Browsing Tag

R.E.M.

Career Killers: “Talk Show” by The Go-Go’s

I’m not the biggest Billy Corgan fan, but there are times where he can be very insightful and thoughtful. For instance, in a 2017 interview with Joe Rogan, Corgan talked about how the original Smashing Pumpkins imploded and why a lot of it stemmed from the fact that he, as the main songwriter, made a lot more money than his bandmates.

According to him, one day, early in the band’s history, some record label folks took Corgan to breakfast and explained to him some of the realities of the music business. “They said: ‘Songwriters in bands make a lot more money, so our suggestion is you should share your songs with your bandmates to keep a democratic stasis.’ I was like ‘Hell no, I’m not giving them my work.'” he said. “Fast forward four years later, I’m making a lot more money than them, and that sews discontent.”

According to Corgan, being the main songwriter had another effect besides the financial — he was now seen as the genius auteur and his bandmates were seen as nothing more than his backup. “We’d get into a room with journalists and they would just talk to me. Then we would get out of the interview and the band members would yell at me for them not being asked questions,” he said. “It’s like an erosion factor. You don’t appreciate it from within, there’s a lot of compression and money and stuff going on, then one day it hollows out. And then it’s too late and you can’t just sit down and have a meeting because the wounds are too deep.”

Perhaps if he had taken a page from R.E.M.’s book, things would have gone better. When R.E.M. first started out, Peter Buck insisted on splitting the songwriting royalties equally. According to Band Together: Internal Dynamics in U2, R.E.M. Radiohead and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, by Mirit Eliraz, Buck didn’t want the band to end up like Creedence Clearwater Revival and others and recognized that this was the best way to ensure no one got the short end of the stick. Plus, in his mind, the band’s songs were just that — even though members composed songs individually, they would work together to improve them and make sure they met the band’s high standards. Other groups have taken a similar approach, including U2 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (who write songs that arise out of group jam sessions), and Radiohead and Coldplay, where one person dominates the creative process but willingly shares credit to keep the peace.

Instead, the original Pumpkins joined a long list of bands that have split up because of songwriting royalty disputes. CCR famously imploded after the other three members got fed up with John Fogerty writing all of the songs and wanted some of that credit (and publishing money) for themselves. Levon Helm went to his grave believing Robbie Robertson had cheated him and the others in The Band out of songwriting royalties. Jane’s Addiction almost broke up before its debut album was released because of a royalty dispute. Spandau Ballet spent most of the 90s in court after three members of the band claimed they had an agreement with guitarist and main songwriter Gary Kemp to split the royalties, something Kemp, obviously, denied.

And then there’s The Go-Go’s. The band was barely hanging on by a thread by the time of its 1984 album Talk Show. A songwriting dispute proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

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Career Killers: “Around the Sun” by R.E.M.

Some bands like to celebrate 20th anniversaries. Some like to wait for 30. Some, like U2, do both (Achtung Baby got a 20th anniversary rerelease in 2011 and a 30th anniversary one is scheduled for December).

For R.E.M., 25 seems to be the magic number. To date, the band has issued special commemorative 25th anniversary versions for each of its first ten studio albums. The most recent one was for its 1996 classic, New Adventures in Hi-Fi (I bought the vinyl version).

It’ll be interesting to see whether their next five albums will get the same anniversary treatment. Released after drummer Bill Berry’s departure, the last five albums of R.E.M.’s career (Up, Reveal, Around the Sun, Accelerate, Collapse Into Now) are not widely loved or respected and clearly show a band in decline. No longer the creative or commercial force they once were, R.E.M.’s Three-Legged Dog Era (after lead singer Michael Stipe’s quote describing the state of the band after losing one of its founding members) still produced some good music and memorable performances.

Unfortunately, it also produced Around the Sun.

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Career Killers: “Door to Door” by The Cars

Many artists have done the “back to basics” album at some point in their careers.

Sometimes, there are legitimate artistic reasons for this. Maybe they’ve been experimenting with new sounds for too long and felt like there was nowhere else to go. For instance, U2 seemed to hit the electronic wall following Pop, resulting in their back-to-basics follow up, All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

Or maybe they veered too hard into commercial territory, got backlash from their hardcore fans, and decided to get back to their roots. This was the stated purpose for Metallica’s St. Anger album, until lots of other things got in the way. Ultimately, their follow up albums, 2008’s Death Magnetic and 2016’s Hardwired… To Self Destruct were more in line with their 80s classic sound.

But sometimes, a “back to basics” album is a “Hail Mary” — a desperate ploy from an artist to stop his or her decline, or from a band to paper over some cracks and avoid a breakup. The proposed Get Back album and movie project for the Beatles turned out to be examples of this, as the band broke up before either were released (we’ll get to see some of that footage in November, when Peter Jackson’s documentary is released on Disney+).

