A list of famously obscure musicians who are often name-dropped but seldom heard.
Name-droppers: Jimmy Page is perhaps the most famous Jansch fan, and one of the earliest to jump on the bandwagon. Jimmy Page was not only, as Homer Simpson says, "the greatest thief of American black music who ever walked the earth"- he may be the greatest thief of white British music as well. Not only did he appropriate Jansch's acoustic fingerpicking style as his own, his famous instrumental "Black Mountain Side" sounds strikingly similar to Jansch's arrangement of the English folk song "Blackwaterside."
Jansch's version of this song predates Page's by about 4 years! (Video taken by the author. Listen for an ironic "so intimate" shouted by a bona fide Philadelphia hipster around the 3:55 mark. I'm still not sure what Jansch thought of it.)
Neil Young has called Jansch his favorite guitarist of all time. If you're a Neil Young fan, Jansch is definitely worth a listen. But Neil didn't really copy Jansch, per se; Jansch's influence on Neil Young is a lot more subtle. Neil learned a lot from listening to Jansch's unusual tunings and fingerpicking patterns, and the way he incorporates them into his own idiosyncratic style is fascinating.
Donovan, Bernard Butler, Johnny Marr, Vetiver, Devendra Banhart, and even Elton John also name-drop him like it's their job.
Obscurity level: Very Obscure. Many music snobs and hipsters don't even pretend to have heard him- that's how obscure he is. I wish I had more fellow fans to call up when he plays shows (which he still does remarkably often at the age of 66). Several of his songs featured heavily on the soundtrack to Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale, which has turned a few of my friends on to him. But he remains quite obscure.
You'll like him if: You have a soft spot for the acoustic songs on the classic Led Zeppelin albums. You like Devendra Banhart's guitar-playing. You could get down with a British and deeper-voiced version of Neil Young. You could get down with a gruffer and deeper-voiced version of Nick Drake.
Hip factor: Slightly hip. His songs aren't easy to sing a long to but he's also not weird enough to attract the kind of attention that many other "outsider" musicians attract. His signature outfit was a button-down shirt and khakis, but it wasn't because he was trying to dress well. It was literally one of the only outfits he owned, and it suited many different purposes, so he just wore it all the time. It also doesn't help him that his most famous and influential album is far from his best, and that some of his best work was out of print for three decades.
LOU REED & THE VELVET UNDERGROUND
Life Synopsis: Brooklyn Jew rock n' roll married to experimental minimalist music and appropriated by Andy Warhol's scene. Lou Reed had a slightly more successful solo career afterwards. His most popular album was Transformer, which was produced by David Bowie and featured Lou's only major hit single, "Walk on the Wild Side."
Name-droppers: Brian Eno said that "not many people bought the Velvet Underground's records, but everyone who did started a band." David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Jonathan Richman have also credited the Velvets with inspiring their respective styles. Take away those guys and there would probably have been no late '70s CBGB's rock, and consequently no '80s indie rock as we know it.
And then you have the Strokes and the countless other rockers who sound like the Strokes. These bands sound so much like the Velvet Underground that nobody even bothers to ask, "So, who are your main influences?"
Obscurity: Not very obscure. An older man once tried to seduce my friend Kathleen by telling her that he was house-sitting for Lou Reed. He took her to a gigantic Tribeca luxury apartment and failed to sleep with her. Neither of us know if it was actually Lou Reed's house, or if it was just a rich friend of this older guy, or if he broke into the house... but a fact remains. He knew that saying "I'll take you to Lou Reed's house" would dramatically increase his chances of sleeping with any girl who has moved to New York City. I can't say that about anyone else on this list.
But here's a counterpoint. Memory: Senior year, high school. I was watching the Grammies with my study-buddy Mike. Lou Reed came on to present an award. "Holy shit, that's Lou Reed!" I said. But he had no idea who Lou Reed was. At the time, I was surprised, but since then, I've realized that Lou Reed's only really known among the type of people who actively seek out obscure music. It's just that, when you seek out overlooked rock musicians, he's usually the first one who pops up.
Worth listening to if: You like old rock n' roll but you'd like the guitars to be a little more dissonant and you'd like the lyrics to be a little more self-conscious and perverse. Or if you'd like to hear a less nasally Julian Casablancas.
Hip factor: Super hip.
Life Synopsis: Born into an upper-class English family. He suffered from social anxiety and depression for his entire life. Recorded three albums of pastoral folk. Often put in the category of Morrison, Hendrix, and other musicians who overdosed on recreational drugs, but his early death was likely a reaction to a cocktail of prescription drugs, much like the frustratingly prosaic deaths of Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, or Glenn Gould.
From the cover of Made to Love Magic.
Name-droppers: Even before his 21st century "resurrection," he was name-dropped by the likes of Elton John and REM in interviews. Dream Academy's hit "Life in a Northern Town" is vaguely about Nick Drake's life. But much of his recognition comes from his songs' appearances in film and television rather than from name-drops by other musicians.
You'll like him if: You like any sort of peaceful or lethargic music- especially the acoustic variety. When it comes to peaceful, lethargic acoustic guitar music, he blows most people out of the water. He tends to sound better when it's raining, but he tends to sound awesome when it's not raining, too.
