The Good Listener: When Should A 'Washed-Up' Band Pack It In?
We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside a $23.95 book of cat cartoons by The Jesus Lizard's David Yow is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on when and whether once-successful musicians should give up.
Dan writes via email: "I read somewhere that there's a 'Bang Your Head Tour' with Quiet Riot and a bunch of other hair-metal bands from the '80s. [Quiet Riot lead singer Kevin DuBrow and founding guitarist Randy Rhoads] died years ago. I haven't seen Quiet Riot lately — or ever, I suppose — so I don't want to assume anything, but does there come a time when a washed-up band staying together is just silly? Someone out there must be paying to see them. But are those fans getting ripped off by false advertising?"
It does make a degree of personal aesthetic sense to note when a band has reached a tipping point, and to suggest that, say, a Four Tops with no original Four Tops might be better billed as Four Different Tops. So it's fair to think that the current incarnation of Quiet Riot — which has no original members and only one player, drummer Frankie Banali, from the lineup that spawned 1983's Metal Health — ought to be billed as a tribute act. The rest of today's touring production of Quiet Riot shouldn't be dismissed as nobodies, at least not in '80s hard-rock circles, but it's not exactly a heavily guarded secret that Quiet Riot's best-known figures are no longer available. Furthermore, if audiences think they're going to get peak Quiet Riot, then they're probably not in a position to notice that it's no longer 1983, either.
But I don't begrudge musicians capitalizing on past successes, and I've learned to push back against the notion that "washed-up" bands have a responsibility to pack it in and pursue new careers — or, barring that, descend into poverty. If Frankie Banali and his friends can make a decent living touring as Quiet Riot, then they have every right to do so, and to have a good time doing so.
We're far too quick, I think, to assume delusion and dignity loss on the part of performers who soldier on after their stardom has faded into what many would call oblivion. For many musicians, nostalgia tours are just that — a chance to keep music in their lives, a chance to relive youthful triumphs — with the added benefit of paying a few bills along the way. They've noticed that they're not being squired around in limos, just as they've noticed how they and many of their most enthusiastic audience members have aged. They've also noticed, in all probability, that playing music is fun, and that it makes a lot of people happy, so why not?
There's a pernicious sense out there in the culture that the worst thing an entertainer can ever be is "washed up" — that nothing is more tragic and embarrassing than to see massive success fall away, leaving only mundanity and memories. This tends to lead to weird notions, reinforced by many reality TV shows, that the formerly famous exist only to be gaped at and mocked; that their job is to wait around for the rest of us to hit them with pies and laugh. I'd encourage a bit more generosity than that. There are far worse fates than past fame.