Rock band reunions, eh? Tricky blighters. It’s a subtle, elusive ingredient which separates a blatantly cash-grabbing, lacklustre reformation from a genuinely creative, energised, let’s-play-this-shit-like-it-was-supposed-to-sound-the-first-time enterprise. But everyone’s at it. In the last fifteen years they’ve all been falling to the temptation like… tempted fally things. Ride, The Stone Roses, The Police, Pixies, Guns N’ Roses (sort of)… and, of course, the hands-down winners of the land-speed reunion world record, LCD Soundsystem, who announced comeback shows approximately 48 hours after the last flightcase was hauled out of Madison Square Garden. There’s only one thing wrong with bands getting back together, and it’s bands announcing they’re splitting up, with much fanfare, in the first place.

All this casts fascinating light on the few major pop acts who’ve never been overwhelmed by the desire to jump back onto the rock’n’roll roundabout. Why are they resisting the enormous big fat cheques (surely) being waved at them almost perpetually by the world’s promoters? And who is the least likely to ever budge from their zero-tolerance standpoint? Let’s not forget, The Stone Roses’ John Squire even went as far as a Newsnight appearance to insist he would “absolutely most definitely not” rejoin the band; two years later there was a photo of him with his arm round Ian Brown, wearing a grin which said nothing as much “mortgage sorted”. So, here I present the top five bands who’ve never reformed (but who still could), in my own personal reverse order of unlikeliness.

5. WHAM!

On the face of it, this one is a total no-brainer. George Michael’s solo career not exactly troubling the world’s stadiums much these days, he calls up his old chum, they lose a bit of weight, grab a few session musos, rehearse all nine hundred number ones they had between 1982 and 1986 with some funky dancers and ultra-kitsch stage decor, book one enormo-tour with stockbroker-friendly ticket prices… and mop up the cash. There is one problem with this otherwise seamless plan, and his name is Andrew Ridgeley. I’m not talking about his absence of youthful hair or even his ever-questionable musical abilities (neither of those things having stopped Right Said Fred, after all), more that he enjoys a happily retired existence in Cornwall where he surfs, goes to the pub, lives in a manor house and occasionally gives the fit one from Bananarama a seeing to. Who in their right minds would want to leave all that for a bloody rock tour, of all things?

4. THE SMITHS

“Only number four?” I hear you cry. And yes: 10 years ago The Smiths would have been number one with a meat-free bullet, the famous court battle with drummer Mike Joyce and Morrissey’s basic stubbornness (not to mention Johnny Marr’s hectic solo and collaboration schedule) putting well and truly paid to any slight glimmer of hope for Smiths fans the cosmos over. But lately… I dunno. Something about Morrissey’s sheer bloody-mindedness in recent years makes me think he might suddenly do it, just to be controversial. It is without a doubt the very last thing people would expect of him, and his canyon-wide perverse streak might relish that. In fact, that’s a challenge. Do it, Mozzer. I dare you.

3. TALKING HEADS

Awkward one, Talking Heads. Superficially, they firmly dwell in the same “three members might, one definitely wouldn’t” town as The Smiths, David Byrne having repeatedly muttered things like “I don’t need the money badly enough” and “Musically, we’re miles apart”. As you can imagine, this hasn’t gone down massively well with the other Heads, with good ol’ spiky Tina Weymouth describing her silver-haired former-frontman as “a man incapable of returning friendship”. Miaow! But as I’m sure he will be thrilled to know, I’ve thought of a way for the relentlessly forward-thinking, art-obsessed Byrne to lift the band out of the stalemate: do the whole thing as an elaborate piece of performance art. If PJ Harvey can do it with the recording of an album, why can’t Talking Heads do it with a whole comeback tour? Hold initial meetings with agents in a glass box or even a theatre with a one-way mirror, and sell tickets to it. Display planning emails with promoters and tour managers on giant public-access messageboards. Record phone conversations about merchandise and rider requests and put them on Soundcloud. Hold rehearsals with invited audiences, have a webcam in the tour bus and the dressing rooms… open up the whole damn thing for the world to see, and then ask art critics to write huge arty tomes on the subject. Harrison, Weymouth and Frantz could finally bank that whopping cheque, and Byrne could relax in the knowledge that he’s maintaining his fiercely guarded originality. Huh, Dave? Like the idea? Do you? …. please?

