Look, sadly not all the bands we love and cherish have happy endings. Some decide to end on a cruelly beautiful high-note leaving us crying for more, some decide implode in an absolutely fabulous manner, and others take a slow and depressing descent to their demise. It is tragic, really, when you have to add a huge caveat to that band you are raving about, adding a “They were good until….”. Nothing tarnishes a great legacy more than when a band decides to stay in the game one…five…twenty years too long. For our reading pleasure I have conjured a short list of some artists that have done just that, stayed out just a bit too long past their bed time. To get on this list a band or musician had to have a strong and consistent discography early on in their career. It is not fair if a band was never good to begin with. I will also be skipping bands that are still dragging their sad carcass across the floor because they have not figured out that it is time to quit.
Starting off this list is an obvious choice. Can may never have been the biggest band during their active years, but they certainly carry a legendary clout about them that has few rivals. The amount of acts they influenced is endless and they have even been sampled in a Kanye West song. From 1969 til 1974 Can was relatively flawless starting off with their raw and aggressive Monster Movie. The initial Singer, Malcom Mooney, left after having some sort of mental breakdown getting stuck in what can only be called a Can-hole as he was observed repeating the phrase “upstairs downstairs” on some sort of hypnotic loop. Things truly exploded when their second singer, Damo Suzuki, was literally picked up off the streets and offered vocal duties. For four albums Damo was an unstoppable force of primitive verbiage. His words tended to meld multiple languages at once creating some kind of caveman language that was perfect from the droning drive that was the music.
When Damo left the band in 1973 to become a Jehovah’s Witness a huge hole was left in the band that they never quite figured out how to fill. Their first post Damo release, Soon Over Babaluma, is just as intense and fascinating as any other Can release, but soon after the cracks started to form. Attempts to fill the singing position failed miserably with guitarist Michael Karoli doing his best, but failing to capture the outrageous nature of both their previous vocalists. Sane, coherent vocals were never Can‘s strong suit. Rather it was the rhythmic pulse paired with indecipherable howls and shouts that made them legends in their own right.
Things began to get start deviating and going south with the follow-up release Landed. By now the band had, somehow, ended up on Virgin records and subsequently started creating a poppier sound. This and an upgrade in their recording process to a 16-track mixer meant the band became more self-aware and more focused on creating clean and polished music, instead of releasing an edited down version of their stream of conscious recording sessions that had been known for until now. Can was never about polished verse-chorus-verse songs, but rather brief glimpses into their endless thought process.
It was not all bad, with some gems such as Vernal Equinox and Untitled, but you yearn for the out of control tendencies that blessed previous albums. The band’s focus had shifted into creating songs instead of simply creating and forming songs at a later time. The philosophy of Can was beginning to fade. Follow-up Flow Motion continued to head in this direction, giving Can their one and only radio single in I Want More, but leaving their classic fans clamoring for the days where a whole side of a vinyl would be filled with an ambient drone or a trance inducing jam. There are still moments of the free-flow madness that blessed the band before, but it is way less frequent. The Can of the past was gone for good.
Ending here would have been acceptable, an admission that the band’s best work was behind them, they tried some new ideas that did not work, and called it a day. Unfortunately this is not the end of the story, as things went completely pear-shaped after that. For some reason, Can decided that it needed to expand its sound which meant incorporating a percussionist in Rebop Kwaku Baah, and adding a new bassist, Traffic‘s Rosko Gee. Holger Czukay, the chugging bassist heart of the band for years was shoved off stage to play with radios and other gadgets. In other words, he was made irrelevant. The subsequent three albums were a complete disaster, with Out of Reach being so bad the band has officially disowned it. The self-titled finale goes so far as to feature the ‘Can Can’ as a space filler. Instead of driving riffs and spacious ambiance we were left with corny ‘world music’ jams and awful attempts at pop-music. Nothing about it worked.
A brief reformation led to Rite Time, which is more a novelty than anything and relatively forgettable as well, sounding more like old friends goofing around more than anything. There is no better way to start this tragic list than with these guys. What started as one of the most creative groups of the 70’s crawled to a depressing and out of character end. Those final releases lacked any of the soul or audacity that has made Can such a cult legend.
