World Tour/Media Whore(s): The Year in Reunions

Modern music has been cannibalizing itself for a while now, but 2009 brought the pop ouroboros full-circle, so to speak. From the mighty (Blur, Mott the Hoople) to the fallen (oh, let’s leave it at Limp Bizkit), reunions showed us both the best and the worst pop has to offer. It’s tempting to say that, in the midst of a recession and facing an uncertain future, the music industry seized on the reunion as a safe alternative to publicizing more innovative groups. But while big business (and the cash it offers) is always an issue, it’s often up to the bands themselves whether they choose to reunite or not — did Simon & Garfunkel ever need the extra dough? While 2009 spawned plenty of rumors that brought the Libertines, the Smiths, and the Stone Roses back together, these were the bands that actually dusted off their guitars and plugged in their amps one more time.

The Good:

Let’s start with the headliners: Blur. It’s tough to really sum up what a Blur reunion means; they were at once the most successful and the most ambitious band of the Britpop generation, crafting expertly written pop gems (“Badhead”) and stomping thrashers (“Popscene”) with equal skill. While Blur soldiered on after guitarist Graham Coxon’s departure in 2002, they foundered after 2003’s Think Tank. Rumors of reunion dogged the band while Albarn founded the immensely successful Gorillaz, Coxon recorded a series of well-regarded solo albums, and bassist Alex James started a cheese farm. But it just wasn’t the same, and the band announced in November of last year that Blur was on their way to a reunion.

The dates were limited and in high demand (tickets for their July gig in Hyde Park sold out in just two minutes), but Blur was truly back in form. Tearing through their live gigs with the enthusiasm, spirit, and soul that Blur had been lacking since Coxon’s departure (and showing up any aspiring rock stars in the area), Blur made every set count. While the band played a series of UK-only gigs, they finished the reunion with a headline show at the Glastonbury Festival on June 28th. And that, as they say, was that — with no further plans to tour or enter the studio, the Blur reunion was the rarest of things: brief, brilliant, heartbreaking, and real. It’s a reunion where the money mattered the least, where no one lost their fond memories of their musical icons.

While Blur might have been the main attraction, they weren’t the only big-name band to get back to where they once belonged. Ska legends the Specials reunited in honor of their 30th anniversary as a band, with dates throughout the summer of 2009. While keyboardist and songwriter Jerry Dammers was not a part of the reunion, the rest of the original lineup was present for a series of brilliant gigs.

Influential pop-punkers Blink-182 might have split in 2004, but following drummer Travis Barker’s plane crash, in which Barker suffered severe injuries and four others were killed, the trio reformed at the February Grammy Awards. A US tour, with big names Fall Out Boy and Weezer paying their dues as opening acts, followed in the summer, with a European tour planned for next year. While the band has yet to release any new material, the band’s own website confirms that they will be recording and releasing a brand new album next year.

And, of course, the band that’s kept us in suspense for over a decade now: Pavement announced a series of reunion dates planned for next year. While we won’t know if the influential indie rockers have still got what it takes until 2010, I wouldn’t bet against them. Throw in jam-banders Phish, glam icons Mott the Hoople, Irish legends the Cranberries, and American genre-mashing pioneers Faith No More, and 2009 has seen its fair share of reunions that were — shockingly — worth waiting for.

The Bad:

It’s not all good news, though. Whatever did we do in a world without Spandau Ballet? At times it all feels like a terrible, terrible dream that we’ve finally been awakened from. The New Romantic swooners returned in full force after nearly 20 years apart, with tickets for their London O2 arena gig selling out in only 20 minutes. Evidently, once the Killers went Americana, there was a vast urge for guyliner that was simply going unsatisfied. While the band’s 2009 dates and their new album, Once More, have been received with polite critical disinterest, the return of the glam quintet emphasizes all of the worst aspects of reunion culture: the cheap recycling of an act that natural selection had already gotten rid of.

The Ugly:

If the Blur reunion was something sublime, well, let’s make our way to the ridiculous. Is there anything left to say about Limp Bizkit that these pop culture punching bags haven’t heard before? They’re loud, dumb, crude, and very, very limp. Taking metal to its least logical conclusion, Limp Bizkit were big in the late ’90s and early ’00s, but went on hiatus in 2004. The world had five years of reprieve but, well, happiness is ephemeral. So in May of this year the band’s original lineup performed together for the first time in eight years. They’ve begun recording a new album, which is expected next year. The Mayan Apocalypse was slated for 2012, but it might just be two years off.

Ultimately, 2009 has been something of a rough year — and not just for the music business. With homes foreclosed, debt rising, and unemployment at record highs (boy, this isn’t quite the cheery column I had planned), it’s somehow comforting to find that the one special band, the one you thought you would never get the chance to see, is coming back together. And somehow, it’s just for you — forget the screaming fans, the piles of cash, the petty squabbles and drug addictions that tore them apart in the first place. Just remember those first glimmers of pop music, back when anything seemed possible. Because even if you’ve bought the t-shirt, stopped at every venue, downloaded every reissue, just remember what one of the most stubborn reunion refuseniks of all time had to say: “At the record company meeting / On their hands — at last! — a dead star / But they can never taint you in my eyes”.