Oh, Look! Another Opportunity to Argue About Reunion Tours!

05/07/2010 3:13 PM |

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It’s already been well-documented around these parts, but I’ve always had sort of a difficult time with the idea of the reunion tour. I’ve complained endlessly about the Pixies and their shameless, multi-pronged cash-grabs, I thought the whole Sex Pistols thing was a joke, and I genuinely hope two of my favorite bands of all time—The Replacements and Jawbreaker—never take the stage again, despite considerable demand for it. If they do I’ll go, of course (just as I’m going to see Pavement this summer), and I’ll even forgive them for it, assuming they go about it with some semblance of decency. As opposed to, you know, the Pixies.

Anyway, it’s a complicated issue that lots of people feel very strongly about, including veteran rock critic Michael Azerrad, who writes at length about it here. He argues, as I have, that if a reunion continues for too long without producing any new music, it can get ugly:

It’s one thing if the band is making new music, but if they’re just playing an entire album in order or just playing the “hits” without even bothering to reinterpret them because the audience expects faithful versions, then they’re just a human jukebox, a tribute band to themselves. At that point it’s about being a museum exhibit, fulfilling expectations instead of challenging them. And that’s no better than the Who or Eric Clapton or Pink Floyd trotting out the warhorses for paunchy, affluent boomers eager to relive past glories and erase, if only temporarily, their boring, past-it present.

I realize even this is a difficult argument to make in this day and age, because surely a huge percentage of today’s biggest indie-rock bands, would say they have no problem with the Clapton/Floyd/Who thing. I don’t know if it’s a genuine lack of principals, or if it’s simply self-preservation—either way, we’re going to be dealing with the reunion tour thing for a very long time.

Azerrad makes one other interesting point, not about the artists’ willingness get the old band back together, but about the public’s increasing demand for them to do so:

The iTunes Age has brought even the most casual music fan a few mouse clicks away from heaps of obscure but legendary music that they missed the first time around. Now, those bands have vastly bigger audiences — like, orders of magnitude bigger — years and sometimes even decades after they broke up. Consumers from this large on-demand culture not only want but expect to see the bands they missed, to rewrite their own personal musical history so that yes, check, they have seen the seminal rock band the Pixies. Goaded by an endless stream of reissues, they holler and stamp their virtual feet for these bands to return to the stage.

He goes on to liken it to the uptick in vinyl sales over the past bunch of years, citing a “yearning for a second chance to possess something you missed out, nostalgia for something you didn’t experience.” He’s right, and it’s scary: the beauty of things is that they can be collected and examined and experienced for what they were, and because they are still exactly that, they can transport you to the time you’re nostalgic for. Real living people generally cannot do the same, and that’s ok. We should stop asking them to try.

6 Comment

  • You say, “surely a huge percentage of today’s biggest indie-rock bands, would say they have no problem with the Clapton/Floyd/Who thing”. And I have an honest question: isn’t there, in fact, a difference? Because Clapton and Pink Floyd and The Who actually *made money* the first time around, as opposed to the (if we’re honest) semi-obscure college-rock bands at issue here.

    (Azzerad’s example of a cult band who suddenly discover that they’re big–The Clean, say–is a similar example. And then, in a few years, when the first wave of download-era bands hits the nostalgia circuit, then we’ll *really* have to have this conversation, like *all the damn time*, because Matt Berninger still worked as a graphic designer even after Boxer started picking up steam.)

    The reunion tour is somewhat analogous to licensing your music for commercials, which people like Joe Strummer used to decry as the height of hypocrisy, and which is now generally considered, by indie bands, as one of the few ways left to actually support yourself financially with your art (and be heard by people who still buy music).

    In America, especially in the digital age, we haven’t yet recognized that making art is a job even if it’s not financially remunerative. And so until we, like the Scandinavians, subsidize indie-pop, we’re going to have to continue talking about where to draw the line between what’s appropriate and what’s selling out.

  • Well, here’s the thing: those bands wrote the rulebook (or, literally the lyrics: “I hope I die before I get old”) for how rock bands should act, and then they broke every rule in it as they continued, as Azerrad put it, “trotting out the warhorses” every night, for tons and tons of money. And I worry that we’ve created an environment where because one generation of bands wound up ditching its principals, we slowly lower our standards for everyone else. I know it’s really, really difficult to ignore the fact that bands don’t make any money anymore, and I know it’s probably foolish to hold everyone to the standard set by Westerberg and the Replacements, but, actually, maybe it’s not.

  • Yeah, Paul and the Mats seem unlikely to sell out now, given how poorly selling out (or trying to) worked for them the first time.

    I think a difference between the rule-breakers and the new crop is that the new crop has a different–post-punk, post-modern–set of standards about integrity. (Which is probably a worse standard. I mean if we’re honest about ourselves, and capitalism.) (Which we are–honest, I mean–if we’re guilty enough to canonize St. Joe Strummer.) (Who like Westerberg is unimpeachable partly because of his own scared-straight experiences with Selling Out.)

    I’m with you, I think it’s pathetic until you start writing new material (you know, David Bowie is still *really* cool, even playing “Heroes” at Madison Square Garden), but I’m also younger and so it’s cool and new for me to see Pavement and the Pixies, for reasons Azzerad said and other ones. I probably won’t be checking out the “Back to the Futureheads” tour in 15 years, though. At least I hope not. But I guess I wouldn’t blame my theoretical future younger coworker for doing so. How I’ll feel about the band for doing it remains, I suppose, to be seen.

    Much depends on how one feels about one’s own personal aging process, I expect. You just had a kid, and have always seemed to me–in life and in your writing, like that Stay Positive review–to be the kind of person who thinks people should, in general, grow up. This strikes me as honorable, and not ungermane to our present discussion.

  • if you play in a band, and you wrote the songs/music, you are entitled to do what you please. if there is a demand and you enjoy doing it. why the hell not? the people who are precious about these bands need to get over themselves.
    pixies are still a great live act. the doolittle tour, though i prefer an element of surprise, is a repackaged concept which includesd an individual video for each song. these being int une with the artwork that donned the album sleeve.
    yes, they have admitted the money comes in well handy, as so did the sex pistols. at least there is some honesty there. then again, as steve jones once put it, why shouldnt he get to play songs he loved and still loves, when he never wanted to band to split up anyway. its called having fun and getting your righful payday at the same time. if any band ever earned that, it was the pistols.
    the pixies reunion gigs have been very good, not half assed and value for money. the mumblings of new material has ended up muted due to the fear of just performing cameos of themselves. so at least they care about the content/art, and aint just recording anything, which we all know any fan would buy. maybe they would be disappointed, but the band would cash in.they have spared us that at least.

  • There is no graceful or principled way to have a reunion tour, period. Pavement are just going to embarrass themselves. If you’re not old enough to have seen the Pixies first time around, get over it. I wasn’t old enough to see the Who in their prime and I don’t fuckin’ cry about it or try to generate / support some half-assed replication in order to feel cool.

  • Also, I have news for you guys: 90% of the time the Replacements SUCKED SUCKED SUCKED live.