Nostalgia: It’s a hell of a drug, and the 2023 gig calendar is packed with reunion tours that show it’s more potent than ever. This summer will see Blur, Pulp, The Walkmen, Le Tigre and, er, Busted among others play huge shows and headline festivals. In 2022, we saw shows by the likes of Rage Against the Machine, Genesis, Blink 182, Pavement, Mötley Crüe and ABBA (well, kind of). Now the big Gallagher PR machine is cranking out Oasis reunion rumours, too. It’s been happening for a while, but it certainly feels like every single band from the 90s and 00s is doing it right now.
Is that true? Or is our view distorted simply because these comeback stories generate headlines from journalists wanting to relive their youth? I spoke to people across the industry – bands, PRs, festivals and venues – to see why we’re seeing these spate of reunions, how they come about and how the reunion has evolved beyond the idea of mere nostalgia.
The reunion gig was once the most derided of shows. We expected bands to split up amid a maelstrom of drugs, fame, relationships and the ever-cited “creative differences” and then stay split up. It means there’s always been cynicism around them: one last pay packet for waning “heritage” acts who were past it, an open and frank admission that they were all out of ideas. This industrialised nostalgia was the antithesis of what the best music was always about: the thrill of the new.
But now, in the words of one of those bands playing this summer, something changed. If the past few years have proven anything, it’s that break-ups are rarely permanent. The truth is music is a fleeting and momentary thing: Bands break up, sometimes with dignity, sometimes in disgrace, then they get back together. That’s what happens.
“For a lot of bands when they’ve been together for years and years, they just get to a point where they can’t stand being in the same room as each other, or they just feel like they’ve reached the end of the road,” says Duncan Jordan, widely recognised as one of the UK’s leading independent music PRs and now working on The Walkmen’s comeback tour. They need a break basically – and for a lot of bands splitting up provides that break.”
The lifecycle of a band is different now. People accept that this is what happens: Why put a full stop on something, when a semi-colon will do? Just look at Blur: They didn’t even really split again after they played Hyde Park in 2015. It makes sense that bands play the “indefinite hiatus” card – an indeterminate period of time away before they get back together to great fanfare.
All this means comeback shows are a core part of the music scene and a band’s narrative. As Jordan puts it: “I think there’s perhaps a certain cynicism among some people, but for most people now, it’s just like, yeah, bands get back together, that’s what happens.”
Of course, let’s not pretend the music industry is operating out of misty-eyed nostalgia, or that money doesn’t play a big part. Reunion tours are big business – a sure thing in an industry where there aren’t a lot of guarantees.
Since streaming destroyed finances for so many acts, live performances have become a necessity. That’s even more crucial for the non-songwriting members, whose income often comes primarily from live shows (there’s always those persistent rumours that certain, let’s say, ‘classic rock’ bands only hit the road whenever their bassist or drummer has run out of money).
And there’s a reason the industry puts so much energy into legacy acts and reunions – it’s where the money is. You only need to look at the most lucrative shows of 2022: Mötley Crüe and Def Leppard’s reunions were some of the highest-grossing tours. This year, Busted are playing two nights at the 20,000-capacity O2 in London and Blur, two nights at Wembley.
The gambit works especially well if the band’s primary audience have grown old and/or wealthy enough to pay the ticket prices. That means promoters can offer large sums of money to bands who they know will sell (we all know the eye-watering figures Oasis have quoted as being offered). These acts have a generation of fans who have grown up with them and are eager to relive their youth, even in a cost of living crisis.
“The average member of the public only goes to 1.3 events a year and people still want their release and entertainment,” Bob Angus, founder of Metropolis Music and promoter of both Blur and Pulp’s shows, has said in an interview. “So, even when times are hard, they’ll save up for that show they want to see. I’ve been in business since 1985 so I’ve gone through multiple recessions, and it never really touched us.”
But it’s not just that older audience at these gigs – thanks to social media and streaming, these acts also have new fans who have recently discovered them. Lucy Wood, Head of Music at the iconic Roundhouse in Camden, put on Pavement’s triumphant four-night London residency last year. “Now younger audiences can easily come across music from the 90s or 2000s, and artists are getting rediscovered for new audiences,” she says. “I’m pretty sure the prompt for Pavement playing again was ‘Harness Your Hopes’ going viral on TikTok.”
“It must be really attractive [for a band] to have a chance to be relevant again, and to enjoy meeting and responding to a whole new audience. It also looks pretty fun from where I’m sitting. Who wouldn’t want a second bite of that particular cherry?”
End of the Road Festival co-founder, director and curator Simon Taffe was at those Pavement shows: “I enjoyed myself, but towards the end I looked around and I felt very dad-like!” He says the festival get offered a lot of reforming bands: “The majority of the time I turn them down, unless it’s forward thinking and less about nostalgia – like Slowdive, who released an album as interesting as any of the old ones.”
That these bands are being pushed to festivals is unsurprising. Management, agents, promoters, bookers and record companies will always be thinking of a hook to reinvigorate the public’s awareness of a band. But, as Jordan says, “ultimately it’s the band’s decision. Because they have to want to do it – but I would say that there’s people on the fringes who might be more of an influence than you realise.”
