In an effort to come to the truth of the matter about important issues, and engage in our favorite pastime (arguing), we will from time to time engage in an e-mail version of a barroom debate. These will always be honest disagreements, not ESPN-style verbal fake wrestling. For best results, get really drunk before reading (not only will our thoughts be more interesting, but they will seem much more sophisticated as well). Join us after the jump for a debate about the merits of reunion tours.
We’ve often argued about the legitimacy of bands who go on reunion tours, and Pavement seems like a good case study with which to revisit the issue.
Pavement is the first band that I really consider “of my generation” to put on a full-scale reunion tour. I consider The Pixies a little bit before my time; I caught on to them at the very tail end of their career, whereas I was on board with Pavement since the beginning. But both bands are similar in that they’re considered massively influential, had big cult followings during their prime, but never crossed over into mainstream success. Hence, no one in either band is likely rolling in money.
So I consider both of their reunions to be cash grabs, which I’ve discovered I’m essentially fine with. They’re making the money they deserved to make in their primes 15 or 20 years later. As far as I’m concerned, both bands deserve all the belated riches they can find. Neither has released any new material for their reunion tours, and neither has really tried to claim they’re doing it for the love of the game. As long as they can still put on a good show, I don’t really care what their motivation is.
David Simon Cowell
First of all, the fact that bands like Pavement and the Pixies are old enough to have reunion years is depressing and must stop.
There is no doubt that any reunion show is essentially a money-grab. Do I feel that it’s less egregious if it’s somebody like Big Star, whose members never made a dime? Sure. But I’m still not going. The line between creativity and nostalgia may be blurry, but it’s a line that matters. For the most part, the best concerts are usually when the band is coming up. I know there are exceptions (see Zoo TV), but usually when a band gets to the arena range, their concerts aren’t as compelling.
A quality band getting big is usually a good thing… it means that mid-level recording execs can buy new BMW’s. That’s as long as they’re making new music. If a band is no longer a going concern, all they are is a really good Karaoke band. That isn’t to say that every show has to be in support of a recently released album. But I have to have the sense that they are evolving as a collective of musicians, that they have a relationship that supercedes the money they’re making playing their old hits. That the music they perform is evolving in some way. Otherwise, it’s just people sadly trying to recapture their youth.
I agree that for the most part the best shows occur when bands are still relatively young and on the upswing of their careers. But some of the best, most energetic shows I’ve seen have been on reunion tours or de facto reunion tours: Bruce Springsteen when he first got the E Street Band back together in 1999, Fleetwood Mac (believe it or not) in 1998, and Pearl Jam at 2007’s Lollapalooza (technically, they did have a new album out, but they played at most one or two songs off it; everything else was a throwback).
In some cases, I think a band on a reunion tour can have almost as much to prove as an up-and-coming band: we’re still really fucking good, don’t forget our legacy, we can still add new wrinkles to our music, etc. But I think the crux of our disagreement is that I don’t need an artist to be evolving to want to see them perform live. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong or inauthentic with a band playing a bunch of hits from 20 years ago, as long as their hearts are in it. I know that hearts often aren’t in it on reunion tours, but I firmly believe there are exceptions. I guess I don’t even need that much — I don’t need the band to mean what they’re singing, I just need them to make me think they mean it.
To consider an extreme example, if I thought the Rolling Stones would still put on a good show (important note: I don’t necessarily think that’s the case), and tickets weren’t $200, I would probably go see them. Would it be the same as seeing them in the early ’70s? Of course not. Not even close. And I would probably hate 90% of the people around me. But just because Mick Jagger is obscenely rich and probably a loathsome person, it doesn’t mean “Sympathy for the Devil” wouldn’t be amazing to hear live. His piles of cash, or Keith Richards’ lack of desire to make a cool new record don’t make their guitars and drums sound any less cool live.
I don’t want to deprive myself of waning opportunities to see great music because I’m taking a stand on principle.
David Simon Cowell
Glad that you brought the most egregious example into it. The Rolling Stones are the alpha dog when it comes to sullying your legacy with reunion tours.
