Friends reunited

Music - Richard Cook on the difficult business of the pop comeback

''Reunited", sang Peaches and Herb, "and it feels so good." Music's happy reunions, however, are more like patched-up marriages of convenience. Most groups have a natural lifespan of a record or two, and the notorious "difficult third album" has been the undoing of many. But pension funds being what they are, recent times have seen unprecedented numbers of old bandmates getting back in touch and giving it another go. There's no pressing artistic reason, but that has never stood in the way of good business. More difficult is the problem that group members often end up hating each other before their time is done. Reunited, and it feels like another prison stretch.

It's our fault. Nostalgia has infected every branch of popular music. Ever since Simon and Garfunkel split up, then teasingly got back together for lucrative one-off performances, every conceivable form of comeback has been contrived. This explains such artistically bankrupt (though hugely profitable) occasions as the Eagles' various reunion tours, which became some of the biggest-grossing events in American rock history. No, they didn't need the money, but they did need something to do: when successful bands go their separate ways, most members end up in the miserable cul-de-sac of a failed solo career. The exceptions, such as Ronan Keating and Robbie Williams, are hugely outnumbered by those of whom it is said, "Oh, he used to be in . . .".

You can understand why another reasonably successful solo artist, Mel C, is fed up with being asked about a Spice Girls reunion. But as Emma Bunton, Geri Halliwell and Victoria Beckham seem scarcely able to sell a solo record between them, it is hard to rule out the possibility. Similarly, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page may yet be persuaded to reconvene at least some semblance of Led Zeppelin. Both men are fabulously wealthy, but the pay-off for such a move would be so extraordinary that it would take a very cool head to walk away from it. Mick and Keith don't need the dough, either, but that does not prevent the Rolling Stones from earning enough on their global jaunts to float a South American country or two.

At the other end of the scale is the collector's band, the group that won't ever sell very many records or rack up fat concert grosses, but which needs the work. I was intrigued to hear Doll Revolution (Down Kiddie!/Liberty), the comeback record by the Bangles. In the 1980s, they were a real rarity, a girls' beat group, a playing band that relied on an unusual mix of attitude (long before "girl power"), skill and musical passion. For what it's worth, 1984's All Over the Place was one of the great records of its day, a scintillating mix of cover versions and originals: four American women with a Beatles hang-up and a guitar-band matrix. But the Bangles only really clicked with three atypical songs - "Manic Monday", "Walk Like An Egyptian" and "Eternal Flame" - and by their difficult third album, they were turning into boy toys. The cause of the problem seemed to be the contrasting personalities of the group's principal songwriters: vocalist/ guitarist Susanna Hoffs (the "soft" one) and the harder-edged Vicki Peterson (the lead guitarist). In 1989 they called it a day. Fourteen years on, they're trying again. Hoffs (who has a Hollywood dad) had a go at films and has had a sputtering solo career, and Peterson has been playing in obscure bands without much luck.

How do they sound? The record is a keeper, though perhaps only just. They belong in the LP era - they should be making two sides of five or six songs apiece. But this is a CD, and they have to slog their way through 15 tracks. Hoffs has a gorgeous girlie-rock voice, but she is once again the vulnerable spot, contributing two songs about her child which provide a good case for not mixing motherhood and rock. I could have done without a poor choice of Elvis Costello cover (even if it does christen the album), and getting older seems to have brought the confessional side out of Peterson, whose "Single By Choice" is a curiously uncomfortable song at the halfway point. Yet they do provide the frisson of pleasurable recognition that reunions are meant to engender: their Beatles harmonies lift everything, they still prefer guitars and real drums to keyboards and drum machines, and their attitude has been burnished into a cool, unbowed world-view that feels suitably hard-won. The record has made a negligible impact in America, and probably the same thing will happen here, too. Yet in its small way, it's a generous and kind reunion.

Doll Revolution is released by EMI

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The final bout