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30 Fascinating Early Bands of Future Music Legends

From Billy Joel’s heavy-metal duo to Madonna’s post-punk act and Neil Young’s Motown outfit, these are the primordial groups that rock forgot

30 Fascinating Early Bands of Future Music Legends

Read about the obscure bands where future music legends from Led Zeppelin to Simon & Garfunkel and Debbie Harry got their start.

Even rock’s biggest names had to start somewhere. Flip through this (way) back catalog of stars’ early projects and you’ll find yourself in a topsy-turvy bizarro-world where Michael Bolton and Billy Joel fronted metal bands, Debbie Harry and the Cars were folked-up singer-songwriters, Madonna was a post-punk drummer and Ronnie James Dio was a Sixties teen idol. By the time you’re done there are more questions than answers. Did Neil Young and Rick James really play in a Motown band together? Did Lemmy really wear a priest’s collar onstage every night? Why were Radiohead so into saxes?

Read on to hear 30 fascinating early bands from future music legends. Brace yourself, because it might get weird. 

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Bon Scott’s Australian Teen-Pop Band the Valentines

AC/DC’s manager Michael Browning once described the Valentines as “a satin-clad, bell-bottom–wearing teeny-bop band.” In other words, not the kind of group in which you’d expect to find Bon Scott. But the future metal god spent the late Sixties as a co-frontman of the Perth-based pop group, sharing the spotlight with singer Vince Lovegrove. Formed in 1966, the Valentines were a fusion of Scott’s first band, the Spektors, and Lovegrove’s the Winstons. Scoring their first local chart entry with a cover of Arthur Alexander’s “Every Day I Have to Cry,” the band capitalized on their success by recording a number of songs co-written by George Young and Henry Vanda – previously members of the Aussie rock outfit the Easybeats and future AC/DC producers.

Moving to Melbourne by the end of 1967 to pursue national fame, the group became an in-demand act on the touring circuit, drawing hoards of teenage girls eager to get a look at the twin heartthrobs out front. Even at this early stage, Scott was not suited to the life of a teen idol. His friend, former AC/DC bassist Mark Evans, recalled seeing the uneasy truce between Bon Scott the Rock Outlaw and Bon Scott the Pop Star in his book, Dirty Deeds: My Life Inside/Outside AC/DC. “I was sitting in front of the PA on the side of the stage and I could see him disappear into the wings during solos and after songs to slug from a bottle of Johnnie Walker,” he writes. “As the set progressed he built up a descent sweat and I could see something strange going on under the sheer chiffon sleeves. Tattoos were starting to appear – he had tried to hide them with makeup but the sweat was making it run. The guy was turning into Bon Scott before my eyes.”

As tastes shifted from lightweight pop towards heavier rock cuts by the end of the decade, the Valentines struggled to shed their image and their popularity waned. They promoted their 1968 single “Peculiar Hole in the Sky” with an advertisement bearing the comically desperate copy: “Please buy a copy – we’re starving.” It was barely a joke, as the group had taken to sneaking bites in the middle of supermarket aisles while on tour. “We were very poor, almost starving, driving down the highways, absorbed with rock ‘n’ roll, stealing people’s front door milk money … living on boiled potatoes, the dreams of success our mantra,” Lovegrove later wrote of those difficult days. “[But] when he sang, Bon took off into charisma-land.”

Their circumstances deteriorated further on September 20th, 1969, when authorities raided the group’s lodgings at the Jan Juc Surf Life Saving Club and discovered marijuana. The legal repercussions of this, the first major rock & roll drug bust in Australian history, exacerbated personality clashes within the band. “Bon and I have often come really close to punching the shit out of each other,” Lovegrove told Go-Set that same year. Even worse, the music wasn’t selling. The failure of their February 1970 single, “Juliette,” sealed the band’s fate. 

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Carole King’s Progressive Folk Trio the City

Though Carole King’s status as one of pop’s premier melodists was still strong, by 1967 her marriage to songwriting partner Gerry Goffin was in a state of collapse. Desperate to start over, she took her two daughters and went West – trading New York City’s industrial-style songwriting factories for the comparatively laid-back and groovy Los Angeles clique. “Southern California was the center of everything fresh, young, and current,” King recalled in her memoir, A Natural Woman. “The beautiful people, the gorgeous weather, the burgeoning music scene, and the free and easy lifestyle were a siren call.” She settled in Laurel Canyon, a bucolic artists’ enclave inhabited by the hippest musicians in town, and soon fell in with two other NYC transplants: bassist Charles Larkey and guitarist Danny Kortchmar.

Larkey, who would later become King’s second husband, had been a member of a pop-rock group called the Myddle Class, which were signed to Goffin and King’s label imprint, Tomorrow Records. Following the dissolution of the band, he joined Kortchmar in the provocative proto-punk collective known as the Fugs. Kortchmar, known far and wide as “Kootch,” was also a veteran of the Flying Machine, fronted by a talented singer named James Taylor. Both Larkey and Kortchmar had migrated to Los Angeles to seek their fortune, but so far fame proved elusive. To stay sharp they practiced at King’s Wonderland Avenue home, running through old Goffin-King numbers in addition to fresh compositions she had written with new collaborators, Toni Stern and David Palmer. For King, whose confidence as a performer lagged far behind her confidence as a songwriter, these loose sessions were a revelation. “Playing with Charlie and Danny was not only fun, it greatly enhanced my jamming skills,” she later wrote. “As the number of licks in my kit bag went up, so did my confidence and understanding of jazz. And Kootch had a gift for exhorting other musicians to play, write and sing beyond what they believed was the edge of their ability.”

