Size Matters: the bands with the most members

In this post-White Stripes world of Royal Blood, Drenge and other compact two-pieces, it’s easy to assume the days of the oversized rock band are over. Here Classic Rock pays tribute to the heroes of the big band era: those who've included the largest number of personnel at any one time... and those who've welcomed the most over time.

**Guns N’ Roses **GNR’s total career membership currently stands at 22, including four drummers since Stephen Adler’s exit and no fewer than six guitarists since Slash’s mid-90s departure. Experts believe that this rapid turnover of musicians is likely to continue for as long as Axl Rose is at the helm.

I’m From Barcelona Crazy indie rockers that feature some 28 full-time members (three called Johan, which must cause trouble at rehearsals). They’re so crazy, in fact, that a version of the band’s Get In Line is used to soundtrack a suspiciously Orwellian TV ad for Babybel cheese. Oh, and they’re not from Barcelona. They’re Swedish. The name is a joke, you see.

The Mothers Of Invention Frank Zappa’s band always had a rapid personnel turnover with many members hanging about for just a single tour or album. The Mothers went through some 36 musicians in the ten years up to the last album — Bongo Fury — in 1975. This decade-long span included two periods where the band had actually been disbanded.

Jefferson Airplane/ Starship Etc Etc Etc The long history of these groups is far too convoluted and confusing to go into here. Suffice to say that the three versions of the band have included 42 members in their 49 year history - essentially, a line up change on average every 14 months.

Centipede Ludicrously overstaffed jazz-rock outfit that had connections to the early 70s Canterbury scene. Live shows regularly featured over 50 musicians. One of their three (!) drummers, Robert Wyatt, writing in the sleeve notes to their only album Septober Energy, described the band as “an insane traveling circus”, which proved if nothing else that Centipede (below) were self-aware.

Folkearth This international folk metal ‘project’ is pieced together by contributors from across the globe. Their eleven albums have featured some 72 musicians, many adopting appropriate alter egos. Britain’s representatives have included ‘Athelstan’ and ‘Wulstan’, while the Greek delegate dubs himself ‘Prince Imrahil’. Instruments played by the band include the nyckelharpa, the shawm, and the saz.

Lynyrd Skynyrd The combined total membership of the Southern rockers’ pre-crash and resurrected line-ups now comes in at a whopping 25, although they don’t all contribute to the solo on Freebird. Guitarist Gary Rossington is now the only link to the original group

GWAR Nutcases best known for their very silly costumes and sanguineous live shows. Since forming in 1984, GWAR have had over 25 members pass through their ranks, playing characters such as Nippleus Erectus (the drummer) and Beefcake The Mighty (bass). The current band features none of the original line up. Not that you’d know by looking at them.

Fairport Convention An early example of a band changing their entire line up. A stylistic switch, unavoidable tragedy (a van crash killed original drummer Martin Lamble) and personal differences meant that by 1973 they were a completely different band to their original 1967 line-up, with 17 different musicians passing through in six short years.

**John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers **During the 60s the Bluesbreakers seemed to provide a haven for virtually every major figure in British blues rock. Mayall aside, the Bluesbreakers have featured 16 different guitarists, 13 bassists and 11 drummers, including Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Jack Bruce and Mick Fleetwood. Less a band, more a finishing school for rock legends.

Hawkwind Hawkwind’s total career membership now stands at over 50, including at least one departure due to a drug-induced nervous breakdown (guitarist Huw Lloyd Langton), and another for “playing over other people’s solos” (sax player Nik Turner).

Canned Heat Do Canned Heat hold the record for the most deceased members of an existing band? Nine of the 46 musicians they’ve featured over their half-century are no longer with us. Yet the current band contains two survivors from the line-ups that cut classics On The Road Again and Goin’ Up The Country — drummer Adolfo De La Parra and bassist Larry Taylor.

The Fall Musicians able to describe themselves as ‘ex-Fall’ now number over 60. Many have been sacked by Mark E Smith — long serving guitarist Craig Scanlon was fired for “failure to maintain amps and slovenly appearance”. Others left for more esoteric reasons - in keyboardist Yvonne Pawlett’s case to ‘look after her dog’.

Iron Butterfly The hard rock pioneers haven’t released a studio album since 1975, but if you include the reunions that have taken place intermittently over 40 years then some 60 individuals can count themselves as having been Iron Butterfly members — nearly six football teams’ worth of musicians, which is probably enough for some kind of tournament.

Pigface This industrial “supergroup” started with just two members, but has developed an open-door policy over the years, and at last count 108 musicians could consider themselves to be part of the ever-ballooning ensemble. Their number includes members of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pixies, Faster Pussycat, Napalm Death, Swans and The Dead Kennedys. Bonus trivia: Magician Penn Jillette penned the lyrics to the band’s The Horse You Rode In On, which features more than 60 instances of the word “fuck”.

Blood, Sweat And Tears New York-based jazz rockers best known for their late 60s crossover hits Spinning Wheel and You’ve Made Me So Very Happy. Some sources estimate that they have had 140 ‘members’ since their 1967 formation. That’s the equivalent of three full National Express coaches. Or 46 ZZ Tops.

Will Simpson was Music Editor of the Big Issue South West in Bristol before relocating to Thailand to become Deputy Editor of English language books magazine New Arrivals. Since returning to the UK he's freelanced, writing about music for Classic Rock, IDJ, Metro and Guitarist, and environmental issues for Resource and The Spark. He also writes for contract publishing titles such as Teach, Thomson Air, Musician and Korg.