The Beatles: indispensable leads, colorful supporting characters, and no extras?
Imagine the public outrage that would ensue if Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were to announce their intention to reunite and tour as The Beatles. Though they would have no trouble selling tickets, a critical consensus would condemn the endeavor as false advertising, even though the deaths of John Lennon and George Harrison obviously would have prevented them from participating. Yet there is no hue and cry over Roger Daltry and Pete Townsend appearing as The Who in spite of the unavailability of late bandmates Keith Moon and John Entwistle. Why? The answer rests in the peculiarities of rock group dynamics, by which the members of most bands can be subdivided into indispensable leads, colorful supporting characters, and extras.
Now let us entertain an alternative history in which Lennon and McCartney are today’s surviving Fab Two. They hold a press conference under a giant Beatles logo and announce a reunion tour. The world rejoices. Everyone laments the losses of Harrison and Starr, but few seem to mind Lennon and McCartney hiring session players and billing themselves as The Beatles. This is because within Beatle group dynamics, Lennon and McCartney were the indispensable leads. You can’t have The Beatles without either of them, but you conceivably could have The Beatles with both of them and some hired hands.
That is the nature of indispensable leads, whose presence is essential for any band to maintain its identity. For example, one cannot have The Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. But Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts could join Bill Wyman in retirement, and no one would complain if the Glimmer Twins hit the road as The Rolling Stones. Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons are the heart and soul of KISS, and only the die-hards are miffed that Eric Singer and Tommy Thayer are now wearing the makeup of Peter Criss and Ace Frehley. That is why Daltrey and Townsend (who, judging by his ragged appearance at the last Super Bowl halftime extravaganza, clearly did not die before he got old) can get away with being The Who, because they have always been the indispensable leads.
Occasionally only a single member of a band is indispensable. David Clayton-Thomas could tour with anyone he likes as Blood, Sweat and Tears, and few would be the wiser. Carlos Santana is Santana, Mark Knopfler is Dire Straits, and Trent Reznor is Nine Inch Nails. Roger Waters might like to believe he is Pink Floyd, but in fact he shares his indispensability with David Gilmour (though that never stopped Gilmour from going out with Rick Wright and Nick Mason as Pink Floyd).
Next down the hierarchy of rock group dynamics is the colorful supporting character. While not essential, this personality adds an extra dimension to the band that makes the group all the more enjoyable. Take Bun E. Carlos, for example. You absolutely cannot have Cheap Trick without Robin Zander and Rick Nielsen, yet you could get away with promoting a tour without Carlos. But who would want to? With his deliberately unglamorous appearance, the fish-out-of-water drummer has always looked like your friend’s dad on drums, and that is very amusing. Charlie Watts has much the same appeal.
J. Geils and Peter Wolf are the required basic elements of The J. Geils Band, but few would argue with the assertion that the flamboyant personality of electric harmonicist Magic Dick adds that little special something to the mix. You can keep your band name without your colorful characters, but it’s much better with them. Of course, that’s not always possible. Keith Moon was so colorful it killed him.
That brings us to the lowest rung of rock group dynamics, a realm typically inhabited by bass players and drummers: the extras. John Entwistle was an extra — he died just before a scheduled tour, and The Who only missed a couple shows before continuing with the remainder of their dates. Bill Wyman was an extra — he left the Stones, and hardly anyone noticed. And can you name the bassist for Cheap Trick? I’d hazard most people cannot, and anonymity is the surest ticket to being an extra. Ditto for the rest of The J. Geils Band.
In order to escape being a mere extra, a band member must either be the lead singer on some well-known tunes, be the recognized songwriter behind a significant part of the group’s repertoire, or have a quirky and memorable personality. George Harrison scores on the first two counts, and Ringo Starr on the first and third, thus the two Lesser Beatles were no mere extras, which is part of why The Beatles were such an extraordinary band. Verdine White, bassist for Earth, Wind and Fire, has avoided the role of extra due to his extraordinary energy during live performances, elevating him to colorful supporting character status. Phil Collins, once an extra for Genesis, leapfrogged to indispensable lead after the departure of Peter Gabriel. Even solo acts can be backed by longtime players who transcend being extras, as the great Davey Johnstone has done during his lengthy tenure with Elton John.
All of this can become an amusing parlor game among friends with nothing better to do. Pick any band and classify its members. You might need the assistance of Wikipedia to identify some of those extras. Here are a few to get the arguments started:
Indispensable leads: Robert Plant, Jimmy Page
Colorful supporting character: John Bonham
Extra: John Paul Jones
Indispensable leads: Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz
Colorful supporting character: Mike Nesmith
Extra: Peter Tork
Indispensable leads: Mark Mothersbaugh, Gerald Casale
Colorful supporting character: Bob Mothersbaugh
Extras: Bob Casale, Alan Myers
Indispensable leads: Glenn Frey, Don Henley
Colorful supporting character: Joe Walsh
Extra: Timothy B. Schmit
Indispensable leads: Freddie Mercury, Brian May
Colorful supporting character: Roger Taylor
Extra: John Deacon
Indispensable leads: Bono, The Edge
Colorful supporting character: Adam Clayton
Extra: Larry Mullen, Jr.
THE JACKSON 5
Indispensable lead: Michael
Extras: Jackie, Tito, Marlon, and Jermaine
Alright, let the arguing begin!