Hangin’ Up the Guitar: Do Bands Ever Retire?

Recent reunions — by everyone from Afghan Whigs and The Stone Roses to The Beach Boys and Megadeth — prove bands don't go away. They just hibernate

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The Beach Boys perform in Las Vegas on May 27, 2012.

Buried in the 2012 Music Fest NW line up of Passion Pit and Girl Talk was one eyebrow-raising band: Hazel. In the Nineties, booking Hazel would have been a given. What was surprising is that, save for odd shows here or there, the band has been broken up for well over a decade.

But Hazel wasn’t the only reunited act on the Music Fest NW line up: Redd Kross is touring in support of their first new album in 15 years. Sebadoh, the Lou Barlow-fronted lo-fi act, reunited in 2007 after being out of the game for years. Hot Snakes reunited last year for a series of sold-out shows and now are on an international tour. In fact reunions, especially of bands that were popular in the Nineties, are popping up all over the place these days. The Afghan Whigs performed for the first time in 13 years at the All Tomorrow’s Parties’ festival in 2011 after Guided By Voices had to pull out. Now they are on the road touring the nation. The Pixies got back together in 2004 and The Stone Roses, who broke up in 2006, have been playing surprise shows in advance of their announced 2012 reunion. Reunion shows: everybody’s doing it.

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This phenomenon is not isolated to indie or alternative acts, either. The Beach Boys are marking their 50th anniversary by heading out on a 37-date U.S. tour, including a headlining spot at Bonnaroo. The Big Four: Anthrax, Megadeth, Slayer and Metallica played a seven-hour concert at Yankee Stadium last year. It’s not even necessarily a new phenomenon: The Police and Genesis topped the 2007 box-office charts with their reunion shows, raking in joint receipts of $341 million. Yet it seems that everywhere you look lately a band is reuniting. It feels like we’re at some Malcolm Gladwellian tipping point where bands are reuniting whether or not anyone wants them too. But, for the most part, people really really want them too. The Internet tends to explode when bands announce reunions. When Pavement reunited in 2010 after a ten-year break, music blogs drafted headlines that read like bathroom walls: “Holy S**t!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Even death can no longer prevent a reunion. A hologram of late rapper Tupac Shakur appeared at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in April. Now TLC announced they are marking the 20th anniversary of TLC by touring with a hologram of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez who died in a car crash.

Some bands, of course, never break up. The Rolling Stones seem to ascribe to a Glen Garry Glen Ross theory of making it in the music business: Always Be Touring. It works for them, too, as their tours are consistently some of the highest grossing concerts every year they head out. Now they are ramping up for their 50th anniversary and if Keith Richards’ health holds up they are hoping to hit the road in 2013. Similarly, U2 is seemingly always on the road, and fans can’t seem to get enough. (U2’s 360 tour was the highest grossing concert tour ever.) With Bono at 52 and Mick Jagger pushing 70, it’s clear you are never too old to rock.

It seems the only thing preventing reunion tours any more are the bands themselves. After rumors of a reunion by The Smiths circulated the Internet recently, guitarist Johnny Marr quickly squashed them. “The rumour of the Smiths reunion is untrue. It’s not happening,” Marr posted on his Facebook wall. Similarly bands like The Replacements or Bikini Kill will most likely never get back together, no matter what their fans want (and we really really want). Sometimes the scars or grievances are too big to hurdle. “Bands are like marriages,” said Pete Krebs, guitarist and lead singer of Hazel. “The wounds are so deep and bruised and you never get over it.” Although the surprise reunion of Courtney Love’s band Hole may give fans hope that the most virulent band feuds can be overcome. Even The Beach Boys are back together despite the fact they’ve spent years suing each other. (Mike Love sued bandmate Al Jardine in 2003 over his usage of the Beach Boys name and sued Brian Wilson on more than one occasion, most recently in 2005.)

