When musicians attempt to very publicly reinvent themselves, the motivation can be anything from an admirable sense of sheer sonic adventure to pure survival instinct in the face of changing fashions. Some such rebirths — Katy Perry going from teen gospel crooner to glitzy pop princess; Pantera’s shift from poofy-haired glam to punishing groove metal — have proven staggeringly successful, while others became best-forgotten flops. We looked at eight of the most disastrous artist reinventions.
Punk to metal on 1986’s Grave New World
England’s Discharge was at the foaming-at-the-mouth forefront of the so-called “UK82” second wave of punk, which revived the genre with its faster, angrier and more politicized assault. Their early EPs and Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing debut album had the foursome filling sizable venues on both sides of the Atlantic and being name-dropped by the likes of Metallica and Slayer. But somehow these previously spiky-haired street punks returned for sophomore album Grave New World in 1986 with not only a changed lineup but also an almost glam aesthetic and a metallic sound capped with singer Cal Morris’ suddenly high-pitched, failed Led Zep wail. Punkers were mortified, and the accompanying North American tour proved brutal, including just 16 tickets sold in Vancouver and near riots in San Francisco, Long Beach and New York. Discharge disbanded immediately afterward.
2. The Village People
Disco to new wave on 1981’s Renaissance
The turn of the 1980s marked a time of transition for disco legends The Village People, with the genre they helped to popularize on the wane, original lead singer Victor Willis departed and their record label, Casablanca, absorbed into industry giant Polygram. Newly signed to RCA and groping for direction, the group’s ’81 Renaissance record reeks of creation by committee. Dropping The Village People’s signature gay-fantasy costumes (cop, cowboy, sailor, etc.), RCA made them over visually and sonically, apparently drawing inspiration from emerging U.K. new wave like Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran. With lead vocals now passed around the group’s members, Renaissance — lead single “5 o’Clock in the Morning” aside — largely misfires and, although The Village People (lately fronted by Willis once more) remain a popular concert attraction, their last studio album appeared in 1985.
3. Garth Brooks
Country to rock on 1999’s Garth Brooks in … The Life of Chris Gaines
Intended as a “pre-soundtrack” to a Garth Brooks–starring movie that never materialized, the country mega-star’s sole album as his leather-clad rock alter ego portrayed in the planned film seemed only to befuddle his fans. A television “mockumentary” and performance as Chris Gaines on a Brooks-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live apparently just added to the confusion. Not that the big-budget Garth Brooks in … The Life of Chris Gaines wasn’t successful by the standards of mere mortal stars, shifting more than 2 million units, but compared to prior Brooks albums, which sold as many as 17 million copies, the record was a disappointment that filled bargain bins nationwide. Brooks swiftly returned to country music but, coincidentally or not, his album sales never again hit the giddy heights that preceded his fascinating Chris Gaines folly.
4. Dee Dee Ramone
Punk to rap on 1989’s Standing in the Spotlight
Inexplicably, late Ramones bassist-songwriter Dee Dee Ramone chose to launch his short-lived solo career in 1989 with a hastily assembled rap album that — unless its irony is detectable only by dogs and psychics — resembled a wino battling a Casio demo song. The raspy Ramone rechristened himself “Dee Dee King” for this mercifully one-off record (which features background vocals from Debbie Harry), wisely returning to punk thereafter. Ramone/King had actually released single “Funky Man” in 1987, two years before leaving the Ramones, yet, despite this sounding like a parody skit, pressed on with Standing in the Spotlight — which AllMusic dubbed “one of the worst albums of all time.” Only single “Mashed Potato Time” (surely selected solely because it was originally recorded by the similarly named Dee Dee Sharp) hints that the whole episode may have been a calamitously backfiring joke.
Folk-pop to dance on 2003’s 0304
After one of the biggest debut albums of all time (1995’s 12 million–selling Pieces of You) and two seven-figure follow-ups, Alaska-raised singer-songwriter Jewel looked set to be a household name for life. But for 2003’s 0304 album, she turned away from her erstwhile trademark coffee shop folk-lite in favor of glossy, Madonna-meets-Britney dance-pop. While impressively executed, this may have alienated and/or confused her core audience, with the use of almost J.Lo-esque single “Intuition” on commercials for an eponymous razor further distancing Jewel from her down-home, relatable roots. We’ll never know if Jewel’s career was on the (relative) downslope regardless — 0304 only continued a trend of each of her albums selling less than the last — but after what The Guardian dubbed “the most dramatic image overhaul you're ever likely to see,” she never rejoined the A-list.
6. Vanilla Ice
Hip-hop to skate rock with 1998’s Hard to Swallow
Vanilla Ice appears to be able to turn his hand to most anything: As well as recording the fastest-selling hip-hop album of all time (1989’s 15 million–shifting To the Extreme) and the first hip-hop single to top the Billboard charts (“Ice Ice Baby”), he’s also been a champion motocross rider and JetSki rider, and lately a reality TV star. But his attempt at self-described “skate rock” — a mélange of heavy metal, punk rock and hip-hop — on 1998 third album Hard to Swallow proved a bridge too far. Produced by nu-metal architect Ross Robinson (Korn, Limp Bizkit, etc.), the record was darker, musically and lyrically, than Ice’s prior output. True to its title, Hard to Swallow charted only on the A.V. Club’s “30 Worst Albums of All Time” and Q’s “50 Worst Albums Ever!”
7. Celtic Frost
Extreme metal to hair metal on 1988’s Cold Lake
Switzerland’s Celtic Frost remain rightly revered as pioneers of the mid-1980s extreme metal that trickled down to become the backbone of so much contemporary heavy music. But in 1988 a radically revamped version of the band, with only singer-guitarist Tom G. Warrior remaining, made one of hard rock’s greatest missteps. Exhausted from entirely writing and producing CF’s first three albums, Warrior was happy to let new guitarist Oliver Amberg pen much of 1988’s Cold Lake, and for producer Tony Platt (Cheap Trick, AC/DC, etc.) to polish the resulting turds. The attempt at then-hip hair metal was not altogether horrible by the musically anemic standards of that subculture, but for CF fans the band’s suddenly poppy sound and androgynous, acid-washed makeover were befuddling, unforgivable betrayals. Cold Lake is no longer available, with Warrior himself declaring it “an utter piece of shit.”
8. Billy Idol
Punk to electronic on 1993’s Cyberpunk
Billy Idol’s 1993 Cyberpunk was either an ahead-of-its-time expression of the Brit snarler’s genuine fascination with nascent cyberculture, or an ultra-cynical bandwagon leap. An overt example of art imitating life, the record both explored themes inspired by cyberdelic culture and actually used computers and the fledgling internet in its making and marketing. A concept album complete with spoken segues, begun at Idol’s L.A. studio during the Rodney King riots, Cyberpunk managed to weave the singer’s signature rebel persona into its futuristic themes but was a critical and commercial flop nonetheless. Q Magazine later listed Cyberpunk as No. 5 in its list of the 50 worst albums of all time, and the album's cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” was declared “one of the worst covers ever recorded” by AllMusic. Idol didn’t release another studio album for 12 years.