Every so often, speculation about the potential reformation of now recognised seminal Manchester group, The Smiths, rears its head. Whilst there is absolutely no doubt that bass player Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce would be amenable to a reunion, the likelihood of this happening, in my opinion, is unlikely but as we are to discover over the course of this article, one should never say never.
In October 2011, The Smiths’ Mancunian compatriots, The Stone Roses announced their reunion after a break up which lasted fifteen years. The group’s guitarist, songwriter and conceptual artist John Squire stated on a piece of his art in 2009 that he had ‘no desire whatsoever to desecrate the grave of seminal Manchester pop group The Stone Roses.’
Just over two years after that statement, after a frenzy of speculation in the preceding days, The Stone Roses announced that they had reformed and were to play concerts at Heaton Park in June/July 2012. Just under 250,000 tickets sold out in an hour for three nights for that particular weekend. The timing of the announcement was optimal, but the reasoning for the re-union, whilst easily speculated, is to this day unclear.
There was once a time when if a band split up, it was considered a permanent thing – if nothing else than to preserve the artistic integrity of their legacy. By far the biggest band break-up was that of The Beatles in 1970. They became embroiled in a split so sad and so vicious, it had a Shakespearean sense of melodrama and tragedy to it. It can now only be a hypothesis as to whether The Beatles would have reformed in the 1980s, due to the senseless slaying of John Lennon in December 1980, just as he was getting back into his artistic stride. Whilst John Lennon had the most abrasive public exterior of The Beatles, the most resistant to a reunion was always George Harrison. In December 1989, Harrison was quoted as saying that “there won’t be a Beatles reunion for as long as John Lennon remains dead,” after it was suggested to him that Paul McCartney would be receptive to getting together again with him and Ringo Starr.
While Harrison was presenting an intransigent stance at the time, behind the scenes, the machinations were already in place for an eventual reunion of The Beatles five years down the road. This wasn’t down to a softening of Harrison’s feelings but sheer pragmatism. In 1986 his Handmade film company lost $14.7 million on the disastrous Madonna and Sean Penn film Shanghai Surprise. This was an unfortunate but manageable loss until Harrison found out that his business partner Denis O’Brien had made him sole guarantor for Handmade’s losses without his knowledge. Now he was in danger of losing his beloved gothic mansion in Henley-on-Thames. To earn some money, he rescinded his vow of retirement from the music business (made in 1982), to release a very successful single called Got My Mind Set on You (1987). In 1988, Harrison collaborated with Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne to make the first of two phenomenally successful albums with The Traveling Wilburys and in 1991, he embarked on a tour of Japan with his old friend Eric Clapton. These endeavours, whilst yielding money, weren’t enough in themselves to settle his financial woes. He had to swallow his pride and get back to where he once belonged and work again with McCartney and Starr. Harrison tried every which way of circumnavigating a Beatles reunion but ultimately, it was that reunion which solved his monetary problems and gave him back the financial security, which he’d previously taken for granted, for the rest of his life until his heartbreakingly early death in 2001.
While The Beatles were the most famous band to split up and with some considerable animosity, compared to Roger Waters attempted disbanding of Pink Floyd in 1985, it was a mere squabble between a few mates over some naïve business decisions. Waters had previously, through his personal psychological hold over the band, effectively sacked Floyd keyboard player Rick Wright by holding the release of the incredibly successful The Wall (1979) until Wright had agreed to resign. The band members had so much money tied up in the project that they had to have the album released post haste or they were in danger of defaulting on a bank loan due to an ill-judged investment into skateboards, just as they were going out of fashion. The follow up album to The Wall was the presumptuously named The Final Cut (1983). Floyd didn’t even bother touring that album and when Waters sent his formal letter of resignation of band membership to David Gilmour, Nick Mason and CBS in 1985, he thought that Pink Floyd would quietly disappear off into the sunset, never to be heard of again. To his shock and horror, in 1987 Gilmour and Mason announced that they had made a new album alongside erstwhile pianist Rick Wright and were going out on tour as Pink Floyd. If this wasn’t enough to make Waters seethe, it transpired that Floyd would be, on occasion, playing the same city as he was on the same night as he was touring his Radio K.A.O.S album. Waters attempted to curtail the Floyd tour by litigation in the mistaken belief that he had the moral or legal right to stop them from trading without his presence. On Pink Floyd’s North American tour of 1987, they had to have a lawyer on standby in every city they played in anticipation of a cease and desist order from Waters legal team. It never came but it was an expensive enterprise which widened the already deep wounds of the acrimonious divide.
In a 2003 interview for Uncut magazine, David Gilmour said that Roger Waters was lying over his claim that he was over the very generous distribution of song writing credits on The Dark Side of the Moon (1973). It seemed from that interview that time had not softened any mutual hard feelings between the band and its estranged lyricist and bass player. In 2005, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Live Aid and to appeal for the cancellation of the debt of some impoverished nations in Africa, Bob Geldof had coerced some of the biggest names in the world of rock music to play at Live 8. Getting the likes of Paul McCartney, Coldplay, The Who, Stevie Wonder and U2 was an achievement in itself but the coup-de-grace was persuading Pink Floyd to make their first appearance as a band in 11 years. That was then superseded by the revelation two weeks before the concert that Waters was going to join the band onstage for the first time since 1981. With the venom and poison that had been in the air since Waters official departure from the band in 1985, this was, to my eyes, the most jaw dropping band reunion.
