Jan 272012

Wow, here’s an oldie-but-goodie, first posted almost 5 years to the day, that many of our current daily participants have not had a crack at. This thread is so old that Wilco has had time to change its chemistry at least one more time. Enjoy.

This post initially appeared 1/28/07.

Changes in band chemistry need not ruin a band’s sound, but they will alter it greatly – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, sometimes for something just as good and interesting as the orginal but…different. Today, I’m most concerned with the first and last categories. We need not spend much time on the “for worse” category. Remember, this is a site to which fans on Ron Wood-era Stones need not apply.

Few bands withstood and prospered from changes in chemistry like The Yardbirds. The band’s sound changed and developed in unforeseen ways as they shifted from Clapton to Beck, but it’s hard to argue that one period was better than the other. By the brief time they got to Page, the band’s already-slim songwriting abilities had run their course, but who can argue with the byproduct of Led Zeppelin?

Band chemistry can extend beyond personnel. I could make a case that The dBs suffered more by moving Gene Holder from bass to lead guitar than they did by the loss of Chris Stamey. Sure, they lost their founding singer and songwriter, but Peter Holsapple was no slouch after joining the band in time for its first album. When Holder left the rhythm section, the band’s “American Attractions” foundation was gone. As a guitarist, Holder was a pedestrian, with bad tone to boot.

I’ve been doing SWOT analyses of band chemistry changes in the following bands, and I could use your help. Feel free to pick one of the following and expound. Feel free, as well, to add your own cases of successful changes in band chemistry.

  • Buzzcocks with and without Howard DeVoto
  • Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers with Ron Blair, then with Howie Epstein, and finally, with the returning Ron Blair
  • The Rolling Stones with Brian Jones then Mick Taylor
  • Sleater-Kinney before and after Janet Weiss
  • The Clash with Terry Chimes, then with Topper Headon, then with the returning Terry Chimes
  • Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers with Stan Lynch then with his replacement
  • Guided By Voices with Tobin Sprout then with Doug Gillard (with about 72 other guys mixed in-between)
  • The Move without Jeff Lynne and The Move with Jeff Lynne
  • Roxy Music with Brian Eno and then without him
  • Wilco with Jay Bennett and then without him

You get the idea. I look forward to your responses.


  29 Responses to “Chemistry Class”

  1. The Clash were far greater with Topper than with Terry. I don’t think the Clash would have matured in the same way w/o him. Topper’s excellence allowed them to branch out into areas that becmae the cornerstones for London Calling and Sandanista. Terry was OK – just limited. Mr Mod and I saw Terry with The Clash at Penn in the summer of ’82. He was not to great at trying to recreate Topper’s beats.

  2. I don’t know if I’m up to jumping on the most obvious choice for me to answer here, maybe after my first cup of coffee. However, I do have some thoughts on Wilco, both pre and post Bennett.

    Before Bennett joined up with Wilco, they were just your above average alt country band. There’s nothing wrong with that, AM is a fine album. Tweedy writes nice country songs, not all that different than the songs he was writing in Uncle Tupelo, those songs that always seemed to steal the album from Jay Farrar. So a whole album of these songs is a nice treat. I always dig passenger Side, Casino Queen, Boxful of Letters, and a few others I can’t think of the names of right now. They could have carried on like this for years, making nice county rock lps that the No Depression crowd would wet themselves over. But then Jay Bennett came along, and they created their masterpiece.

    Being There is a double disc. It doesn’t need to be, cause I believe it all fits handily on one cdr, but that’s totally beside the point. It’s presented as two full albums. each disc is a mixture of noise, the big star/sonic youth influence is all over this. There’s still some of the alt country in there as well, it’s all over the map, not unlike Mr Mod’s Exile on Main Street. But unlike Exile, this isn’t sequenced by sides per se. There’s no acoustic side, no rock side, no experimental side, no country folk side, it’s all in the mix together, making for a thrilling listen.

    Where does Bennett fit in to all this you ask? the answer is found in the live shows. The man is all over the place. He plays stinging leads on the guitar, he plays gorgeous piano, he plays pedal steel, sings back up, he’s all over the place. he’s the sonic key that opens the Wilco door. The inclusion of him in the band allowed them to explore all facets of the music Tweedy loved, and I truly feel that having him around, really pushed Tweedy to grow as a musician and songwriter, and later as evidenced by YHF, gave him the courage to go even farther out on the limb song/structure wise.

    I really don’t feel like rehashing my feelings on the greatnes of YHF. But I still think it’s the best album of the 2000’s, and Bennett is a huge part of that. He plays just about everything on every track. Stirrrat plays bass, and sure Tweedy starps on the acoustic. But on alot of these tracks, and particularly some of the amzing outtakes from these sessions, Bennett plays every note you hear.

