Dinosaur Jr. and Bowser of Sha Na Na- vital lessons in reuniting
The good, bad and ridiculous'Band reunion' can be two of the most exciting, anticipated words to the ears of a music fan. The head starts to flush with delight as you envision seeing a favorite band you thought only still existed on records or old videos. Wether you haven't seen the band in years or maybe you never got to see them live before you're equally ecstatic. The chance to get to hear songs you love done live among a crowd of dedicated fans is a sure promise for a great show. Eventually though, after the initial joy of the announcement, fear starts to surface- can the reunited band can live up to the expectations in your head? To be fair though, sometimes fans' expectations can be unreasonable. When bands reunite, they tend to fall into one of three categories: 1) Nostalgia Acts, 2) "Sham" Reunions and 3) Producing new material. Lately, it seems that there has been a great resurgence of band reunions and they almost never fail to end up in one of these categories. By taking a look at some of the most famous and infamous band reunions, this article can possibly assist future ones to learn from past mistakes.
by Tim Shannon
For as long as there have been musical eras that inevitably expire, there have been band reunions. Over the years, these reunions turned from being an anomaly into becoming just another part of the music industry. It's sometimes the last step a former band has when they are out of options. When the original Byrds reunited in the early '70's, they came back together and recorded a mediocre album and refused to tour behind it. Their reunion album helped perpetuate the general association for most rock fans that a reunion album is something bad and should be dreaded and avoided. A long line of bad reunion albums followed by the likes of The Animals, Jefferson Airplane, Traffic, Temptations and Big Star, keeping the term 'reunion album' as an ugly pair of words. Despite these questionable albums, many of the tours for these albums were successful. These events created a model of the trappings and benefits that are still relevant today.
This is the most direct and obvious path that people think of when bands reunite. They play their most beloved songs, giving a lifted re-appreciation of their material and show a glimpse of their original creative drives. On the flipside, many shallow bands will reunite just for a big check at the end of the day (see Guns N' Roses, the Eagles). Unlike most of those bands, the Sex Pistols reunion at least had the decency to admit "we have found a common cause and its your money." Nostalgia acts are sometimes looked down upon, but there's nothing wrong with giving fans the opportunity to see a band live that would have been impossible to see previously. A lot of bands like Dinosaur Jr, Pixies, Slint, Gang of Four, Stooges and the Velvet Underground have reunited because they have now accumulated a wider fanbase over time than when they were active. This procedure especially helps bands whose music was ahead of times without many receptive fans. It's basically giving an underappreciated band a second wind and some much deserved, albeit late respect. Finally, songs off landmark albums are heard in the live context where they can truly peak. Nostalgia reunions also allow bands that were hugely influential to a second generation of musicians to show the second generation's music fans why their favorite bands are hold in such high regard.
These are the ones that never should have been conceived under any circumstances at all. "Sham" bands are basically ones reunite and don't involve all or many of the original members for one reason or another. These reunions often don't accurately represent the band's ideas, aesthetic, or integrity. Something just rings false. If you saw you saw the Who live in the 21st century, you're in denial. You didn't really see the Who because it's not the real Who without all four members. They're merely a high profile cover band. It's disrespectful to the other vital bandmates to reunite under the band name with new members because you're implying that they weren't an integral part of the band. If the band simply didn't use the original name and chose something else instead, it would be different.
Lately, politics has even stepped into the ring to sound off on these sham reunions. In Maine, there is legislation that they're trying to be pass called "An Act To Ensure Truth in Music Advertising." This law would require groups who don't have all the original members to be forced to go under another name so has not mislead fans. "Bowser" (aka Jon Bauman) of Sha Na Na has shown some integrity and become the most outspoken musician advocate against these kind of shams. He will testify in Maine in relation to the bill and refuses to play any shows that have sham acts on the bill.
