my last post here - RATT - immediately referenced the "Ship of Theseus". That's not surprising, since what I was writing about focused on the identity of a band in terms of its membership, and the "Ship of Theseus" is a classic puzzle about a whole and its constituent parts. But as I pointed out to those commenters, that puzzle really has to do with a different kind of case.
It's not as if there aren't some bands, though, to which the "Ship of Theseus" issue would apply. I thought it might be useful for others - and interesting for me - to write a follow-up piece specifically discussing how and why. Simply put, the Ship of Theseus bears upon cases where none of the constituent parts of a whole are original to it. In terms of bands, this means we would be focused on bands that contain none of their original members.
The fundamental question then is whether they do remain the same band or not, despite all of the replacements of members. It is always useful to consider examples, and in classic metal, we do have a number of illustrative cases we can examine - and discuss (in comments or social media). I think it might also be helpful to consider some cases close to but not quite like the Ship of Theseus as well, where one original member of the band is left (but reserve that issue for a later post)
What Is The Ship Of Theseus?The philosophical puzzle gets its official start with the Middle Platonist philosopher and biographer, Plutarch, who brought it up in his Life of Theseus. In chapter 23, he tells us:
The ship on which Theseus sailed with the youths and returned in safety, the thirty-oared galley, was preserved by the Athenians down to the time of Demetrius Phalereus. They took away the old timbers from time to time, and put new and sound ones in their places, so that the vessel became a standing illustration for the philosophers in the mooted question of growth, some declaring that it remained the same, others that it was not the same vessel.The question that he refers to is whether the whole remains the same thing, or whether the piecemeal replacement of the parts renders it something different. As the passage indicates, this was already a long-discussed question. You can find one position on it clearly expressed, for example, in Plato's Symposium, specifically in Diotima's speech (towards the end of the dialogue), where she points out to the young Socrates that knowledge in our mind is constantly needing to be renewed, that we are losing parts of it and replacing them by learning anew - just as our bodies are likewise in a state of perpetual rebuilding with new materials.
So is the ship in question - the Ship of Theseus (the one he sailed off to Crete on, as a sacrifice to the Minotaur, and then sailed back to Athens) - the same ship? Or has it, over time, and because of replacements, become a different ship? What's really interesting is not just the Yes or No that one might answer, the Same or Different. The reasons Why matter. What makes it remain the same over time? What pushes it across a threshold where it becomes different?
We can raise this issue for all sorts of things. Think about a sports team, or a military unit, as examples that are somewhat closer to a musical group than the ship would be. If every member of a company has been replaced, from the commanding officer and the first sergeant down to each of the squad members, does it remain the same unit? Certainly. In fact, this can happen fairly quickly in wartime, as "replacements" are sent out to take the place of casualties. It is still A Company of the 16th Engineer Battalion. There is still the same command structure, even though the commanders and commanded have long since been replaced. It still bears the same designation, fights under the same flag, carries the same unit crest.
A sports team exhibits a similar continuity - though there are sometimes some interesting questions raised (for example, whether or not the Cleveland Browns of the present are really the same team as the Browns who got moved en masse to Baltimore to become the Ravens). Generally we view a professional sports team as remaining the same even though players are moving in and out year after year. It's rare that a player lasts more than ten years with the same team in most sports. We do, of course, speak of the 1985 Bears or the Farve-era Packers, indexing teams to a given time, much like metalheads speak of Deep Purple Mark II, or of Dio-era Black Sabbath.
Metal Bands With Zero Original Members LeftSurprisingly, there actually aren't that many metal bands that at this point in time have - or in earlier eras had - no original members left in the band, but still continued on under the rubric of that same musical group. Most tend to a have a few founding members still soldiering on at their core. There are quite a few in other genres of music, but I had to do quite a bit of digging to uncover classic metal bands that fit that bill.
Thin Lizzy is one example, though I suppose some might consider them less heavy metal and more just hard rock, (I view them as indeed creating classic metal, but inconsistently, but that's a whole other topic!) The original members were Phil Lynott (on bass and vocals), Brian Downey (on drums), Eric Bell (on guitar), and Eric Wrixon (on organ). Downey continued on with the band through most of its incarnations, and was the last of the founding members to leave (in 2016). So, by definition, the Thin Lizzy that still occasionally tours in the present is a band with no original members.
We'll come back to Thin Lizzy in a bit - since there's a few interesting questions to be asked - but first: who else in classic metal can be likened to the Ship of Theseus? Quiet Riot is a prime case in point. Technically, the original members were Randy Rhoads (on guitar), Kevin DuBrow (on vocals), Kelly Garni (on bass), and Drew Forsyth (on drums). None of those are members of the band in its present state, and this isn't the first era in which no founding members were left in the band. Dubrow - as the only original member - was fired by the rest of the band in 1987, and replaced by Paul Shortino. That state of affairs went on until DuBrow sued for the rights to the name Quiet Riot, won his case, and eventually formed a new version of the band.
The great NWOBHM band Tank provides another interesting example, albeit a tricker one, given that there are at present two Tanks out there - one which is recording and touring, led by guitarists Chris Evans and Mick Tucker, and another that is pretty much just founding member Algy Ward playing every instrument, recording but not touring. If we go with the Evans and Tucker version as the definitive Tank of the present day, then that's another band with no original members left. And to many people, that incarnation is still the same band, i.e. Tank (I've got my reservations, though).
