What… if ?

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…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:

What if
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?


What if…
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.


What if…
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?


What if…
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:

“I don’t believe you. You’re a liar”

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.


What if…
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.


What if…
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?


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JJ Live At Leeds

From across the ocean, a middle aged man, a man without a plan, a man full of memories, a man like JJ.

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Virgindog
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October 11, 2022 10:07 am

I’ve wondered about all of these except the Nirvana question. You’re probably right that they wouldn’t have lasted much longer. Maybe one more album as a group and then Cobain would’ve taken a few years off before releasing solo acoustic records along the lines of “Unplugged.”

That means Novoselic still would have gone into politics and Grohl still would have fought foo. And the reunion concert would have been great even though they’d refuse to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Another “What If” question I’ve always wondered is what would the Rolling Stones have been like if Brian Jones hadn’t died? How much different, if at all, would their output have been, and would they have lasted this long?

LinkCrawford
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October 11, 2022 11:55 am

I’ve always wondered, what if the Colonel had lost control of Elvis (by whatever means) leaving Elvis to make more of his own decisions? For the Colonel it was all about making a buck…how to best market the King. Would Elvis still have made 30+ (mostly) throwaway movies in just over 10 years? Would Elvis have felt less pressure to perform all the time and maybe backed away from show-biz a little bit? Perhaps that could have helped his “prescription” problems and helped his health overall as well? (The persistent meat loaf and fried peanut-butter and banana sandwiches didn’t help either, to be sure). Maybe he would have had the chance to perform “Fire” that Bruce Springsteen had written for him.

Virgindog
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October 11, 2022 12:30 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Not to get too far off track, but have you had a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich? Throw a couple slices of bacon in there too for a real culinary coronary treat. Frighteningly delicious.

LinkCrawford
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October 11, 2022 1:09 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

Now, while I love bacon, I’m not sure I would go there. But I did try a fried PBB once and it wasn’t bad!

Actually, from what I’ve read in one place, Elvis’ digestive system wasn’t in good shape. I though I had read that Elvis could have really used a colostomy, but refused to get one? So maybe the what if is…What if Elvis had gotten a colostomy?

mt58
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October 11, 2022 1:17 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Please tell me that you meant “colonoscopy.” It seems the easier of the two paths.

LinkCrawford
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October 12, 2022 11:15 am
Reply to  mt58

No-no…a colostomy. Not the sexiest operation for a sex symbol.

Virgindog
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October 11, 2022 1:20 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

If Elvis had gotten a colostomy, he would have needed looser jumpsuits. And wouldn’t have died on the toilet.

lovethisconcept
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October 11, 2022 1:34 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

I think that Elvis would have made very poor decisions for himself. What would have been better would have been if he had an advisor like Brian Epstein who truly had his best interests at heart.

LinkCrawford
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October 12, 2022 11:08 am

This is probably the truest statement.

cappiethedog
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October 11, 2022 11:12 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

If “The King” recorded “Fire”, you throw The Pointer Sisters’ career into chaos.

Ozmoe
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October 13, 2022 12:37 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Elvis without the Colonel probably meant he would’ve been touring the world, certainly doing concerts in Europe where he was arguably in even stronger demand during the 1970s than in the United States. Supposedly the colonel wouldn’t let him go outside the country because the colonel’s immigration status may not have permitted him to return back to America if found in violation. I agree that Elvis might have returned to movies as well in better properties than what he unleashed on us during the 1960s.

ArchieLeech
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October 11, 2022 3:32 pm

If Peter Green had not gone off the deep end, his 20 year-old protege, Danny Kirwan, would not have had the burden of carrying one of the UK’s top bands all by himself.

Most people simplify the early Fleetwood Mac as “Peter Green and blues.” Fact is it wasn’t until Green added Kirwan to the line-up that they all teamed up for those memorable UK hits – “Albatross,” “Man of the World,” “The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Prong Crown),” and “Oh Well.” These songs were soulful, but not really blues. And many of the parts people assume were by Green were actually by Kirwan.

Kirwan’s sound was similar to Green’s, but with more vibrato and more conventionally melodic. Green always insisted on sharing song-writing and lead vocal duties – when Jeremy Spencer started flaking out and doing nothing but Elmore James impersonations, it was left to the then-teen-aged Kirwan to pick up the slack.

When I was learning guitar as a teen, Kirwan was the one I wanted to sound like. When the first Dire Straits album came out, Mark Knopfler said that he was heavily influenced by Kirwan.

Green’s mental breakdown took him out of the band – his first solo album, The End of the Game, was a bunch of embarrassing acid rock instrumental jams. Kirwan led Fleetwood Mac through three uneven but often impressive albums before himself succombing to booze and mental issues. After an abortive solo career, he became a sad recluse before dying a couple of years ago.

