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Five for Friday: Before They Were Famous

Every legend has an origin story. U2's Bono was in bands called Feedback and the Hype. Mick Jones of the Clash played in a group named the London S.S. And, of course, Jimmy Page earned his stripes as a pivotal member of the Yardbirds. While some of these acts are lost to history – or only exist on hard-to-find demo tapes – plenty of illuminating early recordings from rock greats remain officially available. This week, thanks to a massive set exploring the first works of Jerry Garcia, fans can see the skeleton of what would become the Grateful Dead. In that spirit, we look at the music of five artists before they were famous.

Jerry Garcia
One doesn't have to be a Deadhead to know the band that would ultimately morph into the Grateful Dead was known first as the Warlocks. An even more key component of the Dead's sound – namely, Jerry Garcia and the mesh of Americana stylings that marked his idiosyncratic guitar playing – gets explored on the expansive new set Before the Dead, presented as either a four-CD or five-LP collection. The songs, spanning 1961 to 1964, show Garcia and his mates – sometimes billed as the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers, the Wildwood Boys, and other colorful monikers – perusing the history of American folk, bluegrass, and country. Early coffeehouse recordings like "Katie Cruel," as well as astute takes on such tracks as Charlie Monroe's "Rosa Lee McFall," reveal Garcia's fast-evolving finger-picking skills. Even if Deadheads have heard some of these songs before, they likely haven't experienced them in such pristine fidelity, and definitely not in such a comprehensive a setting.

The 101ers
Just as the 101ers were establishing themselves on the London pub circuit, leader Joe Strummer bolted, joining what would eventually become the Clash. According to punk-rock myth, Strummer – then known as John "Woody" Mellor – started to become dissatisfied with the 101ers after the latter opened for the Sex Pistols. He thought Johnny Rotten and company's brazen attitude and accelerated, confrontational arrangements represented the future. But before Strummer quit, the 101ers managed to record a batch of tunes, many of which can be found on a mid-2000s re-release of Elgin Avenue Breakdown. The music has its charms, featuring a rough-around-the-edges tipsiness and choruses designed for swigging pints. If the band had stuck around, it's not hard to envision the 101ers resembling the group seen in 1991 film The Commitments. But the primary reason to listen to the 101ers owes to Strummer, whose scratchy, wild, and unpredictable vocals cry out to be let loose. The Clash knew better than to try and tame them.

Few artists return to celebrate their roots, preferring to leave their pre-fame days outside the confines of YouTube and social media. Tom Petty, however, fully embraced his beginnings. He reformed his pre-Heartbreakers band Mudcrutch to release an album in 2008. While it came more than three decades after the group's genesis, and long after Petty and the Heartbreakers enjoyed continued success, Mudcrutch let Petty and pals get a little looser – and a little more country – while illustrating the benefits of working under a name without any audience expectations. Heartbreakers fans likely found plenty to enjoy. In addition to Petty, the band comprised familiar players such as Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench. The revamped edition of Mudcrutch also allowed Petty to fade into the background as his mates tried to recapture the glory of being in a rootsy garage band.

Bruce Springsteen
For Bruce Springsteen fans, the past two years have offered plenty of opportunities to reflect. Springsteen's Born to Run autobiography proved the artist is not only a master lyricist, but possesses storytelling skills that carry over to longform non-fiction. Springsteen's Broadway show continues to bring the book to life, and the companion album Chapter and Verse illuminates key moments from the book and the singer's life. It also provides a rare glimpse of Springsteen before he became known as the Boss. The collection contains two songs from the Castiles, a band formed when Springsteen was a teen, as well as his pre-E Street Band called Steel Mill. The former sound scrappy, loud, and sloppy – more about the joy of performance than anything – but the latter's "He's Guilty (The Judge Song)" delivers thrills by way of a bluesy kick and a thick guitar foundation.

Green River
Little known outside of Seattle, Green River – sludgy, loud, and fast – foretold much of what would eventually become known as alt-rock. Key Green River members (most famously, Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard) would later join the ranks of Mother Love Bone and Pearl Jam. What the band lacks in finesse, it more than makes up for it in legend. Green River stood at the forefront of a scene that later included Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, the Melvins, Nirvana, and more. Additionally, Green River offered local label Sub Pop an entry into the burgeoning music community. The quintet's 1988 full-length debut Rehab Doll captures the tensions that would define grunge: the ferociousness of punk rock contrasting with the heaviness of metal.

May 11, 2018

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