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In This is Spinal Tap, it was the drummer. It was always the drummer.
By the end of the movie, the fictional band had replaced a seemingly endless stream of drummers lost to bizarre gardening accidents and spontaneous combustion. But the remaining members continued on. And Spinal Tap remained Spinal Tap.
But would Spinal tap have been the same band had Nigel exploded? Or had Derek choked on an unidentified person’s vomit?
When does a band stop being the band its fans know and love and become something else altogether?
In April of this year, popular Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora left the band’s Because We Can Tour after performing only a handful of dates. Sambora is the band’s original guitarist, and he has co-penned almost all of the band’s hit songs. The show has gone on; Bon Jovi continues to tour without Sambora, session guitarist Phil “X” Xenidis standing in for Sambora. But press outlets reported that Sambora had been fired from the remainder of the band’s Because We Can tour, which ended this month. Sambora’s future with Bon Jovi appears unclear, begging the question: if Sambora leaves the band, is that band still Bon Jovi?
Bon Jovi remained Bon Jovi after its one other personnel change, the firing of bassist Alec John Such in 1995. Of the band’s five-man roster, Such was the oldest member of the band and perhaps the least well known. He was quietly replaced by Hugh MacDonald, a studio musician who had long worked with Jon Bon Jovi. There was no fallout from Such’s departure, and the band has continued to thrive for almost two decades without another member change.
But Bon Jovi’s long unshakeable constitution seems the exception to the rule of the rock band; indeed, a departure by Sambora would bring Bon Jovi more closely in line with the majority of other major rock acts. Musicians leave bands on a disturbingly regular basis, either by death, by choice, or kicking and screaming. It seems no major rock band has been spared; Journey, Chicago, Motley Crue, and more recently, Stone Temple Pilots have all lost key members. Considering the egos, the fame, the substances, the money, perhaps it’s no wonder that astoundingly few musical groups begin and end their careers with the same personnel. Nor is it surprising that, sometimes, the end of a band itself comes as a result of the wrong personnel change.
History shows that when the singer leaves, a band never quite rebounds. Think the Cars. Think Motley Crue. It makes sense; the singer stands front and center, providing both the face and the voice of the group. But it can be done. Genesis survived and even thrived when Phil Collins replaced Peter Gabriel as lead singer, and many fans will forever think of Brian Johnson and not Bon Scott when considering AC/DC’s lead vocalist. Van Halen made a nearly seamless transition when the band dumped singer David Lee Roth and replaced him with Sammy Hagar. But fans quickly dubbed the new line-up “Van Hagar,” driving home the point that a band that undergoes a huge personnel change isn’t really the same band.
Millions of fans were huge Journey fans back in the day when everyone was a huge Journey fan. As the world listened to Escape on endless repeat, thousands of fans shared the thought that if Steve Perry ever quit the band, Journey would be no more, because they could never find anyone who sings like him. And then Perry quit the band and the remaining members surfed the Internet and found a guy who sounds exactly like Steve Perry. Singer Arnel Pineda joined the band in late 2007 and by most accounts has been well received by at least a portion of Journey’s fans.
But is that band still Journey?
And who decides?
Much of the power lies with the fans. When Hagar left Van Halen, the Van Halen brothers brought in former Extreme singer Gary Cherone to fill the gap. The unpopular arrangement lasted just a few short years – a period followed up with a four-year band hiatus and the (temporary) return of Hagar. And it seems fans haven’t paid much attention to non-Dennis DeYoung Styx (DeYoung was replaced with current singer Lawrence Gowan in 1999). Styx continues to tour, but it has never been able to recapture the success it achieved when DeYoung provided the vocals and the sometimes over-the-top front man showmanship. Genesis suffered a similar fate when Collins walked away from the band in 1996. Collins was replaced by singer Ray Wilson – who lasted one short year, as fans showed no interest in the Wilson led album, Calling All Stations, or in the supporting tour. Voting with their pocketbooks, fans decided that Genesis without Phil Collins was not Genesis.
But fans don’t hold all the power, and thanks to complex contracts and corporate structures, and the legal answer of what makes up a band may differ from the aesthetic. Most fans think about bands as, well, bands. They ignore the fact that the four or five guys up on the stage making music are actually part of a corporation or some other formal legal arrangement, one governed by complex contractual terms and carefully spelled-out responsibilities. Sure, everyone has heard about legendary contract riders requiring brown M&Ms to be picked out of candy bowls, but what fan thinks about boards of directors and CEOs and corporate governance when reading an album’s liner notes?
Even though today’s megabands may have begun in someone’s garage, most are run not along the lines of a mom-and-pop shop but instead are set up to more closely resemble a Fortune 500 organization. In turn, these arrangements often provide fertile ground for litigation once someone leaves the organization. Recently, Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, singer Robin Zander, and bassist Tom Peterson sued founding member and drummer Bun Carlos, asking the court to rule Carlos had been validly removed from the board of directors of Cheap Trick Unlimited, Inc. back in 2010 when Carlos stopped touring with the band (he was replaced by Nielsen’s son, Daxx). Carlos maintains that he is still “in the band” even though he no longer tours, but his role in the corporate portion of Cheap Trick appears unclear. Regardless of what fans may want, the decision of who makes up Cheap Trick now lies in the hand of a federal judge.
Stone Temple Pilot is fighting a similarly strange battle as a result of the band’s firing of singer Scott Weiland earlier this year. Upon hearing of his alleged dismissal in the press, Weiland said he did not understand how he could be terminated from a band that he fronted and founded, and for which he co-wrote numerous hit songs. Weiland left the dispute for lawyers to figure out and, true to his word, he filed suit against his former band mates after they replaced him with singer Chester Bennington a few months later. The remaining band members have begun calling themselves Stone Temple Pilots with Chester Bennington in what appears to be a weak attempt to circumvent additional legal headaches. The remaining members have sued Weiland to prevent him from calling himself a former member of the band, or from performing any of the Pilots’ songs.
A court of law will decide whether Weiland gets to call himself a member of Stone Temple Pilots, but the court of public opinion will determine whether Stone Temple Pilots without Weiland is, actually, Stone Temple Pilots. A change in a band line-up greatly differs from a corporate shuffle. Most corporate board members are relatively anonymous entities; Steve Jobs aside, their faces rarely grace fans’ T-shirts and posters. In the end, no matter how badly a band may want to replace its singer or guitarist or drummer, whether that band survives won’t depend upon the group’s corporate structure or contractual arrangements – or even on whether a band erases the departed band member’s face from tour merchandise, as Bon Jovi has done to Sambora – but instead on whether the band’s fans support the personnel change. For Bon Jovi, time and album sales will tell whether Bon Jovi without Richie Sambora is Bon Jovi at all.