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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. 

25 Fascinating Early Bands of Future Music Legends

Madonna’s Post-Punk Band Emmy

According to legend, Madonna Ciccone arrived in New York City in 1978 with $35 in her pocket and survived on popcorn, donuts and dumpster refuse as she tried to make her name as a dancer. Working odd jobs, including live modeling and a brief trip to Paris backing Euro disco star Patrick Hernandez, she eventually moved into an abandoned synagogue in Corona, Queens, with her new boyfriend, Dan Gilroy.

Through Gilroy’s influence, her attention began to shift from dancing to music. “He stuck a guitar in my hand and tuned it to an open chord so that I could strum,” she told Rolling Stone in 1984. “That really clicked something off in my brain.” Before long, she had written her first song. “It was called ‘Tell the Truth.’ It was maybe four chords, but there were verses and a bridge and a chorus, and it was a religious experience,” she recalled in 2009. Her sense of rhythm honed through dance classes, she took up the drums, teaching herself by playing along to Elvis Costello albums. Taking her first compositional steps, she would look back at the period warmly. “It was one of the happiest times of my life. I really felt loved.”

By 1980 Madonna, Gilroy and Gilroy’s brother Ed formed their own band, the Breakfast Club, so named for their habit of rehearsing through the night and getting a dawn meal at a local Italian diner. After a few months of solidifying their act they started playing downtown clubs, but Madonna’s time behind the drum kit would be short-lived. During a gig at the legendary CBGB, Madonna longed to get out front like her idol, Debbie Harry. “I begged them to let me sing a song and play guitar,” she remembered. “That microphone position was looking more and more inviting.” Soon she was competing with the Gilroys for vocal parts, later admitting that her friends “had created a monster. I was always thinking in my mind, ‘I want to be a singer in this group, too.’ And they didn’t need another singer.” Lineup changes contributed to the rising tensions, and within a year Madonna ended her musical and romantic relationship with Dan Gilroy.

Eager to form her own band, she recruited drummer Steve Bray, an old boyfriend from her days in Michigan. Together they assembled a group and holed up in a dingy Manhattan rehearsal space to fine-tune their material. First they called themselves the Millionaires, then Modern Dance before finally settling on Emmy (sometimes called “Emmy and the Emmys”), Madonna’s nickname. In late November 1980 they recorded a studio demo tape consisting of four tracks: “(I Like) Love for Tender,” “No Time for Love,” “Bells Ringing” and “Drowning.” Madonna assumed the role of a hard-rocking front woman in the Pat Benatar tradition, with some Lower East Side punk thrown in for good measure. “She was playing really raucous rock & roll, really influenced by the Pretenders and the Police,” Bray told Rolling Stone. “She used to really belt. If we’d found that right guitar player, I think that’s when things would have taken off … but there are so many horrible guitar players in New York, and we seemed to get them all.”

Emmy was not to last, but Madonna’s creative partnership with Bray would endure as she set about building herself as a solo artist. Together they wrote songs, including “Everybody” and “Into the Groove,” that would propel her to superstardom, as well as future smashes “True Blue” and “Express Yourself.” 

25 Fascinating Early Bands of Future Music Legends

Eddie Vedder’s Eighties Alt-Rock Band Bad Radio

When he wasn’t working graveyard shifts as a hotel security guard or a gas-station attendant, young Eddie Vedder could often be found at clubs across the San Diego area, tape recorder in hand, adding to his formidable collection of bootlegs. The avid music fan had no outlet for his own compositions until 1986, when he answered an ad in the San Diego Reader for a band in search of a new lead singer. Bad Radio had initially been influenced by New Wave bands like Duran Duran, but they hoped a new frontman would push them into a new alt-rock direction. Pleased with Vedder’s homemade demo, a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” they called him in for a live audition. Three singers showed up; Vedder got the gig.

