image from popmatters.com
In recent weeks, VH1 has launched a handful of new episodes of Behind the Music, keying in on artists like Missy Elliott and Ice Cube. The show was a music mainstay in the late ‘90s and the first half of the 21st century with documentaries of the music world’s legends. It became a running cliché that the average episode delved into a band’s humble beginnings in crappy clubs, its sudden rise to fame, the inevitable fall from grace thanks to a member’s drug overdose, and the band’s hopeful comeback.
In 2011, some of yesteryear’s stories could add a new chapter. Pick an established classic rock band which celebrated its heyday in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. The group stubbornly refuses to hang it up, even in the face of less-than-stellar reunions in recent years. The lead singer, to whom the band attributed the lion’s share of its success, has been felled by some strange disease rendering him unable to perform on stage. It’s best if it is an obscure ailment that makes the general public scratch its collective head and say, “never heard of that before. Is that for real?” The band unceremoniously dumps said vocalist. To rub salt in his wounds, they don’t turn to a well-respected veteran (a la Queen tapping Paul Rodgers to sub for Freddie Mercury), but scour YouTube videos for a fresh-faced frontman who has belted out the group’s catalog for a decade in a cover band.
While this may sound like a sequel to the film This Is Spinal Tap, this is no mockumentary. Case in point: Journey. The band got its start in the mid-‘70s as an offshoot of Santana. After three albums and little fanfare, it tapped Steve Perry to helm the mic. His arrival signaled a more pop-oriented sound which peaked with Escape in 1981, an album which secured three top ten US hits. Two more successful albums followed before the band hung it up, seemingly for good.
The group inevitably reunited in 1996. Then the drama began. A hiking injury in the summer of 1997 left Perry needing hip replacement surgery. The intended tour was canceled, but guitarist Neal Schon and keyboardist Jonathan Cain were determined to keep the dream alive (or the paychecks flowing, depending on one’s perspective).
Journey didn’t immediately go the lead-singer-from-cover-band route. After two studio albums, an EP, and two different lead singers, Journey hired Arnel Pineda in 2007. He was the leader for the Zoo when Schon saw him singing covers of Journey songs on YouTube. While haters would love to snicker at the assumed failure of such a proposition, Journey had the last laugh. Its next album, Revelation, went top five and platinum in the US. This was a far cry from the number 170 peak of the Generations album in 2005.
Let’s explore another recent case. Progressive rock band Yes just released Fly from Here, its first studio album in a decade. Since the group’s 1968 inception, nearly 20 musicians can boast I-was-once-in-Yes membership cards. The only constant has been bassist Chris Squire. However, no member has been more associated with the group than Jon Anderson, who sang on all their albums but Drama (1980).
In 2008, Yes reassembled for a summer tour. Anderson had to bow out when he was hospitalized with acute respiratory failure. Once again, the lure of the tour (or the payday it offered) led the remainder of the band to say, “Screw it, the show must go on.” It brought in Benoît David, a Canadian singer with Close to the Edge, which was—say it with me—a Yes cover band. How did Yes stumble across this guy? If you have to ask, you haven’t been paying attention: Squire found him on YouTube.
Perhaps you’re curious to see if Arnel can convince you to “Don’t Stop Believin’”. You can catch Journey out on the road this summer. Interestingly enough, the band is touring with Foreigner. Fans will remember Foreigner as the group with Lou Gramm belting out power ballads like “Waiting for a Girl Like You” and “I Want to Know What Love Is” as well as rockers like “Hot Blooded” and “Urgent”. By the early ‘90s, Gramm left the group. Mick Jones, the band’s only constant, kept things plodding along and Gramm attempted a return by decade’s end, but—here we go again—medical problems affected his singing voice. By 2002, Gramm and Jones parted for good so this summer’s “Juke Box Hero” will be Kelly Hansen. Who? Exactly.
If you want to take in a Yes show this summer, you’ll also find Styx on the bill. This story is getting repetitive. Styx also found its voice in the ‘70s and early ‘80s when founder Dennis DeYoung gave the group its biggest hits via “Babe”, “Come Sail Away”, and “Mr. Roboto”. The group was defunct by the mid ‘80s and muddled through a couple reunions in the ‘90s. Personality conflicts and differences over musical direction escalated. DeYoung contracted a viral illness which left him light-sensitive. The rest of the group opted to continue without him, bringing Lawrence Gowan into the fold to try to convince audiences that these were still “The Best of Times”.
There are two schools of thought on how aging bands should approach their golden years. They can play until they drop, unashamed that the few hairs they have left are gray and that they can no longer strut across a stage without a walker. The more dignified approach would be to accept age and gracefully hang it up, sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch and reminiscing about the other kind of rocking days.
My mocking tone would suggest that I fall into the latter camp. Surprisingly, I’m all for groups beating a dead horse. I say rock until you can’t walk! Sing until your oxygen tank sputters! Wail on that guitar until the arthritis renders your fingers useless stubs.
Here’s the thing: rock ‘n’ rollers don’t just clock out one day and take home a retirement watch. They long to play. Sure, seeing Mick Jagger prance across a stage at 70 may crank up the ick-factor, but here’s the rub: no one has to see the Rolling Stones 40 years past their prime. No one has to watch a Super Bowl half-time show starring half the Who and trying not to think of the irony of Pete Townshend’s most famous lyric ever: “I hope I die before I get old.”
No one is twisting fans’ arms. The audience will always dictate the market. As long as people still buy Journey records or see Yes in concert—even if the numbers are far less than the glory days—then I say, “Play on.” Congrats to Arnel, Benoît, Kelly, and Lawrence. Here’s hoping you can lead your bands into the next generation—when you’ll be old enough to catch a disease of your own and get replaced by the next generation’s cover band sensation found on YouTube.