Outsider music is an oddly compelling form of music which involves a total disregard for the generally accepted rules of music. At times the term outsider music has been applied to talented musicians who have chose to take an avant garde approach and make music that is considered difficult to listen to. In most cases it is made by untrained musicians who don’t intentionally ignore musical rules. They don’t know the rules to begin with. What separates outsider music from just simply bad music is that outsider music generally involves a degree of earnestness.
An excellent resource on outsider music is Songs in the Key of Z written by noted music historian Irwin Chusid.Chusid became enthralled with a number of these artists while working as a DJ at free form radio station WFMU. It is a worthwhile readfor anyone who is looking to broaden their music taste beyond the mainstream. The book also included a companion CD.
We will now consider 4 examples of some of the more compelling outsider artists.
The Shaggs where a group made up of four sisters whose father gave them used musical instruments. He also pulled them out of school and made them start a rock band.
Their 1969 album Philosophy of the World could arguably be considered the holy grail of outsider music. The lack of musical skill is evident and the album is pretty awful. That being said the album is not without its considerable charms. There is something to be said about the sincerity and naiveté of the sister’s approach to music. The album has become a cult hit. Frank Zappa considers it one of the greatest albums ever made and Kurt Cobain was cited as being a fan.
Lucia was an example of an outsider musical artist who did have some musical talent, being trained as a vocalist at the Beethoven Conservatory of Music and Voice in Germany. She ended up having some success as a stage performer.
She was also eccentric and her only album released was 1969’s Into Outer Space With Lucia Pamela. The album’s songs were built around an imaginary trip to the moon and it also included a colouring book as well. The album is pretty out there. It ignores the musical conventions that she would have learnt during her musical training.
The Legendary Stardust Cowboy
The Legendary Stardust Cowboy is considered a key figure in the development of psychobilly. Part of this influence came from his fusion of hard rock & rockabilly. His most well known tune was “Paralysed” which involved the Cowboy furiously strumming his acoustic guitar while making all sorts of weird vocal noises and occasionally shouting “Paralyzed”
David Bowie acknowledged that The Legendary Stardust Cowboy was an influence in the development of his Ziggy Stardust character.
Wesley Willis was a schizophrenic music artist from Chicago. He built up a considerable cult following and he certainty was one of the more endearing figures of the outsider movement.
He was also extremely prolific. He ended up recording over 1000 songs and he independently released over 50 albums.
Many of his songs sound alike and they followed similar patterns. He would quite often write songs about live shows that he attended of his favorite musical artists. He would mention the name of the venue, repeat the name of the artist over and over, and mention a body part of an animal that the band rocks and he quite often ends with a popular advertising slogan.
Wesley Willis is a perfect example of an outsider musical artist that makes bad music that is strangely compelling. His music comes from a real place and it was Willis way to deal with his demons (which he linked with his schizophrenia).
Willis also garnered some attention (especially after his death) for his unusually intricate ink pen drawings of different Chicago landscapes.
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