I heard a song on the radio recently that I thought was by a band called Hope of the States. It wasn’t, I didn’t actually make a note of who the song was by actually, as I was too distracted by my work, and searching for Hope of the States on Spotify.
Hope of the States were active 2000 – 2006, they played giant, string laden post rock, a sort of The National via Hans Zimmer scoring Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Their music was at times quite bombastic and ferocious, others intimate and fragile. Simply put, I liked them. Two albums in and a couple of circuits around the touring block, and Hope of the States made the decision to split up.
A band splitting up is something every music fan has to deal with, it’s as inevitable as the tides and is something we shall all experience, whether it be the mockery a certain 11 year old will direct at their sister, circa 1996, upset because Take That have broken up, or it be that same individual, whoever he is, trying not to shed a tear when Hundred Reasons leave the stage after their final Manchester show, in 2012, emotions will run high and memories will be cemented.
Certain bands reach a natural conclusion, the members involved may have explored all they felt was required of that project, and it should be accepted if those members feel their artistic skills, passion and interest are best put to use in some other endeavour. It must never be forgotten that music is art, and sometimes artists have simply expressed all they can say on a particular subject, and a desire to explore other ideas must not be denounced as a lack of enthusiasm, commitment, or love for what has been produced previously.
It all boils down to the age old question that is asked in music, of whether it’s better to burn out or fade away?
My frustration, and admittedly it is a selfish frustration, is that by hearing what I believed to be Hope of the States earlier that day, it reminded me of just how much potential the band had, and how I wished they were still performing. The band produced two albums, had remained resilient and strong for each other in the overwhelming and deeply saddening suicide of their guitarist, just weeks before their debut album was released. Hope of the States never achieved major commercial success; the band’s third single reached the highest in the chart for them at number 15. Critics and fans expected their third album to achieve more than previous efforts, both artistically and commercially, had the band remained together long enough for it to be produced.
Did they burn out or fade away then? I’d prefer to think they burned out, the trials and tribulations of producing music, not to mention to complex emotions each member must have faced given the surrounding events, in the immediate release of their debut would’ve tested anyone.
There is a small sadness though that comes with realising that certain bands have gone from your life, that they have not just figuratively, but literally disbanded. It is a sadness that I feel hurts harder and can often leave deeper scars when a band can no longer continue due to factors outside of the their control. With death there is an uncompromising finality, it is a complete sadness to be travelled and overcome, not just in the all encompassing sense, but also in the way it represents conclusion. Death completes a person’s physical journey in life, regardless of how their legacy may continue to live.
Recently, the saddening death of Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch, otherwise known as MCA, at the hands of Cancer, reminded me of the finality and impact that losing a founding member of a band can have upon the remaining artists. Sometimes those surviving members of a band cannot make music any more, other times they decide they should not create material after losing a member who is more than just a band member, but a lifelong friend. As the Beastie Boys’ Mike D, stated in June 2014, “We have not been able to tour since MCA, Adam Yauch, died,” Diamond said. “We can’t make new music.” (Pitchfork, June, 2014)
As a fan of the group I understand, respect and appreciate how and why the remaining members of the Beastie Boys made their decision. It is a choice to make music, to perform and to continue to do so, and if Mike D and Ad-Rock feel they cannot create the same art now, without MCA, than I am in no position, even as a fan, to disagree. Furthermore, MCA requested in his will that they no longer create music as the Beastie Boys, and as a mark of respect to their friend, have chosen to heed his wishes and discontinue the group.
Clearly I am a big fan of the Beastie Boys, and it fills me with regret that I never saw them perform live, but the finality of death forms a definitive point of closure that cannot be overcome. This sensation I feel with the Beastie Boys, is the same point of closure that comes with knowing I have never had the opportunity to watch Joy Division perform, due to Ian Curtis’ suicide in 1980. Nor can I ever be truly upset that I won’t ever see James Brown perform, after he passed away in 2006. Death is final, and rather than mourn an artist’s passing, I now try to appreciate the incredible music they produced, and the people they influenced and impacted upon. An artist’s passing should be a point where we can celebrate their life and respect them for who they are, something that Hope of the States represented when they too released their debut album and continued to tour, even during such unbearable circumstances.
When a band hang up their instruments however, it can be for a great number of reasons, contractual, personal, physical, just to mention a few. It’s these times where I find myself selfishly wishing they would continue, to regroup and perform as they had done previously.
