The official definition of outsider art is used to describe art that has a naïve quality, often produced by people who have not trained as artists or worked within the conventional structures of art production. This fits perfectly with the idiosyncratic artists we have featured in our ‘Outsider Art’ promotion, inspired by musicians who live and work on the fringe.
Endlessly curious as a songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Arthur Russell explored a range of styles that wound from avant-garde minimalism to dubby disco funk. Ahead of his time and existing in general obscurity during his short lifetime, Russell amassed an enormous amount of recorded material that brought his singular personality to whatever style he approached. After his death in 1992, Russell’s distinctive voice and adventurous production range caught on in terms of popularity as well as influence on new generations of musicians. Albums released during his lifetime, like 1986’s spare, dubby cello experiments on World of Echo, were joined by posthumous releases like 2008’s collection of previously unreleased country-tinged material Love Is Overtaking Me.
Essential Listening: Calling out of Context CD £9 LP £30 World of Echo CD £13 LP £30
Like a supernova, Roger “Syd” Barrett burned briefly and brightly, leaving an indelible mark upon psychedelic and progressive rock as the founder and original singer, songwriter, and lead guitarist of Pink Floyd. Barrett was responsible for most of their brilliant first album, 1967’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, but left and/or was fired from the band in early 1968 after his erratic behavior had made him too difficult to deal with (he appears on a couple tracks on their second album, A Saucerful of Secrets). Such was his stature within the original lineup that few observers thought the band could survive his departure; in fact, the original group’s management decided to keep Syd on and leave the rest of the band to their own devices. Pink Floyd never recaptured the playful humor and mad energy of their work with Barrett. After a period of hibernation, Barrett re-emerged in 1970 with a pair of albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, which featured considerable support from his former bandmates (especially his replacement, David Gilmour, who produced most of the sessions). Although they attracted little attention upon their release, his albums also attracted a cult audience. Barrett’s music and mystique achieved a lasting influence that continues to grow to this day.
Essential Listening: The Madcap Laughs CD £7 LP £28 Barrett CD £7 LP £30 Opel CD £7
While they never strictly followed the fast-and-loud musical template of punk rock, few of punk’s founding fathers could have anticipated the extreme to which Half Japanese took the music’s D.I.Y. ethos. Founded by brothers Jad and David Fair, Half Japanese were quite likely the most amateurish rock band to make a record since the Shaggs, especially in their early years, all but ignoring musical basics like chords, rhythms, and melody. However, the brothers made that approach into a guiding aesthetic. David Fair’s article “How to Play Guitar” outlined the Half Japanese philosophy: if you rejected conventional ideas about fingering, tuning, and even stringing a guitar, there were no limits to how you could express yourself on what was, after all, your instrument. Beginning in the mid-’70s, Half Japanese’s chaotic kind of free expression, with Jad Fair expounding on romantic frustration and horror movies while a shifting cast of musicians kicked up a ruckus behind him, made them the sort of band destined to have a cult following without any sort of mainstream recognition. Over time, however, that cult came to include the likes of Penn Jillette, Jello Biafra, Kurt Cobain, and Yo La Tengo, and the band released a steady stream of eccentric but beguiling albums throughout the ’80s and ’90s that made them respected elder statesmen of the underground rock community. Their recording career was on pause during much of the 2000s, with Jad Fair devoting himself to solo projects and visual art, but Half Japanese returned to action in 2014 with the upbeat and relatively tuneful effort Overjoyed, and a series of archival reissues charted the evolution of their singular creative vision. 2017’s Hear the Lions Roar and 2019’s Why Not? were upbeat and tuneful efforts that ranked with Fair’s most engaging and accessible work.
Essential Listening: Hear the Lions Roar CD £14 LP £20 Crazy Hearts CD £13 LP £20
Daniel Johnston’s songs of love and pain made him one of the most unique figures of the American underground, and his outsider spirit set a template for indie rock on the whole. Though Johnston struggled with mental illness his entire life, his creative world was vivid, and his songwriting struck a moving balance between innocence and emotional devastation that would inspire everyone from Sonic Youth and Kurt Cobain to Yo La Tengo and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Rough, home-recorded, self-distributed cassettes in the ’80s bloomed into more polished albums as Johnston’s acclaim grew throughout the late ’90s and 2000s. He actively toured until 2017, and in addition to his musical output, he was a prolific visual artist, constantly drawing and painting the comic book-styled space creatures and super heroes that often adorned his album artwork. At the time of his death in 2019, Johnston had recorded over 15 original albums (ranging from 1983 lo-fi pop masterpiece Hi, How Are You to his high-definition 1994 major-label debut Fun) and been the subject of numerous tribute records, a commemorative mural in his hometown, and two documentary films. Johnston’s singing voice was creaky and imperfect and his compositions unsophisticated, but his technical idiosyncrasies, combined with his vulnerable perspectives, made for songs as crushing as they were beautiful.