His voice had yet to acquire its singular husky resonance – and his stage fright was so severe that he reportedly wore blacked-out goggles during his first performance – but the Vedder-fronted outfit soon attracted a following with their funk-tinged rock reminiscent more of the Red Hot Chili Peppers than any of the singer’s grunge anthems to come. On top of his raw vocal talent, his new bandmates were impressed by Vedder’s collection of original material, which included an early version of the future Pearl Jam classic, “Better Man.” They never recorded it in the studio, but by 1989 the band managed to produce two tapes: Tower Records Demo (named for the record chain where it was sold) and What the Funk – the latter funded by winning a battle of the bands on San Diego’s 91X radio station.

Propelled by a relentless drive that could register as overbearing to his fellow bandmates, Vedder acquired a reputation as the fiercest hustler on the San Diego scene. In addition to writing the bulk of the music, booking the shows, and hawking their tapes to local radio stations, he designed cassette inserts, Xeroxed posters and networked with every promoter he came across. Still, he remained frustrated by their lack of progress. “We’d win ‘battle of the bands’ on intensity alone, but it was coming from me,” he told Rolling Stone in 1996. “I couldn’t get anybody else to give up their fucking bullshit.” The disagreements began to grow more serious and Vedder took the band to task for perceived laziness. “We got in fistfights, with me telling them they needed to work harder.” In February 1990, Vedder left the band for good. “We were on a different level,” bassist Dave Silva later admitted. “He had already surpassed us in terms of dedicating his whole life to music.” 

25 Fascinating Early Bands of Future Music Legends

Billy Joel’s Wild Heavy-Metal Duo Attila

Billy Joel and drummer Jon Small had spent the mid-Sixties playing together in a hard-working Long Island outfit called the Hassles. The band had released two LPs on United Artists showcasing their talent as purveyors of blue-eyed soul on the order of the Young Rascals and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, but by the end of the decade both Joel and Small wanted to make something weightier. “We wanted to be a heavy band and we decided we were going to get heavy … somehow,” Joel told biographer Fred Schruers. 

Splitting from their longtime band in 1969, the pair holed up in the basement of Small’s parents’ wallpaper store in Syosett, New York to build a Frankenstein’s monster of amplification. Braving the occasional electric shock, they rigged Joel’s Hammond organ into a Marshall stack. “I got a wah-wah pedal so I could wow-wow-ee-oe like Jimi [Hendrix] and added a distortion pedal, which I figured would double the mangled noise we were already making. Then we just pinned the volume to the wall.” Using just drums, keyboards and Joel’s vocals, they set about cooking a sickly sonic stew that culled rancid bits of Iron Butterfly, Vanilla Fudge, the Doors and Led Zeppelin at their most indulgent.

Believing themselves to be “unstoppable,” they played the results to manager Irwin Mazur. Even though he privately thought the music was “the worst crap I ever heard in my life,” he managed to get them a $50,000 advance from Epic Records – and an epic record it would be. “We were going to destroy the world with amplification,” Joel told Dan Neer in 1985. “We had titles like ‘Godzilla,’ ‘March of the Huns,’ ‘Brain Invasion.’ A lot of people think [I] just came out of the piano bar. …” Doubling down on the whole death and destruction motif, they named the project Attila. “If you’re going to assault the rock world and crush it under ten Marshall amps, wouldn’t Attila the Hun, who plundered Italy and Gaul and slaughtered quite a few innocents along the way, work as a role model?”

Released in July 1970, the album was, by Joel’s estimation, “a colossal failure” that he later dismissed as “psychedelic bullshit.” The souped-up amplification that they had so richly prized proved to be their undoing during their handful of gigs, driving the audience away. “People went fleeing from the place. We were so loud. You could see blood coming out of people’s ears,” Joel said in a 2012 interview with Alec Baldwin on NPR. “It was just horrible. Thank God it didn’t happen because I would’ve screamed myself right out of the business.”

