Pop thrives on fresh ideas and reinvention, but some of the most successful revamps in musical history must have looked like career suicide before they took off. What's that, Primal Scream, you want to make dance music? As if!
Some reinventions aren't even because an artist has sensed the direction of a prevailing wind and grabbed a hang-glider. Musicians sometimes get a bee in their bonnet and decide to do something very different, something that could lose them their old fans and has no guarantee of picking up any new ones because very few people have done what they're about to try and do.
When it works, it looks like manifest destiny, but when it doesn't, the queue of people lining up to say "what were you thinking?" can be seen from space.
THE GAMBLES THAT PAID OFF
1. Adam loses his Ants
Picture the scene: it's January 1980. You're Adam Ant, a well known face on the London punk circuit. Your band The Ants has a cultish following but you're not really going anywhere and you sense your time may be running out. You recruit Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren to manage the band, and he gives you a tape of The Drummers of Burundi, talks about pirates, and then steals your musicians to form Bow Wow Wow. Given such a mixture of personal disappointment and unpromising advice a lesser human would've called it a day.
What you do is this: form a songwriting alliance with Ennio Morricone-obsessed guitarist Marco Pirroni; write a bunch of songs about how great you and your band are - honestly, almost all of Adam and the Ants' hits are about the enduring tremendousness of Adam and the Ants - decide to take MacLaren's advice after all, and recruit two drummers to play those Burundi beats; dress everyone as pirates; paint a Native American war stripe across your nose and go out and dominate the Top 10.
2. Sugababes are reborn, several times
Few pop careers are as littered with destruction and regeneration as that of Sugababes. Three young childhood singing buddies - Siobhan, Mutya and Keisha - release a cool album of soul-inflected pop in 2000, then fall out with each other. Siobhan leaves, so Heidi comes along to fill her place, as if she was never there. Then they release Freak Like Me - an unlikely mash-up of Gary Numan and Adina Howard songs - and this turns out to be the magic ingredient that suddenly propels them to the top of the charts.
And that's not the band's only gamble. Five years on, tempers fray once more and Mutya leaves. Still, the band soldiers on, recruiting Amelle and releasing more chartbound hits, such as Red Dress. And then Keisha goes, to be replaced by Jade.
At this point, the band enters a philosophical state known as "Trigger's broom" - if the handle of the broom has been replaced, and the head of the broom has been replaced, can it really be said to be the same broom? And in Sugababes case, the answer appeared to finally be no. But even that wasn't the end of the tale, as Mutya, Keisha and Siobhan then decided to reform the original lineup and start again, proving you can't keep a Sugababe down.
3. Radiohead put their guitars down (for a bit)
Only in the conservative, pantheon-driven world of indie rock could the idea of not playing a guitar and using a synthesizer instead be considered radical. But even with that in mind, it's startling to recall the reaction when Radiohead decided to follow up OK Computer - an album of millennial terror recast as angular rock music - with Kid A - an album of post-millennial terror recast as glitchy electronica (and some angular rock music too).
Stories were doled out to the press of Thom Yorke's obsession with the back catalogue of Warp records, of members of the band grappling with instruction manuals for samplers and drum machines, and of whole drawerfuls of lyrics being junked in favour of repeated slogans - "everything in its right place", "where'd you park the car?" - and glassy instrumentals. Snarky reviewers wondered where the tunes were, but they were hidden in plain sight on songs like The National Anthem and Optimistic. This wasn't the sound of a band rushing to keep up with pop's latest innovations in a panic, it was more the sound of a band growing a new robotic arm and using it to conduct an orchestra.
4. Dexys Midnight Runners folk it up
Some pop moves are so audacious they only make sense after they are successful, and the transformation of Dexys Midnight Runners from a hard soul band into a Celtic folk phenomenon is perhaps the best example. The first incarnation of the band had enjoyed great success with an album of powerful punk-inflected R&B songs, over which Kevin Rowland would yelp and purr with enormous intensity. But having established his band as hard-working soul brothers in donkey jackets, he and guitarist Kevin Archer started to bring in the influence of country and folk music, slowly replacing trombones with banjos and trumpets with violins.
The crossover was complete by the time Dexys released Come On Eileen, a northern soul hoedown, in which Kevin pleads with a girl whose dress makes his thoughts "verge on dirty". It would be sonically startling enough without the visual impact of the entire band walking into a pop scene that was dominated by new romantic fops, dressed in denim dungarees and tatty fingerless gloves. It should not have worked. It worked brilliantly, giving the band their only taste of US chart success into the bargain.
5. Talk Talk devolve their songs
Talk Talk started off as a post-Duran Duran synthpop band. They grew into a sort of 1980s stadium rock-type group in the vein of Simple Minds - securing a couple of hit singles along the way - and then something odd happened. Singer Mark Hollis started taking things out of their music. He took out the pop hooks and the concise melodies. He took out conventional song structure and the need to get to the point quickly. Large sections of their newer songs appeared to feature not very much, sonically speaking. Instruments unfolded beautifully and then disappeared right away, with Mark's worried purr resolutely not begging anyone for their attention.
That's their 1988 album Spirit of Eden in a nutshell. It has no hit singles on it, none of the songs are less than five minutes long and it's widely considered to be a masterpiece. Guy Garvey summarised the appeal of the band's latter albums like this: "Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock have comforted me in my darkest times and inspired me to my brightest times. They are stunningly intricate works of breathtaking imagination, generosity of spirit and timeless art."
