When a band – a genuine ensemble rather than a backing group for a front-person, loses a member untimely, the result is often a drawn-out affair. Bands that work well are built on friendship and solidarity, so it’s an unavoidable fact that the death of one of the team has a lasting emotional not to mention creative effect on the band as a whole; sometimes that member is a lyricist or composer, integral to the band’s voice – other times they may play just as significant a role in the instrumental side. The loss, though open to being over-manipulated, is a matter usually expressed publically, if not openly -there are fans and listeners outside the group who might also feel the same emotional blow. If the death of that member doesn’t spell the demise of the band – as that of Kurt Cobain’s did for Nirvana, then the question of whether the group continues – and in what form, arises. Many do – some even continue to find success well after the wake has disappeared.
Two examples here, then. The 1995 disappearance of Richey James Edwards, co-lyricist and rhythm guitarist for Manic Street Preachers is one still (relatively) recent and notable example. Edwards’ story can be seen here, though it’s far from being an unfamiliar one to anybody who followed British indie and pop music in the 90s.
What's your story baby/No control of what I am saying
Winter leaves still make me believe/No vendettas, just a cherry blossom tree
(‘Nobody Loved You’, from MSP’s This is My Truth, Tell me Yours)
Edwards and bassist, co-lyricist Nicky Wire shared a flat in the band’s early days, outside of which a cherry tree grew. That this tree became something of a symbol for Edwards can be seen in the video for Everything Must Go, the second single off the album of the same name, the next release after James’ disappearance. Blown and denuded by wind as the remaining band stage a rending, Spector-like anthem of loss and overcoming, it stands in the video, petals cascading across the faces of the band, and remains the final shot of the clip. With no confirmed sighting of him since that time James was declared deceased ten years later, the popular conclusion being suicide.
The thought of never knowing/can kill me just the same
A solitary blossom/reminders of a friend
(‘Bitter Glass’, from Feeder’s Pushing the Senses)
To another solitary blossom in John Lee, late drummer for Feeder. Lee’s suicide was no less shocking to his fans, and perhaps came as more of a surprise. With an album in the wings, Feeder continued, dedicating their first single Come Back Around to their fallen friend. Though his place was most certainly filled for the recoding, the band went one step further in the video – replacing Lee not with one drummer, but four. All women, all pretty much identical. The reveal is gradual – nothing for the first verse, then gradually as the camera pulls back, the ‘fourth wall’ is revealed to show surviving members Grant Nicholas and Taka Hirose performing not for the camera, but for Lee’s stand-ins, the filming deliberately slowed to ensure all four drummers worked precisely and mechanically. It’s an arresting video, even if somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the indulgence of the drummers being young, beautiful women being apparently a nod to Lee’s spirit in life, and complaint of no women in their past videos.
I like both videos, particularly as each song provided a proper introduction to their bands for me, though Feeder’s video was discovered long after I was aware of the song. Previously the band had been a well-meaning, fun sounding guitar group, responsible for the cheery Buck Rogers. The post-Lee Comfort in Sound certainly indicated a shift in the band’s sound, continuing to last album Pushing the Senses, where the drummer’s death remains a background concern. In the case of Manic Street Preachers I’d followed them vaguely through early music-press baiting exploits – equal implausible boasts and portentous stunts (Edwards’ 4Real incident included), but it was Everything Must Go that drew me in properly. My induction into the band is based on them as being without Edwards (who was never replaced). I can’t say I’m genuinely a Feeder fan, but I’m definitely a Manics one. Both videos come across as sensitive and not sensational, reverent but not cloying; they’re affirmations of the strength a good band can draw on and build on in the face of tragedy. That both bands had a life beyond the death of a member is a testament to that strength, and a rare thing in modern music.