Ten Artists Who Should Be Very Glad They’re Not Axl Rose
The attention the media gives to Guns N’ Roses and My Bloody Valentine may give young bands the idea that it’d actually be good for their legacy to record regularly for six years, then hold off for at least another 15 so that fan excitement can build and their myth can blossom. (Hey, if Sting and Joe Strummer had waited that long to record follow-ups to Synchronicity and Combat Rock, maybe people would have cared more about Brand New Day and Rock Art And The X-Ray Style!) So I looked at what would have happened to some of rock’s most legendary figures if they, too, had waited 15 years to release new albums once their first six years of putting out records were done–and found that extended absences rarely make later projects look much better.
1. The Beastie Boys
Unwilling to repeat themselves after the left-field success of Check Your Head, the Beastie Boys wander through abortive sessions with Mix Master Mike, Lee Perry, Q-Tip, Miho Hatori, and others while promoting Tibetan Freedom Festivals, running Grand Royal, and raising families; Adam Horowitz’s glitchy BS-2000 and the peculiar Country Mike’s Greatest Hits make fans both curious and excited for what the group might eventually return with. Finally, after over a decade of waiting, Capitol Records and a nation of expectant stoners are blessed with… The Mix-Up.
Following the departure of Joe Perry during the recording of A Night In The Ruts, Steven Tyler descends further into chemical dependency, unable to complete sessions with new guitarists for several years. After his recovery from addiction in the mid-’80s, he is hesitant to return to life in the fast lane, preferring to raise his family and promote anti-drug campaigns. Finally, the original lineup returns with 1997’s Nine Lives, where a new generation, unprimed by Wayne’s World and Alicia Silverstone videos, is introduced to a group of decrepit transvestites screaming “Falling In Love (Is So Hard On The Knees).”
3. Grateful Dead
Despite the success of Wake Of The Flood, things aren’t the same for the Dead after the death of Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, and the band decides to abstain from the touring circuit. Attempts to hone a new sound are hindered by a series of exploding keyboardists, but the group finally returns to the limelight with 1989’s Built To Last. Then another keyboardist dies, and the band says “fuck it.” Meanwhile, Trey Anastasio is happily playing in a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover band in Vermont, just happy that he doesn’t have to hold down a day job.
4. David Bowie
After releasing Pin-Ups (itself The Spaghetti Incident?! of its day), Bowie grows tired of his hard-rock Ziggy Stardust shtick and fires the Spiders Of Mars. Rumors leak that the rock star is obsessed with “soul” and attempting to maintain cultural currency by working with Brian Eno (the Moby of his day), but year after year and release date after release date pass. Finally, cleaned up and ready to play ball, Bowie, joined by Peter Frampton and Charlie Sexton, returns for a massive world tour to promote his new album… Never Let Me Down.
Even after his Hollywood dreams fizzled, Prince finds it impossible to follow up the monumental Purple Rain, retiring to his Minnesota home; he’s rarely seen after the failed non-musical version of Graffiti Bridge. Some say that the recluse won’t even answer to his name! Always up for a challenge, Clive Davis signs the artist to a one-album contract, teaming him with a variety of pop stars that had followed in his wake. He then presents the world with… Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic. The world is not impressed.
6. Bruce Springsteen
Darkness On The Edge Of Town, while a critical hit, isn’t really the sequel to Born To Run that Columbia was looking for. So for years Bruce struggles with synthesizers and drum machines, hoping to craft a surefire hit. Off the road and not meeting supermodels and back-up vocalists, Bruce lives a long, lonely life before finally releasing The Ghost Of Tom Joad, after which Columbia decides this man is no longer the future of rock and roll.
Torn between their desire for fame and their belief in Christian humility, the members of U2 are more than happy to finely hone their follow-up to The Unforgettable Fire with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. But after a decade-plus of work, it becomes clear that they’ve lost the script. So instead, the band looks both to the past (their original producer Steve Lillywhite) and the future (Nelle Hooper and Jackknife Lee), creating How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, which the group promotes on an ’80s Flashback Tour co-headlined by Simple Minds.
The Green tour takes a lot out of R.E.M., with the band first attempting to create a grand follow-up with mandolins and string sections before scrapping the sessions to try and regain their rock energy. Finally, with both producer Scott Litt and Bill Berry no longer involved, the remaining trio makes an album everyone is comfortable with. An album named Around The Sun.
9. Rolling Stones
Let It Bleed is a surprise triumph after the loss of Brian Jones, but drugs overcome the band and it isn’t long before replacement Mick Taylor is gone. It won’t be until after the failure of Mick Jagger’s first solo album, She’s The Boss, that he’ll get the old band together for a new album titled Dirty Work. While they knew Mick Jagger was capable of anything, it shocked fans of the enigmatic Keith Richards, long rumored dead, to see him dancing with cartoon cats in the video for “Harlem Shuffle.”
10. Stevie Wonder
With Motown refusing to let him run his own albums, Wonder boycotts his label following the release of For Once In My Life. When Berry Gordy finally relents in the early ’70s, his concerns are proven tragically valid as Wonder toils unsuccessfully to capture his “inner visions,” desperately trying to create songs “in the key of life.” The singer could have been forgotten–but Gene Wilder gets in touch with him in hopes that he’ll create a soundtrack for The Woman In Red. America is shocked as Little Stevie Wonder returns to the limelight with “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” with Rolling Stone declaring it the Least Welcome Comeback of 1984.
There is one alternate history Axl could take heart in. If Paul Simon had waited fifteen years to put out an album after Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, Graceland would have been even more of an impressive wtf than it was at the time. But will Axl Rose’s adventures in the diaspora (“Madagascar!”) have the same zeitgeist as Simon’s?