When Teen Idols Go Weird

[caption id="attachment_59768" align="aligncenter" width="640"]Alex Chilton, Ricky Nelson, Mike Nesmith, Scott Walker Alex Chilton, Ricky Nelson, Mike Nesmith and Scott Walker. Photos: Getty Images[/caption]

Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.

Scott Walker's new album Bish Bosch came out this week; as anyone who's heard the music he's been making for the past couple of decades would expect, it's a line drive that smashes all the way through the left-field bleachers. Here's the official video-of-sorts for "Epizootics!"-- a ten-minute song named after the term for the animal equivalent of epidemics, prominently featuring a solo tuba part.

It may be hard to imagine it if that's the only side of Walker you've heard, but he started his music career as a pop star. For a few years, his group the Walker Brothers were fairly successful in the U.S., but gigantically popular in the U.K., where they had a string of hits and an enormous fan club. Their best-known song is probably "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore"; the clip below is for 1965's "Make It Easy On Yourself," which was also a British #1 pop hit.

Walker's not the first former star who's tried to distance himself from the music the kids screamed for early on -- that phenomenon, actually, has been happening ever since rock 'n' roll teen idols started growing up. In 1957, sixteen-year-old Ricky Nelson had his first big hit with "A Teenager's Romance."

Twelve years later, the renamed Rick Nelson announced his maturity in the then-traditional way: by covering a Bob Dylan song, "She Belongs to Me." (Below is the unintentionally campy video he made for it at the time.) Three years later, he had another hit with "Garden Party," a disgruntled country-rock singalong about playing an oldies show at Madison Square Garden: "If memories were all I sang, I'd rather drive a truck."

In 1965, Fontella Bass had a million-selling R&B/pop crossover hit with "Rescue Me" --there's a performance clip of it below -- and was a regular on the charts for a few years with songs like "Don't Mess Up a Good Thing" and "Recovery."

By the end of the '60s, she and her husband -- trumpeter Lester Bowie -- moved to Paris, where Bowie's avant-garde jazz group the Art Ensemble became known as the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Bass recorded a couple of albums with them, including 1970's Les Stances a Sophie, a soundtrack on which Bass sang the free jazz/soul marvel "Theme de Yoyo."

Michael Nesmith made his name with the Monkees in the late '60s. Once that group dissolved, though, he spent the next few years alternately indulging his love of country music (Orville "Red" Rhodes plays pedal steel on most of Nesmith's solo discography) and his ambitions to make huge, arty projects, including a concept album called The Prison (which came with a related novella). In 1981, he made a music-and-comedy videotape, Elephant Parts, which featured this rather peculiar video for "Crusin'."

When the Box Tops had their first #1 hit, "The Letter," lead singer Alex Chilton was 16 years old. In 1969, the group appeared on The Mike Douglas Show, playing their then-current hits "Turn on a Dream" and "Soul Deep."

Chilton went on to found the magnificent power-pop band Big Star and make some very likeable solo albums, but some of his early solo recordings, in particular, were about as un-Box Tops like as it gets -- the shambling, zombie-themed "Walking Dead," for instance.

Simon Turner was something of a teen idol in England in the early '70s -- he made his debut in a TV production of "Tom Brown's School Days," and subsequently made a string of minor glam-rock records, including 1973's love-'em-and-leave-'em "Baby (I Gotta Go)."

When Turner returned to music in the early '80s, he had his tongue wedged firmly in his cheek. He recorded an album of covers under the name The King of Luxembourg; most of them were '60s bubblegum of one kind or another (the Turtles' "Happy Together," the Monkees' "Valleri"), but they also included this sweet, twinkling version of Public Image Limited's horrifying "Poptones."

Subsequently -- now calling himself Simon Fisher Turner -- he's gone on to compose the soundtracks to several films by Derek Jarman (an excerpt from his soundtrack to Caravaggio appears below), and make a handful of ambient and experimental albums.

But the record for the greatest-ever shredding of a teenybopper reputation belongs to Debbie Gibson. Her debut album, Out of the Blue, came out a few weeks before her 17th birthday in 1987; it went triple platinum. Over the next few years, she had a long string of hits, including the power ballad "Lost in Your Eyes."

In 1995, though, Gibson recorded a cover of the Soft Boys' punk rock ripper "I Wanna Destroy You" with the California hardcore institution Circle Jerks. She also sang it onstage with them at CBGB, as the video below shows. It's like "Foolish Beat" never happened.