Rage Against The Machine
Three albums of riot-inducing anti-establishment rap-metal had worn out this iconic 90’s quartet, creating internal riffs that could not be repaired. After some intense live performances in 2000 the band had decided their day in the sun was over. There was only one problem though; they were still under contract for one more release. Some bands may attempt to put their differences aside and go out with one last hurrah. Some might phone it in and put out a mediocre album to finish their obligation. The issue with Rage is that their front man, the lyrical mastermind Zack De La Rocha, is a notoriously slow song writer. Every project he touches turns glacial in production, trickling out releases at rarer than eclipse intervals. Clearly, if the rest of the band wanted to move they would need to act fast. Remember, at this time the three other members were planning on keeping the band alive with a new front-man.
This resulted in the highly questionable Renegades; a cover album. Yes, Rage Against The Machine would wander off into the sunset under the soundtrack of cover songs. The song choice was fair enough, featuring a collection of protest songs that were clear inspirations for their music. Not only that, but the band had been covering some of these songs live for some time. No, it was not a true fair-well album, but maybe, just perhaps, they could end their career on a promising enough note. We knew there would be no Eviler Empire, but perhaps we could at least appreciate the little oddity that would come before us.
Things were problematic from the moment the CD hit the shelves. Instead of their normal, bold and brazen album covers, the album simply had the letter R,A,G, and E looking like a hokey spoof off the iconic LOVE artwork. Safe to say this was the intention, but it looks ugly, cheap, and downright lazy. Yes, plenty of great albums have bad album art, but this was beyond bad, it was phoned in. It was a bad sign. It was correct.
To be fair, some of the performances are pretty good like the single Renegades of Funk, and Cypress Hill‘s How I Could Just Kill A Man, but the majority were extremely bland, uninspired, or outright forgettable. Not only were many of the tracks average at best, but some creative liberties taken were especially odd, such as taking MC5‘s Kick Out The Jams and playing it at about half-speed (This was made especially strange considering when they played the song live it was blindingly fast). Making matters worse was producer Rick Rubin who administered his usual touch of over-producing the living daylights out of the album. Suddenly their are five or six vocalists all yelling “uh, uhuh, c’mon” generating a cacophony of noise through the generation of a De La Rocha clone army.
Adding insult to injury was the bands final release, a recording of their final show. After completely forgettable Renegades This should have been a welcome swan song. There is no better send-off you could give to your fans than the memories of your final shows. Rage also had a history of putting on brazenly aggressive live shows that were akin to the LA riots in music form.
Again, on paper this should have made perfect sense, but somehow the end result was a complete mess. The mix is absolutely bizarre, cutting out the audiences sing-a-longs which makes it sound like there were maybe 20 people in the room, and lowering Tim Commeford’s vocals as well. The performance itself is solid too, but the energy that should exist is sucked out of the room, giving the performance a hugely anemic vibe. Fortunately, plenty late career bootlegs exist, allowing us to enjoy more fitting recordings of the band during their victory lap, but there should be no need to have find a bootleg to compensate for sloppy work on the bands behalf.
Wrapping up this sad saga was where these musicians all ended up. The initial intention to find a replacement for Zack ended up being a failure after a few failed studio attempts at filling the front-man role. Tim, Tom, and Brad would end up in the dull as nails Audioslave, where their talents would be criminally underused in making 3 dad-rock albums. Zack would drift around aimlessly, teasing a solo album that never came to be, and releasing a mere five song EP as One Day As A Lion. Rage Against The Machine will always remain as a legendary act of the 90’s, but its final days will always have a strange tarnish that cannot be ignored. Their brief late 00’s resurrection was hugely redeeming, but with no indication of an album to follow we are left with the fond memories of back when.
We need to be honest here. I know that you Zep fans are completely out of control and in full-bore denial, but you need to come to reality. Led Zeppelin is not perfect. They are far from perfect. While their is no denying the legendary level of rock ‘n roll excellence they achieved, we have to accept that things began to quickly fall apart around 1975. Now I know there are a great deal of contributing factors that helped to this demise, but I am asking you all to finally admit that their ending was a depressing trudge that dragged on mercilessly until its tragic finale. When you have come to accept this we can finally heal, and finally move on. For every Dazed and Confused in the beginning their was a Carouselambra in the end.
