How One Band May Have Finally Killed Off the Self-Tribute Trend

Everything good eventually falls apart. Chinua Achebe obviously had something else in mind when the book I’ve sort of stolen my opening statement from was published in 1958, because if I remember correctly, he was writing not of the recent trend of bands performing their “classic” albums in full, but rather of Nigerian tribal life. And since I know virtually nothing of pre-colonial Nigeria and retained precious little of my college-age reading of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, I’m left with the task of being snarky about the contemporary music scene instead.

Of course, when I say “contemporary”, I’m not necessarily talking about music that’s been released in the past couple of years. The phenomenon of bands performing albums in full most often showcases an album that originally came out when people actually bought albums instead of just heading off to Rapidshare.

It’s taken me a long time to get to where I am now, and it took a band I actually really like to make it happen. I actually kind of used to like the idea of hearing an album in full performed by the artist who put it all together, even if I wasn’t a fan of the album in the first place. Even if the album was being performed by some cobbled-together group being led by the only person to actually perform on the original, I was still okay with it.

That’s kind of what it was like the first time I saw such an album performed live in its entirety, because it’s not as though Brian Wilson could have put together all the people who made SMiLE. If you know the story of SMiLE, you’ll understand without my over-explaining it. And if you don’t know the story of SMiLE, well, you should do yourself a favor and dig it up, because it’s crazy.

Anyway, SMiLE at Carnegie Hall was outstanding, and Wilson’s co-conspirators in the project were hardly “cobbled together”, but were instead a group of fantastic musicians who paid tribute to the source material by sticking as close to those arrangements as they possibly could. The crowd that night was in awe, but Wilson got greedy, and performing the same material a few months later before a Jones Beach crowd mostly comprised of suburban squares in Hawaiian shirts who only wanted to hear “Fun, Fun, Fun” didn’t have the same artistic impact. Still, Wilson and his band were fantastic at both shows, and while it would have been impossible to evoke the total insanity that went into the original creation of that music in 1966, hearing SMiLE in full in a live setting was glorious.

Of course, this wasn’t the first time anyone had toured an album in its entirety. In fact, Wilson had already done the same for the Beach Boys’ recognized masterpiece Pet Sounds a few years earlier, and he wasn’t really pioneering the practice with then, either. While it’s certainly nothing new, the idea of artists performing full albums has really come on like gangbusters over the past few years. It’s easy to see this as a craven nostalgia-fuelled money grab, especially when that’s exactly what it is. But when you have the chance to see the Stooges perform Fun House (as they had before Ron Asheton’s untimely death) or Raw Power (as they’re in the process of preparing to do right now, with guitarist James Williamson back in the fold) from start to finish, you don’t walk, you run.

I saw Spiritualized play twice in support of Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space back when the album was first released, and while I don’t remember the set list either time, I bet most of the new material was played out. Why, then, did the hairs on the back of my neck get all crazy when Jason Pierce announced last year that he planned to play the album in full? I mean, aside from the fact that this time around he’d be doing so with brass and strings and all the other bells and whistles.

Sometimes bands don’t even wait for an album to be deemed a classic before they play the whole thing out. Duran Duran performed their Timbaland-produced Red Carpet Massacre in full on Broadway (before a stagehands’ strike messed the whole thing up for them) as a means of promoting an album they must have thought would be a smash, but which instead was a total sales bust. Chris Cornell tried the same trick with his own Timbaland-produced album, Scream, and is now reunited with Soundgarden. Whether the two are directly connected is unclear.

Everyone from Teenage Fanclub to Mudhoney, Aerosmith to Bruce Springsteen, Sonic Youth to Motley Crue has fallen into the practice of playing entire albums live in recent years, most often stretching the shows to a respectable length by adding a bunch of other tunes at the end. I even saw a bit of Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back at Coachella before running off to see someone else, and it was good sport.

I guess I was previously all right with the practice in part because the artists I liked were making excellent choices (Daydream Nation? Absolutely! Darkness on the Edge of Town? Heck yeah!), and the ones I didn’t, I really didn’t give a crap about anyway.

There’s another side to this phenomenon that’s even more potentially tantalizing (or terrifying, depending on how you look at it): Artists performing classic albums by other artists. Phish has been doing this for like a million years, and their fans seem to enjoy it (though in fairness, their fans seem to enjoy just about everything Phish does). The Flaming Lips recently took their live take on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and put the whole thing out as an album. Personally, I think it’s fantastic, and I’m a fan of the original as well.

Yet I have finally realized the folly of this full-album-in-a-live-setting madness, and it took the Charlatans to do it.

When the Charlatans jumped on the Madchester bandwagon 20 years ago, critics viewed them as a nuisance, and while their debut album, Some Friendly, contained a couple of fantastic singles (“The Only One I Know” and “Then”) and one or two other songs that have withstood the test of time (primarily “Sproston Green”), the album as a whole was fairly slight. Then the Charlatans did the unthinkable: they not only outlasted most of their contemporaries, but they actually became pretty good. And unlike contemporaries like Happy Mondays and Inspiral Carpets, both of whom have reformed for lucrative tours over the years, the Charlatans never went away. They plugged along, sometimes solid and unremarkable, sometimes showing flashes of brilliance. And they’re still around, too.

I’ve seen the Charlatans recently, and they’re quite good live. They’ve got a charismatic frontman in Tim Burgess, and an underrated rhythm section that really shines on stage. And yet the announcement this week that they’re going to perform Some Friendly in its entirety in May has finally caused me to hit a wall with this whole retro album thing. It took an album I sort of like by a band I really like to do it, but I’m finally over the whole thing.

Why Some Friendly? That’s the question I’d like to ask Tim Burgess, who I once interviewed and found gregarious and engaging. Why is Some Friendly considered “classic” enough to give the full-on live treatment? I mean, other than it being the 20th anniversary of its release (and a new 2-disc version is apparently on the way), what’s all the hubbub, bub? Wouldn’t Up to Our Hips make more sense? Or Tellin’ Stories? Or even Wonderland? And will Burgess eschew the trendy skinny trousers he’s been sporting in favor of an old pair of flares for the show?

Not only has the Charlatans’ decision to celebrate live a mostly lifeless debut album made me question the whole concept, but it’s made me wonder what it would take to get me back on board. Wire playing all of Pink Flag? Television performing all of Marquee Moon? Jeff Mangum coming out of seclusion to grace us with In the Aeroplane Over the Sea?