Caught in my shadow: 21 unjustly unheralded sidemen
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1. Jay Bennett, Wilco
Bennett’s sudden death last weekend has understandably inspired numerous memorials praising his abilities, and sadly it’s the biggest profile boost he’s had since his acrimonious departure from Wilco in 2001. Although a prolific, talented songwriter and arranger in his own right, Bennett will forever be associated with Wilco, the band he helped transform from alt-country also-rans into one of the most revered acts in rock. After Wilco’s ho-hum 1995 debut, A.M., the band quickly began stretching out its sound, and Bennett’s skill as a multi-instrumentalist made him an invaluable part of that transition. He heavily influenced the sound of the three increasingly ambitious subsequent records: Being There, Summerteeth, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. After his departure from Wilco—memorably captured in the 2002 documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart—Bennett’s profile diminished considerably, though he remained prolific, releasing two albums in 2004 alone. Health problems sidelined him for most of the final year of his life, and may have prompted a lawsuit for unpaid royalties filed against Tweedy just weeks before his death. (Before filing it, Bennett announced he needed a hip-replacement surgery but couldn’t afford one.) It was a sad end for a man who had a lot of music left in him.
2. Steven Drozd, The Flaming Lips
In the 2005 Flaming Lips documentary The Fearless Freaks, Butthole Surfers frontman Gibby Haynes theorizes that the Lips’ entire career in the ’80s was based on ripping off the Surfers’ stage show, saving special irritation for Lips frontman Wayne Coyne. Asked what he thinks the band’s biggest asset is, Haynes instantly answers, “Steven.” While the Lips’ earlier, louder days have plenty of advocates, the band entered its greatest period when Drozd wrote the pedal-steel riff for “She Don’t Use Jelly.” Equally proficient on guitars, keyboards, drums, and vocals, Drozd can do much of the music, freeing Coyne to focus on his lyrical blend of blood and optimism.
3. Graham Coxon, Blur
Although Damon Albarn has inarguably proven himself the superior songwriter post-Blur, he arguably couldn’t have gone off in so many improbable directions—recording in Mali, forming Gorillaz, writing a Chinese opera—without Coxon pushing him in the first place. Although Coxon was a workmanlike and often brilliant guitarist in the band’s Britpop years (check out his magisterial solo on Parklife’s “This Is A Low”), his irritation with Blur’s fame led him to encourage Albarn to listen to bands like Pavement as an antidote. When they went for a change-up on 1997’s self-titled album, they went all out. Albarn led the charge, but Coxon’s loud, fuzzy solos gave them, among other things, a novelty single in “Song 2.” It was the change-up that let Blur outlast myopically focused compatriots like Suede—in bassist Alex James’ words, “Back to the art-school roots! Retreat!” If Coxon has since become a traditionalist pop-song writer, credit him for pushing Albarn away from getting mired in Britpop in the first place.
4-5. Boz Boorer and Alain Whyte, Morrissey’s band
After taking a failed stab at new wave stardom as a member of the glam-rockabilly act The Polecats, guitarist Boz Boorer joined Alain Whyte as the dual-guitar frontline of Morrissey’s solo lineup in the early ’90s. Together, the two have quietly, humbly produced a fantastic body of work for their boss since then, seamlessly combining just about every form of British rock that’s existed since the ’50s. (Though Whyte recently left the touring band, he continues to contribute to Morrissey’s albums.) Their accomplishments are even more impressive considering Boorer and Whyte will always be compared to some degree to Johnny Marr, the genius guitarist who propelled Morrissey to fame the first time around in The Smiths.
6. Billy Duffy, The Cult
There’s nothing low-key about being the guitarist of a globe-trotting rock band. And yet, The Cult’s Billy Duffy has always managed to be an almost entirely invisible force behind the neo-Jim Morrisonism of frontman Ian Astbury. Then again, The Cult has never been a typical hard-rock band, and Duffy has never been a typical over-the-top practitioner of the genre. Rather, Duffy’s guitar playing has always been tasteful, tuneful, and understated—a remnant, perhaps, of his punk-rock past—and his mix of bombast and restraint went on to influence an alternative nation. Or maybe he’s simply the rarest of rock stars: a nice guy who just happens to have sold a few million records.
7. Carlos Alomar, David Bowie’s band
Famous for having his boss, David Bowie, simulate oral sex with his guitar onstage, guitarist Mick Ronson was nearly as well-known during the Spiders From Mars’ heyday as the frontman himself. When Bowie picked session player and former James Brown sideman Carlos Alomar as his primary axe-wielder for most of the ’70s and ’80s, Alomar never achieved the same stature. That’s a shame: The Bowie albums that Alomar played on—starting with 1975’s Young Americans and stretching through the so-called Berlin Trilogy and 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)—feature some of the most inventive guitar-playing rock has ever seen. The self-taught Alomar created a fusion of minimal funk and jagged art-rock that would become the six-string blueprint of the ’80s (not to mention its numerous revivals).