2. ABBA

The craving for ABBA getting back together is so intense that it only takes the four of them humming a few bars of one of their album tracks in a restaurant somewhere for the world’s media to utterly cream themselves at the imminent possibility of a giant arena tour. Which is laughable really, not only for the desperate unlikelihood of it, but mainly because they were never much good at playing arenas in the first place. Even Björn himself cited one of the main reasons for not reforming as “all the stress of disappointing people night after night”. So, it’ll never happen. And yet: I can’t help thinking that it could happen, if only the four of them would stop thinking of it as this… big thing, if you’ll forgive the technical language. It really doesn’t have to be night after night in the world’s stadia, with all the huge arrangements, silly costumes, massive stage sets, super, indeed, troupers that would entail. What about a few stripped-down evenings at the Royal Festival Hall, Sydney Opera House, some posh theatre in Stockholm, the Carnegie in New York – that kind of thing? Jools-Holland style? (Without Jools Holland, of course.) Call it something low-key like A Low-Key Stripped-Down Evening With ABBA And Some Music And Stuff. Yes, it would sell out in half a nanosecond, but maybe they could film it, stream it live, have a laugh, be a bit more lighthearted about it. And it doesn’t have to be all full-tempo Gimme Gimme Gimme/Voulez-Vous disco o’clock. Play some introspective tracks, some ballads, perhaps some B-sides. Okay, maybe not the B-sides. But wouldn’t that just be awesome? Come on Agnetha, you know you want to…

1. THE JAM

Having remained resolute for many years, Sting apparently woke up one morning and – apropos very little at all – thought to himself, “Gotta call the boys.” Out of nowhere The Police’s globe-swaddling and small-country’s-GDP-earning 2007 reunion tour was born. The same moment of clarity could, in theory, happen to Paul Weller. The two men have similarities: massive post-punk career, massive slightly-jazzy solo career, slightly over-earnest interview manner, annoyingly youthful appearance. Where they differ is the passion with which they’ve denied any impulse to reform. The most vehement Sting ever seemed to get on the topic was to say, “if I ever reform The Police, I should be certified insane,” before adjusting his tantric yoga position and knocking back his fizzing glass of vintage champagne. Paul Weller, on the other hand, was asked the big “R” question during a recent Jam documentary. “Absolutely, categorically, fucking no,” he barked, with a look on his face like a Woking mugger about to pinch your iPhone. I’d say that was fairly conclusive. Other two blokes in The Jam: I’m sorry.

In Simon Reynolds’ splendidly comprehensive discussion of pop culture’s obsession with its own backstory Retromania, he states that “every generation as it ages will want to see its musical youth mythologised and memorialised.” Looking at the eras currently being eagerly painted with the nostalgia brush, one decides Reynolds can only be right. Particularly in the realm of indie, where the contemporary-to-vintage transition period is now so short, big hits need never bother leaving the alternative radio playlists anymore: Radio X and their ilk can continue to play Bloc Party, The Libertines, and Red Hot Chili Peppers – everyone’s favourite alternative rock landfill – onwards unto eternity. Vintage pop music is no longer limited to Hard-Rock-Café-o-rama; in the grand church of historical rock, you’re now just as likely to worship Alex Chilton, Ian Curtis, Jonathan Richman, Patti Smith or Shaun Ryder as you are the Eric Claptons, Stings and Led Zeppelins of this world.

Or are you? There exist a few supermassive black holes in the indie universe which exhibit such strong gravitational effects not even Ride can escape. To generalise wildly: if your band hailed from south of Nottingham and your heyday fell between 1989 and 1993, chances are your band are only cool to herds of uncool balding people (like me) and Steve Lamacq. I have become such a premium-strength bore on this topic that a few years ago I even wrote a novel about it, The Alternative Hero. In it, a colouring-book version of myself has a chance encounter with his all-time indie hero Lance Webster – an amalgam of about four non-fictional T-shirt-band heroes of mine – and befriends him to try and figure out why he and his band have been erased from the rock history books. A story of alcohol-fuelled bitterness ensues but, this being 2007/8 kinda time, Lance Webster himself is still wandering around suburban London, living off dwindling savings, occasionally being stopped for an autograph but generally becoming rather depressed and considering a move to the southern hemisphere. Oh, if only he had existed in 2016, there’s an 150% chance that he would be playing the Gigantic Indie All Dayer Vol 3 this Saturday night in Manchester.

Truly, this festival is an opportunity to relive some wonderfully unpretentious glory days. I may sound like I’m denigrating the experience when I say this, but anyone familiar with my knockabout blog will know I mean it with the warmest of sincerity: there is no one playing this bill who is in any danger of having an in-depth feature in Q Magazine or being given their own retrospective BBC Maida Vale gig, and gawd bless every single one of them for that. These bands represent the corners of indie that the travel guides don’t mention: the fleeting but uproariously passionate fads, the unpigeonholeable mashups, the tricky blighters, the enemies of the music press, the crazes that never quite caught fire. But each act had their glorious moment in the alternative rock sunshine, some moments more momentary or momentous than others. Their accomplishments, seeing as they almost universally emerged from damp British rehearsal rooms, were surprisingly lofty: Jesus Jones, for example, had a smacker of a US top-five single (Right Here, Right Now); The Wonder Stuff rocked Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage, headlined Reading and scored four top-ten UK hits, even including the dizzy heights of a number one; and the BMX Bandits once moved Kurt Cobain to utter, “if I could be in any other band, it would be BMX Bandits”.

