I happened to watch ‘Long Time Running ‘on Netflix a couple of weeks back. If you aren’t already familiar with this ‘rockumentary’ it’s a chronical of the final tour by Canadian band The Tragically Hip, I wasn’t familiar with their work,but they appear to be massive, at least in Canada. At one point in the film guitarist Rob Baker unleashes an analogy about a band’s career being like a hot air balloon, it can rise very quickly but at some point its going to come crashing down with disastrous consequences.
So, I got to thinking, is it possible for any band to have a career that ends well?
For the purposes of getting a working definition of a happy ending I’ve come up with a few ground rules.1. The band has to keep at least the classic line up together no ‘Trigger’s Broom’ *cases where its just the original drummer and a roadie.2. No major litigation post break up.3. No reformations4. No Deaths
On the face of it, it doesn’t seem a huge ask but its just about impossible lets take a few genre based examples. Prog Rock for example,just about every line up has been through a load of permutations, King Crimson, Genesis,Camel etc etc. None of them have had stable line ups for any time, the classic bad example was Yes which had so many ex members they could form two separate bands at one time.
Let’s try an even more niche example, British ‘two tone’ bands. The Beat were in with a chance until they reformed not one but two bands with various ex members, the Specials fell started to fracture into a different band formed around main man Jerry Dammers only to split and reform decades later with all the original members (for a while) apart from the aforementioned Dammers. Madness almost make the grade but their keyboard player Mike Barson left in the 80’s before the band split prior to reforming with the original line up years later..
See, its impossible to find a band that ends well. I did think the Smiths might be a decent result but there was major legal action from the rhythm section post split, I think one of them settled out of court and got a small pay out and the other toughed it out in court and got a far better settlement but I might be wrong. The fact is that most bands cant resist extending their career forever with various band members substitutions along the way.
And, of course, the bigger the band the bigger the crash. The Beatles have spent more time in court than they spent playing live. Zeppelin needed a death to stop them, the Who had two but carried on and the Stones have a similar approach to hiring supplementary musicians to keep the brand alive when needed. The Small Faces almost finished properly if not entirely amicably when they split at the end of the 60’s but they couldn’t resist staging a reformation a few years later which, of course, was never going to be as good as the original.
Of course, I’m sure there are plenty of smaller bands who had their time in the sun and then split up with a minimum of fuss and bother but perhaps the hot air balloon analogy does hold up, the higher the ascent the harder the fall.
Which brings us back to the Tragically Hip. The reason for the film of the tour was that front man Gord Dowie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, it was their last tour. One of the many tragedies coming out of this was the band was one of very few who might have ended well. They were all from the same town and same backgrounds. They had also done the thing that is more likely to keep a band together than anything else, namely they were all on the same wage. If there’s one thing guaranteed to drive a wedge between friends, its inequality. U2 knew that and they are probably the most stable band around, on a downside I think Coldplay have the same financial equality.
So, for any band who hopes to ‘make it’ (if such a thing still exists these days) in the music business, the simple message that it’s not going to end well, all evidence is against that happening, to be blunt though life doesn’t end well and we all get on with that.
So, think I have found two bands who might have kept the same line up and broken up with the minimum of fuss if not regret. Significantly they are three-piece bands whether it’s the specific dynamics of a trio or just less people to fall out with, they are…
Rush, I don’t know a lot about the band, I do know it’s not the original drummer either but lets be positive. The existed and then they split up, I hope I got that right because drummer Neil Peart died not long ago and if they hadn’t split up by then that would have disqualified them.
The Jam, I’m sure Rick and Bruce would have liked it to last a bit longer but they split, they never reformed and no one died.
Also,I’ve just thought the Talking Heads might qualify
And that’s as good as it gets
I’m sure I’ve missed someone, have I missed a band that ended ‘well’, if I did do let me know.
*I realise my international readers may not be fully up to strength with life lessons from UK 80’s comedy series to here is ‘Trigger’s Broom’