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Enjoying bands with dead leaders

August 19, 2011

Over the past two years I have been lucky enough to hear two great bands who history says shouldn’t be — The Blockheads and Little Feat. I even wrote a feature about the latter, which was one of my favourite bands in my teens and 20s.

The reason that I say they are swimming against history is that in both cases the musician who made them what they were in their hay day  has long gone. For The Blockheads it was Ian Dury; for Little Feat, the great guitarist Lowell George. You only have to look at The Doors without Jim Morrison or the Jimi Hendrix Experience without Jimi to see what can happen to a band that loses its leader.

So my pleasure in hearing them put out fantastic sets on the recent occasions I heard them was doubled. Surprise, surprise, they still have it.

What I think has happened in these cases, however, is that top quality musicians in the band (with some additions) have continued to do what they did and to do it well. But there has been no growth. In other words, the death of the driving force has left the bands in a kind of time warp. They put out albums, but when push comes to shove they are best at the old stuff that their dead geniuses led them to.

Nothing wrong with that. In both cases I was thoroughly entertained. Little Feat were great (particularly given that at the time another of their founders, Richie Haywood, had just died). The Blockheads were a really nice surprise for me. British New Wave was not that big in conservative old Washington, D.C., where I lived when theywere big and I had only the vaguest notion of them. I am now smitten. Really great, thumping jazz-rock.

The interesting thing is that it does not always happen. Queen without Freddie Mercury  or (not yet) The Stones without Mick Jagger? No way.

So it must be a matter of great musicians backing a great leader but one that is not so great that he can’t be replaced to keep what he has created alive? Can you think of any others?

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