Strange Trips: On Musical Side Projects

Turn-ons: quiet harmonies, dope hats.

If you’ve managed to make it in the incredibly bizarre business of professional art, you’ve probably sipped from that tart cup marked “but what I really want to do is…” It’s that perfect mix of creative impulse and barely-checked hubris that put Prince in one hugely entertaining movie (and two bizarre ones) and convinced the dude from Eddie and The Cruisers to fake his own death so his record company could warm up to releasing his challenging second album.

Last week saw the release of the latest A-list left turn in pop music: You+Me, the acoustic folk duo from Dallas Green (the indie-folk mastermind who records as City and Colour) and Alecia Moore (who, as P!nk, has remained one of the biggest and best solo female pop acts of the new millennium). Their debut album, rose ave., is mellow harmonic folk-pop that’s sure to entertain old fans and new. The duo has stated the easygoing nature of the collaboration makes it easy to avoid alienating fans; I would have guessed half of the duo being responsible for 20 Top 40 hits since 2000 would have made You+Me flameproof (indeed, the album peaked at No. 4 in its first week of sales), but what do I know.

But, in fact, the music business is rife with weird little side gigs and flights of fancy that manage to boggle the mind even as they get your hips to shake for a few minutes at a time. In honor of the risks taken by You+Me, here’s a look back at some of rock’s oddest side trips.

Which of these swarthy men composed the Tarzan soundtrack? The answer may surprise you.

Which of these swarthy men composed the Tarzan soundtrack? The answer may surprise you.

Brand X

The plan: If you thought Phil Collins’ transition from Genesis drummer to Genesis drummer/frontman to inescapable solo pop juggernaut of the ‘80s was weird, consider the detour he took in the mid-70s as the drummer for the jazz-fusion outfit Brand X. By this point, Collins had reluctantly assumed vocal duties for Genesis in the absence of Peter Gabriel, so it must have been a refreshing change of pace to largely worry about banging his drumkit in some seriously intriguing meters.

The execution: For whatever reason, Collins “followed you, won’t you follow me” into rock and pop stardom instead of the prestige of Brand X, although his dance card was getting so full that he wasn’t even fully on some of the albums while he was a member. That said, if you listen past the lengthy passages standard to most fusion records, you can hear Collins starting to really come into his distinctive drum sound. Those “Phil fills” that you’d hear on everything from his own works to records by Adam Ant, Howard Jones and Frida (from ABBA) come into play on albums like Moroccan Roll and Product, and if you’re a fan, it’s something you should really check out.

I'm...in...heaven.

I’m…in…heaven.

Tom Tom Club

The plan: As Talking Heads took what would become a three-year breather between 1980’s Remain In Light and 1983’s Speaking In Tongues, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, the husband-wife rhythm section for the band, decided to pursue the polyrhythmic dance music the band had flirted with on Remain. Decamping to the Bahamas with members of the famed reggae collective Compass Point All-Stars, Tom Tom Club’s proto hip-hop/New Wave was expressly intended for dance floors and made it there almost as soon as it was pressed onto wax in 1981.

The execution: Three words–”Genius of Love.” The band’s funky-as-hell second single (after the catchy “Wordy Rappinghood”) wraps around your brain stem and doesn’t let go. It topped Billboard’s dance charts. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five sampled it. So did Mariah Carey. Tom Tom Club’s five subsequent albums between 1983 and 2012 didn’t reach the same audience as their debut, but it almost didn’t matter, because, seriously, “Genius of Love.”

The thirst is real.

The thirst is real.

Buster Poindexter

The plan: Unless you’re Morrissey, you could be forgiven for not remembering the New York Dolls. It’s been said that The Velvet Underground’s debut only sold a handful of copies but every one who bought one started a band; the Dolls were like an even smaller version of that, with frontman David Johansen’s androgynous style and aggressive delivery that anticipated the rise of punk and glam east of the Atlantic. It’s not entirely clear then why, a decade after the Dolls split, Johansen signed a deal as Buster Poindexter, cutting a pile of albums of calypso-tinged lounge music that was certainly danceable and more certainly strange. (But he’s still at it!)

The execution: If none of this sounded insane enough to you, consider that Poindexter actually spun his mugging shtick into a legitimate chart hit with the now-deathless party anthem “Hot Hot Hot.” The video remains one of the MTV era’s all-time great curios, from his explaining away his new musical direction to the insane cameo by Johansen’s Scrooged co-star Bill Murray–the arguable birth of the weird cool uncle version of Bill Murray that will show up to your bachelor party like some hobo wizard.

"Dad, can you PLEASE keep it down? I have a pre-calc test tomorrow."

“Dad, can you PLEASE keep it down? I have a pre-calc test tomorrow.”

Tin Machine

The plan: Despite a major pop crossover with 1983’s Let’s Dance, David Bowie was at something of a low ebb by the end of the 1980s. Eager to make music for himself instead of starring in crazy Pepsi commercials with Tina Turner or almost(???) kissing Mick Jagger in music videos, the former Ziggy Stardust did the unthinkable: he turned into your dad in a garage band. Tin Machine, featuring a bearded Bowie alongside guitarist Reeves Gabrels and brothers Hunt and Tony Sales (the sons of TV comedian Soupy) on drums and bass, put out two studio albums and one live set between 1989 and 1992 before Bowie went back to being a solo artist.