For example, Rival Schools released their debut, United By Fate, in 2001, garnering heavy rotation on MTV both in the UK and the US, with the album going on to become a cult favourite with fans of post-hardcore during the early 2000’s (me, basically). The band broke up in 2003, when band member Ian Love moved on to play with his newly formed band, Cardia. Having never officially released a follow up to their debut (although demos were released on to the internet), and it was not until 2008 that the group reformed and toured, with the second album finally being released in 2011, a decade after the debut, and the demos that were released after the band’s initial break up being officially compiled as the album ‘Found’, released in 2013. It should be understood as well that music scenes change and evolve, Rival Schools’ follow up came a full decade after their debut was released, bands that delay a release of their follow up for such a long time face the unfortunate truth that many of their original fans may have simply forgotten about them, or have moved on musically.
It’s the danger that all musical artists face, that they may fade away in to irrelevance, yet for many artists it’s a chance for reinvention, or to express themselves in a different direction, as Ben Carrigan, lead singer of The Thrills stated when asked about the future of the band, following underwhelming sales of their third album,Teenager, and subsequent dropping from label, Virgin, “It’s like a past life now, the whole Thrills thing, to be honest. Which is kind of nice because it’s good to always feel like you’re moving forward as opposed to looking back and wondering what might have been.” (Hot Press, Oct, 2011). In this case, there’s a sense of acceptance, a cerebral, Zen-like musing in which Carrigan accepts that part of his life has passed and he must continue, rather than becoming focused on the past. It’s an attitude that many bands and artists would do well to heed the advice of, rather than holding on to past successes (I’m looking at you Oasis, right up to the point where you imploded).
For Rival Schools however, it appears that there is no great reason as to why the band weren’t more prolific in their songwriting, there is no individual to accuse nor focus blame on, and there were (to the best of my knowledge) no major conflicts between the members, just a number of commitments that came before the band.
Yet sometimes conflict between members can prove to be the required fuel that feeds creativity, Fleetwood Mac suffered emotionally and physically, due to the pressures that came with the success of 1975’s eponymous album, Fleetwood Mac. The marriage of John and Christine McVie broke down during this period, with Mick Fleetwood also going through a divorce with his then wife, Jenny. All the while the band consumed large amounts of drugs, both legal and illegal. Yet from this period of disruption, Fleetwood Mac managed to produce their most successful album to date, Rumours, released in 1977.
So does conflict and disruption mean ‘better’ music?
I wouldn’t necessarily say so. Oasis didn’t make their greatest album during the most fraught period in their life, which came with their debut effort, Definitely Maybe. Although no one can dispute the success and popularity of Oasis, their albums have often been lambasted by its own members, Noel Gallagher himself, said “I still tell people that the ‘Be Here Now‘ album is the best advertisement against taking cocaine. It goes on too long, it’s smothered by its self of self-importance – the same as coke users are.” (Shortlist, 2015)
The Gallagher’s and the rotating line up of additional members didn’t fight with each other because they thought it would create great art, they fought with each other because at that point in time, they couldn’t stand each other, Noel is famously known to have said about brother, “Liam only has two problems – everything he fucking says and everything he fucking does“. With negative criticism of 2004’s Glastonbury headline slot and a seemingly constant change in the band’s line up, it’s not hard to see how stress and a sense of disjointedness within Oasis’s ever changing line-up could have lead to a combustive conclusion, and a breakdown in relationships, culminating in the band’s break up in 2009.
To look at the other side of the Britpop coin, Blur are finally releasing a new album entitled The Magic Whip, some 12 years on from their last effort, Think Tank. Most notably it wasn’t until 2008 that Graham Coxon, Blur’s original guitarist, felt he had spent enough time away from the band before he could rejoin it once more. I respect Coxon for taking time away from Blur to pursue his own needs and interests, and to produce music on his own terms, rather than to continue making music with Blur that was not at a level of artistic integrity and passion that he would accept. Furthermore, I respect all the members of the band for respecting his decision, which I don’t doubt has allowed them all to remain friends throughout this period.
These are just two bands that have both suffered from conflict and fame, but it’s the differing approach that both bands took to resolve these issues that I feel are the most telling, we have Oasis in their attempts to paper over cracks and keep on pushing forward, using momentum to keep things on track, which is fine until said momentum because an issue in itself, and the Oasis vehicle leaves the tracks. On the other hand, there is Blur, accepting there is an issue within the dynamic of the band, and accepting that time needs to be taken to assess what is wrong, and give each member the space they may need. It’s all rather physical versus cerebral.