8. John McGeoch, Siouxsie & The Banshees, PiL
The consummate musician’s musician, John McGeoch has been cited by everyone from The Edge to Jonny Greenwood as an inspiration. And McGeoch’s list of credits is nothing to sneeze at: After spearheading the post-punk movement in 1978 as a driving force of Magazine, the guitarist had long and creatively fruitful tenures in Siouxsie & The Banshees and Public Image Ltd. Despite a bump in interest following his 2004 death, McGeoch remains all but unknown to most music fans, simply because he always seemed to let his shimmering, atmospheric guitar-playing speak for itself.
9. Daryl Jennifer, Bad Brains
H.R. and Dr. Know grab all the headlines, but it’s Bad Brains bassist Daryl Jennifer who aptly describes himself as “the cat holding the throttle.” Not only is he one of the most underrated contemporary bass players, capable of playing rub-a-dub reggae, funky jazz, and punishing hardcore with equal skill, he’s also been the sole constant in the band since the beginning. He was a founding member when they were a young and hungry jazz-fusion outfit. He was instrumental in their transformation into one of the best American punk bands. And his love of reggae and dub was a driving force in the gradual incorporation of Jamaican music into their overall aesthetic. On top of all that, he’s a top-shelf DJ and one of music’s great storytellers.
10. Lyle Preslar, Minor Threat
Lyle Preslar can partly blame himself for being underrated. He’s got a reputation for being hard to get along with, and unlike his former bandmates, he largely stopped playing music and became a suit (specifically, an A&R man, a marketing exec, and finally, an industry lawyer). But in his few years as a performing musician, he made a tremendous impact: He wrote a good chunk of the music that provided a crushing background for Ian MacKaye’s lyrics in Minor Threat, and his stunning, powerful guitar chords were an instant hallmark of their sound. He later went on to do some notable work with Samhain and sat in on some early Big Black sessions. While he never joined the latter band, it’s not hard to hear the influence of his guitar sound on Steve Albini’s later playing.
11. Al Jackson Jr., Booker T. & The MGs
The band was named after the keyboard player, so everyone remembers him. The guitarist and bass player—Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn—were omnipresent members of several seminal music scenes as well as media presences, so everyone remembers them. That makes Al Jackson Jr. the forgotten man in what might be the greatest session band in rock history. But without his rock-solid drumming, it never would have attained its perfect sound. Worse still, while Booker, Duck, and the Colonel still tour, Jackson was tragically murdered (under still-mysterious circumstances) in 1975, so an entire generation has grown up unable to experience the phenomenal play of “The Human Timekeeper” in person. But Jackson—a musical perfectionist and a prodigious worker—left a sizable recorded legacy, and it only takes a listen to hear why the MGs wanted him when they started their band.
12. Tiki Fulwood, Parliament-Funkadelic
Another sideman who died too young (in 1979, of stomach cancer) to play a part in preserving his own legacy, Ramon “Tiki” Fulwood tends to be overshadowed by more colorful members of the P-Funk collective: bandleader George Clinton, and sidemen Bernie Worrell, Bootsy and Catfish Collins, and Eddie Hazel. But as the primary drummer on Funkadelic’s first five albums and Parliament’s first four, Fulwood set the standard by which others would be measured, and defined their polyrhythmic, funky drumming sound. The fact that he was the man behind the drum kit for those albums also means he’s probably the most sampled man ever, behind Jabo Starks, James Brown’s drummer in the late ’60s and early ’70s. In a band as big as Parliament-Funkadelic, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle, but Fulwood was as integral to their sound as anyone.
13. Steve Nieve, Elvis Costello And The Attractions
Name your favorite classic Elvis Costello song, and it’s more than likely that the tune is tied together by the lush sounds of keyboardist Steve Nieve: “Radio Radio,” “High Fidelity,” “Oliver’s Army,” and many more all open with a salvo from Nieve on organ or piano. While Costello periodically broke up and reunited with the other Attractions (most notably bassist Bruce Thomas, who wrote a thinly veiled book about his experience in the band called The Big Wheel), he’s continued to work with Nieve throughout his career, probably for his keyboard expertise and his ability to be the quiet, lesser-known guy wearing glasses.
