A Manic History of Outsider Musicians
    • WEDNESDAY, MAY 04, 2016

    • Posted by: Mike Montemarano

    Since the 1970's, we've seen some of the strangest art forms, totally disconnected from anything considered mainstream and often created by individuals living with mental illness, heavy drug use and polarizing mental states. These unique and often, deeply troubled artists, have come to be categorized under the umbrella of the outsider movement.

    The outsider movement has certainly taken many forms within the music world, inspiring some of the most innovative and critically acclaimed albums to date. A record like Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Airplane Over The Sea incorporates tons of abstract and crazy soundscapes into their mix of folk, and pretty much any no wave band that one can name.

    Here's a look at some notable artists who operated on an entirely different wavelength than the rest of the music community by courageously channeling their psychological struggles into their music.

    Daniel Johnston

    Daniel Johnston began a prolific career as an artist who recorded all of his music at home and eventually received critical acclaim after his work began getting traction in Austin, Texas' music scene. His songs can go from a folk ballad to a spacey shit storm of synths, with ramblings that seem transcendent and emotional at times. His music came from a place of addiction and heavy drugs while also being untreated for later-diagnosed schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. There's something incredibly endearing about his earnestness in more memorable tracks, as he attempts to achieve mental clarity. Through all of his chaos, Johnston has influenced countless musicians, receiving commendations from David Bowie among others who saw the beauty in his mayhem. Here's a standout collaboration between Johnston and Glen Hansard.

    Captain Beefheart

    While the sixties certainly saw some weird psychedelic stuff that trickled down into mainstream rock and roll, there was also avant-garde, fringe stuff going on by the hippiest hippies that were special in its way. Captain Beefheart in his various ensembles incorporated some of the haziest and technically challenging psychedelic moments within the movement. He always had a wild and unhinged presence that few could replicate the same way.

    Frank Zappa

    It's impossible to argue that Frank Zappa is anything short of the most dedicated rock musician of all time. Throughout his career, he cranked out 62 full-length albums and was both a dark comedian and a musical visionary. With every release he had; his complex mind operated at a creative level that few other rock musicians could keep up with.

    All of Zappa's music was self-produced, and although electronic music was yet to become a thing, he still incorporated progressive elements into rock, jazz, or even classical compositions. It's impossible to compare Zappa to any other artist because of the musical innovations he was capable of. His entire existence was devoted to non-stop, daily songwriting. Unlike many musicians in the avant-garde movement, Zappa was surrounded by hippies who used psychedelics but ridiculed hippie culture more than anything else.

    Giles Corey

    What began as a scrapbook series of acoustic songs written by a member of Have a Nice Life, Dan Barrett, became a concept album designed as a way to tap into the emotions he felt following a suicide attempt. Corey began capturing human suffering and pain in a series of nine songs, which he intended for listeners to hear and digest with a 150-page book Barrett wrote. The format of the release is strange enough in and of itself, delving into fictions about a bizarre and twisted cult that tries to make contact with the afterlife. The moments of hope within the album seem to transcend even the darkest points, and the album is full of crazy and elaborate instrumentals. There are bizarre transition tracks, like "The Haunting Presence, in which faux documentarian features strange radio frequencies channeling voices of ghosts. This album comes from a place of mental agony and captures those emotions in an artfully romanticized way.

    The Shaggs

    While Frank Zappa described the Shaggs as being "better than the Beatles, their reception as a group has been one of the most heated and controversial. Wherever there are notes of more disciplined musicianship shaped by technical standards of rock music, their music is often interrupted by the percussion being on a totally different time signature than the rest of the band, giving their sound an incredibly broken and disoriented feel. The band is comprised of three sisters who were forced by their father to make music despite their desires not to, and the band was created after their fortune-telling mother made some sort of "prophecy that her three daughters would form a rock band. As a band that came from such a questionable and saddening circumstance, their music is packed with moments that simply feel "wrong on first listen. Their vocalist delves into an uncanny valley sort of sound, and their lyrics seem to come from an anxious, urgent place and reflect an inability to reconcile with the world.


    Jandek is a musical project by Sterling Richard Smith, whose presence has been one of the most reclusive and hardest musicians to understand. In unconventional ways, he's able to use faulty tones and botched guitars to create certain emotional elements within his music. Aside from having written seven novels, which he burned before being published, any trace of his existence seems to raise more questions than answers. His music often seems to be coming from a place of creativity and total paranoia.

    Syd Barrett

    After leaving Pink Floyd, Barrett's psychedelic folk music stayed pretty consistent in its sound, however, the lyrics reflected the severity of his mental state especially when it came to how he functioned within the band. In many ways, Barrett's catalog captures his descent into drug-induced madness.

    Jef Whitehead

    Whitehead's music career stems from a relatively solitary existence, in which he self-produced incredibly depressive metal music, wallowing in dark atmospheric sounds and incomprehensible screaming. In a documentary entitled, "One Man Metal, he opens up about his mental condition and describes a room in his former house where he "tried to end [his] own life." His music has some incredibly disturbing moments amid the surprisingly melodic and clean-sounding guitars, which are often interrupted by guttural, strangled voices.

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