Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Once more from the top: 19 artists who dramatically reinvented themselves after their early work

Illustration for article titled Once more from the top: 19 artists who dramatically reinvented themselves after their early work

1. Alanis Morissette, Canadian Tiffany
Alanis Morissette had already logged time as a child star on the widely seen kids’ variety show You Can’t Do That On Television before she began her recording career. She cut two albums of of-their-era dance-pop songs—Alanis and Now Is The Time—that caught on in Canada, but never found much traction in the rest of the world. Then, when Jagged Little Pill appeared in 1995, earning her a Best New Artist nomination, both albums kind of… went away. (She didn’t win that Grammy, but walked away with a bunch of others.) Still, some songs are too hot to remain buried forever.

2. Neil Gaiman, pop-culture journalist
Before he had fanboys of his own, Neil Gaiman was a struggling pop-culture journalist who made ends meet by chronicling the exploits of synth-pop bands. His 1984 Duran Duran bio may not have been his proudest moment, but it was enough to keep him in issues of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing until he was able to join the ranks of the late 20th century’s most influential comics creators. Gaiman’s early years did produce one keeper, the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy companion Don’t Panic, still in print and still essential reading for Douglas Adams fans.


3. Katy Perry, Christian pop star Katy Hudson
Before her boobs shot fireworks, before she married Russell Brand, even before she kissed a girl, Katy Perry was Katy Hudson, a 16-year-old ingénue who released a self-titled album of palatable, rock-tinged Christian pop. Starting a Christian-music career after being raised by two pastor parents and brought up in the church choir is an obvious progression, but the throughline gets blurred on the way to Perry’s current career as a candy-fellating, Elmo-titillating pop tart. But regardless of where she started or how she got where she is today, it’s clear Perry made the right choice in going secular, at least commercially: Her two albums as Katy Perry, One Of The Boys and Teenage Dream, have several platinum certifications between them, while Katy Hudson has been out of print since the label that released it went out of business in 2001.

4. Ryan Gosling, teenage beefcake
It’s common knowledge that Serious Actor Ryan Gosling came from the same Mickey Mouse Club class as Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears. Less well known is what Gosling did after that, before rebranding himself by playing a Jewish neo-Nazi in The Believer. Over 50 episodes that aired in 1998 and 1999, Gosling played the title role in the TV series Young Hercules. As a Greek demigod with floppy blond hair and dreamy blue eyes, Gosling didn’t look much like he was going to grow up into Kevin Sorbo, which may be why his recent parts have favored scraggly facial hair over glistening pectoral muscles.

5. George Carlin, unthreatening comic
Before he became comedy’s greatest linguist, George Carlin was a successful but forgettable comedian plying lukewarm counterculture satire to Tonight Show squares. Portraying “hippie-dippie weatherman” Al Sleet (whom he occasionally revived in later years) and refitting cavalry-movie clichés to fit a Native American sergeant, Carlin used the tools of an earlier era, tickling the audience’s funny bones without getting into their heads. Lenny Bruce’s obscenity arrest helped turn Carlin toward more oppositional ends. He grew his hair long, traded his suits for faded jeans, and started working his way toward becoming one of the most important figures in the history of stand-up comedy. Carlin might have stayed successful had he stuck to his initial path, but he’d almost certainly have been forgotten.

6. Black Eyed Peas, conscious rappers
As mentioned in an AVQ&A in September, before the Black Eyed Peas dominated the pop-music world with their fantastically brainless hip-pop, the group started life as a Fergie-less trio indebted to hip-hop’s Native Tongues movement. Although the Peas’ 1998 debut, Behind The Front, and its 2000 successor, Bridging The Gap, slightly hinted at the future—Front’s song titles included “Love Won’t Wait” and “The Way U Make Me Feel”—it hardly compared to the flat-out pop pandering that arrived with 2003’s ridiculously titled Elephunk. Four albums and millions of sales later, the Black Eyed Peas’ first two albums are simply prologue to the group we all know and grudgingly tolerate today.

7. Dr. Dre, electro DJ
Dr. Dre had an intimidating presence in all those videos from his classic 1992 album The Chronic, looking every bit the gangsta the album and his previous work in N.W.A. purported him to be. But all that badassery could be quickly undercut with a quick look at The World Class Wreckin’ Cru, the flashy electro outfit that gave Dr. Dre his start in the mid-’80s. Dre worked as the group’s DJ, where his moniker was taken literally: Check out the Wreckin’ Cru song “Surgery” (about the man with “a Ph.D. in mixology”; Dre introduces himself as a “gorgeous hunk of a man”) and the stethoscope Dre wears in group photos. The group’s shiny, shiny outfits and Soul Glo hair couldn’t look more comical nearly three decades later, and the Wreckin’ Cru’s music hasn’t fared any better. The same year N.W.A. released Straight Outta Compton, Dre was opening the Wreckin’ Cru slow jam/Smoove B anthem “Turn Off The Lights” with “Hey, what’s happenin’ baby / I’m the one who needs no introduction / because I’m the world-class doctor, the master of seduction.”