While they were together, though, Green and Kirwan were two of the most symbiotic guitar players any band ever had. To think what we all missed out on.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O8RhZDGLEXM

ArchieLeech
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October 11, 2022 5:48 pm
Reply to  ArchieLeech

One more track, the lush “Albatross.” They’re miming, but you can see Green played the main theme, Kirwan the high vibrato, and Spencer the slide.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Viqr6KHwJjc

Phylum of Alexandria
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October 11, 2022 7:10 pm

I would have loved it if Syd hadn’t lost his drive and discipline; his work is by far my favorite Pink Floyd stuff. I agree I can see him going deeper into his particular fancies rather than forging ahead much, but maybe somewhat like Ray Davies in the 70s and 80s: not as consistently exciting as he used to be, but still worthwhile.

The “what if John Lennon was never shot” raises an interesting possible path…for David Bowie. I read in Chris O’Leary’s blog that Bowie was extremely shaken by the murder, and the resulting paranoia fed into his later desire to shed all of his weirdness as an artist: he just wanted to blend in.

I can see him tiring of Tony Visconti as his producer no matter what, and wanting to shake things up with a more popular name. So maybe he would still hook up with Nile Rodgers for his 1983 album…but perhaps if he hadn’t been scared straight by John’s assassination, they could have made what Niles had proposed, something like Scary Monsters 2.

And if he had taken that route and found some fame, would he have avoided the depths of 80s has-been desperation? The world will never know…

Phylum of Alexandria
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October 12, 2022 6:59 am

True enough. Plus, it’s kind of neat that he basically predicted his own 80’s has-been desperation in his 1974 song “1984.” Sometimes ya gotta make personal sacrifices for your art…

thegue
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October 11, 2022 8:02 pm

These are great! Reminds me of the “Alternate Universe” dmcwag (?) used to share over at the Mothership.

One “what if” I’ve heard bantered about was “What if John Bonham hadn’t died?” but I think it’s been generally agreed upon by most people that Led Zeppelin’s creative juices were starting to run dry. Do they do one more album together, delaying the Robert Plant solo career I love?

What if Ian Curtis hadn’t committed suicide?

cappiethedog
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October 11, 2022 11:10 pm
Reply to  thegue

How did Joy Division’s original fans react to “Love Will Tear Us Apart”? Too poppy for the goths? Ian Curtis, surprisingly, seemed to have commercial aspirations. It reminds me of “Train in Vain”. Also, “Dancing in the Dark”. If the synths were Ian Curtis’ idea, I think Joy Division would have survived. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is proto-New Order. It’s indestructible. I even like the Paul Young’s sophisto-pop take. June Tabor turned it into a duet.

I read a story that Bernard Sumner became the new lead singer, by default. Peter Hook passed. But if you look at the bass player’s discography, you’ll find a whole bunch of live albums, a series you could call Peter Hook Has Regrets And Sings the New Order Songbook.

Ian Curtis. R.I.P.

Phylum of Alexandria
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October 12, 2022 7:08 am
Reply to  cappiethedog

The synths in Joy Division were Ian’s idea, so maybe he could have been pulled the band in the direction of fellow J.G. Ballard fans John Foxx and Gary Numan had things worked out better for him. His bandmates all say that he had a sense of humor to him, so maybe his music could have lightened up as well.

cappiethedog
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October 11, 2022 10:53 pm

There’s always the possibility that Kurt Cobain would have stopped recording. And become Gen X’s Syd Barrett. Or, as aforementioned, he could have gone the Elliott Smith route, and be sadly chill, after his stint with Heatmiser.

It was a sad day.

And a circus.

I remember the Nick Broomfied documentary. Total rubbish. But I didn’t know that. His widow’s friendship with Michael Stipe laid those lurid idea to rest. I trust Stipe more than some opportunistic hack.

She still has her detractors. If you ever stumble upon Sugar Town, which stars Ally Sheedy and Rosanne Arquette, alongside John Taylor and John Doe, it’s hard to miss Broomfield’s conspiracy theory, as subtext, laid down by the “documentary” filmmaker, in one of the narratives, featuring a well-respected musician and a scenester. The ending is brutal. Clearly, filmmaker Allison Anders has a tremendous dislike for her.

What we do know is that Michael Stipe tried to entice Kurt Cobain into a collaboration. “Bang and Blame”, from Monster, can be read as the R.E.M. frontman coming to the defense of an easy target.

Eric-J
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October 13, 2022 3:36 pm

My What if? is the Beatles, in 1969, being convinced (primarily by the Stones) that both audiences and amplification had changed, and much of what they hated about playing live was no longer a problem.
So they go back out on the road. Some of it is old songs, some is newer songs with arrangements for 4-5 pieces. (Maybe Billy Preston is there on keys.) They rediscover how much fun it is to just play together for an audience. Maybe they do Isle of Wight. Maybe they do Woodstock, maybe they do Altamont.

The 70’s look very different, with them mixing up solo and group efforts.

(BTW, my assumption if John hadn’t died in 1980, is that yes, they would have reunited for an album, at least, and it would have been thoroughly mediocre, like 99% of all reunion albums.)

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