The Dwarf King’s Family’s Axe: Blaugust Day 11

Watching highlights from the Cambridge Folk Festival last night, the presenter introduced The Skatalites: “been around since the early sixties….played with Bob Marley, Peter Tosh….split up….reformed in 1983….touring ever since”. Now, The Skatalites recorded a track that I love, Eastern Standard Time,  and so I was interested to see this bunch of veterans perform their greatest hit, The Guns of Navarone. But then the programme cut to the band on stage….and that trumpeter looks like he wasn’t even born in 1983, same for the guitarist. And the trombone player’s even younger! They should all be at least 70 by now!

So I did a quick check on Wikipedia. Of nine people listed as “Founding Member”, only one is still alive. Another 13 past members of the band are listed, plus a few “additional personnel” before you get to the nine listed current members, which includes founding member Doreen Shaffer (but there was no sign of her in this particular performance).

So by what reckoning is this The Skatalites? All bar one of the original members are deceased. Half the current line-up clearly weren’t born when the band started out. They’re still talented, but at what point does it stop being the original band and become a covers band or just a bunch of good musicians who play one band’s old tunes, even if they still make records under that name?

Which then got me to thinking about other bands who’ve gone through changes over time, and two in particular.

I’m an old Prog Rock fan, and my favourite band over the years has been Yes. Sadly, their founder and bass player, Chris Squire, died a few weeks ago, but he was the only member who was in the band throughout its history from 1968. Their Wikipedia page has this rather neat timeline showing who was in the band when. But they were always Yes, because there was always Chris Squire, and because personnel came and went periodically, whether to do solo projects or just because they got thrown out for a while.

Probably the most distinctive feature of Yes’s sound was Jon Anderson’s vocals. As the timeline shows, a few years ago he was replaced by David Benoit….who was formerly the vocalist for a Yes tribute band. So you still have the band, but replace a key component with someone who made a living impersonating that component….but it’s still the same band.

And though Chris Squire has died, the band goes on. Steve Howe and Alan White are still there, neither founding members but both there for a long time.

The second band I thought of was Irish folk group, The Chieftains. Like The Skatalites, they too go back to the early sixties, and have gone through personnel changes down the years. But when keyboard player and harpist Derek Bell died in 2002 their founder, Paddy Moloney, said “That’s it, no more new members, no session musicians. We keep going but we’re not replacing anyone else”. They’re now down to just four, still playing, but clearly still The Chieftains with a recognisable and enduring line-up, just adapting to the new circumstances.

At what point does a band cease to exist, at least in a meaningful sense? As pop and rock groups get older, and the original members thin out, what do the remaining ones do? Keep going with the name, drafting in skilled session musicians to fill in for the departed? What when there’s no-one left, but the name keeps going, as in the case of The Skatalites: what’s the difference between that and a tribute band?

I think it comes down (as so many things seem to do for me) to a quote from Terry Pratchett, which gave me the title for this post. In The Fifth Elephant, the King of the Dwarves explains the provenance of his weapon:

“This, milord, is my family’s axe. We have owned it for almost nine hundred years, see. Of course, sometimes it needed a new blade. And sometimes it has required a new handle, new designs on the metalwork, a little refreshing of the ornamentation . . . but is this not the nine hundred-year-old axe of my family? And because it has changed gently over time, it is still a pretty good axe, y’know. Pretty good.”

I’m told this is an old philosophical point – Theseus’s boat, Washington’s axe, John Locke’s socks, all on the same theme of whether a thing is still the same thing if it’s now completely different. And one that’s been trodden before with respect to bands, possibly even quoting Terry Pratchett too – apologies if I’m re-treading old grapes (is that a saying? I just made it up, but it sounds like it must already exist).

Applying the idea to bands maybe hints at the answer: the music is the essence  of the band that outlasts individual members or even the whole group. So long as there is a continuous line back to the origin, who’s to say it’s not the group?

And if that bunch of guys on stage at Cambridge can trace their lineage, and if they can still play The Guns of Navarone as well as they did, then OK, they’re The Skatalites.

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