The New York band Riot would be another group that no longer has any original members - their last one was founding guitarist, Mark Reale - but they recently changed their name to Riot V, precisely to indicate that the members of Thundersteel-album-on Riot were a different, though connected band. Something similar went on when the remaining members of Motorhead - none of whom were founding or original members - rejected the idea of going on with the band when Lemmy Kilmister died in 2015.
There are other more recently established metal bands that also have no original members, but they're not groups I tend to listen to - when it comes to 90s-on "genre" metal, I admittedly pay fairly little attention to those bands.
So all told, there are several cases of classic metal bands that could be said to be Ships of Theseus. Thin Lizzy - provided they do continue to tour - is clearly one. Quiet Riot is also clearly one of those bands. Riot V isn't a Ship of Theseus, precisely because of its rechristening. Tank would be a more complicated matter.
Who Should We Consider "Original" Members?When it comes to metal bands, should we consider the possibility that there a distinction to be made between the founding members - those who are, as it were, "present at the creation" - and the members that are in the band during their early great work? Could those latter be called "original members", even if they are not strictly speaking the earliest musicians to occupy that spot in the lineup?
Consider Iron Maiden. The founding members are Steve Harris (on bass), Paul Day (on vocals), Dave Sullivan and Terry Rance (on guitar), and Ron Matthews (on drums). So, at this point in time, the only founding member left in the band is Steve Harris. Then again, that was already the case by 1977! By that time, they had gone through several guitarists, and more than one singer. Thunderstick (Barry Purvis), who would soon enough be in Samson, was drumming for them.
All of this was before Paul Di'Anno would take over on vocals, laying down those tracks for the debut album Iron Maiden and its followup Killers (until he was fired and replaced by Bruce Dickinson). Clive Burr - who played on the first three albums - took over on drums during that era. Guitarist Dennis Stratton would be replaced by Adrian Smith, who is still with the band at present (after leaving for a while in the 90s).
What should we view the "original" Iron Maiden as consisting of - thinking in terms of parts and wholes - the founding members or a later version that included these much stronger musicians who clearly contributed to the sound and ethos of the band we encountered and came to recognize as "Iron Maiden". Is Paul DiAnno or Dave Murray an "original member" of the band? Quite arguably so. . .
What do we mean then by "original"? Presumably that a band member is original if he or she made some distinctive contribution to the early work of the band, particularly in terms of songwriting, recording, or the overall sound in touring. If we adopt that formulation or criterion, there will be some important implications for the Ship of Theseus problem. You might put it like this: For many bands, the "ship" in question does not yet exist as such - even if there is a band and a name in place - until some relatively cohesive and workable lineup has been established. Preferably, this is a lineup that can produce music, tour consistently, and record at least a demo.
If we accept this reformulation of "original" and reinterpret the Ship of Theseus, what would that mean for the bands that we have been considering? It might make things a bit more complicated, but in the end, Quiet Riot would remain a Ship of Theseus, and in my view, so would Tank. But there would be a bit more to the story. The case of Thin Lizzy, though, would become a bit more complicated.
When Quiet Riot fired Kevin Dubrow in the late 80s, they continued on with no founding members. But quite arguably, they did still have some original members, if we - and there's some argument to be made for this - we consider Rudy Sarzo, Carlos Cavazo, and drummer Frankie Banali "original" in some sense. After all, Quiet Riot's first two albums got almost no attention, and the band actually broke up after Randy Rhoads left. When those four members - Dubrow, Cavazo, Banali, and Sarzo - came together, they formed the new Quiet Riot, and produced the album Metal Health, arguably the first real record by which the band got known by their fans.
Thin Lizzy has a more complex story. They start out with Eric Moore on guitar, and then have a brief spell with Gary Moore. But then Lynott decides that he wants the twin-guitar approach that would become a common standard in later metal acts, and brings in John Cann and Andy Gee, for the moment. They in turn are replaced by Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham - and those two might well be considered to be "original" members of Thin Lizzy (in the sense that we have been using it here). Now, if Gorham is considered to be an "original member" in that sense, then Thin Lizzy would still be one replacement short of being a true Ship of Theseus.
When it comes to Tank, although I personally consider the era when Evans and Tucker were the groups' guitarists to represent the band's best work, it isn't the earliest excellent, definitive work by the band. Tucker gets added as a second guitarist quite early on, in 1983, recording their third album, This Means War. But he does so with the original guitarist - from back when Tank was a power-trio - Peter Brabbs, who recorded the first two albums with his brother and - the pretty much irreplaceable, in my book - Algy Ward. I'm conflicted about whether to really consider Tank to even be the same band at this point.
There's a lot more to be said on issues of identity of bands (I've written more about that here and here in Heavy Metal Philosopher). In fact, one other topic I plan to discuss down the line has to do with interesting cases of bands in which there only one original member remains. But, it's time to bring this particular one - the Ship of Theseus - to a close. I'll just observe that, although one certainly hopes that it won't become the case, as the metal icons of the 1970s and 80s continue to age, we may indeed see more bands continuing on after all the original members have moved on.