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Nostalgia for the Future

Photo by Peter MillerWHEN BANDS ARE FORMING, DO their big pop-star dreams include disbanding, regrouping, and cashing in on the past? It's almost a mandatory part of the musician's handbook these days: The inevitable reunion comes roughly five years after the inevitable breakup, which was inevitably spurred by tensions caused by success, drug misadventures and/or creative differences.

After the breakup come typically mediocre-to-embarrassing solo careers, which will provide at least one hit (usually for the lead singer) before the law of averages catches up and said lead singer gradually falls out of step as the musical climate changes and he/she loses his/her grip on whatever it was that was appealing about him/her in the first place. When record deals dry up and the band's new CD is available only in Australia, even the most creative of differences can be miraculously forgotten.

The list of bands that have re-formed is a lot longer than that of those who haven't (God bless the Clash and the Runaways), but it's not surprising, especially now, when issues of cred and legacy have dropped from the rock & roll curriculum. But cred don't pay the rent, and to a rocker who needs the scratch, touring with the old mates behind a greatest-hits package that features crappy outtakes, a soundtrack gig or, if they really get their shit together, an album of new material no one cares about, starts to look pretty good.

The mother lode of reinvention, of course, is landing an episode of VH1's Behind the Music to unearth those bad old days. What better way to show the world you've been through hell and pissed it all away, but you can appreciate and deal with fame so much better now? Lynyrd Skynyrd's horror story is probably that by which all others can be measured: plane crash, guns, drugs, booze, intraband violence. With a big boost from their soap-opera-ish story, they're bigger than ever on the shed-'n'-county-fair circuit. Does it even matter that there's, like, only one original member in the band?

Similarly, the CMC Records has-been factory is a Jurassic Park for geezers who've hit the road in search of past lighter-waving glory (Styx, Night Ranger, Jefferson Starship). Nothing wrong with playing the hits for middle-aged burnouts, but what's up with the Guess Who at the Commerce Casino without Randy Bachman or singer Burton Cummings? Or doesn't it matter to those reaching out for a piece of their lost youth?

Band reunions are hardly a new concept, though. They've polluted stages like the Greek Theater almost from the moment Art Laboe discovered a market for nostalgia and released his Oldies but Goodies records. In pre-MTV days, it wasn't uncommon for several versions of, say, the Coasters, to tour the States simultaneously, all answering to the savvy businessperson who owns the rights to the band name.

The summer touring season is upon us, and there's no shortage of re-formed bands to choose from. To wit: Poison's on a bill with Ratt and Great White, and Human League has hit the road with General Public -- "singing the songs of the English Beat," according to a press release. Apparently, though, Dave Wakeling has something of a conscience. While it would only take himself and Ranking Roger to resuscitate General Public, Wakeling says he's waiting for Dave Steele to free himself from a solo project to bring back the Beat. Yeah, but what about Andy Cox?

WITH '80S BANDS LIKE BAUHAUS, Blondie, the Plimsouls, Bow Wow Wow, Missing Persons and Madness feeding our collective yearning for old "modern" rock, pop truly is engorging itself. It's the classic rock of tomorrow, perpetuated by so many KROQ-flashback weekends. Given the one-hit nature of today's so-called alternative bands, don't be surprised if, in a few years, eternal teenager Richard Blade takes his own caravan on the road, Art Laboe­style.

Bands considering regrouping, such as the Bangles and Eurythmics, could learn a thing or two from the Go-Go's, who are now, essentially, a professional reunion outfit: They recently reconvened a third time to crank out those bubbly '80s hits up and down the West Coast. For "modern" rock acts, the Go-Go's are the template. They sold bucketloads of records without abandoning their soul. Then, after breaking up for all the usual reasons (see above) in 1985, the predictable solo ventures followed. The girls regrouped in 1991 to shill a hits disc, and once again in 1994, raiding the vaults for a larger comp, Return to the Valley of the Go-Go's, containing hits, odds & sods, and three promising-enough new tracks.

This time, though, there's nothing to sell, not even Behind the Music; it's merely a chance for us aging fans to time-travel and get misty-eyed. But, like poring through our high school yearbook 20 years later, it's a point of no return that not only stunts the progress of popular music, but also contributes to our own obsolescence. As Satchel Paige once said, "Don't look back. Something may be gaining on you."


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