Essential Listening: Hi, How are you LP £23
New Zealand songwriter Connan Mockasin makes spiraling and sweetly disorienting psychedelic pop songs, taking notes from ’70s soft rock, smooth jazz, and obscure acid-damaged artists from multiple eras. In addition to releasing multiple solo recordings, Mockasin is a frequent collaborator and producer for other artists, working on tracks with Charlotte Gainsbourg, taking part in the sleazy glam funk band Soft Hair, and even releasing collaborative work with his own father in the form of 2021’s It’s Just Wind. 2021 also saw the release of Mockasin’s largely instrumental solo album Jassbusters Two.
Essential Listening: Jassbusters CD £10 LP £23
One of the most fascinating figures of rock’s fringes, Nico hobnobbed, worked, and was romantically linked with an incredible assortment of the most legendary entertainers of the ’60s. The paradox of her career was that she herself never attained the fame of her peers, pursuing a distinctly individualistic and uncompromising musical career that was uncommercial, but wholly admirable and influential. Nico first rose to fame as a European supermodel, also landing a bit part in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita film and giving birth to a son by Alain Delon. Later she moved to New York, where Andy Warhol installed her as a vestigial presence and occasional lead singer for the Velvet Underground. The band never really accepted her as a bona fide member and she departed in 1967, but not before contributing unforgettable deadpan vocals to three of the songs on their classic 1967 debut album. Nico embarked on a solo career, recording folk-rock-flavored songs for her debut Chelsea Girl album with assistance from Jackson Browne, Lou Reed, and John Cale. Her 1969 follow-up, The Marble Index, was a dramatic departure that unveiled her doom-laden, gothic persona, produced by Cale and prominently featuring her deep vocals, impenetrable lyrics, and ghostly harmonium. The original goth rocker, Nico’s albums are demanding and bleak, but map a unique and starkly powerful vision that has become more influential with age.
Essential Listening: The End CD £10 Chelsea Girl CD £7
Throughout her lengthy career as a multimedia artist, singer, songwriter, and peace activist, Yoko Ono remained a visionary. Before her romantic and creative partnership with John Lennon, she was an established figure in the world of avant-garde art and music. A classically trained vocalist and pianist, Ono worked with John Cage and LaMonte Young in the early ’60s and had connections to the Fluxus art movement. When she and Lennon began making music together in the late ’60s, she challenged him to become a more experimental and autobiographical artist. Meanwhile, her music blended rock, jazz, and the avant-garde with the same boundary-breaking attitude of her work in other art forms, ranging from the free jazz influences of 1970’s Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band to 1971’s more structured Fly to the subversively feminist use of glam, funk, and pop on 1973’s Feeling the Space and Approximately Infinite Universe. Her ’80s output spanned 1981’s Season of Glass, her brilliantly harrowing response to Lennon’s murder, to 1985’s idealistic Starpeace. During the ’80s and ’90s, the importance of Ono’s work as a forward-thinking musician was increasingly realized. Artists such as Elvis Costello, the B-52’s, and Sonic Youth covered her songs, while 1992’s Onobox made her music more widely available. In later years, Ono refused to rest on her laurels, and 1995’s Rising was just as confrontational as her earlier music. Along with her success as a dance artist in the 2000s and 2010s, she collaborated with younger musicians such as tUnE-yArDs, ?uestlove, and her son Sean Lennon on albums like Take Me to the Land of Hell. Ono also continued to be a tireless advocate for peace and the environment, and helped keep Lennon’s memory alive with memorials including Strawberry Fields and the Imagine Peace Tower.