During promotional duties for The Eagles’ 1980 album Eagles Live, band drummer and singer Don Henley was asked by Rolling Stone magazine as to when The Eagles were going to be playing live again or be back in the studio. He replied that it would occur ‘when Hell freezes over’. The break-up of the band was a fractious one and clearly at the time, wounds of their tense break-up were clearly fresh. They may have thought that it was a bad split and they couldn’t bear to be in each others company but a very cold day was had in hell in November 1994 when they re-appeared with a new album and a touring schedule which lasted for two years. Nearly two decades on from that reunion, The Eagles are still a going concern.
In 1983 The Rolling Stones signed a contemporary record breaking deal with CBS records for the distribution rights for ten years. As an aside to that deal, Mick Jagger had also signed a contract with CBS for distribution of his solo albums over the same period. What became apparent to Jagger’s song-writing partner of twenty years, Keith Richards, was that CBS had no interest in making new Rolling Stones albums, merely distributing and repackaging their lucrative post 1971 output. To Richards’ observation, CBS saw the future as Jagger having a solo career and worse to Richards, Jagger didn’t discourage the idea. In 1986, The Rolling Stones released Dirty Work, an album that Jagger had merely only participated in by turning up to do his vocal parts then disappearing leaving Richards to organise with Ronnie Wood. The problem for Jagger was that as half-hearted as it was an album, it was still streets ahead of his own solo album released twelve months prior. This was perhaps Jagger’s biggest mistake. Before his solo album, people had assumed that his bandmates in the Rolling Stones were his able and willing backing men but when listening to She’s The Boss, his debut album and its execrable follow-up, Primitive Cool, it suddenly became blindingly obvious just how much he needed his fellow Stones around him to make decent records. To all intents and purposes, Jagger would have been happy to leave The Rolling Stones and go alone for the rest of his career but after a very rancorous estrangement that lasted three years, The Stones reconvened in March 1989 to make the Steel Wheels album and they subsequently embarked on the biggest selling and money grossing tour ever at its time. Unlike The Who in 1982, The Rolling Stones never at any point actually said that they had split up or were never going to play together again. Throughout the vitriolic exchanges between Jagger and Richards in the 1980s, this was without doubt the wisest thing they did (or more to the point, didn’t). The Stones have continued to function since 1989 with Richards arguably being the most powerful member of the band. Something that was almost unthinkable up until the late 1980s. Jagger returned all smiles with his tail firmly between his legs and on the surface, all’s well within the Stones camp
In the closing months of 1982, The Who and The Jam both announced their permanent professional estrangement. Thirty two years later, the split of The Jam has been faithfully observed but The Who returned for a one-off performance at Live Aid in 1985. They fully re-convened (obviously sans Keith Moon) in 1989 to tour the Tommy rock opera and have been an operating band since then. As for The Jam, Paul Weller has claimed that a reunion will never happen but Weller, like Morrissey, is unlikely to ever need for it to happen. Weller has carved out a succesful solo career with a good loyal following of fans who will watch him play theatres in the UK and the occasional outdoor show In the summer. He also appears to be financially stable enough to not require The Jam to re-unite. The Jam had and indeed have loyal fans and if they announced a reunion, it would be received with some excitement. The harsh reality is though that The Jam would be a strictly second division re-union in comparrison to a potential reformation of somebody like Led Zeppelin or ABBA. Certainly in terms of popular demand if not in merit. Led Zeppelin split up in 1980 following the drink-induced death of drummer John Bonham. Like The Who, they played the Philadelphia leg of Live Aid in July 1985 with Phil Collins on drums. In 2007 following the death of Atlantic records founder Ahmet Ertegün in December 2006, Led Zeppelin announced that they were to play the Millennium Dome in Greenwich in December 2007 for a charity concert. The tickets were priced at £125.00 and there were reputedly 20,000,000 applications to watch a concert in a venue that held 20,000. I was one of the people trying in vain to get a ticket for that concert. Such is the enthusiasm and clamour for a Led Zeppelin reunion that is my belief that if they were to tour, they would set a precedent which I don’t believe would ever be surpassed.
They could name their price of tickets and sell out fifty stadia in the United States in record time. The split of Led Zeppelin, unlike The Beatles and Pink Floyd was not particularly acrimonious. That would be the biggest stumbling block to a potential ABBA re-union. Formed from a nucleus of songwriting partners Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, they brought their respective wives on board, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Fältskog and formed the one of the most successful pop groups the world has ever known. Ulvaeus and Andersson had a similar knack to Lennon and McCartney for infectiously catchy and intelligent pop music. ABBA’s problems occurred not through financial disagreements or musical differences but by the collapse of the respective marriages that the band was built around. The other similarity Abba shared with The Beatles is that even when they were breaking up, they were still producing classic songs like Winner Takes It All and One Of Us, which graphically explained the state of the relationships within the group. It is hard to say which would be the bigger reunion between ABBA and Led Zeppelin in regards to public demand and hypothetical ticket sales but of the two groups, there is more chance of Led Zeppelin going back on the road than there is of ABBA. Since ABBA ceased making music in 1982, primary songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus have made far more money from the ABBA musicals, films using ABBA songs and the ABBA Gold compilation that was released in 1992 and still sells substantially over twenty years later, than they did when they were an operating band. There is no financial motivation for any of the group members to get back together but there is undoubtedly a huge public demand for it to happen. Will they do it? Never say never, if The Beatles and Pink Floyd can get back together to make music (however fleeting) anybody can.