A lot is being written today about the future of legendary hard rock band AC/DC. The last two years have seen rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young leave for health reasons, drummer Phil Rudd facing criminal charges and now vocalist Brian Johnson’s distressing news of facing imminent hearing loss. This isn’t the first time that the band has had to replace a member or for that matter, be confronted by uncertainty. When former vocalist Bon Scott passed away, AC/DC was seriously considering disbanding until Scott’s family talked them out of it. With Johnson filling in Scott’s shoes, the band went on to create an unmatched legacy.
Being in a band means knowing that one day — for reasons within their control or outside of it — an old member will leave and a new replacement needs to be found. Some of rock history’s greatest stories have involved both enduring bands as well as those with irreplaceable departures. It’s probably a good idea at this stage to look at a broader classification of bands. So there are bands with a clearly defined creative power centre where the other members play good supporting roles but that’s about it. Like the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Bon Jovi, Nirvana, Eric Clapton’s various bands or to an extent The Doors. Some may say that about Queen too, but Brian May must be acknowledged as a very crucial member.
Then on the other hand you have bands whose creative powers are shared, often with a heady dose of ego tussles. It’s here you have bands like Pink Floyd, Guns N’ Roses, The Who, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and whole lot of others which have each seen departures of band members, and have had varying success in their creative decisions to either disband, or bring in someone new.
Sometimes the new members add more dimension and take the band to newer heights. Syd Barett was a creative genius, but it was David Gilmour’s inclusion along with Roger Waters’ zeal that gave the world the Pink Floyd that the world has come to love. It’s another matter that Waters and Gilmour are no longer playing together after some three odd decades of international glory as bandmates.
Guns N’ Roses didn’t share the same kind of luck. A mammoth band in its prime, the rift between Axl Rose and Slash had a ripple effect. The band persisted, somewhat, but it’s never been the same. Axl toured as Guns N’ Roses but fans know that it was largely just Axl and a bunch of merrymen. But since nothing is permanent in the world, neither is the Axl-Slash feud. A rejuvenated Guns N’ Roses with Axl and Slash reprising their roles along with some new additions, is set to tour from next month!
When Queen’s immensely popular vocalist Freddie Mercury died, the rest of the band, which had much time to prepare for his passing, took a while to find their feet. They regrouped as Queen while giving individual credit to whichever vocalist they teamed up with. So they’ve toured as Queen + Paul Rogers and are currently touring as Queen + Adam Lambert. They’re not the same, as one would imagine, because Freddie. But Led Zeppelin chose to stop touring or performing with Bonham’s death, and even future collaborations are largely between Page and Plant. The Who are touring as The Who today with both Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey reprising their roles.
Who gets to decide when a band should call it quits? Does it take the exit of a crucial member or irreconcilable differences or even creative stagnation? It was a gamble when the band started and it’ll be a gamble when there’s a replacement. Audiences may write off bands, as is evidenced with a lot of the premature AC/DC obituaries, or maybe unsure of a band’s unexpected reunion a la GN’R, they may even lose interest but retain respect for a long-standing band. Sometimes record labels insist on paying big monies to make bands tour, sometimes there are other compulsions. There are a lot of factors that contribute to making a band move on or breakup. Economics, emotions and egos play significant roles in a band’s decision; one that affects not just their future, but their sound. And their sound is precisely why they got legions of fans in the first place.