Thin Lizzy and Platonic essentialism
What's the point of Thin Lizzy when Phil Lynott is dead? A band is just a brand without its creative founders.
When is a band not a real band? It’s when it doesn’t have an iconic lead singer. That’s when.
Many people might find it curious to hear that Thin Lizzy is currently on tour, 25 years after its lead singer Phil Lynott died of too much drink and drugs. For most people, Thin Lizzy was Phil Lynott, and the notion that a band continues to operate under that name, with a different lead singer, will seem rather strange.
We have been here before. Bands have frequently tried to struggle on without the icons that made them, and normally with miserable consequences. The Doors issued two albums after Jim Morrison’s death in 1971, before calling it a day two years later. Black Sabbath produced a series of mostly forgettable albums in the 1980s after firing Ozzy Osbourne in 1979. The Dubliners were never the same without Ronnie Drew. Lynyrd Skynyrd continued to tour even after three of them died in an aeroplane crash in 1977, and Iron Maiden plodded on without Bruce Dickinson after 1993 – before he gloriously returned six years later. To this day The Stranglers continue to perform without Hugh Cornwell, more than 20 years after the frontman left the group.
I have seen The Stranglers twice sans Cornwell. It was a somewhat hollow experience on both occasions. Sure, at their gigs you got to hear some old favourites from the most famous misogynist band ever to come out of Guildford, but it is also like seeing a band that verges on a tribute act. You got the feeling you weren’t seeing the real thing, or more prosaically, that ‘The Stranglers’ were just cashing in on past glories. I suspect that those who saw ‘Thin Lizzy’ at the Hammersmith Apollo last week felt the same. They probably enjoyed the tunes, but were distracted by the nagging feeling that someone rather important was not on stage.
Rock groups aren’t like football teams, or the papacy, or the US marines featured in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. As the sergeant explained in that film: ‘Marines die, that’s what we’re here for! But the Marine Corps lives forever. And that means you live forever!’ What he was getting at is that some establishments are perceived to be eternal, and have intrinsic to them a virtual system of apostolic succession.
Football squads come and go, but the clubs are perceived as immortal. They may, however, differ in the way they manifest themselves. For instance, the dirty and triumphant Leeds United side of the early 1970s may be in stark contrast to the exciting yet hopeless Leeds of the 2000s. Yet to the team’s fans, there will always be an eternal ‘Leeds’. Chelsea and Arsenal teams come and go, but most of us will always think of the former as essentially inconsistent and the latter very boring. (This is why essentialist AFC Wimbledon fans are so fussy about insisting it was their club that won the 1988 FA Cup, not Wimbledon FC’s successors, MK Dons.)
On the contrary, the essence of a band lies not with its name or its cultural or geographical resonance, but with the creative force behind it – it’s about the individuals who spawned it and who came to represent it. The Who have managed to carry on without Keith Moon and John Entwistle, because we associate the group more with Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, the former talking about fish farming and the latter doing his windmill guitar performance. We similarly identify Jimmy Page and Robert Plant with Led Zeppelin. And The Cure can continue (and have continued) with any number of background performers just as long as Robert Smith remains at the helm looking fat and sad.
For this reason, a Beatles reunion was wisely disregarded after John Lennon’s death in 1980. In the realm of hyperreality, this is why Spinal Tap could have any number of drummers die in bizarre gardening accidents or choke on someone else’s vomit. As long as they had the core of Nigel Tufnel, Derek Smalls and David St Hubbins, nothing else mattered.
This is the point of bands. Unlike football teams or marine corps, they don’t last for ever. Nor should they. Beatles fans may grumble about Yoko Ono, but we should be thankful that she helped to bring about the demise of the Fab Four. Otherwise they may have indeed carried on like Spinal Tap into the 1970s, dining out on former glories and producing derivative albums for the sake of it. Like Wings. Or even worse, like the Rolling Stones.
I suppose this matter boils down to Plato and the theory of forms. It’s the old quandary of the Philosopher’s Knife, or as it is more commonly known today, Trigger’s Broom. Trigger, the less-than-intellectual character from British sitcom Only Fools And Horses, was proud to have maintained the same broom for 20 years by replacing the head 17 times and the handle 14 times. Naturally, Del Boy and Rodney, being very commonsensical English empiricists, concluded that Trigger’s broom was not what it was, and that Trigger was an idiot.
Platonic essentialism isn’t very fashionable these days, and with good reason. Anyone who believes that a living horse is merely the manifestation of an eternal, abstract horse clearly hasn’t seen a mule or a zebra. If you talk about the transcendental chair, I’ll show you a stool or a Stannah Stairlift. Yet essentialism retains its tenacity in the human mindset. We like to believe in the real and the immutable. Blurring the boundaries between that which is real and that which is not remains largely a pastime for avante-garde and science-fiction novelists, postmodernist theoreticians, children and mad people. The human mind otherwise likes to keep it real. And the current Thin Lizzy is not the real deal.
We like to believe that bands have a real essence, one which derives from their creative geniuses. This is why a Motorhead without Lemmy, a Simply Red without Mick Hucknall, a Crickets without their Buddy, and an Experience without its Jimi did not, and will not, work – ever.
Patrick West is spiked’s music columnist. Read his blog here.
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