Aug 252021

Who are you calling difficult?

Have any of you trio ever played in a trio? I have not, other than one Nixon’s Head show at the end of a tour in 1987. Having lost our second guitarist shortly before embarking on that tour, we set out as a quartet. On our last show, in Toronto, however, our singer Andy had to fly home early for the wedding of one of his sisters, if memory serves. Seth, Mike, and I played as our emergency trio formation Three-Headed Pig. At least Seth, who was violently ill before the show, tossing cookies in one of the dirtiest rock club bathrooms we’d ever had the displeasure of visiting, was able to get himself together and play drums. Otherwise, Mike and I would have been forced to play as Double-Breasted Wombat. We were actually running through how that set might have been constructed.

My guess is that a lot of trios are formed around an alpha musician, like Jimi Hendrix or Sting or Steve Ray Vaughn. That’s reasonable. If you’re Jimi Hendrix, you don’t need a rhythm guitarist clogging up space.

Being a bit jealous of alpha musicians, I take it a step further and imagine that trios must be composed of difficult, slightly anti-social people. (One exception being a beloved cousin band trio from my youth, Bob’s Revenge, let by our very own Hrrundivbakshi and Machinery.) One of the things I like best about being in a band of 5 or 6 people is the ability to move around and socialize with a wide expanse of personalities. While the singer and drummer are working out a particular fill, I can goof around off to the side with other band members. I don’t think I would have as much fun off in a corner by myself while Andy quotes one of a half dozen fills by either Pete Thomas or Ringo, as he tries to show Seth what he’s got in mind.

I started thinking about how lonely it must get in a trio when Andyr told me about seeing Sleater-Kinney over the weekend. The once-proud, bass-less power trio is now a 6-piece, with a bassist, keyboardist, and second guitarist/mascot. I wonder, after the band’s previous breakup (or was it a planned hiatus) and then Janet Weiss leaving during the making of that slick album produced by St Vincent, if Corin and Carrie needed some extra pals to break up the tension.

What is the average lifespan of a trio relative to a quartet or quintet? Beside ZZ Top and Rush, how many trios have lasted 15 years? (Trios composed of siblings and vocal trios don’t count.)

Andyr and I started talking about this yesterday. He asked, “Did Emerson, Lake, and Palmer last 10 years?”

However long they lasted was way too long.


  10 Responses to “Three Is the Loneliest Number?”

  1. My band, The Manayunk Homeboys, who have been together, off and on, approximately…forever, are, at heart, a trio. It doesn’t mean that we don’t aspire to be and generally work better as a quartet, with someone extra to carry off things that we hear but can’t quite execute as a three piece, but in terms of having an array of personalities, the three seemed perfectly adequate. I’ve always considered us to be a three piece Freudian mix of id, ego and superego.

    By the way, the addition of three Olivers and an Olive may have improved the social dynamics of Sleater-Kinney, but it did nothing for the music. I saw them once as a three piece and thought they were swell. This was not.

    Also, regarding remarks that I heard earlier in the Wilco years about how difficult Tweedy was, precipitating frequent personnel changes, the current six piece line up is in their 16th year. And they sound really good even in a place as big as the Mann.

  2. According to Wikipedia, Triumph’s original run was from 1975 – 1993.

    Also, Muse is approaching 20 years.

    Note: I only looked them up to confirm what I already thought. I didn’t go googling Rock trios. But now that I’m thinking about it, I’m going to confirm that Motorhead fits this bill as well.

    I was slow to warm up to Sleater Kinney, mostly because of Corrine’s voice (as documented on a thread here a number of years ago But I’ve wrapped my head around it and I thought they were great at the Mann the other night. I admit that I’m not carrying around the baggage of watching a band that I liked morph into something different, but I’ve heard a number of other friends say how lackluster/disappointing SK’s set was and I’m not sure what I’m missing (although I really would have liked to see Janet on the drums).

  3. Yes, Motorhead.

  4. That description of what kind of dynamic exists with more than 3 people is way to idealistic. More people means more disagreements and arguments, more ego stroking, more difficulty scheduling rehearsals and gigs, more people bringing their crappy songs to the table, etc, etc. Less money! I think the trios are on to something.

  5. BigSteve

    Remember when Robert Forster (of the Go-Betweens) wrote the 10 Rules of Rock? We even had a thread discussing them here at RTH in 2009. Rule #10 says ” The three-piece band is the purest form of rock and roll expression.”

    He didn’t say best, he said purest. Think Elvis Scotty & Bill. Think Buddy Holly & the Crickets, whom we tend to think of as a trio, even though they had Niki Sullivan on 2nd guitar much of the time.

    I think Forster was thinking back to the early Go-Betweens, when Grant was still on bass, and they played as a trio. There was something about their sound and vision that got diluted when they added a bass player so Grant could switch to guitar.

