Rock and Roll Identity Crisis

Axl Rose with guitarist DJ Ashba, ostensibly Slash's replacement - is it really GNR?

Walking into Houston’s Toyota Center for the big Guns N’ Roses show last week, we overheard people asking each other incredulously: “Slash is NOT with them???” Well, no. The guitarist left in 1996, on not-so-friendly terms with lead singer Axl Rose. As did pretty much all of the other original band members. So who was playing that Friday night in Houston?

Was it Axl and a bunch of no-name scabs? Hardly – this version of Guns N’ Roses can certainly deliver the goods and is totally worthy of the name. But what happens when other popular rock groups hit the road with just one or two original members in tow? Is it still the same group we know and love?

Lynyrd Skynyrd's current guitar lineup includes (from left) Rickey Medlocke, Sparky Matjeka, original member Gary Rossington and bassist Robert Kearns.

Just a week before GNR, we saw Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top in Austin. Skynyrd has had more attrition than any other rock band in memory, after a plane crash that killed original lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister and backup singer Cassie Gaines. Other original members have also died or retired; the current Skynyrd lineup contains only one original member, guitarist Gary Rossington.

Skynyrd became stars in 1973 with their debut album, so the crash meant that the classic lineup was in the national limelight for only about four years. The new Skynyrd lineup has been together, with various members, since 1987. So is it Lynyrd Skynyrd? Probably it’s a really good tribute band – paying tribute to itself.

In some cases it’s clear cut: it can never be the Rolling Stones unless Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts are involved, but if John Fogerty hired a new rhythm section and toured as Creedence, why not? If Van Halen tours with David Lee Roth, the only person who may dispute the authenticity would be Sammy Hagar, sitting in his living room. Classic ’70s bands Foreigner and Journey hired new lead singers and have both re-recorded their old hits – Walmart shoppers picking up the new CDs probably don’t know, or don’t care.

It gets stickier with bands with well-known, or even beloved, members playing behind the lead singer. Can Bruce Springsteen tour without Clarence Clemons and still call it the E Street Band? Heartbreaking as that may be, that’s probably what he will do. If Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston hit the road next year, can they still call themselves the Beach Boys? Probably. The Kinks? Only if Ray and Dave Davies are both on board.

What's Bruce Springsteen gonna do without Clarence Clemons?

Some years ago David Gilmour fronted a Pink Floyd lineup that included original members Rick Wright and Nick Mason, but not Roger Waters. It worked for millions, if not for Roger. The Who have been diminished by half, but Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend still sell a lot of tickets under the Who banner. If Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones can talk Robert Plant into a tour, Led Zeppelin will most certainly pack ’em in.

And I suppose that’s what it all boils down to: will the audience accept a lineup that isn’t original? Ask Axl Rose, while he’s counting the gate receipts from the current Guns N’ Roses tour, and the answer is yes – in some cases.

– Denny Angelle

YouTube: Guns N’ Roses playing “Sweet Child O’ Mine” in Houston (the sound is horrible, but you can see it was a crowd favorite).

This one’s MUCH better – “Welcome To The Jungle” on 11/17 in New Jersey

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