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.