Their partnership ended in a spectacularly dramatic fashion when it was revealed that Joel was having an affair with Small’s wife, Elizabeth Weber. Joel, believing the couple was on the verge of a split, felt that his bandmate was aware of his affections – but the discovery caught Small off-guard and led to a physical altercation. Weber promptly left them both, moving out of the communal home they shared. Despondent, Joel took an overdose of sleeping pills. His body was discovered by Small and taken to a nearby ER to have his stomach pumped. He would be back in the hospital within weeks after downing a bottle of Old English Scratch Cover. “I remember sitting in a chair waiting to die,” he said later. “I thought, I’ll sit in this chair and I’ll die here. I ended up sitting there, polishing my mother’s furniture by farting a lot.”

Joel eventually sought help for his depression, and survived to forge a new chapter in his artistry. “I decided I no longer want[ed] to be a rock and roll star. I got that out of my system. I was about 19 or 20. I want to write songs now,” he said. Many of the songs he wrote – including “She’s Always a Woman to Me” and “Just the Way You Are” – were inspired by Weber, whom he married (and divorced). 

25 Fascinating Early Bands of Future Music Legends

Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham’s Psychedelic Rock Band Fritz

Stevie Nicks was just a teenager when she first made music with classmate Lindsey Buckingham in 1966. “I was a senior in high school and Lindsey was a junior,” she recalled in a 1981 interview with The Source. “And we went to a Young Life meeting – which was a religious meeting that simply got you out of the house on Wednesday nights – and he was there and I was there and we sat down and played ‘California Dreamin’.’ I thought he was a darling.” Around the same period, Buckingham started performing in a group initially known by the unwieldy name of “The Fritz Rabyne Memorial Band.” Later shortened just to “Fritz,” they played talent shows at their alma mater, Menlo-Atherton High School, as well as student dances and family parties across suburban San Jose. When their lead singer dropped out, Buckingham remembered his brief Young Life duet two years earlier. “He called me up and asked if I wanted to be in a band,” Nicks remembered. “And so, I was in this band with him for three and a half years – a band called Fritz.”

Nicks, who had been writing more folk-oriented songs, initially found it jarring to be in this band of novice psychedelic warriors. Keyboardist Javier Pacheo penned most of the material, delivering bold and moody titles like “Empty Shell,” “Eulogy,” “Existentialist” and “Crying Time.” Nicks’ country bent, born out of her childhood in the Southwest, helped broaden the band’s sound. Soon she was contributing originals of her own, including “Funny Kind of Love” and “Where Was I.” Several years into her tenure, a student newspaper at Cañada College described Fritz as playing “quite a variety of music, mainly rock with no definite style. They play all types of rock, including country, folk rock and hard rock.” A demo cut at San Mateo’s Action Recorders in late 1968 offers a clear glimpse of their chameleonic abilities.

The group’s reputation continued to grow, and Nicks began balancing her speech communication courses at San Jose State with concerts supporting rock superstars including Santana, the Steve Miller Band, the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, and Chicago. “We opened up for all of these really big bands. We played up and down the Peninsula to Monterey and came down through the other side of San Francisco and all the way to Sacramento,” she said in a 1997 interview with BAM magazine. “Every Friday and Saturday we opened almost every big rock show that came through the area.” The chance to watch Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix at close range would have a marked impact on her own performance style. “I saw him play once,” she said of Hendrix, “and I remember thinking, ‘I want to wear white fringe. I want to tie a beautiful scarf in my hair.”

Nicks and Buckingham had a platonic relationship throughout their time in Fritz, but as the group started to splinter they were drawn together by their mutual ambition – and budding romance. By 1971 they made the painful decision to head to Los Angeles and try to make it as a duo. “We had to tell these other three guys – that we loved – that we were going to break up the band, and that Lindsey and I were going to Los Angeles. It was very difficult.”