    Speaking of the Go-B’s, I just finished reading My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend by Tracey Thorn (of Everything but the Girl), which is the story of her friendship with drummer Lindy Morrison. I had no idea they were friends, but the book was very interesting. It certainly gives a very different perspective on the band dynamics than I’d gotten from reading Forster’s memoir.

  6. Happiness Stan

    I played in a trio of trios. If the first of those had been brave enough to stop looking for a second guitarist and a singer and accepted we were quorate as a three piece we’d probably still be together now. I was the alpha musician by default as the others wanted the gig even less than I did.

    The second kind of fell apart when both males in the group fell for our singer and it all got a bit weird. I wrote the songs, the other guy was a phenomenal guitarist, and Nicky could sing the birds down from the trees.

    The third disintegrated when my first impressions of one of the others proved correct later when he showed himself to be the fairly despicable human being his ex wife told us he was all along. We let him think he was the alpha male despite being a dick.

    That was the last band I played in, I feel like I got it out of my system.

  7. Dinosaur Jr lasted five years the first time, and since they reunited in 2005, it’s been another 16 years.

    “My guess is that a lot of trios are formed around an alpha musician, like Jimi Hendrix or Sting or Steve Ray Vaughn. That’s reasonable. If you’re Jimi Hendrix, you don’t need a rhythm guitarist clogging up space.”

    I think that’s why the best power trios are those like The Police and Nirvana where, despite one member writing the lion’s share of the songs, they’re actually more or less equals in other areas. I mean, when the Police formed, if there was an alpha, it was absolutely Stewart Copeland. And the reason they didn’t last was because despite Sting clearly being by leaps and bounds the best songwriter, to put it mildly, and the star, Copeland never took a knee. Meanwhile, Andy Summers may actually have been the best musician of the three which, considering how great the other two are, is saying something.

    “What is the average lifespan of a trio relative to a quartet or quintet? Beside ZZ Top and Rush, how many trios have lasted 15 years?”

    As you more or less said, and as REM discovered when Bill Berry left, having an extra member or two helps ease tensions considerably.

  8. trigmogigmo

    I like trios and “purity” is another way of saying they have a simplicity and avoid over-complication. Compare the way Rush and The Police worked.

    Rush was a pure trio, but Geddy Lee greatly amended it with his synthesizers and Taurus synth bass pedals during their prime. And they respected the purity of the trio performance by, for the most part, composing the recorded songs in a way that they could play live — when the hands go on the keyboards, the bass guitar drops out. And when there’s a guitar solo, there’s no rhythm guitar track behind it. I liked that purity. They survived it seems by having a stable balance, no alpha.

    Scott has a good take on The Police, one of my favorite bands. Three very strong distinct personalities / components (guitar, drum, vocal — I don’t think Sting’s bass playing has a whole lot of unique personality, but his singing sure does). For me, whenever they strayed too far from the purity of the trio, it wasn’t better: horns on this song, backup singers on that tour, etc. Fortunately that was rare. The band couldn’t last because because there were two no-compromise alpha personalities with opposing ideas.

    At the opposite end you have groups dedicating an entire trio to just guitars. I’m no expert on Springsteendom, but since Bruce is a good guitarist, why does he need both Little Steven and Nils Lofgren to complement him (especially when he also has a sax player and a keyboard player and backup singer with a guitar)? Tom Petty eventually got the 3rd guitar with Scott Thurston (live only), but he switched off on some keyboard parts and I think was most present as vocal support.

  9. Great insights, all! Trigmo, as for Springsteen and his large band, we know what that’s all about:

    Scott’s reference to Stewart Copeland reminds me of a documentary I stumbled on and watched yesterday. I’ll try to get time to write it up tonight or tomorrow. Stay tuned!

    One more thing about trios that we haven’t explored is quartets that function like trios. I think The Who and Led Zeppelin are the best examples of this phenomenon. It doesn’t apply to all 4-piece bands with a guy who only sings, but for those bands, I think Pete-Roger and Jimmy-Robert functioned like single beings.

  10. Happiness Stan

    Not sure I quite buy the concept of quartets functioning as trios, although I kind of see where you’re coming from. Even though they don’t fit the criteria of four piece trios, Mick and Keef have to be top of the single entity list. Others which spring to mind are Difford and Tilbrook, and the Mael brothers even when Sparks were a real band.

    Robert Plant has spent forty years trying to put Zep in a box and move on, but still everyone wants to hear Rock and Roll and Stairway to Heaven. That must feel like a curse, despite the royalties. Pete and Roger, and the Glimmer Twins, at least recognised and came to terms with their inseparability decades ago and gave up fighting in the end.

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