To get the formula right is tricky, but to get a bona fide, sure-fire rock outfit is akin to trapping lightning in a bottle. So, to lose one member isn’t just to lost a person from the band, it might wind up costing the band much of its spark.
Some bands can ably recover from the loss of a member, and some of the bands on this list recovered from the loss of a drummer, singer or guitar player only to lose an even more influential member further down the road. And there are some bands (Iron Maiden, Eagles) who got better and better, the more it brought new people in.
But there are other acts who suffered greatly from the loss of a pivotal bandmember, and this list explores some of the many bands that didn’t recover from the departure of a pivotal bandmate. Bands like Ac/Dc and The Who are excused from this list, because the bandmate in question died, and Pink Floyd are also excused because they wound up becoming much more successful without Syd Barrett than with.
So, we’ve whittled it down to 10 bands we feel were doomed to failure from the moment their bandmate packed up their things and left for new pastures.
10 bands that got worse as their members left:
10. The Clash
For a band who were so dependent on their rhythms, it’s not surprising to hear that they suffered without the presence of Topper Headon. Worse still, The Clash then elected to fire Mick Jones, the band’s musical director and in-house producer, feeling that he wasn’t committing to the cause they had come up with in London in the late 1970s.
Cut the Crap is as risible as its name makes out, but bassist Paul Simonon strangely plays on very little of it, making it a Joe Strummer record in all but name. He did channel his inventiveness enough to record ‘This Is England’, a stormy rocker that explored the many ways his native country could improve and where it had been better in its past.
9. Van Halen
They were the mother of all hair-metal bands, from their pulverising riffs to the glistening harmonies that melded with David Lee Roth’s soaring voice. The band were known for translating the ridiculousness of their recorded output with a series of tightly produced concerts that regularly saw the blond-haired frontman leap into the air and somersault.
But Roth was far from enamoured with many of the synthesisers that were steadily becoming a part of the band’s trajectory, preferring the harder-edged aspects of their orbit. Considering the band’s dwindling popularity under Sammy Hagar – who encouraged Eddie Van Halen to write more keyboard focused compositions – Roth may very well have had a point. These days, the Hagar-era is commonly known by fans as “Van Hagar”, which isn’t meant flatteringly.
They were never as successful as The Clash or The Jam, but Ramones deserve the gold medal for starting punk off. With their slick hair and penchant for black and white photographs, the Ramones were the nastiest looking band of the mid-1970s, which might explain why they had a wide fanbase.
The band went through a number of drummers, many of them clocking in and out like workers leaving a factory after a day of hard grind and work, but Dee Dee’s decision to quit the band for a rap career punctured the band in a way they couldn’t predict. Nevertheless, Joey and Johnny continued fronting the band until disbanding in 1996. Having lost a songwriting force in Dee Dee, the band had to rely on past movements to keep them afloat, costing them much of their credibility.
Blur were arguably the most consistently inventive of the Britpop bands, never subscribing to one genre when there were so many others to explore. Vocalist Damon Albarn garnered most of the attention, but that overlooked Graham Coxon’s contributions to the band, who wrote much of the music to their superb 1997 effort, Blur.
They were gearing into more interesting territories as a band, but Coxon was growing weary of Albarn’s influence over the quartet, anger that was only exacerbating due to his alcohol problem. Depending on who you ask, Coxon either left or was asked to leave the Think Thank sessions, culminating in an album that was devoid of their trademark quirkiness. Even Albarn conceded that something was missing from the band and only agreed to reform Blur if Coxon was part of it.
6. Red Hot Chili Peppers
This band has gone through more personnel changes than any other on this list, but by the time they recorded Blood Sex Sugar Magik, the band had settled on the iteration that many now consider the band’s classic lineup. But the overwhelming success of the album proved too much for guitarist John Frusciante, who quit to pursue a smaller-scale solo career.
He was replaced by Dave Navarro, but Red Hot Chili Peppers soon came to realise how irreplaceable Frusciante was and invited him back into the fold for 1999’s Californication. Weirdly, history repeated itself for a second time, when Josh Klinghoffer replaced Frusciante for two underwhelming albums. Unsurprisingly, Frusciante was asked back for a third stint with Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
No one could have predicted that Peter Gabriel would be more successful outside of Genesis than in it, but the band were also all the better for his departure too. For one thing, it allowed drummer Phil Collins the chance to demonstrate his impressive set of pipes, effortlessly singing any style of genre presented to him. Under Collins’s watch, Genesis played blues, pop, symphonic rock and a jaunty hybrid genre that could be considered white reggae.
