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The Song Remains the Same, the Players Don’t

The Song Remains the Same, the Players Don’t

Musings on Legacy Bands in Rock and Roll.

Firefall have a new album out. You remember Firefall. They were at their zenith in the late ’70s as part of the country end of what would later be called yacht rock. Their big hit, “You Are the Woman,” was cooing out of the car radio every 20 minutes back in the summer of 1976. The concept of the new album, Friends and Family, looks back to that time when Firefall toured relentlessly with the other big bands of the era. The members of Firefall got to be friends with the people they toured with (and over the years, the bands swapped members quite a bit).

Firefall, 2023
Firefall, 2023

For a legacy act like Firefall, an album like Friends and Family is more of a chance to have some fun with friends and give fans something to buy at the merch table.

Some of the tunes Firefall interpret were big hits. You can’t hear “Long Train Running” (Doobie Brothers), “What About Love” (Heart), or “Angry Eyes” (Loggins & Messina), without recalling the originals. Other tunes are deep cuts, like “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” (The Byrds), “Colorado” (the Flying Burrito Brothers), and “Chest Fever” (The Band). The Firefall lineup is augmented by friends like Tris Imboden (Chicago, Kenny Loggins Band), Howard Leese (Bad Company, Heart), and Subdudes members John Magnie and Steve Amedee.

Listening to Friends and Family got me thinking about the place of legacy acts in today’s music scene. Guitarist Jock Bartley is the only original member left in the band. When people go to see Firefall, do they know (or even care) that almost no one who played on those ’70s hits is still around? Does it even matter?

For me, I generally want to see the people who made the original tunes. Sometimes, that isn’t possible. The original lineup of the Pretenders, for example, can’t reunite because James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon are dead. Beyond that, the Pretenders have pretty much been whomever Chrissy Hynde hires since the 1980s.

Chicago, 1973
Chicago, 1973

When I think of legacy acts, I often turn to my first fandom. I was a fan of Chicago from middle school when I got into the band because a girl I had a crush on was a fan and they had a brass section. I played trombone, so I had an affinity to a rock band that featured a horn section front and center. I hung with the band after Peter Cetera’s sappy ballads began to dominate the charts. I stayed loyal through the Donnie Dacus years while they tried to recover from the loss of guitarist Terry Kath. They lost me after they fired Dacus and set off on a path of revolving members.

When you go see Chicago now, there are only two original members in the band: keyboardist Robert Lamm and trumpeter Lee Loughnane. (Trombonist James Pankow is still listed as a member but isn’t touring anymore). Not only are there only two members of the original band left, there aren’t any members of the Chicago Mach II band (the ballads machine constructed by producer David Foster). Everyone else in the band is a hired gun brought on within the last 5 years.

Chicago, 2023
Chicago, 2023

So, is the band on the road really Chicago? Some snarky people in fan forums claim that the band is the third best Chicago tribute act behind the Russian tribute band Leonid and Friends and California Transit Authority (led by original drummer, Danny Saeaphine). Robert Lamm has suggested that he can see the band continuing even after the remaining original members leave.

There are lots of bands on the road with no original members. Blood, Sweat and Tears, the Little River Band, and Lynyrd Skynyrd haven’t had any original members in awhile. In Skynyrd’s case, there aren’t any of the original guys left alive. These ghost bands still tour, and people pay money to hear their favorite tunes.

Most bands with few or no original members are pretty content to rest on their laurels and put out some product every now and then. That isn’t always the case, though.

Yes, 2023
Yes, 2023

I’m not sure what I think about the current incarnation of Yes. I was a big fan in high school but kind of lost my taste for prog rock when I discovered punk. The current version of Yes has no original members, although guitarist Steve Howe has been with the band since the early ‘70s. The thing that sets Yes apart from so many other legacy bands is they’re trying to stay relevant by releasing new records on a pretty consistent basis. The results are a bit hit or miss, but it’s clear the guys are trying to live up to the legacy.

In the end, it’s really a personal call. I’ve passed on seeing the English Beat and Gang of Four in recent years, because I don’t want to tarnish my memories of great shows I saw with the original bands. I will go see the Sun Ra Arkestra when they play just to see how long leader Marshall Allen can hang on. As of this writing, Allen is 99 and still leading the band.

There are other options in the legacy band arena. There are unabashed tribute bands like Brit Floyd and Dark Star Orchestra recreating shows by Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead.

Another tack is former members leading their own tribute bands. Former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett tours with shows revisiting the Peter Gabriel era albums (and playing his own recent compositions). Terry Chambers’ EXTC is the former XTC drummer taking tunes from his tenure out for fans to hear again. I feel putting it right out front that you’re not getting the original band is more honest. I’m more likely to go see EXTC because I know what I’m getting.

In the end, the only thing that really matters is, did you have fun? If you did, the band (whoever is in it) did their job. ◼


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