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How to get kicked out of the band

An entertaining study of sacked musicians reveals the tensions that give pop its power.

By Peter Williams

If failure and rejection are inevitable in life, so too are our attempts, once the pain has dulled, to rationalise them, to say that if this person, or that large corporation, hadn’t broken my heart, then I wouldn’t be here, in my full majesty, in this town, with this person, or that employer. A section of the self-help industry, led by Elizabeth Day’s books and How to Fail podcast, is devoted to valorising this impulse through greeting-card aphorisms and “teachable moments”, insisting that failure is but a staging post to ultimate success.

Failure is also at the heart of Jamie Collinson’s The Rejects, a collection of pen portraits of people who have been sacked from pop groups and bands, starting with the most famous reject of all, Pete Best, removed as the Beatles’ drummer before they became global stars. Collinson argues that such figures offer a perspective “from both the inside and outside” that is “uniquely revealing”. Out of this loose premise he has fashioned a baggy, digressive book that, like many of its subjects, gets by more on charm than finesse. Along the way, he also holds good to his subtitle and offers an alternative history of pop and insights into the form’s enduring appeal. Teachable moments are, thankfully, in short supply.

For some rejects, such as Best, the bitterness lingers. Many die young (Florence Ballard of the Supremes) or barely survive (Jimmy Chamberlin of Smashing Pumpkins). Others, such as Lemmy (ejected from Hawkwind, he started his own group Motörhead in 1975), eclipse the bands that sacked them, while others fashion careers on their own terms, as with John Cale post-Velvet Underground. And others begin wholly different lives, such as the Nirvana guitarist Jason Everman, who became a special forces operative in the US military.

Bands are, the author notes, “strange organisations… formed from varying measures of friendship, creativity and business”, and comprising both “self-destructive types”, “many highly self-controlled people”, and individuals who display both qualities. He shows how in the past especially, but today too, musicians worked in a dangerous, lawless industry awash with organised crime (many record labels were suspected of having connections to the mob), exploitation, and hard-drug use on a scale difficult to comprehend. It attracts vulnerable souls, often with a raw, unconventional talent, pitching them into a world tailor-made to accentuate their weaknesses and flaws by giving them everything they ever wanted and endless spare time.

The first chapter’s description of the Beatles’ pre-fame bacchanal in Hamburg and how they dispensed with Best in 1962, after the band’s first recording session, will disabuse anyone of any cuddly Fab Fourism. But wisely, here and elsewhere, Collinson never gets too bogged down in condemning the frequently terrible behaviour he describes, trusting that his readers are grown-ups. The chapters covering the Sixties and Seventies rely on secondary sources, ie other books, and blokes with or adjacent to guitars predominate (including an extended section on “all the musicians kicked out of Fleetwood Mac”). There is the strange reverence for rock musicianship characteristic of a Mojo feature, where anyone who ever cranked out some passable pentatonic noodling is a virtuoso (aka “had the chops”).

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Collinson also feels obliged to document the physical virtues of these men via lingering descriptions, as with the Mothers of Invention guitarist Steve Mann (“his hair black and lustrous, his face long, fleshy and handsome”) and Bob Weston of Fleetwood Mac (“with his square jaw, perfect wavy hair and piercing eyes, he looked a bit like a Seventies-rock Michael Fassbender”). At this point the non-rock entries – Florence Ballard, Bootsy Collins, David Ruffin of the Temptations – feel a little tokenistic, and across the book only four of the 33 chapters focus solely on female subjects. The chapters on Ballard, Siobhán Donaghy of Sugababes, and LaTavia Roberson and LeToya Luckett, whose exit from Destiny’s Child in 2000 was public and acrimonious, leave you wanting more of this and much, much less Fleetwood Mac.

The book hits its stride with some first-hand journalism: an interview with Tony O’Neill, a writer who survived heroin addiction and a stint in the chaotic San Francisco group the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and accounts of the author’s protracted attempts to interview Everman about his time in Nirvana, and Nick Oliveri of the hard-rock band Queens of the Stone Age. Collinson draws on his broad tastes and 20-year career in the music industry, working for record companies including the British independent electronic label Ninja Tune and artists such as Young Fathers and Arctic Monkeys. This includes a fascinating account of managing the London grime pioneer Wiley, another maverick talent whose ability to survive threats to his life is matched only by a genius for self-sabotage. (If you’re wondering how a solo performer can be a “reject”, Wiley effectively cancelled himself from public life with a descent into Kanye West-like conspiracism.) He also uncovers some interesting, slightly forgotten figures, such as Pavement’s Gary Young, a powerhouse “prog drummer” in a band that otherwise had an awkward, angular sound.

Collinson himself is a winningly awkward presence, happy to document his own rejections. He writes to the novelist Michel Faber, of whom he is a big fan, requesting a blurb for his own debut novel, and instead receives a courteous and excruciatingly detailed analysis of his shortcomings as a writer. At times, such as when lionising Everman’s military career and “warrior poet” lifestyle, or while driving to Bournemouth to watch Oliveri play live, he turns into Alan Partridge: “Cruising at about 73mph on derestricted dual carriageway, I overtook two slower cars in the left lane… the front car immediately pulled out, overtook me, pulled across me and briefly braked. This seemed some sort of omen.” And it gets stranger still with a random detour into a creative writing workshop, when he precedes his chapter on Danny Whitten – the Crazy Horse songwriter (including of “I Don’t Want to Talk About It”, a hit for Rod Stewart and Everything But the Girl) and guitarist who succumbed to drug addiction – with a first-person piece in the voice of Whitten.

The epigraph to The Rejects is from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Our little group/has always been/and always will/until the end”, and it is this and Everman’s tale that best ties together the book’s themes: about the dynamics of group belonging, the inherent competition, the tensions created by disparities in power or talent; and that for bonds to be sealed you need someone to exclude and something to kick against. Nirvana railed against the LA rock clichés and excess of Guns N’ Roses, just as that band defined themselves against the repugnant hair-metal goons Poison and Mötley Crüe.

In 1989 Everman financed the recording of the first Nirvana album, Bleach, and a tour where the rest of the band liked to trash their instruments, including the expensive ones. His support on guitar enabled Kurt Cobain, a sensitive but also ruthless and ambitious soul, to develop as a frontman. Once Everman served his purpose he was kicked out, his supposed crime was being a “moody metalhead” (although many of the Seattle bands besides Nirvana were more influenced by metal than punk, such as Soundgarden, with whom Everman also played).

These tensions are a crucial part of pop music’s appeal. Adolescents idolise bands not just for their music but because they offer a model – a gang to belong to, an aesthetic and an attitude. The songs themselves – propulsive mini-dramas, with first-person lyrics evoking some sort of travail, heartbreak or injustice – put the listener in the lead role, enabling them to rehearse and explore different attitudes and qualities in themselves. They enable us all to recast rejection, heartbreak or loneliness in a far more fulfilling and creative way than dosing up on the blandishments of the failure-is-good-for-you crowd. And for those who make this music, however modest their contribution and whatever happens in the rest of their lives, there is the consolation of having created something unimpeachable, standalone and of enduring grace.

The Rejects: An Alternative History of Popular Music
Jamie Collinson
Constable, 336pp, £25

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[See also: A comic story of Britain]

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This article appears in the 28 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The QE Theory of Everything

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