In the fall of 2016, we spent two editions of FTV discussing the end – as in “when a band comes to an end” and not “The End of the world” (9-28-16 and 10-5-16 if you care to backtrack a little). A couple of months ago, we spent sometime talking about the sudden end, and then the surprising resurrection of one of my favorite sources of information, Classic Rock Magazine. Having their own close brush with “the end” has given CRM the proper perspective to examine some of the major rock bands that have played (or will soon play) their final shows. In a few cases, the passing of some key band members has made it likely that a few more bands will not be getting together to celebrate 40 and 50 year milestones. To keep this edition shorter than War and Peace, we shall concentrate on four household names: Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Asia, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple.
Emerson, Lake and Palmer won’t be celebrating any anniversaries with the original classic line up now that drummer Carl Palmer is the only one still standing. Tragically, keyboard wizard Keith Emerson took his own life last year. His close friends knew he was having difficulty with a degenerative disorder that was making it increasingly difficult for him to perform, but no one knew how low Emerson had fallen. Bassist-vocalist-guitarist Greg Lake had is own serious health problems but he was still performing almost to the end. Videos of him near the end were consistent with someone battling an illness with steroids as he had a swollen look about him, but his voice and mannerisms didn’t give one the idea that he was close to death. With two legs of the three legged stool gone, there would be no way for Palmer to mount anything close to the original band.
Palmer has actually been snake bit twice as his other major band, Asia, also lost a founding member when vocalist – bassist John Wetton succumbed to colon cancer at the end of January of 2017. Asia has had a revolving door of players on bass and guitar, but keyboardist Geoff Downes and Palmer have been with the band throughout. Guitarist Steve Howe left, came back, and left again but it was Wetton’s departure and return that proved what a key member of the band he was. Wetton had his share of band endings in his career and it was Asia that finally brought him the acclaim he deserved.
Wetton, a member of some notable bands in his early years, was performing with Family when he got a major break by joining Robert Fripp in King Crimson. He was finally able to contribute to a band as both a singer and a songwriter, opportunities that were lacking in his earlier bands. When Fripp decided to pull the plug on King Crimson, the disappointed Wetton found himself knocking around as a sideman for bands like Roxy Music, Uriah Heep, and Wishbone Ash. While with Roxy Music, an Atlantic Records west coast employee named John Kalodner took Wetton to lunch and basically said, “John, playing back up to Brian Ferry is not your destiny” and planted the idea in Wetton’s head that he should be focusing on a higher hill. By the time Wetton had cycled through some solo projects and the aforementioned bands, Kalodner had joined the fast growing Geffen Records label and was instrumental in getting the classic Asia line up together.
Asia’s first self-titled release set the bar so high that the band was under a lot of pressure to get out their second album, Alpha. Steve Howe threatened to leave the band but for some reason it was Wetton who was sent packing (replaced for a short time by Greg Lake). When negotiations to get Wetton back in the band were instigated, Wetton agreed, but only if Howe was fired. As Wetton said, “Steve had squeezed me out of the band, so I did the same to him. I lived to regret that decision, but I wanted my toy back and I was prepared to do anything.” By 1991, Wetton felt that the line up of Asia had become a parody of themselves, so he left the band (again). There were ill feelings between Wetton and Downes for some time, but Downes kept a line up playing under the name, albeit to smaller and smaller audiences.
Wetton and Downes eventually buried their differences when two events brought them back together: Downes contributed to a couple of tracks on Wetton’s Rock of Faith album. This lead to them forming the duo iCon which put them one step closer to reforming the classic line up. In 2003, Palmer and Howe came on board for a full reunion, but not until Wetton quit drinking. As he recalled, “Oh God yes, I was absolutely awful. Sometimes you couldn’t get a coherent word out of me after nine o’clock in the morning.” The classic line up continued on until Howe left again in 2013 (under much better terms). Asia soldiered on even after Wetton was diagnosed three years ago. Plans were being laid for a new Asia album right up to the end as Wetton was getting ready for a new round of chemotherapy and discussing touring dates with Journey. In Wetton’s case, there were many ‘ends’ in his career, but he proved many times over that you can go back.
