It’s hard enough being in a band without having to deal with the added stress of expectations weighing down upon you. Throughout rock history, bands and artists have had to deal with various pressures: from themselves, fans, the media, the labels, everyone. Some handled it well, others didn’t. Too many bands and solo artists crumbled early because of heightened expectations after a stellar debut album.
Others dissolved after a key member quit or passed away when the band was on the cusp of superstardom. In some cases, a band breaking up facilitated the inception of another, more important band. Examples of all of these scenarios are included on the list below, but by no means is this collection complete. Feel free to set us straight.
1. The Stone Roses
Though they only released two albums, Manchester malcontents The Stone Roses helped created the Britpop movement of the 1990s. Their seminal 1989 self-titled debut inspired Blur and Oasis to make music.
The album, an ethereal collection of wistful British exuberance, was marked by the guitar work of John Squire and the whine of Ian Brown.
After the huge success of their debut, The Stone Roses dealt with in-fighting, the weight of crushing expectations and a five year break between the debut and its follow-up, 1994’s Second Coming. The album wasn’t as well received as the first, and in the wake of disappointment the band split up in 1996.
The Stone Roses were simply incapable of reaching the “legendary” status that many felt they were destined to achieve. Despite their quick fall from the top, reunion rumors swirl almost daily, but front man Ian Brown and Squire have repeatedly shot them all down.
2. The La’s
The La’s only released one album, their self-titled debut in 1990. Including the hit There She Goes, the record was a huge inspiration for many British bands that followed, including Oasis and The Charlatans. The band, whose only full-time members were lead guitarist/vocalist Lee Mavers and bassist John Power, went on hiatus in 1992 and has only played a handful of reunion gigs in the 19 years since then.
Mavers is a noted perfectionist, and the La’s only album was the result of a tumultuous time in the studio in which the band went through several band members and producers. Upon its release, despite being well-received by both fans and critics, Mavers and the band hated it.
Despite the band’s disfavor of their one and only album, the La’s remain one of the pioneering bands of British rock, influencing many bands that rose to fame in the 1990s. Mavers has become somewhat of a recluse, rarely speaking about the band or the album, but since the group’s last reunion gig in 2005 he has reportedly been working on the ever-elusive follow-up.
It remains to be seen if that will ever actually happen, but as of now the La’s are a pretty solid example of a band that gave up too early.
3. The Vaselines
Scotland-based indie band The Vaselines released their debut album, Dum-Dum, in 1989 and broke up soon after. It was only after Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain publicly expressed his adoration for them that the group re-formed for a Nirvana tour stop in Scotland.
Cobain was such a big fan that he covered Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For a Sunbeam (on Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York album) and both Molly’s Lips and Son of a Gun (which were included on the b-sides compilation Incesticide). The Vaselines’ brand of peppy indie-pop never really caught on in a major way, and the group remained broken up until their reformation in 2006. They just released their second studio album, Sex with an X, in 2010 on Sub Pop Records.
It may be a bit of a stretch including the Vaselines on this list, since they have re-formed, but their studio output is still only two albums long. The influence that their early material had on someone like Cobain, who was pretty influential in his own right, landed them a spot here.
4. Mother Love Bone
Talk about “grunge” music and most people think of Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam. Had Andrew Wood not overdosed on heroin four days before his band’s debut album was to be released in 1990, Mother Love Bone would probably have joined that list, and Pearl Jam may never have formed. Wood’s death postponed the release of MLB’s album Apple, effectively ending the band. Coincidentally, the dissolution of Mother Love Bone helped spawn Pearl Jam, with former MLB band members Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament forming PJ soon after.
Apple was poised to be a breakout smash for the band and Wood in particular, who many thought could have been the first huge grunge vocalist. Instead, it was the band’s only full-length album. It is interesting to think about what would have happened if Wood hadn’t died…would Pearl Jam have never formed? Would Ament and Gossard have joined up with Eddie Vedder anyway?
No one will ever know, but one thing is for certain: Andrew Wood’s death definitely altered the course of grunge (and rock) history in the 1990’s.
5. Operation Ivy
Berkeley-based ska-punk legends Operation Ivy only released one full length album, 1989’s Energy.
They broke up the month the album was released, with their last public live performance at 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley on May 28, 1989. At that show, they played alongside fellow Berkeley punks Green Day, who were playing their first gig under that name.
After Operation Ivy broke up, bassist Matt Freeman and guitarist Tim Armstrong formed Rancid, who would go on to be one of the most acclaimed (and successful) punk bands of all time.
Armstrong has since cited “too much attention” as a main reason Operation Ivy broke up; the buzz surrounding Energy, coupled with nearly 200 live gigs in two years, was just too much for them to all handle.
A reunion is also unlikely, given the band members’ current projects and the fact that a reunion would facilitate a tour of mid-range venues, something that would go against many of the band’s beliefs.
