No one was doing the standing still when The Dismemberment Plan took the stage of the Black Cat this January. When frontman Travis Morrison wagged his finger side to side, girl group style, the crowd aped him. They pogoed. They shouted choice lyrics. They invaded the stage when beckoned. At one point, the audience was so loud the band stopped playing.
It was just like old times: Over its 1993-2003 run, the Plan was known for raucous, ritual-bound live shows. Eight years later, those rituals came roaring back to life: There is one way to enjoy a Dismemberment Plan concert, and that is as if you are 17.
Some fans at the January shows—and at subsequent dates throughout the U.S. and Japan—were in fact 17. But most looked to be in their late 20s and early 30s. There were also more of them than there had been in the glory years. The band says it never sold out a show in advance during its original existence; on the weekend of January 23, it packed the Black Cat on Friday night and filled the 9:30 Club on Saturday and Sunday. And they’re still at it: Last weekend, the Plan played to thousands at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago.
Music, more than almost any other art form, can bring a listener right back to some frozen spot in the past. But The Dismemberment Plan’s reunion weekend, in fact, wasn’t really about recapturing some faded zeitgeist at all. It felt distinctly contemporary, and for good reason: We are living in the golden age of the reunion gig. Sure, iterations of Lynyrd Skynyrd have been regrouping in small-market arenas for decades, but today even the creative and the countercultural are getting the band back together.
What’s going on? The appeals, at least among corporate acts, are obvious: The music. The glory. The fans. The money.
But in the last decade or so, reunions have grown from a phenomenon of mostly mainstream pop and rock to include a significant number of A- and B-list indie bands. It’s not just Genesis and Fleetwood Mac. And it isn’t even just the Pixies, Guided by Voices, Dinosaur Jr., and Pavement—indie bands with a true national following who on their reunion tours command far larger audiences than they drew the first time around.
In a punk town like Washington, D.C., the trend also involves plenty of reunions by bands whom even WHFS didn’t deign to play. In the last couple of years, long-retired D.C. hardcore bands Scream and Government Issue returned to the stage to capacity crowds. Marginal Man will play its first show since 1995 on August 20 at the Black Cat. Gray Matter reformed in 2008 for the 15th anniversary of the Black Cat, which drummer Dante Ferrando co-owns. Dag Nasty got back together in 2002 and 2010, and has promised to reunite “at least once each decade.”
Watching some group of geezers tour the country on the back of some No.-3 hit from 1974, it’s easy to assume financially rewarding, musically mediocre hucksterism is afoot. But with hardcore reunions, the math doesn’t really point to a sellout: A group like Marginal Man might play a single show—and might even wind up in a vastly bigger venue than ever, thanks to the novelty—but they’re hardly looking at the kind of payday that represents an affront to their old DIY ethos.
All the same, it’s worth pausing to consider what it means when national reunion culture collides with local musical tradition. Reunions highlight a fundamental tension in niche genres like punk rock (and even more niche subgenres like hardcore), with crowds full of punk kids steeped in the genre’s lore and pulled between the equally strong traditions of rebellion and self-mythology.
A scene as seminal as D.C.’s feels the weight of history more heavily than most. If everyone you met who claimed to have seen Swiz at the Safari Club in 1989 was telling the truth, the joint surely would have been shut down by a fire marshal.
An admiration for punk’s pioneers, and familiarity with the minutiae of their musical output, still weeds the posers from the true believers. At U Street Music Hall in June, when a pair of 45-year-olds still calling themselves Youth of Today played a set, it was clear that the reverence for punk’s past was winning out over at least some of the traditional notions of the genre.
Compared to the infamous and widely panned Sex Pistols reunion of 1996—a blatant moneymaking effort whose actual name was the Filthy Lucre tour—D.C.’s low-key, friend-filled local punk reunions are a nice thing. And they come with the recognition that no one’s trying to rebottle any lightning. But the non-slimy intentions make it even harder to ask a fairly basic question: Do the reunions blow?
Big-time rock reunions come in various forms. There’s the aging band—like The Who—that’s perpetually playing its “final” concert. There’s the once-edgy band—like the Pixies—that admits it’s trying to make money. And there’s the gang of former road warriors—.38 Special, say—playing the dreaded state fair circuit.
Local punk reunions also have a rough taxonomy. Sometimes, they’re genuine comebacks: Scream is releasing new material. Dag Nasty did the same with 2002’s Minority of One. Reformed post-punk bands like the U.K.’s Wire and Boston’s Mission of Burma have released critically acclaimed new material since the 2000s.
