Bye bye baby, for now

After a cataclysmic split, the Rollers are getting back together. And they're not alone. How bad does a break-up have to be? Does anyone even remember the moment they knew it was all over?
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They were the biggest phenomenon in the history of entertainment, but in the end The Beatles fell apart over a biscuit. And in that, as in other things, they set the tone for those who followed.

History records that the band spent their last two years arguing about musical direction and management and generally failing to communicate. But Beatles obsessives insist that things really fell apart when Yoko Ono helped herself to one of George Harrison's digestives, precipitating a row between Harrison and John Lennon.

Similarly trivial "last straws" occur in the deathbed scenes of many famous bands. While it's happening, of course, squabbling artistes like to keep things vague. The Verve, for instance, finally fell apart in April. Their leader Richard Ashcroft would say only that "circumstances" had made it impossible to stay together. But whenever details emerge, it becomes clear that people walk away from high-earning, high-profile jobs - jobs they will be lucky to get again - for reasons that sometimes appear almost nugatory.

Take country-rock stadium-fillers The Eagles. They argued incessantly about doing political gigs. Then, at the start of a 1980 benefit, Glenn Frey calmly told his fellow founder-member, Don Felder, "When this show is done, I'm going to kick your ass". Engineers had to turn down his mike as he began the countdown to the thrashing: "Three more [songs], pal, get ready!" At the end, everyone fought everyone, while the roadies carried away the wreckage. The Eagles barely spoke for 14 years, until a large cheque persuaded them to start talking.

Are today's pop colossi any different? Many of the pretty boys and girls jiggling around on Top of the Pops have the artistic ambitions of a knitting- pattern. They are hired, and they are fired, and no one feels the need to give a reason. We know, for instance, that Geri Spice left her band for artistic reasons. But the fans have their own ideas. "I've heard rumours about Mel B being nasty to her," reports one US-based Spice Girls website. "I refuse to believe that one, no matter what."

It's usually human conflict that does the damage. Jah Wobble was on Public Image Limited's American tour when he decided that he'd had enough of the "gross pop-star behaviour" of John Lydon and Keith Levene. It wasn't particularly excessive, he remembers, but even so, "I remember saying to them, `I want my fucking passport back!' "

He didn't get it, resigning instead when he got home, only for the band to announce that they'd sacked him: the usual story. Even friendly bands are overcome by mutual loathing and disgust on tour. "It's a goldfish bowl: everything gets magnified," says Wobble.

In contrast, Dave Gregory, who left XTC last year after 19 years, reached the end of his tether in the studio, where the band were finally recording after seven years of hanging about. There were painful discussions about everything: the choice of songs, the arrangements, leader Andy Partridge's new-found enthusiasm for computer sequencing, and even the tuning of Dave's guitar. And then Partridge disappeared on holiday, with the studio clock still ticking away the band's dwindling funds. When he returned, more single-minded and driven than ever, Gregory had had enough. "I thought, `You are an arsehole, and I don't want to work with you any more'." He packed up his instruments and walked.

Wobble and Gregory were both, in their very different ways, one-band men. Their parting moments are vivid. But Steve Howe, the veteran Prog Rock guitarist, has acquired enough last straws to build a reasonable hayrick. His career took off when he joined Yes in 1970, and he stayed with them until 1981, weathering the scorn of the punks. More recently, however, he has been at the centre of a series of baffling comings and goings as the small community of bankable Prog Rock players - many of whom seem cordially to dislike one another - have tried to work with one another under a small number of bankable Prog Rock brand-names.

Thus Howe has played in numerous varieties of Yes (including one fronted by Trevor Horn of Buggles, christened "Yeggles" by traditionalists), as well as Asia, GTR, and Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe: a sort of Yes by any other name. They may no longer appeal to hip British tastes, but these old-fashioned, serious musos have legions of admirers. Yet they still let petty squabbles come between them and pay-day. People miss rehearsals, try to renegotiate their deals, throw their weight around. Often, the fragile new artistic vehicle runs out of road somewhere between collecting the advance and doing the work.

Howe is wary of naming names, no doubt because he suspects he will be back playing alongside them in the next year or two. He makes an exception, however, for Rick Wakeman. After jumping out of Yes on the release of Tales From Topographic Oceans, the four-song double album he unaccountably found boring, Wakeman has somehow managed to pop back in at intervals since. Never a diplomat, he specialised in eating takeaway chicken masala off his synthesizer rack while the vegetarians around him were symphonic- rocking the stadia of the Western world.

"He came back on the rebirth plan," says Howe, wryly, recalling one of many reunions. "It was like `We went through hell together, but now...' " Howe has, he says, become an expert in burying the hatchet, and with everyone from the Human League to the Bay City Rollers now reformed or in the process of reforming, it's a habit old rockers are increasingly having to learn. Bitter personal animosities are rarely a match for the Inland Revenue and the bank manager.

Steve Howe, meanwhile, seems as enthusiastic as ever. The latest incarnation of Yes, with a Russian called Igor in the Wakeman role, has an album ("a good record", he says, proudly) out in September. Is there a lesson in all this? "Trust," says Howe, ruefully. "You don't have much of a band without it. But I don't know many bands with it."

The same could be said of many marriages. A band is rather like a marriage, though arguably with less sex. Dave Gregory, one of the great sidemen, makes the comparison without being asked. "I was a typical wronged wife," he complains, "kept around for the boring bits while someone else was getting all the attention and all the excitement."

Dave Gregory insists that there are never "musical differences": they are a code for personal bitterness. But sometimes the two coincide. When Paul Simon presented "Bridge Over Troubled Water", lovingly transposed to Art Garfunkel's favourite key, and announced that it was his best song yet, he expected a certain enthusiasm. But Garfunkel mused that it was "something less than his best song, but a great song" - and declined to sing it. It was a personal snub, disguised as a musical judgement.

When Mike Love of The Beach Boys halted the legendary "Smile" sessions, demanding to know the meaning of "Over and over, the crow cries uncover the cornfield" in "Cabinessence", he brought the partnership between Brian Wilson and lyricist Van Dyke Parks to a rapid and dispiriting end. He had a point, of a sort - but he was really complaining about everything that had happened since Brian stopped having Fun, Fun, Fun and started taking Drugs, Drugs, Drugs.

Mostly, personal spats outnumber musical controversies. In 1983, Joe Strummer and Paul Simenon decided they wanted The Clash to revert to the punk archetype. But Mick Jones was already planning his new thing, later revealed as Big Audio Dynamite. So Strummer sacked him, admitting later: "I did him wrong. I stabbed him in the back." Some saw events in less operatic terms. Pennie Smith, the photographer and a friend of the band, explained it like this: "Most of their quarrels can be traced back to their laundry." And that, it seems, is almost always the way it is.