I brung this over from Facebook, because it became apparent that I would go long on this.
This is an interesting digression. Because, as we all get older, the people in the bands we love tend to die. Now, loss of Kurt Cobain obviously meant Nirvana was no more, as he was singer and principal songwriter. But for a band like the Mekons, every song is credited to Mekons and they are legendary for mixing and matching band members not only over time, but over a year. (They leave themselves an out, in that all people who have performed with the band are Mekons or Deputy Mekons, forever and anon and, as Jon Langford once said “The only way out of the Mekons is in a box”. Maybe not so funny now that people are actually taking that exit…)
But here’s where it gets to the nub for me. Because, you know, before you knew the band they changed members. Pretty regularly. It is, in fact, very rare that bands maintain any kind of band roster, even after they get a recording contract. For instance, many people will not know that Steve Perry was not an original member of Journey.
Also, as far as I am concerned, kicking Dennis DeYoung out of Styx was simply a reasonable use of a fortuitous occurrence to being able to play on stage without wearing robot costumes EVER AGAIN….
The examples are Numerous. The Who went on without Keith Moon, but some would say they were never the same. I have personally seen Springsteen with and without the Big Man, and the show without was better (although not because of the change, admittedly). REM soldiered on without Bill Berry, but the spark seemed missing. Pink Floyd are a completely singular case, as they seem to need to discard primary members on a regular basis…
Elvis Costello and ELO had a singular driving personality, but they benefitted from band consistency, but it did not turn out to be crucial Red Hot Chili Peppers had to deal with rotating drug use/ guitarist flaking, but they seemed to go on just fine; the time I saw them was post-Hillel and they were pretty fucking awesome. The Pretenders stopped pretending and just have a band backing up Chrissie at this point.
The English Beat are one of the worst, with Dave Wakeling leading a band of much younger people through the songs he wrote and sang when he was much younger. But you know what? The songs are the same….
And that, to me is where the dividing line happens. When the band has new members, do they move on and try to move into new music, or is it a simple desire to recapture past glory and serve the nostalgic impulses that people will pay money for? Because, like I said, bands change members all the time while they are building audience and writing material. So, after they get famous, what is wrong with them continuing to do so? Except, of course, for the fact than no one comes out to their shows to hear new music. Mick Jagger once said in an interview that “No one wants to hear your new songs”. To which, David Bowie SHOULD have replied “Well, maybe they don’t want to hear YOUR new songs”…
A long-lived band has that tough row to hoe. I can see how it is much easier to just go into the nostalgia circuit (hell, I just went to see X play from their first four albums. I saw Matthew Sweet do Girlfriend. I am Guilty).
So I am going to talk about two bands I am most familiar with and you know who I am going to say. Blue Oyster Cult and Mekons. Come on, you knew where this was going.
Blue Oyster Cult was existing in a couple of different incarnation in the late 60s and early 70s, mainly revolving around Buck Dharma and the Bouchard brothers. Their early stuff was more psychedelia filtered through garage rock; but adding Menacing presence (although oddly short) Eric Bloom and sharing songwriting with Sandy Pearlman took them in a darker tone. Yes, they spent the 70s with a single lineup. But when band members started dying, Bloom and Buck kept on, tapping some great musicians and continuing to record albums resulting in great songs that you never heard like “Dance On Stilts” and “Harvest Moon” which should have been hits.
Look, here is a timeline of band members:
That is what every band’s life looks like.
At this point I will not even get into the Mekons band life, which is twisted even by that standard. So here’s what I have to say.
I really respect bands who continue to work past their supposed “high point” by working hard and writing new music (Hello, Cheap Trick!”) and I am the guy out there cheering for your new songs, because new music is the fuel I use to keep moving….
But there are bands that helped make us the people we are today, and sometimes the best you can do is to see them in some weird modern incarnation. I mean, for me, seeing the Beach Boys without Brian Wilson would be meaningless, but many people like it. Of course, none of them want to hear any new songs, but want to hear a greatest hits compilation . This is where I should badmouth them, but I saw the Police reunion tour (and Elvis Costello, opening, with vital new music, was SO MUCH BETTER but that is me).
I have seen Styx several times, and I think they are better without Dennis DeYoung. I saw Blue Oyster Cult in various levels of original members, and with one notable exception, they were always great. I have never seen Cheap Trick in a any way not be fantastic. But there are tribute bands, that are working the circuit to compensate for bands that no longer perform. I have been a great fan of Chicago’s Think Floyd, who I have seen prefer an entire Wall show. Toronto’s Musical Box performs full theatrical performances of Genesis, true to their performances in the 70s including costumes. I have seen them do Lamb Lies Down on Broadway three times.
Sometimes bands pull it together for a cash-in. The Violent Femmes are way guilty of this (although once they did it in a Tsunami benefit; for which we have a signed band-aid poster).
Because here: it’s about the music. Its about what it means to you. The music happened, once upon a time. Sometimes, people perform it for you. Some of them may have been part of the original band, some may have not. If you love classical music, no one involved is still alive… But enjoy it or not, based on the skill of the musicians involved….and then, at the end, say wasn’t that the best?