Classic bands: Do the musicians or brand matter most?
What does it means to fans when the classic rock band you once loved is not exactly the band you’re going to see in concert?
Lynyrd Skynyrd has exactly one. The J. Geils Band has most of ’em, including lead singer Peter Wolf, but not its namesake guitarist Jay Geils, who exited the band in 2012 and died in April. Ten Years After has two, but not the flash guitarist and singer you know from the “Woodstock” movie - Alvin Lee died four years ago and had left the band a decade before that.
We’re talking about classic rock bands – still extant, still touring – that are missing key members. Some have died, others are just no longer in the fold. We’re asking what it means to fans when the band you once loved is not exactly the band you’re going to see in concert.
It’s about rock bands as brand names and, as any marketing person will tell you, people choose the brands they know. How important is that brand?
One example: In 1984, after bassist-singer Roger Waters had an acrimonious split with the band he co-founded, Pink Floyd, he was enormously ticked off that he and his ace backing band, which included Eric Clapton, couldn’t fill American hockey arenas under his own name. Meanwhile, Pink Floyd, fronted by guitarist-singer David Gilmour, could pack football stadiums. Even though Waters had been the primary creative force in the band for years.
(Over the past few years, there’s been a reversal of fortune. Gilmour has retired the Floyd and Waters’ “The Wall” tour played ballparks and stadiums everywhere and it became the highest-grossing tour of all time by a solo artist.)
This story is also, to some degree, about the perceptions we have of band members as a solid unit. Do we see them as a collective, a group of friends, colleagues or compatriots, united in a mission? Or are they musicians that somehow assembled and clicked long ago, but no longer care much for each other (or about the music), some of whom have decided to exit, others who grudgingly stay because of the paycheck. (And with income from recorded music – sales, streaming or downloads – so low, touring is a necessity.)
These are people you grew up listening to, musicians who maybe provided the soundtrack to your teenage or young-adult life who, 40 years down the line, are still playing that music – though it’s now filtered through the gauzy scrim of nostalgia.
Solo artists like Neil Young or Bob Dylan have it easier. Even if they play with a band, they’re out under their own names. You just have to decide if the latest re-make is worth your hard-earned dollars and those greenbacks can be many.
Dylan’s had much the same lineup for years – and the same contrarian bent (very few hits, radically revamped if done) in concert. He’s the ultimate anti-crowd-pleaser. Young’s situations – he’s played solo, he’s had Crazy Horse and Booker T. and the MGs over the years and his latest backing band is Promise of the Real. The material? Mostly choice, but never a lock.
The late David Bowie and Prince had it easy too – they shifted personnel and personas all the time, but reinvention was part of the master plan and audiences were never not going to go because the backing band had changed.
Many groups from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s carry on today, with a variable number of original members in any given band. As a fan, do you require that the best-known members – in most cases, the singer and/or lead guitarist – to be there? Must they be in the fold for it to be legit? Or can the bass player carry the name and the brand? If the original singer is gone, how do you feel about replacement singers?
Half of The Who is long dead – drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle – but the living half (the singing/guitar-playing half) Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, carry on undaunted with six additional touring musicians. And despite the lack of new music – maybe because of it – it’s been a terrific show.
Felix Cavaliere has toured with the reunited Rascals – the original foursome, during the “Once Upon a Dream” Broadway show and subsequent tour in 2015 – and then with another group of younger musicians called Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals.
If there’s any question about legitimacy – can Cavaliere carry the name brand? – it’s pretty much a lock. Cavaliere, who was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2009, wrote or co-wrote nearly all the material. He and his sometime writing partner, Rascals singer Eddie Brigati (also in the Songwriters Hall), shared lead vocal roles. In the current version of the band, drummer Vince Santoro and a second keyboardist, Steve Hornbeak, take most of Brigati’s songs.
“We had good singers and good players, but the writing was the key,” Cavaliere told me last year. “If anybody had asked me 50 years ago if I’d be doing what I’m doing now and still have people come to hear me play, I would have said you’re crazy. It’s unbelievable that I’m still out there and that music is still alive.”
It doesn’t hurt that Cavaliere has kept his voice. Many older singers have to ratchet songs down a key or two; Cavaliere says he’s still singing in the original key. “I’m very fortunate about that,” he says.
Face it, almost all classic rock bands have replacement parts.
