Some musicians burst onto the scene with their artistic vision fully formed. But many other take some time to discover their true style, leaving a pile of weirdly uncharacteristic recordings in their wake. You know those awkward middle school photos you with bleached tips and Oakley glasses trying to look like a skater dude? Same kind of deal. Many of the primitive musical projects from these future-famous artists are straight-up bizarre, while others are so good that we wished they went that direction full time! They may not all be catchy, but they’re definitely all super interesting. Read on to see 10 of the most unexpected musical past lives of rock stars!
10. Trent Reznor was in ’80s new-wave band Option 30 (1983)
He recorded an entire album in the living room where actress Sharon Tate was murdered by the Mason Family, naming the studio Le Pig after the word that was scrawled on the front door in her blood. So yeah, we feel confident in saying that the Nine Inch Nails front-man is a pretty dark dude. But his musical career wasn’t always quite so spooky and ominous.
While a student at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, Reznor joined a local bar band who seemed content with mainly covering the Cars, Joe Jackson and (most unforgivably) Falco. Trent took the lead vocals and keyboard duties, while other band-mates wrote wrote a few originals. Funny when you think that Reznor later won an Oscar for handling that stuff. His stint with the group didn’t last too long, and he soon moved on to the band the Innocent, followed by Exotic Birds, before forming the ever popular NIN.
9. Vampire Weekend were an electro-rap group called L’Homme Run (circa 2003)
Yup, in addition to “Bitches”, Ezra Koenig and Andrew Kalaidjian’s college project had song titles like “Giving Up Da Gun,” “Interracial Dating.” But they will forever live in our hearts for penning the line: “The only flow you’ve got is menstrual.” Wow.
8. Rick James was in a Motown band…with Neil Young (1966)
A two-fer! Back in 1965, young Rick James (then known as Big Jimmy) was gigging around the Toronto area with his group and in dire need of a guitarist. That’s when bass player Bruce Palmer called upon fellow Canadian Neil Young, who was trying to make his name as a folk singer at the time. Thus began one of the oddest collaborations in rock history.
James got the group signed to the mighty Motown and they recorded sixteen tracks for a proposed album in February ’66. But the whole thing was shelved when James was busted for going AWOL from the Navy. It’s a shame, because James’ Jagger-like vocal would have been a unique contribution to sixties pop, especially with Young’s hooks.
But with every end comes a new beginning. Neil Young and Bruce Palmer apparently sold the dying band’s equipment and headed west to Los Angeles, where they met up with Stephen Stills and Richie Furay and formed the seminal group, Buffalo Springfield, which in turn later spawned Poco and Crosby, Stills Nash (and sometimes Young). It’s all connected…
Oh yeah, and Rick James got sprung from the clink after a year and went right to being a Super Freak.
7. Lana Del Rey was a folkie Jewel sound-alike called May Jailer (2005-2006)
The songstress born as Elizabeth Woolridge Grant has gone through several incarnations on the way to super-stardom as Lana Del Rey. She famously released an EP Kill Kill in 2008 as Lizzy Grant (followed by a full length album in 2010), but in recent months tapes have surfaced that seem to be of her unreleased debut. Called Sirens, the all acoustic record was made under the name May Jailer. It’s pretty charming, and made even cooler by the fact that she wrote all of the titles herself.
6. Tori Amos was in a synth-pop band called Y Kant Tori Read (1988)
No, that’s not the Bangles. Tori Amos was a musical child prodigy, composing pieces on the piano just five years old. She was classically trained at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, but lost her scholarship after developing a taste for that there devil’s music, and also for her hatred of reading sheet music. Hence the name of her rebellious musical project… Her band (featuring future Guns ’n’ Roses drummer Matt Sorum) was signed to Atlantic Records, and that’s apparently when it all started going downhill. Amos has vented over the years about record execs interfering with her musical vision, and the album was a serious commercial disappointment. The band broke up soon after, and their sole release is now out of print (apparently at Amos’ request).
5. Alanis Morissette was Canadian pop sensation Alanis (1991)
Before she was going down on Uncle Joey in a theater, the venomous singer/songwriter was Canada’s answer to teen queens like Debbie Gibson and Tiffany. She was actually kind of a big deal in Canada during her pre-Jagged Little Pill days, with her debut album going platinum. Then Dave Coulier came and things got grungy. She was too famous to hide her poppy past, but we have a sneaking suspicious that it’s something she’d rather have Under Rug Swept. Bonus points for having a pre-Friends Matt LeBlanc in her 1991 video for “Walk Away”!
4. Paul Simon was a teen idol named Jerry Landis (1962)
Rhymin’ Simon got his start young, writing songs to sing with school-mate Art Garfunkel when they were just 13 years old. In 1957 they recorded his Everly Brothers-esque composition “Hey, Schoolgirl” under the name Tom & Jerry, which actually proved to be a small hit. In between English classes at Queens College, he worked as a songwriter, occasionally hawking his songs at the legendary Brill Building alongside the likes of Carole King.
He recorded a few of his tunes, occasionally under the various pseudonyms like Paul Kane and True Taylor. He recorded this then-topical track “The Lone Teen Ranger” as Jerry Landis. It may not quite hint at his future lyrical genius, but it certainly does showcase his ability to pen a catchy melody! You’ll be humming this one later, we guarantee it.
Check out his 1958 song ’Lisa’ to catch the full Ricky Nelson effect. Good stuff.
3. Ronnie James Dio was a malt-shoppe crooner in Ronnie and the Redcaps (1961)
Years before becoming a metal god, Dio was known as Ronnie James Padavona, the bass player for rockabilly group the Vegas Kings in 1958. He took over singing duties in his next group, Ronnie and the Redcaps, stretching the vocal cords that would make him a legend. But he took the the fashionably poppy route, delivering a series of extremely catchy teen-friendly singles. Which is probably for the best; if he flashed the metal horns in ’62, he probably would have been burned as a witch or something.
2. Billy Joel was in a pre-metal drum and organ duo called Attila (1969)
Before you go any further, just check out this friggin’ album cover. That’s a pre-Piano Man Billy Joel, flaunting some SERIOUS hair, poising in a meat locker while dressed as (we assume) a Hun. So there’s that. Joel’s first band was the Hassles, a mid sixties Beatles knock-off based out of his native Long Island. It was here that he honed his organ playing, as well as his McCartney-like vocals, to pop perfection.
When the band folded, he broke off with drummer Jon Small to form this power duo. The self-titled album has been ranked among the worst records ever made, and even Billy himself has dismissed it as “psychedelic bulls–t.” He had much more to say during an interview in 1985: “We were heavy metal, we were going to destroy the world with amplification. We had titles like ’Godzilla’, ’March of the Huns’, ’Brain Invasion’. We had about a dozen gigs and nobody could stay in the room when we were playing. It was too loud. We drove people literally out of clubs.”
It all came to an end in 1970, when Joel ran off with Small’s wife Elizabeth Weber, who eventually became his wife, business manager, and the inspiration behind less-noisy tunes like “Just The Way You Are” and “She’s Always A Woman To Me”.
1. Ricky Gervais was an ’80s new-wave pop star in Seona Dancing (1982)
Yup, THAT Ricky Gervais. The future Office creator and star had a different sort of brush with fame in 1982 as the lead singer for Seona Dancing, a duo he formed with his college friend Bill Macrae. They had two singles, “More to Lose” and “Bitter Heart”, but neither song made the UK Top 40 and the band split in 1984. OK, Ricky’s not a “rock star”, but this one was too good not to include. We have to say, he did a pretty mean David Bowie impression. Which must have been quite a talking point when this happened…