Last week saw the 10th anniversary Blu-Ray reissue of Metallica’s Some Kind of Monster. As we probably don’t need to tell you, this is one of the all-time great rock documentaries. Focusing on the making of their less-than-classic album St Anger, it has all the tantrums and passive aggression you could ask for plus the welcome bonus of a live-in psychologist in atrocious knitwear who wants to help with the lyrics. Viewed a decade on, though, what’s most striking is that the paradox at its heart – that the band will go to any lengths to remain in the situation that makes them miserable and angry – is more relevant than ever. Why can’t they just break up the band?
The answer, of course, is that bands don’t break up anymore, and no one retires. They may take time out or go “on hiatus” but if they ever did make the mistake of going their separate ways, you can be sure they’ll reform pretty sharpish. This has become so ingrained that it’s hard to believe that in the 80s, before Live Aid rebooted the stadium gig, rock musicians worried about how long they could keep going. It’s only recently that they all decided the answer was “as long as we can”.
This year a couple of the big players have started saying they might be reaching that point. Pink Floyd declared that their new (well, new-ish) album The Endless River will be their last. Ozzy Osbourne said that he’d be doing “one more Black Sabbath tour, one more Black Sabbath album, and then we’re disbanding the name, I believe”. That “I believe” is the point, though – it makes it about as definitive as a Frank Sinatra farewell tour. Ozzy knows he has to keep his options open because if he doesn’t fancy it, they’ll simply get Ronnie James Dio back in hologram form. If that doesn’t work, it’ll have to be Tony Martin. Or David Donato.
Death really is the only obstacle here, and there are even ways around that. Preparing to rock you in the biggest halls in the UK this January are Queen, fronted by Adam Lambert, an American Idol runner-up who was nine when Freddie Mercury died. For a “heritage act”, as Journey and Judas Priest showed before, hiring an imitator like this, whether from a talent show or a tribute act, has huge advantages over getting a new singer who may have his own style and possibly his own ideas.
And if the singer can be replaced then the other band musicians are so many spare parts. Like Menudo, the Latin American boyband that replaced any member as soon as he reached 16, bands can be gradually renewed until nothing remains but the songs. This has already started: Dr Feelgood have had no original members for 20 years, while Robert John Godfrey, the only remaining original member of prog perennials The Enid, has announced that his youthful band will carry on after his imminent retirement. Jon Anderson said much the same about Yes a while back, though admittedly that was before he lost his place to a tribute-band member himself. Think of it as the rock version of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, which has been Chattanooga Choo-Choo-ing for the best part of 70 years since its titular leader disappeared.
Queen, never ones to miss an opportunity to extend the brand, are leading the way. Roger Taylor has overseen the formation of an official Queen tribute band, The Queen Extravaganza, who will tour where he and Brian May can’t or won’t, while giving them a cut of the cash. It makes sense in a world where gig venues are full of Antarctic Monkeys, Kast Off Kinks and Clone Roses: why shouldn’t the originals get a piece of the action, just as Andrew Lloyd-Webber does for every production of Phantom of the Opera?
The Who seem to be thinking about it too. Before their current tour, Roger Daltrey confessed that this was the start of “the long goodbye”, saying “I don’t know how long my voice will last.” They then celebrated their 50th anniversary with a show in which singers from Eddie Vedder to Liam Gallagher sang the hits with the current touring version of the group. Pete Townshend didn’t even turn up.
Maybe we don’t need him. Our obsession with seeing in concert the exact same people who played on our favourite records only dates back about as long as The Who. Before then, we were happy enough to hear anyone sing a good tune, and sales of a hit song were often divided between two or more rival versions. Since The Beatles, we’ve been hung up on the idea that only the originals can play a song properly; the truth is that now, although we may be in the same (very big) room as our heroes, what we’re hearing is a pale imitation of their younger selves.
Rather than The Beatles, a better model for what we want now might be The Bootleg Beatles. After all, they’ve played the songs literally thousands of times more than their composers, and with the advantage of being able to hear themselves when they did so. What’s more, tribute acts put on the show we want to see. Not only will all those Pink Floyd tributes play the Roger Waters bits, they won’t spend half the gig on the new album you don’t care about. This week, there were enough people up for this that Brit Floyd played Wembley Arena (and they’re not even the best-known Floyd tribute). Likewise, there are so many Genesis tributes that you can now choose your era: there’s Mama, who call themselves the “all-era” choice, G2 who “specialize in the Seconds Out tour of 1978”, and The Musical Box from Canada, who recreate Selling England By The Pound and Foxtrot. The list goes on.
That kind of obsessive recreation of very specific moments in musical history may well prove to be a passing nostalgia, along with all those whole albums played in track order. What will remain, though, is our desire to hear the greatest hits played live. The question is how much we care who’s doing it. Why shouldn’t classic rock become more like theatre, with ever-changing personnel producing the same show in their own way? Imagine the freedom it could give to rock’s giants, currently burdened by the weight of their past. If someone else is taking care of the legacy they can leave the band, let go of the past and find new worlds to conquer. Perhaps someone should introduce Metallica to Sandman, Mentallica, Metalleeka and Damaged Inc.