Sunday, 27 September 2009

Revolving Door Policy: Ever-Changing Faces in Pop and Rock

As you may have heard last week the earth-shattering news was delivered that Keisha Buchannan, the only original surviving-member of British girl-group Sugababes, was leaving. She claims she was forced out, but that’s not the point. The point is that Jade Ewen, Britain’s fifth-placed singing doll at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, will be the seventh person to have “sung” in the group in eleven years – looking more and more like a political coup by the day: Founding member, gathering dust, ousted for fresher blood by the sexy, sexy underlings.

And that got me thinking. Music groups, just like groups of people in general, are inevitably going to have rifts and arguments and full-blown bust ups. New people will come and new people will go. In the music industry however, does the original line up necessarily mean the best?

It’s a tough one to answer. You may think John, Paul, George and Ringo had been mates for many, many years before encountering stratospheric success as the Beatles, but that’s not the case. John’s friend from art school, Stuart Sutcliffe, and drummer Pete Best made up the original line up during long days and nights, pilled up to the eyeballs in seedy Hamburg clubs. Sutcliffe was to later die from a brain haemorrhage, Best was replaced by the more showbiz Ringo Starr. Cue the changing of the world.

Then there are the Rolling Stones. If ever a band had a revolving door policy it was the Stones. Due partly to the fact that the list of musicians who have played on their records over the years is as long as Mick Jagger’s list of conquests (well, not quite) the Stones may pose for photoshoots as a quartet but really, since the late-sixties at least, they have always employed a wealth of backing singers and musicians. Original bassist Bill Wyman left in the early nineties. He was easily replaced. It is the role of Keith Richards’ guitar partner which has seen the most chopping and changing down the years.

Originally Brian Jones, his tenure was brought to an abrupt end after he drowned in his swimming pool. Replaced by Mick Taylor, the Stones then embarked on the most productive phase of their career, producing a string of albums which they have failed, often spectacularly, to top since. Taylor, like so many others, was drained by the vampiric nature of the Stones and their lifestyle and Ronnie Wood was brought in to fill the void. Keith Richards’ best buddy, Wood has been playing solid lead guitar with the band for the best part of 34 years now, yet in that time the Stones have failed to reach the exhilarating peaks of the Mick Taylor years.

A more contemporary look will lead us to Take That, reincarnated as Topman mannequins, all stubble, earthy tones and turtle necks. Their success in the early-nineties was founded on a blend of personalities: Gary Barlow as the homely songwriter; Mark Owen as the baby-faced cutie; Robbie Williams as the daft lad-about-town; Jason Orange and Howard Donald as, well, muscled dancers. When Robbie Williams left it also showed that he was the only one with the balls, or vision, to do so. Could you have imagined Howard Donald storming off in a maelstrom of cocaine and booze to venture into the unknown, into the land of the solo career? It took a lot of guts, I hand Williams that.

After plodding on for a few more singles the band finally split, only to re-emerge in the mid-noughties. People now said how mature they were to which I thought, “How could they be any less mature than what they were? In one of their earlier videos they were writhing around in jelly and ice-cream for heaven’s sake...” They are now more successful than they ever were. The screaming girls may be mothers now but the band can count themselves amongst British pop’s elite.

And then there are those dedicated, faithful groups, cohesive units closer than family itself.
One that instantly comes to mind is U2. Originally called Feedback, the band has been together for the best part of 33 years, lasting longer than a worrying amount of marriages. They, like every other band, have had their heated moments yet instead of anyone walking out or being sacked (not even bassist Adam Clayton was punished when he missed a gig in Sydney due to being drunk; instead the other members skilfully guided him towards spiritual enlightenment) they re-invented themselves from post-punk kids to stately, globe-harnessing rockers, via pony-tailed, religious charmers of America and nihilistic Rock Gods. This way they always kept things fresh.

ABBA are another group who, for better or worse, remained with each other until they stopped making music. You couldn’t imagine another member replacing one of the originals though, could you? For a start it would be dangerous to upset the cosy palindrome effect of their name: could you imagine ABAG? DBBA? ZBBA? This would make auditioning a new member a curious process (“Name must begin with an A...”)

Personality also plays a significant role. The Beatles, as John, Paul, George and Ringo were so distinct. The same applies to the core of the Stones; Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ relationship is one of Rock’s most treasured possessions.

Personality, in that respect, isn’t often mentioned in the same sentence as the word Sugababes. They are essentially backing singers mashed together like a hideous creature from the Island of Dr. Moreau. They are simply not loved enough for anyone to give a shit.