Rock Stars : Is It Better To Burn Out Than To Fade Away?

Noel Gallagher

Noel Gallagher

“Rock stars should quit before they’re 40.” So said Noel Gallagher, not long after Oasis first burst onto the music scene in 1994.  Should Noel and men like him have followed their advice and got out while they were still at their peak or do they remain a relevant force to this day?

When the Sex Pistols careered into people’s living rooms on the night of December 1st 1976, when they appeared on Bill Grundy’s Today programme using some choice language, they epitomised the anger being felt by their contemporaries. It was an anger and resentment that was channelled perfectly into their one and only studio album, ‘Never Mind The Bollocks…Here’s The Sex Pistols’. Bringing punk to the wider public’s attention, it generated love and hate in equal measure, virtually overnight the band were the most notorious rock stars in Britain. Their story was a short-lived one however, and after sending shock-waves through their homeland with their debut release, the band would split just a few months later, ending with Lydon slumped on a stage in the US asking the crowd: “ever feel like you’ve been cheated?” Certainly no music fan felt cheated, they had entered in a blaze of glory, delivered an album of immense quality and importance, then they were gone, almost as quickly as they came. For twenty years they remained untouchable, the consummate example of the advantages of a band which gets out while they’re at their peak. That was, before lures of a comeback proved too hard to resist, and they entered into the other side of the debate.

Nearly twenty years after Never Mind The Bollocks, Oasis hit the ground running with their own classic debut album ‘Definitely Maybe’. Truly encapsulating the world and time they lived in, Oasis almost left themselves with nowhere to go as soon as they started. However, Noel Gallagher would produce his second classic album in as many years, when ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory’ catapulted the band to worldwide fame in 1995, and made them the biggest band in Britain since The Beatles. Still as popular with the public as ever, the albums recently came in at one and two in a poll to find the nation’s favourite album. However, it was a level of success Oasis inevitably struggled to sustain. Line-up changes and poorly received albums have sparked wide debate amongst fans as to whether the band should have quit earlier, with departed guitarist Bonehead recently echoing an often spoken opinion when he stated they should’ve quit after their huge shows at Knebworth Park in 1996. However, the band have shown the virtues of longevity. They have recently completed a huge UK stadium tour, delighting new and older fans alike, and have arguably their best album in a decade under their belts, they’ve shown they remain a true force in music.

The downturn in sales, along with the upturn in concert tickets, has led Oasis to being dubbed ‘The New Rolling Stones’. Still going 50 years after their formation, The Rolling Stones seemingly insatiable appetite for life on the road has seen them become one of the largest grossing touring artists on the planet. While most people would struggle to name one album they have made since 1975, people in their millions flock to see them in venues across the world. Their amazing durability has seen them become one of the last links to the first great era of British rock n roll, and it seems they will continue to sell out stadiums across the world for as long as they wish. Their popularity is as big as it has ever been and if ever band has proved the desire to continue can keep providing success, it is The Rolling Stones.

Recently back in the news celebrating the 20th anniversary of their debut album, The Stone Roses were another band who’s impact was immediate when their eponymous album was released in 1989. Delighting the dance and rock lovers of the time, they quickly became a hugely influential group, delivering the kind of legendary music in a few short years that others strive for all their lives to realise. While The Stone Roses’ end remains an unsatisfactory one, the impact the band made in such a short space of time means their mark on history was made, the frustration of the closing months of the band was tempered with the feeling that their job was done, that they had achieved what they needed to. While fans in 1994 may have bemoaned the band splitting, it is now seen by many as a decision which preserved their appeal.

One man who certainly made sure he got out while the going was good is Paul Weller. After forming The Jam in 1972 when he was just 14, Weller crafted some of the most memorable singles of the past 30 years, and in doing so turned The Jam into the biggest band in Britain by 1982. However, at the height of their powers, when Weller was still only 24, he disbanded The Jam and went on to form a new group, The Style Council. As the great poem ‘For The Fallen’ says: ‘they do not grow old, as we that are left grow old’; by calling it quits while they were at the top, The Jam have remained forever synonymous with the age they first burst into. Untarnished by greying locks or sub-standard albums, their legacy remains as strong as the day they quit, even if their bank balance is that bit more modest. While fellow members Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler have toured under the banner of The Jam over the past few years, Weller has constantly resisted a full reunion, whereas as others such as the Sex Pistols have been lured out of retirement for lucrative reunion tours, and in doing so have presented a new image from the four youngsters who changed the face of British music.

Like Paul Weller, Johnny Marr was only too aware of the positives that can be gained from a band that splits at the right time. Alongside Morrissey, he crafted some of the best music produced in the 1980s while a member of The Smiths, gaining a hugely passionate fan-base along the way. However, just like Weller had done a few years earlier, Marr walked away from the band at the height of their success in 1987. While constant reunion rumours, and large cash offers, are rejected, so the reputation of the band is sustained, cemented in the mid-80s, unblemished by the trials and tribulations a long career can bring.

Tarnished reputations is perhaps the biggest pit-fall for a band that remains active for many years. It is long forgotten now, but by the time inter-band differences finally put an end to The Beatles in 1970, they had become seen as a fading force by large sections of the public. It has been said that they got out just at the right time, just as murmurings of a backlash were starting and in doing so preserved a legacy which now sees them described as the most influential band of all time. Would it have been the same if the band had struggled on past their differences, into the 70s and the explosion of punk? Who can say, but it is certainly an intriguing thought.

Another band seemingly following the familiar pattern of The Rolling Stones and Oasis is U2. Their most recent album, ‘No Line On The Horizon’, has received one of the poorest receptions of any of their albums since their early days, yet the subsequent tour has seen them play to millions of people in Europe, and will take in a huge US tour shortly. Who can deny that kind of interest and support justifies a band prolonging their career?

So, was Neil Young right when he said ‘it is better to burn out than to fade away’? It is difficult to say. What history does tell us is that as fame and age take their toll, bands do tend to lose the edge and hunger which found them success in the first place, and thus struggle to reproduce the quality of their old material. For many fans, the disappointment of new releases can dampen their faith and passion for a band they once loved. Their early impact can start to be eroded away, and for some people, a burn out may be long over due.

However, as the recent trend of reunions has shown, nothing can diminish the interest in a band who have made a true connection with their fans and still having these bands around to deliver their classic tunes to new generations of fans is as good a reason as any for a band to keep going. While bands such as Oasis and The Rolling Stones continue to delight fans with their music, they will surely never fade away.

What do you think? Which bands should’ve quit long ago? And which bands do you wish had continued on? Leave us a comment below.

(Dave Smith)

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8 Comments

  1. anonymous 14 August, 2009
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