Ten Solo Artists Who Got Bigger Than Their Bands

British DJ Fatboy Slim makes his return to South Florida this week, with a show at the Fontainebleau’s LIV Nightclub on Saturday. To most U.S. audiences, the DJ — real name Norman Cook — first made his mark with the joyously triumphant, sonically pulverizing 1998 album You've Come a Long Way, Baby, which offered genre-bashing hits such as “Praise You” and “The Rockafeller Skank.” However, Fatboy Slim is just one of Norman Cook’s numerous contributions to music — with bands he was previously in knocking up several hits in his native U.K.

Cook’s first notable success was with the Housemartins, a jangly, breezy four-piece from the north of England. Cook played bass and contributed to the band’s smooth harmonies, creating a sound not that dissimilar to the more heralded Smiths. However, whereas Morrissey and company liked to dwell on the north of England’s grimier corners, the Housemartins’ brand of guitar pop was always a little sunnier. The band’s choreography and knitwear are also of note.

With several hits and a U.K. number-one single under their belts, the Housemartins went their separate ways in the late ‘80s. Cook’s penchant for danceable grooves became more pronounced with his next act, Beats International. Their hit “Dub Be Good to Me” was a number-one smash in the U.K.; its reworking of the bass line from the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton,” interspersed with samples and a distinctly modern beat, fit in nicely with the morphing of dance and rock that was going on in Britain at the time.

It would take a few more acts and a handful of more hits before the transition to Fatboy Slim was complete — but Norman was on his way to his lofty pop-culture perch. He's hardly the only artist who's found his greatest success as a solo artist. Here’s a list of some other acts, with early career incarnations of a disparate sound. Most (unlike Cook’s) are regrettable; some, however, are sorely missed.

Trent Reznor

Before he was providing the soundtrack for ’90s teenagers to slam their bedroom doors across America, Nine Inch Nails’ prophet of doom, Trent Reznor, was a journeyman of several bands of a notably different ilk. Acts such Option 30, Exotic Birds, and Slam Bamboo were less the musclebound industrial rock of Pretty Hate Machine and more the shoulder-padded synth pop of Flock of Seagulls. However, in this clip, Slam Bamboo’s lead singer possesses an asymmetrical perm more frightening than any of Reznor’s leather-clad posturing of Downward Spiral-era NIN. “Closer” never seemed so far away.

Rod Stewart

The catty and clichéd thing to do is to say that Rod Stewart has spent the past 40 years singing crap ballads for bored housewives, while disappearing further and further up his own posterior. However, during his pre-solo days in the Faces, Rod’s lived-in rasp muddled fantastically well with the band’s booze-soaked, sloppy pub rock. They notched a handful of Top 40 hits in the U.K. before Rod, like a spandex-clad Columbus, looked across the Atlantic for further fortunes. The rest is history. Rod’s early/best solo albums still bear the hallmarks of his old band, before he asked America “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” and they unfortunately agreed. Critics decry the lack of authenticity of Rod’s output since, though he continues to sell records by the shedload, ranking him up there with whiskey, tartan, and the deep-fried Snickers bar as Scotland’s greatest gifts to the world. There have been murmurings of a reunion after the band came together to play at Rod’s 70th birthday, so there’s hope for those who yearn for an era when Rod Stewart was any good.


Before Skrillex was providing EDM for frat boys to mosh to, he was Sonny Moore, lead singer of emo/post hardcore act From First to Last. The band’s emotive wailing and thrashing guitars was pretty typical of the genre – which means you either love it or really, really hate it. A ruptured vocal cord meant no more screaming into the mic for Moore, and a shift toward the world of dub-step/electro house ensued. This is perhaps the best career move since Harrison Ford decided to stop being a carpenter and become an actor or Johnny Depp decided to stop being an actor and become a pirate impersonator.

Dr. Dre

Dr. Dre’s contribution to the world of rap is colossal and may never be matched. Gangsta Rap, G-funk, mentor to some of the biggest names in the history of the genre, as well as a successful solo artist in his own right — Dre has done it all. However, early in his career, Dre played with World Class Wreckin Cru — an old-school rap/funk outfit, still clearly suffering from a slight disco hangover. It’s clear that Dre took elements of the sound with him into his later career, though it’s a shame the gold lame suits didn’t make it through the transition to gangsta rap.

Billy Joel

We all do things in our younger years that make us wince later in life. For Billy Joel, the sight or sound of his pre-Piano Man band, Attila, might conjure flashbacks worse than any acid-induced one. Joel and some other guy were a short-lived organ-drum combo whose only album ranks as the worst of all time. It seems the idea was to do with the Hammond what Hendrix had done with the guitar a few years earlier – hence the endless, directionless, tuneless, and utterly joyless meanderings. Clearly Joel is having more fun twiddling with his organ than the record-buying public was. Enough members of ‘60s hippiedom had sobered up to realize what a waste of talent and electricity Attila were, and they split after one album. The cover alone is ridiculous, the band dressed as barbarian Huns in what seems to be a meat locker. If you thought you couldn’t loathe Joel’s music more than you do, you haven’t heard Attila.

Steve Aoki

To some, DJ Steve Aoki is a loudmouth, a holy fool, an egotistical maniac, jumping up and down to his own rhythms. To others, he is pumped-up sonic ringleader, coaxing his crowd into places that they didn't know they wanted to go until they got there. Anyway, the Aoki of yore played music seemingly very at odds with his current career as EDM’s hardest-working DJ – punk thrashings that seem more Anthrax than Aoki. However, it’s frenetic, and the snooze button is sonically smashed — something Aoki now does to rhythms of a different kind and to throbbing mosh pits of a much larger size.

Billy Idol

Before Billy went global with his MTV-endorsed glam punk of the mid-’80s, he was the photogenic face of London punk group Generation X — better-looking than Johnny Rotten or Joe Strummer, even if the music wasn’t as good. Many fans of the band recoiled when Idol mania swept America, feeling that the sneer of old now seemed choreographed and empty, suiting the style-over-substance gloss that epitomized the decade. However, Idol has never taken himself too seriously, and at recent shows he’s been rolling out old Generation X numbers, leaving even the punk purists of yesteryear smiling.

George Michael

The biggest saboteur of George Michael’s career over the past few years has been George Michael himself. Lewd acts in toilets and public parks, possession of drugs, a tendency to careen his car off the road (the last incident resulting in a short spell in jail) – the “Faith” star’s private life is talked about more than his music these days. It's a shame, really, because George has a sumptuous voice and has written more than the odd stellar track or two in his time.

The origins of Michael’s greatness can be seen in the act that made him — Wham! The duo of George Michael and Andrew Ridgley were much more than super-tanned white boys with massive hair and shuttlecocks down their short shorts. Essentially, they created great pop music.

Pop is supposed to be occasionally silly, and the sight of George and especially Andrew bopping goofily to gobbledygook is something from the ’80s that has aged surprisingly well and in many ways provided the template for the slew of boy bands that followed. In truth, the world would be a slightly worse-off place if Wham! had not existed. Keen ears await news of a reunion.

Justin Timberlake

There’s an occasional tendency to go on the charm offensive to vomit worthy levels, but for many, J.T. is the showman of the past ten years. His razzmatazzy pop, grind-provoking R&B, and a falsetto that can cause men and women to spontaneously explode have garnered him millions in sales, Grammys, and national-treasure status (even the critics like him). He, of course, has a respectable acting career now to boot.

All in all, there’s probably more chance of North and South Korea reuniting than his former boy band ’NSync.
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Steve Brennan