Why Don’t Groups Split Up Any More?

Why don’t groups split up any more? This immediately begs another couple of questions: why is it a problem if they don’t? Who demands that groups split up, and what is at stake in this demand? And what we are talking about here – let’s be clear – is our groups: not the ‘mainstream time-servers who can be expected to trundle around the nostalgia circuit forever, but those who come out of a culture – post punk – which was supposed to be intolerant of tired reiteration and careerism’. Here they are: The Fall, Sonic Youth. Another year, another record. Persistence, consolidation, becoming an institution: wasn’t this everything that post punk’s scorched-earth modernism disdained? And the problem isn’t confined to the groups who have stayed together, because even those that did break up return. Fill in your own example here – but you would be hard pressed to come up with anything more grotesque than the return of the grandaddys of the post punks, returning as grandads: the Stooges, strutting back onstage in their sixties, geriatric teenagers singing ‘Last Year I Was Twenty-one’. In the age of Web 2.0, nothing goes away, everything comes back – if not in the flesh, then as a YouTube clip.

The expectation that groups split up belongs to what in retrospect seems like the speeded-up popular culture of the ’60s and ’70s. A pattern was established that was followed as much by Throbbing Gristle as by the Beatles. A group would make a name for themselves, release their landmark records and then disintegrate, usually in the space of less than a decade. (But whereas the Beatles never came back, Throbbing Gristle, of course, did.) For those of us whose perception of pop temporality was formed by this accelerated ’60s and ’70s culture, there’s something disappointing about the dogged persistence of a group, even – or perhaps especially – if we are fans. In the early stages of fan enthralment, each release is treated like a new religious artefact: reconfiguring our perception of the group and – since our experience is partly filtered through the artistic vision of the band – changing our relationship to the world too. Yet this rapt intensity is not sustainable indefinitely; after a while, particularly if there are no great reinventions, it’s hard for libidinal fatigue not to set in. This can’t be blamed solely on the fickleness of fans – in fact, the problem with so much ‘alternative’ rock culture is the opposite one. Fans are too indulgent of their idols. There is a kind of unspoken complicity between fan and group, the result of which is usually a lowering of expectations. At a certain point, fidelity becomes betrayal – keeping faith or carrying on constitutes a repudiation of the very thing that the group stood for in the first place.