I saw the Steel Wheels tour when I was just a pup. Given that it was one of the first shows that I ever went to (my parents were standing right next to me), I enjoyed it. But at the same time, something felt off. It wasn’t until several years later, when the crew on 90210 fought through multiple contrived roadblocks to attend a Voodoo Lounge show (after a song, David and Claire realized they were wrong to make fun of the Stones… these old guys really rock!) That’s when I realized what that lingering aftertaste was… they were only trying to sell me something. The crowd treated opener Living Colour, a band still at the peak of their powers, with nothing but contempt; they were interested in being comforted, not challenged. The Stones didn’t even play their best songs, but instead the songs on Hot Rocks that were played by classic rock stations ten times a day. At the time, I enjoyed it… in retrospect, I feel a bit used.
Tell me to get over the grunge era or call me an Obama socialist, but I am far more interested in art than commerce. I realize that capitalism forces all artists to become whores, but I think there’s still a line. And any band that allows themselves to become a jukebox for a rich middle-aged crowd has crossed it. Is Pavement less egregious than the Rolling Stones? Sure… or at least more defensible. Also, as your recent post pointed out, almost all bands are on the decline after a few albums. Some of the greats (U2, R.E.M., Radiohead, The Rolling Stones even) are able to keep it going past that… that’s what makes them a great band. But, at a certain point, the luck runs out; after Achtung Baby, New Adventures and Exile on Main Street, there was an inexorable decline (I don’t think Radiohead has hit that yet… and Kid A is one of their best albums, BTW). The same decline happens, just a bit later. The smartest thing the Beatles ever did was break-up at just the right moment, right as they began their downslope.
I’d add a caveat here… I think that individual performers can have a different career arc. Because it’s just one person, if the talent-level and openness to new sounds is great enough, they can meander for long periods of time doing failed experiments before hitting their stride again. I’m talking about the Bob Dylan, Neil Young, David Bowie, Lou Reed type of figure. But it’s easier to follow your muse as one person, evidently. Bands don’t work that way. So I’d rather spend $10 each for five shows at the Empty Bottle for bands on their way up than for one $50 at Northerly Island for a band I know has already passed its prime.
I agree that the careers of solo artists seem to conform to a different set of rules than bands. I think that’s why, with rare exceptions, bands that put together the longest, most consistent discographies tend to come from one driving creative force: Britt Daniels, Jack White, etc. When you have something resembling equal creative voices in a group, an eventual parting of minds is inevitable.
All the evidence at our disposal says that, as you say, all bands decline. But I think that decline is much more evident in their songwriting than their performance. I’m much more dubious about buying, say, the Jane’s Addiction reunion album than I am about seeing a reunited Jane’s in concert. I can appreciate that bands in that position are still trying to create new material, but it almost never works. Meanwhile, I trust that Jane’s can still play “Mountain Song,” and it will sound just as awesome as it did in 1991 (Although, admittedly, there are times when stage performances begin to suffer with age and/or lack of enthusiasm. For example, Bono’s voice isn’t what it once was, and it really hurts when they play “Pride”).
For me, the key is this: if the songs still mean something to me, and if the band still plays them with purpose and energy, I can get past any concerns I have about their financial motivations. I do still believe there’s a difference between art and commerce in pop music, but I think the line is vastly less defined than it was 15 years ago — both because of the way the music industry has changed, and because I’m that much older, more jaded, and more realistic. There was a time when Bob Dylan appearing in Victoria’s Secret commercials would have outraged me like the people at Newport were outraged when he plugged in for the first time. Those people were wrong, and I would have probably been wrong too.
David Simon Cowell
There’s a huge difference between plugging in at Newport and doing a Victoria’s Secret commercial… in fact, they’re exactly the opposite. The change to electric was an artist following his instincts, whereas the other is just pure commercialism (not that I’m killing Dylan for it, especially because he has a policy of never turning down a request for one of his songs). But I’m just saying that you can be against one but not against the other.
Right now we are living in a super-whorish time, art vs. commerce-wise. But that doesn’t mean that it will always be so. These things are cyclical… the ’50s were super commercial, the ’60s super-anti. Same with the ’80s and the ’90s. I’m happy to be out of sync until the forces of good cycle back on top again.
I’m not saying that every band that gets together for some reunion shows are purely doing it for the money. I saw Jane’s Addiction in 2001 and they were awesome. I’m going to see Pavement next month. So I’m not exactly Caesar’s wife on this issue. But when bands are only a going concern in order to service nostalgia, i.e. either they don’t make new music or only put out crappy new albums to justify touring, I’m out. And anybody who goes needs to never make fun of Branson, because there’s really no difference.