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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Musical Chairs

The last few years in Rock music have marked the anniversary of several classic albums and prompted news (or rumors) of reunions of the classic lineup of some of the biggest names in Rock and Metal.  For the hardcore fans of any band, the only acceptable version includes all original members, but is the classic lineup always the best?  There is certainly a handful of bands on each end of that argument.  The success or failure of a band following a lineup change is arguably the most revealing indicator of how important each member is (or was) to their sound and their fanbase.

While there are many factors that contribute to lineup changes, whether made by choice or forced by tragedy, the music that follows ultimately tells how well each band overcomes the changes to their creative dynamics.  The death of a band member has forced several of the biggest names in Rock to make the decision to wave the white flag or carry on.  AC/DC and Led Zeppelin are probably the two earliest examples, both crippled by the tragic and untimely death of one of their bandmates as the result of alcohol poisoning in 1980.  Led Zeppelin chose not to carry on when drummer John Bonham died, while AC/DC made a historic comeback following the death of original singer Bon Scott with the album "Back In Black" featuring new singer Brian Johnson, who has remained Scott's sole successor.  Metallica arrived on the scene a few years later with a trilogy of albums that put them on a trajectory for limitless success until disaster struck and they lost bassist Cliff Burton when their tour bus crashed.  After auditioning several players, Jason Newsted, formerly of Flotsam and Jetsam, joined Metallica and remained with the band for 14 years before leaving for personal reasons.  He was replaced by current bassist Robert Trujillo, formerly of Suicidal Tendencies and a member of Ozzy Osbourne's band.  Nirvana disbanded after the alleged suicide death of singer Kurt Cobain in 1994, and Alice In Chains went on an indefinite hiatus following the 2002 death of their singer Layne Staley.  Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl formed the band Foo Fighters as a singer/guitarist, while Alice In Chains eventually returned with a new singer, William Duvall.  Metal group Pantera had already disbanded due to conflicts with singer Phil Anselmo, but the 2004 onstage shooting death of guitarist "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott devastated the Metal community and crushed the hopes of any possible future reunion of the band.

The lead singer is undoubtedly the hardest member of any band to replace, as they are the voice and the face of the band for most people.  Some bands have had to replace their frontman due to nothing more than a case of LSD (Lead Singer's Disease) or any variety of internal conflicts.  In 1984, Van Halen had reached the peak of their success with original frontman David Lee Roth until tension between Roth and Eddie Van Halen regarding Roth's early solo endeavors led to his replacement by veteran rocker Sammy Hagar, a move that polarized their fanbase.  Van Halen went on to have four consecutive #1 albums until tension between Hagar and Eddie Van Halen led to his departure after 11 years with the band. 

Not all bands have been fortunate enough to achieve the same height of success with different singers.  Motley Crue released a self-titled album in 1994 without original singer Vince Neil, instead featuring vocals by John Corabi.  Although it was not as commercially successful as previous releases, it remains a fan favorite and highly regarded by the band.  Corabi himself suggested that the band bring back Vince Neil, who eventually rejoined shortly after.  Skid Row fired Sebastian Bach in 1996 and emerged three years later with his replacement Johnny Solinger.  The band has yet to see any resemblance of the kind of success they had with Bach, despite constant pressure by their fanbase to reunite with him.  Queensryche singer Geoff Tate was fired by his bandmates and replaced by newcomer Todd La Torre, taking the name with them and leaving Geoff to pursue a solo career with a new band under the moniker Operation Mindcrime.  Time will tell which side will emerge victorious and earn the loyalty of the Queensryche fanbase.  After years of turmoil, Great White replaced original singer Jack Russell while he was recovering from surgery after suffering a perforated bowel.  Their first album with replacement singer Terry Ilous received mixed reviews and neither the band nor Jack, with his version called "Jack Russell's Great White", has seen much success.  Guns N' Roses frontman Axl Rose has attempted to find success using the band's name as the only original member and with a completely new band, while the rest of the classic lineup have all moved on to many other projects.

