Shy of retiring: when artists really need to be told to stop making albums
The following MBW column comes from Eamonn Forde (pictured inset), a long-time music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig. His new book, Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates, is out now via Omnibus Press.
The French, naturellement, have a term for it: they call it partir à l’anglaise. The Polish (wyjść po angielsku) and the Russians (уйти по-английски) have something similar, also targeted at the English.
The English, getting their revenge and further exacerbating centuries of Anglo-French animosity, call it “taking French leave”.
You might know it as “the Irish goodbye”, although someone online says that can be traced back to the potato famine in the mid-1800s and is therefore problematic; however, as a Representative Of All Irish People: Past, Present & Future, I don’t have an issue with it.
In essence, it means to quietly leave a party or an event, often just as it has hit its peak, without actually drawing attention to the fact that you are departing. Parties, like comedy, are all about timing. After a point, they start to unspool and enjoyment decreases exponentially. Get out, as the cliché has it, while the getting is good.
This is a protracted and polyglottal way to propose that more musicians need to develop the self-reflexivity to know when they are in an irreversible artistic slump. They should accept this as an inevitable consequence of creativity: after a point, most creators shift from being extraordinary to being ordinary. It happens. It’s normal.
There is a moment for pop stars where art and commerce explode in a beautiful symbiosis – where they are making their best records at the exact same time that they are having their biggest commercial success.
Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys refers to this as the “imperial phase”. The concept dates back to September 1988 when, coming off the back of two huge number one singles in a row in the UK (Always On My Mind and Heart), their single Domino [106 articles]”>Domino Dancing peaked at number 7.
“That’s that then,” Tennant thought at the time, “it’s all over.” Just before that (relative) chart disappointment, he believed that he and Chris Lowe held “the secret of contemporary pop music”. But no more.
(Pet Shop Boys continued, of course, to make records, but knew that the moment when they were the zeitgeist had ebbed away. Unlike many others in a similar situation, at least Tennant and Lowe acknowledged this had happened to them.)
Creation Records head Alan McGee has talked several times about the career arc of Oasis, suggesting they should have walked off stage after the second night at Knebworth in 1996 and immediately split up. They were the biggest band in the UK, with two milestone albums under their belt: quitting then would have been the perfect ending. Yet thereafter came Be Here Now and a steady musical decay. They could have left a very different legacy behind: instead they chose to rage against the dying of the creative light through a series of bloated, directionless and not-very-good albums.
This is absolutely not about ageism: this is about quality control and pop stars being able to accept that, creatively, there comes a point when they are locked in a death spiral and are gathering speed. It does not hit at a specific age – but it does hit.
Equally this is not aimed at musicians who have to keep working to keep a roof over their heads. This is specifically meant for musicians who have made vast fortunes and where it is only their monstrous egos that are urging them on. Despite the evidence piling up around them, it is their blunt refusal to accept that they have become, in musicological terms, “a bit shit”. These are the people I am talking about.
Some acts do, eventually, come alive to the fact of their creative and/or commercial moribundity. 50 Cent, someone who has not “mattered” musically since about 2007, recently said that his next album will be his last. Good for him.
Just before Christmas, Coldplay’s Chris Martin said, “Our last proper record will come out in 2025, and after that I think we will only tour. And maybe we’ll do some collaborative things, but the Coldplay catalogue, as it were, finishes then.” At least they know when the game is up.
REM provided both a musical template and a career path for Coldplay, so Martin’s statement echoes their announcement of their retirement in 2011. REM, of course, probably should have stopped in 1997 when drummer Bill Berry left. “I guess a three-legged dog is still a dog,” is how Michael Stipe spun it to, ahem, Spin about their decision to continue without one of their founding members. “It just has to learn to run differently.” Yet still they limped on through five more increasingly underwhelming albums.
Captain Beefheart did it beautifully way back in 1982, giving up music to focus exclusively on painting.
And ABBA almost did it perfectly, quietly stepping back after the release of The Visitors, their creative high-water mark, in 1981. Then they went and ruined it all by coming back 40 years later with Voyage, an album that really should have been an EP. At least they said this really was the last album; but it all felt like Karl Nordström returning to Storm Clouds and adding a fridge magnet.
Manic Street Preachers, back in the very early 1990s when they were still bursting with piss and vinegar, threatened to do it as an opening statement. They talked of wanting to record a double album as their debut, have it sell 16 million copies and then promptly split up. It could have been an incredible art gesture. Last year, they released their fourteenth studio album.
The imperial phase only lasts for a short time. Acts stop being vital in the ways they once were. That is all understandable and completely fine. It is the beautiful curse of creativity – where artists can spend the rest of their lives chasing that artistic and commercial high, but almost always come up desperately short.
“Bands after a certain point need to accept that everyone will be delighted when they tour but know that absolutely no one wants a new record.”
F Scott Fitzgerald once proposed, “There are no second acts in American lives.” This also holds true for imperial phases – for the most part. There are exceptions, of course. Think of Bob Dylan who, after a rum and mostly forgettable 1980s, ended that wretched decade on a high with 1989’s Oh, Mercy and then did it again in 1997 with Time Out Of Mind. Both Leonard Cohen (You Want It Darker in 2016) and David Bowie (The Next Day in 2013 and Blackstar in 2016) dropped the curtain with some of the finest albums of their careers.
Sparks, as is their wont, are that rare exception here: despite the occasional wobble, they have managed a creative hot streak for half a century. Just watch The Sparks Brothers documentary for proof.
For almost everyone else, it is a very public ransacking of their own dignity, taking what was a glittering legacy and slowly tarnishing it in the misguided belief that they still have it.
One is put in mind of Logan’s Run which depicted a world where, let’s say, citizens were “removed” when they reached a particular age (it was 21 in the 1967 novel but raised to 30 in the 1976 film).
Perhaps we can adapt such thinking when it is applied to pop careers. At exactly 21 years into a career, all acts should be subjected to a creativity audit. If it is found they have released three dud albums on the bounce, they are forcibly barred from making any more.
They can continue to tour and play the hits, but they are not allowed to make any more albums. Bands after a certain point need to accept that everyone will be delighted when they tour but know that absolutely no one wants a new record. Fleetwood Mac understand this intuitively. The Rolling Stones do not.
With all that in mind, let the masspartir à l’anglaise commence.
*Admittedly we might miss a few fantastic albums here and there; but, to accentuate the positives and work towards the greater good, just consider the Andes-sized mountain ranges of stinkers we will be spared.Music Business Worldwide