Should bands feel bad about using the past to sell the present?
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The Wedding Present is one of my favorite bands of all time. I fell in love with the group in high school, around the same time I fell in love with my wife—in fact, I’m pretty sure she introduced us, and we’re all still together after all these years. The British band, led by sole remaining original member David Gedge, was never all that famous. It blipped in the late ’80s and early ’90s, got much bigger in the U.K. than over here, then began that sort of inevitable slide into comfortable old age, with a small but supportive fanbase. Gedge put the group on hiatus for a decade to play similar-sounding music under the name Cinerama.
The Wedding Present released its first single in 1985, and conventional wisdom among fans and critics holds that the band peaked musically with 1991’s Seamonsters, a brooding, moody rock record that you should totally go listen to right now if you’re inclined toward that sort of thing. The band—lineups rotate like merry-go-rounds—just released a very good album, its eighth proper, called Valentina. It’s better than any WP album since 1994’s Watusi, and I prefer it to all of the Cinerama records. But what’s an old band to do when the shine of newness wore off a decade ago? Just putting out another solid record won’t put asses in seats, or money in iTunes accounts.
So The Wedding Present just kicked off a U.S. tour—the day of Valentina’s release—but the big draw is that they’re playing Seamonsters, an album now 21 years old, in its entirety (alongside other material, of course). On the one hand, I’m ecstatic. A band I’ve loved a long time will play one of my favorite records of all time, start to finish, and presumably do so really well. (Despite the lineup changes over the years, The Wedding Present has always been a sharp, tight live band.) But the fact that this Seamonsters tour is intertwined with the release of a new album—which as I said, is great, but it’s no Seamonsters—got me thinking: Where is the line between giving people what they want and just cashing nostalgia checks?
Two bands whose classic records I love have trashed that line in the last decade. Seeing some Pixies tour dates last year made me realize the band has been reunited—and playing strictly oldies—for longer than it was together in the first place. Those first reunion shows back in 2004 were fantastic. (I trekked to Minneapolis to catch the very first one, even!) But now it just feels a bit silly, and more than a bit strange: Bands that you love aren’t supposed to become “oldies” artists. Will the mighty, scary Pixies soon be playing “Crackity Jones” at the state fair? Same goes for The Lemonheads, a band that can’t even boast all-original members like the Pixies. Evan Dando, never the most stable dude, has done multiple tours behind It’s A Shame About Ray, but hasn’t released any new songs in six years. Still, it’s hard to blame him: Nobody cared about 2006’s The Lemonheads—a halfway-decent record—so why should he bother?
But would it be better if these bands were releasing new music that didn’t live up to their best, or even come close? A new Pixies album would probably be a disaster at this point, and maybe that’s a chance they just don’t want to take: Why risk alienating people by playing new songs when the vast majority of potential audiences just want to hear the old stuff anyway? But I wonder if there’s not a bit of shame in strict nostalgia. Sure, Frank Black has made plenty of new music since the Pixies started playing again, but it hasn’t reached anywhere near the same audience. What does a once-and-maybe-current great songwriter do?
Then there’s the real oldies circuit, led this year by the massive Van Halen tour. The band released its first David Lee Roth-led album in forever prior to launching the tour, which seemed a bit of a strange move. People liked it (including our own Steven Hyden), but surely there wasn’t a single person in the arena more excited to hear “Tattoo” than “Everybody Wants Some,” was there? Most nights, VH played just a few songs from A Different Kind Of Truth, sprinkled judiciously among massive, massive hits. The album sold quite well, though I imagine a goodly number of those copies will end up dusty when listeners are forced to choose between the new album and Diver Down.
I’ll add that I’m as guilty as anyone of buying into the nostalgia circuit. I saw the Pixies, The Lemonheads, Jeff Mangum, Archers Of Loaf, and Swervedriver in the past few years, and never left disappointed. It’s comfort listening, and I don’t begrudge those bands for getting paid for giving people exactly what they want. Maybe I’m just trying to put an artificial expiration date on it. At what point do things get embarrassing? (And at what point am I a killjoy just for thinking that?) Will the upcoming B-52s tour be a joyous celebration of music or a sad display of fiftysomethings in terrible outfits? Will Andrew W.K. find the same magic playing I Get Wet on its 10th anniversary as he did the first time around? The only thing that seems guaranteed (or at least a safer bet) in this whole business is that nostalgia sells. Reunion tours of all stripes seem to do great business. (Andrew W.K.’s show in Chicago was moved to a venue double the size of where it was announced due to demand, for instance.)
So maybe The Wedding Present has struck the perfect balance. Gedge seems properly excited about Valentina, and it’s rightfully garnering positive reviews. It’s dark and brooding in spots, not unlike Seamonsters, and it features at least two songs that would make my personally curated three-disc Wedding Present best-of. (For the record: “You’re Dead” and “Back A Bit… Stop.”) It would take a miracle for it to reach the commercial heights—modest as they were—of The Wedding Present’s earlier days, but that’s not unusual. Nobody’s selling records anymore, except Adele. Maybe we should all meet back here in 2021 and see if she’s headlining the “21 At 30” tour. It’s sure to sell out every amphitheater in the country.