There are lots of sad songs about the break-up of romances, but not many about the breakups of the bands who sing them. But bands are a lot like marriages and other long-term relationships: They’re often formed in the hot passion of youth and then endure ups and downs as the members mature and struggle with life’s vicissitudes. They also break up for many of the same reasons as relationships: incompatibility, jealousy, bad behavior, and financial strife. And like some relationships, bands get back together, over and over again, whether it’s good for them or not. Band (and relationship) breakups also tend to fall into a few types:
Perhaps the most famous of all band breakups, the dissolution of the Beatles in 1969 is usually blamed on Yoko Ono, John Lennon’s girlfriend at the time and future wife. Certainly, she played a role: Ono’s presence in the recording studio irked the other Beatles, and a successful performance of the Plastic Ono Band—her collaboration with Lennon—may have given him the final push out the door. But, as in marriages, band members don’t stray if they are happy at home, and tensions had been building within the band for years. Ono is a convenient scapegoat, but this relationship was already on the rocks.
Everyone knows you should have more respect for your partner than to end a long relationship with an impersonal message but that doesn’t mean everyone follows that rule. With two influential albums in the late 1980s, alt-rock band the Pixies seemed like they were on their way to breaking out. But jealousy and interpersonal drama made mischief, and finally, founding member Black Francis decided to end it. The year was 1993, which means texting the way we know it in 2019 wasn’t an option, so he did the deed via fax (fax!) to bassist Kim Deal and drummer David Lovering.
“Our decision-making process has completely failed,” is how frontman Zach de la Rocha explained the downfall of Rage Against the Machine when he announced their breakup in 2000. More recently, guitarist Tom Morello took some of the blame for why the political rock group couldn’t keep it together, admitting that his lack of sensitivity contributed to why the bandmates’ “competing visions” clashed instead of meshed.
Financial woes are one of the biggest reasons why marriages fail, and bands are no different: If no one is buying albums or tickets, it’s hard to stay together. Such was the case with Big Star, a group with far greater artistic than commercial success. The band—led by Alex Chilton, the former teen-prodigy singer of the Box Tops—got rave reviews for its 1972 debut, #1 Record, but sold few copies. Its second album did even worse, thanks largely to record-label politics. Columbia Records, which by then owned Big Star’s rights, declined to release its third album at all, and the band dissolved in 1974, unable to make a living playing together. By the early 1980s, Chilton was broke and mopping floors for a living in New Orleans, while his music was inspiring R.E.M., Wilco, and the Replacements. In 2003, all three Big Star albums were named to Rolling Stone’s Top 500 albums of all time.
We all know that couple who never “officially” breaks up, but for all intents and purposes have basically split. The music world version of this phenomenon is the indie pop band Fun. Four years ago, in February 2015, members Jack Antonoff, Andrew Dost, and Nate Ruess posted an update for their fans explicitly saying they’re not breaking up, but will release new music or tour only when feeling “inspired to do so,” and they haven’t provided any updates since. Clearly, inspiration hasn’t struck for years; meanwhile, all three members have other projects going on, so while, OK, they haven’t broken up, they’re really not together, either.
Can’t stay together, can’t stay apart: that’s Fleetwood Mac in a nutshell. The band’s intense chemistry has sparked multiple affairs between members as well as multiple breakups. Is it any wonder one of their hits is “Go Your Own Way”?
It’s a familiar story: Relationships formed when members saw each other as equals fray when one person’s star shines brighter than the other’s (or others’). The Police were a tight three-man partnership when they formed in 1977, but by the early 1980s, Sting’s star was ascending. He was cast in 1984’s Dune (no matter that it was a flop), and with the success of his solo album Dream of the Blue Turtles in 1985, it became clear there was no going back. The Police reunited to record a sixth album in 1986, but when drummer Stewart Copeland broke his collarbone falling off a horse, it gave Sting the excuse he needed to pull the plug. “It was clear Sting had no real intention of writing any new songs for the Police,” Summers later wrote. “It was an empty exercise.”
When one member of a marriage or band is abusing substances, the rest can try and soldier on. But when everyone involved is on drugs you have a real problem. Sly and the Family Stone was a brilliant band that blended funk, soul, and rock, but was undone by drug use, particularly that of lead singer Sly Stone. The band became notorious for members missing gigs or performing while high, occasionally leading their sometimes-furious audiences to riot. Eventually word about their unreliability spread. In 1975, when the band booked Radio City Music Hall in New York, the venue was less than a quarter full. Broke after that fiasco, the Family Stone called it quits.
It’s Breakup Week at Quartz! Here are more stories on breakups, breaking up, and heartbreak: