Originally published in my "Aural Fixation
" column on PopMatters.com on June 21, 2012. See original post here
Rolling Stones publicity photo, image from popmatters.com
The Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Metallica and other rock groups have been around for decades. What are the keys to their longevity?
In 1986, the Beach Boys had a sturdy discography built on surf-pop gems like “Good Vibrations,” “California Dreamin’,” and “Surfin’ U.S.A.” They were closing in on their 25th anniversary, but with their last top ten hit a decade behind them, they were in danger of becoming an embarrassing nostalgia act. Their last couple singles hadn’t even cracked the top 40. Obviously their days were numbered.
That same year, the Rolling Stones’ Dirty Work album was the most panned of their career. Guitarist Keith Richards was feuding with singer Mick Jagger, who wouldn’t tour to support the new album because he was off doing a solo thing. The band was rumored to be on the verge of breaking up.
Meanwhile, a group named Metallica released their third album, Master of Puppets. It was hailed as a classic of the heavy metal genre, seemingly positioning the band for even bigger and better things. Then a bus crash killed bassist Cliff Burton.
Metallica, the Cliff Burton years; image from loudwire.com
A funny thing happened over the next few years, though. These groups wouldn’t go away. The Beach Boys landed their first #1 song on the Billboard charts in 22 years with 1988’s “Kokomo.” The Rolling Stones patched up their differences and stormed back into the limelight in 1989 with a massive tour in support of the return-to-form album, Steel Wheels. Metallica enlisted a new bassist and landed their first top-ten album with 1988’s …And Justice for All.
Fast forward to 2012 and these bands are still around. To celebrate their golden anniversary, the Beach Boys have launched a major tour, and gifted the world with their first studio album, That’s Why God Made the Radio, in 16 years.
Technically it shouldn’t be called an anniversary since the current lineup of Brian Wilson, Mike Love, David Marks, Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston never performed together on a public stage prior to the 2012 Grammys. That is nit-picky, though, since all five “boys” have rich histories with the band. Wilson formed the band in 1961 with his brothers Dennis and Carl (who died in 1983 and 1998 respectively) as well as cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine. Brian did his last full tour with the band in 1965 at which point Johnston came on board. Marks was an early member who left in 1963 but returned in 1997. Jardine returns to the fold after a 14-year absence.
You have to offer kudos to a band who’s ridden the waves for so many years. Theirs is a remarkably rare feat. Today’s kiddos – and I’m talking about of-the-moment boy bands like One Direction and The Wanted – can learn a few lessons from the old foagies like the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Metallica and others if they want to still be kicking in 2062. For the record, I don’t expect either of those groups to last ten years, much less fifty, but if they follow these tips they might just surprise me.
Maintain a core.
Like the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones have endured roster changes over the years, but maintained a basic core for five decades. The audience of less than a hundred on that first historic night witnessed the seemingly indestructible Keith Richards riff on his guitar while Mick Jagger waggled those famous lips. By January 1963, drummer Charlie Watts joined and the trio have anchored the group ever since. The newbie of the group, guitarist Ronnie Wood, signed on in 1975.
A year after Wood joined the Biggest Band in the World, a quartet of Irish lads formed the band which would eventually wrestle that title away from the Stones. Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr. formed U2 and have stayed together ever since. Think of it this way – it has become a rarity for anyone to retire from a job after 36 years of service. Imagine if four guys at the same company collected their gold watches at once.
U2, image from brainz.org
Take vacations, but let fans know you’re coming back.
Even millionaire musicians are entitled to occasional breaks. There’s no way the Beach Boys or the Stones could keep up the grueling pace of touring and releasing a couple albums a year like they did at the onset. As the decades roll on, the gaps between projects grow wider. The Stones graced us with their last studio effort, A Bigger Bang, in 2005 and the subsequent tour wrapped two years later.
The difference in a long layoff being labeled as a “break” or a “break up” comes down to public perception – and how much dirty laundry the band members air. When the Eagles went on hiatus in 1980, Don Henley famously stated the band would get back together again when Hell froze over. People definitely considered the band kaput, a point which Glenn Frey jokingly referenced on the band’s live 1994 album with the tongue-in-cheek title Hell Freezes Over: “For the record, we never broke up. We just took a fourteen-year vacation.”
the Eagles on the Hell Freezes Over tour, image from glennfreyonline.com
Stay together for the kids.
The relationships amongst band members can resemble the for-better-or-worse nature of a romantic couple. Sturdier bands withstand the rocky times, knowing the kids (or the fans) depend on them. The Stones’ near break-up of ’86 was one of many Jagger and Richards squabbles. They most recently tangled over the latter’s 2010 no-holds-barred autobiography, Life, but never to the point that fans thought it was over. There’s still serious talk of a tour and maybe even an album next year.
