Sunday, May 24, 2009
What's in a name?
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Head Strong: It sounds familiar but looks different
OPINION by Michael Smerconish
For many of us, Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of Summer and the launch of the concert season. The slate of bands stopping in Philadelphia, Camden, and Atlantic City this year looks mostly the same as it did 25 years ago.
Jimmy Buffett. Jackson Browne. Chicago. The Allman Brothers. Def Leppard is touring with Poison and Cheap Trick. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Eric Clapton is out with Steve Winwood. The Doobie Brothers. Peter Frampton. REO Speedwagon. Fleetwood Mac. Aerosmith.
Many of the bands hitting the road this summer - Styx, Yes, Foreigner, and Guns N' Roses - remain household names. But see them live and you'll notice a difference onstage, and not just the expanding waistlines. Many bands are back for an encore, even if the musicians in them aren't. It was inevitable, but many of rock's most successful acts over the last three decades aren't half the bands they used to be.
Seventies and '80s progressive rockers Styx are playing the Borgata this summer, even though guitarist James Young is the only original member remaining. Chris Squire, Steve Howe, and Alan White of Yes are touring again, though lead singer Jon Anderson isn't. Nor is keyboardist Rick Wakeman. His son Oliver is sitting in.
What's left of Foreigner - guitarist Mick Jones is the only founding member of the band still around - will land at the Tropicana Showroom in Atlantic City on July 31.
Lynyrd Skynyrd is still tragically star-crossed (bassist Donald "Ean" Evans died of cancer earlier this month). But that never stops "one more from the road," even though Gary Rossington is the only founding member still on the bus.
Most of the original funk-makers from War are on the road, they're just playing in different bands. Lonnie Jordan anchors the most recent incarnation, but the other original members have moved on to the Lowrider Band.
Not to mention Guns N' Roses, headlining Europe even though lead singer Axl Rose is the only guy you'd be able to pick out of a lineup. The rest of the original GN'R is missing in action, unless you count Slash's appearance in that Guitar Hero commercial.
It's worse for the real oldies, acts like the Coasters ("Yakety Yak") and the Platters ("Only You"). Today it's common practice for tribute bands to capitalize on famous names even though none of the original members is present or approving. There could be as many as 50 incarnations of the Coasters, for example, touring the country today. It's so bad that on three dates this summer the Coasters will be opening for the Coasters.
That explains the Truth in Music Act, which has been passed in more than 30 states - including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and which is working its way through Oregon's legislature. The legislation makes it illegal for performers to use the name of a band if the act doesn't include at least one original member.
Jon "Bowzer" Bauman, singer in the group Sha Na Na and lead proponent of the Truth in Music effort across the country, told me that bands' original members are the ones hit hardest by tribute bands masquerading as the real deal.
"It's a double whammy," he said. "The consumer, the fan, is paying good money. If it's going to be a tribute show, call it a tribute show. And people will pay their prices accordingly ... Don't be claiming you're the group if you're not the group."
That trend is now seeping into the acts of the '70s and '80s. And what it all amounts to is a severed connection between the music we grew up listening to and the people we're actually paying to see perform it today. The songs might sound the same and the set lists might look similar. But Foreigner without vocalist Lou Gramm? Just plain foreign.
Still, many of us keep shelling out big bucks to see musicians playing the songs we grew up on. Even though today albums aren't bought and collected. They're cherry-picked for one or two songs that fit into a playlist. Cover art has become an iTunes graphic. Liner notes? Killed off by Lyrics.com. These days, getting to know a band means becoming its fan on Facebook.
Then again, I remember something Gary Bongiovanni, the editor and founder of the music-industry trade publication Pollstar, told me last year about the bands still making a killing decades later. "There's a lot of demand to see these classic rock acts," he said. "I mean, they're really kind of the heritage of the rock music business."
Maybe it's that sense of nostalgia keeping the same old band names in business. After all, we're clearly still willing to play along for a night, even if it means holding up a cell phone in lieu of a lighter.
posted 1:43 PM