Hip factor: Hip. It upsets me, though, that much of his aura of hipness is due to the mythology around his death (which was likely a result of unexciting prescription drugs) and his lack of record sales (which was likely due to the fact that he was too shy and depressed to play live).
This upsets me is because I wish that his senseless death would provoke more conversations about how our society treats mental health, but instead, Nick is often talked about as if he were a tragic and doomed artist whose melancholy work is inseparable from his unfortunate fate. Morrison, Hendrix and Joplin played music hard, partied hard, and destroyed their bodies. Nick Drake's health and musical output were both on a steady decline for years before his death. In any case, he continues to hold a certain aura of mysterious yet sensitive cool that not many other musicians do.
The legend usually goes that he was a nice country boy who couldn't handle the rock n' roll lifestyle. The reality is that most people can't "handle" the rock n' roll lifestyle. Millions of non rock stars live the lifestyle, and millions, like Parsons, die from it every day.
The legendary story of his corpse, however, is completely true and was turned into a movie starring Johnny Knoxville.
Name-droppers: The Rolling Stones are probably his most famous name-droppers, but Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Ryan Adams, Wilco, and others regularly speak his name.
Obscurity level: Moderately obscure. For years, I never met anyone else who knew who he was, but I've recently concluded that he is to country-rock fans what Lou Reed is to punk/new-wave fans. It's just that there are more punk/new-wave fans than there are country-rock fans in the New York area.
You'll like him if: You like classic rock and classic country. You have ever enjoyed the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers or Exile on Main Street. You like Hank Williams but wouldn't mind it if he were a lot louder and had electric guitars. You like the Eagles but sometimes wish they were a little bit less smooth and cheesy.
Hip factor: Hip. In some ways, he's both the Lou Reed and the Jimi Hendrix of Americana.
Name-droppers: Tim Buckley doesn't get name-dropped the way others on this list do. His recognition is due to his son, who frequently claimed that his father was NOT an influence.
Obscurity level: Very obscure. When I was 18 and on a drama club trip to Edinburgh, I made out with a girl I wasn't dating for the first time in my life, and she said I reminded her of Jeff Buckley. She said that she could tell by listening to the way Jeff Buckley talked in interviews that he wasn't meant to live past the age of 30. I erroneously took that superstitious mystical thought as a sign that I was a burning ball of star power who would never ever have to try during his twenties. Several years later, I figured out that I'd have to try.
But anyway, I always associated Jeff Buckley with that odd encounter in Edinburgh, but in recent years, I discovered that Jeff was quite famous. Many of my friends own Grace, and if they don't, they at least know a melancholy person who does. Jeff is not obscure, but his father is. I suspect that Tim would not be known at all these days if it were not for his son's fame. Most Jeff Buckley fans know who Tim is, but few know his music.
You'll like him if: Tim covered a lot of territory. If you're a fan of baroque folk, listen to his first two albums. If you're a fan of Van Morrison, listen to his middle-period albums. If you like experimental, adventurous rock music but without indie self-consciousness, listen to his later albums Starsailor and Lorca, which would make Animal Collective cower in shame at their own timidity, and would probably make Radiohead and Grizzly Bear bow in humility. If you're into '70s sleaze, check out Greetings from LA, which includes a proto-disco tune about S&M.
Hip factor: Moderate. His music is cool and surprising and all kinds of good things, but he'll probably remain pretty unheard until he makes a notable appearance on a Wes Anderson soundtrack.
Name-droppers: Kurt Cobain tried to secure the Mutantes as an opening act when Nirvana toured Brazil, but their reunion did not materialize. Beck, David Byrne, Of Montreal and Devendra Banhart worship the Mutantes, and are doing their best to make sure that the rest of the world does, too.
Obscurity level: Moderately obscure. Their name is nearly as well-known as that of the Velvet Underground but they are not nearly as listened-to as their more famous American counterparts. And, like Nick Drake, their exposure has dramatically increased since one of their songs was featured on an American TV commercial (in the Mutantes' case, it was McDonalds).
A nice side benefit to the Mutantes' current popularity is that they've raised awareness of other Brazilian musicians who, until recently, nobody but me seemed to listen to. Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Jorge Ben (author of "A Minha Menina," the song from the McDonald's commercial) are all more well-known among young Americans than they were ten years ago. I'm waiting for Raul Seixas and Os Novos Baianos to catch on too, but I'm still a one-man PR agency when it comes to those guys.
You'll like them if: You are a musical backpacker who enjoys adding exotic foreign bands to your listener's repertoire. Or if you like psychedelic rock in general. The Mutantes ran the gamut from garage psychedelia to hard-rock psychedelia, so all of your psychedelic rock n' roll needs can be met.
This is more or less how they looked and sounded when I saw them. Check out Sergio's giant Tom Baker scarf!
Hip factor: Hip. Nearly every indie rock fan I've met has made sure to mention that they have at least heard of the Mutantes. The band fills venues throughout North American and Europe over 30 years after their heyday. Their foreign exoticness also endears them to many an English-speaking fan.
Interestingly, the artists who have resurrected Os Mutantes have also done a lot to boost the popularity of Bert Jansch, but Jansch hasn't taken off the way Os Mutantes have. Jansch's problem is that he never really needed resurrecting. He's never disappeared- he's always been moderately popular. Mutantes, on the other hand, left the world wanting more for over three decades and are now reaping the results.