Each group possesses at least one song that gives me an instant rush of youthful memories: The House Of Love’s Shine On transports me back to the edge of the indie disco, wondering whether to risk chatting up the tie-dye-T-shirted beauty; The Frank and Walters’ After All was my university household’s anthem; the indie-funk of Cud’sPurple Love Balloon for some reason reminds me of heading to Kings Cross to prematurely acquire the latest issue of Melody Maker; Credit To The Nation’s Call It What You Want captures the time I realised the UK could do hip-hop too (not to mention those hilarious occasions when grungeheads on the dancefloor mistakenly thought it was gonna be Teen Spirit); and Bentley Rhythm Ace’s Bentley’s Gonna Sort You Out is when it hit me that there was life beyond Pop Will Eat Itself. All key moments for me, and now all brought scintillatingly back to life on a stage in Manchester this very weekend. There is only one problem. As a musician, the thing that keeps my enthusiasm going is playing fresh material. But at Gigantic 3 if one of the singers announces, “hey, who fancies hearing a new song?”, he or she might as well be saying “hey, who fancies going to the bar for a drink?” So – is this gonna be a issue?

“Not at all,” says The Darling Buds’ Matt Gray. “People will always want to hear their favourites, plus we’ve more than enough old songs to keep it fresh and interesting for us.” Well, that’s good, then. How about some of the spikier guys in town: The Wonder Stuff’s Miles Hunt, for example? He surely must get bored banging out A Wish Away and The Size of A Cow. “No. I can sit on my couch and amuse myself endlessly by playing new songs, and the band can set up and rehearse any time we like to work on our future jazz odyssey. For me the stage is about giving an audience something to enjoy.” Blimey. Interestingly, the only voice of slight doubt comes from self-confessed winners of “nicest band in indie pop” title five years running, The Frank and Walters. “If we just had to play the old stuff we’d crack up,” they sigh. Well, that’s a bit more like it.

It’s not all indie meat’n’potatoes at this alternative banquet. The aforementioned Credit To The Nation and Bentley Rhythm Ace, plus staples of the anarcho/crustie world Back To The Planet, all provide an invigorating bit of variety to the proceedings, blazing the trail for a distinctly 1990s brand of eclecto-post-punk and mashup dance that only fully found its feet in the 2000s. Back To The Planet, particularly, voiced political bugbears with a Crass-esque anti-establishment rage that seems sadly thin on the ground these days, at a time when we could certainly use it.

But the fury, generally speaking, has died down to the point where the backstage area will probably abound with musical mateyness. Again, I’d half-hoped that old rivalries would be reignited: “There’s that fucker who stole our entire booze rider at the Phoenix festival in ’95.” “Yeah, that’s him – he tripped me up on the way to the stage at the Reading After Dark club in 1988.” Sadly not. “I think we managed to stay friends with everyone,” say The Frank and Walters. “Inter-band feuding is a bit pathetic really when you think about it,” add The Darling Buds. “We love to meet and chat with anyone.” Aw, really? Miles from the Wonder Stuff – surely there’ll be a bitter enemy lurking behind a flightcase somewhere? “Unusually for me, no.” Drat!

And what of the performances themselves? Can we expect an enhanced musicianship, honed to virtuoso-perfection by years of noodling and chin-stroking? “No,” says the Buds’ Matt Gray. “We’re still not that technically gifted. We’re never going to be Steely Dan.” The Frank and Walters, similarly, show little enthusiasm for this improving-with-age business. “Sometimes not knowing what to do can take you to some weird and wonderful places.”

Speaking of weird and wonderful places, I find it slightly incongruous that, for a 90s festival that so assiduously avoids anything baggy, Gigantic 3 takes place in Manchester. But then, with bands coming from such far-flung locales as Wiltshire, Cork and Glasgow, Manchester is kind of in the middle. Oh, and just in case you’re missing any small amount of Mancunian influence, DJing afterwards is everyone’s favourite musical-courtcase victor, Mike Joyce from The Smiths. I myself can feel my hangover brewing even as we speak, born from a mixture of snakebite & black, leaping about the place to S*M*A*S*H in the afternoon, and a dodgy Wilmslow Road curry afterwards. Bring it on.

Gigantic Indie All Dayer Vol 3 takes place this Saturday, 28 May, in and around the Manchester Academy

 

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We live, my friends, in dark times. Government cuts hit hard, while those in charge seem unable to portray themselves as anything other than pocket-lining toffs or painfully old-fashioned dullards. Her Majesty’s Opposition is presided over by a well-meaning scruff who seems perpetually at risk from being ice-picked by his jealous parliamentary colleagues. Industrial strikes abound, wars of various sorts rage away in the Middle East, nationalist parties gain popularity, and to top all the fun, a sparklingly intelligent Democratic US president is on the verge of being replaced by an over-coiffured, dangerous Republican thicko. Hey, wait a minute. Haven’t we been here before? About… ooh… 36 years ago?

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