    Post Bennett, particularly A Ghost Is Born, you find a Wilco that is a little unsure of itself. Tweedy sounds as if he’s not quite sure what to do next. Do i still want to be experimental, or do we want to back up a bit, and just show the world what a great Band of players we are. So you’re left with an album that’s a little of both. Not having that extra set of ears to bounce ideas off of really hurts the album somewhat. the truth is, these guys at this point were less a band, and more a collection of hired players.

    now, with the Via Chicago live album, I really feel like Wilco has hit it’s stride again. The takes of the A Ghost is Born stuff really come alive with this band, and in my eyes, have become the definitive takes on the record. I think that after Bennett left/was fired, Tweedy lost some confidence in his own abilities to make an interesting record (though the Ghost lp is actually better in hindsight than it was when it was released) BTW, has anyone noticed that Tweedy hired at least three guys to take the place of Bennett live? It’s like a small army up there when they play, and other than Nels Cline, I couldn’t tell you one of their names.

    What was the question again? 🙂

  3. From Being There onward, Bennett-era Wilco always had a fifth touring member, so they’ve really only replaced him with two guys. I think this current lineup of Wilco has the potential to be the best yet, but they need to rise above the occasional inclination to push the boundaries of boring the shit out of me. Bennett was an important linchpin in his time, but his “tasty licks” ultimately became counterproductive.

    Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers with Ron Blair, then with Howie Epstein, and finally, with the returning Ron Blair

    Fairly negliable, since they are not a bass-dependent band. Epstein did however bring an extra vocal harmony element. And by the time he left, they had an equally capable singer in that Scott Thurston guy.

    Sleater-Kinney before and after Janet Weiss

    I know a lot of people with a great regard for Call the Doctor, but I don’t think they ever would’ve really gotten the brass ring had they not brought Janet aboard. She certainly got them in touch with their inner Power and the Glory.

    Roxy Music with Brian Eno and then without him

    Did extremely well without him, thanks to Ferry further honing his songwriting chops.

  4. From Being There onward, Bennett-era Wilco always had a fifth touring member, so they’ve really only replaced him with two guys.

    are you calling me a liar, Oats? 🙂

    I swear I remember, specifically on the Summerteeth tour, there only being four members, but I’ll take your word for it. I was obviously hammered at these shows anyway, so my memory could conceivably be off.

  5. My pince nez can kick you pince nez’s ass!

    Now that I think of it, live Wilco was always a five-piece. Max Johnston, Bob Egan, Leroy Bach, etc. I’ll spare everyone the gory details.

  6. Mr. Moderator

    Nice stuff, Kevin. I’ll admit, in compiling my SWOT analysis of Wilco, I hadn’t realized that Bennett wasn’t in the band for that first album. Good analysis top to bottom.

    I agree, too, that Topper gave The Clash a major shot in the arm, no multi-faceted pun intended, at least that’s what I’ll tell you.

    I, too, agree that Roxy Music carried on fine without Eno, and yes, Janet Weiss took S-K over the top.

    As for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, I prefer Rob Blair’s bass playing a bit – he’s got a little more balls. Epstein brought the vocal dynamics to the fore and seemed to be a key aid in helping Petty subdue and eventually shove Stan Lynch out the door. I don’t know the whole story there, but I thought Lynch was a monster drummer. Sad to see him go. The replacement guy has been fine, but he shows too much respect for his boss.

  7. Have you guys seen the clips of Dave Grohl drumming with Tp and the Heartbreakers? Talk about bringing something new to the band. WOW. This was on SNL right around the time Wildflowers came out. His drumming actually gave Petty a raw edginess to his sound. I bet it’s on youtube.

    As far as Janet Weiss goes, yes, she’s a good drummer, and incredibly fun to watch live.

    but I never noticed much difference in the drumming between Call the Doctor and Dig Me Out. Perhaps I should revisit. Honestly, I don’t think I even knew she never WAS the drummer.

    she sounds great on The Woods though, that’s for sure.

  8. meanstom

    How about the Small Faces/Faces trade-off. I think everyone’s a winner.

  9. how about The Stooges moving Ron Ashton from Lead Guitar over to Bass to accomodate the addition of James Williamson. Talk about drastically changing a band’s sound. They went from a player with questionable talent but a cool sound, to a talented lead player with a questionable sound.

    really it’s like comparing a classic Heavyweight Champ to a Middleweight. We’ll say Holmes and Hagler. Both great fighters. perhaps Hagler was more spectacular with the way he got things done, but Holmes cruised along to 48 straight wins with no defeats, before finally losing the title. like the Ashton/Williamson comparison, both great fighters in their era, but in a head to head battle, I think we all know who would win. The lighter fighter has NO realistic chance, just like the heavier Stooges would overwhelm the lighter/more nimble Stooges.

