For this list we’re talking musicians who created their own universes, whether by inventing wild back-stories, weaving esoteric philosophies, donning curious masks or adopting outlandish stage personas. It’s a fascinating area, full of some wonderful music and wondrous personalities. Music, at least on stage, treads much the same territory as theatre – a measure of performance is always expected. These nine examples, however, blur the lines between the real and the imagined in memorable fashion.
Sun Ra (and his Solar Arkestra)
Avant-garde jazz pianist, composer, and bandleader Herman Poole Blount, aka Sun Ra, gave us some of the most thrilling, inventive music ever committed to tape. Extravagantly dressed and resolutely mysterious, Sun Ra’s philosophy, or ‘equation’ was an eclectic mix of ancient and modern mysticism, Egyptian lore, numerology and much more besides. Unlike many on this list, Sun Ra’s invented world was a serious statement, not a stage show. What exactly his equation equates to is still open for debate.
The Mothership, P-Funk, Parliament, Funkadelic, cosmic slops, and bass-players in oversized nappies. George Clinton’s sprawling funk solar system offers a wealth of treasures to explore. There’s an unhinged madness in the band’s (or bands) tongue-in-cheek self-mythologizing, theatrical music, and equally theatrical stage shows, but it’s a joyous madness. Free your ass and your mind will follow.
Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie)
Bowie’s stage persona from 1972 – 1973, Ziggy Stardust was an androgynous alien rock star on a mercy mission to warn Earth of impending disaster. The story ends with Ziggy dying, a victim of his own excess, after gathering a huge number of cult-like followers. Bowie never again so explicitly inhabited a persona. The music is, of course, fantastic, but equally worth checking out is one of the musicians who inspired Bowie’s creation – The Legendary Stardust Cowboy.
Arguably the second most famous entry on this list, former Blur frontman Damon Albarn created the highly successful ‘virtual’ band Gorillaz in 1998, in collaboration with artist Jamie Hewlett. The group members were animated cartoon creations (on stage, the band performed behind a screen). The Gorillaz universe expanded over time, with themes, characters, and back-story emerging through a mixture of videos, cartoons, and interviews. So much so, in fact, that much has been written about the band’s mythology, with hardcore fans poring over every inch of material for clues.
David Devant & His Spirit Wife
Many might remember this quirky English band’s early-nineties hit, “I Think About You.” In fact, the group has been going ever since, though never really hitting the heights that they probably deserve. The band’s name derives from a 19th-century stage magician, the spirit of whom front-man Mikey Georgeson professes to channel. “It’s quite simple really,” says Georgeson, “as a magician Devant didn’t really fulfill himself, so he said ‘I shall walk down the corridors of contemporary music’, and he chose us. I am his vessel.” Indeed.
The Blues Brothers
When performing, The Blues Brothers, aka Jake and Elwood, aka comedians Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, always remain in character. The genesis of the band dates back to 1978 when Aykroyd and Belushi created their personas as part of a sketch for Saturday Night Live. The Blues Brothers film, which followed in 1980, further fleshed out the sibling’s story. It’s a movie well worth watching. Aretha Franklin’s star turn alone would justify your time.
Metal music, costumes, and anonymity have a long history together, arguably starting with 70s rockers, KISS. Supreme Unbeing mark another notable entry in this aspect of hard rock history. The mysterious five-piece are known only by cryptic aliases: D.Sciple, D. Vine, Al Mytee, and Unknown. In their own words, the band is led by “vocalist/prophet Zac Red, who acts as the physical form of our collective consciousness, the ambient quantum entanglement of our most personal thoughts.” The group has recently made the leap from animated characters to flesh and blood, so now seems like the perfect time to check them out!
The longest-running and, arguably, most ‘outsider’ band on this list, American oddballs The Residents have been created gloriously unhinged, and yet cohesive, music since the 1970s. The anonymous group, who perform in a variety of outlandish costumes, is part of the suitably-named Cryptic Corporation. Those wishing to explore The Resident’s unique universe will encounter much strangeness, a little ugliness and a whole lot of heart.
Harmless myth or deliberate deception? When Seasick Steve won the coveted MOJO Award for Best Breakthrough Act, in 2007, the musical world took him as he presented himself – an itinerant blues musician, born in the same years as Bob Dylan, with a bag full of hard-luck stories including time spent roughing it on the streets of Paris. As it turned out, they were wrong. Steven Gene Wold (actually born ten years later than Dylan, in 1951) had, in fact, a long history of working in the music business, playing, producing, and writing with various bands from the 1970s onwards. Whether this was a harmless prank or a cynical ploy is very much in the eye of the beholder.
Photo; Parliament-Funkadelic (Getty Images)