Last time we discussed 5 bands that went out in a depressing fit of coughing and wheezing, barely being able to make it to their final resting places and dying undignified deaths. Not all bands go out in such a depressing manner, no, some bands go out in an amazing blaze of glory, either by knowing its the perfect time to call it a day or through a purely unfathomable sequence of disasters that defies common sense and logic. Unlike our previous conversation piece of “they were good until…” these bands don’t have to have that disclaimer, or it is merely “Damn did they go too soon” or “That is certainly one way to go out”.
At The Drive-In
Yes, I know, every list of ‘bands that went too soon’ starts or ends with At The Drive-In. Often they talk about how they were at the peak of their popularity and how One Armed Scissor changed a nation or something to that extent. You likely have seen the same video posted over and over of Cedric Bixler throwing a massive fit at Big Day Out 2001 because everyone was moshing way too much. Yes, they went too soon, but more importantly it is how they exited. It wasn’t just that the next album would have put them onto headlining tours and filling large clubs, but that their implosion was such a wonderful mixture of elements poised for detonation for years.
Understand that the groups complete disintegration was a long time coming, the combination of differences in opinion, ambitions, narcissism, and a whole lot of drug abuse. This was a group of teens from the dusty border town of El Paso Texas who were desperately trying to make it for years and years prior, barely scraping by in rusted out vans, sleeping on floors, and having diets consisting mostly of fast food. Their saga is unique in that until this point the post-hardcore genre had never really surfaced into the mainstream. Legends of Drive Like Jehu and Fugazi were underground lumineers, but hardly darlings of center stage.
Even more wild is that while this band was achieving critical acclaim the actual members were doing absolutely nothing to garner favor or support from their newly found audience. For a band that scrapped and struggled to get the point of acknowledgment and praise they did very little to maintain it. One does not have to look much further than their numerous prime time performances of their hit single One-Armed Scissor which ranged from tolerable to disastrous. Band members would leave mid-song, throw equipment, just perform in a sloppy out of control manner, or any combination of the previously mentioned. The band’s ‘hard to get’ attitude kept people asking for more, but they had no intention of presenting themselves as grateful. Instead they constantly wanted to look annoyed with their day job, and cause as much chaos as possible.
For this group of five young men to make it to the main stage of Big Day Out is remarkable on its own. The imminent implosion is even better. The band, angered by the aggressive moshing and violent behavior exhibited by the audience, decided to take matters into their own hands. They told their audience to go to hell for being so aggressive and after three songs walked off stage, done. Shortly after came the announced hiatus, and shortly after that two splinter groups would emerge in Sparta and The Mars Volta. What made it all the more remarkable was how in such a short period of time both halves of this whole began to loath each other. Omar and Cedric (and eventually Paul), feeling frustrated for not being allowed to experiment more and venture forth and Jim and Tony, believing that they had the rug pulled out from under them just as they were finally about to see the rewards for their years of hard work.
This eruption also helped launch The Mars Volta into the spotlight right away, not having to rescale the mountain they had spent years navigating. The conversation about At The Drive-In’s demise also exploded, asking a bunch of questions such as “Why?” “No really why?” and “How Weezerish would the next album have sounded?”. Few bands from such a peculiar subset of music make a statement like At The Drive In did in their short stay in the spotlight, and few bands explode with such majesty too, creating an endless array of splinter groups and side projects that are still debuting to this day.
There is a long repeating narrative in pop culture of a band that hates each other post break-up, but somehow reunites against all odds, rediscovering their love for each other. In countless TV shows and movies we see this trope time and time again, that the whole was better than the sum of its parts. Suddenly, the two or more musicians who caused the band to fall apart join together on stage, sometimes due the scheming of an overly caring 3rd party, and decide to ‘eh fuck it’ and play the hits. The crowd roars in appreciation and everything ends wonderfully.
Not the case here, as when The Smiths broke up, they turned a difference in perspective into an all-out Cold War. Guitarist Johnny Marr had grown annoyed with Morrissey’s desire to cover 60’s bubblegum pop numbers while Morrissey was annoyed with Marr’s lack of commitment, as he was busy playing with a variety of other musicians and bands. Morrissey’s jealousy, or whatever you wish to call it, eventually led Marr to exit the group, no longer interested in dealing with the in-house political drama that had been unfolding. The band briefly toyed with replacing Marr, but eventually the whole project collapsed and The Smiths were no more. This in itself would have been a fitting end. The band never released a true dud and ended before creative differences would have ripped the band to shreds through lop-sided songs emboldened by differences in styles.
It is what comes next, however, that takes The Smiths name, lights it on fire, and throws it into the crowded street. You may have noticed I only mentioned two of the four members of the band, Marr and Morrissey, and that is because this half the group is a pair of wild egomaniacs, dead-set on ensuring a specific legend that they are unparalleled musical geniuses. Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce, bless their hearts, were never the creative force behind the group, but it didn’t mean they deserved to be deliberately screwed. Which, funny enough, is exactly what happened!
