Don’t Go Changin’ : Bands & Audiences

"One of your old favourite groups is coming to town. Should you go ?"
 

[This was written in 1992 and published in the now-defunct Blues And Roots Montreal bulletin. Still true today I’d say.]

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The Rolling Stones on the cover of Time magazine, 1989

Let’s say you’re a music fan. One of your favourite groups is coming to town. It’s an old group. Do you go ? Hmmm. Lots of hesitations and questions : the price, the venue, the day of the week, the lateness of the hour, who to go with, and can they still play well ? will they play my favourites ? Say, who’s in the band ?

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Jerry Sorn, Skip Battin, Terry Jones Rodgers, Michael Clarke 1990

This article came about after seeing the Byrds at Cafe Campus in 1992. The original drummer, Michael Clarke, led a band of hired hands through a powerful set of Byrds music and won over a small, skeptical audience. [Byrds’ alumni Skip Battin, though pictured, was not present.] One die-hard Byrds fan told me he didn’t even consider going. It was as if, some said, Ringo put a band together and called it the Beatles. Well, I knew who I was seeing and who I wasn’t seeing and enjoyed the show immensely anyway. It got me thinking though...

Once a band has achieved art and acceptance, so rare a combination of feats, they become heroes to their fans. If, however, what the fans have embraced is tampered with, they feel betrayed. This happens when an artist changes direction—Joni Mitchell’s journey from solo folkie to jazz bandleader comes to mind—or when, especially when, a band changes personnel. After Brian Jones died, Mick Taylor stepped into the Rolling Stones as the new guy, but since 1975, Ron Wood replaced him as the new guy. He’s still the new guy and everybody knows it. When Ringo replaced Pete Best in the Beatles, their Liverpool fans were outraged.

In the story of a great band, a band that creates a legacy, there are certain steps : the players find each other, form a unit, rehearse, create something substantial, achieve success, and then (hopefully) withstand the stresses of success. One stress is to produce new product that lives up to the fans expectations. Few bands survive intact, many fragment, or break up entirely.

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Ronnie Hawkins - words of wisdom

Ronnie Hawkins, the veteran rockabilly who left Arkansas for Canada, is supposed to have said there are three things that hold a band together, and any two will be enough : good friends, good music, good money. The first burst of creativity, energy and musical sense (assuming it’s there to begin with), often lasts no more than about three albums. Of course, some bands make one great album, their first, and never come close afterwards while others take several albums to mature. In any case, a period of confusion often follows this burst. [This happens to entire styles, rockabilly for example, but that’s another story.] Something happens to the friendships, music, and/or money. Confidence is undermined, vision is lost, what was so natural becomes self-conscious. Perhaps an original member departs, a couple of flops follow a huge hit, commercial pressures bend the style, the party lifestyle warps some brains, fame inflates egos, or some controversial incident generates bad publicity. The result is music that tries the loyalty of the fans.

That process can take years, but if time and circumstance permit, another burst of inspiration may arrive. This rejuvenation may come from within, say, from a rest period or the entry of a new key member, or it may be sparked from without : the passage of time favourably reassesses the band’s contribution or their style in general.

If a band had fragmented, there may be a reunion. Whether it’s a full or partial reunion depends on if there are key abstainers or if death has thinned the ranks. If a reunion is attempted, or a band member or two tries to carry on the name of the band with new players, this venture is approached skeptically and under intense scrutiny by the critics and fans. You can’t please all of the people all of the time. If it was a game (it is anyway) it might be called CARRY ON THE BAND. Let’s see who will hold a winning hand.

STATUS AWARDED FOR :

- 1. current high esteem of the band’s legacy or style (bonus points for having created a song now in the collective consciousness, eg. Steppenwolf’s "Born To Be Wild")
- 2. the presence of key members
- 3. the creation of new, vital product that augments their legacy
- 4. satisfying concerts (* see below)
- 5. longevity

STATUS SUBTRACTED FOR :

- 1. current low esteem of the band’s legacy or style (let’s see, what’s now passe ? teenybopper music, self-revealing lyrics, harmony singing, disco, bright colours)
- 2. the absence of key members
- 3. the creation of new, lousy product that tarnishes their legacy, or no new product at all : being "only" a nostalgia act
- 4. unsatisfying concerts
- 5. reforming after having announced a highly publicized farewell (the Who, the Band)