Others are one-off affairs: Marginal Man isn’t planning any follow-up shows. D.C.-formed indie-pop labels Slumberland and TeenBeat have assembled lineups of old acts for anniversary gigs. Of course, some of those one-offs elide into something more: After a few years of pursuing a solo career to poor reviews, Travis Morrison resurrected The Dismemberment Plan for a “one-time only” reunion benefit concert in 2007. Tickets sold out within minutes; three years later, D-Plan was back on tour.
And then there’s the tricky third category: Half-existence. Many of the oldest hardcore acts—Bad Brains, Agnostic Front—have been touch and go for so long that it’s difficult to pinpoint the reunion from the rest of the band’s career.
Whatever the reunion archetype, there have been a lot of them. First-wave D.C. punks The Slickee Boys reunite almost every year at the 9:30 Club. And while Marginal Man may not have exactly been marginal to the local scene in its day, many of the reuniting acts were: ’90s hardcore band Fairweather sold out the Black Cat in May. Damnation A.D., metalcore favorites from the same era, will open the Marginal Man reunion gig.
While a group like Mission of Burma can take its reunited self on the road, there’s only one place most of these bands can play: their hometown. If no one in Kansas City had heard of them back in the day, it’s a good bet no one there would come out to see them now. But the District is home to old friends—not to mention a music community whose younger members cherish the history.
“There’s no fucking way some of these bands could tour around the country,” says Steve Lambert, who books at Rock & Roll Hotel, DC9, and Red Palace.
Last year, Saturday Night Live aired a skit that provoked an ecstatic reaction from obscure corners of the Internet. Set at a wedding, the skit opens with an old man in a tuxedo who asks his daughter, the bride, if she wouldn’t mind if he got his old band together and played a song in her honor. Four other paunchy, middle aged guys, including Dave Grohl and guest host Ashton Kutcher, trudge up on stage. Suddenly, they launch into a blistering ’80s hardcore anthem that’s half Dead Kennedys, half Suicidal Tendencies. Tables are overturned. Kutcher’s mic doesn’t work. SNL’s Fred Armisen—himself a Chicago music-scene vet—raves in his best Jello Biafra impersonation:
“When Ronald Reagan comes around/
He brings the fascists to your town/
You think it’s cool to be a jock/
But we get beat up by the cops.”
At the climax, Armisen knocks over a tray of champagne glasses and yells “You hear that, Alexander Haig?”
Punk and indie reunions have become more frequent and visible in recent years, possibly because artists have more incentive to kick out the old jams.
Singer Black Francis has copped to bringing the Pixies back for financial reasons. “I did the arty farty part,” he told the website The Quietus last year. “Now it’s time to talk about the money.” Francis still makes solo records, but his band has been permanently reunited since 2004. Last year, Guided by Voices frontman Robert Pollard shared with The Wall Street Journal a similar sentiment: that the group’s first motivation for reuniting was getting paid.
It makes sense. American record sales have declined every year from 2004 to 2010 amid the digital upheaval that has shaken the music industry. One thing independent acts can no longer count on is steady revenue from their back catalogs—which is why touring has taken on new financial appeal.
But if you go to an indie rock reunion show, you see another phenomenon at work: The old bands’ audiences have grown. Pavement, which used to play nightclubs, can fill amphitheaters; the Pixies have filled arenas. A Fugazi reunion could probably fill RFK Stadium.
That tendency has trickled down, too. Miniscule bands have become tiny ones. Once-tiny bands can now sell out the Black Cat.
“I think it started with the Internet, and people being able to get anything they want” says Carlos Izurieta, the singer of D.C. hardcore band Police and Thieves and the once-reunited Worn Thin. “Records may be out of print, but people put them online. A lot of younger kids discover older bands, and it generates interest among kids who never got to see them.”
“I think bands that never got a chance to be heard are now getting heard,” says The Dismemberment Plan’s Morrison. “You can be a ‘new band’ to some people’s ears and not actually be new.”
In an age when social media enables people to extend their young-adulthood well into middle age, audiences also aren’t maturing out of the music quite as quickly. “I think also rock fans are getting older,” says Morrison. “In 1995 there were very few 38-year-olds at shows. It’s more widespread now. Perhaps because of the Internet as well. You can hear new club-level and underground music at work and at home. You don’t have to be in college, or in a club at 1 a.m. on a Wednesday. So those folks want to see bands they grew up with.”
All the reuniting has also created its own momentum. Kenny Inouye explains the Marginal Man reunion as the product of a “steady drumbeat of requests by people [for a reunion], like fueled by the fact that other bands got back together.”
