Four is Also a Magic Number

Being an exceedingly average guy, I spent the years following high school dabbling in community college, working in kitchens at local restaurants, and spending time with friends.

Much of the time was generally spent driving around, talking about what to get up to. As might be expected in a coastal town, we would frequently end up on a beach, and drink standing round a bonfire, while further discussing what to do to next. This led to late in the night exchanges in the parking lot above the beach, after the bonfire was nothing but cooling ashes, as we shuffled our feet, practically knocking heads, rarely coming to a unified conclusion as to what came next.

Arriving at a consensus between four to ten people seemed to be impossible, no matter who might have been a member of our group. The inability to agree on one sort of destination meant of course we found ourselves later drinking coffee at a local Swensens or Denny’s. Both of these were the usual fall back sort of hangouts for us, that led us nowhere per se. Just hopped up on caffeine before heading home to restless sleep.

My personal experience leaves me with stunned amazement that rock n’ roll bands can even form, let alone exist for a period of time, write songs, perform together, release albums, tour, and so on, all without brutal physical violence and several arrests between them.

The odds of people meeting who are like-minded enough to accomplish the tasks required to become a successful band are beyond my average ability to calculate. I doubt there is a mathematician of a high enough level to figure out the chances either.

Consider what it must take for four people to meet, for four people to play the right instruments in tandem with each other, for four people to become a band that possesses drive and raw talent. I cannot even begin to fathom how it happens at all, let alone the hundreds of times. People meet, form bands, and make records that I, and people the world over, hold in high regard.

Perhaps aligning together over a single purpose makes the group dynamic more functional, better able to withstand the differing opinions of four or so individuals who struggle for expression with a setting that favors one individual. This is most likely the singer, being the one out front, the one heard by the fans, while the other three rumble behind them, holding them up, backing them up, no less the stars of the group too, by any measurable means.

This single-minded group dynamic can be found in such groups as The Stooges, who lived in a communal fashion, all of their time, in essence, spent in the company of each other. So that when it came time to perform or record their first couple of records, The Stooges (1969) and Fun House (1970), the group struck as one: one arm, one note, one mind. Hive-Group.

Also, single-mindedness can be the result of same taste in music or facets of culture. As with the band Joy Division. Their four members attended a concert or two by Sex Pistols in Manchester, England, and were thus prompted to form a band. So, taste in music, such as a love of The Stooges and Sex Pistols brought these four together. Still, the odds of such a union leave me stunned. Granted, the chances of them meeting were greatly improved by the fact that it was but a small microcosm of the city’s population that attended the Sex Pistols concerts. Meeting or seeing each other in a room of 30 or 40 people is definitely an idea that I can grasp. But having made that decision together to form a band, who could possibly conceive that it would work, let alone produce two of the greatest records of the post-punk era, “Unknown Pleasures” and “Closer.” I would have thought that the talent and drive to bring such a thing to fruition would sooner tear the four band members apart than achieve a result of any kind.

Or, as was the case with Echo & The Bunnymen, the original members were part of the local music scene in their hometown, Liverpool, in which many other musicians formed bands, broke up bands, exchanged members with a regular fluid nature, until the right combination of individuals met to form the band that would be theirs for a lifetime. In truth, many of these pre-fame bands in the post-punk Liverpool scene never got past the birthing stage. The nugget of the idea itself. And if they did, the band died on the vine of a few practice sessions. As was the case with pre-Echo & The Bunnymen band, A Shallow Madness, which included among its members Ian McCulloch (Echo & The Bunnymen) & Julian Cope (The Teardrop Explodes).

With the band U2, the members met while still in High School, responding to an advert placed by Larry Mullen Jr., soon to be the drummer in one of the most popular rock n’ roll bands of all time. The four members met and practiced at the school, bonding over a mutual love of punk rock, such bands as Television and Talking Heads from New York City, and other post-punk bands closer to home, like Joy Division and The Skids. While the will to form a band was clearly evident, the skill and technique to play their instruments had not found its way to their nimble fingers. This led them to discover their own unique sound, a chief component of which was the one of kind, echo-laden guitar played by The Edge, clearly breaking new ground for the instrument, leading it into the future.

Back in the United States, R.E.M. formed as much around mutual taste, as it did musical distaste. The four founding members came together with two of them being somewhat skilled at playing their instruments, while guitarist Peter Buck and singer Michael Stipe were somewhat novices in their designated positions. This led to a decision making process that involved elimination. “We aren’t going to do this.” “We aren’t going to do that.” What remained, for lack of wanting, become the band’s sound. A serious love of music and hard work paid off well for the little band from Athens, Georgia. They developed a unique sound in contrast to the current trends and sounds of their time. By touring seemingly endlessly, and teaching themselves to write great songs, their fan base grew somewhat organically with each record. By default really, they spearheaded a college rock radio movement that gave exposure to all sorts of bands, helping the careers of dozens. Not many of them, if any, sounded exactly like R.E.M..

What strikes me about these examples is that against odds I obviously can not conceive, these bands had members who came together, made great music, and stayed together. Granted in the case of The Stooges, the band lineup changed after the second record, but the third record sounds so different that it might as well be a different band. The others mentioned here formed and stayed together to gift us with unique and amazing music. Joy Division sadly ended with the death of their singer, Ian Curtis, yet the remaining members went on to form New Order, adding another musical chapter to their book of life. The founding members of R.E.M. continued as one until 1996, when drummer Bill Berry left the band. The remaining lineup continued, never officially adding a drummer, keyboardist or second guitarist to their roster. The three of them found their way, finally ending their career of their own volition, exiting with albums “Accelerate” and “Collapse Into Now” as a powerful one-two punch. U2 has been a going concern for four decades now, with the same members as when they first came together.

It is hard to point to one aspect of these bands and say that is the quality by which they found stardom and fame. Certainly drive, talent, ambition, a love of music are all important, but the relationship within a band, of its members, is as difficult and straining as a marriage. Worse perhaps, as it involves more minds crashing over the same issue. Four or more, pulling this way and that.

I would have to assume that the two qualities defining the bands we came to know, bands that last and are able to create wonderful music, are love and compromise. One or the other would certainly get groups moving along for a while, but  it might take both to help them be more than a distraction for its members until such time as they graduate from college. It takes both, and more, to turn a band into a lifestyle.

Noah Fence hosts It’s a Nice World To Visit – Punk, Post-Punk, Garage Rock, Psych…A mix of new tracks and old favorites. On Freeform Portland Radio.