Not long after their arrival they began working with Keith Olsen, an engineer and producer at the famed Sound City Studios, and by 1973 they had completed their debut, Buckingham Nicks. Despite positive reviews, the record bombed upon release, and their deal with Polydor Records evaporated. For a time Nicks believed her dreams of stardom had also gone up in smoke. “Up until that point I had been thinking of quitting it all and going back to school because I was sick of being miserable and I hate being poor,” she told The Island Ear in 1994. “When they [Polydor] dropped that record, we were completely depressed. Then three months later Mick Fleetwood called.”

25 Fascinating Early Bands of Future Music Legends

Simon & Garfunkel’s Teen Harmony Duo Tom & Jerry

A decade before achieving worldwide fame under their own names, high school friends Paul Simon and Artie Garfunkel scored a minor chart entry in 1957 with a self-penned song called “Hey Schoolgirl.” The tune’s crippling debt to Everly Brothers was no accident – they inadvertently wrote the song one afternoon while struggling to recall the words to the Everlys’ “Hey Doll Baby.” The tune was catchy enough to become a favorite at early gigs across their home borough of Queens, and the enterprising Simon soon managed to convince promoter Sid Prosen to sign them to his label, Big Records. Fearing that their given names were “too ethnic-sounding” for showbiz, they took pseudonyms. Garfunkel chose “Tom Graph,” in honor of his passion for mathematics, while Simon dubbed himself “Jerry Landis,” the surname borrowed from his then-girlfriend. Together their act became known as “Tom & Jerry.”

“Hey Schoolgirl,” their debut single, was released in November 1957, backed by another original, “Dancin’ Wild.” Namedropped in the pages of Variety, played on DJ Alan Freed’s influential radio show, and even performed on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, the song moved over 100,000 copies, enough to bring it to a respectable Number 49 on the Billboard charts. “You can’t imagine what it was like having a hit record at 16,” Simon said later. “It made me a neighborhood hero.” Garkfunkel, meanwhile, was less confortable with his new role as a burgeoning teen idol. “It was all over my head,” he recalled in Marc Eliot’s Paul Simon: A Life. “I never would have done it if Paul hadn’t pulled me along. I was too fearful of the competitive, adult world of rock ‘n’ roll.” For a time he stepped back from the industry and set his sights on Columbia University. Simon, meanwhile, had other plans. Having quietly signed a solo deal around the same time Tom & Jerry signed to the label, he began recording material under the name True Taylor. The name would prove ironic: Garfunkel took it as the ultimate treachery when he learned of Simon’s solo alter ego.

Tom & Jerry ultimately went on to release a handful of pop singles, including “Our Song,” “I’m Lonesome” (1959), “I’ll Drown in My Tears” (1961) and “Surrender, Please, Surrender” (1962), before deciding to part company for a time. They would eventually reunite in the middle of the decade under their most famous moniker, but the True Taylor incident sewed the seeds of distrust and resentment that would underscore their relationship for the rest of their lives. 

25 Fascinating Early Bands of Future Music Legends

Dave Grohl’s Adolescent Punk Band Dain Bramage

In 1984, 15-year-old Dave Grohl was playing guitar in a band called Freak Baby while attending a suburban Washington, D.C., high school. Six months into his tenure, they decided to rethink their lineup after witnessing Grohl’s fury behind the drum kit during a post-practice jam session. With Grohl now the permanent stickman, the newly rechristened Mission Impossible served as a support act for the likes of Fugazi and Troublefunk. “We were living our hardcore dream,” Grohl later recalled of the period, during which time he made his recording debut on a split EP with the band Lunch Meat.

They adopted the name Fast before finally imploding in 1985 when some of the elder members left for college. Grohl and Mission Impossible bassist Dave Smith recruited singer/guitarist Reuben Radding to become the punk power trio Dain Bramage – the name apparently borrowed from an SNL sketch about an oft-tackled football player. After coalescing in Grohl’s mother Virginia’s living room, they played their first show that December at the Lake Braddock Community Center in Burke, Virginia. Video of the show (seen above) was taken by Grohl’s mom.

