The wisdom of the ancients

There is no more eloquent testimony to the miracles of modern gerontology than the Rolling Stones being on tour. Well, some of them are – and the truth is that few but the cognoscenti would even notice if the 76-year old Charlie Watts (who once allegedly punched Mick Jagger for saying he was ‘only my drummer’) were to lay down his sticks. To most people, the Glimmer Twins are the band.

But is authenticity music or mensch? The early Stones drew authenticity from the depth of their genuflection to American blues artists – no anxiety of influence here. But just as Chaucer’s citing of Lollius as authority for his re-telling of the tale of Troilus et Criseyde gave way to Ben Jonson’s explicit and considered claim to the authority of authorship for himself in his 1616 Works, The Rolling Stones (2018) exchanged the authority of the blues for the authority of The Rolling Stones (1971) – the time when their greatness was palpable, when their music defied one generation and defined the next. The authorising past, if you like, is themselves.
The Rolling Stones (2018) aren’t the force they were in 1971, so can we still say that the ‘soul’ of a band inheres in its most visible, influential or idiosyncratic members? Yes, if Van Halen, say, were to appear onstage without guitarist Eddie, they would be laughed off the stage regardless of drummer Alex van Halen’s presence, but they are a different band without Diamond Dave. Are King Crimson really anything other than a collection of musicians cohering around Robert Fripp, no matter how much he claims merely to be guitarist in a band so named? Then again, who would choose between Townshend, Moon and Entwistle or Jones, Plant and Page in these terms?
Perhaps it’s in the songwriting? It was this idea that led to John Fogerty being sued by his old record company for writing songs that sounded too much like Creedence Clearwater Revival.
The great bands have a blue period, so to speak. The planets converge, the muses bestow their largesse, and the relationship forged between band and society taps into something more than mere zeitgeist. The fruits of these periods can change the musical and even the political landscape and thus sustain the band’s reputation for decades. Sticky Fingers, Highway to Hell, Nevermind … Real. Raw. Hungry. Creative. Legendary. Before they stop doubting themselves. That’s the band audiences want, safe in the knowledge that they’re witnessing history after the fact. This is the authenticity they crave, the authenticity conferred by time. And it’s the one thing the Rolling Stones in 2018 lack. Because that band has gone. Even if all the original members were to remain this would still be true. And there’s the rub.
When bands reform, they often sound better than ever, and this is due to advances in music technology, band musicianship, and often the absence of a ‘Howie’. Howie was a former member of Pink Floyd’s touring entourage I met playing softball in Florida. I quizzed a (frankly unimpeachable) source. His response? ‘Ah, Howie. I’m surprised he’s still alive, let alone playing softball. He was our ‘Ambience co-ordinator’ … don’t ask.’ I didn’t need to.
Old rock bands never die, they simply divide and go on their separate tours, as vital members peel off to forge solo careers, form tributes to themselves or retire, permanently or otherwise. That name is bankable, but what about the music? It is a powerful individual who can make an audience forget their part in those songs, as anyone going to watch Marillion’s ex-singer Fish can testify. The audience only wants the big hitters to sing the big hits.
Even those few classic bands where the original members are alive and still talking, any performance is about the members – the artist formerly known as. This is what powers the ‘reunion circuit’, in which a group of musicians coalesce around one such ‘original’ and play their tunes under the ‘original’ name (or, depending on its legal ownership, a name incorporating the original name). These bands have an authentic member, but aren’t authentic in any meaningful sense. But, with audiences wanting the big songs from the big era, a delusional ‘star’ can often cloud the issue. After all, their ego may have driven the band’s golden years, but unless they jettison all pretensions to continuing artistic validity they’re just going to get in the way.
And so to the third way. The dedicated tribute band provides a type of living museum exhibit. And with no need to pamper delicate egos or showcase ‘new material’, they can simply cherry-pick the good stuff, distil the band’s essence, reproduce classic sounds, notes, and stage moves from archival resources. They probably sound more like the fantasy band existing in the minds of most fans than the originals ever did. But there’s more to it than this, however. A band’s ‘moment’, its glamour, is the space occupied by past and future, when artist and audience are inseparable. The spell is broken once the artist becomes self-aware and we become us. Or them.
AC/DC belong in a filthy, sweaty club, not in soulless stadia. And their membership is dwindling badly. A good tribute band understands that, and, more than merely reproducing the sound, they perform the glamour in collusion with the audience. If they make use of an original member, an ‘auctor’, it is not to confer authenticity, but to persuade the audience it’s ok to listen: Mick Jagger calls the Counterfeit Stones ‘the most famous Stones band in England.’ Chaucer knew something about this trick of validation: Lollius was a figment of his imagination.
Tribute bands, at their best, aren’t really tributes at all: they are the band. When you want them to be. They are tributes to the you who fashioned, or would like to have fashioned, the zeitgeist all those years ago, to the fact that the soul of band exists in a liminal space between the players and the people.
They are time travellers.

1 thought on “The wisdom of the ancients

  1. Really enjoyed reading this piece, Pete, although I was appaled to read about Fogerty being sued by his old record company for writing songs that sounded too much like CCR! It was his band and he wrote most of their songs, so he kinda would sound like them!

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