Likewise, Door to Door (1987) marked the moment The Cars broke down and got put on concrete blocks, ending their run as hitmakers and exacerbating personal conflicts between members that broke them up for the better part of two decades.

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Career Killers: “Adore” by the Smashing Pumpkins

Mike Love may be a good rock ‘n roll heel, but Billy Corgan is an actual heel. The longtime wrestling fan and eventual promoter and on-air authority figure made a conscious decision, from the beginning, to be the bad guy. “In the early years of the Smashing Pumpkins, I saw that I was going to be treated as an outsider,” he told Rolling Stone in 2016. “So rather than play along, which is what you’re supposed to do, I decided to play heel, in wrestling parlance, and have fun with it… I’d rather be that heel than the babyface who goes along to get along.”

He did a great job. Despite his obvious talent (the Pumpkins singer and lead guitarist wrote almost all of the songs and played, pretty much, everything except for drums on the band’s first two albums), Corgan became one of the least likable people in music. He tossed off arrogant quotes to the music press more easily than Ted DiBiase threw his money around to move to the front of the line at an emergency room, close down a public pool or buy himself a championship belt because he was upset he couldn’t win the actual one. He treated his bandmates like employees, hiring and firing them at will or blaming them for breaking up the band when he was always on the one in charge. And he certainly wasn’t humble. “Do I belong in the conversation about the best artists in the world? My answer is yes, I do,” he said to Rolling Stone in 2010.

So like watching the hated heel get his comeuppance, there was quite a bit of schadenfreude in seeing Corgan fail. And with 1998’s Adore, Corgan did so in spectacular fashion, bringing his band’s momentum to a screeching halt and ending its run as one of the biggest and most popular alternative rock bands in the world.

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The Long Goodbye

“The photograph reflects. Every streetlight a reminder.” — “Nightswimming,” R.E.M.

“These wheels keep turning but they’re running out of steam. Keep me in your heart for a while.” — “Keep Me In Your Heart,” Warren Zevon

These are some of the last photographs I took of Bernie. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder if he was saying a long goodbye by doing certain things one last time.

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Career Killers: “Turn It Upside Down” by The Spin Doctors

UPDATE (07/06/2021): Thanks to Todd in the Shadows for citing this review in his latest episode of Trainwreckords.

We may remember the 90s as a turbulent period in music, full of angsty grunge and alternative bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Alice in Chains, introspective singer-songwriters like Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow, Jewel and Sarah McLachlan, gangsta rappers like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Biggie and 2Pac and superstars going through ironic and/or cynical stages like U2 and R.E.M.

But not everything was doom-and-gloom. Divas like Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Madonna and Shania Twain sold boatloads of records and dominated the pop and album charts. The 90s also brought us the extremely non-ironic and safe-for-mass-consumption Hootie and the Blowfish, who became a cultural phenomenon when they released Cracked Rear View, one of the best-selling debut albums of all time. The decade also saw 80s stars like Bryan Adams, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi and Sting reach even greater heights. Even the hip hop world found room for decidedly non-gangsta acts like The Fugees, PM Dawn, Will Smith, Arrested Development and OutKast. And of course, by the end of the decade, the biggest-selling artists were bubblegum acts and boybands like NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears.

Then there were the Spin Doctors.

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Career Killers: “Liz Phair”

Plenty of artists with cult followings go mainstream and become popular.

R.E.M. went from highly-regarded college band to one of the biggest and most acclaimed groups in the world. Metallica slowly and steadily built up a passionate fan base that kept growing in size and intensity until they exploded in popularity in the early 90s. Genesis established itself as a highly inventive artistic and progressive rock band before transitioning to FM superstardom.

In fact, these days, many “indie” acts are actually mainstream and do all sorts of things that artists like Fugazi and Neil Young would have considered “selling out.” Allowing your music to be used in commercials, TV shows and movies? Check. Praising pop stars and being influenced by their hit songs? Check. Working with hit-making producers and songwriters? Check and check.

Yet when indie queen Liz Phair did all those things in 2003, she provoked a furious, almost personal backlash that tanked her career. Maybe she was simply a few years too early. Or maybe she was never going to succeed because the same factors that led to her rise helped keep her down.

Or maybe it was because her self-titled 2003 album wasn’t as good as it could have been.

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Album Review: “Unplugged 1991/2001: The Complete Sessions” by R.E.M.

In 1991, R.E.M. chose the MTV “Unplugged” stage for its coming out party. Recorded at Chelsea Studios in New York City, the band was just about to hit it big. “Out of Time” was one month old, and “Losing My Religion” was beginning its steady climb up the charts. Despite riding the wave of their biggest hit ever and their most successful album to date, R.E.M. chose not to tour. Instead, the “Unplugged” show became one of only a few concerts the band performed to promote “Out of Time.”

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