It’s been said that the first album by Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground (The Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967) only sold a thousand copies but everyone who bought it started a band. That may be stretching things a bit (it charted at 171) but here are some other great misses from bands that made great waves, long after the original earthquake:
1) Love, Forever Changes (1967)
Arthur Lee must have known he was doing something right back in ’66 when Love’s awesome cover of “Little Red Book” got a thumbs-down from the song’s co-author, Burt Bacharach, and the band went on to practically invent punk rock with their follow-up single, “Seven & Seven Is.” No surprise then when the band’s dark psychedelic masterpiece Forever Changes was initially trashed in Rolling Stone and peaked at 154 on the Billboard charts — though its lead off, “Alone Again Or” has since been covered by the Damned, the Boo Radleys, Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs, and hailed as the greatest pop song ever recorded. Love broke up; Lee went kind of nuts, finally going to prison on a weapons charge in 1996. He emerged to enjoy some of his better-late-than-never accolades (and god knows what else) before dying in 2006.
2) Nick Drake, Five Leaves Left (1969)
Though the coroner’s conclusion that Drake committed suicide has been contested by the singer-songwriter’s friends and family, he had the kind of career that could make you want to kill yourself. His haunting debut album contained some his best songs: “Time Has Told Me,” “Fruit Tree” and (the song that provided the title for the popular Drake compilation album) “Way to Blue.” He was frustrated by the huge success of his contemporary, Cat Stevens, and overdosed on anti-depressants in 1974 with three albums to his credit. Since then, he has been the subject of two documentaries (one narrated by Brad Pitt, a Drake fan) and name-checked by REM’s Peter Buck and the Cure’s Robert Smith (who took his band’s name from the lyrics: “Time has told me/You’re a rare find/A troubled cure/For a troubled mind.”)
3) Rodriguez, Cold Fact (1970)
If there is rock and roll heaven, it probably looks like the scene described in the Academy Award winning 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man. Nearly four decades after recording two unique, haunting and completely neglected folk rock albums in the seventies, the Mexican-American singer-songwriter Rodriguez landed in South Africa with his two of his daughters and wondered at the crowd and the limo that was waiting. Gee, there must be someone really important on this plane! Unbeknownst to him, the songs of suppression and subterfuge he wrote in Detroit (“I Wonder,” “Crucify Your Mind”) had become anthems of resistance in apartheid-era SA and Rodriguez was as big as the Beatles in that country. Forget about musical influence; Rodriguez helped start a revolution.
4) Richard Thompson, Henry the Human Fly (1972)
The worst-selling album in the history of Warner Bros., Henry the Human Fly was the first solo effort by the eclectic, brilliant Thompson, late of Fairport Convention. Offering the first glimpse of the breadth of the singer-songwriter’s imagination (from “Roll Over, Vaughn Williams” to “Angels Took My Racehorse Away”) as well as the first appearance of his soon-to-be wife and musical partner, Linda, Henry established the theme for his extraordinary 40-year solo career: massively influential; critically beloved; just barely viable commercially. Two tribute albums and 100 great songs later, RT gets the last laugh. Oh, and his and Linda’s kid Teddy turned out pretty well, too.
5) Big Star, #1 Record (1972)
You have to love the ironic title of this LP, one of the most poorly marketed and best-reviewed debuts in rock history. Now that band principals Alex Chilton and Chris Bell are safely dead, the group is lauded as one of the great bands of the seventies, as well as a missing link between late-era Beatles and eighties myth-makers REM and the Replacements. The band’s second, equally excellent Radio City (1974) received even worse marketing treatment and for a time the group existed in our collective consciousness mostly because of the Bangles’ 1986 cover of “September Gurls” and the use of a cover version of Chilton and Bell’s “In the Street” as the theme for “That ‘70s Show.” The 2012 band documentary, Nothing Can Hurt Me, was a too-late valentine.
6) Gram Parsons, GP (1973)
Was Gram Parsons’ career jinxed? His solo debut got great reviews, contained some of his most memorable songs (“She,” “How Much I’ve Lied”) and never made the Billboard charts. Most of his contributions to the Byrds’ equally influential country-rock album Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968) went literally unheard when his jilted manager threatened to sue, and his posthumous solo album, Grievous Angel, was edited by a jealous widow who left Parsons’ collaborator, Emmylou Harris, off the album’s cover. After overdosing in 1973, his body was stolen by some friends who, in what they said was his last request, attempted to cremate his remains in Joshua Tree National Park. That didn’t work out so well, either. The line-up on the 1999 tribute album, Return of the Grievous Angel, tells the story of his legacy: Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, the Mavericks, Wilco…
7) Leonard Cohen, Various Positions (1985)
It’s one of music’s great payback stories: Cohen, who had not had anything close to a chart success at Columbia for a while, came to meet with the label’s head, Walter Yetnikoff, after submitting Various Positions for his approval. Yetnikoff told the singer-songwriter that, after careful review, Columbia would not be releasing the album in the U.S. “Look, Leonard,” he said by way of farewell, “we know you’re great; we just don’t know if you’re any good.” The album included the immortal “Night Comes On;” what would become Cohen’s signature song, “Dance Me to the End of Love;” and a little ditty called “Hallelujah.” Thanks to Shrek and Jeff Buckley, that song has passed the saturation point; there’s been a whole book written about it. When Cohen, at 77, performed sold-out concerts in Madison Square Garden and Brooklyn’s Barclay Arena last year, the crowds knew every word.