How many musicians does it take to keep a rock band on the road? In the case of Status Quo – who perform at Dubai Opera tonight – the answer appears to be, just the one.
For the past five decades, the cheery, cheesy British group has been belting out evergreen, identikit, pub-rock to arena audiences enjoying the three-chord stage shtick of dual singing guitarists Rick Parfitt and Francis Rossi.
While bassists, keyboardists and drummers have come and gone, the interplay of this core unit up front has faithfully kept the band’s brand of no-thrills, retro-flavoured, rock ‘n’ roll boogie on the road.
Until June 2016, that is, when the notoriously hard-living Parfitt suffered his fourth heart attack and retired from the road, leaving Rossi to finish the tour. When Parfitt passed away six months later, age 68, many expected that after five decades and 32 albums, the Status Quo had finally been broken. Not so – Rossi soon announced he would be carrying on the show alone.
The resulting, extended "final" The Last Night of the Electrics tour was predictably touted as a tribute to the departed axeman, but it was hard not to sense a mercenary streak – especially following the announcement of a subsequent Status Quo: Plugged In – Live and Rockin' tour, kicking off next month. Rossi's cold attitude has not helped matters, recently complaining that the band picked up the bill for Parfitt's funeral, and casting implications that much of their blokey, well-honed double act was all for show.
"I wrote most of the songs that were successful," he tritely told the Daily Mail, admitting to interviewers he did not shed a single tear for his stage partner of five decades.
But this is the merciless, cut-throat, and highly profitable world of rock 'n' roll we're talking about – where loyalty and credibility are regularly eroded by the lure of the bottom line. The past three years have seen members of AC/DC drop like flies: guitarist Malcolm Young retired in 2014 to receive treatment for dementia. A year later, drummer Phil Rudd was fired after a drugs-related arrest in New Zealand.
For many fans the final straw came last year when Brian Johnson stepped down mid-tour due to hearing problems – the macho singer himself already established as the most successful band substitute ever, picking up seamlessly following Bon Scott's death in 1980 for the classic tribute outing Back in Black.
The decision of lead guitarist Angus Young and bassist Cliff Williams to carry on anyway with the appropriately dubbed Rock or Bust, US$220 million-grossing tour (Dh808 million) attracted significant, and understandable, audience scorn and derision.
While members of the rhythm section might appear cynically, facelessly “replaceable” – or unrecognisable to casual fans – like so many rock bands before them, AC/DC’s live appeal was based around the dynamic interplay between the twin icons of lead singer and lead guitarist.
A healthy portion of this antipathy was quickly parked when it was revealed Johnson’s touring role would be filled by none other than Axl Rose – performing atop Dave Grohl’s throne. By all accounts, the Guns n’ Roses singer did a stellar job despite the broken foot, but for many just the incongruous idea of this pairing, dubbed “Axl/DC”, justified the ticket price alone.
With considerable understatement, Williams called the new-look AC/DC “a changed animal” before hanging up his bass for good at the tour’s end, leaving Young as officially the only band member with more than three years’ consecutive membership. Yet there is no indication the guitarist won’t squeeze into his trademark school uniform again.
Whether Rose will sign up for future gigs remains to be seen, especially following the ongoing blockbuster Guns n’ Roses reunion – the fifth highest-grossing tour ever, banking $430 million (Dh1,579 million) and counting – which made a memorable stop at Dubai’s Autism Rocks Arena in March.
Perhaps Axl/DC was Rose’s version of penance. For the 15 years before his merry make-up with Slash and Duff McKagan, the thrillingly shrill singer committed the cardinal sin of leading a live version of Guns n’ Roses of which he was the only original member. While this outfit mounted numerous lucrative tours – stopping at Abu Dhabi’s du Arena twice, in both 2010 and 2013 – more faithful fans never accepted this blasphemous line-up.
Other classics acts limping on with a single original member include The Beach Boys, led since the 1980s by Mike Love, and The Temptations, fronted by Otis Rush.
Depending on which camp you're in, these ventures either shamelessly cash in at the expense of their band's legacy – and audience goodwill – or bravely keep the show on the road to please the hungry hordes. A crucial factor in winning support is clearly the relative fan fame of the missing members. Just imagine going to see "The Rolling Stones" with either Mick or Keith in absentia – it sounds ludicrous, yet this is exactly the trick Rossi, Rose and Young have pulled. But the idea of the insatiable Stones – currently on the road in their mid-70s – continuing without Charlie Watts or Ronnie Wood, as they did when bassist Bill Wyman quit in 1993, seems almost inevitable.
That The Killers are currently touring with just two founding members has been of little concern to fans, as long as Brandon Flowers is at the front of the stage.
Bon Jovi appear to have miscalculated the core fanbase appeal of guitarist Richie Sambora, who was edged out of the band in 2013 following allegations of alcohol abuse.
While the poodle-rockers’ profile has been carried by the eponymous singer – indeed, many concertgoers confuse the band with a solo act – the cowboy hat of Jon’s loyal songwriting sidekick felt inadequately filled by session man Phil X when the band visited du Arena in 2015. Yet just occasionally, a band member’s departure can be blessing in disguise – before Wood joined the Stones in 1975, the band featured guitarists Mick Taylor and, earlier still, Brian Jones – both distinct talents who helped to shape different stages of the band’s evolution.
As Johnson came to define a new era of AC/DC, British indie scenesters Suede flukily landed on their feet when guitarist Bernard Butler abruptly walked from sessions for the band's second album, Dog Man Star.
Following a flustered panic, the band employed Richard Oakes – 17-year-old Butler devotee who could play all the songs note-perfectly – as a replacement for the album tour. The new arrival's initially derivative style ushered in a poppier reinvention inconceivable alongside Butler – as evidence in the breezy glam follow-up Coming Up.
Such member-swapping creates few foibles in the murky world of heavy metal, a cynically specialised milieu home to numerous iconic acts who have more members than albums.
Dave Mustaine has watched no less than two-dozen different musicians pass through Megadeth, the thrash legends he has fronted since 1983. The late Lemmy led Motörhead through five guitarists and an equal number of drummers. Thin Lizzy top the unnervingly long list of bands with the dubious honour of having no original members left.
Yet by enthusiasts, these line-up changes are often portrayed as a necessary part of the evolutionary process, and invariably embraced the same way football supporters argue about their club’s latest player acquisitions, or film buffs debate the next best contender to play James Bond.
Uniquely among music fans, there is an unhealthy preoccupation with the concept of “authenticity”. We like to believe we are seeing the “real thing”, regardless of the fact such a fuzzy, indeterminate term can be neither bottled nor defined.
We loftily like to imagine we are seeing musicians performing for the “right reasons” – to entertain, enlighten, brighten, and just possibly, express and convey something urgent yet undefinable about the world we all live in.
Music remains the classic test tube where art and commerce mix most vigorously, and it’s time to wake up to the fact that while many musicians might enjoy practising their craft in front of adoring audiences, all of them hold an expectation to be lavishly rewarded for it. And, whisper it, who cares? We can never truly know what motivates a musician anyway, not least a group of them, so letting these preconceptions affect our judgement or enjoyment is both a mighty folly, and more than a little conceited.
In the same way scholars can never truly be certain why Beethoven angrily scratched out his dedication to Napoleon on the front page of his Eroica symphony, we will never know what goes through Francis Rossi's head when he looks across the stage tonight and sees some other guy sharing the mic. And that truly is the greatest of blessings.
Status Quo perform at Dubai Opera tonight at 9pm, tickets from Dh195 at www.dubaiopera.com