Going solo is common. Artists who achieve success within a band often break out on their own, typically in the same style that gained them notoriety in the first place. True reinvention, though, is rare. Every once in awhile, a successful artist goes into a cocoon and emerges as something new. Catalysts for the change can range from mere boredom to unspeakable tragedy, and the results are often surprising and delightful. Here are some notable examples from the past few decades, including one artist who visits Kansas City this week.
Damon Albarn: Throughout the 1990s, Damon Albarn served as the frontman for Blur, one of the two biggest bands of the decade in their native Great Britain. Taking cues from the likes of the Kinks, Blur stood at the forefront of the Britpop movement and detailed life in and around London in clever miniatures that drew on 1960s pop, modern rock, older British styles, and occasional electronic beats. Though they enjoyed only cult success in the United States in that time (“Song 2” is by far their most famous track on this side of the Atlantic), their status has grown in the years since thanks to the durability of songs that sound fresh 20-plus years later (this compilation is a fine introduction to the band).
Though the band never officially split, they’ve worked together only intermittently since the 1999 album “13.” Albarn responded by forming Gorillaz, the highly conceptual collective that combines hip hop, rock, pop and electronica along with a visual presentation that reimagines the members as cartoon characters. The result is a band that has dwarfed Blur’s popularity in America ever since its self-titled debut album in 2001. Gorillaz — who play Kansas City’s Sprint Center on Friday, Sept. 22 – have seen Albarn achieve something rare in music, allowing him to be adventurous and ultra-current even as he plunges deep into middle age.
Dave Grohl: The biggest and perhaps most surprising of all the second-act success stories, there was no possible way to foresee that the Dave Grohl the world met in 1991 would be the one the world knows in 2017. He burst into our consciousness as the head-banging, heavy-handed drummer who helped to ignite Kurt Cobain’s songs as a member of Nirvana, the most important, most game-changing American band of their generation.
At the time of Cobain’s suicide in 1994, Dave Grohl was just 25 years old, far too young to fade away. Still, it was unfathomable that the man who kept time behind a sullen, tortured genius would soon re-emerge as the gonzo, hyper-extroverted leader of the biggest American rock band of the next two decades. But as singer/guitarist/songwriter for Foo Fighters, Grohl has been all of that and more, the unofficial world ambassador of rock and roll, a one-man rolling musical party, and the jovial thrasher who could not be stopped by a broken leg. The Foos’ latest album “Concrete and Gold,” just released on Sept. 15, finds Grohl careening headlong toward 50 with the same vigor he had when he was half his current age.
New Order: The end of Nirvana mirrored the story of Joy Division, the massively influential post-punk band that released just two albums, 1979’s “Unknown Pleasures” and 1980’s “Closer,” both indisputable classics. The band’s spare and doomy sound provided the perfect accompaniment for singer Ian Curtis’s tales of isolation and desolation, and poised Joy Division to be the leading lights of alternative music for years to come.
But in May 1980, just before the release of “Closer” and the brilliant non-album single “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” Curtis took his own life and brought the band to an end. But the surviving members — guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris — remained together, added keyboardist Gillian Gilbert, and rechristened themselves New Order. With Sumner on vocals, the new band became massively influential in its own right, creating a brand of danceable rock music that would alter the landscape and pave the way for currents artists like LCD Soundsystem.
Alex Chilton: Alex Chilton was just 16 years old when, as singer for the Memphis blue-eyed soul band The Box Tops, he scored his first No. 1 song. “The Letter” was among the biggest hits of 1967 — one of rock’s most monumental years. With his husky baritone, Chilton sounded nothing like the skinny white teenager he was, but he possessed a deep and spooky soul that would pour through more hits, including “Cry Like a Baby” and “Soul Deep.”
With songwriters and producers Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham and Chips Moman largely responsible for the band’s songs and direction, it was unclear what to expect from Chilton after The Box Tops disbanded in 1970 when he was just 19. But no one anticipated that he would return as the fragile pop genius who served as singer, songwriter and guitarist in Big Star, the Memphis-based band that became legendary only after its mid-1970s demise. In fact, it would have been easy not to notice that it was the same guy at all. His rich baritone had given way to a reedy tenor in chiming, rocking songs that drew on The Beatles’ melodic sensibilities while aiming for something leaner, like an underfunded American version of Badfinger. In their original run, Big Star recorded only three albums, capped by “Big Star Third/Sister Lovers,” which is one of the most vivid examples of a band breaking up — and its leader cracking up — ever put to tape. Despite the relatively short run, Chilton created a template for American indie rock and power pop with a string of stellar songs, including “Thirteen,” “September Gurls” and “Back of a Car.”
Alex Ebert: Odds are decent that you don’t know Ima Robot, a turn of the 21st century band that combined punky guitars and new wavey keyboards in a sound with grand pop ambitions. And if the audience they reached for eluded their grasp, it wasn’t for lack of trying, and it may have been a case of bad timing. Ima Robot might have come along 10 years too early, because songs like “Creeps Me Out” were hard to find on pop radio in 2006, but seem commonplace now.
Check out the singer in that video. His name is Alex Ebert. Does he look familiar? No? Take a Sharpie and scribble a scruffy beard on his face. Now replace the 1980s keyboard in your mind’s ear with a 1940s accordion and imagine some amalgam of Appalachian folk and modern rock. In this new context, he goes by Edward Sharpe, and along with his band the Magnetic Zeroes, has become one of the decade’s most popular indie rock figures, with four hit albums to his credit since Ima Robot’s demise. Like 2D, the cartoon version of Damon Albarn, he just needed a new identity.
—Michael Atchison writes about music for The Bridge. He is the author of three books, including the novel “Mellow Submarine,” which Publishers Weekly calls “a fast-paced delight.” He’s on Twitter at @MichaelAtchison.