Of course it’s naive of me to think that record companies don’t hold power over a band’s life and longevity, the infamous ‘Sophomore Slump’ for example, can be the warning shot across the bows of a group. MGMT’s second album being an example of a modern release that didn’t have the popularity of their debut, due to the change in musical direction of the band, there’s are The Futureheads’, News and Tributes, which didn’t have the commercial success of their self-titled debut.
Yet the leaving a record label does not necessarily mean the end of a band’s life, as The Futureheads’ Barry Hyde said about leaving the Warners-owned 679 recording, “I’m over the moon about it to be honest with you, ‘cos I feel like we’re free now. We weren’t happy as a band on that label” (NME, Nov ’06). Indeed, The Futureheads have continued to make music, successfully releasing a further three albums under their own label, Nul, and continue to tour.
This resilience to push forward and continue as a band supports Oasis’ drive to continue to make music regardless of the issues surrounding a band. Saying that, it would be remiss of me to suggest both bands share many more similarities in their musical DNA, other than both being producers of music, and I would not be so flippant to suggest they should be compared against each other either.
I do believe though that a cerebral approach to continuing or discontinuing a band is essential for those people who would consider themselves, or be considered, artists. It is why I cannot ever accept my selfishness for wanting a group to continue, as some bands simply reach the end of their journey, and have said/written/performed everything they want to.
R.E.M decided that after a 31 year history, it was time to disband in 2011. The band had considered breaking up several times beforehand, but after a lackluster sales and critical reviews of their album, Around the Sun, the members of R.E.M wanted to “…prove, not only to our fans and critics but to ourselves, that we could still make great records”, to which the bassist, Mike Mills, states, “and we made two” – Accelerate, released in 2008, and Collapse Into Now.” Mills continued by saying “We thought, ‘We’ve done it. Now let’s do something no other band has done: Shake hands and walk away as friends.’” (Rolling Stone, Sept, 2011). It’s an idea that is to be applauded, to spend 31 years of your life together as a band, and not only remain amicable, but close friends, Pink Floyd could learn something from R.E.M.
The opinion that Mills and his R.E.M. bandmates hold is one that I agree with, and I believe it hits the nail on the head, because as much as I believe it’s important to acknowledge when the end of a band’s life is drawing closer, and how it is only fair to accept when the time has come for things to end, I do think there is a worse situation that a group can find themselves in.
So, is it better to burn out or fade away? Well I believe there is a third option that is far worse than losing one’s artistic inventiveness and fading away, or the danger of burning out due to a volatile relationship between members, and that’s to fade out. Certain bands may only have a finite lifespan, their popularity can be seen as part of the zeitgeist for that period, The Darkness being a prime example, yet others simply fall out of favour, their popularity waning as they continue to produce music at an ever decreasing level of quality and critical favour, take for example, Slipway Fires, the third album by Razorlight’s third album, described by NME as “a boringly competent indie band masquerading as, at best, Fleetwood Mac and, at worst, Whitesnake” (NME, Oct, 2008).
Fading from popularity does not always equal critical and artistic fallings, nor does popularity mean that quality is a guaranteed, but when popularity and quality are lacking, then I believe you face fade out.
This is precedent in The Enemy’s third album, Streets in the Sky. One of the worst reviewed albums of all time, it has been described by The Quietus as “…shite, in the noonday sun, attracting flies”, they go on to refer to the band’s songs as “so laughably under-developed, half-arsed and unconvincing (the album) almost makes you pity the little pricks” (The Quietus, May, 2012). An album Drowned in Sound wrote about in their review as, “Without any exaggeration some of the worst songwriting in major label history” (Drowned in Sound, May, 2012). Harsh? Definitely. Justified? Possibly. It does though, shows the dangers of what can happen when a band fade out.
I see the danger of fade out as something that is equal to a summer’s breeze, it’s refreshing for the moment and indeed it can be appreciated and enjoyed. It should be an enjoyable experience, but the breeze is soon forgotten about, and the moment is inevitably lost to memory, for it was never an event to begin with. So, is it better to burn out or fade away? I would say either is acceptable, as long as there is a legacy that comes with these options.
Hearing a melody on the radio activated my memories of the Hope of the States, I was reminded of the band, even if no one else was thinking about them at that moment, at least I was. For me it’s comforting to know that even in that small moment, their legacy continued. That is the importance of music, whether a band burns out or fades away, but to fade out and to be lost to memory, because the music was never that memorable to begin with, that has to be the worst punishment music can suffer.
Words: Fuzz Caminski