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February 20, 2013 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

What does it mean to peak?  When does a person climax?[1]  Bands, actors, directors, painters, writers, everyone has their peak.  What I’ve always wondered though, is if the person realizes that they’ve peaked.  Everyone’s life is basically parabola shaped.  We rise, we peak, we fall, crescendo to decrescendo.

Led Zeppelin peaked in 1975, Van Halen in 1984, Dwight Gooden in 1985, Madonna in 1990, Van Gogh right after he chopped his ear off, and Kevin Smith in 1997 just to name a few.  They, along with countless others have risen and fallen, and while some may appear to be at their peak, chances are they probably aren’t.  Just because a band goes to #1 or is still around after 25 years doesn’t mean that they never lost their edge or haven’t already peaked.  Madonna will never matter more to the world than she did in 1990, the Bruce Springsteen that comes to everyone’s mind is from 1985, not from 2009.  Thirty years from now you’ll still hear “Scar Tissue” on the radio, but you won’t hear “The Adventures of Raindance Maggie”.[2]

Comebacks are a bit of an outlier though because they usually turn out to be the peak, the magnum opus, like Californication, or Back in Black.  That, or they come after a period of futility and crap albums, and renew interest in the band simply by not being a horrible album.  Such albums include Death Magnetic, Steel Wheels, and Permanent Vacation.  They aren’t bad albums, but simply because they made their bands relevant again doesn’t mean that the band is back to make another masterpiece.  Michael Jackson was still relevant even when he wasn’t recording, but it was because of who he was, and what he had already done.  That’s why comebacks can’t really be considered a peak, because much of it is predicated upon what came before, namely the true peak.

The Rolling Stones serve as a perfect example of what I’m talking about.  The Stones peaked in 1969 with Let It Bleed, but Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St., and Some Girls are all solid albums, but in 1969 the Stones owned the world.  Although Some Girls is my favorite album by them, and Exile is considered their best, musically and culturally they were never more important and dynamic than in 1969.  It’s hard to explain; if Exile is their best, then Let It Bleed is better than the best, while not being the best.  Even though it doesn’t seem like a drop off at all for them1969 was the peak for them because that was the moment when they got to the top of the world.

The real problem arises though, when a band realizes that they’ve reached their creative peak and tries to prevent the inevitable, by working too hard on their next album.  Fleetwood Mac is the best example of this.  Rumours is an incredible album, and guitarist Lindsey Buckingham new it.  He also knew that there was no way on God’s green earth that he was ever going to make anything better than that album.  So, what did he try and do?  He tried to top Rumours with the follow up album Tusk, an album that so blatantly sounded like Lindsey Buckingham was trying to do everything possible to top Rumours.  Akin to something from a Greek myth, by trying to make an album superior to Rumours, Buckingham inevitably doomed it to being much worse.  It was almost as if fate were vindicating itself upon the band for trying to escape some predestined course.

That brings me to another point, that of bands spending the rest of their careers trying to top their peak, which by the laws of physicals is impossible to do.  The Smashing Pumpkins, or just Billy Corgan at this point, would do anything to top Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.  That’s why he spent the 1998-2007 trying to get away from the album by playing weird effect laden music that sounded like Nine Inch Nails covering the Cure.[3]  Axl Rose is the same way.  First of all, for some reason he’s under the impression that he peaked in 1987, when he actually peaked in 1991.[4]  The problem with him though is that he is just so concerned with peaking; he doesn’t want to.  What’s interesting about Rose is that I think he really does understand that he’s reached the zenith point of his career, the problem though, is that he wants to get there again, and he thinks that he can, when there’s no way that will ever happen again.  There’s this stubborn refusal to admit that he won’t ever again reign atop of musical world.

Going to the other end of the spectrum, are the bands who have already admitted that they peaked and as a result have relegated themselves to making decent, not great albums anymore.  That or they don’t really give a shit and just churn out albums for nothing else than to keep busy I suppose.  Pink Floyd knew that they peaked after 1979, but still put out a few more albums after that.  They weren’t ambitious or expansive as previous works, but that’s because they knew that that point of their careers were over.  I really don’t think they even cared that no one has ever listened to The Division Bell from start to finish, but that’s because they’ve accepted and admitted the fact that they had time in the sun, it was fun while it lasted, but it’s now over for them.  Aerosmith is the same way.  Deep down they know that they won’t ever put out an album as good as Toys in the Attic ever again, but until 1993 they were still intent on making quality rock albums.  Whether or not this was because they thought they could top Toys, or were still on a rush from being sober, remains to be seen.  After 1993, though they grew content with the fact that Toys will forever be their best, and stopped trying to be good, and so the relegated themselves to being mediocre because they had nothing left to prove.

Music is different from movies when it comes to peaks, because in film a lot of it is a collaborative effort, whereas in music most of it depends on the band.  Pulp Fiction is arguably John Travolta’s peak, but it wouldn’t have happened without Quentin Tarantino.  Obviously with sports, when an athlete peaks is totally reliant on whenever they are at their most fit and physically capable for the task at hand, which is an aspect of youth.  In music everyone wants the stars it seems, that much is true.  The difference comes from what they do when they realize that while they were up in the space, the world kept turning without them.

[1] And no, I’m not referring to orgasm.  Just trust me.

[2] This I guarantee.

[3] Depending on what kind of mood he’s in this may be either the best or worst thing you could ever say to Billy Corgan.

[4] Because I clearly know better than Axl Rose when it comes to his own life.


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