Back in the band
From Duran Duran to Blondie, once-extinct bands are putting acrimonious splits behind them to try to make another go of it.
Several months ago, while cleaning out his basement, Don Was discovered dozens of concert posters from his old 1980s band, Was (Not Was). Mr. Was, who is also a well-known record producer for the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, realized too much time had slipped away since he had last seen his erstwhile bandmates.
"The first thing I thought was, I miss playing with those guys," he recalls. "We didn't retire. We didn't decide to stop. It was just like everyone went out ... and never came back."
Thirteen years after Was (Not Was), best known for its quirky hit "Walk the Dinosaur," played for the final time, the group reunited this month for a pair of performances. And they're in good company: For various reasons, a slew of once-defunct acts - Tears for Fears, Duran Duran, Blondie, the Pixies, and Jane's Addiction, among them - have recently re-formed.
The momentum for other rockers to become bands on the (re)run may surge with the arrival of VH-1's new series, "Bands Reunited." On Monday, the network began airing its 10-episode run of shows. Each features an ambush on scattered musicians from bands such as Berlin, Extreme, and Kajagoogoo with entreaties for unexpected reunions.
While VH-1 prods bands to get back together, plenty are doing so without any prompting from cable TV. The reasons include lucrative paydays for some, an opportunity to relive days of a misspent youth for others - and everything in between.
Audiences, too, are nostalgic to see bands from the 1970s, '80s, and '90s back in action again.
"We always look back 20 years in our culture and reclaim things," says Kim Rozenfeld, executive producer on the VH-1 series. "In the '70s, you had 'Happy Days' reclaiming the '50s. Same thing here."
For Corey Glover, lead singer of Living Colour, which released its comeback album last fall, any reunion hinges on repairing frayed relationships. That, he says, can be a daunting proposition.
"No band breaks up because record sales are bad. They break up because of relationships," Glover says. "You have to ask yourself whether you're willing to go through that again. It's a tough question because, let's face it, people don't change."
Such concerns have been borne out with brief returns that quickly fizzled. In 1996, for example, Van Halen appeared at the MTV Video Music Awards with original lead singer David Lee Roth in tow.
Soon after, though, the band began squabbling again - long before a reunion tour ever happened.
Even realized reunions can turn sour. The evident hostility between Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel led many critics to pan the duo's recent tour, dismissing it as a money-grab.
Soon after Living Colour began toying with the idea of a return, Glover went to lunch with guitarist Vernon Reid and hashed out past differences. Looking back, Glover says the unexpected success of the band's debut album had caused enormous problems.
Within a year of debuting, Living Colour's foot-stomping anthem, "Cult of Personality," became an MTV staple and the band toured with the Rolling Stones. The heady experience set the group on a disastrous cycle of constant tours and records, causing burnout and a split.
Still, Glover isn't surprised by his recent rock 'n' roll rapprochement: "It couldn't end where we left it."
For many bands, an essential element is time. A band must go through the cycle of being cool, uncool, extremely uncool and, finally, cool once again. Generational nostalgia sets the stage for the likes of, yes, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, to say, "Reunion!"
The current fascination with garage rock, for example, spurred the forth- coming Love and Rockets reunion. Reflecting industry economics, the band won't record a new album; instead, it will tour. In the iPod era, selling tickets is easier than selling CDs.
"We have the wind in our sails," says David J, the band's bassist. "The Strokes and the White Stripes have made our music fashionable again. This would only be hard if our hearts weren't in it."
Some on the VH-1 series see past glories as just that. Chris Carter, a popular Los Angeles DJ, was a member of forgotten popsters Dramarama. The group's lone hit, "Anything, Anything," prompted VH-1 to come knocking.
Mr. Carter says a full-fledged reunion may be far-fetched. He enjoyed the VH-1 attention but chuckles over the TV conventions. "They would ask us to make mistakes in rehearsal," he says. "And I said, 'It's reality TV, we can't fake it.' "
Whatever the results, all of this recycling and reuniting may soon devolve into parody, industry observers say.
Larger-than-life heroes such as the Beatles and Led Zeppelin remain revered, in part, because they never succumbed to the allure of re-creating past glories. Some have. The Yardbirds and Procul Harum, bands that were popular in the '60s, each released a new album last year. Beyond that music, though, critics frown on the increasingly shallow talent pool of recent comeback kids.
Fleetwood Mac and Heart have merit where, perhaps, Wilson Phillips and Camper Van Beethoven may not.
Alan Light, editor in chief at Tracks magazine, sums up such fears with one pithy question. "I just think, 'Are we going to be nostalgic for Limp Bizkit in 15 years?' It can be a little much."
Try telling VH-1 that.