Sham reunions have a long list of offenders including Quicksilver Messenger Service (some never thought Dino Valenti fit in but no John Cipollina???), Deep Purple, The Supremes and doo-wop groups like The Coasters, Platters and Drifters (who were shuffled around like playing cards even in their heyday). One of the worst and most publicized "sham" reunions happened in 2002 when the half reunited Doors lineup started touring with Ian Astbury (The Cult) trying to fill Morrison's shoes. Thankfully, Densmore and Morrison's estate stopped this travesty through court so they couldn't tour as the Doors and had to get a different name. Other notable "shams" include the Dead Kennedys who reunited without and against the wishes of lead singer/lyricist Jello Biafra due to band tensions (Biafra bitterly cites the reunion as "the world's greediest karaoke band") and the Germs reunion whose seemingly only motivation was to promote the upcoming movie about the band with the lead actor Shane West replacing Darby Crash to add further insult. These "sham" practice cheats fans into thinking these bands are on the same level as the originals because there's no name change and that's wrong. Flipper were able to get it right when they reunited in 2002 and after replacing bassist Will Shatter performed cleverly as "Notflipper" (though they later used the 'Flipper' name again). Black Sabbath set another example when deciding to reunite the Dio era lineup chose to tour as Heaven and Hell, not as Sabbath so they wouldn't deceive fans into expecting a different band. Greg Ginn told the hilarious idea of making a purposely shammed-out Black Flag reunion, done as a benefit for cats.
The Fall and Pere Ubu are the exceptions to this rule of a band being a sham by only having one original member in the line up. Mark Smith and Dave Thomas (and years earlier, Arthur Lee of Love) obviously define their bands, provide much of the creativity and leave a big impression on their band's music. They're the driving force behind the band where without their leadership the bands wouldn't sound as they do. These bands aren't the type who thrive on band collaboration.
(Arguably, some groups which may or may not fall under this category are the "semi-truth in advertising" bands who uses variations of their old name to gain ticket or album sales: Creedence Clearwater Revisted and the New Cars being two examples)
Producing New Material
This is the most daring step a reunion can take, which many bands never progress to and can crush the strongest of them. It's quite a risk to go from playing old songs to writing new material for a band that hasn't practiced in years. Add on top of that the fact that the group now has to stand up to the band's own back catalog. Numerous bands don't want to try this, afraid that it could leave a dark stain on the band's legacy. Many problems can arise for the bands that do try this. The band's old wounds that were apparently healed by the reunion tour could end up returning, destroying a possible future album. The Velvet Underground fit in this class when after their 1993 reunion tour there was talk of a new studio album, but was quickly dashed as Reed and Cale couldn't agree on things like in the past. Sometimes a band who have reunited have to face the facts that they might no longer have that unique creative band chemistry that mad them so great before. The Pixies suffered this problem where they wanted to record a new album, but came to realize they didn't have the same spark. After recording some demos they all decided they sounded like forced attempts to resemble their past and simply quit. Both the Pixies and the Velvets were only able to squeeze out one or two new songs before crumbling (you might include the Beatles minus Lennon in this category when they breifly reassembled for Anthology).
It's a rarity, but a few bands have been able to defy the odds and release a good reunion album. Mission of Burma came out of a 20 year hiatus and came back with not only one, but two great reunion albums that hold up to their other work (which includes a back catalog of only one previous album). Back in the '90's, both Television and the Buzzcocks released new records after years of inactivity and they both retained that same fire from earlier days (Wire could also qualify in this category but it took them much longer to release a decent reunion album). What makes part of these reunion albums work is that there isn't much pressure on the band and high expectations for the record. Neither of these bands were huge commercial successes in their heyday. So when these bands reunited, they didn't have to worry about coming up with another hit, unlike a top 20 band. They didn't have to fear their reunion album looking like a failure if it didn't tear up the charts. They were left to their own devices, in a no stress environment that let the bands' creative talents flourish without being inhibited by external pressure.
Before a band reunites, they should take a good hard look at the range of possible outcomes of this action. There's a whole new crop just reuniting recently including Jesus and Mary Chain, Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against The Machine, Meat Puppets and the Police. The Police like many others appears to have reunited because while one member has done well, the others haven't (or maybe the successful one wasn't at his peak anymore). Rage wins for most unique reason though, citing they wanted a vehicle to voice the band's disapproval to the "right wing purgatory" the U.S. has become under the Bush Administration. New discs from reformed bands this year have shown both ends of the spectrum from very good (Dinosaur Jr., on deep South blues label Fat Possum no less) to fair (Meat Puppets) to very bad (The Stooges and The Smashing Pumpkins) releases. Recently, alternative rock acts specifically have given a big boost to the reunion circuit, finally reaching the age where they and their fans want to look back fondly. In general though, bands nowadays seem more willing to do it than before since reunions in the past five or so years have been met with such great financial (if not artistic) success. Bands are less hesitant about what could end up being a double edged sword. On further observation, the fact that so many bands are reuniting to please fans really says something about the current music scene. Hopefully, potential reuniting bands should might eye this article as an advice column of sorts. It can give them some foresight and lead them in the right direction if they choose to take the reunion path, or not.
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