…what if… ?
Its a time honoured tradition to consider the alternative realities of what night have been had history worked out differently.
The world of music is no different. And given the propensity for acts to die young and at their peak, there’s a wealth of ongoing careers that could have been lived out.
I’ve included a mix of pivotal events that impacted some of the biggest acts. Join me as we head into the musical multiverse:
it hadn’t all been too much for Kurt?
Would there have been another album to follow up In Utero? Or would he have walked away from it all in an attempt to find some normality? I can imagine that Nirvana would have continued further down the path they were on with In Utero. Leading away from mass commercial appeal, preferring to use music as a form of bloodletting and leaving it to the audience if they wanted to come with them. I’m going with Kurt retaining a position as critical idol, a man prepared to turn his back on multi-platinum sales for the sake of his own truth.
In this alternate reality though, what happens to Dave Grohl? His legacy is that success with Foo Fighters far outweighs his position as drummer in Nirvana. Knowing what he’s done in the last 25 years, it’s hard to imagine that he would have been content to be contained within the band, and carry on as just the drummer, regardless of Nirvana’s status.
Had Kurt lived, I can’t see that Nirvana would have carried on much longer.
Definitely not with that same lineup, anyway. Then again, without the sudden brutal ending to Nirvana, leaving Dave with both the freedom to do what he wanted twinned with being forced into choosing a new path: would he have thought it possible to have that creative independence and talent to make it outside Nirvana?
Peter Green hadn’t become an acid casualty?
The first incarnation of Fleetwood Mac was led by Peter Green as front man and principal songwriter, his status as band leader reflected by their first album being credited to ‘Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac.’ Their blues rock sound went down well at home, with the first three studio albums all going top 10, a #1 single with Albatross and another two #2 singles. In the US though, their chart peak with Peter Green in the band was #55 for Oh Well. And none of those three albums cracked the top 100.
Christine McVie played as a session musician on the 2nd and 3rd albums but wouldn’t become a band member until after Peter Green departed. If he had stayed with the band would she have ascended to full membership or stayed on the sidelines? With Green still in control would McVie even have had a chance to show off her songwriting skills?
Then there’s the question of whether their musical style would have evolved. There were plenty of UK bands playing blues rock; Cream, The Yardbirds, Ten Years After and many more. Eric Clapton went on to a stellar career as a rock guitarist who harked back to the blues at times but it didn’t define him. The Yardbirds became the New Yardbirds became Led Zeppelin and the blues got harder and louder. As Ten Years After demonstrated though, not everyone went onto global domination as their blues rock sound ran out of steam within a few years.
What I think is pretty certain: If Peter Green’s LSD intake hadn’t resulted in him departing the scene, the band wouldn’t have decamped to California and come across Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. I reckon that their songwriting would still have brought them wider attention without Fleetwood Mac, but as their romantic partnership came to an end by the mid 70s its fair to imagine that without the security of a band around them it would have been time to go their own ways and Rumours would have been lost to the world.
Syd Barrett hadn’t become an acid casualty?
Syd was the warning sign that Peter Green didn’t heed. The creative centre of Pink Floyd, but his increasing unreliability and distance from reality as a result of his psychedelic adventures saw him replaced. David Gilmour and Roger Waters gradually assumed control of the band.
Like Fleetwood Mac, they were doing OK in their original incarnation. The Piper At the Gates Of Dawn album reached #6 at home, the same peak as See Emily Play in the singles charts. By the time of recording the second album, Syd was on his way out. And while it took the reshaped Floyd a few albums to pull it altogether, Dark Side of the Moon was the world conquering peak of their journey.
The sound of David Gilmour’s guitar is so integral to Pink Floyd from the 70s onwards that its hard to imagine being denied that if Syd had remained in control of the band.
Again, with the hindsight of Roger Waters ambition: it feels likely he would have assumed control whether Syd hadn’t taken a trip. The eccentric psychedelia produced under Syd that brought their initial success represented a brief moment in time. Would Syd would have been capable of moving them forwards in the manner that Roger subsequently did or would he have led them into a creative decline as music and fashion moved on?
