Four rock/pop geniuses

The term ‘genius’ is often misused, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be used…even in connection with pop and rock music…

Of course, one man’s genius may be another man’s moron, and what follows is a purely personal list – but feel free to disagree!

It’s not a long list (true genius is a rare thing) and it’s in no particular order (genius is an absolute).

Frank Zappa – I first heard Frank in 1967 when his ‘We’re only in it For the Money’ album was released. With its cover a clever and cutting pastiche of the Beatles’ ‘Sergeant Pepper’ album and its contents a strange mixture of self-composed pop, rock, doo wop, spoken word, comedy and musique concrete, it blew my 16 year old mind. Subsequent releases expanded on these genres (and many others along the way) and also revealed Zappa’s prowess on guitar, with lengthy ‘spontaneous compositions’, as he called his solos, which often reached rare heights of ethereal beauty as well as squalid depths of sonic depravity.

But Frank was far more than a musician. A staunch opponent of the Christian Right, Scientology, censorship and attempts to deprive people of responsibility for their own actions and a vociferous defender of free speech, rationality and individual enterprise, he even considered running for US President on what would have been an essentially Libertarian ticket.

Erroneously viewed by many as just another long haired hippy muso, Frank, in fact, disliked the hippies and, indeed, anyone group which just blindly followed trends without bothering to think for themselves. Something Frank himself never did. He never chased stardom by selling out, yet he still managed to make a more than comfortable living just making music for himself and collecting a large body of loyal fans who recognised his uniqueness and his genius.

Brian Wilson – Although the Beach Boys were part of the soundtrack to my teenage years, I viewed them as simply a great pop band and it wasn’t until much later that I began to discover the genius of their guiding force, Brian Wilson.

It could be argued that Wilson has done little of note since about 1967 and, indeed, his re-emergence over the last decade or so has plundered his heyday for material, but what he achieved with ‘Pet Sounds’ and the abandoned ‘Smile’ project is enough to put him firmly in the category of genius.

In 1966 and 1967, whilst the Beatles were still recording essentially guitar-based music, Wilson was taking a far more orchestral approach with sweeping harmony vocals and Spectorish backing tracks. So, whilst the Beatles could be termed a rock band of sorts, the Beach Boys were purely pop – supremely well-crafted, but still pop – but much more sophisticated then the Fab Four could ever manage. In terms of both chart success and band relationships this sophistication was the undoing of both Brian and the band, and both could be said to have traded on past glories ever since.

One gem stands out, however, that suggests that Brian’s creative years are not completely over. A collaboration with ‘Smile’ co-writer Van Dyke Parks – the ‘Orange Crate Art’ album – sees Brian on top form vocally and although Parks takes composition credits, it’s essentially a Brian Wilson album and a work of genius.

Todd Rundgren – Sometimes Todd’s been so far up his own arse it’s a wonder some of his output has ever seen the light of day, but he’s been a constant presence on the music scene for 45 years – from his time with his early Beatles and Yardbirds influenced band the Nazz to his recent solo albums which are as strong as ever.

If I had to pick one rock musician who embodies the spirit of the Renaissance but is rooted in modern times then it would be Rundgren. with his pioneering approach to record and video production and his constant efforts to explore all aspects of his chosen medium. Amongst his prolific output, Todd has released albums revealing a vast range of styles with experiments in a capella, electronic music, pastiche and extended improvisation, as well as all manner of variations on rock and pop.

Composer, producer, singer, guitarist and video director, Todd has constantly striven to make his music fresh and relevant to the times but has never lost sight of the importance of the song above all else.

Andy Partridge – the only UK representative here and, in my view, a truly neglected genius if ever there was one. Partridge has been producing great pop songs for 30 years now and still the band he fronted for much of this time – the magnificent XTC – is usually remembered by most people for a song (‘Making Plans for Nigel’) written by the bass player, Colin Moulding. There really is no justice here because as fine a song as ‘Nigel’ is, Partridge has written dozens of little pop gems which constantly enchant with their sublime melodies and witty lyrics and knock Colin’s song into a cocked hat.

Partridge is perhaps the most ‘English’ pop composer I’ve ever heard, with not a trace of American influence, and songs such as ‘Chalkhills and Children’ and ‘Senses Working Overtime’ reveal a sense of ‘Englishness’ that no-one else has managed in the genre.

I really can’t stress enough what a gifted songwriter he is. His 8 CD set of demos and works in progress ought to reveal a soft underbelly, but it doesn’t – with song after song that has never seen the light of day on a previous release standing out as an undiscovered masterpiece.

He’s also an amazing singer with a superb sense of harmony and a fantastic guitarist who was quite able to hold his own when the hugely talented Dave Gregory joined XTC on lead guitar after the band abandoned punk influences. 

So, there we have them: four geniuses and, I’ve just realised, all linked by one overriding characteristic – the ability to write a memorable pop song despite the eclecticism they all share.

Here’s some people who didn’t quite make it onto my list, but I’m sure would be found on other people’s:

  • Prince
  • George Clinton
  • Ray Davies
  • Steve Vai
  • Phil Spector
  • Al Stewart

Of course, Zappa, Wilson, Rundgren and Partridge only represent pop and rock, but there’s also my jazz genius list, my guitar genius list, etc, etc…

Perhaps another day.

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4 Responses

  1. Bob Dylan
    Bob Marley
    Chuck Berry
    John Lennon
    Eminem

  2. Definitely Al Stewart!

  3. FZ. “Music is the best”

    Not only a wonderful musical legacy,but also a fund of quotable quotes. Who could forget:
    Rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.

  4. Or indeed, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” or something like that.
    One of my personal favourites: “the disgusting stink of a too loud electric guitar…now that’s my idea of a good time…”

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