(*) Concert satisfaction is based on :

- 1. recreating signature sounds
- 2. intelligent selection of repertoire. The hits, what you could likely expect, plus choice items known & loved by fans. Intriguing choice of cover tunes a bonus.
- 3. evidence of creative vitality
- 4. strong stage presence
- 5. audience acceptance & pleasure
- 6. invoking the signature vibe. This is optional, as some bands do not appear to have one, or if they do, it’s not known to the general audience. This may include visuals (light shows, vaudeville routines, dancing or characteristic movements by members), a certain emotional climate (peace & love, rapture), audience participation (dancing, singalongs, even taping, T-shirt wearing)

Bands with long histories have various kinds of members. Founding members (FM), present since the band’s inception, have contributed to the band’s sound and momentum. Nearly as important are key members (KM) : musicians or singers who may have joined later but strongly contributed to the band’s legacy, bringing new energy and vision. Legitimate members (LM) may seem less important but they have nonetheless taken part in the band’s activities, contributing to its existence. Obviously, bands that carry on must have at least one FM, KM, or LM to represent the genuine pedigree and have the moral (and legal) right to use of the band’s name. In certain instances, managers have owned the name and assembled an entirely new lineup under the old name. This was the case with the Drifters, and both lineups had hits.

When a band carries on, those not present fall into several categories. Besides those ones that death has absented (D), some people are in a solo career or a newer band and just too famous to be bothered (TFTBB). Others are missing in action (MIA) : they quit or were fired ; some of these are conspicuous in their absence.

Others present, besides FMs, KMs, or LMs, are in yet more categories. In live performance, the gaps in instrumentation or vocal power caused by missing members are filled with hired hands (HH). Also, live sound may be augmented by extra musicians (EM) (horn sections, string players, percussionists, back-up singers) not necessarily representing missing members.

I’ll give some examples of legacy bands I’ve seen. Almost all make use of HH and EM so I’ll not make much note of their presence. After noting the year in which I saw them, I give a rating to indicate my satisfaction level (SL) after seeing the band live :
- 5 (wow, excellent)
- 4 (yes sir, very good)
- 3 (sure, quite decent)
- 2 (no sir, poor)
- 1 (ouch, bad news)

INTACT (OR NEARLY)

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The Moody Blues

What band has survived intact ? Can you name any band with a substantial and important history that still tours and records with all founding, original members still on board ? Neither can I. The closest ones I’ve seen are the Rolling Stones (founded in 1962, seen in 1989, SL : 5) with four FMs and a KM, and the Moody Blues (founded in 1964, seen in 1992, SL : 4) with two FMs, and two KMs who joined in 1966.

ONGOING

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John Kay and Steppenwolf - Kay is second from left

These bands, after breaking up for a while in most cases, have reformed and have carried on releasing albums and generally comporting themselves as bands to be reckoned with. Steppenwolf (founded 1967, seen 1988 and three times since, SL : never less than 4) split a couple of times, and reformed in 1980 as John Kay and Steppenwolf. Kay is an FM, the singer and songwriter. All current members have been in the band at least five years, and have contributed to composing and recording, thus earning them KM status. Santana always has FM Carlos Santana (founded 1968, seen in 1990, SL : 4). Savoy Brown contained the FM guitarist and a KM vocalist (founded 1968, seen 1991, SL : 4). Jethro Tull (founded 1967, seen in 1992, SL : 4) now consists of one FM, two KMs (one joined in 1969, the other in 1979), and two seemingly stable HH. The Allman Brothers’ Band (founded in 1969, seen in 1992, SL : 5) rose again from the ashes in the late ’80s with four FMs ; at least one of the HH has clearly established himself as a KM. Hawkwind (founded 1969, seen in 1991, SL : 4) was down to a trio : can’t tell you who is, was, or isn’t in this band !