Soon after their live debut, the young band recorded a five-song demo at producer Barrett Jones’ Laundry Room Studios, including the titles “In the Dark,” “Cheyenne,” “Watching It Bake, “Space Cat” and “Bend.” They would return the following year, laying down nine more songs, including a version of “We’re An American Band” by Grand Funk Railroad. “We were usually experimenting with classic-rock clichés, in a noisy, punk rock kind of way,” Grohl explained. In the summer of 1986, Dain Bramage crammed into the RK-1 Recording Studio outside of Annapolis to make their only album, I Scream Not Coming Down.

Around the time it was released the following year, Grohl learned that local legends, Scream – “The coolest hardcore band in Washington D.C.,” he later said – were looking for a new drummer. Just 17 in March 1987, he lied about his age and convinced brothers Peter and Franz Stahl to let him audition. Actually getting the gig was perhaps the last thing on his mind. “I thought I’d try out just to tell my friends that I jammed with Scream,” he admitted later. When he was ultimately offered the job, the Scream super fan was reluctant to leave his friends in Dain Bramage and initially turned them down, but the opportunity proved too good to pass up. He quit his old band – and high school – to head out on the road, and Dain Bramage folded not longer after. “After you’ve spent a couple years with Dave Grohl as your drummer it’s easy to feel like no other drummer exists,” Radding reflected. 

25 Fascinating Early Bands of Future Music Legends

Robert Plant and John Bonham’s Psychedelic Sixties Outfit Band of Joy

As a young blues belter growing up outside of Birmingham, Robert Plant first played with Led Zeppelin’s future percussion powerhouse in 1965 during their tenure in a short-lived band known as the Crawling King Snakes. “We grew up around the same things, and dated the same women,” Plant said of his early impressions of John Bonham. “John was very colorful to be around. We were both proud owners of unbelievably huge egos.” Bonham soon moved on to play in a number of groups around the English Midlands (Steve Brett and the Mavericks, the Way of Life, and the Nicky James Movement among them) while earning money by day carrying bricks at construction sites. Plant departed the Crawling King Snakes as well, making his recording debut in 1966 with a band called Listen before releasing two further singles under his own name on CBS. “I’d been singing with a lot of groups and I’d written a few songs about myself that didn’t really have the right amount of balls behind them that they should have. It really just went around in circles until I formed the first Band of Joy.”

It would be the first of three Band of Joys. The original incarnation suffered an acrimonious split due to a management conflict, and Plant’s attempt to form a rival Band of Joy failed to get off the ground. The third time proved the charm and Band of Joy Mark III played in local clubs and dance halls across the industrial West Midlands. While their soulful tunes were standard mod fare, their appearance was something else entirely, sharing more in common with West Coast psychedelic groups. One of the first bands in the area to boast a light show, they regularly appeared onstage in face paint, decked out in hippie-chic kaftans, beads and bells. By 1967, Plant asked Bonham if he wanted to throw in with this new outfit. “It was debatable whether he’d join because it was a long way to go and pick him up, and we didn’t know whether we would have the petrol money to get over to Redditch and back! We always laugh about that,” Plant recalled. “It turned out to be a really good group. It was a combination of what we wrote ourselves, which wasn’t incredible, and re-arrangements of things like [Jefferson Airplane’s] ‘She Has Funny Cars’ and ‘Plastic Fantastic Lover.'”

Having secured regular gigs at hip London underground venues like Middle Earth and the Marque Club, Band of Joy booked session time in Regent Sound Studios to record demos. The results were two covers, “Hey Joe” and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” and the originals “Adriatic Sea View” and “Memory Lane” – the latter written by Plant and Bonham about a street in their native West Bromwich. But the tape failed to garner any industry interest, and their low performance fees were an enormous strain on the group. By the summer of 1968, Plant accepted an offer to tour as a backing musician with visiting American singer Tim Rose, and Band of Joy folded … for a time. Between 1977 and 1983, the group carried on minus Plant, who revived the name himself in 2010 for a new album. 