Singers aren't the only members who get the boot, although most people would say the other members are far easier to replace successfully.  However, just like with replacing singers, fans aren't always forgiving when other key members of the band are exchanged.  Following the departure of Sammy Hagar from Van Halen, he returned to a successful solo career and invited Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony to play on some of his tour dates including a co-headlining tour with Van Halen's original frontman David Lee Roth.  Mike's participation damaged his relationship with Eddie Van Halen, and he was ultimately replaced by Eddie's son Wolfgang, another move with a polarizing effect as fans have been disappointed to see Roth's return without Michael, cheating them out of a full reunion of the original lineup.  KISS guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss were replaced by Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer, respectively.  Although Ace and Peter re-joined KISS for one album and tour following their headline-making appearance for the band's "MTV Unplugged" performance, Thayer and Singer resumed their roles and the fans have not been shy about expressing their disapproval.  Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine started his career as Metallica's original guitarist before being fired for alcoholism and drug use and replaced by current lead guitarist Kirk Hammett.  Like Dave Grohl, he changed roles and became the frontman AND lead guitarist of his own band.

Not all lineup changes have a negative outcome, and some bands have actually benefited from changing or adding members.  Journey was formed in San Francisco in 1973 featuring Neal Schon and Gregg Rollie, both formerly of Santana, and released 3 albums before creating the classic lineup featuring singer Steve Perry, drummer Steve Smith, and keyboardist Jonathan Cain.  That lineup achieved the band's greatest period of success until they disbanded in 1985, before returning 10 years later with a new album.  Due to health problems, Steve Perry could not tour and permanently left the band when they continued with out him with 3 different replacements.  So, while ultimately lineup changes hurt the band initially it gave them their biggest period of success.

Of all the bands who've dealt with such changes, there are two that I personally feel have evolved into their strongest version.  The first of those two is Metallica, not because I think the death of Cliff Burton helped the band or that current bassist Robert Trujillo is better, and not because I think Dave Mustaine was not a good player.  Over the years I think the band has grown tighter from dealing with these changes and with Kirk on guitar and Robert on bass the band sounds better today than they ever have, at least since the early era with Cliff.  No disrespect to Jason Newsted, but I think the band was too busy hazing him and taking their grief over Cliff's death out on him to utilize him properly.  Whether Robert is just a better fit or they learned their lesson after Jason left, the band seems more solid and prepared to return to their roots and the growth between the last two albums is compelling evidence.  KoRn is the other band who I think has finally found their ultimate lineup, with their drummer as the only non-original member.  The first change came in 2004 when guitarist Brian "Head" Welch left the band to overcome drug addiction.  After releasing one album as a 4-piece band, drummer David Silveria left to pursue other interests, including the restaurant business.  Eventually, current drummer Ray Luzier became a permanent member and "Head" returned on a full-time basis after helping the band make one of their tightest, heaviest albums to date. 
Silveria spent much of his time out of the band making derogatory comments about all members, curiously halting his attack as the 20th anniversary of their debut album approached.  Although Silveria announced his interest in returning to the band to "help return the grove", singer Jonathan Davis replied by saying he would "never never play with him again", a reference to their song "Never Never" from their latest album "The Paradigm Shift".

Ultimately, the "classic lineup" is going to be the one that everyone wants to see, with very few exceptions.  Nostalgia plays a big part in how adamant the fans can be about only accepting the original lineup of a band.  The connection that is made between a band and their fans often leads to more than casual interest in the music but more of a vested interest in who is making it.  Many bands have managed to overcome lineup changes and sound just as good or better with different members but some fans just cannot accept the changes and are convinced it could be better.  In some cases, they're right, otherwise they're just too stuck on logistics to accept the fact that the relationship between the creative entities in a band is far more difficult to manage than many people can appreciate.

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