Yes, we cannot deny that the death of Plant’s son, and the increasing substance abuse issues of Page and Bonham had a significant impact on their creative output. The band’s near spotless record was beginning to show cracks by the time Physical Graffiti came out, an amazing double LP, but one that also felt like it hung around longer than it needed to. The album is still solid and to the band’s credit things didn’t start going really south until 1976’s Presence where there was an undeniable dip in quality. The creative and nuanced compositions from the past 6 years were replaced with straight forward chugga-chugga rock songs which may have been endearing to a Black Sabbath fan, but here it came across as by the numbers rock music for the masses. Ok sure, 10 minute album openers do not become radio singles, but they make for great arena rock fodder. There were few good tracks like Tea For One and the radio single, Nobody’s Fault But Mine, but nothing else particularly stands out as remarkable. Achilles’ Last Stand has an especially catchy riff, but after 10 minutes its welcome is beyond worn out. Adding to this was that the band themselves looked and sounded worn out. Robert Plant, for example, was nowhere near the singer he once was and after years of not taking care of his voice couldn’t wail like he once was able to, high pitched hollers turned into tone shifting stumblings of a 13 year old boy.
After Presence, came the obnoxious and self-absorbed Song Remains the Same, a film about how awesome they thought they were. The film, fortunately, was a bomb in the theaters and panned by critics. At the very least audiences could sense the self-indulgent bullshit when it stank this bad. If you have your own jumbo-jet you need to be periodically knocked down a few pegs. A few years later would bring us to In Through The Outdoor, an album whose title is a reference to butt-sex, which should speak for itself right there. There is nothing fun or inspiring about it. It is just painful to listen to it and realize what they had become; an overwrought behemoth, bloated, and dancing to the demands and cries of the audience. It was not pretty, but when you are being handed massive checks you don’t question it.
The album itself was the sound of four people who sounded tired and completely uninterested in what they were doing. Schlock ballads and shoe-horned keyboards dragged at a mid-tempo pace. Now do not mistake this for stating they couldn’t make mellower songs, Zeppelin III for instance has plenty of folk-inspired and restrained songs, but they at least sounded like they weren’t crafted specifically to rake in cash. In Through The Out Door sounded like an attempt to predict what people would like in 1980. In short, it sucks. I know you do not want to admit it, but it is not a good album. If you were not told this was a Led Zeppelin record it would be easy to assume it was some other band playing adult-contemporary. The subsequent supporting live performances range from painful to just plain exhausted. Page looked a drugged mess, Plant was unable to sing any of the old material, and Bonham was busy passing out on stage. His tragic death in 1980 brought the band to a grinding halt.
There is a sense that without a dramatic intervention the band would have kept going without any better judgment because they were being handed near literal dump trucks of money to perform and that is really quite tragic when you think about it. Their critical support was long gone, but none of this mattered because they were still selling millions of records and tickets. Page and Bonham’s substance abuse problems are not funny by any means, they are tragic. Seeing four friends be trapped on an endless ride because they can’t stop chasing the carrot at the end of the stick loses its humor after a while and forms into a sad state of affairs. I cannot even begin to imagine the level of exhaustion and pain they were experiencing.
Their future releases as solo artists showed that these guys were still plenty creative (Plant’s folk and country work especially), but that this band had long overstayed its welcome and were no longer functioning as a creative entity. No one would ever tell them to stop either, because they were too valuable a commodity. If you need a parallel, think of U2 a band that is beyond their relevance, but will still sell-out stadiums and therefore will never be encouraged to call it a career, and likely are sitting in an echo chamber of praise. For what its worth at least the foursome from England avoided complete embarrassment unlike their eternal rivals The Who.
If you are as prolific as Frank Zappa it is only natural that you are going to release some duds during your career. There is no doubting that Frank, despite his many amazing albums, released some stinkers during his better years . If you were to look at his failures on a timeline, however, you would notice that the further you go into the 80’s the more likely it is you will get a mediocre to bad album. This is not to say Frank had completely given up as an artist, as there were still some outstanding albums put out by him during his final decade as a rock musician. It is just that his tendency to release sharp witty, and musically inspired music had become increasingly infrequent. Funny enough though, most of his better 80’s releases were not even rock albums.