Bob Dylan hadn’t gone electric?
He was doing OK beforehand. Though its difficult for me coming to this second hand, to understand just how highly regarded he was before amplification. Looking at his chart positions, there’s a clear upswing once he went for it.
His highest charting US album before was The Times They Are a-Changin’ at #20 while Bringing It All Back Home featuring electric instrumentation for the first time reached #6. He hadn’t touched the singles charts beforehand but post-electric in 1965 he was in the top 10 as well.
He was obviously hugely well regarded in the folk arena. But looking back now, it doesn’t necessarily appear to have translated to the mainstream. His position as voice of a generation appears to be very much based on the upswing and influence he garnered after going electric.
Had he stayed in the acoustic lane, I can see that he would have stayed a respected folk singer. But on the periphery of the mainstream, and not someone that played anything like the cultural role that he achieved.
One event we would have missed out on is possibly the most infamous heckle in music. Touring Britain in 1966, each night he played an acoustic set followed by an electric set backed by The Hawks, later The Band. Towards the end of the night at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall one disgruntled gig goer let Bob know the measure of his sin before the finale with a shout of “Judas!” to the apparent approval of many present. Bob’s considered response:
And then: the instruction to the band to “Play f—— hard,” which the drummer in particular took to heart. On a pounding Like A Rolling Stone.
Brian Epstein hadn’t died?
The more usual question is, “what if John Lennon wasn’t shot.” But the history of The Beatles turns on the death of their manager in 1967. Its debatable whether it was accidental or suicide. But either way, the loss of Brian had a profound effect on their direction of travel.
The idea for the Magical Mystery Tour film was already there, and the title song recorded before Brian’s death. So even though to modern eyes, the idea of releasing what is to some your masterwork in May… and then following it up with making and releasing a film along with accompanying music by the end of the year:
…is madness. Bands these days: they don’t know how easy they’ve got it.
Into 1968 though, and Apple Records is formed. The Fab Four’s business acumen is found to be wanting. Had Brian still been around, my guess is that Apple would still have happened. But it would not have ended up the rudderless money pit that it became.
Without Brian to oversee the business side, Paul took a more prominent role in steering them. It’s apparent on the Let It Be series that he’s the driving force, trying to corral the others into some semblance of unity. Had Brian been there to take the pressure off and then let them concentrate on creativity, the project to film the recording of Let It Be may not have happened. And there might have been more albums.
My guess is a split would have happened anyway, and very possibly around a similar time. The fact is that they were developing in different directions with personal development playing a big part in that, too. I think that a split would have come as there was too much ambition to contain within them. In an alternate universe it may well have been that George would be the one to break up the band. As All Things Must Pass shows, he had a wealth of material ready to go, which was stymied by being in the band.
With Brian around it might just have meant there wasn’t the level of acrimony that developed between John and Paul. There wouldn’t have been the wedge of Allen Klein to finally come between them. The onset of their solo careers may have been very different if Paul hadn’t felt the need to escape the pressures by heading to the wilderness of a farm in Scotland, and the back-to-basics approach of Ram. For John, the primal scream of the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album might not have been needed.
Buddy Holly hadn’t gotten on the plane?
He’s a legend of rock n’ roll. And nothing is going to change the impact of those songs. Would longevity have brought about continued creativity and success? I’m anticipating something akin to The Everly Brothers, a legacy as a pioneer of rock n’ roll but a fading commercial proposition in the wake of the British Invasion.
The other big knock-on effect in all this is:
What about Don McLean? With no “day the music died,” would he have even written American Pie?
Or would it have come out in a different version with another event to hang it its recurring motif on?
What are your thoughts, and alternative realities?
And do you have any other what-might-have-beens to ponder on?
Let the author know that you liked their post with a “heart” upvote!