14. Dave Davies, The Kinks
Ray Davies rightly gets a lot of attention as the prime mover behind The Kinks, but he’s far from the only genius in the band. Ray’s brother/occasional enemy Dave Davies wrote fewer memorable songs, but the ones that did break out of his brother’s shadow stayed there. (In fact, “Death Of A Clown” and “Love Me Til The Sun Shines” started life as a Dave Davies solo 45 before getting subsumed into The Kinks’ catalog.) But even if he hadn’t written any songs, Davies’ guitar—particularly the buzzing, scary chords on the early singles—would still have helped reshape rock ‘n’ roll.
15. Jimmy Chamberlin, Smashing Pumpkins
Billy Corgan’s perfectionism (and self-regard) may be the defining characteristic of Smashing Pumpkins, but as sweet as his multi-tracked, fussed-over guitar sounds can be, a lot of Pumpkins fans have stuck with the band over the years because of the drummer. Jimmy Chamberlin practically plays lead on a lot of Pumpkins songs, flying freely off the beat with flourishes and changes that complement Corgan, but don’t override him. Listening to Chamberlin play is like listening to a racecar change gears, and feeling the thrust and rumble. His recent departure from the latest incarnation of the Pumpkins makes Corgan’s outfit even less interesting these days.
16. Paul Barker, Ministry
It’s easy to think of seminal industrial band Ministry as a one-man operation, as frontman Al Jourgensen was its primary creative force and the group’s outlandish mascot. Next to his post-apocalyptic biker style, the relatively normal-looking Paul Barker was easy to miss. As Ministry’s creative core, Barker and Jourgensen steered the band to its creative peak—from 1988’s The Land Of Rape And Honey to 1992’s Psalm 69—then through a progression of middling albums before Barker left in 2003. The records that followed—2004’s Houses Of The Molé, 2006’s Rio Grande Blood, and 2007’s The Last Sucker—were increasingly reductive and stale, until Jourgensen pulled the plug in 2008.
17. John Stirratt, Wilco
As the only original member of Wilco not named Jeff Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt has been instrumental in keeping the band together through troubled times. As both the musical and emotional anchor of Wilco, the mild-mannered and affable Stirratt has always been the steady yin to Tweedy’s erratic yang, calmly shepherding the band through its tumultuous Yankee Hotel Foxtrot period when it appeared to be finished. While Wilco has persevered through several lineup changes over the years, it would be a full-blown Tweedy solo project if Stirratt ever left. Tweedy says as much in the recent Ashes Of American Flags DVD: “This band could probably absorb another change, as long as it is not John.”
18. Jim Wilbur, Superchunk
Most talk related to long-running indie-rock outfit Superchunk tends to focus on frontman Mac McCaughan (and the excellent record label he and bassist Laura Ballance co-founded, Merge). But guitarist Jim Wilbur is the architect of some of the band’s best songs—he tends to favor rave-ups like “Detroit Has A Skyline”—and a driving creative force in the band. Maybe his balding everyman looks make him easy to miss—30 Rock’s Scott Adsit should play him in a Superchunk biopic—but Superchunk would not be Superchunk without him.
19. Eric Axelson, The Dismemberment Plan
Travis Morrison once made a list of his 100 favorite albums and included a surprisingly large amount of Miles Davis and Prince. Still, there was nothing particularly funky about D.C. indie-rock outfit The Dismemberment Plan, no matter how many times Morrison mentioned Gladys Knight, but Eric Axelson’s bass work came close. Bouncy, slippery and significantly livelier than his contemporaries’, Axelson’s bass lines frequently were the melodic and rhythmic anchors of D-Plan songs. For proof, check out Emergency & I’s cathartic closer “Back And Forth,” where Axelson’s literally goes back and forth between two notes, but still keeps the energy hotter than 90 percent of Flea’s work.
20-21. Ringo Starr and George Harrison¸ The Beatles
It’s practically cheating to include Ringo Starr and George Harrison on a list of under-appreciated sidemen; so much has been written about The Beatles by now that’s hard to think of either as “unheralded.” Yet both Starr and Harrison come the closest of anyone in this list to “be careful what you wish for” status, intimately tied to the most famous band of all time, but doomed to forever live in the shadow of that band’s more prominent members. Harrison wrote some of The Beatles’ most memorable songs and had a stronger, more consistent solo career than either John Lennon or Paul McCartney. While Ringo may not have set the world afire as a musician, his cheerful, working-class persona helped kept the band grounded—it’s hard to imagine Lennon or McCartney singing “With A Little Help From My Friends”—and his solo career had its share of success as well. Regardless of their achievements with The Beatles or beyond, Harrison and Starr will always be marked as the back-up to pop’s greatest singers and songwriters. It’s not the worst thing that could happen to a person, but it has to be a little frustrating to know that no one can read your name without thinking of someone else.