Metallica has now thrilled the world for 30+ years by unleashing aggression through thrashing guitars and ear-crunching vocals. However, in 2004 they took the very un-heavy-metal move of releasing a documentary, Some Kind of Monster, which keyed in on their group therapy. Even the toughest of rockers have to talk out their feelings to keep the relationship going.
What else are you gonna do?
Bono stated in a Daily Mail article (“‘Til death do them part: Bono believes unshakable U2 will stay together until they die”, 9 September 2011) that he believed the members were so defined by their band roles that they are otherwise “unemployable.” He continued, saying, “There’s only one way out, in a coffin.”
The dedication to music at all costs has never been captured better than in the 2008 documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil. The titular Canadian heavy metal band formed in 1978 and seemed on the brink of success in 1984. The movie shows them enduring the humilities of paltry audiences, sleeping in train stations, and scuffling with bar owners who won’t pay them. Their big dream hasn’t happened, but they refuse to quit. Singer Steve “Lips” Kudlow said, “I started out with Rob when I was 14 years old and we said we’re gonna do it ‘til we’re old men. We really meant that.”
Richards says in Life, “There’s something beautifully friendly and elevating about a bunch of guys playing music together…It’s really teamwork, one guy supporting the others, and it’s all for one purpose.”
The Four Tops, image from thefourtopsoriginal.com
The Four Tops made some of the biggest hits during Motown’s 1960s heyday with gems like “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” and “I Can’t Help Myself”. Until the passing of member Lawrence Payton in 1997, they’d kept the same lineup for 44 years. Years ago, a Eugene Register-Guard article (“The Four Tops come spinning to town”, 2 December 1988) discussed their endurance, citing their bio which read, “They were never greedy, never riddled by egotism or impatience, and never lost sight of what they wanted to do most: sing!”
Share the same sense of ethics and mission.
Since 1974, Rush (who just released Clockwork Angels) have maintained the same lineup of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neal Peart. Their Wikipedia page credits the rock trio’s strong work ethic and commitments to philanthropic causes.
An article at amanet.org article (“Great Teams: The Extraordinary Unity of U2”, 20 August 2008) asserts that keys to U2’s longevity include their similar values, shared mission, and consensus-oriented decision-making style. The Daily Mail article quoted Bono saying U2 had “a kind of belligerent respect” for each other.
Let tragedy unite you.
The amanet.org article also acknowledges the role tragedy can have in bringing a group closer together. Bono’s mother died when he was 14; Mullen lost his mom when he was 16. Through their grief, the two became very supportive friends. Later, the band rallied around Clayton to support his battle against drug and alcohol addiction.
image from guardian.co.uk
Like Metallica, other bands have rallied back from the death of a member. AC/DC may have the most phenomenal story. Brothers Angus and Malcolm Young formed the hard-rock outfit in 1973. Acute alcohol poisoning took the life of lead singer, Bon Scott, in February 1980 and seemingly sank the group’s ship just sailing into international waters. A mere six months later Back in Black, featuring new frontman Brian Johnson, made it clear the group was still afloat. 32 years later, the band is still electrifying audiences the world over and Back has put them firmly in the black: the album’s 49 million in worldwide sales is second all-time only to Michael Jackson’s Thriller (“The World’s Top 100 All-Time Best-Selling Albums”, 20 February 2012).
Hey, you’ve got a legacy to uphold – and bucks to be made.
With the exception of Anvil, the bands spotlighted here haven’t just stuck around for decades, but been hugely successful. It’s hard to keep playing if no one comes to see you. At ajc.com, Melissa Ruggieri (“The Beach Boys display fine-tuned nostalgia on anniversary tour”, 29 April 2012) sums up the Beach Boys concert trek: “There is one point to a 50th anniversary tour: nostalgia.”
The Rolling Stones, U2, Metallica, Rush, AC/DC, and other bands with thirty or more candles on their birthday cakes, aren’t new to the party. Their days of being hailed as “the next big thing” are long gone. However, these bands have entered another phase of their musical lives: fans want to see these rock and roll legends before they’re gone.
Surely it is more likely that in another quarter century, The Wanted or One Direction will still be around while the Rolling Stones’ rocking years and the Beach Boys days of harmonizing will be long behind them. Then again, there’s a long-standing joke that when the world ends the only thing left will be cock roaches and Keith Richards. Here’s hoping cock roaches know how to appreciate a good guitar solo.