Last week R.E.M. broke up. There was a lot written about it – including some of my favorite blogs (Funny Indian and the trivium of Stabbone & McGraw, Kid Shay, and West Lawn Park) – but it’s made me wonder if hugely popular bands ever really break up.
I always liked R.E.M. They were one of the first bands that I distinctly remember buying CDs of the albums I already had on cassette. The biggest memory I have of the band really has nothing directly to do with them. In 1992, my sophomore year in high school, Power 108, a Top-40 radio station in Cleveland, announced there would be a change, but didn’t give any specifics. They played a loop of “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Over and over. For days. It piqued a certain curiosity, but it also bordered on annoying. The song was finally taken off repeat and the radio station was reborn as WENZ 107.9 The End, an alternative rock station.
So what does it mean that R.E.M. announced they are breaking up? They won’t tour anymore. They’ll stop releasing albums of new material. But this news is immediately followed with the announcement of a career spanning compilation that will be released in November. There’s a part of me that brushes off the break up, thinking the band will come back for a reunion in the future – maybe a one-off show, a few festival appearances, or a full tour.
In the world where bands became brands and even the Grateful Dead became a corporation, do bands really break up for good? Every band eventually comes to an end but the most popular bands always seem to find a way to come back. The surviving members of Led Zeppelin played the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert with Jason Bonham on drums. Pink Floyd with Roger Waters played 2005’s Live 8 event. The Who reunited for Live Aid in 1985 and then a few tours followed. Hell froze over and The Eagles got back together in 1994. The Doors tried to rejuvenate their career without Jim Morrison. Jeff Lynne came back after fourteen years and revived Electric Light Orchestra. Two of the most influential bands of the 90s alternative rock scene, The Pixies and Pavement, have already reunited after years of public denial.
It seems the only band that ever broke up and refused to get back together, no matter the opportunity, is The Beatles. Nothing could get them back together and there were numerous offers when all four members were still alive. Last month, however, Paul McCartney said in a TV interview that “there would have been a Beatles reunion” by now if John Lennon and George Harrison were living.
When Luna called it quits in 2005, Dean Wareham gave a simple explanation. “Bands break up. That’s part of the equation.” It’s the natural thing that occurs. Bands start up. They play music together. If they’re lucky, they tour and have a following. But they eventually stop playing together. If they’re big enough, it seems they will never break up; they’ll always be the band. Even if they spend a decade between albums, they are still together in some sense. If they do “call it a day,” as R.E.M. did, there’s still the belief or hope that they’re get back together in the future.
In 2006, Sleater-Kinney announced their “indefinite hiatus” after twelve years, with “no plans for future tours or recordings.” This is the most truthful description to the end of a band. They didn’t say they were breaking up. They may get back together years from now. That’s become part of the cyclical nature of bands. Break ups sound permanent, but usually become temporary. Maybe it's financial needs or a desire to play their great songs again, but something seems to eventually draw bands back together. They break up, but they rarely stay apart forever.