LOS LOBOS Colossal Head (1996), TOM WAITS Swordfishtrombones (1983) & THE BEATLES Revolver (1966)

Every so often, an established artist with a proven formula will suddenly decide to take a hard left turn. This isn’t about routine artistic evolution – going unplugged, incorporating new instrumentation, making a covers album or other such diversities. I’m talking about those rare times when successful artists re-imagine themselves from the ground up and, in the process, abandon a reliable or profitable style for something new, daring and unproven. Guys like Bowie, Madonna & Costello have, more or less, made their careers by trying on new suits, but rarely like this. Dividing line albums have always been fascinating ones, and you’ve probably got your own favorites, too. Here are three of mine that fit the loose criteria of artistic reinvention. Track Listings In Comments.

Los Lobos
Colossal Head (1996)
Before: Roots Rockers
After: Weird Uncles with Cheesy Amps

1992’s Kiko was incredible. So well-produced with so many sonic textures, like a Sgt. Pepper’s of serious SoCal/Mexican pop. Which made hearing Colossal Head all the more alarming. With the help of Tchad Blake and Mitchell Froom (a union that spawned the Latin Playboys with David Hidalgo & Louie Perez), these tapes sound like water-logged rehearsal cassettes recorded in someone’s kitchen. It wasn’t just the lo-fi appeal that was so jarring, it was how the raw, garage band arrangements brought out the simplicity of Los Lobos‘ East LA Mexi-rock aesthetic. Once you absorb the percussive clatter the catchy tunes will stick to you as easily as manufactured pop, while being the total antithesis. Listen to “Everybody Loves A Train.”

Tom Waits
Swordfishtrombones (1983)
Before: Beatnik Piano Jazz
After: Junkyard-Garde

Tom Waits had stretched his bohemian, beatnik poet routine to its breaking point by the early 80s. His voice had become a caricature of his early 70s prowess and his “identity” had become little more than that of a drunken lounge lizard (part of the act) who could tell a good story. Swordfishtrombones changed all that. Seemingly overnight, Waits jettisoned every thing he had built over the years (including his label, manager and producer) to create this mesmerizing, self-produced array of thrift shop racket, found-sound symphonies and out of tune/out of breath otherworldly storytelling. Common themes like late night diners, trucks and bars have been replaced with freakish, disjointed howling and Kafka-esque nightmares of the common man. The cover says it all… Fellini-esque sideshow midgets and a room full of instruments that have rarely been put together in such a way before. Waits never looked back. Hear “Shore Leave,” below.

The Beatles
Revolver
(1966)
Before: Sunny Singalong Popsters
After: Psychedelic Revolutionaries

It’s true, their previous LP, Rubber Soul, was a unique departure as well (in fact, half of their albums were). So it is written that in April, 1966, when The Beatles started work on Revolver, the first song they would record (“Tomorrow Never Knows”) essentially invented psychedelic music… as far as the masses were concerned, anyway. There were others doing it, but not on this scale, and not by these guys. Revolver includes (maybe) my favorite Beatles song, “I’m Only Sleeping,” along with Lennon’s stomping “And Your Bird Can Sing,” plus three (count ‘em) outstanding George Harrison tunes. Taking 3 months to complete, this was The Beatles’ stepping stone to Sgt. Pepper’s (yet another unique departure). Still, Revolver was the album that first introduced the band’s startling individualism, advanced studio trickery, outside-the-box creativity and stylistic diversity, forever leaving behind a legacy of teenage pop songs. Hear “I’m Only Sleeping.”

19 Comments

  • 1
    YankeeBoy
    October 22, 2009 - 02:45 | Permalink

    Interesting you should say that about "Revolver". I always thought of it as somewhat of a continuation of the direction they took in "Rubber Soul". Just one man's opinion.

  • 2
    Art Ducko
    October 22, 2009 - 03:39 | Permalink

    Great choices, Willard. Here's hoping this will be a continuing series. It's nice to get reacquainted with the Los Lobos & Tom Waits tracks. There's something great in seeing artists try something bold & new, even at the expense of market sales. Revolver continues to amaze me, lo these many years later. Thank God Dylan turned them on to pot, or we'd all be listening to Gary Lewis & the Playboys for kicks. Not that there's anything wrong with that…

  • 3
    Anonymous
    October 22, 2009 - 04:20 | Permalink

    I agree. Revolver is much closer to Pepper than Rubber Soul. because of all the different song styles. Imagine if this album had Peppers production sound.

  • 4
    Johnny Vandal
    October 22, 2009 - 10:45 | Permalink

    Great selection of music Willard. I've enjoyed all of the Los Lobos related posts lately. It's interesting that you note KIKO's Sgt. Pepper-like qualities—I've always listened to that record along those lines myself…and Colossal Head is their EXILES ON MAIN STREET disc, eh?

