. Brilliant as they were, we should be able to finally put those stories to rest. But there is a need to document the missing links between what is musically popular now and who helped inspire waves of artists to arrive at these places — that Velvet Underground Effect (short on sales, long on artistic impact), if you will. Here’s a list of 10 Bands That Are Way More Influential Than You Think and why you should care …
Belle & Sebastian
Taking their name from a French children’s television series about a boy and his dog, Stuart Murdoch and his Scot outfit Belle & Sebastian have a name that represents childhood, pureness and simplicity. Their music isn’t exactly that way, but it is stunning, subtle, exquisite and even whimsical. The septet made a deliciously tasteful blend of ’60s folk-rock and pop, with just the right amount of jangle and jaundice to keep it from being frou-frou or forgettable. Murdoch’s accompanying narratives are edgy and surreal, on the local tip, but they are also grounded in the mythos of being themselves as they celebrate their own influences (see also Smiths, Nick Drake, Housemartins). It’s a magical combination that keeps the cleverly crafted songs grounded. These guys are the poster children for indie pop for a very good reason, and have influenced a whole generation of like-minded musicians, including Camera Obscura, Jens Lekman, Los Campesinos, Sondre Lerche, Stars, Sufjan Stevens, the Decemberists, Hidden Cameras, Magic Numbers, New Pornographers, Bright Eyes, Shins, Arcade Fire, Iron & Wine and the xx.
Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band
Beefheart (singer-songwriter Don Van Vliet) has a short but auspicious career, fusing avant-garde-grade psychedelia with deep blues-inspired surf rock, surrealism disguised as garage rock and what can only be described as pure whacked-out experimentalism. He really didn’t care what people thought of his songs — many of which were tantamount to noise in his head. His watershed double-album, 1969’s ‘Trout Mask Replica,’ is his ‘Dark Side of the Moon,’ teeming with insanity that the reportedly cult-like sessions were full of. It’s not particularly pretty — the music or the sessions (which suggest hazing, starvation, marathon rehearsals and more) that produced it. He ended up being very influential and even inspired his inimitable childhood pal Frank Zappa, who contributed to, produced and then released ‘Replica.’ Beefheart’s fearless quest for sound set in motion many lines of musical dominoes including Faust, Devo, PJ Harvey, Tom Waits, Pixies, Gang of Four, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Talking Heads, Blondie, the B-52s, Pere Ubu, Beck, Franz Ferdinand and the Black Keys.
The tideline for all post-punk bands, Joy Division were a cult phenomenon with a fleeting but brilliant career –highlighted by two perfect albums and a pair of eternal singles. Revered in the U.K., Joy Division never quite caught on in the U.S., but like the Velvets before them, the late Ian Curtis and his bandmates created a dark, haunting and broodingly beautiful aesthetic — somewhere between gothic and doomy — that sent thousands of teens to their basements to form their own bands. ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ alone launched a wave of bands and influenced many already underway: the Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, U2, Bauhaus, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, the Killers, Interpol, Editors, Silversun Pickups, the National and so on. The group’s influence grows every year; if a band like Guns N’ Roses can get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for one and a half truly meaningful albums, then Joy Division’s induction is long overdue. They are genetic thread between punk and synth-pop. If there was no Joy Division, there would be no post-punk movement. Period.
Progressive-rock geeks will argue mightily about which one of their bands is most responsible for the genre’s foundation. The argument can be made for Yes and Pink Floyd, but their brushstrokes are much more psychedelic in nature than Robert Fripp and the mighty King Crimson, a group that was every bit as important as Frank Zappa in terms of overall impact and influence. Throughout the group’s 45-year career, they’ve had as many lineup changes as they have instruments and time signature changes: Their first lineup needs no explanation. In their John Wetton / Eddie Jobson era, they mapped a godlike creationary path that ultimately created space rock, math rock, modern prog and progressive metal. The Adrian Belew ’80s era KC quartet even pushed the boundaries of commercial appeal. If you’re intensely tuned in this this vast catalog, you find expanding instrumental use and the seeds of every band from Rush, Dream Theater, Opeth and Tool to Radiohead, Coheed & Cambria, Porcupine Tree, Steven Wilson and Explosions in the Sky. They also birthed a handful of unique musical styles, including art-rock, symphonic rock, space rock and even electronic.
If King Crimson’s use of mellotron gave birth to electronic sounds, these Krauts perfected it and pushed the use of keyboards and synthesizers out into the light. Arguably the most influential band ever, Kraftwerk helped pioneer several genres of music: ambient, downtempo, techno, industrial, acid-house, disco — even hip-hop to some degree (think the sonic backdrop: samples, loops, robotics, etc.). The German quartet’s half-man, half-robot shtick was almost completely lifted by Daft Punk for their own image and sound (although C-3P0 might have something to say about that). The irony is that Kraftwerk created warmth with their technological culture shift: There was something grooving and funky to be had bubbling underneath those circuit boards. The knob-twiddlers of their generation pushed musicians to think outside the box, but also pushed DJs to reach for possibility in sound with their own technology. Clubs, concert halls and dance floors have all been impacted. Gary Numan, Devo, Thomas Dolby — perhaps even the entirety of the 1980s — have Kraftwerk fingerprints. So does Björk, Nine Inch Nails, Underworld, Boards of Canada, the Crystal Method … we really could go on all day.