The execution: Bowie’s previous bands were certainly more of a means to his own artistic ends, so it’s weird seeing this band kind of outright ignore the fact that its frontman is one of the most famous musicians in pop history. It’s weirder still to hear Bowie partially sand the edges off his voice to join a band obsessed with making the kind of noise Pearl Jam might have made if they existed in the eighties. At the same time, while nobody rates the Tin Machine discography near the Berlin trilogy, it’s clear this was a back-to-basics kick in the ass for Bowie, who made some appealingly weird music as the calendar flipped into the 1990s.

Fun fact: The John Mayer Trio was almost a quartet until they fired keyboardist Sexual Napalm. Napalm's revenge was not pretty.

Fun fact: The John Mayer Trio was almost a quartet until they fired keyboardist Sexual Napalm. Napalm’s revenge was not pretty.

John Mayer Trio

The plan: From 2002 to 2005, John Mayer was the pre-eminent troubadour your girlfriend was into, a James Taylor for the Myspace generation. ‘Course, what people didn’t immediately realize was that Mayer could play (if Stevie Ray Vaughan gets into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, odds are Mayer would join Double Trouble in tribute–imagine his take on “Crossfire“). So, the night he scooped up a Grammy Award for Song of the Year for the tepid acoustic “Daughters,” he transmogrified it into a slinky funk-blues number with noted session gods Pino Palladino (current bassist for The Who) and Steve Jordan (drummer for Keith Richards and Eric Clapton). The long-haired Mayer took the trio (and some new material) out for a run of club dates captured on the live set TRY! In 2006, most of this material formed the bulk of his best album, Continuum, credited to Mayer alone but featuring Palladino and Jordan on every track.

The execution: This was exactly the shot in the arm Mayer needed after a guiltless run as prince of adult contemporary radio. You can wrinkle your nose at a lot of things–the audacious Rolling Stone cover that called him “Slowhand, Jr.,” the vaguely disappointing studio follow-up Battle Studies, the insane public behavior that hit its nadir with that Playboy interview–but for a time, squirrelly music geeks who were fans of Mayer (ahem) had something to sing about.

What skinny motherfucker with the high voice?

What skinny motherfucker with the high voice?

Nick Jonas & The Administration

The plan: Like Mayer, Nick Jonas was a hunk with a lot more to offer than just squeaky-clean Disney-sanctioned pop. (Elvis Costello, of all people, once praised him as “thoughtful and curious.”) In 2009, the precocious idol formed a solo group, Nick Jonas & The Administration, comprised of some serious session talent: bassist John Fields had produced The Jonas Brothers, P!nk, Backstreet Boys and Jimmy Eat World, guitarist David Ryan Harris was John Mayer’s right-hand man in concert, and keyboardist Tommy Barbarella and drummer Michael Bland were members of Prince’s New Power Generation. (When Harris was unavailable to tour, another NPG player, Sonny Thompson, took his place.)

The execution: I vividly remember paying some $12 to check out what Jonas’ side project sounded like on CD, having had a girlfriend who unironically liked the Brothers that led to my own appreciation for what the group was capable of doing. I do not vividly remember anything it sounded like. I certainly didn’t expect “Sexy M.F.,” but given that muscle behind him, you’d think Jonas would have stepped up his game as songwriting goes–especially considering he had the audacity to claim Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band as his signpost for the project. That said, “Tonight” (a cover of a Jonas Brothers track) and “Who I Am” might stay with you for a bit, and can always be something to think about when you think of Nick Jonas, instead of, say, his dick.

"...So I said 'why not put out three albums at once?' Norah, are you even listening?"

“…So I said ‘why not put out three albums at once?’ Norah, are you even listening?”

Billie Joe + Norah, Foreverly

The plan: When not making pop-punk records you totally liked in high school (but don’t really hold up now) as the frontman of Green Day, Billie Joe Armstrong has been known to indulge in semi-weird side projects with his bandmates, namely the New Wave-flavored The Network and garage rock-styled Foxboro Hot Tubs. His weirdest one, though, may have been a one-off collaboration with Norah Jones released last winter, that saw the duo covering The Everly Brothers’ seminal Songs Our Daddy Taught Us.

The execution: So if you’ve ever heard an Everly Brothers song–heck, even a cover or two–you may recall that Don and Phil Everly had an amazing knack for close harmonies. It was kind of their thing! Billie Joe and Norah do not do this. He sounds like himself (particularly discouraging to those who don’t like him, he sounds like the himself on “Good Riddance” or “Wake Me Up When September Ends”), she sounds like herself (minus the smokiness that made “Don’t Know Why” an inescapable hit)…and they’re singing over Americana arrangements. Admittedly not all that special, but certainly better than having an onstage meltdown at a corporate-sponsored gig.

Post By Mike Duquette (21 Posts)

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