Crosstalk: Are Band Reunions A Waste Of Time?
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Kyle: Noel, if the past few years have proven anything, it's that band break-ups are rarely permanent. Bands whose dissolutions were bitter, hate-filled denouements—Dinosaur Jr., The Police, Pixies, to name the most recent examples—have looked past the copious amounts of shit they talked about each other to reunite. The cynics among us—myself included—typically see these as attempts to finally get the payday that eluded many of them during their salad days. That doesn't mean I oppose them; hell, I understand. Get paid! You busted your ass for long enough.
Still, there's a dignity in staying gone, which is lost on the surviving members of bands like Queen, INXS, and The Doors Of The 21st Century Riders On The Storm, all of whom started up again years after their iconic frontmen died. It's easy to dismiss these as heresy—even though I thought The Doors sucked with Jim Morrison, too—and mercenary cash-ins, but it's hard to argue that reunions are always a bad idea.
There's cachet in going out in your prime, and bands risk sullying their reputations by writing new chapters in their story. I read somewhere that a couple members of the Pixies were opposed to recording new material for that very reason. But you're playing concerts—isn't that the next step? That's especially relevant for the Pixies; their reunion was big news in 2004, but is anyone still excited to see that band now?
You can argue, convincingly, that reunions and reunion albums are a bad idea, but three words have made me a believer: Mission Of Burma. Their two post-reunion albums stand alongside their seminal work from 20-plus years ago. Even Dinosaur Jr.'s Beyond was a solid addition to the group's catalogue—definitely more than some of those records frontman J. Mascis made in the '90s under the Dinosaur moniker.
I understand that Burma is an aberration in a long history of post-reunion suckitude, but I remain an optimist, despite my cynicism. I've been scheming for a decade to get Jawbreaker back on stage together. When I heard Jawbox had been offered big money for reunion shows in Europe, I readied my passport. (Those didn't pan out.) I'm a fan, and that usually trumps my wariness. Seeing Burma play again was a joy. Noel, will you ever stop hating joy?
Noel: Hey, joy is awesome. It's creative bankruptcy I disdain.
Look, the examples you cite are hard to dispute. Mission Of Burma came back as strong—and in some ways stronger—than the band I enjoyed so much in the '80s. And I just watched the Dinosaur Jr. live DVD a couple of weeks ago, and as someone who twice saw Mascis and company play during their first go-round—including once during the Lou Barlow era—I can attest that Dinosaur Jr. is better now, at least as a concert attraction. Those boys can play.
But I can't deny your other examples either. It was heartwarming initially when The Pixies reunited, but after several tours with the same set lists and more or less the same stage shtick, I'm starting to wonder if maybe they couldn't have just all had a beer together and maybe sung a couple of songs for Aamer at VH1. And the jury seems to be out on The Police, who've reportedly been playing airlessly tight shows during the first month of the big reunion tour, and disappointing audiences hoping for a little more spontaneity.
Of course with a band like The Police, it's hard not to question their motivations from the get-go. If Sting and Stewart Copeland needed to bury the hatchet and return to the happy place that they explored together decades ago, that's cool; but again, maybe they could've channeled that good feeling into a reunion show. Or even two. Once matters escalate to the level of a whole tour, then well, let's just say it's a fine line between treating the fans and milking them.
Reuniting for an album is another matter, because I'm a firm believer in the importance of chemistry in music, and if, say, Bill Janovitz feels like he'll be more inspired as a songwriter and performer if he works with his old Buffalo Tom pals, that's his prerogative. (And the fine quality of the new Buffalo Tom album proves that some collaborations should be treasured.) Sometimes the friction—or the ease—between two musicians produces an effect that neither musician can create on his or her own. And sometimes even a rock auteurist like Paul Westerberg does better if he's forced to work around the limitations of less talented bandmates—which partly explains why The Replacements were so much more awesome with oafish guitarist Bob Stinson stumbling across the stage than with an old pro like Slim Dunlap hitting all the notes.
But the thing about reunions is that when old animosities fade, they're often replaced by new, less fruitful animosities. I know a lot of people liked the two albums that New Order made before the fresh split occurred between Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook, but those records never sounded much like New Order to me. They sounded like semi-decent Britpop inexplicably tagged with the New Order name. I never really saw the point. And though part of me would be delighted if Pavement gigged around again, I have to confess that Stephen Malkmus was outgrowing the sluggishness of his fellow Pavementers by the time the band punched out. I wouldn't say that Malkmus' solo records are as awesome as Slanted And Enchanted, but I've liked every one of them better than Terror Twilight.