Some more than others. The Zombies are an exception and pretty intact. The Moody Blues have three, including their main man, Justin Hayward. If the Kinks ever get together again, it would mean Ray and Dave Davies and whoever else filled in the remaining slots. (Original drummer Mick Avory would really make it the Kinks, but even if he passed – and even if Avory’s 1984-1996 replacement Bob Henrit didn’t do it – anyone the Davies brothers hired to man the drum kit would constitute a 21st-century Kinks for the long-deprived fans.)
Consider KISS. Bassist-singer Gene Simmons and singer-guitarist Paul Stanley created it and over KISS they lord. The “classic” lineup had guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss, but those days are long gone, so KISS is Gene and Paul and whoever else wears the makeup. (Guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer have been in the fold since the early ’00s.) KISS has also talked about – when Gene finally hangs up his bat-wings and Paul can no longer “rock and roll all nite” – about continuing the band’s existence with all new players, which is sort of a quasi-frightening franchising situation. In other words, it’s the concept of KISS that matters most, not the players and, thing is, they may be right.
The beat goes on. Literally. There are two English Beats, Dave Wakeling’s in Los Angeles, and Ranking Roger’s in Europe. As to New Order, well, there’s the band with that name – including long-timers Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert – and there’s ousted bassist Peter Hook and his band Peter Hook and the Light, which plays Joy Division and New Order sets.
Quite well, mind you. Sumner became New Order’s singer by default, and the husband-wife drums-keyboards team is intact. But never has a bassist mattered more to a band and Hook’s low-slung melodic bass-playing (and songwriting) were integral, not incidental, factors.
Boston – now out on tour – has mastermind/guitarist Tom Scholz – and various others he’s hand-picked over the years. Everyone knows original singer Brad Delp committed suicide 10 years ago and the band – such as it is – is constructed for concert purposes.
In the studio, it’s all Scholz plus the singer(s), with the current lead vocalist Tommy DeCarlo and there are no plans for another Boston album.
Lynyrd Skynyrd probably catches the most flak of any band.
There was that fatal plane crash in 1977 that took the life of singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, backup singer Cassie Gaines. Skynyrd disbanded, but came back to life a decade down the road. Since then – with other deaths and exits – they are left, technically, with one original, guitarist Gary Rossington. (Best I can tell, there are 19 former members, combining living and dead.)
Four years ago, I talked with Skynyrd guitarist Rickey Medlocke about any suggestions that this Skynyrd wasn’t the real McCoy. He wouldn’t have any of it.
“People are not doing their history,” Medlocke said. “From the time this band was put together, before the “(Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd)” record ever came out there was interchanging within the band already. Everybody likes to refer to the original band as Ronnie, Gary, Allen (Collins), (pianist) Billy Powell, (bassist) Leon (Wilkeson) and (drummer) Bob Burns, but all of a sudden they forget Bob and like to refer to it as (guitarist) Ed King or (drummer) Artimus Pyle and/or Steve Gaines as the original band. Far from being the truth.
“No matter what, the guys that founded the band are Ronnie, Gary and Allen. It wasn’t like all of a sudden five guys got together, founded the band and that was it. I was in the band.”
Medlocke says “believe it or not,” they were grooming Johnny Van Zant to take over from older brother Ronnie. “It was rumored Ronnie was going to manage, write and produce the band and then the tragedy happened and it never came about. People can slice and dice it however they want, but the truth of the matter is the core of this band is the three of us standing there and we’ve been a part of this band longer than anybody. I don’t really care about the criticism.”
The Grateful Dead – or the Dead, or whatever the aging hippie troupe is called now – has John Mayer sitting in for the late Jerry Garcia and whatever incarnation they truck out there under whatever name will sell arena or ballpark-sized tickets. The Dead is the death and taxes of rock ‘n’ roll. Fans will kvetch about Mayer – and muse about favorite incarnations and mythical sets of yore - but they will go to the show.
Ian Anderson, Jethro Tull’s singer-songwriter-flautist, toured for years under the Jethro Tull moniker with various players filling the slots. Then, he abandoned the Tull name and went out as Ian Anderson. Still, the 2017 tour is described as “multimedia performances” performing songs of “Jethro Tull by Ian Anderson.”
“I’m lucky to have my name known before I die and not just be somehow a figurehead under that Jethro Tull name,” Anderson told me last year. “But the name Jethro Tull figures in most of the concerts I play, whenever I’m playing Jethro Tull repertoire, which is most of the time.”
“I’m the guy that wrote the songs, the lyrics, the music, produced the records and stood in the front and played guitar and flute and a few other things, so in my final dotage, it’s kind of nice to think you might know my name. What it says on my passport, it doesn’t say Jethro Tull.”