Call For Comments: The Theory Of The Band Of Theseus

From Mav: Time for a little thought experiment. Recently, I came across an article on the Guardian called “‘I’m the only one that can say I never quit’: meet the bands with no original members left“. In it, Michael Hann interviews long-standing members of old rock bands who don’t have any original members left. For the most part, however the article takes the stance that the band is the band… and these are the current stewards of the ephemeral whole. That is to say, the article acknowledged that there are always fans who are going to say “you’re not real Band X because you’re missing members 1, 2, and 3”. But, the article took this as an opportunity to ask the band how they got past these impressions. But the more I read it, I started to wonder “should they?” and I’m not entirely sure?

That is to say, when does a band stop being “the band.” Certainly it’s ok to replace a member when someone goes solo, retires, gets kicked out, or dies… or to just go on without that member. In fact, this happens all the time. I’d say Freddie Mercury is about as iconic a front man for a band as has ever lived. But, I think the other three members of Queen still have a reasonable claim to being called that when they perform together, with or or without some other front man like Adam Lambert. Similarly, I think Boys II Men is still Boys II Men with their current three member lineup rather than four (which was originally supposed to be five anyway). And even though the quartet version of Boys II Men is probably considered the most classic, they’ve been a trio for far longer (the group’s debut album was released in 1991, but one member left the group the year before. The second member retired for health reasons in 2003). Hell, Mercury has been dead for 32 of Queen’s 53-year history. Also, John Deacon retired in like 1997, but no one ever seems to care. In any case, everyone seems to think the remaining members of Queen and Boys II Men are Queen and Boys II Men.

How much of the band do you need? New Edition, the the 5-member group that literally inspired Boys II Men, replaced Bobby Brown with Johnny Gill in 1987, but since 1996 has had both Gill and Brown performing on stage together. And yet, when three members — Ricky Bell, Michael Bivens, and Ronnie Devoe — perform without any of the others they call themselves BBD instead. Van Halen used the same name regardless of who the lead singer was, but I’d argue that other than that, being fronted by Roth, Hagar, and Cherone basically makes them entirely different bands. Still, If Brian May and Roger Taylor are Queen without Mercury and Deacon, T-Boz and Chili are TLC without Left-Eye, and even the Grateful Dead has toured on and off in various incarnations without Jerry Garcia, then are Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr the Beatles whenever they take the stage together (which they’ve done as recently as 2019)?

So here I feel I need to point out that none of the bands in question in Hann’s original article that got me thinking about this were exactly huge. With all due respect to Molly Hatchett and Yes… they’re not Queen or Boys II Men. But as the Rock-N-Roll era closes in on being 70 next year, this is becoming a more frequent serious question. Is the band the band if ALL of the original members are gone? There’s one remaining member of the original Temptations(Otis Williams) and one surviving member the original Four Tops(Duke Fakir). Both continue to perform with newer members filling out the ranks. Lynyrd Skynyrd is supposedly working on their fifteenth album right now, and their last remaining original member (Gary Rossington) died in March of this year.

Perhaps the one band best set up for this is KISS. The band is supposedly on their farewell tour right now, Gene Simmons has long implied that the band can live on without the original members since the characters are more notable than the men behind the makeup. And two of the original four members have been gone for ages anyway, so what does this farewell even really mean?

So as I’ve thought about this, I came up with a theory that a band is like a “ship of Theseus” problem. I replace the whole band so long as I keep continuity by replacing members slowly over time. This is what the Temptations, Tops, KISS and Skynyrd have all done. And more importantly, it’s not like the New York Philharmonic(founded in 1842) or the Royal Danish Orchestra (founded in 1448) have any original members. Why should a rock, pop, or hip hop band be any different? And this would explain groups like Menudo who’s been around with a revolving line up as singers grow out of the band since 1977. Except when researching this, I learned that Menudo has actually disbanded and reformed twice without taking any members from the previous incarnation. So that doesn’t seem to work either. The name Menudo is effectively just IP… attached to the song catalog, I guess.

