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Why Band Reunions Happen (and Why Most of Them Shouldn’t)

Why Band Reunions Happen (and Why Most of Them Shouldn’t): Clockwise: Guns N’ Roses, Duran Duran, The Misfits and Outkast

Clockwise: Guns N’ Roses, Duran Duran, The Misfits and Outkast

2016 has been a strange year for popular music. On the one hand, a seemingly record number of icon deaths transpired within the first five months, most notably David Bowie and Prince. It was as if the music apocalypse had come. On the flip side, a large number of classic band reunions were announced, including the Guns n’ Roses semi-reunion, the original Alice Cooper group and the Misfits with Glenn Danzig—the latter two both decades in the making. Whether this latter fact is in direct correlation with the first remains unclear, but as we become an increasingly nostalgic culture, and with younger listeners consuming more retro music than before, the time is ripe for revered artists to make their comeback. Before it’s too late.

Let’s not kid ourselves though: The main motivator driving any reunion is cold, hard cash. It’s wise for aging stars to sock away something for retirement. The current economic realities of the music industry have dictated that waning back catalog sales and paltry streaming revenues will not provide a comfortable nest egg for one’s golden years (unless you’re already sitting on a fortune). Hitting the road, putting butts in seats and hawking merch will ease the burden—and possibly come with the bonus of fans getting their money’s worth.

Now that the Axl/Slash feud is allegedly over, GNR’s Not In This Lifetime tour reportedly requested up to $3 million per show this summer, which is possible given the steep ticket prices that many fans will undoubtedly pay. When singer Bruce Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith returned to Iron Maiden in 1999, the band sold a $30 million securitization against future back-catalog sales to creditors—a nice incentive to hit the road again. Thanks to regular tours and new albums, they are arguably the most popular metal band in the world now. And when The Eagles returned for the first time in 1994, their Hell Freezes Over tour was a massive success, with the live album selling over 11 million copies worldwide, while their three-year Long Road Out of Eden tour from 2008-2011 ranks among the 20 highest grossing tours ever.

Of course, the money monster can have its dark side. Outkast’s Andre 3000 admitted that their 2014 reunion was, at least for him, a cash grab given his family and financial obligations. Many felt sensed that reality at shows. Dokken drummer Mick Brown openly admitted that his band’s reunion, announced early this week, is mainly driven by money as some of their past personality clashes still exist. In his tragically honest words…

It’s the money we’re doing it for and I think that’s the wrong reason. The reason should be we want to play together—and I don’t think anyone wants to play together—but the money we’re being offered to do it, you just can’t say no.[via One On One with Mitch Lafon]

He wishes it weren’t different, but the dough is too good. The intermittent Fugees reunion between 2004 and 2006 barely began before it ended, while the Jane’s Addiction and Rage Against the Machine resurrections have gone in and fits and starts, and in the latter case, produced no new music. (This, of all years, would be the opportune time for new Rage; presumably the related supergroup Prophets Of Rage will do the trick.)

It would be cynical to presume that Benjamins are the only reason to get the gang back together. Facing one’s mortality can change your perspective, and many band members do sincerely want to reunite for their passion of playing live, to make new music and to reclaim former glory. To that end, Duran Duran’s 2010 album All You Need Is Now ranks among the best of their career. Of course, they never actually broke up; they simply lost original band members to attrition, then reconvened the classic assemblage in 2001, which had not actually played together for 15 years (although some later line-ups did well). Original guitarist Andy Taylor departed again after the first reunion album, but that has not slowed the band’s growth or touring. Many veteran musicians can have that spark rekindled, and as long as the band and their fans are happy, it’s all good, right?

That leads us to the incomplete reunions. Take the recent current GNR lineup, featuring three out of five original members, and Van Halen without bassist Michael Anthony. Then there’s Alice In Chains who, understandably, have replaced their deceased lead singer with new blood. And let’s not forget Axl Rose replacing Brian Johnson in AC/DC or Chester Bennington taking over for the then still living Scott Weiland in Stone Temple Pilots.

But the fact remains that, regardless of some of these configurations, many people want to see their aging heroes because it pulls them back to their youth. No matter what anyone will tell you, people generally think the music from the era they grew up in is the best, which is why they inevitably keep listening to and seeing their childhood favorites.

Let’s be real: Most rock and pop stars do not age well. The nostalgia effect can go the other way when one views their once youthful heroes looking ragged and frail. Rock ‘n’ roll in particular may not need to age gracefully, but there is a point at which some practitioners should hang it up—or face the grim prospect of onstage fatigue, teleprompters, audience sing-alongs to save the singer’s voice and spills offstage captured on a thousand iPhones. (If you want to see a funny, bittersweet look at an old band revving awkwardly back into action [plus Bill Nighy in makeup], watch Still Crazy. It’s spot on.)

Then there are the reunions that have never happened, the ones that excite fans and make promoters and agents drool over fortunes to come, but teeter on the cusp of Hell freezing over. The Runaways dissolution in 1979 seems permanent, particularly given recent tensions in the press. The Cocteau Twins reunion planned for Coachella (and then a lengthy tour) in 2005 was rescinded and never revisited. The Smiths have reportedly turned down offers in the millions for a reunion tour; evidently bad blood still boils. Former ABBA member Frida Lyngstad revealed in 2014 that the Swedish pop megastars, who are now in their mid-sixties to early seventies, turned down a billion dollar offer to reunite, reasonably citing lack of energy and motivation. These utterly justifiable choices are more the exception than the rule, especially when every long- and short-term hit machine has been cashing in on past glories. Can anyone explain why the world needs Limp Bizkit again?

I have long argued that classic artists can still release good music; fans just need to be open to it and listen with fresh ears. That said, a reunion can be deadly if the band’s heart isn’t fully in it. Beyond the filthy lucre, media spin and fan expectations, a classic group can not only rekindle the old magic and restore their former glory, but they can grow as artists if they so desire. Others can crash and burn, sullying their good name if they fuck it up, and that just bums everyone out. It’s a precarious position to be in. Obviously it’s not just about cash; the motive, means and opportunity have to extend to a genuine desire to rock the house right.

So for all your veteran musicians getting the guys and gals back together again for that trip down memory lane: the stage has been the set, the anticipation runs high and the chance for renewed greatness beckons. What you choose to do with it is up to you.

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