Probably the least likely reunion to happen—and the one in arguably the highest demand—is The Smiths, but despite reports this week that Morrissey and Johnny Marr are on cordial terms, I hope they don't start getting any bright ideas. If those two want to write and record a song or two together, fine. I'd even back them if they showed up together at a benefit concert or something and whipped out a little "How Soon Is Now?." But while Morrissey has stayed in more or less the same vein since the '80s, Marr hasn't written a Smiths-y riff since he bid Morrissey adieu, and probably wouldn't want to anymore. And judging by recent Smiths-related litigation, both Morrissey and Marr continue to underrate the contributions of The Smiths' rhythm section to the overall success of the band. A Smiths reunion tour or album without Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke would be kind of pathetic.
Anyway, I think the main problem here is the way the music industry forces us to think about "bands" in the first place. But I'll get to that in a moment. First, just out of curiosity, I'm wondering if, besides Jawbox, there are any other defunct acts you're dying to see re-group? And any you'd hate to see go that route?
Kyle: I'm not sure if there are any I'd hate to see go that route. Is it weird to say that seems selfish to me? I mean, if Operation Ivy wants to regroup, who am I to deny them? (That's a reunion I've expected for years now, but it hasn't happened yet.)
Reunion gigs excite me; full-on reunions give me pause. If Jawbreaker decided to play a gig together again, I'd be there, even if it were in downtown Fallujah. Ditto for Hüsker Dü. But I'd be skeptical if it became something more permanent. I always think of Michael Jordan: He ended his run with the Bulls by making the winning basket in the Finals against the Jazz. What better way to go out? Then he came back (again) and played for the Wizards? It's such a weird post-script to a career he could—or is it should?—have left well enough alone.
That sports analogy breaks down in the case of Jawbreaker, though (and, to an extent, Hüsker Dü). They didn't go out on top like Jordan. They were more like um, Charles Barkley—a great player who never won a title. Enough of the sports: Jawbreaker signed to a major label after being fiercely vocal about their independence for years, released an album most people hated, then called it quits in the summer of '96. That reviled album, Dear You, has since become a classic among the emo youth of today and inspired legions of bands—some of whom went on to sell way more records than Jawbreaker ever did.
I guess I'm restating my earlier point about bands getting belated paydays. Even if it's mercenary, Noel, does it really matter in the end? If I were up front at a Jawbreaker reunion show, relishing the sounds of "Housesitter" or "Parabola," I wouldn't care about the band's motives. I'd just enjoy it.
So how can I say it's okay for Jawbreaker to reunite, but not the surviving members of The Doors? Other than that I think The Doors sucked? Well, #1, I doubt the Doors dudes are hurting for cash. And #2, Jawbreaker has all of its original members. I empathize with the rest of The Doors; Jim Morrison croaked, effectively ending their band, even though the rest of the guys did all the heavy lifting. In a way, why shouldn't they be allowed to play those songs again? Hey, they can—just not as The Doors. They've all had their solo projects—play them under that moniker, not under the auspices of some millennial version of your band. When you lose a critical piece of the puzzle, you should stop. (And yes, I know the reconstituted Mission Of Burma lacks original audio engineer Martin Swope, but he was really an auxiliary member.)
It's just like you said, Noel, when you mentioned The Smiths: If Marr and Morrissey reunited as "The Smiths," it wouldn't be the same. Yeah, Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin did all of the work in Smashing Pumpkins, but those guys playing with ringers doesn't feel right. The same goes for The Who. Not even John Entwistle's death on the eve of a tour—not to mention Keith Moon's passing years before—stopped them. I think it's embarrassing. I feel like saying, "I know you wrote 'Baba O'Riley' and all, but enough's enough."
Is it just me, or are more bands playing the "indefinite hiatus" card these days? Sleater-Kinney immediately jumps to mind; when I interviewed them in late 2004, Carrie Brownstein said she could picture the band never really breaking up, just going out like Fugazi—taking a break, then coming back to it years later. Fugazi's another good example: They're not playing, but they're not broken up. They're just "inactive." It makes sense: Why put a period on something when a semi-colon would do?