Essential Listening: Approximately Infinite Universe CD £11
One of the most uncompromising rock bands of all time, Michael Gira’s Swans are renowned for their constantly evolving sound, ranging from bleak, brutal noise-rock to spiritual, ethereal folk, as well as their intensely loud, transcendent live performances. Emerging from the downtown New York music scene during the early ’80s, the group became notorious for their violent, confrontational shows and dissonant, hypnotically repetitive records such as 1983’s Filth. Starting with the dirge-like industrial of 1986’s Greed, the group’s sound became more atmospheric, partially due to the addition of vocalist Jarboe, who gradually became a greater presence within the band. Albums such as 1991’s White Light from the Mouth of Infinity were significantly more melodic and elaborately produced than earlier works, even while the band’s concerts remained profound spectacles. By the time the group disbanded in 1997, following the previous year’s ambitious double album Soundtracks for the Blind, Swans had become an incalculable influence on countless experimental, noise, post-rock, industrial, goth, and metal acts, and their reputation only continued to grow. After spending the late ’90s and all of the 2000s making apocalyptic folk as the leader of the Angels of Light, Gira re-formed Swans (without Jarboe) in 2010, this time with a largely stable recording and performing lineup. This incarnation of Swans, while just as intense and uncompromising as previous ones, unexpectedly produced the group’s most critically acclaimed and even commercially successful work, with 2014’s To Be Kind reaching the Top 40 in both the U.S. and U.K. Gira decided to end Swans’ stable lineup in 2017, subsequently working with a revolving cast of participants on 2019’s Leaving Meaning.
Essential Listening: To Be Kind CD £16
During his proverbial 15 minutes of fame in the late ’60s, Tiny Tim was one of the most bizarre spectacles on television: a heavy, six-foot-tall man with long, unkempt ringlets of hair, an enormous nose, and a garish plaid wardrobe; warbling the old-time pop standard “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips” in a quavering, shockingly high falsetto while accompanying himself on the ukulele. Pegged as strictly a novelty act, Tim actually possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of vintage American pop and vaudeville songs; he was an avid collector of 78 rpm records and sheet music, and often scoured the New York Public Library’s musical archives for material. And, although he was best-known for his falsetto, Tim was also a creditable baritone crooner in the pre-Bing Crosby mold, which allowed him to sing duets with himself. Tiny Tim’s initial novelty wore off with the public after a couple of years, but he was so genuinely, guilelessly eccentric that he was never really forgotten, remaining something of a pop-culture icon for decades to come.
Essential Listening: God Bless Tiny Tim CD £12
Scott Walker’s solo career dramatized a constant clash between commercial success and artistic endeavor. As the leader of pop trio the Walker Brothers, he spent the mid-’60s enjoying chart success, his gliding baritone voice at the center of several notable hits for the group. After striking out solo in 1967 with a string of adventurous but still pop-leaning albums, Walker’s solo work took a sharp turn toward experimentalism in the ’80s. Infrequent releases throughout the ’90s, 2000s, and 2010s were unrecognizable from the melancholic Baroque pop of Walker’s earliest days, but his compositional avant-garde fare like 2012’s Bish Bosch and soundtrack work on releases like 2016’s Childhood of a Leader were dense, abrasive, and thoroughly fascinating.
Essential Listening: 5 Classic Album Series CD £12 Bish Bosch CD £16 2LP £30
Composer, guitarist, singer, and bandleader Frank Zappa was a singular musical figure during a performing and recording career that lasted from the 1960s to the ’90s. His disparate influences included doo wop music and avant-garde classical music; although he led groups that could be called rock & roll bands for much of his career, he used them to create a hybrid style that bordered on jazz and complicated, modern serious music, sometimes inducing orchestras to play along. As if his music were not challenging enough, he overlay it with highly satirical and sometimes abstractly humorous lyrics and song titles that marked him as coming out of a provocative literary tradition that included Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and edgy comedians like Lenny Bruce. Nominally, he was a popular musician, but his recordings rarely earned significant airplay or sales, yet he was able to gain control of his recorded work and issue it successfully through his own labels while also touring internationally, in part because of the respect he earned from a dedicated cult of fans and many serious musicians, and also because he was an articulate spokesman who promoted himself into a media star through extensive interviews he considered to be a part of his creative effort just like his music. The Mothers of Invention, the ’60s group he led, often seemed to offer a parody of popular music and the counterculture (although he affected long hair and jeans, Zappa was openly scornful of hippies and drug use). By the ’80s, he was testifying before Congress in opposition to censorship (and editing his testimony into one of his albums). But these comic and serious sides were complementary, not contradictory. In statement and in practice, Zappa was an iconoclastic defender of the freest possible expression of ideas. And most of all, he was a composer far more ambitious than any other rock musician of his time and most classical musicians, as well.
Essential Listening: Sheik Yerbouti CD £7 Hot Rats CD £7 LP £25