Wild Beasts will bid farewell to the world on Saturday 17 February with a final show at the Hammersmith Apollo. This will absolutely, definitely, certainly be the last time they ever play music together – unless, a few years down the line, an enterprising promoter notices there’s a Wild Beasts-shaped hole in the market, and offers them an attractively sizeable sum to reunite – and their departure has been marked by a decorum befitting a group who always seemed to do things the right way.
Bands tend to split up for a limited number of reasons. Either they’re sick of each other, or they’re sick of not making enough money, or they’re sick of spending large parts of their life in transit. Virtually every split holds one of those reasons at its heart. What’s more interesting, perhaps, is the manner in which they split: the how, rather than the why. So how do bands break up?
Wild Beasts’ split seems notably short of rancour, but for the model of how to end a band, it’s worth considering the example of REM (who also provided the best model for how to run a band: split everything equally, and give everyone a veto). Having decided not to split after the critical mauling their Around the Sun album received, so as not go out at the lowest point of their career, they hauled themselves back into the game until they reached a point where they were happy to depart the stage.
“We had fulfilled our contract and we had agreed among ourselves that we would not pursue a new contract,” Michael Stipe told me last year. “We were fiercely loyal, each of us, in our own ways. And friends for life, till the end of time. But it had become evident to us that it was time to either let it devolve into silliness, which none of us wanted, or make the difficult decision of walking away from it on our own terms and let that be that. And then spend the rest of our lives saying, ‘No, we are not going to reform, no there’s not going to be a return concert or a tour.’”
The amicable split is better for the participants’ mental health. The bloody and bitter split is an awful lot more fun to see from the outside. Nine years on, the parting of the Gallagher brothers before a scheduled Oasis show in Paris – they fought, Noel announced Oasis was over, that was that – continues to rumble on as the pair of them let no interview pass without taking a pop at the other. Or take the Eagles, whose split in 1980 was finally precipitated by Glenn Frey threatening his bandmate Don Felder on stage, counting down – on mic – the number of songs until Felder would get beaten up: “That’s three more, pal. Get ready.”
Less high profile, but even more confrontational, was the split of early Creation Records heroes the Loft in 1984. Singer Pete Astor had told his bandmates he planned to sack two of them and keep the band’s name, but then had to go ahead with a gig at Hammersmith Palais, where he was pre-empted by guitarist Andy Strickland telling the crowd that the band were splitting up after the show. This in turn prompted Astor to change some song lyrics to address his very-soon-to-be-ex-bandmates, before he took off his guitar and walked off stage, leaving them still playing.
The ideal farewell sees our heroes part ways with the greatest show of their career, and then do exactly what they want afterwards, rather than plod on and on until one original member is playing terrible versions of songs they didn’t actually write to 19 people in the backroom of a pub in Basingstoke. It takes a certain iron will to split a band in this fashion, and a blithe lack of concern for bandmates who might be wondering what their employment prospects are going to be, once the one who writes and sings the songs has moved on. But it certainly worked for Paul Weller when he ended the Jam with a sold-out tour and a No 1 single in December 1982. And it worked even better for Wham!, who sold out Wembley stadium for the show they billed as “The Final”. George Michael got to go off and be the defining British pop star of the late 80s, and Andrew Ridgeley got to go and do whatever it was he did, with loads of cash to do it with.
It’s usually the fans who are surprised when a band breaks up; the band themselves have tended to be aware for some time. But not always. Steps provide the golden example of this phenomenon: Ian “H” Watkins and Claire Richards gave letters to their bandmates before a show in December 2001, announcing their intention to leave. It seems fairly certain their manager knew, too, given he and Watkins were dating. So it was only the three who were being ditched – the three everyone was certain were the talentless ones – who were out of the loop. That this left deep and unhealed wounds became clear during the 2011 TV show Steps: Reunion, during which the extent of Lisa Scott-Lee’s bitterness about the affair was made abundantly clear.
There’s a certain dignity in just stopping, without ever actually saying that’s it – just waiting for the penny to drop among the fans. Abba never came out and said they’d parted ways; they just stopped recording and touring. Months before they did cease their activities, Noel Edmonds asked them on BBC1’s The Late, Late Breakfast Show whether they were going to call it a day. Oh no, they said, smiling the rictus grins you might expect from two divorced couples whom the public believes should live in each other’s pockets for ever. These days, though, they probably wouldn’t be allowed to do anything so unshowy as disappear: instead, they would have to announce an “indefinite hiatus”. Just in case, you know.
When bands split, there’s a lot of talk of “protecting the legacy”, despite the fact that they normally split because their music is no longer good enough to draw the audiences that once flocked. But on very rare occasions, bands are able to depart in a manner that simultaneously seems a fitting close to their career, cements their legacy, and provides an artefact that remains celebrated down the decades. Case in point: the Band, whose final show in 1975 featured more or less the entirety of rock royalty of the time, and was filmed by Martin Scorsese and recorded to become a live album. Honestly, there are worse ways to go than by being the stars of arguably the greatest concert film ever made. It certainly beats the pants off quitting after an album that peaked at No 92 and got one two-star review, even if that’s rather more common.
The farewell tour is big business for the right band, which might explain why so many farewells turn out not to be farewells. At the most cynical level there are the farewell tours no one really expects to be the end, even when they are (the members of Mötley Crüe claimed to have been shocked – shocked, I tell you! – when their booking agent told them what a good marketing ploy it was to claim their 2015 tour was a farewell). But given the Who’s 1982 US tour was a farewell, and they still haven’t called it a day, it’s as well never to take the farewell tour for granted. Worst of all, though, is the wholly cynical split – the one that was never intended to be final. And top of the list for this is Status Quo, whose 1984 farewell tour (followed by a slot at Live Aid the following summer) proved to be just a precursor to Francis Rossi reassembling the band with a lineup he could actually get along with, once bassist Alan Lancaster had emigrated to Australia.