REUNION

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Jefferson Airplane’s 1989 reunion album- front and back covers

These bands re-exist for a short term by design or circumstance, and generally release new product. Jefferson Airplane (founded in 1965, seen in 1989, SL : 5 - click here to read my review of that concert) contained four FMs and KM Grace Slick, who joined in 1966. Their 1989 album was cluttered by too many HH. Procol Harum (founded 1967, seen in 1991, SL : 5) included two FMs, both keyboard players. The FM lyricist was on the road with the band and had written material for their 1991 album. The guitarist FM was on the album but not the tour. The FM drummer is D.

TOURING

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The Grass Roots, with original lead singer Rob Grill third from left

Bands that don’t release new product but keep the name alive (and themselves one could suppose) by appearing in concert. The Mamas & Papas (founded in 1965, seen in 1987, SL : 3) had two FMs, both Papas. One HH was the daughter of FM John Phillips. The Grass Roots (founded 1967, seen in 1967 and 1992 : 5) contained only one FM. Buffalo Springfield was founded in 1966. A band called Buffalo Springfield Revisited (seen in 1987, SL : 5 : click for my review of this band in concert], with the original FM bassist gave a powerful and delightful show, though of course Stephen Stills and Neil Young were TFTBB. The Guess Who (founded in 1965, seen in 1987, SL : 3 1/2) still continues under the leadership of the FM bassist. When I saw them they also had the FM drummer in their ranks. Both Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman were TFTBB. The 1992 Byrds are in this category (SL : 4).

CARRYING ON

These bands continue in the same style after their leader has died. After Muddy Waters died, his band carried on as the Legendary Blues Band (seen in 1983, SL : 3) though the lineup has since shifted. Though Bill Haley died in 1981, and his sidekick sax man Rudy Pompilli died in 1976, I saw a band called Bill Haley’s Comets in 1984. They had very tenuous links to the Comets : the lead singer had been a LM— he used to play drums with Haley in his later years. They had secured rights to the name through his estate. The band I saw were incredible on the Haley songs (SL : 5), but only average (SL : 3) on the retro rock used in the middle of each set. The Wailers (seen in 1990, SL : 4) were Bob Marley’s band.
Also in this category are the bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington. The band of Glenn Miller still continues but since he disappeared in 1945, I doubt if anyone who played with Miller is in the band now.

MEMBER (OR SIDEMAN) TAKES CENTRE STAGE

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Hubert Sumlin

This is when a former band member tours as a featured artist with a backup band, but is marketed as representing his old band (or bandleader). Some are : Robbie Kreiger (of the Doors, seen in 1990, SL : 4), Leslie West (of Mountain, seen in 1992, SL : 2), Hubert Sumlin (Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist, seen in 1984 and 1990, SL : 3), and Pinetop Perkins (Muddy Waters’ pianist, seen in 1990, SL : 3). When Eric Burdon (of the Animals, founded 1963) toured with well-known keyboardist Brian Auger (of Trinity and session work) both names were on the bill, though it was Animals material that was in the set list (seen in 1991, SL : 1, yes 1 ! seeing this show was a very painful experience though most of the audience went nuts anyway).

TRIBUTE BANDS

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Randy Hansen

They’re not exactly in the carry on game, but worth mentioning. Sometimes called clone bands, these acts choose play the music of just one band, and sometimes go to great length to look/act the part. Since they are easy to pigeonhole, they are easy to market and attract a definite clientele. All of the tribute bands I’ve seen have been very good : The White (Led Zeppelin), Over the Garden Wall (Genesis), the Blushing Brides (Rolling Stones), the original cast of Beatlemania, Randy Hansen (Jimi Hendrix), and That’ll Be The Day (Buddy Holly).
A special case is the Dead Ringers, basically a Grateful Dead tribute band with the notable difference of including an ex-GD member (keyboard player Tom Constanten who was on several early albums and played with them at Woodstock), and musicians who have performed live and on record with the Dead and its members (seen in 1991 and 1992, SL : 3).

Although I’ve listed just the bands I have seen, there are of course many other bands carrying on. As you can see from my ratings, the satisfaction level is quite high. I attribute this to the stiff competition in the market place. The very survival of a band, especially one having to stand up to comparison with past glories, depends on consistent high calibre production.

My advice ? Go see them.

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The Beach Boys in a later configuration, with Mike Love and Bruce Johnston (front row)

CRAIG MORRISON
is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006