How so you ask? In the late 90’s legal action was taken against the self-proclaimed masterminds due to unfair distribution of royalties. It appeared that Marr and Morrissey were each taking 40% of royalties earned while Rourke and Joyce only took 10%. While true a separate conversation does exist into whether the rhythm section of the band, not known for song writing, deserved an even share, but what doesn’t register as fair is how both Marr and Morrissey argued that this had been established at some point….for certain….definitely…we just couldn’t remember when. Apparently no one could remember when this agreement was made.
The judge wasn’t particularly interested in Marr and Morrissey acting like victims and declared royalties had to be split evenly. Tragically, however, Andy Rourke was in significant debt and had already settled for his 10% share of royalties in order to fend off the debt collectors. From then on, anytime the two martyrs are questioned about a reunion they go into a heartbreaking story about how painful and unpleasant it would be to collect a couple million dollar check for having to stand next to someone they don’t like for 90 minutes. While the band existed there may not have been many blow-ups, but once they broke up the train wreck that ensued was a stereotypical as it could be.
The notorious mythology of The Beatles will eternally be studied and pulled apart for decades to come, or at least so long as the surviving members ensure that their catalog continues to be milked for every dollar it is potentially worth. And while there is a bit of eye-rolling involved when we consider that The Beatles seem to be less about the music these days and more about the image, the name, and the sweet sweet associated products, it is hard to deny that they were one of the greatest bands of their era. Not only that, but their decision to not attempt to settle their differences and keep recording as a fragmented group only in it for the money ensures an enduring legacy without any questionable moments.
Sure, the band itself is far from perfect (as I have argued before), and I think it is safe to say that there were other groups of the era that made as equally great music, were far more daring, or had catchier hooks, but without a doubt their lasting legacy is hard to match. Their ending albums Abbey Road and Let It Be helped enforce their footprint in the musical world for future generations as I’m sure by the year 2050 we will be buying their catalog again, this time having it installed in the chip in our brains. The end of their career is heavily discussed and dissected due to its conflicting recollections, controversial characters, and overall strange journey. The members grew increasingly disconnected or uncertain of the road they wanted to go down musically, and new relationships formed outside the band were impacting the inner workings of 4 young men who had their realities ripped apart by being the biggest celebrities in the world.
It had been a few years even since they had played live, reverting to only being a studio band due to being disillusioned with the purpose of touring and feeling there was not a sufficient sound system to play over the screaming fans. The monstrous record sales they continued to enjoy proved the lack of need for touring as they were still raking in mountains of money and accolades without setting foot on stage as The Beatles. Their final concert was atop the studio in which they had completed their final album,. A strange, quiet, and undramatic show would lead to one more disastrous recording session in which their second to last album (I know I know) would be recorded with Lennon quitting shortly after the release of Abbey Road. McCartney was the next to quit shortly before their final album Let It Be was released. From there the musicians went onto their separate adventures, never to truly reunite as a The Beatles.
It is all of that which is what makes their ending so fitting. It feels very unassuming and undramatic; creative tensions ripped the band to pieces, they played on a roof, and that was it. There was no ‘we are totally quitting’ tour, no big cash grab reunion, nothing. Understated and rather haunting. A band that had once generated so much fanfare they couldn’t hear themselves perform now left in the most silent of hushes. Sure, Let It Be is not considered their best work, but its hard to argue that it was a complete mess or a misfire. Considering the toxic environment from which it was conceived it is relatively remarkable that anything was released at all.
It was the seamless transition from the biggest band in the world to studio masterminds to venturing on their own that made their demise so fitting. The four members had simply evolved beyond the necessity of the group. Yes of course parts of it were ego, narcissism, money, and pride, but it also seemed that the need for the band to exist had ceased. None of the members needed the band and had opted to not drag its dying corpse along with them. Rumors have since surfaced that they were discussing a reunion in the late 70’s, but with Lennon’s tragic death this never happened, nor did they opt to tap in one of his children to fill the roll either, thank god. So regardless of the hype, the mystical ending to the ‘Fab 4’ is a nearly artistic conclusion to one of the most revered bands in history.
G. G. Allin and the Murder Junkies
From stately exists to the most vulgar of conclusions we now begin our conversation about the kind of disgusting G. G. Allin. For the unaware, G. G. Allin was a “musician” (there will never be a large enough set of quotation marks) who fronted some of the most violent, destructive, musically terrible, and out of control punk outfits that have ever existed. As his career, and subsequent addiction issues, progressed his shows became increasingly more erratic, risky, and covered in shit. G. G.’s antics of stripping naked, shitting on stage, attacking audience members, and just generally being an unpleasant ass-hole ensured that a very small amount of his shows every made it to the end. Typically the plug would be pulled after 15-20 minutes once the promoter realized he was going to have to spend the night cleaning smeared feces off of his concert floor.
