Todd Hunter says the first rule when getting the old band back together is to never have more than one original member.
“As soon as there’s a pair,” he once said, “all the old arguments start up again and you’re right back to being teenagers squabbling in the back of a van.”
Hunter’s band Dragon were the kings of pop from 1978 to 1985. Hits like Rain, Are You Old Enough? and April Sun in Cuba were suburban anthems.
Dragon ran out of steam in 1997 and remained on the blocks until 2006 when Hunter reconstituted the band and they have been playing consistently ever since. A recent single Roses is as as catchy as anything in the back catalogue. And in 12 years there hasn’t been a drug overdose. That’s something of a record for Dragon.
A year or so ago I had dinner with The Church, a band that still has two original players, and there was a sharp discussion from one about royalty splits on their first album, Of Skins and Heart, released in 1981.
So the question is, ‘when is a band not a band?’ How much of the original line-up do you need? The Rolling Stones are up to their third guitarist and second bass player but so long as Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and probably Charlie Watts show up it will still be the Stones.
So key personnel are critical. The fans are drawn into the mythological battles between Mick and Keith. The unique, fundamental syncopation between Keith and Charlie is the core of the Stones and Jagger in this context is simply a superstar.
INXS spent decades asserting that the collective was more than just the sum of its parts – or specifically the singer, Michael Hutchence. But without him no one was really that interested and not even a cringe-worthy INXS reality show could replace one superstar.
Things are less of a problem for faceless bands who relied on song craft rather than charisma. Australia’s Little River Band is perhaps the best example. After the last original player quit the band, it fell to American guitarist Steve Housden who has had the combo on the road pretty consistently ever since, much to the chagrin of the original members.
But American singer Wayne Nelson believes the Australians protest too much. He points out that the current line-up’s touring has pushed sales of the greatest hits from two million to three million while the original members have just sat in their Barcaloungers counting royalties.
Angus Young of AC/DC has had to consider the epistemological question. Who is AC/DC after the Aussie battlers shed members like a sheepdog sheds fleas?
By the end of a world tour Angus was the only one still standing but he left the door open for further AC/DC records and tours. Having survived the loss of natural born star Bon Scott, perhaps Angus feels that so long as he keeps the school uniform, no one will notice the rest of the guys in the black T-shirts holding guitars.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. When rap trio Cypress Hill toured last century only two of them got on the plane at LAX. No one noticed the third guy in the Afro. By the time three rappers took the stage in New Zealand to kick off Insane in the Membrane under a cloud of Ganga smoke only one of them had ever been in the band. But who knew?
It’s a different matter when you are the biggest band in the world. The Eagles have reclaimed #1 and #3 spots on the Highest Selling Albums of All Time In the USA charts (with The Best Of Vol 1 and Hotel California respectively).
The Eagles was always a corporation of ambitious, sometime vicious partners. In recent decades, Eagles Ltd has become a massive cash machine. They have sold over a million tickets to the History of the Eagles tour and dates just this year have passed over $US84 million.
The rivers of Eagles gold looked like it would dry up when founding member, vocalist and songwriter Glenn Frey died in 2016 at the tender age of 67. His Eagles co-founder Don Henley told The Washington Post at the time: “I don’t see how we could go out and play without the guy who started the band. It would just seem like greed or something.”
Something induced Henley to get the band back together for major festival dates in 2017 and a world tour in 2018. Frey’s son Deacon will be on hand to help out and country star Vince Gill will be there to cover Frey’s vocal parts. Henley asserts “family blood” is important for the authenticity of the show while noting that, “Over the past few shows, he’s [Gill] put his own twist and interpretation on the songs. It makes it more authentic to him.”
It’s unlikely the fans have been hanging out for Vince Gill’s interpretation of Eagles songs but the sold-out tour has had no complaints so far. The new Eagles stay faithful to the hybrid of macho cowboy swagger and a peaceful easy feeling.
No group has switched and changed or made so much mileage from their fractious internal relationship as Fleetwood Mac.
Beginning life in 1967 as a blues combo, Fleetwood Mac went through a succession of talented guitarists before recruiting guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and singer Stevie Nicks in 1974. The self-titled LP was a massive, massive hit and its sequel Rumours one of the five biggest records of all time. Meanwhile, the group regularly fractured: Nicks and Buckingham came and went on various tours for various reasons and organist Christine McVie retired for 20 years. Reunited recently as a quintet, it soon fell apart again. A dispute over tour dates led to a fight and Buckingham was fired.
So suddenly, Fleetwood Mac is without the principle architect of their sound, the lead vocalist and an important part of the onstage dynamic. In the past, tours without Buckingham have been embarrassing. You wonder why they bother. It could be the expected pay day of US$12 million each for 60 dates over a year.
Nicks told Rolling Stone last year she was not interested in making new records. Her professional view was that of many superstars, “What we do is go on the road, do a ton of shows and make lots of money,” she said. “Why would we stop? We don’t have anything else to do.”
At the other end of the scale there are bands like Sydney’s Radio Birdman that can tour internationally on the back of its reputation as an innovative, influential hard rock band. When it recently fired guitarist Chris Masuak, outraged fans took to the internet in their dozens.
“Fans of the band or whomever, are they the arbiters of who should be part of the group? Are they the ones who are supposed to be saying these are the people you’re supposed to be playing with? Is that really any of their f—ing business?” vocalist Rob Younger said at the time.
“Gangs don’t last forever either for that matter.”