“Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time.” – Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

“The Alchemist” by Sir William Fettes Douglas (1822 – 1891) Public Domain Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There are three definitions of Alchemy in Webster’s Dictionary, the second one is my favorite: “A power or process of transforming something common into something special.” The first definition is longer and more historical: “a medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy aiming to achieve the transmutation of the base metals into gold, the discovery of a universal cure for disease, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life.” The third definition in the dictionary: “An inexplicable or mysterious transmuting.”

With all that out of the way lets just say that, this post is about two things: rock bands and humans. It’s not directly about astronauts, but I’ll point out right up front that rock bands and astronauts began forming at just about the same time.

Since the early 1950’s, Rock and Roll bands have influenced our culture, language, fashion and social sensibilities. Rock bands have come and gone; some never stepped out of the basement, some played cover songs in local bars, some recorded an original album or two and quickly faded away. Others, with the help of electronic technology and the Internet seem to have transcended time and space.

Mysteriously, a few of these bands rise above the rest to become giants of music, fashion, culture, and eventually become popular legends. These are the phenomenal acts that manage to stick around and be relevant for several decades at a time. Some have survived from the dawn of rock and are still around today, writing, recording and touring, relentlessly churning out new music.

A few bands I would put in this Legendary category are:

The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Who, Pink Floyd, David Bowie & the Spiders from Mars, Yes, Genesis, Led Zeppelin, Rush, Cheap Trick, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Deep Purple, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Heart, Aerosmith, UFO, Queen, Van Halen, U2.

U2 April, 1 2005 in Anaheim, CA. Taken by Chris Sansenbach, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There are others to be sure, these are some personal favorites, but I’m sure you get the idea. If it sounds like classic rock radio, great, because that’s really the point.

Many singer-songwriters achieve this legendary status as well, and they are absent from the list only because this post is about the phenomenon of bands. While singer songwriters succeed largely based on their own image, talents and personalities, rock bands radiate energy from the interplay of two or more personalities. It’s really a very different thing. A solo artist is always more or less in charge. With bands it’s more like an witches brew, with multiple witches. The whole becomes much greater than the sum of the parts.

All of the great bands have had various members come and go, but there is always a core of two or three musicians who stick it out through hell or high water and keep things afloat. Many find a way to continue even after certain key members have passed away.

“Alchemy neither composes nor mixes: it increases and activates that which already exists in a latent state” – Franz Hartmann

Today we are seeing a phenomenon emerge in which a vision for a band’s unique style and sound is carried on even after all the original members have departed, or are nearly departed. In these cases, allegiance passes from specific musicians to their musical approach instead, to an idea, a concept, a vision; something intangible that has been established so vividly through the many years of recording and performing.

The result is either a tribute band that simply performs a bands back catalog, or as a new composing and recording group that picks up where the band left off and further evolves a musical vision. A marketing type might call this a brand. Ugh. I would rather understand it as a testament in honor of cherished influence.

The Beatles. Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“Come together, right now – over me.” – John Lennon

We often hear stories of how members of this or that band came together. Paul McCartney happened to have his guitar strapped to his back while riding his bike past the church where John Lennon was playing with the Quarrymen. Paul stopped to listen, was introduced to John by a mutual friend, played a few tunes, and poof, the Beatles were born.

Andy Summers accidentally missed his intended train and just happened to meet Sting on the next one, and bang, The Police were born.

Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson of Rush were childhood schoolmates, friends and bandmates and miraculously, they still are. And later, can anyone deny the alchemy of adding drummer Neil Peart to that mix?

In the end however these stories are like those love at first sight stories: fun to recall, but ultimately beside the actual point – the actual point being the years of long, hard, rehearsals, arguments, road trips, artistic differences, compromises and the daily slugging it out that turns those brief, initial moments to magic only in hindsight.

“The only things Mick and I disagree about is the band, the music and what we do.” – Keith Richards

Anecdotes of who met who, when, where, and how could fill a small library; but more interesting questions surround the cultural and artistic magnetism that keeps successful bands in orbit around our musical sensibilities, decade after decade, after decade…

What are the primal forces that somehow brought these bands together, kept them going, or with equal vigor have ripped so many of them apart?

When you think about other arts such as painting, poetry, prose writing, sculpture or architecture it is clear that these are mainly solitary efforts. They are imagined, constructed and delivered by a single artist, alone in a studio and most often result in static (but no less worthwile) artistic statements.

In contrast to these more static arts, live performances of great rock bands are dynamic, living, breathing, ceremonies in sound, light and color. They are communal events too; anyone who has been to a great concert knows, the vibe and energy of the audience is central to the experience. Increasingly, these performances are documented for eternity and stored in the cloud.

Other arts such as drama, film, and dance have traveling performance groups too, but none that ever have achieved the same kind of iconic status, fandom, or cultural influence that rock bands have so consistently evoked.

The Rolling Stones in 2005. Photo taken by Shahid-G Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons

For a band to succeed over more than an album or two, requires that they somehow get along well enough to write, arrange, rehearse, record, travel and perform together day in and day out, year after year. This is no small task for a group of creative ego-centric musicians, which accounts for a good deal of the rarity.

What then is the bond that keeps some of these rickety, rock and roll bands from instantly flying apart?

To answer that, maybe we should consider historical prototypes for the phenomenon of what we now call a modern band? What, in human history, is a rock band like? How do other types of groups compare to it? At first glance, a rock band is kind of a weird thing. (Their even kind of weird after a couple of glances.) Look back in time if you can and try to imagine anything else like them. From what in our human history did this type of thing evolve? Here is an attempt at a list, starting from the beginning:

Hunter gathering groups

It’s a surprisingly short list, and in its brevity, I think, lies the answer.