Collins was also steering a lucrative solo career and eventually decided to leave Genesis to focus on the work that was infinitely more personal to him. Considering the fact that they wrote the majority of the tunes, Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford felt confident that they could replicate their success for the third time. As it happens, Collins’s influence was too grand to ignore, and Scottish singer Ray Wilson struggled to deliver a truthful vocal on anything that preceded Calling All Stations. Genesis called it a day.
4. Guns N’ Roses
Appetite for Destruction is one of the tightest sounding debuts of all time. Inspiring whole hordes of British bands, like Manic Street Preachers, to pick up their guitars and play, the band’s zesty arrangements and predilection for the swaggery chorus were infectious to listen to. Whatever else you might think about Guns N’Roses, this is an album that will stand the test of time.
And that’s where it started to go wrong for the band, as they began indulging too heavily in drugs to translate into coherent music. Drummer Steven Adler was fired during the Use Your Illusion sessions, and rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin decided that he too needed a change of scenery. Stradlin wrote the majority of the songs, which might explain why The Spaghetti Incident was made up of covers. And yet the band lacked Adler’s splashy cymbal work, meaning that the record had punch but no style. By 1996, lead guitarist Slash had also left the band, and Guns N’ Roses ambled along aimlessly, hitting the wrong points and junctures of their storied career.
10cc stemmed from Hot Legs, a studio off-shoot Eric Stewart formed with art-rock session players Kevin Godley and Lol Creme. With Graham Gouldman on bass, the quartet worked as a walk-in studio band in Manchester before Jonathan King christened them 10cc, purportedly after a dream he had. Dividing themselves into two songwriting camps, Gouldman & Stewart tended to write the more commercial work (‘Wall Street Shuffle’, ‘I’m Not In Love’).
In contrast, Godley & Creme tended to write anthems that were more abstract in their design (‘Sand in my Face’, ‘Somewhere in Hollywood’). Naturally, differences in methodologies led to differences in approach, and Godley & Creme quit the band in 1976, just before recording Deceptive Bends. As it happened, Deceptive Bends was diverse enough to justify listenership, but the duo couldn’t channel the artier, more esoteric influences on subsequent albums. It was virtually impossible to distinguish Windows in the Jungle from many of the other releases in the 1980s. Gouldman still tours as 10cc, but he’s the first to admit that the band’s best years were the ones featuring Godley & Creme.
2. Black Sabbath
They were the founders of heavy metal, culminating in a soundscape that put as much emphasis on the pounding guitars as they did on the Satanic lyrics and shimmering choruses. Vocalist Ozzy Osbourne credited bandmates Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi with the songcraft, which likely explains why they were confident they could steer the band without him.
Osbourne was proving difficult to work with, but drummer Bill Ward felt loyal to him and left the band before recording Mob Rules. As it happens, Iommi wound up leading a succession of bassists, singers and drummers through a series of disappointing albums, finally resulting in the truly awful sounding Forbidden in the early 1990s. Thankfully, Osbourne was in a forgiving mood, and he asked Iommi if he was interested in reforming the original Black Sabbath in 1997. No prizes for guessing Iommi’s answer!
Yes, I hear you now, but with all due respect to the “superior craftsmanship” of Gem Archer and Andy Bell, they weren’t as charming as Paul McGuigan or as whimsical as Paul Arthurs were. And although Tony McCarroll lacked Zak Starkey’s technical flair, his crisp cymbal work was in keeping with the band’s rustic, rock aesthete, and his drum, work-especially on the exhilarating ‘Bring It On Down’-frequently sounded stellar.
Curiously, Noel Gallagher felt the band could do better with Alan White, and subsequent Oasis songs were drenched in thunderous, heavy-handed drum patterns that sounded great live, but wanting on record. Worse still, the Gallagher brothers decided to continue with the brand, despite losing a keyboardist and a bass player, in the hope of continuing the band/brand name in the new millennium. It didn’t work, and the band split acrimoniously in 2009, nearly a decade after they were supposed to.