Jordan remembers 20 years ago in 2005, when Coachella’s lead booker was determined to get Cocteau Twins to reform and offered increasingly ridiculous amounts of money to make it happen. ”The main booker really had a bee in his bonnet about getting them back together and from what I was told, he just kept raising the fee that they were offering. And I think it was one of those situations where it got to a figure that they just couldn’t turn down.” The band agreed but, ultimately, it didn’t work out for other reasons.
But as much as money plays a crucial part, there’s more to it than that: It’s now accepted that reunions are a valid part of a career arc. It’s in everyone’s ego to want to see your music carry on and reach a new generation; to know that people out there want to hear you – especially when absence seems to have helped your popularity grow.
“They realise they can now play to far bigger audiences than they could do before because people weren’t expecting them to get back together,” Jordan says. “The Walkmen are a lot bigger now than they were when they split up: They’re able to sell three Koko shows [capacity 1,410]. I would say they’re at least three times a commercial level bigger than they were before.”
Jordan points to how much The Walkmen are enjoying playing together again – galvanised and having fun. That’s the key: Reunions often run the risk of admitting that the band have nothing left to offer but a rehash of their old songs. But for acts like The Walkmen and Blur, who are, playing Wembley for the first time on their own terms and with a new album out, are doing it their own way. These shows, rather than revealing artists stuck down creative cul-de-sacs, feel more like a celebration.
Doing it on your own terms worked for Pavement, too. What made their Roundhouse shows so special, Wood says, was that “the band wanted that level of intimacy and audience feedback. It’s also a result of their catalogue – they told me that because they played four nights, they could do 100 different songs”.
And take a band like Le Tigre – Kathleen Hanna’s brilliant 90s riot grrl band whose MO was always to “write political pop songs and be the dance party after the protest”. They feel just as, if not more, vital today as they did back then (their debut album in 1999 featured the line “Oh, fuck Giuliani! He’s such a fucking jerk!” – how’s that for prescient?).
“We were originally asked to headline a festival that would take place just months before the 2020 election,” JD Samson of the band tells me. “We hadn’t toured since the Bush era, and it felt especially timely for us to rekindle our anti-right wing chants for our fans and anyone else that wanted to join in.”
“Unfortunately, COVID shifted our timeline and the event ended up taking place in 2022. In the process of working on the show, we reconnected with the work and realised how relevant the music was – and how much fun we had working together – and have felt connected to those intentions since.” Their recent show at the Troxy in London was a joyful celebration – a reminder they’d reached whole new audiences while they were away and that the need for fun, defiant protest feels just as, if not more, pressing than it did when they formed the band.
Amid the chaos of the pandemic and with the future so uncertain, bands obviously start to think of what they once had – and audiences do, too. Wood suggests attitudes to reunions have changed because “the notion of the bucket list seems to be bigger in people’s minds than before… I definitely feel that particular pull – [that] this might be my only chance to see this act.”
But with so many reunions, are ”getting the band back together” stories are still powerful ones to sell as a PR? ”Up to a point,” he says. “Although there’s been such a lot of them now. There was definitely a period where it suddenly felt every band seemed to be announcing reunions and it became a bit like, it happened, no one cares anymore.”
What everyone agrees on is that it’s no surprise there are so many reunions on the landscape. “Their prominence makes total sense in the context of the way we consume music now,” says Wood. “Today’s audiences are into cultural pick’n’mix. We don’t nail our colours to the masts of particular genres, or particular musical eras. I also think people take their kids to gigs nowadays in ways that they didn’t when I was a teenager.”
Festival founder Taffe is a little more sceptical: “I guess people always like nostalgia. It kind of makes me cringe a lot of the time – unless it’s a band who never actually split up, they just took a break like Pulp. I’m not saying I would never do it – there are those acts you almost couldn’t say no to – but I will generally steer away from it.”
So are the likes of Blur and Pulp adding to their legends or tarnishing their legacy? “There has never been a society in human history so obsessed with the cultural artefacts of its own immediate past,” wrote Simon Reynolds in his book Retromania. For Taffe, nostalgia is a dangerous game, a sign of treading water – “a bit like my parents’ generation, where they are like ‘oh it’s not like the 60s or 70s anymore’,” he says. “For me, the musical landscape will always be about discovery. I feel that way with End of The Road’s audience too, if I lose that passion then what’s the point?”
Of course, no one wants to live in the past. And these comebacks can end terribly badly – even in a brawl, if you’re The View. But when I was at Blur’s warm-up show in Newcastle in May, it was one of the best times I’ve ever seen the band play. It felt vital and joyous: a performance that crackled with warmth and energy and, in the small, sweaty room, the band’s friendship felt palpable. New songs rubbed shoulders with songs from Parklife. The crowd was a mix of fans who were there in the 90s and teenagers dancing and singing along to every word. It showed that reunions can both nod back to the past and look to the future. As Damon sings on “To The End”, it looks like we might have made it.
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