  • 5
    Anonymous
    October 22, 2009 - 18:26 | Permalink

    Y'know that moment when you're in some record store(remember them??) idly flicking through the reams of the same old s…. and over the speakers comes a sound that stops you in your tracks and makes the hairs on the back of your neck stick up and you think, YES! Good God Almighty! This is sound I've been waiting for… and you just groove.. then wait for the next song just in case it's a one off, but no… the next track is even better… so you mosey to the front of the store and ask what the funk is this amazing music( in Japanese of course.. this is Tokyo 1996..) and you get a conspiratorial smile from the staff and he hands you.. Colossal Head.. and then you see the group.. Los Lobos? The La Bamba band? .. no it can't be the same group…
    Fast forward to this summer 2009; the Paradiso, Amsterdam and you're to the right of the stage up high(!?) and the boys are blasting out tracks from C.H. and other wonderful toons and saying how great it is to be back 25 years after their first gig there. Seventh Heaven.
    And later when you tell everyone how amazing they were , they just grimace and say, "Los Lobos, you mean La Bamba? Are they still going?"
    Answer yes, they are and still kicking ass…
    so grab C. H. first and then work back and forwards and feel the spirit of a very underrated band.Thanks for this!
    Flann O Brienn

  • 6
    Capt. Willard
    October 22, 2009 - 18:44 | Permalink

    You're not talking about yourself, are you? I've also heard a lot of that "La Bamba Band?" stuff when pushing Colossal. Thanks for the comments.

  • 7
    yotte
    October 23, 2009 - 00:15 | Permalink

    I'm always flipping between my pick for greatest rock and roll band in the world… Los Lobos or Drive-By Truckers? Gawd, I love Lobos… but The TRUCKERS! Damn! But Los Lobos…

    I've been thinking lately that part of what makes both bands so great is that they embrace their hometowns and are fiercely unapologetic about it. Maybe it's the sense of pride in their communities that give them both that ballsy swagger and tender insight.

  • 8
    Stymie
    October 23, 2009 - 21:30 | Permalink

    Waits is the easiset to point to…there are TONS of minor shifts. Easy to point to Unca Lou's Metal Machine but whadda about Mistrial–drum machine, Lou rappin'(!), cheezy background chorus(es). Howzabout Iggy's Instinct? People hated the Jones stun geetar/dance attack. Jesus & Mary Chain pulling out acoustics, Billy Idol leaving his pop metal for electronica, Bob's shifts in the late 60s, early 70s. None really took off, and some killed careers. Probably belongs more in the 'Ill Advised Career Moves' than anywhere else.
    Good one with Love, by the way.

  • 9
    Anonymous
    November 5, 2009 - 23:06 | Permalink

    The most radical Jurassic Shift that comes to my mind is the one TALK TALK made with the album "Spirit Of Eden" that has nothing in common with their previous dance-pop music (except the voice of the singer).
    Talk Talk's move into the prog-contemporary-art-rock genre (I write this but their new style was so difficult to pigeonhole) is the most adventurous example I can find of a band reinventing itself.
    My opinion of course.

    XM

  • 10
    Capt. Willard
    November 6, 2009 - 01:32 | Permalink

    Search HERE!

    LOS LOBOS Colossal Head
    Revolution
    Mas Y Mas
    Maricela
    Everybody Loves A Train
    Can't Stop The Rain
    Life Is Good
    Little Japan
    Manny's Bones
    Colossal Head
    This Bird's Gonna Fly
    Buddy Epsen Loves The Night Time

    TOM WAITS Swordfishtrombones
    Underground
    Shore Leave
    Dave The Butcher
    Johnsburg, Illinois
    16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six
    Town With No Cheer
    In The Neighborhood
    Just Another Sucker On The Vine
    Frank's Wild Years
    Swordfishtrombone
    Down, Down, Down
    Soldier's Things
    Gin Soaked Boy
    Trouble's Braids
    Rainbirds

    THE BEATLES Revolver
    Taxman
    Eleanor Rigby
    I'm Only Sleeping
    Love You To
    Here, There and Everywhere
    Yellow Submarine
    She Said She Said
    Good Day Sunshine
    And Your Bird Can Sing
    For No One
    Doctor Robert
    I Want To Tell You
    Got To Get You Into My Life
    Tomorrow Never Knows

  • 11
    Johnny B
    November 11, 2009 - 16:07 | Permalink

    I don't think Waits has topped Swordfishtrombones to this day, and if pressed I'd also go on record as saying that the Lobos and Beatles releases represented here are their best, as well. Great post!

    Not a request, necessarily, but I saw where someone mentioned Shawn Phillips above, and it reminded me that I sure do wish I could find Do You Wonder somewhere. Just sayin'! :)

  • 12
    Capt. Willard
    November 11, 2009 - 16:46 | Permalink

    Sorry… don't have that one. But, I agree with you about these releases representing the artists' best (especially Waits). I guess that it shows that adventurism pays off in the long run. When you stick to formula, you wind up with just that. When you veer off the beaten path, it's sometimes much more exciting and memorable. Thanks for commenting.

  • 13
    KDNYfm
    July 31, 2012 - 15:51 | Permalink

    Been a Los Lobos fan since How will the Wolf Survive. Cant find a much better live band!
    Thanx for sharing

  • 14
    greggery
    March 17, 2013 - 13:51 | Permalink

    Is Revolver the 2009 Stereo RM please?

  • 16
    nyjoe
    October 11, 2013 - 08:12 | Permalink

    Please help me find or download these great discs…..all the back to basics …t6hanks

  • 18
    Snarfblatt
    December 3, 2013 - 23:41 | Permalink

    From Hit Parader Magazine, October 1967:
    “REVOLVER represents the pinnacle of pop music. No group has been as consistently creative as the Beatles, though the Spoonful and the Beach Boys are coming closer all the time (and “Good Day Sunshine” is very Spoonful-ish). Rather than analyze the music we just suggest that you listen to “Revolver” three or four times a day and marvel at the lyrics, melodies, various instrumental backgrounds, special effects and everything.”

    ….yes, “and everything”. smile.

  • 19
    Anonymous
    January 16, 2014 - 16:46 | Permalink

    many tanx! for LL and Beatles

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