King’s track record as a recording artist in her own right was sparse, but Kortchmar and Larkey persuaded her to venture into the studio and cut an album of these new songs. As a nod to their shared East Coast heritage, the trio decided to call themselves the City. “Even though we had a group name, this was Carole’s record all the way,” Kortchmar wrote in 1999. “She would sing or play parts to Charlie and me, and once we got it right, we could hear how great this record was going to be.” For a producer King approached her friend Lou Adler, a onetime songwriter who had graduated into full-blown impresario by producing hits for the Mamas and the Papas, Scott McKenzie, and Barry McGuire on his own labels, Dunhill and, later, Ode Records. With Adler on board, they augmented their lineup with pro session drummer Jim Gordon, later to serve Eric Clapton in Derek & the Dominos.

The 12-tracks that make up Now That Everything’s Been Said, the City’s sole release, are a bridge between the precision pop assembly line that King was leaving behind, and the highly personal singer-songwriter era she would define in the early Seventies with her seminal 1971 LP Tapestry. The centerpiece is the ethereal “Snow Queen,” coupling King’s earthy voice with spacey instrumental arrangements and Gordon’s jazz rhythms. But changing times didn’t diminish her skill at crafting hits; the jaunty gospel of “That Old Sweet Roll (Hi-De-Ho)” would reach the Top 20 in 1970 with Blood Sweat and Tears, the Byrds’ version of “Wasn’t Born to Follow” was a highlight of the soundtrack to the film Easy Rider, and the Monkees later delivered a stirring cover of “A Man Without a Dream.”

Despite the strength of the songs, and significant industry attention, the album didn’t sell. “I was 26 when Now That Everything’s Been Said was released in 1968,” King wrote in A Natural Woman. “[We] expected it to zoom to the top of the charts within, at most, a few weeks. Individually and together, we optimistically imagined the album’s success as if it had already happened. Danny and Charlie kept telling each other, ‘It’s a great album. The City is gonna be Number 1 with a bullet!’ The album didn’t get above 500 with an anchor. It never even charted.” King has since admitted that her reluctance to tour due to extreme stage fright may have doomed the record, although label distribution snafus likely didn’t help matters. For decades the disc remained out of print, largely at King’s request. The City would not issue another album, but the project would embolden her confidence and cement the creative relationships that helped pave the way for her reinvention as a solo artist. 

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Sammy Hagar’s Sunshine-Pop Duo Samson & Hagar

Little appears to be known about this unusual early chapter in the Red Rocker’s history. After fronting a Southern California band called the Fabulous Castilles (not to be confused with the similarly named group featuring a young Bruce Springsteen), Hagar joined forces with fellow vocalist Pete Samson in 1967. Together they recorded the self-penned song, “Reach Out to Find Me” (backed by Samson’s “Read My Thoughts”) for Ranwood Records. For a backing band, producer Dan Dalton called in the Peppermint Trolley Company, thus melding the future Van Halen shouter with the voices behind the Brady Bunch theme song.The single’s chart failure later that year spelled the end for the short-lived duo. Hagar continued performing in a pack of other SoCal groups – the Johnny Fortune Band and also the Justice Brothers among them – before achieving mainstream recognition in the hard-rocking early Seventies outfit Montrose. 

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The Cars’ Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr’s Mellow Early-Seventies Trio Milkwood

The future brain trust behind 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Famers the Cars first crossed paths in Cleveland back in the mid-Sixties, after Ocasek saw Orr performing with his group, the Grasshoppers, on a local television program. They soon became close, playing both as a duo and in bands at local venues across Columbia, Ohio, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, before winding up in Boston. While there they teamed up with guitarist Jas Goodkind to form Milkwood, a laid-back vocal trio in the Crosby, Stills and Nash mold. The group’s honey-soaked harmonies and gentle acoustic picking caught the attention of audiences throughout the Cambridge club circuit. “We were playing around town and somebody asked us if we wanted to make a record,” Ocasek told Rolling Stone in 1979. “In two weeks we recorded that Milkwood thing.”

Work on what would prove to be the band’s one and only album took place at Aengus Studios in Fayville, Massachusetts. The sessions marked the first collaboration with future Car Greg Hawkes, who played saxophone and provided brass arrangements. “He had the simplicity concept,” Ocasek later said, “but he wasn’t afraid to do interesting things. I knew he’d be the keyboard player I wanted.”

Ten original songs by Ocasek and Orr (credited to their real names, Otcasek and Orzechowski) were released on Paramount Records in 1973 as How’s the Weather. The comically banal title gives some impression of the overall sound of the album, which is mellow to the point of narcolepsy. The wistful, confessional singer-songwriter material, flecked with the occasional “jazz-odyssey” breakdown, is light years away from the robotic New Wave anthems that would make the Cars famous later in the decade. The record-buying public, presumably believing that one CSN was enough, stayed away and the album sank without a trace. 

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