8. Tori Amos, big-haired rocker
Before she became an earnest singer-songwriter, Tori Amos had an ill-fated career as the lead singer of Y Kant Tori Read, a tough-looking but less-than-tough-sounding L.A. rock band signed to Atlantic. The major-label association landed Amos the support of Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen and Robin Zander and other stars, but Y Kant Tori Read never caught on, in spite of a video for the lead single “The Big Picture” that gave Amos a good dozen costume changes as she sang and played her way through a slicked-down back alley, sounding a bit like Kate Bush’s more commercially minded kid sister.

9. Ministry, electro-pop stars
Ministry made its name popularizing a hybrid of dance, punk, and experimental music that typified the industrial style of the late ’80s and ’90s, a sound that took shape on the group’s third album, 1988’s The Land Of Rape And Honey. Frontman Al Jourgensen would like the world to forget Ministry’s first two albums—1983’s With Sympathy and 1986’s Twitch—and with good reason. With Sympathy is a painful gauntlet of sub-Human League electro-pop that’s cheesy at best, cringe-inducing at worst. (In the latter category: “I Wanted To Tell Her,” with its disco beat, “Don’t You Want Me”-style male/female vocal interplay, and goofy spoken-word interlude that ends with “No more babysitting for neurotic girls today!”) Twitch fared a little better, but just about anything would after With Sympathy.

10. Larry The Cable Guy, non-cable-guy comic
Daniel Whitney was swept up in the ’80s stand-up comedy boom like a lot of other people, but his career didn’t take off until his “cable guy” character landed on some morning radio shows, particularly the nationally syndicated Bob & Tom Show, which also helped establish Mike Birbiglia. That led to regular appearances on Jeff Foxworthy’s The Foxworthy Countdown and the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, which made Larry The Cable Guy a superstar. Little remains from those early days as Dan Whitney, but the clip below shows him looking like Dave Coulier’s portly brother: bushy Richard Marx mullet, high-rise khaki pants, turquoise button-up shirt, and white, Seinfeld-style sneakers. The jokes are groaners, but the most recent post on Larry The Cable Guy’s website isn’t an improvement: “Ya ever wonder why when they make zombie movies they never take place in Washington, DC? Ill tell a why, zombies eat brains!!!! If there’s any organization full of more idiots then [sic] airport security it’d be hard to find.”

11. Beastie Boys, hardcore punks
Well before delving into hip-hop and smooth-funk instrumentals, the Beastie Boys were just another bratty hardcore punk band opening for Reagan Youth and Dead Kennedys on the stage of CBGB’s. Adam Yauch, still years away from being known as MCA, initially formed the group with friends Michael Diamond, future Luscious Jackson drummer Kate Schellenbach, and guitarist John Berry in the spirit of acts like D.C.’s Bad Brains, whom they paid homage to by adopting the same initials for their own band name. It’s possible that the highlight of the Beastie Boys’ entire career could have been appearing alongside Bad Brains on 1982’s New York Thrash compilation or independently releasing the Polly Wog Stew 7-inch if not for the accidental hip-hop hit “Cooky Puss.” That experimental goof (based on a prank call to Carvel Ice Cream) took off in New York dance clubs and caught the attention of Def Jam’s Rick Rubin, who soon got the Beastie Boys to abandon hardcore and make themselves over as rock-flavored rappers. The genre-bucking group has since paid tribute to its punk roots through songs like “Heart Attack Man” and a cover of Sly Stone’s “Time For Livin’,” and, most notably, on 1995’s fast-and-sloppy Aglio E Olio EP.

12. Billy Joel, proto-heavy metal rocker
A classically trained pianist who also took nightly requests while playing dive bars, Billy Joel could have ended up doing just about any kind of music—though not, as the sole album by his hard-rock duo Attila attests, doing it particularly successfully. Dismissed by Joel himself as “psychedelic bullshit,” 1970’s Attila found Joel screaming in a high-pitched wail over a loud, distorted Hammond B-3, creating a wah-wah-inflected wall of sound and a relentless, chest-thumping aggression that extended to the album cover, which featured Joel and drummer Jon Small dressed as barbarians and standing in a meat locker, surrounded by frozen, bloody carcasses. Needless to say, it’s all a bit silly. Yet although Joel and the critics came to hate it (AllMusic called it “the worst album released in the history of rock ’n’ roll”), Joel manages to wring some heroically monster riffs out of his limited setup, and viewed through the proto-heavy metal haze that only got thicker in the years to follow, it’s an admirably bold sound for its time—albeit one that would absolutely shatter the chardonnay glasses of “Just The Way You Are” fans.

