Going to see a classic-rock band in concert can be like getting the mystery meat at the cafeteria — you never know what’s on your plate.
You might recognize the name of the band, but not its current members. In fact, a group that boasted five devoted musicians during its heyday may have trickled down to only one. Sometimes, the freshly recruited members were still crawling when the band’s hit songs were climbing the charts. Yet, the group continues to perform, cashing in by using the same familiar brand name.
Take the case of Yes. There are two estranged incarnations of the veteran prog-rock band touring — both coming to Minnesota in the next week or so. Yes Featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman — as it’s awkwardly billed — is headed to Treasure Island Casino in Red Wing on Friday. Yes, featuring Steve Howe (who apparently owns the moniker “Yes”) and Alan White plus Howe’s son on drums, performs in Moorhead on Sept. 11. Eight members of Yes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April but detente apparently lasted only one night.
The list of similarly evaporating famous bands is longer than a live drum solo in the ’70s. The Who are kiddingly called Who’s Left with sadly only half the band remaining. Kiss, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Journey, the Pointer Sisters, the Spinners and countless other reconstituted groups continue to tour despite the absence of key players.
Even contemporary bands face the same issue. Thirteen musicians have set sail with Awolnation while 15 have ridden with Band of Horses. Trent Reznor has been the only constant in Nine Inch Nails, and Josh Homme is the sole keeper of Queens of the Stone Age.
At what point should a dwindling band stop riding the coattails of its original name?
Truth in advertising
The Truth in Music Advertising act was first signed into law in 2005 in Pennsylvania. Thirty-four states followed suit, including Minnesota in 2008. It is unlawful to advertise or promote a live musical performance with false or misleading associations between the performing group and the established recording band. Moreover, at least one member of the original group must be involved and have a legal right to use the band’s name.
Are fans aware of this law? Do they care?
J.J. Williams, 32, of White Bear Lake, was astonished to learn that a single band member could legally hold the rights to a band’s moniker.
“If I bought a ticket to a concert and found out only one original guy was onstage, I’d be mad, getting ripped off like that,” he said. “I follow Metallica, so I know they’re not the original lineup, but I can’t keep up with every band out there who’s coming unglued.”
A band’s name is the bedrock of the brand’s fame. This is why Roger Waters sued fellow bandmates David Gilmour and Nick Mason over the use of the commercially successful name Pink Floyd. The same goes for the Beach Boys, Boston, Steppenwolf, Deep Purple, Sister Sledge and other litigated monikers.
Minneapolis attorney Michael R. Cohen is an expert in intellectual property, especially when it comes to band names.
“The point of trademark laws is to prevent confusion in the marketplace,” he said. “You have to ask yourself: Is this truth in advertising or a deceptive trade practice — saying one thing and offering something different?”
Cohen is a cousin of Lee Oskar, the original harmonica player for the band War. After prolonged litigation, Oskar and three other original members of War lost ownership of the band’s name to their manager. The four original members have since regrouped and renamed themselves the Lowrider Band, after their 1975 hit song.
Because of a 1991 court decision, Cohen explained, these original members are no longer able to use War to promote their performances. “As a result, it is virtually impossible for them to reach out to their old fan base,” he said.
Hasn’t hurt Axl, Kiss
If every member of the band bows out except the recognizable voice of the lead singer, you might say that a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, especially if that was Axl Rose. The frontman of Guns N’ Roses legally obtained sole ownership of the band’s moniker in 1997. He can slash his musical lineup however he sees fit, and still call the final concoction Guns N’ Roses. At last count, he has welcomed 22 Gunners to the jungle, though he has reunited with heyday members Slash and Duff McKagan for a current tour.
Ultimately, though, ticket buyers will decide.
Like Krista Esterling, 28, of Minneapolis, who goes to about 20 concerts per year. She recently saw Panic! at the Disco, even though she knew the band has only one original member — Brendon Urie, the lead vocalist.
“As long as the chorus sounds the same, I’m OK with whomever else might be onstage, that is, unless I’ve been emotionally invested in a band for years, like I am with Coldplay,” she said. “If Chris Martin was still the lead singer, but drummer Will Champion was missing, I’d be upset. I like the band as a whole.”
The continuing members of Queen were sensitive to this issue and thus dubbed themselves Queen + Paul Rodgers, and more recently, Queen + Adam Lambert, who drew a capacity crowd to Xcel Energy Center in July. Those billings illustrated respect for both the late singer Freddie Mercury and Queen’s fans.
Journey and Kiss have had remarkable commercial success despite well-documented changes in their lineups. After Journey replaced lead singer Steve Perry with sound-alike Arnel Pineda in 2007, Billboard reported their following year’s concert tour earnings to be upward of $35 million. Kiss lost half its original members when guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss quit. Nonetheless, the group has evolved into one of rock’s most lucrative enterprises — worth $5 billion, boasts co-founder Gene Simmons.
By doing a little internet sleuthing, the discerning consumer can quickly identify the genuine article from a reasonable facsimile. Timelines are readily available online to determine if a band has more lives than a cat.
With the 2015 death of Cory Wells, Three Dog Night, which is coming to Mystic Lake Casino on Oct. 20, is down to one of its three original lead singers, Danny Hutton, though former member Chuck Negron still sings under his own name. The other night at the Minnesota State Fair there was only one of the original Pointer Sisters — Ruth, plus her daughter and granddaughter.
In the concert world, it has become buyer beware. Before you shell out your hard-earned money to buy a ticket, compare the bill in your hand to who’s actually on the playbill at hand. Remember, much like the mystery meat at the cafeteria, band members are “subject to change.”
Sheila Branscome Sunderland is a writer in Blaine.