After Scream disbanded in 1990, Franz Stahl and his brother Pete continued playing music in various groups; Franz, most famously, did a stint in the Foo Fighters with former bandmate Dave Grohl. “The first thing most people think is that you’re trying to cash in and ride the coattails of a member who went on to greater popularity,” Stahl says. But with Scream, “it was having the time to do it. It’s your first love. And you realize, ‘Hey, we’ve got a half reputable name, we can play again and have some fun without the stress of trying to do a new band.’ It’s even more fun because the pressure is gone. As a kid, you were trying to survive, sell merch.”
“We ask ourselves, can we do this, can we pull it off?” he says. “Besides, there is a market now. There are promoters who will put them on.”
“Unlike the old days, when you could get a taste of combat boots, this was old guys bumping beer bellies,” says John Stabb, who has done a couple of Government Issue reunions. “It wasn’t a lot of stress.”
It’s also easy for club owners. “I find them really pleasant,” says Ferrando, whose Black Cat hosts many D.C. hardcore reunions. “You know they’ll draw pretty well. With the older crowds, it’s hard to get them to go out. But those people will go out if it’s a special event.”
Ferrando says he’s turned down some reunion shows. They were too expensive, or the lineup was weird—a band reuniting with only half its original members doesn’t have the same cachet. “Every band that can do a reunion will do one at some point,” says Ferrando. “But there are some bands that are just running through the motions.”
But, he says, “it’s easier with D.C. reunions because the pressure’s not there to sell the club out. Also I know all those guys and I know they’re not going to be jerks.”
The main evidence against the argument that punk reunions are sellouts is that no one’s buying—or, at least, that the total number of buyers could hardly put anyone’s kid through summer camp, let alone college.
“I feel like they can’t do it more than once or twice a year and then they have to stay dormant again to keep that interest going,” says Rock & Roll Hotel’s Lambert. “I don’t think Scream is going to be able to draw 700 to 1000 people a year for the next 10 to 20 years.”
A sold-out Marginal Man show, for example, could probably bring more than $10,000 through the Black Cat’s doors. Based on typical nightclub arrangements, that might mean a few thousand bucks for the band, or perhaps $1,000 per member. Given that they’re not repeating that on a national tour, it’s not the kind of thing that would prompt musicians to carry on, Spinal Tap-style, embarrassing themselves night after night.
But it’s exactly enough incentive for organizing a one-off show. For fans, the experience isn’t so different than hanging out in a basement while your old friends jam—only it’s a very large, very packed basement that sells alcohol. For all the cognitive dissonance of seeing middle-aged men tear through songs they wrote when they were 19, D.C. punk reunions don’t feel desperate.
In contrast, look at the Pixies, who keep finding reasons to prolong their permanent reunion. This month the group announced a “Lost Cities” tour, which finds them playing their entire Doolittle album in towns they’ve previously skipped—never mind that many of them are driving distance from stops on 2009’s string of Doolittle shows.
But even bands like Scream, which are making new material, grapple with whether it’s somehow regressive to return to the more primitive sound of their youth. The Stahl brothers have been playing all varieties of music in a multitude of groups. Drummer Kent Stax is currently a session musician for jazz bands. To go back to their first love, that narrowly defined genre of hardcore, and write new songs in that vein, can be restrictive. And it’s hard to recreate the same excitement that existed 20 years ago.
With so many reunions, everyone can name one that simply sucked—including those organizing reunions themselves. Marginal Man last reunited in 1995, and resisted calls for another for 16 years. One reason? “We’d been to so many bad ones,” says Inouye. “You don’t want to be that band.” Inouye recalls a Stiff Little Fingers reunion he saw that “was so godawful that for two years I couldn’t listen to them. And Stiff Little Fingers is one of my favorite bands ever.”
If there is a happy medium, it’s probably in the never-quite-breaking-up, never-getting-back-together gray area occupied by bands like The Dismemberment Plan. “It’s nice to have that life balance,” says Morrison. “Personally, I don’t look back on the full-time Plan period of my life as the most fun part. You could do very little else in your community, in your home, etc. Or even musically. I sing in a church choir right now, a very good one, in New York City. It gives me a lot of musical inspiration and information. If we went out on tour for five months I’d be missing that.”
“I think what bands should stop doing is having a last show,” says Matt Moffatt, owner of local punk mainstay Smash! Records. “Functionally, it doesn’t make sense.”
Audiences catch on quick. And even if it becomes harder to draw a crowd based on a “one time only” threat, there are enough people who are OK with that. Just as life gets in the way of bands, it gets in the way of fans as well. And when both parties get real jobs and families that prevent them from going out every night, maybe they can both be satisfied to see each other every once in a while—if only once or twice a decade.
“There’s a darn good chance this will be our last. We don’t plan on doing it again,” says Inouye of his upcoming reunion show. But we’ve heard that before.