Saturday, May 13, 2017

Reconstituted RATT And The Issue Of Who Is The Band

It's old news by now that two really key things are happening with RATT.  First, three of the original members - vocalist Stephen Pearcy, guitarist Warren DeMartini, and bassist Juan Croucier - are gearing up to tour (and here's hoping they play Summerfest here in MKE!).  Second, drummer Bobby Blotzer definitively lost his case to use the RATT name in court, and that name has now passed back to those other three original members.

Those two bits of news would be interesting enough on their own accounts - after all who doesn't like the idea of (as much as can be mustered of) classic RATT touring again, and who isn't happy to see the group name reverting back to more of the original members - but there's also a philosophical issue raised by all of this as well.

Who is the "real RATT" in this case?  Pearcy, DeMartini, and Croucier? Or Blotzer?  Both?  Neither?  Or if we think about it more generally - when a band splits up, and multiple members lay claim to the band's name, who should we consider to be the band?


Examples Of This Issue

This isn't a new issue for metal bands.  In recent years, there have been several cases of rival members of an original band billing themselves under the band's name.  By doing so, they are in effect saying that they are that band.  There is a claim to continuity on their own part with the band, and by implication that any rival claimant - while he or she may have originally been part of that band - no longer represents let alone constitutes, that musical group.

One of those cases that got decided in court was that of the NWOBHM band Saxon.  Although they were out of the band, the former guitarist and bassist, Graham Oliver and Steve Dawson - both original members of the group - managed to register "Saxon" as a trademark.  This allowed their incarnation of Saxon (at first called "Oliver/Dawson Saxon")to effectively claim to be THE Saxon, particularly after they added Nigel Durham (who had played with Saxon in the late 80s).

The other Saxon - the one that could claim continuity with the original and the heyday crew - took Oliver and Dawson to court.  Or rather, Biff Byford - the original singer - had the action brought. The High Court decided in his favor, and the matter was settled.  Where there were two Saxons for a while, there is now only one.  But did the court decide the right way?  Did they declare the right Saxon to be the one and only Saxon?

Queensrÿche provides another case in point.  After years marked by increasing tensions, in 2012, the rest of the band effectively broke with their singer and major songwriter, Geoff Tate (and in the process, with his wife, who had become the band's manager, and with their daughter, who had become the head of the Queensrÿche fan club).  At first, they billed themselves as "Rising West", but then they began to use the band name.

Tate sued, claiming that he had been illegally fired from Queensrÿche, and attempted to keep them from using the band's name.  What he ended up accomplishing was just bollixing up tours.  In a settlement, the majority of the band got to keep the band name, but Tate acquired the rights to play Operation Mindcrime and Operation Mindcrime II in their entirety"in unique performances" onstage.

Since then, of course, the majority-member band has been touring and recording as "Queensryche" while Tate, who at first toured as "Queensrÿche featuring Geoff Tate" - with a slew of band members unconnected with the original band - switched to "Operation: Mindcrime".  So again, one portion of the band got to continue using the name, and another had to effectively break with their past.  But was it the right portion that got the rights? That's the interesting question.

How Should These Matters Be Decided?

Are there criteria by which one could make a rational decision –when a band experiences irreconcilable differences – which of the members most deserve to retain the name of that band? That is who gets to tour and record, and otherwise be acknowledged to be, that band? In many cases, it seems pretty simple. And that is because we employ – whether we realize it or not– two relatively straightforward criteria

First, there is the criterion of continuity. If you get kicked out of the band, or do you quit the band – even if it’s just for a while as you pursue a solo project – once enough time passes, you don’t really have any reasonable claim to be the band. That’s a especially the case when the other band members have been continuing on doing their work not only as single members of that band, but in conjunction with each other, as a musical unity.

So for example, after he was fired from Iron Maiden, Paul Di’Anno could have claimed that whatever batch of musicians he assembled behind him was the real Iron Maiden, but nobody would have believed him. If things had been radically different, given the second criterion which we’ll soon discuss, there might have been some initial plausibility to his claiming to represent the authentic original band. But in point of fact, he started a solo career under his own name by deliberately did not playing Iron Maiden songs. Given that discontinuity, any potential claim he might have had to representing the original band would be highly implausible.

It is quite common for former members of a band – particularly if that band saw considerable success – to continue playing songs from that band, relying in general on musicians who had no role in the original composition or their first public playing on tour. It was entirely reasonable for DIO to include songs from Ronnie James Dio’s stints with with Black Sabbath and Rainbow in their set lists (ask yourself though, whether it would’ve been equally appropriate for a band formed around Cozy Powell – if he happened to form a group – to play those songs).  The key point, however is that, even if it was perfectly legitimate for Ronnie James Dio to play those songs from Black Sabbath or Rainbow, it would have been ridiculous for him – even with a full backing band - to claim to be either of those groups.

There’s a second criterion we can employ, that of contribution. All things being equal, we probably ought to assume that when a band’s name is being contested, the side that includes the most original members ought to be viewed as that band. It gets a bit trickier in cases like those of Queensryche and Saxon. In the latter case, there are several original members on both sides – though continuity would weigh against Oliver and Dawson’s side. In the former case, it is four members against one, but that single member is Geoff Tate, who quite arguably had a much greater role in the songwriting, conception, and other aspects of the music – in fact such a outsized role that he managed to alienate his fellow band members.

The key question is who makes the most important, the most determinative, and the most consistent contributions to the band’s music. Some members are more central to the distinctive sound of a group. This isn’t always reflected in the songwriting credits, but that can be one way to decide that matter. As someone who plays bass, I am loath to say that we ought to give traditional front men - who tend to be singers and guitarists – an automatic higher rating by this criterion. Think of the massive role played by Cliff Burton in Metallica’s great early music, and what his absence did to everything after And Justice for All – or imagine what Iron Maiden would be like lacking Steve Harris.

In the case of RATT, matters are considerably simpler. There are three original band members against one here. Bobby Blotzer recruited four new members to flesh out his version of RATT. An he is a drummer, a good drummer to be sure, but when you think of this band, is there anything distinctive about his approach that says this is definitely  RATT? Perhaps I’m not sufficiently appreciative of the craft of percussion, but it strikes me that the answer is No.

Switch to those other three members: Steven Pearcy is definitely the voice of RATT.  In fact he was part of the band before it was the band – he sang for the earlier incarnation, Mickey Ratt. DeMartini and Croucier, who joined early on, arguably make important contributions to the overall sound of RATT as well. So it is almost a no-brainer that they are effectively the band. That is not always the case for court decisions, so it is great when you see the court determine along the lines that reason would suggest.