Like a lot of rock fans, my initial reaction to the news that Axl Rose wouldn’t be attending tonight’s induction of Guns N’ Roses into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was to roll my eyes.
Of course he didn’t want to share the stage with his old band mates. Having burned through dozens of musicians and thousands of hours of studio time in a 14-year effort to complete the less-than-astounding Chinese Democracy, the last thing Rose needs is to remind fans of the great band GNR used to be.
But after reading Rose’s statement and giving the matter thought, I began to realize that Axl was right. Nobody wants to see their divorced parents get back together if all they’re going to do is fight. As Rose put it, “Life doesn’t owe you your own personal happy ending, especially at another’s, or in this case several others’, expense.”
Internecine squabbles are nothing new to the Hall of Fame. Paul McCartney refused to join the other surviving Beatles when that band was enshrined in 1988, and Roger Waters similarly snubbed Pink Floyd during their induction in ’96. (Something about bass players, maybe?) The Sex Pistols famously told the Hall of Fame to sod off in 2006 – “We’re not your monkey,” the band sneered in its rejection letter. A year later, David Lee Roth and both Van Halen brothers played hooky when Van Halen entered the hall.
It’s not the induction that matters, though; few rock fans are on tenterhooks waiting to hear what Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong has to say about the GNR legacy. No, the real treat is always the aftershow jam, when there’s the chance that the assembled superstars will reunite for a few songs, and turn back the clock for the rock ’n’ roll faithful.
It was, after all, the set Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker played after the 1993 Hall of Fame ceremony that set the stage for Cream’s 2005 reunion shows in London and New York. Conversely, old-school Genesis fans were bitterly disappointed when Peter Gabriel declined to attend for Genesis’s induction in 2010, leaving them with merely the spectacle of watching Phish reanimate Watcher of the Skies.
Truth is, though, rock reunions are rarely the fairy-tale ending rock fans hope for. In reality, what we end up with isn’t a second dose of the original magic but a cover band that happens to feature most or all of the original members. And older, fatter, greyer versions of those members, at that.
Cream, for example, did a wonderful job of resurrecting their old songbook, but didn’t produce a lick of new music during their brief return to active duty. Indeed, Clapton played the same solo on Sunshine of Your Love that he’s been playing for decades. But Cream didn’t earn its fame as a hard-rock repertory company; what made the band matter was the freshness of its writing and the immediacy of its winding, long-form improvisations – elements that were essentially absent from the reunion shows.
Most reunions aren’t even that good. I happened to be in the audience when Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones were inducted in 1995. Dutifully, all three assembled – with Jason Bonham drumming in the place of his father, John, – for a couple of numbers, but the spark wasn’t there. Indeed, there wasn’t any real kick to the music until Neil Young ambled onstage to jam on a few blues chestnuts with the trio. (Bonham had by that point been replaced by Michael Lee, the drummer in Page and Plant’s band at the time.)
It wasn’t that it was an off night, or that the tensions between the others and Jones – who was clearly miffed at having been left out of the Page and Plant project – had curdled the mood. The sad fact is, Plant, Page and Jones aren’t Led Zeppelin any more, no matter who they’ve got on drums. That ship has not only sailed, but gone out of commission – a reality Plant seems to recognize, but which Page and millions of rock fans fervently wish to deny.
Still, the allure of reunion tours, and the millions they rake in, is hard to quench. The Beach Boys announced earlier this year that they would be recording and touring again with Brian Wilson, for the first time in 46 years. The revivified lineup even performed on the Grammy Awards telecast, although their current motto seems to be less “Surf’s up!” than “Blood pressure’s up!”
Even the Sex Pistols, despite their anti-Hall of Fame attitude, have done a handful of reunion tours. While it was nice to see Glen Matlock and Johnny Rotten finally kiss and make up, was there any menace watching fiftysomething punks flog God Save the Queen yet another time? Apart from the pleasure of finally cutting Malcolm McLaren out of his share of the profits, it’s hard to see what Rotten and company got from the project. It certainly wasn’t new material or a fresh sound.
You could answer that reunions are worthwhile because they let fans hear their favourite songs again. But really, isn’t that what recordings are for? It’s not that rock ’n’ roll can’t go home again – it’s that it shouldn’t. Reunions don’t turn back the clock; for the most part, they just remind fans of how old their idols have gotten.
In that sense, refusing to participate in GNR’s Hall of Fame induction may be the smartest move Axl Rose has made in years.