Neil Spencer on a film season showcasing the work of pop's oddballs

A new film season showcases the work of pop's oddballs, from Björk to Captain Beefheart - characters we should treasure, says Neil Spencer

What makes a pop musician a maverick? Clothes? Haircut? An unusual taste in venues? A dumb refusal to quit? Or even their music? It's a question raised by Pop Mavericks, a new season at London's Barbican cinema. Included are recent documentaries on Dean Reed, a Californian singer who defected to East Germany to become the 'Red Elvis'; UK indie trailblazers the Dolly Mixtures and Felt; and Sweden's Namelosers and Gonks, whose claim to fame is that they supported the Stones on their 1965 visit to Malmo.

Assembled by cinephile Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne, the movies are a reminder that pop is a natural home for eccentrics, misfits and downright weirdos, not to mention artists touched by genius who are unlikely to make a buck anywhere else.

Gary McFarland arguably falls into the last category. A half-forgotten Sixties jazzer, McFarland wrote both pop jazz (including wordless vocals on Soft Samba) and epic orchestral pieces before his mysterious 1971 death.

For oddball status, though, he doesn't compare with Sun Ra, who claimed to come from Saturn and dressed like a pharaoh.

The age of corporate pop has made such nonconformists an increasingly endangered species. Where hits were once made by visionary producers such as Phil Spector, Joe Meek or Martin Hamnett, now we have Simon Cowell and Pop Idol bland-out. The singular Amy Winehouse is, let's not forget, a product of Fame school, just like Adele. Even the million-selling behemoths of dreary bloke-rock have become less imaginative - it's hard to see Coldplay or Radiohead coming up with a prank like Pink Floyd's flying pig. In this climate, it's appropriate that a group calling themselves the Mavericks play toothless, middle of the road country.

What marks out the true pop maverick? Visual originality helps. It's easy to overlook just how weird a teenage Elvis Presley must have been to sing R&B and dress like a Beale Street pimp in the segregated South of the 1950s. The King's latterday capes and codpieces were pretty bizarre too. Furthermore, Elvis chose his own clothes; PJ Harvey in a pink catsuit might look wild, but she's probably following her stylists's advice. Let's hope Jarvis Cocker, champion of geek chic through his wilderness years, has resisted the temptation to hire a personal shopper now he's a national institution.

The visceral impact of Ian Dury in razor-blade earring and frock coat, Patti Smith in male drag or Björk in candy floss skirt, tribal headdress or swan dress was happily matched by their lyrical and musical originality. Lee Perry and Captain Beefheart are others whose surrealist streak - think 'Cow Thief Skank', 'Bat Chain Puller' and 'Big Eyed Beans From Venus' - finds an echo in modern mavericks like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom. Banhart's electric gypsy looks and psych folk and Newsom's florid harp, helium vocals and faux-naif poetry tick all the boxes of the naturally wayward.

The most important thing, however, is to do your thing regardless of fashion. Moody crooner Scott Walker, northern sourpuss Mark E Smith and even evergreen old buzzard Neil Young have never let commerce or what's in vogue influence their output. Real mavericks just keep on keeping on.

· Pop Mavericks runs at the Barbican, London EC2, 2 Sept-2 Dec


Neil Spencer

The GuardianTramp

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