G. G. Allin’s bands had existed in multiple forms and names throughout the 80’s prior to The Murder Junkies, featuring a rotating cast of outcasts and strangers including one of The Ramones (Although he apparently was only in the band for a few days). After Allin’s prison stint in the mid to late 80’s he decided to form The Murder Junkies and go on an all out war of a tour creating chaos and pandemonium on unprecedented levels. Although previous G.G. groups had been destructive and non-compliant to venue rules, this was when things truly fell into a realm never seen before, where the shit throwing and outright carnage hit a fever pitch. Many shows ended with the police crashing the party and the band running out the door before they were arrested for a Disorderly Conduct charge. Outside the band’s own antics G. G. was involved in open mic nights where he would read deranged poetry, threaten to kill himself, fight the audience (again), or shove bananas up his rectum. It is impossible to not emphasize the shock factor in his music, making the conversation of the validity of his music rather moot. Performance seemed secondary to raising hell, but with it came a spectacle that had never been seen.
The band’s final show in an abandoned gas station in New York City ended in a similar fashion with the police crashing the scene early into the concert. Concert attendees, frustrated that their favorite spectacle had been cut short, stormed the streets in anger causing a bit of a small riot of sorts and clogging up the already congested New York City streets. G. G., in typical G. G. fashion, proceeded to roam the streets himself, barely wearing any clothes and covered in his own waste that he had smeared on himself earlier. He slipped into a cab (who considering the smell that had to be exuding for G. G. had to be the nicest cabbie ever) and vanished into the night, dying that day from a heroin overdose.
Much can be said about his “legacy”, whether he truly was some auteur artist or simply a drug addict with a penchant for Rock ‘n Roll. His shock antics could be as easily adored as they could be dismissed as vapid shock value. His constant threats of committing suicide on stage on specific dates were met with well-timed arrests, and show cancellations. His declaration that he was issuing in a new world order was paired with cowardly retreats when things weren’t going his way. There is no doubt that he was vulgar and extreme, but to what extent I’m not so sure. Regardless, dying the same day you play your last concert, which had ended in a storming of the streets is an iconic and ‘Rock ‘n Roll’ way to die. The Murder Junkies themselves continue to tour and play with a new, less violent singer, but it will never be the same.
The tragedy of the loss of Bowie and his many alter egos is still resonating in the music world with many musicians still creating tributes and figuring out how to channel their feelings of sorrow and gratitude for one of the most influential musicians of modern time. What I cannot get over, however, is just how monumental his exit from this world was. This wasn’t a slow polite bowing out of the world. No, David dropped a nuclear bomb of an album and then vanished overnight. His unfortunate and unexpected exit makes for a mythos that will exist for decades.
Breaking down the situation further leads to a better understanding of how Bowie’s passing is unlike anything else in modern time. Bowie had taken a nearly decade long break before releasing The Next Day, a wonderful straight to the point album that showed a relatively mature Bowie coming back to grace us with his presence. No tour, but it was a roaring deceleration that he was back to put his foot down on the music scene again. It was safe to anticipate that in the not too distant future he wold release another album.
No one could anticipate that he would be struck with a tragic disease that would eventually take him from this world earlier than anticipated. Bowie, at some point, realized he was on borrowed time and had a relatively strict calendar he had to adhere to. From his revelations of his mortality, as far as I can tell, Blackstar was born. Perhaps parts of Blackstar existed before this news, but part of me likes to believe that Blackstar was conceived specifically as a swan song and that any direct follow-up to The Next Day is sitting on a hard-drive somewhere, waiting for an eventual 2017 release. Bowie, in a mad dash of brilliance accrued an all-star cast of musicians and in a very few number of sessions created what is currently the best of 2016 and what will surely become an iconic album for years to come (or fuck it Adele will win album of the year).
But beyond this is something relatively remarkable in 2016/2015 where secrets no longer exist. Bowie had a terminal illness and was creating an album in relative secrecy. There were no rumblings of his coming demise or that Blackstar was coming at all. In this day and age when album leaks and stolen nude photos run wild it is purely shocking that in a short span of a few months (when the first single dropped) Bowie declared an album was coming, released two haunting music videos, released his album, and then nearly immediately died. There is nary an artist who has orchestrated their death in such a fashion to be tied to their final piece of work, to make it the punctuation mark on their exit from the material world.
Even beyond this, is the realization that Blackstar’s meaning changed in a very short span of time. When initially released it was a collection of haunting, but brilliant songs; a spiritual successor to the trio of albums recorded in Berlin in the late 70’s. Once he passed, the meaning completely changed and we suddenly realized that it was littered with double meanings, secret messages, and introspection about being ill and dying. The music videos, it became apparent, were peppered with specific imagery of a dying Major Tom, and how his death will leave such a significant impact on the world. In what seemed to be an instant, the album became a conversation piece about mortality, legacy, and leaving ones mark on the world. Its contextual significance will begin to fade in time, but for those of us who are here in it now let us enjoy what is, without a doubt, one of the most shocking endings to musical career.