A Brief History of Rock Stars’ Most Shocking Career Moves

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Recently, rock juggernaut Mick Jagger announced that he will lead a new supergroup, Super Heavy. The impressive line-up also boasts the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, reggae wunderkind Damien Marley, British soul songstress Joss Stone and, perhaps most unexpectedly, Academy Award-winning Slumdog Millionaire composer A.R Rahman. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Jagger claimed Super Heavy is “different from anything else [he’s] ever been involved in” and that “the music is very wide-ranging — from reggae to ballads to Indian Songs in Urdu.”

Super Heavy is Jagger’s first new group since the Rolling Stones’ formation nearly 50 years ago and it is, to say the least, a little shocking that he decided to make a foray into reggae and Bollywood-influenced tunes this far into his career. Jagger’s unexpected announcement got us thinking — this isn’t the first time that a well-known rocker made such a drastic career move. We’ve compiled a list of some well-loved musicians’ decisions that seemed to come right out of left field. Check out our picks after the jump and be sure to leave your own in the comments.

New York Doll David Johansen becomes Buster Poindexter

The New York Dolls ruled the downtown scene in the early ’70s, combining the sounds and sentiments of a nascent punk rock movement with a cross-dressing visual style reminiscent of British glam. Their frontman, David Johansen, was a native New Yorker who sang with a self-aware wit that managed to maintain a certain menacing darkness. In 1976, after releasing only two studio albums, the Dolls broke up. Johansen immediately went solo, eventually making a career move that stunned the punk world. In the 1980s he adopted the pseudonym Buster Poindexter and achieved mainstream success with the release of a jazz, lounge, and calypso-inspired album. Buster Poindexter’s first hit was the song “Hot Hot Hot,” a track that now lives on in bar mitzvah infamy. While Johansen reunited with the New York Dolls a few decades later (thanks to Morrissey, but that’s another story), you can thank his brief dalliance with lounge music for keeping conga lines alive for years to come.

Cat Stevens becomes Yusuf Islam, quits music

[Image via Gibson]

Cat Stevens’ brand of simple, melodic, and often spiritual folk rock sent him skyrocketing to success during the ’70s and provided a model for many upcoming singer-songwriters. His single “Wild World” launched his album Tea for the Tillerman into Billboard’s Top Ten and is still ubiquitous today (we are not ashamed to admit that to tearing up when it appeared in British Skins‘ first season finale). Stevens also provided nine songs to soundtrack of the cult black comedy Harold and Maude. Shortly after, following a near-death experience off the coast of California, he converted to Islam and changed his name to Yusuf Islam, abandoning his career as a pop musician and retreating from the spotlight. In 1989, the former singer attracted some controversy following comments made regarding the fatwa calling for author Salman Rushdie’s death. While Islam has recently returned to the pop arena with multiple benefit performances and the album An Other Cup, he maintains that “Cat Stevens” will never return.

Bob Dylan goes electric

In the early ’60s, Bob Dylan was the star of a folk scene that championed traditional, acoustic folk forms. But his 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home represented a stylistic leap that would alienate him from the folk singing community and cement his place in rock history. On one side of the LP, Dylan is backed by an electric band, a move that pioneered a new folk-rock genre that would be further developed by artists such as Buffalo Springfield and Neil Young. In a now notorious moment in music history, Dylan debuted his new sound at the Newport Folk Festival. Playing an electric guitar while backed by an electric band, Dylan tore through his set and was met with sensational boos and hostile cries. Dylan’s departure from his acoustic roots infuriated many of his fans and many of those in the folk revival scene, who wrote him off as a victim of commercialism. While Dylan’s movement towards electric rock ‘n’ roll was polarizing, it was ultimately a historic decision that catapulted him to rock stardom.

Neil Young goes electronic

At the start of the 1980s, Neil Young seemed primed for a triumphant decade; the end of the ’70s saw Young’s return to prominence with Rust Never Sleeps, a critically acclaimed album that combined the solo acoustic work that Young was renowned for with more driving electric songs that referenced the punk music popular at the time. Yet, the ’80s would prove to be a decade in which Young’s experimentation would hinder his career and alienate his fans. After signing with a new label, Geffen Records, Young released Trans, a distinct departure from his stylistic trademarks. Trans was an electronic album, using electric beats, drum machines, and synthesizers in a majority of its tracks. Young also used a vocoder on the album, distorting his vocals, a move that he claims was inspired by the Krautrock band Kraftwerk. While Young’s desire to experiment was impressive, the album left many critics and fans baffled. When both Trans and its follow-up Everybody’s Rockin’ became commercial failures, label head David Geffen sued Young for making music “‘unrepresentative’ of himself.” Young eventually switched back to his old label Reprise Records and abandoned electronic music, finding success with the more conventional title track of 1988’s This Note’s For You.

Chris Cornell tries trip hop

Chris Cornell was a grunge hero, fronting Soundgarden and the somewhat less inspiring Audioslave. After Cornell split with Audioslave in 2007, citing personal and musical differences, he revived a solo career that he’d kicked off with 1999’s Euphoria Morning. But while that album and it’s 2007 follow up had revealed his softer side while still remaining safely within the “rock” category, Cornell’s third solo full-length, Scream, was produced by hip-hop guru Timbaland. Scream saw Cornell embracing Timbaland’s unique brand of trip-hop-flavored electronic pop. Cornell attempted to adapt his powerful rock vocals to a more R&B-oriented soundscape, with less than satisfactory results, both critically and commercially. Needless to say, we are thankful that Soundgarden has since reunited.