  10. Mr. Moderator

    I love your Stooges/Asthon/Williamson analgoy, Kevin, but I found myself getting lost on the Holmes/Hagler part. Which one’s Holmes and which one’s Hagler?

    For my money, the move of Ron Ashton to bass to make room for Williamson was as harmful to the band’s chemistry as the Holder move in the opposite direction was for The dBs. I am aware that the Stooges’ changes in chemistry is among rock’s most volatile instances, and that’s a great thinkg for kicking around here today.

  11. sorry, Mr Mod, sometimes I go off on these coffee fueled tangents and don’t stop to clarify myself.

    Holmes is Ashton, the monolithic heavyweight, a bit of a plodder, not much panache in the ring, yet he kept winning for longer than anybody without a loss in the heavyweight division with the exception of Rocky Marciano. he was a winner, just unspectacular.

    Williamson is Hagler, the powerful but much lighter middleweight champ during the same timeframe. He won many spectacular bouts, and even lost to Sugar Ray Leonard in great fashion, he had tons of style, was nimble, could weave in and out, dodging punches before landing his powerful blows. A great fighter, but if you put him up against Holmes, who was certainly less dynamic, but had probably at least a 75-80 lbs weight advantage, he’d never be able to hold his ground for long. The heavier man, would ultimately overwhelm the smaller fighter.

    that’s what I was trying to get across, the heavier playing of Ashton ultimately wins out over the equally good, just lighter more nimble playing of Williamson.

    Your dBs example made me think of this.

  12. hrrundivbakshi

    One of these days, we have to get into the topic of boxing. Now *there’s* a sport I can get into — and one with far easier lines to be drawn from it to arr-oh-see-kay ROCK.

    For now, I’ll just say that I long for the days when there *were* monolithic champions — you know, actually undisputed boxing champions of anything; watercooler chat champions. I stil like watching two dudes hammerin’ on each other, but I generally have no idea who I’m watching anymore.

    Speaking of Holmes, one of my fave Holmes memories was a fight — fairly late in his career, when he really got belligerent about not getting his props. Anyhow, they put him in the ring with the latest hotshot who was supposed to finally show the champ what *real* boxing was all about. This dude danced around, shuffled, peppered Holmes with a little shit, and generally made a Williamson showing of the whole thing – until Holmes finally caught him. Once he did, he started unloading with all kinds of heavy-duty Holmes stuff, until this pretty boy was pretty wobbly. At that point, Holmes starts looking over at the ref between haymakers — and eventually sort of holding the guy up with one glove while walloping him with the other one. Holmes would — whoom! — whomp the guy. Then he’d sort of hold out his glove to steady him for the next blow, and look at thhe ref, clearly saying, “you like watching this? I’m gonna kill this guy if you don’t stop this fight.” Then — whoom! — he’d blast him again, and shoot a look at the ref. It was powerful stuff.

  13. hrrundivbakshi

    I wrote:

    one with far easier lines to be drawn from it to arr-oh-see-kay ROCK.

    I wish I could preview things properly (I still can’t). If I could, I would’ve changed that to read: one with far easier lines to be drawn from it to arr-oh-see-kay ROCK than Mr. Mod’s beloved baseball.

  14. Mr. Moderator

    I got you now, Kevin, Re: Holmes/Hagler:Ashton/Williamson. Agreed.

    Fritz, I hear you regarding undisputed champions and their relevance to the rock of ages.

  15. sammymaudlin

    I know the “for worse” is easy but I also know that this is controvertial. The ousting of Bob Stinson and subsequent replacement Slim Dumplop ended The Replacements for me. Bob was an awful, drunken sloppy guitar player but absolutely imperative to the sound of the band. He balanced (masked) Westerberg’s sadly lacking Chilton aspirations and brought the raucus. See also John Bonham.

  16. BigSteve

    I understand that in boxing overwhelming power will always beat finesse, but I can’t see that being a truism in music. NRBQ was much better after they dropped the leather lunged vocalist who appeared on their earliest recordings.

    Steely Dan’s early vocalist brought prettiness instead of power, but fortuantely they ditched him too. It turned out that the unconventional songs worked better with less conventional vocals.

    I’m also reminded of the deterioration in the Kinks sound when the switch to a conventional hard rock rhythm section unleashed Dave Davies’ latent arena guitar tendencies.