THE GAMBLES THAT DIDN'T PAY OFF
1. Garth Brooks chases rock credibility
It's not entirely clear whether Garth Brooks, a no-nonsense country superstar, intended the creation of his fictitious rock star alter ego Chris Gaines as a dig at the self-righteousness of the rock world or as a moment of wish fulfilment. A man who has sold nearly 100 million records shouldn't be unduly concerned about appearing to be cool, but there's no denying that in playing the part of Gaines - an Australian rocker with a dark backstory - he got to live out his fantasies of being someone more edgy than the wholesome country star he is.
Brooks initially wanted Chris Gaines to appear in a movie called The Lamb, intended to be a kind of not-funny This Is Spinal Tap. He later created a fake VH1 Behind the Music documentary instead. He gave Chris a greatest hits album and invented the discography from which the songs were culled. However, Spinal Tap works because the songs are good enough to be taken seriously, while still being funny spoofs of heavy metal. The Chris Gaines songs are merely well-meant rock songs (Variety said "the result is as unimpressive as Pat Boone's dive into heavy metal") and without the humour there's no reason to participate in the drama, not when real rock lives are compelling enough.
2. Erasure put down their synths (for a bit)
Vince Clarke is a hero of British electropop. He founded Depeche Mode and Yazoo and Erasure and wrote their poppiest hit singles. His writing method across all of his projects seems to involve working up the melody with a guitar, then transferring everything to his various racks of synths and modules, arranging them into little melodic hooks and riffs. That's where the magic happens.
So when Erasure released the album Loveboat in 2000 - the same year as Kid A - fans were perplexed to discover that Vince (and producer Flood) was bringing his guitar to the fore, and stripping away the electronic elements. While nothing like an unplugged album, the music's sombre tone and stripped back ambience struggled to find an audience even within their own record company. Maverick Records (their US label) insisted on extensive remixes and rewrites and eventually dropped the band rather than release the record.
Andy Bell later reflected to Clash: "When Loveboat came out in 2000, and the radio play was zero, it made us think that we’d done something wrong. All of a sudden you're not flavour of the month anymore. We were very down, musically, during that period but to me there are still some real gems there."
3. Take That go punk
You may feel like you're having a good day, you may even feel that the world is your oyster and that things are going so well you're practically invulnerable. But let me tell you, those feelings are as naught compared to the collective overconfidence that seized Take That in 1995 when they decided to pretend to be proper rock stars and cover Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit live.
The "I can't believe we're getting away with this!" giddiness is there in Gary Barlow's patent leather trousers. It's there in the leer on Jason Orange's face as he strums his first F chord, and it's particularly apparent in the way Gary rips off his vest - as the music lurches upright like a toddler - throws it into the screaming crowd, and proceeds to sing the song as if he has only a passing recollection of how it goes. And this was a performance they were happy to film and release, for people to watch again and again.
Metro said: "We’ve been left wondering if Robbie Williams later saw this and thanked his lucky stars he left the band months earlier", and it is a startling attack on an iconic rock song. But as an act of irreverent musical self-destruction - no one comes away unscathed - it must rank as one of the most punk rock gestures of all time.
4. Aqua get serious
[GUIDANCE: contains flashing images]
Hey, remember when Aqua released their third album, the optimistically titled Megalomania? No? Well that's possibly because it came 11 years after their second, and was notably lacking in cartoonish day-glo techno confections like Barbie Girl and Doctor Jones. To prepare for its release, the band, who had been touring a reunion show that was heavy on the hits, worked hard on their songcraft, taking a year to record the album and creating more than 100 songs in the process.
Trouble was, their desire to present a more grown-up sort of Aqua music robbed them of their sugary pop sound, the one thing that made them distinctive. Megalomania sounded like every other electro-dance band in the charts in 2011 - in particular Black Eyed Peas - and the critical and fan response outside of their native Denmark was a collective shrug. AllMusic summed up the problem: "There are several songs which appear to have borrowed wholesale from other massive world-wide hits such as Kill Myself, whose chorus has quite clearly been lifted from Katy Perry's Hot & Cold."
5. David Bowie forms a band
On paper Tin Machine seemed like a decent idea. By the late 1980s David Bowie appeared to be running out of steam, creatively speaking. He'd attempted a return to rock music with the album Never Let Me Down, and theatrical stage presentation with his Glass Spider tour. Neither of which impressed his core fanbase or the critics, and it started to look as if he'd become a bit too comfortable in his habits.
So in the spirit of challenging himself to create something new, he reunited with the rhythm section from Iggy Pop's late 70s band - the Sales brothers, who played the immortal groove on Lust For Life - and brought in Reeves Gabrels, a tremendously rowdy avant garde guitarist, to squeal all over the shop. And what's more, this would be a proper serious band, and to prove it, Bowie grew a beard. What could revitalise his flagging muse better?
Well, arguably, Tin Machine did force Bowie into new territory, paving the way for a creative rebirth in the 1990s, and it helped shed the idea that his successes should be judged on popularity alone. Trouble was, during the time that Bowie was dabbling in theatrical metal, music was undergoing two revolutions that would've fit him better - acid house and grunge - which left him looking like he'd backed the wrong horse for once.