13. Nico, pleasant pop star
After hooking up with Lou Reed and John Cale’s legendary band The Velvet Underground in 1966, Nico became a fixture of the edgiest fringe of the counterculture, thanks to a glacial monotone that seemed to deliberately neutralize her fashion-model looks. Nico did start her career as a model, but she also made a stab at pop stardom before getting involved with VU; in 1965, The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones introduced her to The Stones’ manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, who hired a pre-Zeppelin Jimmy Page to produce her first single, “I’m Not Sayin’”/“The Last Mile.” Even then, her voice had a formidable chill, only slightly offset by the lush, pillowy folk-pop.


14. Pantera, hair-metallers
Cowboys From Hell—Pantera’s brutal, mosh-ready, highly influential breakout album—appeared in 1990, just in time to capitalize on the changing of the heavy-music guard. Out were glitzy, hairsprayed glam bands; in were grittier, grimmer groups like Metallica and Soundgarden (and, right around the corner, Nirvana). Pantera was all too happy to ignore the previous seven years spent releasing four albums of glitzy, hair-sprayed glam. Starting in 1983 with the band’s debut full-length, Metal Magic, original singer Terry Glaze led Pantera through a wasteland of shoddy cock-rock anthems and keyboard-slathered power ballads that Cinderella would have ignored. Granted, by the time 1988’s Power Metal came out, Pantera had begun to harden its sound—a change sped along when Phil Anselmo replaced Glaze. Still, Pantera did its best to revise history and ignore its earlier, embarrassing output after Cowboys took off, and the group’s first four albums remain officially out of print to this day.

15. Sterling Hayden, beautiful man
Sterling Hayden was a badass onscreen and off.  He dropped out of school at 16 to become a fisherman, wrote novels in his spare time, and was an avid adventurer and inveterate traveler. At 6-foot-5, Hayden was a macho, imposing presence, but that somehow didn’t keep Paramount from trying to sell him to the public as alternately “The Most Beautiful Man In The Movies” and “The Beautiful Blonde Viking God.” Is it any wonder Hayden experienced a hate-hate relationship with acting and movies over the course of his long, illustrious career? He wasn’t having it, and he enrolled in the military before his career as a pretty boy could take off, eventually working as an undercover agent for the OSS.


16. David Foster Wallace, hip-hop theorist
David Foster Wallace was revered as one of the most brilliant novelists and essayists of his time, a man with a ferocious intellect and the vocabulary to back it up. He was not, however, known for dropping science on the art and craft of hip-hop, even though he and Mark Costello co-authored Signifying Rappers: Rap And Race In The Urban Present, a cerebral 1990 meditation on hip-hop and linguistics that today reads like a groaningly pretentious post-graduate dissertation, not the early work of a great writer. Considering Wallace’s singular writing style, it’s only fitting that his stint as a hip-hop deep-thinker amounted to a mere footnote in his otherwise distinguished career.

17. RZA, novelty rapper
Before he revolutionized hip-hop as the architect and sonic mad scientist behind the Wu-Tang Clan, RZA released a goofy novelty single and EP called Ooh I Love You Rakeem under the moniker Prince Rakeem. Alas, it wasn’t RZA’s destiny to become the poor man’s Fresh Prince, and the bubblegum trifle bombed. Prince Rakeem was dropped from Tommy Boy, and the man born Robert Diggs reinvented himself as a torchbearer for gritty underground East Coast hip-hop.

18. Matthew Weiner, sitcom scripter
Before Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner acquired the reputation as the most accomplished, sophisticated television writer of this era, he apprenticed under David Chase and Terence Winter as a writer and producer on The Sopranos for three seasons—a gig he got because Chase liked his unproduced Mad Men pilot script so much. But Weiner was a gainfully employed TV scribe even before that, toiling away on sitcoms. He worked on the short-lived Téa Leoni vehicle The Naked Truth, and the much-loved Andy Richter Controls The Universe, but his biggest pre-Sopranos TV credit was as a writer-producer on Becker for two seasons. Weiner-penned Becker episodes like “The Ghost Of Christmas Presents”—in which Ted Danson’s misanthropic doctor keeps failing to deliver the gift he promised to an underprivileged child—don’t show even a hint that the person who wrote them could go on to write a TV episode as brilliant as “The Suitcase.” Still, Becker and Don Draper would probably get along well. They’re both complainers.

19. The Moody Blues, English R&B giants
In 1967, The Moody Blues had a worldwide hit with their second album, Days Of Future Passed, a pop-rock-classical fusion influenced strongly by the band’s two newest members, John Lodge and Justin Hayward, the latter of whom wrote the album’s two biggest singles, “Nights In White Satin” and “Forever Afternoon (Tuesday?).” The band went on to continued success over the next decade-plus as one of the stalwarts of what came to be called “progressive rock.” But it rarely reached back to its roots and the reason it was called “The Moody Blues” in the first place: Before Lodge and Hayward arrived, the band was led by Denny Laine and Clint Warwick, and was part of the R&B-heavy wave of the British Invasion. Its 1965 debut album, The Magnificent Moodies, is one of the best of its kind, mixing James Brown and Sonny Boy Williamson covers with similarly spirited originals, and peaking with “Go Now,” an impassioned take on an obscure early-’60s soul single.

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