“It’s a Bloody Reunion”

Should great rock bands reform and give it another go, or are they better off leaving their achievements in the past?

At one point in Words and Music, I note my ambivalence towards going to see the reformed Deep Purple play live. It’s not that I wasn’t excited by the news that the Mk.II line-up were getting back together. I was – inordinately so. I was too young to have seen them in their heyday, and for a young rocker with a growing awareness of our great rock tradition it sounded like a dream come true. I remained just as excited when selected tracks from the comeback album, Perfect Strangers, were debuted on a special edition of Tommy Vance’s BBC1 Friday Rock Show, augmented with interviews with the band. However, when the album was finally released, I was left feeling a bit empty and a bit disappointed. Not that it’s a bad album, and not that (in ‘Knocking At Your Back Door’ and ‘Perfect Strangers’ itself) it didn’t contain a couple of bona fide rock classics. But as an album it didn’t really hold a torch to In Rock, Fireball or Machine Head – the standards by which all Purple albums must be judged. (And the same can be said for the subsequent post-reunion albums with RB.)

And that left me unsure. Deep Purple meant a lot to me. Their great live album, Made in Japan, was instrumental in shaping my conception of what live rock music was all about. If the studio album had been a minor disappointment, how shattering would it be to discover that live too, the reformed band fell short of its former glories. And so it was that I chose to avoid their big Knebworth show (though a few friends went, and I read the live reviews with interest), and, indeed, continued to avoid Purple live until Ritchie Blackmore left and Steve Morse took his place in the band. Morse gave the band a fresher, lighter feel, and a real kick up the backside, and the excellent, though largely unacclaimed Purpendicular album made me feel a bit differently about seeing them play. Since then, I’ve caught Purple on several tours, and I also saw them headline the Monsters of Rock Festival at Milton Keynes. I have to say that they’ve been nothing short of sensational on each and every occasion.

Nevertheless, I remain sceptical of high-profile reunions. I’m full of admiration for Robert Plant’s reluctance to commit to a fully-fledged Led Zeppelin comeback – though, of course, John Bonham’s unavoidable absence is something that would make a lot of hard-core fans think twice. As far as Plant is concerned, he’s been in dazzling form of late, both with his various bands and with Alison Krauss, and personally I think it’s wonderful that he’s so prepared to put common sense, respect for the band’s past and the joy of the present before the lure of the dollar and the unquestionable exposure a Led Zep reformation would bring.

I remain sceptical too of the value of the original Black Sabbath line-up getting back together, touring and recording new material. While health issues and the much publicised legal wrangles are currently doing their best to curtail both live and studio work, I can’t help feeling that even if these can be overcome, Sabbath’s time – this line-up’s time anyway – has passed and no good can come of attempts to recreate what they once had together. I say that as someone who thinks that as good as the RJD-fronted line-up was, the original line-up is unquestionably the greatest of all Sabbath line-ups, for its uniqueness and contribution to the development of rock music, if nothing else. Will I be at Download? Probably not. Sabbath, like Purple, mean a lot to me, and I just couldn’t bear to be there if they don’t cut the mustard. (Which isn’t to say that I don’t wish them all the best!)

So, why does this matter anyway? It matters, I think, because of how much, at their best and in their prime, these bands meant and still mean to people, and because it’s hard to see how, so many years on, further activity can do anything other than risk undermining their reputations and their legacies. If the Mk.II Purple line-up failed after just a 10 year hiatus, how could Zeppelin and Sabbath possibly succeed all these years down the line. Controlled exposure and careful, loving handling of the back catalogue is always preferable in my book to huffing and puffing and flogging that horse ’til it’s down on its knees and gasping for breath.

Purple only really succeeded when a later line-up change breathed new life into the dying beast. Sabbath (well, Tony Iommi really) soldiered on through dark times before their reputation was finally restored (courtesy, probably, if we’re honest, of Ozzy’s new found standing as a funny and acceptable media celebrity after his reality TV show), and the surviving members of Led Zeppelin have generally been too smart to damage their legacy with tacky tours and questionable releases.

That, at any rate, is what I think, though others will no doubt disagree, grateful for any opportunity to see some manifestation of their favourite rock legends performing again. Ultimately, those of us who love our rock owe all three bands mentioned above, and, indeed, many others, an enormous debt of gratitude. Long may their music endure – whatever happens from this point on, and whatever they do might inadvertently do to make endurance a more remote possibility.

And whatever happens, I’m sure others would want to join me in sending good vibes and positive energy the way of Messrs Iommi and Lord at the moment. It goes without saying, we wish them well.

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  1. Hi Michael. Your blog is a joy to read. I admire the clarity of your style, and I can’t wait for your book to come out! I agree with what you have said about reunions. I don’t blame them for doing it though – a few million is a big lure! For me, the best live music comes when people from different (possibly defunct) bands get together either for a charity or for the sheer joy of playing. Like Band Du Lac. Suddenly they are freed from the restraints of fan expectations and can simply enjoy making music.By the way, I’ve been putting some new bits and pieces on my blog, under the title “Tales From A Small Room”. Doodles about my life, though not necessarily true!

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