25 Fascinating Early Bands of Future Music Legends

Radiohead Members’ Sax-Driven Collective On a Friday

When the future members of Radiohead first came together as classmates at Oxfordshire’s Abingdon School in 1985, they were bonded by pure, unbridled musical passion rather than virtuosic ability. “We were people who picked up their respective instruments because we wanted to play music together, rather than just because we wanted to play that particular instrument,” Colin Greenwood told The Irish Times in 2001. “So it was more of a collective angle, and if you could contribute by having someone else play your instrument, then that was really cool.” They gathered to rehearse on Friday afternoons in the school’s music room, leading to the group’s de facto name: On a Friday.

Though gigs were few and far between during their time at Abingdon, several demos from the period survive. The earliest is a 4-track tape from 1986, reportedly predating the inclusion of Colin’s younger brother Jonny. Songs like “Fragile Friend,” “Girl (in the Purple Dress),” “Everybody Knows” and “Fat Girl” recall a diverse list of influences including the Smiths, Sonic Youth, the Pixies and also every Eighties English New Wave band with gratuitous saxophone solos. Even more bizarre for a band famous for their overcast ruminations, a 1988 demo includes the ludicrously upbeat “Happy Song,” which is given an extra dose of pep with the inclusion of a marimba.

After the members graduated from Abingdon in 1987, On a Friday was effectively put on hiatus while the group – minus the junior Greenwood – attended university. For nearly four years they only got together on rare weekends and holidays. In the summer of 1991, the friends reconvened and threw themselves into music on a full-time basis. They rented a house together in Oxford and perfected their new material at the nearby Jericho Tavern, which would become their local home base. “We all wore black and played very loud, because we thought that’s what you had to do,” Colin later said of these early gigs. It was at one of their Jericho performances that they first drew the attention of Chris Hufford and Bryce Edge. The management duo produced a professional demo tape – including future Radiohead songs “You,” “Thinking About You” and “Prove Yourself” – which earned them a six-album recording contract with EMI in 1992. At the label’s insistence, they dropped the On a Friday moniker, which Thom Yorke retrospectively called “the worst band name ever.” In its place, they took inspiration from an obscure 1986 song by the Talking Heads: “Radio Head.” 

25 Fascinating Early Bands of Future Music Legends

David Bowie’s Sixties Mod Group the Lower Third

The Lower Third, a mod combo hailing from the London suburb of Margate, was seeking a new frontman in the spring of 1965 when an 18-year-old Davy Jones came to audition. Having honed his stagecraft with primitive R&B bands like the Konrads, the King Bees, and the Mannish Boys during the previous year, the future David Bowie belted Little Richard standards, even blasting solos on a saxophone he helpfully brought along. He got the job, besting his friend – and future Small Faces shouter – Steve Marriott. “We liked the stuff he was doing,” the band’s guitarist Denis Taylor later told author Marc Spitz, “and he really started to develop an image for us, as well.”

Davy Jones and the Lower Third played their first gig together that April, and during the next few months they shuttled back and forth to gigs in an old diesel-fueled ambulance. Their music was potent and raw – sometimes too raw. “We were too loud onstage,” Bowie later reflected. “We used feedback and sounds and didn’t play any melodies. We just pulverized the sound, which was loosely based on Tamla Motown. We had an ardent following of about a hundred mods but when we played out of London we were booed right off the stage. We weren’t very good.” The group took the bulk of their inspiration from blues heroes like John Lee Hooker (“We tried to adapt his stuff to the big beat – never terribly successfully.”), but Bowie tried his best to inject some original material to the group. “I didn’t know how