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Money can heal a lot of wounds. And for Nineties bands, they may find that their fans can finally afford to pay. Afghan Whigs tickets are currently on sale at StubHub for more than $80, while the average Radiohead ticket goes for $50 on Ticketmaster. For big acts, promoters are willing to pay big bucks to reunite bands or put bands on bills despite decades-long feuds. Metallica and Megadeth toured together last year as part of the Big Four Tour despite the fact that Megadeth is led by Dave Mustaine, who was famously kicked out of Metallica, and the feud between the two bands has been bitter and long. Sting, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland buried the hatchet long enough to reunite as The Police, play some songs out of their much loved discography, and become the world’s highest-earning musicians of 2008. But what is in it for a smaller band who is probably going to be playing in the same venues for the same amount of money that they played for 15 or 20 years ago? Good old Hallmark variety nostalgia.

“When you are in a band and you get to know somebody so intimately, you can’t find that with anybody else,” Krebs told TIME. “Getting to rock out with Hazel again is a joy.” At the Drive-In guitarist Omar Rodriguez-López told Pitchfork that the newly-revived ATDI will not record any new music, and that the reunion is mostly about nostalgia and money. Similarly, when DC post-punk heroes Dismemberment Plan reunited in 2010, bassist Eric Axelson told the Washington Post, “We’re not planning a new record. But we’re doing these shows and taking it day to day after that.” The Afghan Whigs told The Quietus that their much-lauded reunion will also not produce any new material. “We never broke up the band for any reason other than we’d taken the band as far as we wanted to take it. We aren’t getting back together to make a new album,” Whigs’ frontman Greg Dulli said. “We’re doing this one time: see it now, or never see it again.”

Hazel has other ideas, though. Krebs wants to put out a 7″ record of two new songs on his own label, Elko. However just because a band gets back together for nostalgia or money, it doesn’t mean that their old problems disappear into the ether. No one knows this better than fans of Van Halen, who are going to have to wait to see whether the much-touted original line-up reunion tour actually happens. For smaller bands like Hazel, reunions can bring up old ghosts. Krebs jokingly suggested that their old label, Sub Pop, might see their reunion as a shot at restitution. “It might allow us to pay off Sub Pop after all these years. I think we owe them many many thousands of dollars,” Krebs said. “They are actually sending a guy in a dark suit with a briefcase down in a Lear jet to take all the money that I make off of my little 45 to pay back some of their expenses on Toreador of Love.”

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Once the issues, serious or not, are resolved — or at least resolved enough to start playing again — bands, big or small, seem to find that they can easily reignite their original spark. “The chemistry is there,” said The Beach Boys’ David Marks to the Huffington Post. “We pick up right where we left off, especially the five of us together. The magic bubble comes around us. It’s the chemistry that’s behind all successful bands, like the Beatles and the Stones. It has to be there. It’s special for us.” However, even if the spark is still there, you still have to remember the songs. “For a long time you play those songs six, seven nights a week and you know them like your own breath,” Eric Axelson of Dismemberment Plan told The Washington Post in 2010. “So it’s funny to have to dig them up.” Similarly, Pete Krebs of Hazel said he looked forward to teaching Brady Smith, the band’s bass player, his parts again after so many years.

So why so many reunions lately? The Internet is partly the cause. When Dinosaur Jr. got back together Lou Barlow credited the advent of email with allowing the band to reconnect and work out their issues. Tumblr and Twitter are rife with ’90s nostalgia — be it aggregation blogs or fake Twitter feeds. Fans want to see their favorite bands again, whether to revisit their own high school fandom or to sing along to a much-loved chorus one more time. As for the bands, fan pressure and sentimentality can be at the root of a reunion. According to Krebs, “You get older and you start thinking, ‘You know I actually had a lot of fun hanging out with those people,’ so you decide to get back together.” In the Facebook-era, that is something most of us can relate to. Whether it’s adding a friend on a social network, getting a beer and reminiscing at a reunion, or getting the band back together for a few gigs. With age comes nostalgia. It’s what Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band sang about in “Glory Days.” Speaking of, which, they reunited and are back on tour, too.