“Ain’t no way to keep a band together,” says fictional jazz legend Del Paxton in the Tom Hanks passion project That Thing You Do. “Bands come and go. You got to keep playing, no matter with who.” So even though drummer protagonist Guy Patterson is understandably upset at the premature dissolution of his band, dude’s got a point.
Jazz musicians have never seemed to concern themselves with troubles like maintaining founding members or embattled working relationships. Once a partnership outlives its use, it is dissolved — simple as that. This stems from an outlook toward classical and jazz music that often places focus on ability over personality. If you can’t hit that high B, you’ll be replaced, no matter how fun you are to drink with.
Rock groups are different animals entirely. With the canonization of rock bands in the 1960s came the sainthood of their members. Most bands would sooner give up a limb than a crucial member — something Def Leppard may have taken too literally. It still happens today; just look back to the wild reactions toward Zayn Malik leaving One Direction (now known colloquially as 0.8 Direction) last year, or browse through the hundreds of “It’s not Blink without Tom” comments below anything relating to the new Blink-182 album.
The Beatles were instrumental in solidifying this concept that each member of the band contributes both their personality and musicianship to make up the whole. In fact, more than any band before or since, they are the only musical group all of whose members I would guess most people can name (Simon & Garfunkel and Crosby, Stills & Nash don’t count). It’s rare that someone would be referencing John Wayne in Stagecoach when the name Ringo is brought up. It’s debatable whether Lennon was reaching when he claimed the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus," but there’s something to be said when the names John and Paul conjure an image of musicians before biblical Apostles. From the Bible.
Quentin Tarantino has often mentioned his intentions to quit his long-held job as a film director after ten pictures. As a self-taught scholar of movies, he cites the diminishing returns of Billy Wilder’s (among others) directing career as proof of how hard it is to stay good forever. Tarantino advocates for “quitting while you’re ahead," so to speak. I have a similar theory regarding the lifespan of bands, only instead of works released, it’s measured in years.
I encourage you to take a look at the discographies of your favorite bands. If they were ever truly great, I can almost guarantee it was for just about ten years or less.
In the '90s, Pavement released five classic slacker-rock albums over eight years and cashed out. After 11 years, Talking Heads put out very good and very final eighth album Naked, in 1988. Paul McCartney was already experienced in ending a good thing when Wings released their seventh and final album, the underrated, New Wave-tinged Back to the Egg, eight years after their debut.
Measuring when a band went wrong is an imprecise science at best. While the exact album is tough to pin down, I suspect most people wouldn’t be too upset if the Beach Boys had stopped after ten years of releasing albums. At the very least, it would have saved us from "Kokomo," which I think we can all agree would be a net positive. Same with Weezer — some of their post-ten-year albums are as maligned as their early albums are loved.
Much like marriage, bands have put themselves in a situation wherein they are forced to compromise and evolve together or they will fail. Unfortunately, even when the love is there, it is very unlikely that all band members will progress in the same direction. And however invested everyone was at the start, a decade of working together causes every band to either water down or fall apart completely.
Solo artists typically don't have this problem. By performing under their own names, they circumvent the issue of keeping unwanted musicians on board out of loyalty. For better or worse, St. Vincent or Ryan Adams could get rid of the band at any moment and chase a drastically different direction. Innovators like Prince or David Bowie were known to pick up the pieces and reinvent themselves at the drop of a hat. That’s how almost 15 years after making his name as a psychedelic folk singer, Bowie became one of the most danceable stars on the planet. That’s also how three decades later, he released one of the most critically acclaimed albums of his career just days before he passed away. (Supernatural talent may also have been involved.)
The end of That Thing You Do doesn’t see Guy Patterson start another band; it has him lay down a single track with his jazz hero and title it “I Am Spartacus." He’s referring to a scene in Spartacus during which his fellow prisoners rally together and volunteer themselves despite being offered their lives in exchange for his head. By taking on his name as a group identity, they obscure their own, rendering who they are less important than simply that they’re there. The meaning of the movie catchphrase Patterson spouts throughout the film finally sinks in as he goes off to spend the rest of his career under his own name.