Black Sabbath had some ups and downs with vocalist Ozzy Osbourne over the years, but once they resumed playing together, they became one of the biggest touring draws over two decades. Guitarist Tommy Iommi’s cancer and contractual problems with drummer Bill Ward weighed heavily upon them, but they still managed to produce one of their strongest albums in years (2013’s 13). The classic lineup minus Ward (Tommy Clufetos has filled Ward’s seat for several tours) set off on their “The End” tour in Omaha, Nebraska in 2016. The tour took them around the world and finished up where they started, back in Birmingham, England on February 4, 2017. After the final notes of Paranoid faded away at the last show, Iommi said they really didn’t know what to say. He read a brief statement from the stage (“Thank you, goodnight. Thank you so much.”) and that was it.
Iommi admits that they could record again or do a few small projects, but this marks the end of any large scale tours for the band: ”It’s always possible but we haven’t spoken about it. My own future is fairly open and I’m keen to explore whatever’s around. I’d be up for doing a whole lot of stiff . . . provided it’s not touring.” A band with a legacy like Sabbath faces the end in a far different manner than a band that implodes. Iommi is glad to be wrapping things up, but when asked, “How would you like the band to be remembered?” he said,”We started this form of music, basically, and I’m really happy that the fact has been recognized for many years. And I’m very proud that we helped to put Birmingham on the map.” He also let Classic Rock Magazine know he was happy that they survived their recent brush with “the end.”
Speaking of bands imploding, Deep Purple is another legacy band that has had its share of trials. Mercurial guitar virtuoso Ritchie Blackmore was not a happy camper near the end of both his tenures with the band and when Ritchie wasn’t happy, nobody was happy. Of the founding members, only drummer Ian Paice can lay claim to playing in all the versions of the band. The second time the classic lineup dissolved (the one including Jon Lord (keyboards), Roger Glover (bass), Ian Gillan (vocals) along with Blackmore and Paice otherwise known as the Mark II version of the band), they settled on a core of Lord, Glover, Gillan and Paice with ex-Dixie Dregs – Kansas guitarist Steve Morse stepping into the lead guitar slot. Lord eventually retired from the band and was replaced by Don Airey who spent his pre-Purple years with Cozy Powell, Jethro Tull, Gary Moore, Whitesnake, Black Sabbath, and Ozzy Osbourne. He got to know Glover when they both did a stint with Blackmore’s Rainbow so finding Lord’s replacement was a very short search for Glover and company.
Purple still play their classic songs but they have also written and recorded new music with the current band. Airey has already been the keyboard player in this version for 15 years, which is longer than both incarnations of the Mark II band combined. Do they still sound like Deep Purple? Morse can play the Blackmore parts on the iconic tracks, but he has the skills to put his own stamp on the Purple catalog (old and new songs) without it becoming a distraction. Gillan’s voice has deepened with time, but an old pro like him knows how make his voice fit the music the band is performing. The title of their new album is InFinite (released in April 2017). The Sky Arts TV documentary about the making of the album is called From Here To Infinity. If this is their last tour, it won’t be a short one: entitled ‘The Long Goodbye’, it will wrap up in Europe at London’s O2 Arena on November 23, 2017 and is likely to continue with dates in the Far East and South America into 2018. After that, Airey only hints at the future: “Groups are funny things, and this one’s not so much a band of disparate as desperate characters. I could be wrong, but I don’t think any of us has an exit strategy.”
In honor of ‘The End’ of these bands, WOAS-FM will be featuring their music when we resume broadcasting the third week of August. Tune in to 88.5 FM and we can all celebrate a lot of music covering a lot of years as these bands wind down their careers. Unless, of course, they pull a Brett Favre. Only time will tell.
Top Piece Video – John Wetton and Asia when they were the darlings of MTV