Are the rules different for music than they are for other things? For instance both the Atlanta Braves and the Chicago Cubs baseball teams were both founded in 1871 and are still in existence today, even though obviously all of the original personnel are long since dead. And sure, they have ship of Theseus continuity, but then on the other hand, the Cleveland Browns football team was founded in 1946, ceased to exist in 1995, and came back in 1999 considering itself the same team, even though all of the members of the 1995 team magically moved to being the founding Baltimore Ravens. And if that works then are the 8 teams of the current USFL, which share names with 8 teams from the 1980s USFL “the same teams” even though they were all defunct for nearly 40 years?

So that’s the thought experiment? I want to know what makes a band a band? How much of the band do you need to still be the band? Can you start over? Is being a band just IP or is there something more? Since I started this talking about Yes, I feel like I have to mention that they were two entirely separate groups using the same name for like a decade. And for the love of HOVA can someone explain to me how Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Startship are both the same and different? What about En Vogue and the Funky Divas (both of which are currently performing and each possessing two of the four members of the original En Vogue group)?

And then of course we have the Revolution… which reformed after Prince — theoretically the most important member… certainly in his own mind — died in 2016 even though he’d dissolved the band 30 years earlier. And you know what… I’m good with it.

Yeah, so anyway… what are your thoughts? What makes a band the band? How much of it needs to be there?

From Wayne: So I have a lot of thoughts on this, many of which mirror what Mav has already said.

For me, a lot of this has to do with who the members of the band are, and maybe more importantly, the fan/public perception of who the band is. The Beatles were the Beatles, dependent on those four specific personalities, and to remove any one of them, arguably, would mean that they are no longer the Beatles. Perhaps, in a different universe, where one of them was replaced in 1965 and they continued to be successful, I would have a different opinion about this, but here, it is simply incomprehensible to me to think that any other grouping could be called the Beatles with any validity. Yet their most direct contemporaries, the Rolling Stones, have had several changes over the years and they are still the Rolling Stones. Of the original members, Brian Jones died in 1969, Bill Wyman retired in 1993, and Charlie Watts passed away in 2021, but the Stones keep on rolling without them. Perhaps more notable are the members of their touring band, some of whom have been with them for years, who are never included in band promo photos or officially referred to as a Rolling Stone.

I would argue that some of this has to do with the personalities in the band, and the public perception of them. The Doors released two albums after the death of Jim Morrison – neither of which sold well and are largely forgotten. While each of the surviving members were instrumental in the overall sound and success of the band, without Jim’s lyrics, voice, and presence, they just weren’t the Doors anymore. I would say the same is true of Queen, even though, as Mav has said, two of the members continue to tour, as they certainly have a right to. I find it telling that the tours are credited to “Queen, with Adam Lambert” – or “with Roger Waters” at one time. They have not released any new, non-Freddie material since his death, becoming, in many ways, their own tribute band.

But then there are bands who had that core, dynamic personality member who fronted the band, and were able to replace them and move on successfully. Black Sabbath replaced Ozzy Osbourne with Dave Walker, who was replaced by Ronnie James Dio, who was replaced by Ian Gillen, who was replaced by, over time, six more vocalists. As long as guitarist/founder Tony Iommi was present, it was still Black Sabbath. On the other hand, Deep Purple, one of the most successful rock bands of the 70s and Black Sabbath contemporaries, had four different lineups between 1968 to 1976, the height of their popularity, known in fandom as Mark I, Mark II, Mark III, and Mark IV. This included major replacements of vocalists and frontmen. Since then, Deep Purple as an entity has continued to release albums through 2021 with drummer Ian Paice as the only consistent member.