  17. I’d argue that as a rock unit, The Kinks improved when Pete Quaife left for good, and they acquired a bass player who could keep up with Mick Avory. There’s a reason why Arthur is probably Mick’s finest hour.

    Of course, much of Ray’s songwriting well dried up not too long after the bass player upgrade, but these things happen.

  18. BigSteve

    I’d argue that as a rock unit, The Kinks improved when Pete Quaife left for good, and they acquired a bass player who could keep up with Mick Avory. There’s a reason why Arthur is probably Mick’s finest hour.

    Just to clarify, I was referring to much later in the Kinks career, when Avory was replaced by Bob Henrit, and Jim Rodford was playing bass.

  19. Actually, I was the one being unclear. I agree with your statement, and was merely providing a counter-example of a Kinks lineup change that was for the better. I probably shouldn’t have opened my comment with “I’d argue that…” since I wasn’t really arguing with anyone.

  20. Nice — R.I.P Jay

  21. tonyola

    Since I wasn’t here for the original article, I’ll chime in on the Move here. The band was barely existing by the time Jeff Lynne joined in 1970, and he was a key part of Roy Wood’s grand plan to dissolve the Move in favor of a more symphonic concept in ELO. There’s no question that Lynne was a good instrumentalist who contributed some fine songs for Looking On and Message From the County. The latter album is the Move’s best. However, Lynne and Wood struggled for control on the first ELO album, with Lynne pushing for poppier and more commercial material. Now there’s no question that Lynne’s “10538 Overture” is a great song, but his presence resulted in Wood leaving ELO. Next thing you knew it was “Mr. Blue Skies”. Almost my favorite is “Turn to Stone”. And how ’bout “Telephone Line”?

    So I’d say that Lynne’s time at Move was a toss-up.

  22. Happiness Stan

    When we were discussing consistently good albums which Roy Wood has been involved in a couple of weeks back I’d completely forgotten Message from the Country. I haven’t heard it in years, but as I recall it think that you have a very strong case for a forgotten classic there, although Looking On is an abomination and the singles, which were practically the raison d’etre for the Move, suffered during his tenure.

  23. Happiness Stan

    I should qualify that summation of Looking On by stating that Brontosaurus is obviously one of their greatest songs…

  24. tonyola

    While Looking On is pretty weak for the Move, I think that Lynne’s songs (“What?” and “Open Up Said the World at the Door”) are stronger than most of Wood’s songs on the album.

  25. Happiness Stan

    A band I don’t think about very often these days but which springs to mind is Mercury Rev with and without David Baker. They seemed to follow a strange trajectory from the awesome debut of Yerself Is Steam via the unlistenable Boces, made the completely unremarkable post-Baker See You on the Other Side and then came up with Deserters Songs, which took what at the time had seemed the least noticeable wishy-washy instrumental tics of the debut and fashioned them into an instantly accessible classic album.

    After their first couple of singles which were the songs left over from Joy Division after Ian Curtis’ suicide, New Order fashioned something entirely different for themselves which they could never have become with Curtis and launched more synth bands than seems strictly necessary.

    Coming at it from a tangent, as he does regularly, Dylan’s classic period can be broadly divided into stuff he did, or wrote, when he was involved with Suze Rotolo (Freewheelin’ through to Another Side Of), with Joan Baez (the classic trilogy of Brining it all Back Home, Highway 61, Blonde on Blonde), and his erratic and bizarre meanderings with the highs of Blood on the Tracks and Desire and lows of Self Portrait and, (well, surely that’s enough) through the next decade while with Sara.

  26. Happiness Stan

    Which isn’t saying much, as I recall – (although as soon as I posted I thought I may have been unfair and will give it another spin over the weekend).

  27. There are a couple of good songs on both of those albums and the other one with Jeff Lynne, but I hear a band in transition, leaving it’s original goal of combining the latest Who single with the latest Beatles single and working to develop into some new, more lumbering and backward-looking beast.

    My 1-question interview with Roy Wood would consist of, “Do you feel like Jeff Lynne took every move in your book and did a better job of making your musical vision accessible?”

    My 1-question interview with Jeff Lynne would consist of, “Do you thank Roy every night before you go to sleep?”

  28. tonyola

    Good points, but by 1970-1971 the Who and the Beatles were no longer what they once were either. The quirky pop and psychedelia that the Move had specialized in were no longer in fashion. Everything was in transition by this point, not just the Move.

  29. Also a good point. Somehow this makes me think that the greatness of Led Zeppelin is rooted in their ability to make the transition to the new decade and jump way in front of all the other ’60s artists trying to make sense of things.

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