Clip: Ratliff on reunions
Not Reunions, Reinventions (Back and Better. Really.)
By BEN RATLIFF
Published: April 22, 2007
WAS that a queasy feeling you had recently, when you authorized
payment on a $300 ticket for this summer's Police reunion concert?
What about that weird web of logic that made $249 for a three-day pass
to the Coachella Festival next weekend seem an allowable expense,
because you'd be seeing Rage Against the Machine, the radical-leftist
punk-funk band that wrote timely songs challenging the domination of
real-life power structures ... until 2000, when it ceased to exist?
And was that a shadow across your face the other day, when your
friends were talking about the greatest rock shows ever, and someone
asked if you'd ever seen the Pixies? "Yes," you said, brightly. But
you qualified that. "I saw them on their second reunion tour in 2005,"
you murmured. Then you left the room, looking guilty.
We are going to have to come to terms with all these feelings, because
reunion shows will soon become a much more normal concertgoing
experience than we ever knew. More than that: I think we can meet them
with an open mind.
If these reunited bands meant something to you in an earlier time,
perhaps you're feeling the dirty power of money, or the lameness of
aging. (Maybe you really can afford that ticket now. Maybe it isn't
such a drag to drive to the stadium. At least you know there's
parking.) Perhaps some part of you tells you that you don't deserve
it; you didn't put in your time in the rooms where that band started
out, at CBGB, or the Rat, or North London Polytechnic, or wherever.
Or maybe something about these events feels broadly, even comically,
illegitimate. Aren't we supposed to form a community of taste around
living culture, not afterlife culture? Isn't a great band supposed to
be more than just a band, but an embodiment of a particular age, a
state of mind, a place? How do you identify, then, with an aging act
whose members are well past their original states of mind, have mostly
relocated to sunnier places, and whose prime motivation would appear
to be making money through entertainment consortiums like AEG Live,
which controls Goldenvoice, the concert promoter behind the Coachella
Valley Music and Arts festival in California, and the pathbreaker in
the marketing of recent-past reunions? And aren't, say, 15 years of
inactivity required before a reunion can be considered desirable?
Unless you are a lawyer or a promoter for one of these bands, all you
have is your ears. Despite all the bien-pensant hand-wringing about
how reunions smell fishy, a band is a band. It is not more powerful
than the sound it generates on a certain stage at a certain hour, its
grooves and tones and tension and release. It is made of musicians who
are considered young for a while, and then become older. They play in
a club, then maybe a stadium, and then maybe a club again. They have
money disputes, or they don't want to look at one another for a while,
and they stop. Then the market changes in their favor, and they play
When Rage Against the Machine became popular in the '90s, it seemed
disconcerting that many of the band's fans wanted to hear the sound of
a metal chair bashed on a concrete floor rather than be alerted to new
methods of revolutionary praxis. But it wasn't the fans' fault: They
were slaves to the whomp of that fuzz and funk, and the rhythm and
pitch of Zack de la Rocha's hectoring whine. The band's sound eclipsed
the higher brain functions, at least for a few minutes at a time.
More and more of my working life, it seems, is predicated on whether I
can find a band playing a song for the 4,000th time to be in any
degree convincing. I do, increasingly. I used to feel allergic to
reunions. For each band I'd seen in its prime, I had an image in my
mind and thought it worth protecting. Worse yet, I grew skeptical of
bands as they moved past the 20-year mark.
But those shows over the last few years by the reunited Pixies and
Stooges, they were loud and rude and fantastic. And they were
judicious. Through their set lists, they located the potential
excitement in the task of explaining what the bands had been all
It was a fundamentally weird decision for each of those bands to
re-form earlier this decade. I don't mean that they didn't know a
dollar when they saw it. Issues of credibility run to the marrow of a
band like the Pixies. Now that we're into the era of indie-rock
reunions, we have to realize the bohemian rock culture of the '80s
nurtured the idea that credibility is more important than money, even
more so than the bohemian rock culture of the '60s had. But the Pixies
and the Stooges were examples of reunions that ended up being more
successful than a band's original iteration. This is the part that
seems new, and this is the part we will likely see more often, as long
as a band has the platform of a Coachella or a Bonnaroo — or any of
the other sophisticated new festivals — to stage its rebirth.