So what happened? If I were to venture a guess as to the core reason for the quality of his output taking such a substantial nose-dive I would come to two answers. First of all, somewhere in the 80’s his sense of humor went from offensive, but creative, to juvenile and vulgar. Unsurprising to anyone familiar with his music, Frank was known for being a relatively scandalous musician with songs ranging in topic from Jewish princesses, butt-sex, and titties ‘n beer. Earlier in his career Frank attempted to cover his volatility up with just the slightest of metaphor, making it not blindingly apparent that he was singing about orgies or why hippies are stupid. There is no doubt that some of these veils were paper thin, but you got the sense that he was at least attempting to not be as grossly in your face as humanly possible. All else fails ,Frank would at least attempt to ensure that everyone was laughing with and not at the focus of his vocal ire. No doubt that 2016 America would never have approved of him on the radio, but there were at least some vague attempts by him to try and make everyone feel welcome.
This changed somewhere in the late 70’s with his excellent live (….sort of) release, Sheik Yerbouti. I would put this album as the major turning point in his subtlety, where the pretense was gone and his attempts at a joke turned into attempts to shock and appall. The album itself is a wonderful musical adventure paired with some incredibly obnoxious toilet humor, but the two balance out each other just enough to make it passable. This scale began to tip unfavorably after this release, with albums like Man From Utopia and Thing Fish. The commentary became increasingly on the nose and the shock factor became not so much endearing as it was cringe worthy. Instead of making fun of self-indulgent peace lovers Frank opted to tell stories of people stealing and huffing panties. That, or he was opting to engage in racial commentary which he was not exactly adept at.
The music began to suffer too. The 80’s had this bad tendency to have musicians put a sort of ‘sheen’ on their music making it extremely clean and precise sounding. While Frank’s music tended to avoid that sterile vibe that most other artists strove for he did opt to create increasingly intricate music with wild time signatures and laser focused syncopation. This was undoubtedly technically impressive none of it comes across as particularly interesting, but rather like some sort of lab experiment for what is actually humanly possible. The Zappa bands often had quite complex arrangements, something that has always been part of the appeal, but this tended to cross the line into alienating. All of this lead to the music lacking any sort of groove or pulse, making it a joyless exercise in cramming in as many notes as possible.
Looking at his live performances too there was a sense that he just was not as into it anymore. The ‘fun’ had been sucked out in exchange for exhausting perfection and unparalleled complexity. Hell, he even took a young Steve Vai under his wing and that man is the opposite of fun. His final tour crashed under his own exacting demands costing him thousands of dollars and forcing himself into retirement from rock music. The concert footage of those shows does not have the same joy as his work from the 60’s and 70’s. You get the sense that he would have rather had computers doing all the work instead of having to deal with any humans. Even the humor felt rehearsed, instead of the classic chaos in motion essence that had existed throughout the 60’s and 70’s. Hell his band even put Yoko Ono in a sack.
His story at least has somewhat of a happy ending. After closing the casket on his ‘rocks star’ days he decided to focus on his classical music arrangements. The Yellow Shark and Civilization Pt. III show what could have been had he lived to continue his work as a composer. This brief part of his career is often forgotten, and does not do much to help clean the tarnish that was the 1980’s; a technically impressive, but faceless exploration into musical possibilities which often begged the question of should rather than could.
This was a tough decision based on the fact that Talking Heads did not have the worst final album, but their decline was relatively tragic for a band that was riding so extremely high. That in itself made it an appropriate choice for our final band on the list. That and if I wanted to make fun of Pink Floyd some more I’d just post clips of The Division Bell and let it speak for itself. We can’t let Byrne and company off the hook that easily, they have plenty of explaining to do….like a lot of explaining to do.
Lets rewind to 1983 when Talking Heads were touring in support of their latest album Speaking In Tongues. They had opted to bring the big band back together and this time adding a level of theatrics to the already huge presentation. This was the tour that brought about the infamous ‘Big Suit’ and which would be the basis for the still gold-standard concert film Stop Making Sense. Talking Heads had reached some sort of evolutionary pinnacle, going from awkward art-rockers to a massive polyrythmic dance machine. The tour ended and then things got….weird.
The already contentious relationship within the band had already had some significant spill-overs such as when Chris and Tina had proposed to Adrian Belew that he take over the band, but it seemed that the events of this tour had caused the toxicity to reach a critical mass. Alleged stories indicate that Byrne would not even call his band mates, but would have a personal assistant do so to inform them of news regarding tours and recording dates. The song writing process became even more polarizing with Byrne writing more and more of the music ahead of time and then handing it over to the rest of the band to perform when he said so. The end result was a complete lack of collaboration and a dramatic shift in tone.