Still, I'm intrigued by your statement about the industry forcing us to think of bands a certain way. Is all of this, like so many other things, the system's fault?
Noel: Well it's all marketing, ain't it? When Journey tours without Steve Perry or Styx without Dennis De Young—or even Van Halen without David Lee Roth—they're all asking their fans to buy the name, not the music. (And yes, I know Steve Perry wasn't the original lead singer in Journey. But he is the dude who sang "Don't Stop Believin'.") Similarly, if a one-man-band type like Robert Pollard suddenly decides to start using the name Guided By Voices again, it'll likely be because he knows he can squeeze more tour revenue out of the GBV tag, not because he's written new songs "in a GBV style." (After all, it's not like Pollard's solo work has been substantially different from what he's done in the full-band format.)
Because I've never been a musician myself or played in a band—except for the junior high garage band I was in for one long night, where we jammed on the main lick of Bob Seger's "Mainstreet" for two hours—I don't fully understand the whims of musicians when it comes to names. Why did Will Oldham drop the Palace/Palace Music/Palace Brothers naming gambit and become Bonnie "Prince" Billy? Beats me, since under any name, his music sounds unmistakably like Will Oldham. I asked Joe Pernice once why he sometimes recorded as Pernice Brothers, sometimes as Chappaquiddick Skyline, and sometimes under his own name, and all he could say was that each project had a different "feel." I also asked J. Mascis once why he abandoned the Dinosaur Jr. name in favor of The Fog, when both bands were essentially just him and whoever he was touring with at the time, and between bites of candy bar, Mascis mumbled that he could tell the difference.
Some might knock R.E.M. for pressing on as R.E.M. after Bill Berry quit the band, but because the remaining three guys have always been so collaborative, their reasons for wanting to maintain name-continuity seem genuine and even admirable. Even though I was painfully bored by the last two R.E.M. records, I still look forward to hearing what they do next, because I feel like R.E.M. understands the virtues of being in a band. When they reconvene every couple of years, each member brings into the practice space whatever he's been listening to and thinking about lately, and together they figure out how to integrate their scattered interests. The R.E.M. guys rarely seem to think, "We can't do this; it doesn't sounds like R.E.M." Instead they consider whether what they're recording will fit into the context of the album they're putting together. Why must anyone presume that R.E.M. as a concept died a decade ago—or maybe even longer? If Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Bill Berry are gathered together and making new music, then that music is naturally going to be a reflection of what the members of R.E.M. have become. Why not take that music and "file under R.E.M.," to use old record store parlance?
But R.E.M. is an exception. I can't honestly say, as you note, that Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend have much business calling themselves "The Who" anymore. Although I will admit that reunions can work well when a strong musical personality like J. Mascis or Jeff Lynne calls up an old collaborator like Lou Barlow or Richard Tandy and decides to record a new album in a familiar style. By the time Electric Light Orchestra broke up in the '80s, they were still trying to be a contemporary rock act, and updating their sound accordingly. When Lynne and Tandy revived the ELO name for the 2001 album Zoom, it sounded like Lynne had just written a bunch of songs that sounded like classic ELO, and wanted to do them justice. Ditto the recent Wire reunion, which produced one terrific album, Send, in a style that built on where the band left off in the mid-'80s.
Again though, I find it hard to believe that Daltrey and Townsend really think they're making "Who songs" together anymore, especially when they've done so many different things apart, and aren't really revisiting their classic sound when they get together to collaborate on new material, like last year's not-bad-but-not-Who-ish Endless Wire. The Who doesn't have the consistent narrative thread of an R.E.M. There's far more "New Order reunion" to The Who of today. So why must they be "The Who" instead of Daltrey/Townsend, or some other new moniker? Answer: Because some names sell, and some don't.
When someone who's essentially a solo artist takes on a band name and switches around that band's membership without changing the name, that's one thing. But when a bunch of musicians get together and christen themselves The Whatevers, it's like they've forged a pact. If they use that name, they should try to be as close to their original configuration as possible. (Within reason, of course—I'm not going to be a jerk about this.) And they should keep building on what they've done before, always respecting what "The Whatevers" means. When a band gets back together to replenish their coffers, or when one of the members writes a bunch of incongruous songs and wants to slap The Whatevers' name on it, that cheapens their legacy. Sometimes, nostalgia's not worth it.