Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Identity and Alterity: Why We Can't Really See Some Bands That Still Exist

My wife and I are always on the lookout for nearby tour dates for classic metal acts -- and we've been pretty fortunate in recent years, actually, since quite a few come to the Tri-State area.  In the last several years, we've been to a whole host of classic acts -- Iron Maiden, Judas Priest (twice), Motorhead, KISS (twice), Megadeth, Raven, Accept, UDO, Thin Lizzy, Motley Crue, and Alice Cooper.  And, back in our younger days -- our teens and twenties, before we got together -- there's a whole host of other bands which we saw independently, with our respective friends.

There's some groups -- the Scorpions for example -- who I saw back in the 1980s (at a Monsters of Rock show), but who my wife has never seen on stage, and as we were thinking about who might still be touring and who we might try to get tickets for in the coming year, she said something rather paradoxical to me.  "It's too bad that we can't really see the Scorpions."  What she meant by that isn't that we couldn't sometime purchase tickets to see them when they wind up back over here in the USA -- that's certainly possible -- but rather that it long ago became impossible to see the band whose music we came to love back in the heyday of classic metal -- the 1980s.

Can You Hear The Same Band Twice?

In some sense, you could make a similar point about any band, along the lines of Heraclitus' dictum that you can't step into the same river twice -- since the waters continue flowing, it's not the same river, even though we call it by the same name, and it goes on moving in what appears to us to be the same place.  Every band that was around in the 1980s and remains active in the 21st century is comprised of members (at least if they're the original ones) who are now older, who in a variety of manners have changed as time has worked upon them.  Some of them play instruments that date back to the 1980s, and some of them play newer instruments -- and the old cables and cords that used to snake all across the stage into their electronics and amps are artifacts of ancient history.

Closer and more relevant to the topic of discussion here, their bodies of work are not the same as they were -- they alter over time, through addition, subtraction, even stylistic modifications of songs that are retained.  True, many of the bands continue playing their old standards -- songs many of which are older today than I was when I first heard those songs, or saw them played, just to put matters in perspective (Iron Maiden's The Trooper, for example -- 31 years old -- whereas I was 13 when I first heard it, and 16 when I first saw them)!  And, fortunately, many of them love those older songs and still enjoy playing them to fans, some of whom might in fact be encountering them for the very first time.

And yet, for most bands we don't experience any dissonance saying that they remain the same musical group, the same assemblage of artists -- there is some type of identity we can point to and signify, or even feel or speak about in terms of a common and continued sensibility.  They can even go through line-up changes, experiment and grow musically, shift in their perspectives, obsessions, styles and core themes -- we still sense that we're talking about the same band.  So, why did I immediately accord with what my wife was asserting about the Scorpions -- that in some important sense, they're not longer there to be seen as the Scorpions?

Continued Interest as a Criterion

I'd say something similar, by the way, about certain other bands -- Metallica, Def Leppard, Van Halen, to name a few.  The real litmus test for essential continuity in this kind of case might be whether one remains interested in the continued existence and additional products -- new albums, concert appearances -- of that band as that band.  This is really an aesthetic criterion, I suppose, which I'm trying to make a case for transposing into the domain and determinations of metaphysics.

I could tell a similar story for each of these bands -- and being able to provide some sort of narrative account would appear to be significant when one is making claims that a band that clearly is still around, making records, going on tours, engaging in interviews, getting paid and spending money, has somehow -- in some modality, say that of no longer embodying the spirit of the band, or ceasing to imbue and maintain a kind of ethos or aura within the ongoing work of music -- altered to no longer be the same band as before, no longer the same group responsible for (or true to) a body of classical and meaningful musical work.

It's a struggle to articulate in rigorous philosophical language and concepts the essential features of this lived experience -- so perhaps I'm expressing matters badly or all too opaquely here.  Perhaps this is a problem at which I'll need to work and worry over some time, to reflect upon in stages -- I've got plans to discuss a number of different problems of identity and alterity of bands raised by the ongoing history of metal, so perhaps some of this will become clearer in light of later posts.

What Provides Essential Continuity?

I'll say this much though -- perhaps we can speak of two overlapping musical periods after the Scorpions really got their sound together and coalesced in the mid-70s:  a serious and formative early metal period from Fly to the Rainbow (1974) to Taken By Force (1978), capped by their first live album (Tokyo Tapes) and the first Best of The Scorpions compilation -- then a simply meteoric period from Lovedrive (1979) to Love at First Sting (1984), also capped by a live album (World Wide Live in 1985).  And then, for years, more and more touring.

Even though one can hear a difference between what let's anachronistically call the 1970s Scorpions and the 1980s Scorpions -- and one can hear analogous differences between earlier and later Judas Priest (compare, e.g. Sin After Sin with Defenders of the Faith), and despite a key lineup change on lead guitar from Uli Roth to Matthias Jabs,  there's still a really vital and robust continuity, an ongoing incorporative development one can hear across this body of work.

Savage Amusement marked a shift of sound and ethos whose radicality wasn't entirely apparent at the time -- it needed additional albums to come along and confirm that something was really different.  Even though it came out -- after a lot of anticipation on the part of their fans -- in 1988, I'd say it's already the 1990s Scorpions composing and producing it (key word there for that time -- producing, not playing, not building, not hammering it out).

I remember listening to it at the time, and having to make a kind of emotional effort to find the new songs as exciting, as well-crafted -- really simply put, as captivatingly interesting as those from the earlier albums.  It was competent, to be sure.  It rocked. . .  more or less.  Crazy World -- and particularly the ballad "Winds of Change" -- confirmed that something had indeed happened.  Something had gotten lost, was going missing -- metaphysically, we're not just talking about alteration, breakdown, movement from one thing to another, but rather that difficult to conceptualize reality of privation.
So, although we could certainly buy tickets and show up at the venue, and see at least some of the guys -- Klaus Meine, Rudolph Schencker, Matthias Jabs -- who carved out such new sonic spaces in the 1980s, compositions that retain their freshness and complexity decades later, in several important but difficult-to-clarify senses, it would no longer be the same band that created and played those songs who we'd get to witness covering them on stage.

We can, however, continue to enjoy those great albums from the 1970s and 1980s -- there is a kind of complex continuity preserved partly in the past, but reenactable in the present, continuing even for generations yet to come in the future.   Much more needs to be thought through and said about this, I'll admit -- but this is the point where I bring these aesthetic and ontological reflections to a close tonight!