Music History

Pivot Time: 10 Artists Who Successfully Pulled Off Radical Changes in Sound

There isn’t a musician in the world who doesn’t want to grow and evolve as an artist. This sometimes leads to changes in their approach to music which result in a wholly different sound from where they started. Some evolved over many years and many albums. Others shifted from one album to the next.

Such a makeover can be confusing to fans and detrimental to careers. But then there are those who managed to pull it off. While they may feel betrayed by older fans, the new fans they won in the promise more than made up for the losses.

Here are ten fascinating career pivots.

1. Fleetwood Mac

The Mac started as a serious blues band. But as the years passed and personal changed, the group evolved into one of the great mainstream superstar acts of the 1970s. Mick Fleetwood and John McVie have been there for the whole ride.

Compare this 1968 version of the band performing Elmore James’ “Shake Your Moneymaker”…

…to “Don’t Stop” from Rumours just nine years later.


2. Genesis

Genesis rose to fame as a Peter Gabriel-fronted prog band. But when he left in 1975, the group slowly morphed into a straight-ahead AOR band with Phil Collins on vocals. They sold far more records in the Collins-Banks-Rutherford incarnation than they did as any other.

Have a listen to Gabriel in all his glory on “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway”…

…and contrast it with the Collins version of the band at the height of its powers.


3. Yes

Even more than Genesis, Yes was all about virtuosity and pseudo-classical pretensions. Of all the prog bands of the early 70s, Yes was probably the most popular and most influential. But then the entire prog genre fell and hard times and Yes was forced to adapt for the MTV age. And they did pretty well.

In the beginning, Yes delivered songs like “Roundabout” in 1971…

…but by 1983’s 90125, their sound had gone far more pop, electronic and Fairlight-driven. And it worked.


4. David Bowie

Okay, this one goes without saying. By his own admission, Bowie was never much of a rock fan. He chose the music based on the kind of image, character and message he wanted to communicate. But if we dig back into the 60s when Bowie was trying to figure out what kind of artist he wanted to be, we find gems like this from 1967…

…which did not foreshadow the genius that was to emerge later.


5. Joy Division/New Order

When Joy Division was formed, the members agreed on a poison pill clause: Should any member of the group leave for any reason, the band would cease to exist. This grim scenario played out in the worst way possible when singer Ian Curtis took his own life in May 1980. Joy Division was disbanded and the remaining three members reformed as New Order. Early NO recordings followed in the basic gloomy guitars-bass-drums motif as Joy Division but within a few years, the band was heavily into synths, sequencers, drum machines, Fairlight samples and dance beats. This wasn’t your older brother’s Joy Division.

It’s easy to hear the difference between “Love Will Tear Us Apart”…

…and “Blue Monday.”


6. Ministry

This one never fails to blow my mind. When I first discovered Ministry, they were a semi-funky faux-Depeche Mode-style pop-synth band from Chicago…

…but within a few years, Al Jourgensen had gone totally insane. This is the same band.


7. The Cult

The staff at CFNY were all huge fans of the Cult’s Love album with its unique quasi-goth spin on alternative. We loved “She Sells Sanctuary” so much that for years it was the song used to kick off the night for every single CFNY Video Roadshow. But something changed between that record (released in 1985)….

…and the Rick Rubin-produced Electric in 1987.


8. Goo Goo Dolls

When the Goos started out, they played the same circuit as hard punk and metal bands like Gang Green, SNFU and the Dead Milkmen. But their sound moderated over the first five albums (help by Johnny Rzeznik’s graduation to lead vocals) to the point where they represented the poppier side of the Alternative Nation of the 90s. Contrast this track from their 1987 self-titled indie debut…

…to this mainstream mega-hit “Iris” from 1998.

It’ll be interesting to see what cross-section of their catalogue will play when they perform at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto on July 2. It’s part of Queen’s Park Weekend. Tickets start at just $30 for both racing and the post card concert. Details here.


9. Radiohead

Some bands are hated for swinging away from a successful sound and formula. Others, like Radiohead, were praised for it. Having decided that OK Computer was as far as the band could take their original sound, they opted for something entirely different for the follow-up, Kid A. That pivot took a lot of talent, confidence and discipline.

They went from songs like this on OK Computer

…to the experimental “Everything In Its Right Place” on Kid A.


10. Blur

The first time many of us heard Blur’s Leisure album, we were far too quick to include them under the umbrella of the whole Manchester thing, even though they were from east of London. Over the next couple of albums, Blur’s sound would change allowing them to become one of the founders of Britpop. But by the late 90s, they’d ditched that sound, too, opting for something more rugged, reminiscent of Pavement.

Here’s how things started for Blur in 1991.

But by 1997–woo-hoo!


BONUS: Linkin Park

Okay, the jury’s still out on this one. When LP first appeared to us in 2000, they were considered to be part of the more accessible wing of nü-metal. Fans went nuts, buying up 10 million copes of Hybrid Theory, thanks to songs like this.

But if we fast-forward to 2017’s One More Light, this was the first single. WTF?

Perhaps you have your own favourite pivots. Let’s hear about ’em in the comments below.


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38536 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

3 thoughts on “Pivot Time: 10 Artists Who Successfully Pulled Off Radical Changes in Sound

  • How about Chicago (formerly The Chicago Transit Authority)? They went from being a horn-driven rock/protest band to a purveyor of inoffensive ballads in the 1980s. Seemed to make a lot of money doing both.

  • Although it’s parody (the best parody reflects the truth) I’ve always enjoyed the extreme redefinitions that Spinal Tap went through. From “Listen! To What The Flower People Say” to “Sex Farm Woman” … I think it’s fair to say that by including this factor in their timeless comedy, they were pointing out just how common redefinition is (and in some cases, how it’s necessary to survive)

  • What about Skye Sweetnam the pop start who became the summer of Sumo Cyco


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