Off the Record: Going it alone
Published: Monday, March 12, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 01:03
Since the era of vinyl and eight-tracks, a number of big bands have broken up to afford one of the members the chance to try his or her hand at a solo career. Sometimes these ventures work out beautifully, while others flounder miserably. Other times members disband over creative differences or just petty infighting. Whatever the reason, breakups have a strong impact on everybody involved, for better or for worse.
One of my favorite bands, the White Stripes, broke up last year to little surprise but much dismay. During their 14 years together, members Jack and Meg White, now divorced, released multiple groundbreaking albums and obtained both commercial and critical success. Jack is now preparing to release a solo record, "Blunderbuss," on April 24. The only single released so far from that album, "Love Interruption," is notably different from most of what the White Stripes released together. The track is led by acoustic guitar and features a female backup singer. The song features Jack White's trademark sound, which is exactly why I enjoy it so much.
Fans of the White Stripes have their fingers crossed that "Blunderbuss" will be a hit, but if anybody can have a successful solo career, it's Jack White. The guy can make a guitar in under 10 minutes with everyday materials and put other guitarists to shame with just one strum—just watch the opening of the documentary "It Might Get Loud" for proof. Going solo seems like a smart calculated move right now, and hopefully the album makes a lasting impression like many of the White Stripes' albums have.
Outkast, the Atlanta-based rap duo of Big Boi and André 3000, released some of the most recognizable songs of the past two decades. Their fifth album "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below" won the Grammy for album of the year in 2004. The most interesting part of the album was that it was in fact a double album, with almost pure solo albums by both artists under one joint heading.
More recently, Big Boi released his own solo album, "Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty." It was the most critically acclaimed album of 2010, according to review analyzer Metacritic, and is one of my personal favorites. Going solo proved successful for Big Boi, which, given the slow and gradual separation of Outkast, wasn't too surprising. All I can hope for is that someday Outkast will reunite and give the world another "Stankonia."
Going solo usually proves more problematic when the artist has been firmly entrenched in a band for a long time. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones tried to go solo with his 1985 album "She's The Boss." While the album doesn't quite qualify as a flop by critical or commercial standards, it doesn't come close to any of the epic albums the Stones released together. The Beatles' Sir Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are yet another example. After the band's breakup and the unfortunate death of John Lennon, McCartney immediately began releasing solo music. Including this year's release, "Kisses on the Bottom," McCartney has recorded 16 solo albums. While all of his albums have gone gold or platinum, they're still dwarfed by the massive success of the Beatles.
Then there's Starr, who has followed a similar path with 17 solo albums. It's not quite fair to compare Starr's success to McCartney's—given that many view the Beatles as Paul, John, George and "the drummer"—but for the most part, his albums have been flops as well, with most failing to reach the Billboard Top 200. But hey, he did write the 1969 Abbey Road hit, "Octopus' Garden."
Sometimes it's the ego of the artist that gets in the way of a band's success, forcing a solo venture. The massive success of a band can fuel already-inflated egos to epic proportions. This is especially true if there are multiple egos involved. Consider the case of Guns N' Roses—a miserably bitter breakup between lead singer Axl Rose and guitarist Slash didn't end favorably for either of the two.
Rose continued with a newly-restructured Guns N' Roses and finally released "Chinese Democracy" in 2009, which was, in my opinion, one of the biggest failures of the year. If you're going to wait 10 years and spend $13 million to release an album, it should be better than the mess that was "Chinese Democracy."
Other times, artists go solo to test out experimental music that might be dissimilar to the bands' discography. Rather than alienating much of their fan base, going solo gives an outlet for artists to indulge in their wildest music desires. Julian Casablancas of the Strokes notoriously did so in 2009 with his album "Phrazes of the Young." The album was much more electronic-based than The Strokes' earlier work. Rather than the guitar and drum-based style that the Strokes are known for in, "Phrazes" was built on synths and drum machines.
Going solo is a dangerous affair, but when it's done well, the results can be tremendous. The vestigial sounds of the original bands often remain intact, but the solo career of one member can put a fresh, experimental twist on the style.