Somewhere after Speaking in Tongues Byrne’s quirky charm began to eat itself from the inside out creating some sort of awkward black-hole that no one could escape from. The end result was the witnessing of his social skills collapsing in on themselves. The first output from this interstellar personality cave-in was nowhere near as good as the most recent albums, but still certainly not offensive. Little Creatures was considerably more sparse than their recent output, favoring Americana and quaint simple songs over the large-scale monsters that they had been writing previously. This was fine enough, as many bands make drastic artistic changes through their careers. Heck, the reason Talking Heads even became a nine-person ultra group was because they had made such a change, but this shift felt more a reduction, and a step-backwards. The song writing simply was not as sharp and lacked the personality of Talking Heads, something that had always existed despite their stylistic changes.
A hiccup is one thing, but a complete collapse of Talking Heads would come in the follow-up album True Stories. True Stories, to be fair to Talking Heads, is actually the soundtrack to David Byrne’s film of the same name. True Stories is its own article for another day, but to be brief, is a complete disaster of a movie. For 90 minutes you are transported inside David Byrne’s socially awkward psyche, a place which is endearing for 4 minute songs, but 90 minutes of pure nonsense, meandering observations and stilted conversation is an exercise in tolerance. With the bands name on the vinyl jacket, however, there is no escaping the inevitable scrutiny that ensued.
The music was not particularly interesting aside from one or two decent songs in Wild Wild Life and Puzzling Evidence. While the films cast recorded these songs for the film, Byrne had decided the best decision would be to have Talking Heads rerecord these songs for their 7th album. If Little Creatures was a slight misstep then True Stories was jumping headfirst into an empty pool. Byrne’s vice-grip on the band’s creative output sapped any resemblance of Talking Heads and replaced it with his unfiltered warped perception of reality. There is no joy in True Stories. Just blank expressions with no resemblance of emotive expression.
A perfect end to this narrative would have been if this was where the story ends, a band completely imploding with no interest in fighting for a resurrection, but instead of going out on an underwhelming whimper Talking Heads decided to end their run on a befuddling resurgence. Their final album Naked, while not even close to their best, is a pretty solid album. Talking Heads’ aura at least manages to poke out in a few brief moments throughout, and despite being a bit corny the music itself is quite catchy. For a brief moment there is a perceived hope that the band was coming back from the dead, finding a new avenue to explore, but instead the band once again went on hiatus after Naked. Presumably because no one knew what to do with the band. Likely because David wanted nothing to do with it.
Then it all just kind of…stopped. David Byrne in an interview in 1991 declared the band was dead and gone, although no one else in the group knew this. There was no explanation other than he had decided to take his ball and go home. The three remaining members, in a rather bone-headed move, decided to create a new band featuring a rotating cast of singers called The Heads. The subsequent release was embarrassing at best and threatened with a lawsuit by Byrne due to the band apparently trying to ride the wave of fame of Talking Heads. This was quite the odd move considering Byrne was the one to declare he did not want to do anything with the band, and now he would sue anyone that tried to. Funny enough, Byrne would continue to bank on his previous bands history by playing their songs while performing as a solo artist.
None of this mentions the fact that the band had not toured since 1983 either. Their live shows had become huge spectacles, with small armies of musicians performing on stage creating a massive sound. Yes, it was part of the trend in the early 80’s to culturally appropriate African music, but at least they did a good job of it. The live shows just stopped and a slow trickle of average and terrible music followed. Solo albums and side projects bloomed as well with varied results.
It was exceptionally bizarre considering how quickly they were rising and breaking new barriers in western rock to just slowly disintegrate into irrelevance over a near eight year period. It is hard to point the finger at one source, but the complete breakdown in communication between the members and their growing discontent certainly did not help. One would imagine with the level of discourse between them an appropriate ending would have been after their Speaking in Tongues tour had concluded, but for one reason or another the band continued to drag on for no real reason other than they did not know what else to do. Had those three final albums been released as Byrne solo albums no one would have batted an eye, excusing it for Byrne’s quirky compositional tendencies, but since they were released under the banner of Talking Heads they will forever leave an unfortunate asterisk on what was otherwise considered an impeccable legacy.