It’s a shame that Arthur Lee isn’t around anymore. He and his underground cult-fave band Love had a huge impact on the singer-songwriter movement. The original group was sort of the first widely acclaimed indie group in many ways, and also one of the first multicultural groups. Their West Coast psychedelic sound morphed over the years into a more folksy and soulful endeavor that impacted singer-songwriters over the past 40 years, but also tapped into emotion also birthed chamber pop and how soul music was approached in a more modern context. Oh, and influential to his peers: A couple of guys named Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix — who had considered working with Lee in a power trio with Steve Winwood at one point — hung on his every tune. Lee was controversial, brilliant and challenging. The Love album ‘Forever Changes’ is one of the most important pop albums. And a whole slew of artists have benefited from ‘Changes’ and Lee’s other divine records — namely World Party, House of Love, James, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Yo La Tengo, MGMT, Brian Jonestown Massacre, Robyn Hitchcock and Belle & Sebastian.
Neutral Milk Hotel
At its core, NMH were the brainchild of singer-songwriter Jeff Mangum — a guy who synthesized a lot of lesser-known folk from the 1960s and imparted what’s now seen as fuzz folk, chamber-pop and lo-fi indie folk of the day. The band’s ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’ is grim, distorted, bleeding-heart with an avant-garde approach to instrumental experimentation. It’s one of those singular albums that inspired many to form their own bands. Neutral Milk Hotel material spanned band-lineup iterations, solo acoustic work and a lengthy hiatus that has recently ended with a reunion tour and festival shows this year. It’s a good thing: When Magnum’s spirit soars, it is easy to see where the grandiose sounds of a whole generation come from. Arcade Fire, Beirut, Bon Iver, Broken Bells, Of Montreal, Interpol, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Franz Ferdinand, Gaslight Anthem, Noah and the Whale, Okkervil River, The Decemberists, Broken Social Scene, Saint Seneca, and the Dresden Dolls all owe a nod to this band. Every bit as important as Jeff Buckley was for the time.
They gave birth to Nirvana. OK, now that we’ve gotten that one out of the way, the Pixies pushed post-punk with a pop bent in a way that no one else could. We all know Kurt Cobain loved them, and embodied what Black Francis and company were when drawing up his own song schematics. But what made the Pixies important in many ways what how their fuzzed-out avant-pop with stream-of-consciousness lyrics was influencing their contemporaries on the fly — Throwing Muses, Belly, the Breeders, Sebadoh, Dinosaur Jr., PJ Harvey, the Strokes, Radiohead, Pavement, Placebo, Modest Mouse, Weezer, the Melvins, Jane’s Addiction … and so many others all owe them big time. They were also influencing groups that came before them (listen in on David Bowie and U2’s post-Pixies-era material and see if you can’t find Lovering-Santiago-Francis-Deal fingerprints). The Pixies were the template, in so many ways, for alternative rock in the 1990s; they were the Velvet Underground of their time, and everyone who heard them wanted to be them.
The art-rock ardor, silky production value and pure smooth of Roxy Music brought the music world a great many things — including Brian Eno, who really deserves his own place on this list of 10 Bands That Are Way More Influential Than You Think. Their nouveau romantic pop is as responsible for New Wave and so many 1980s outfits that it would be hard to imagine that decade if they hadn’t existed. Kate Bush, the Cars, Duran Duran, Adam Ant, Human League, Japan, Simple Minds, XTC, the Fixx, Depeche Mode, ABC, Spandau Ballet, Eurythmics, even post-Smiths Morrissey points to Roxy and their albums up through ‘Avalon.’ As for Eno, he did a wonderful thing back in the 70s. When he realized that he couldn’t rock anymore, he took to production and elevated a whole generation of artists with his Zen-skills and knob-tweaking prowess — and made all of them better (see U2, David Bowie, Talking Heads, James, Coldplay, et. al). Eno also perfected ambient electronic music by simply creating the atmospheric music that he wanted to hear as a solo artist. You can hear Roxy in current artists like Imogen Heap and Ladytron too.
The voice of underground New York for a time, Sonic Youth were the keystone to the American noise-rock movement, but gave birth to many groups that would go on to interpret their own version of the quartet’s post-punk experiments in the process. So many genres of popular (and not-so) came in the wake of Sonic Youth’s explosion; others were irreparably changed (we’re looking at you, shoegazers) by their presence. Sonic Youth’s sound was important, but the DIY nature of how artists approached music, business and image changed with them too. Nirvana were every bit as influenced by Sonic Youth as they were the Pixies — particularly by those punk tenets that Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon & company subscribed to. It’s impossible to look at a single band post-1977 that, at least to some degree, doesn’t owe SY. Pavement, Blonde Redhead, Deerhunter, Bikini Kill, Polvo, Sleater-Kinney, Slint, Sebadoh, Flaming Lips, Jon Spencer, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Fugazi, Jawbox, Mogwai, Catherine Wheel, Pussy Galore, Helmet, Royal Trux, Jon Spencer, Sigur Ros, Autolux, Liz Phair, Afghan Whigs, Dinosaur Jr. … pretty much everyone.