This summer, Smashing Pumpkins — O.K., two of the four original
members — will tour for the first time in seven years, one of several
high-profile bands to do so.
If you had working knowledge of the Pixies' and Stooges' albums, you
may have been stunned by how sophisticated live sound has become since
those bands disappeared the first time, and how they have adapted the
advances to their own needs. And what about the best of those who
never formally went away — a band like Slayer, a performer like
Prince? They carry so much maturity after more than 20 years that even
if they don't retain perpetual youth, they have something that might
be more important: complete control over their own sound.
I realize that this view might seem to decontextualize music, and even
depoliticize it, which might be problematic with Rage Against the
Machine. But isn't it more accurate to see music as music, and not as
philosophy or policy? (Put it another way: If you admired Rage
specifically for being a forthright radical-left political band, how
could you ever forgive it for being absent through George W. Bush's
presidency to this point, only showing up after the Democratic
landslide of the midterm elections?)
There's nothing new about an aura around a cultural event growing in
proportion to the unlikeliness of its happening. Long before the
Pixies, Pete Seeger, with the reconvened Weavers, sold out Carnegie
Hall in 1955. Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli's recordings
from 1946 can seem to have a bittersweet, lived-in feeling, made after
the two musicians were geographically separated by war for some years.
Gilbert and Sullivan's reunion operetta, "Utopia Limited" in 1893,
benefited at the time from publicity about its circumstances: It
followed a two-year breakup between Gilbert and Sullivan provoked by a
But there really is a lot of high-profile reuniting this summer: the
Police will begin its first tour in 21 years. Genesis will tour for
the first time in 15; Crowded House, 11; the Jesus and Mary Chain, 9;
Squeeze, 8; Rage Against the Machine, 7; Smashing Pumpkins — if you
count two of four members a reunion — 7. The members of the original
Van Halen nearly made it to the starting gate for the first time in 22
years, but called their summer tour off in February.
There are clear reasons for this trend. We're seeing the winnowing of
the live-music era in America, as well as the end of belief in the
album. Any crisis of belief leads to sanctification and orthodoxy;
people want to see the saints work their magic. Ashley Capps, who
helps produce mid-June's Bonnaroo festival in Manchester, Tenn. —
which has booked the Police as one of its headliners this year — put
it in a slightly simpler way. "When I was growing up, the release of
an album was an event," he said. "We've moved away from the notion
that the release of a recording is an event. Somebody can release a
great album and get fantastic reviews and everybody's talking about
it, but how long does that last? Six weeks? In that sense, live
performances are becoming the important event."
Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, the concert-industry magazine,
is so used to old acts propping up the industry that he doesn't
believe this year's picture is substantially different. "Last year you
had Bob Seger, this year you have Genesis," he said evenly over the
phone recently. He is not sure whether new bands — Arcade Fire, say —
are striking deeply enough into the soul of the culture to necessitate
their own reunions down the road. I think context will determine it.
If there are lots of great new bands in the next 10 years, we won't
feel we need an Arcade Fire reunion. If there aren't, we will.
It seems now that the audience position for rock is coming closer to
that of jazz around the mid-1970s. Most of the forefathers are still
with us; increasingly, they seem to have something important to teach
us. And we are developing strange hungers for music of the
not-so-distant past that might be bigger and deeper than the hunger we
originally had. That feeling people talked about during the Pixies
shows a few years ago — the word "eerie" was used a great deal — seems
similar to descriptions of the feeling generated in the Village
Vanguard when Dexter Gordon played his comeback shows there in 1976,
after living abroad. Since then, jazz has advanced into a culture of
incessant re-experience, endless tributes. Actual reunions are barely
noticed: a huge percentage of the music refers to great moments of the
past. Yet that doesn't mean that jazz can't still be fantastic, even
transformative. It is, all the time.
We have to allow for the possibility that Rage Against the Machine —
or the Police, or the Jesus and Mary Chain — could be as good as it
ever was, if perhaps a little more wizened, a little more skeptical.
(It will depend on their practicing of course.) If you're still
looking for something sacred, it probably can't be found in their
values or politics or cult significance. It's in you: It is your own
reaction to how they sound. Nobody can take that away from you.