6. Blind Melon (with Shannon Hoon)
Although best known for their 1993 alternative rock hit No Rain, Blind Melon deserved more attention than that one song brought them.
The California band, who released two full albums with vocalist Shannon Hoon and one compilation album after his death in 1995, were a talented, bluesy group of musicians with an eclectic and original sound.
Hoon’s cocaine overdose in 1995 spelled the end of the original incarnation of the group. Admirably, the remaining members re-formed with new vocalist Travis Warren in 2006 and released the album For My Friends in 2008, but by that point it seemed as if most people had forgotten about Blind Melon.
While Blind Melon might technically still be a functioning band, the death of Shannon Hoon took away the potential the band had to become something huge.
His unmistakable voice and energy gave the band a lot of momentum in the mid-1990’s, but his death prevented the band from becoming as successful as they should have. He died far too young at 28, and took the promising future of Blind Melon with him.
It is commendable that the remaining band members have kept the project alive since his death, but the real 1990’s Blind Melon died when Hoon was found dead on the tour bus of a cocaine-induced heart attack.
7. Jeff Buckley
Jeff Buckley’s only studio album, 1994’s Grace, has grown to amass “legendary” status. The singer/guitarist’s unexpected death in 1997 ended his short career, while simultaneously launching his legacy.
He was found dead in the Wolf River in Memphis after supposedly getting caught in the wake of a passing boat while waiting for his band mates to arrive from New York.
Buckley’s passing prevented him from finishing work on his follow-up album, although a collection of demos and near-finished recordings entitled Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk was released in 1998.
Since his death, Buckley’s music has been very highly-regarded, and he has grown to become one of those “tragic” music icons who died before they should have.
He never really achieved the mainstream success that many believe he deserved, although Grace has been included in many “best of the 1990s” lists since his passing.
8. The Smiths
Considering the obsession that fans still have with 1980s Manchester-based band The Smiths nearly twenty-five years after they broke up, the band is an easy pick for this list. To this day, rumors swirl about the chances of a reunion, with iconic front man Morrissey opting to stick with his solo career (and animal rights activism) rather than call up the rest of the band and reform for a lucrative world tour.
Morrissey and Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr have both remained adamantly opposed to a reunion, with Morrissey even going so far as to say he would rather “eat my own testicles” than satisfy the cries for a reunion. The Smiths released only four albums in their short career (from 1982-1987), which probably left fans hungry for more, but based on the comments from Morrissey and Marr, there’s probably no chance of a Smiths tour anytime soon.
9. Joy Division
Just like the Smiths, this is another pretty easy pick.
The 1980 suicide of Ian Curtis, vocalist of post-punk pioneers Joy Division, ended the Manchester band after only one studio album. The band broke up after his death, but not before releasing Closer, the posthumous follow-up album that contained the band’s biggest hit, Love Will Tear Us Apart, that same year.
After the end of Joy Division, the remaining band members formed New Order and went on to achieve greater commercial success. Despite Joy Division’s short existence (1976-1980), the band is credited with being hugely influential among several bands that formed in the 1980s and beyond, including The Cure, U2, and contemporary bands like Editors and Interpol.
Ian Curtis’s death may have spelled the premature end of Joy Division, but the small output that the band produced is still appreciated today.
10. Blind Faith
They may have been a rock super group made up of all-star musicians, but Blind Faith’s one-year existence warrants their inclusion here. Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker and Ric Grech came from a well-established pedigree of English rock and roll: Winwood and Grech from Traffic, Clapton and Baker from Cream.
The band’s only album, 1969’s self-titled affair, was an important moment for the progression of rock and roll music, a legacy that is still felt today. Clapton and Winwood have toured together extensively over the past few years, including a few shows this May at the Royal Albert Hall in London. At these shows, they have played some Blind Faith songs, indicating that they haven’t fully “moved on” from the project just yet. Despite the fact that Blind Faith only released one album before the members grew bored and went their separate ways, they remain an important part of rock history.
11. Nick Drake
British guitarist Nick Drake’s life somewhat paralleled that of Jeff Buckley: Drake also died young, before his music was really appreciated as much as it should have been.
Drake finished three albums between 1969 and 1972 for Island Records, but none experienced much success when they were released. Drake, who suffered from depression, developed a dislike for performing live, and quit from both playing shows and recording music. After moving into his parents’ house in Warwickshire, Drake grew disconnected with his music, his life, and his family, overdosing on anti-depressants at age 26 in 1974.
Despite his bitterness about his albums’ initial failure, they grew in popularity exponentially after his death.
Drake is now considered an influence by musicians such as Robert Smith of The Cure and Peter Buck of R.E.M., and the eventual attention lavished upon his three albums has made him one of the most influential English songwriters in history.
Considering how important Nick Drake became after his death, it is sadly ironic that his lifelong bitterness about the “failure” of his music was surpassed by the legacy created by his death.