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On the road again… how group meetings can be a victory lap for their generation | Barbara Ellen

IIs it my imagination or has the music industry come back… has it come back? Blur have announced a one-off show at Wembley Stadium for July 2023 and Pulp will be touring next summer. Pulp are reuniting for the second time and Blur last played a full set in the UK at Hyde Park in 2015.

Of course, my first thought, as a reasonable person, was: is there a way to stop this, can we use mediators? I will if you give me a megaphone and a small fee. My thought was this: maybe they could still be dissuaded from participating in those most feared and historically feared ritualistic humiliations in the music industry: the comeback, the reunion, call it what you will.

While many would have greeted the news with unmitigated joy, others may be wondering: what’s the point? It’s not specifically about Blur or Pulp. An ungenerous view might be that over the years there has been too much nostalgia-schmaltz around the legacy circuit. An endless parade of vintage acts squealing on stage for a big payday. Emboldened by needy fans who only want to be spoon-fed at their peak.

How are young bands supposed to compete, even breathe, in this age of heritage behemoths? And, if so, for what? A 1990s re-blast that’s a pale facsimile of the real thing. A Britpop theme park that may also feature a setting of Camden’s legendary pub, The Good Mixer. The ransacking of a generational heritage. The cold, corporate monetization of a shared past… But then I wondered: is it this obsolete view?

The time had come, comebacks/reunions were deemed at least controversial (Sex Pistols’ Filthy Lucre tour in 1996), if not downright wrecking balls for big reputations. It doesn’t matter that a large number of acclaimed acts have pushed back the boards. Or that it’s a long-established industry bet: it’s gotten to the point where boy bands are “splitting off” to drum up interest in a later comeback. Serious artists were wary of reunions and for good reason.

Jarvis Cocker and Pulp at the Glastonbury Festival on June 25, 2011, when the group last met
Do you remember the last time? Jarvis Cocker and Pulp at the Glastonbury Festival on June 25, 2011, when the band last met. Photograph: Mark Allan/AP

There’s a difference between bands that stick together and draw heavily on old catalogs (you could say the Rolling Stones are in a constant state of “comeback”) and reunions organized explicitly to perform old material. Just as there is a distinction between groups that reform as active units (waiting for new music) and those that participate in meetings. Thus, meetings traditionally ran the risk of being perceived not only as cash-ins but also as escalations: it was tantamount to admitting that the assembled members were out of ideas. That they no longer operated as valid musicians, but were reduced to plundering their own catalogues, like the independent cabaret or their own tribute bands.

In other words, one could almost become nostalgic for the old-school “scorched earth” rock ‘n’ roll meltdowns of the past that made reunions impossible (although, of course, there’s still Oasis). Groups that split explosively, in an unpleasant bang of “creative differences” – separate limos, lawsuits, surly ill will – and then had the good grace to stay to separate.

That would have been my purist view at the time of my music hack: that the vast majority of feedback was redundant, utterly antithetical to the spirit of rock’n’roll and always – whatever the act says – only motivated by money. Now I’m not so sure anymore.

First of all, I’m a big hypocrite: if Kate Bush was inspired by her stranger things resurgence to announce a retrospective Hounds of Love tour, I’d be knocking on Ticketmaster’s door before you could scream “running up that hill.” How is it different for the public who wants to sing along with Disco 2000 or Song 2?

Moreover, like everything else, the meeting has evolved, as have mentalities towards it. Just do the math: several decades of the music industry equals several generations of artists feeling ready for reunion. These days, it’s accepted that a band’s “afterglow,” so to speak, is a perfectly valid station of their career path.

Kate Bush performing Running Up That Hill on German television in 1985
Inspiration: Kate Bush performing Running Up That Hill on German television in 1985. Photo: United Archives GmbH/Alamy

Returns are normalized: scheduled, sometimes even reliable, and since streaming has destroyed so many people’s finances, live performance is the best way forward for artists. Moreover, above all, musicians no longer adhere to the heritage psychodrama of humiliation and creative death; after all, here comes Blur, with a unique event at Wembley, doing it its own way, bespoke the concept of the reunion.

And maybe it goes deeper than that. Nostalgia being a dangerous game, there will always be pros and cons to reunions. Do Blur and Pulp tarnish their legends or tarnish them? Will Damon Albarn end up regretting having left his tracksuit to rot on the hanger in the dressing room?

Yet many of these artists have other creative plans and don’t need to get together, but they want to. For the craic and, perhaps, at the risk of sounding pretentious, a sense of communion. Such shows can work as a sort of victory lap, not only for the band, but also for the generation they represent.

Since the music industry is a wild business, leaving artists feeling like they’ve been trampled by wild horses, they could also serve as existential marks of territory for bands and fans: a way of saying that at minus this – the past, the music, the memory – belongs to them, no one can take it away from them, and they can do with it what they want.

Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist


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