April 27, 2007. Brixton Academy, London. This is it. The big one. Who would have dreamed, even 12 months ago, that we’d be here tonight to witness, well, the unthinkable? Hell freezing over…
But no: tonight the old T-shirts have been dug out, stretched beyond the extra ring of love-handle time has tossed over everyone’s ribs. At last. At long, long, last… James are back together. The crowd. Go. Wild…
In a decade when even middling not-long-gone chart-schmindie like James could patch up their no-doubt mountainous differences and return to the discommensurate reward of two consecutive nights at Brixton Academy, there can be no denying that the reunion market had spiked as sharply as the property market.
This, after all, was an age when Gary Kemp and Tony Hadley could put down the sharpened fondue sticks they’d been marauding each other with to headline The O2. When Led Zep tickets could change hands for £83,000 a pair.
When – never mind Shed Seven – also-rans like Cud found themselves playing to larger crowds than at the peak of their popularity. In the noughties, getting back together had never seemed like a better idea.
Perhaps the mania for all things retro can best be mapped through its relation to the other big trend of the decade: the decline of the album. For those hoping to turn a buck on the music market, live suddenly came into its own as a profit-maximiser, while, on the other side of the equation, with downloading and MySpace making music ubiquitous (and therefore valueless), fans looked evermore to live shows as the place in which they could assert their fandom.
Festivals had emerged as great British traditions, lifestyle accessories. As live became the new big money game, promoters were met by a supply problem: a multiplicity of venues meant more money chasing the same narrow list of drawcard bands. How to create more big names out of thin air? Simple. Rob graves.
California’s Coachella festival set the benchmark: seancing up both Rage Against The Machine and My Bloody Valentine for cash fees rumoured in the millions. The market was so buoyant that, in 2008, it was reported that The Police creamed £9million out of a single gig at Twickenham stadium, and £120million out of their entire worldwide tour.
Van Halen did double-duty – reuniting with both David Lee Roth (gross takings: a very cool £56million), and his replacement Sammy Hagar (a still cool £26million).
Many, like The Zombies, were merely hoping to make the money they’d never realised in their critically adored, commercially doomed past lives. Others took cynicism to a whole new place – The Doors taking Ian Astbury out on tour to stand in for Jim Morrison.
Queen lumbering stolidly on with Paul Rodgers. The non-Weller part of The Jam manned a Transit van, cunningly deploying themselves as ‘From The Jam’, while in death Iggy poured
a final irony on Ron Asheton by replacing him with his Stooges stooge James Williamson in order to keep his roadshow going, and Happy Mondays reportedly often had to help
a ‘confused’ Shaun Ryder remember his lines with a side-of-stage autocue.
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By the latter half of the decade, the whole thing had become a vicious circle. The mere fact that so many bands were doing it made it that much easier to do. Firstly, it provided camouflage for the shame of saying ‘un-fuck-you’ to the bandmates you had spent the last 10 years denouncing.
Secondly, it meant that what had begun with a few ex-big names trying to rejig their mojo had become a cultural phenomenon in itself: the mere act of people talking about reformations made further reformations more likely.
It created a culture of conjecture that meant weary refuseniks like Johnny Marr and John Squire had to spend three hours a day every day refuting suggestions they were on the brink of patching it up with their famous foes.
Naturally, just as often it wasn’t all about the money. Pop stars, by definition, love to project their feelings onto massive amphitheatres, and many of them seemed to think that the big heart-rending make-up-sex between egotistical protagonists who’d fallen out deserved to be made in a public forum. Ashcroft and McCabe sorted out their differences. Temporarily.
Albarn and Coxon found that what Graham had said about “not wanting to be associated with that shit [ie, ‘Think Tank’]” was now just a distant dream. Kim Deal and Black Francis stopped being so beastly to each other. For those drifting inert in stifling solo careers, it was meant to be a magic bullet. It seldom was.
Perhaps Mudhoney sprayed on some fresh lashings of grunge to competent effect, but the less said about The Stooges, Buzzcocks and Pumpkins records the better, and Pixies’ planned new release stalled when they realised what should have been obvious all along – that time had changed them. Likewise, The Verve went ‘Forth’, but Ashcroft may later wish he didn’t have a permanent testament to his growth from angry young mystic to bard of lattes.
Of course no-one who checked the likes of Dinosaur Jr, Sex Pistols, Smashing Pumpkins or Gang Of Four off of their things-to-see-before-you-die list could then turn around and criticise them for giving it a go again. But more broadly, reunions have become a symptom of the creeping conservatism that’s now taken hold over our generation.
However Rage might have dressed their reprise up as ‘returning to protest against the Bush era’, reunions are certainly a pleasure, but they’re quite often a guilty pleasure.
Consumer-culure has fulfilled a lot of our wishes, but as ever what we want isn’t the same as what we really need. Next time someone in earshot pines for a Rakes reunion, ask them whether they want to live in a future of repetition without end, where the boot of Take That stamps in the face of humanity for ever and ever. Then kill them.