Unless I am missing something, there aren’t too many things in our history like the not so humble rock band; and the things that are most in common have some pretty sticky glue holding them together.

A quick triplet of quotes…

“Whatever our personal differences are, there are no bigger fans of this band than the people who are in this band.” – Alex Van Halen

“My other family is Fleetwood Mac. I don’t need the money, but there’s an emotional need for me to go on the road again. There’s a love there; we’re a band of brothers.” – Stevie Nicks

“It isn’t a band. It’s bigger than a band. It’s a lifestyle.” – Zakk Wylde

Like families, hunting groups, shipmates, soldiers and astronauts, a band can only form if there is a common need, or sense of purpose. In the beginning, as today, families are formed either intentionally or by happy accident, but either way they are forged with a divine inheritance of love. They are our most primitive and revered social group.

In early hunter gatherer groups we banded together with small communities to find sustenance and protect each other from the dangers of the wild. Small groups of fishermen and sailors later set off together in search of food, resources, riches, conquest, or the sheer thrill of exploration and adventure.

It is obvious why we needed these groups: they were essential to our survival. Not so it would seem with musical groups. There is something else at work here. Survival? Maybe, but if so it is a much less critical type of survival, at least from a bio-evolutionary point of view anyway. Maybe it’s a kind of psychological survival.

“Alchemy is the art of manipulating life, and consciousness in matter, to help it evolve, or to solve problems of inner disharmonies.” – Jean Dubuis

It’s likely that in the shift from a hunter-gatherer to an agrarian society we had more time to spend time on frivolous things like music. I don’t pretend to be an anthropologist (at least while anyone’s looking) but music, science, art and literature must have emerged as the intensity of mere survival diminished. While waiting for the corn, beans and rice to grow, we most likely had much more time to think about things like power chords, pentatonic scales, chord progressions, and tattoos of our favorite brand of motorcycle.

If the ancient pursuit of alchemy is a search for the secrets of the natural world, then music is the search for the secrets of the artistic and spiritual world. The best rock music performance today can combine the elements of both art and science. Today’s bands can fuse the advanced technology of modern instruments, amplification, stage design, and electronic effects with the primitive, instinctual, lyrical, and spiritual energy that has been building up in our DNA since we first started banging sticks together.

Whether or not there are any bands fully taking advantage of this is another question. At least the potential is there. (I think U2 may have achieved it with a version of the Beatle’s “Helter Skelter” I once heard in Denver, Colorado.)

So here is my alchemical formula for rock and roll. (You may or may not recognize it from a tweet I sent out from my Choosing Notes account).

“Notes are atoms, chords are molecules, melodies form magnetic bonds, and the tune is the thing. #composing #musictheory #musicnerd”

Of course their are many other variables at work in the forging of a rock band such as: culture, subculture, fashion, attitude, commaradere, compatibility, skill level, equipment, determination, financial support, networking, business aptitude, leadership, but that wouldn’t fit in a tweet anyway now would it?

With the advent of the personal computer and inexpensive home studio equipment, musicians are now able to create multitrack recordings that sound like bands but are really the work of a single musician. Artistically, a music album can now be seen more like a novel. That is, it can be created by a single individual over the course of several months or years and stand as an individual artistic achievement.

A fulfilling live performance still requires a band however and we are still drawn to the idea of a group of people coming together to play music.

“There’s no substitute for live work to keep a band together.” – Keith Richards

Rock concerts still draw huge crowds and bring in big money. In fact, it used to be that a band performed in order to sell records; today the reverse is more often the case: bands sell records in order to promote their performances.

As a result of this inexpensive recording technology, the industry is flooded with thousands of independent bands all competing for attention and record sales on the Internet. Today some fans even intentionally seek out music that is obscure. As soon as a band has gained any notoriety, they lose credibility with many fans who see this popularity as somehow diluting the bands specialness. If everyone knows about a band, the listener is no longer in possession of the discovery. The result is often that once the secret of a good band is out, many fans simply desert them.

Add to this the fact that the Internet enables and promotes sales of single songs over albums and you are left with a situation that seems to support the idea that bands are doomed.

“Don’t think about what you’ve left behind” The alchemist said to the boy as they began to ride across the sands of the desert. “If what one finds is made of pure matter, it will never spoil. And one can always come back. But if what you had found was only a moment of light, like the explosion of a star, you would find nothing on your return.” Paulo Coelho, Alchemist

Rock bands of some kind will surely be with is for the foreseeable future; and the factors that bring individuals together to create the great bands will likely remain mysterious. At least I hope so, because if creating a successful band were ever reduced to a formula it would surely lose its magical charm and become nothing more than a marketing guys business plan.

Some have argued that complete commercial corruption has already happened; that there can be no more phenomenal bands like the Beatles or The Rolling Stones. They say that the industry is infested with mediocre bands run by greedy executives and corporate marketing types. But that problem has been with us since Elvis and always will be.

And things are changing, fast.

Somewhere, in a garage or a basement, in New York, or London, or in some obscure suburb or farm town, there are some kids with drums, basses, guitars, keyboards, computers, imaginations, dreams, an internet connection and a beaker or two of chromium bisulfate, just waiting to prove the naysayers wrong.

“This is ground control to major Tom.
You’ve really made the grade.
And the papers want to know who’s shirts you wear.
Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare.” – David Bowie