Locally there is a punk band called The Cheats. I have seen The Cheats dozens of times over the last twenty years, and it seems to me, though this is probably not true, that I have never seen the same five guys on stage twice. The singer, Todd, is consistent, but everyone else – I believe, though I could be wrong – has changed multiple times. I have joked that everyone I know, myself included, has been a member of The Cheats at some point (I haven’t). Everyone can be replaced in this band, except Todd. Without his presence they would simply not be The Cheats.

I have a million more examples – I can talk about the changes in KISS over the the years ad nauseum, or ramble about how Alice Cooper the solo act is completely different from Alice Cooper the band. I’m curious what others think about this.

11 Comments and 0 Webmentions for “Call For Comments: The Theory Of The Band Of Theseus”

  1. I think it varies some by band. For example, Digital Underground was always best defined as “Greg Jacobs + Whoever else was hanging around in the studio with him”. (That second category did pretty much always include Money B.) This is why the “former members” list for Digital Underground on Wikipedia has about 40 people on it. Now that he’s dead, there really is no Digital Underground any more.

    But with a group like Slum Village which started out with T3, Baatin, and J-Dilla, it definitely doesn’t feel like the same group without Baatin and J-Dilla. Mind you, Elzhi is a fantastic rapper and T3 + Elzhi actually made a pretty good album, but it didn’t feel the same as their work with Dilla. And I’ve seen the version of Slum Village with T3 + Illa J + Young RJ in concert and it definitely didn’t feel the same.

  2. Pink Floyd is an interesting case study for this topic. Whether Syd Barrett or David Gilmour, I think most fans would still just lump them into one whole. Though arguably, you could refer to the earlier version as “The Pink Floyd Sound,” no one ever does. Then later, when Roger Waters leaves, Gilmour continued to use the name for three more albums still.

  3. I remember hearing a long time ago that after the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd died and they did a reunion tour they had an agreement that they’re always had to be I think it was at least 50% original members where they couldn’t call themselves Lynyrd skynyrd. I don’t know if they stuck to that, but either way I think it’s a pretty fair way to do it.

  4. Are any of the Temptations original members? Do they still put out records or are they just touring covering their hits?

    Also an interesting case: Fleetwood Mac. No one really cares about the original members — the band was mostly significant with the rumors lineup, and it doesn’t feel like Fleetwood Mac without any one of Nicks, Buckingham, Fleetwood, or the McVies.

  5. Menudo could replace every member and still be Menudo. The Fall, so long as it had Mark E. Smith (and famously the rest of the band could be “your grandma on bongos”) was still The Fall. The Pogues fired one member, Shane MacGowan, and we’re no longer The Pogues.

  6. This is a difficult one because…I guess in some ways I’m pretty much in agreement with Wayne Wise — some bands there is someone you can’t replace without making it Not The Band Anymore, and why that is…I’m not sure I can put my finger on it.

    Let me try to do it by example. Brian Jones founded & named the Rolling Stones, but by the time he died, it was really the Glimmer Twins’ show — I’m not sure the Rolling Stones as an entity would still _be_ the Stones to me if either of them left/when one of them dies. There are any number of things during its early years that could have changed that. for example, as Jones’s blues influence was being pushed out by studio folks, Jagger & Richards clicked as a songwriting team, and Jones started doing too many drugs, and became less reliable as a bandmate, so his bluesy stylings are diminished further….and the band changed direction. If one or all of those things doesn’t happen, it’s a different Rolling Stones, and maybe Jones’s death would have changed it fundamentally in such a way that people would be standing around 50 years later going “yeah, the Rolling Stones are good, but they’re not REALLY the Stones, Brian Jones dying really changed them”.

    Which kind of wraps me around to the IP idea in a way. The literal physical SOUND that Richards & Jagger bring to the Stones is important, but they’ve also been the band’s primary songwriting team for a very, very long time, and I think that kind of thing is almost more influential to whether a band is still “really” the band in question. Queen can still be Queen when they perform, but they can’t _write more Queen songs_.

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