What happens when a band loses a key member?: Opinion

A couple of weeks ago, we at At The Barrier were jolted by the news that U2 have scheduled a run of shows for this autumn at The Venetian’s MSG Sphere in Las Vegas. However, even more shocking was the news that they’d be without drummer and founder member Larry Mullen Jr, who will be recovering from surgery following injuries to his “elbows, knees and neck.”

U2 have been keen to emphasise that LMJ’s absence will be a temporary one and that he’ll be back behind the kit again as soon as he’s fit – in the meantime his seat on the stool will be filled by Bram van den Berg from Dutch band Krezip. But, temporary or not, this latest development got us all thinking…

Throughout the history of rock music, bands have lost key members and, yet, have taken the decision to soldier on regardless – and, sometimes, they’ve achieved unexpected and unprecedented success by doing so.

Here’s the first installment in a series of our musings on a similar theme, with a look at what happened when a couple of iconic Prog bands lost a key member.


As 1965 drifted into the World Cup-winning year of 1966, the nascent Pink Floyd were doing some drifting of their own – drifting from being an R&B covers band into something far more original. They were abandoning the retreads of songs like Louie Louie, Gloria and Green Onions and instead, they had started to focus on just how weird their Vox AC30s and their Farfisa organ could be made to sound. And, in Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd had their own in-house pilot to lead the charge into outer space.

Inspired, as we now know all too well, by the mind-expanding qualities of lysergic acid diethylamide – LSD, or “Acid” as those in the know were starting to call it – Syd was hitting a rich vein of songwriting inspiration and the songs that would make up the bulk of the following year’s debut Floyd album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, were already in existence and forming the mainstay of Pink Floyd’s live shows by late 1966. As London’s “underground” scene blossomed, so did the Floyd, as they became the darlings of that scene, feted by the beautiful people – sundry Beatles and Stones included – whilst they established themselves playing marathon sets at venues like UFO and the Roundhouse.

At the beginning of 1967, Pink Floyd signed to EMI, who promptly began marketing the band as “The Sound of ’67,” a ploy inspired in no small part by Syd’s ability to produce catchy-but-novel pop tunes like See Emily Play and Arnold Layne and by his undeniable good looks. The debut album, though, when it emerged in August 1967, at the height of the Summer of Love, was something entirely new and entirely different. Packed with Barrett originals like Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun, Astronomy Domine, Matilda Mother and Interstellar Overdrive, it took rock music to places that no-one knew existed and, along with Hendrix’s Are You Experienced and The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper...,, it’s one of the supreme triumvirate of psychedelic albums. Pink Floyd had arrived, and Syd Barrett was the band’s undisputed star.

It didn’t last, of course. Increasingly damaged by his LSD use, and uncomfortable with the role of “pop star” that EMI were so keen to thrust upon him, Syd withdrew, quickly, dramatically and very publicly, until his position within Pink Floyd became untenable. The band did try to accommodate Syd, drafting in Cambridge buddy David Gilmour with the intention that DG would cover the live shows whilst Syd continued to create and expand the band’s material (a role similar to the one created for the similarly deteriorated Brian Wilson in the Beach Boys), but it didn’t work out and, whilst travelling to show at Southampton University on 28th January 1968, the band decided that they wouldn’t pick up Syd in the van. He was out.

So – what happened to Pink Floyd after the loss of their star man, Syd Barrett? Well – they didn’t do at all badly, as it turned out. Bass player Roger Waters stepped into the breach to assume songwriting (and obergrupenfurher) responsibilities and, after a shaky, but inspiration-filled, few years that yielded such lasting – if, perhaps, flawed – gems like A Saucerful Of Secrets, Atom Heart Mother and Ummagumma, they hit unbelievably rich paydirt in March 1973 when they revealed their piece-de -resistance treatise on human behavior, the multi-multi platinum-selling Dark Side of the Moon to an astounded public. And you know the rest…

But, despite the mega success that Pink Floyd went on to achieve right up until their 1983 break-up, their 1985 reformation (sans Waters) and on until the present day, the ghost of Syd Barrett was never fully exorcised. Several songs – most obviously Shine On You Crazy Diamond – on Wish You Were Here, the follow up album to Dark Side… (and a more durable offering, in my humble opinion…), explored the impact of Syd’s time in the band and his mental illness issues and, more recently, Nick Mason has taken an in-depth plunge into the early years of Pink Floyd, including a whole slice of the Syd Barrett legacy, with his excellent Nick Mason’s Saucerful Of Secrets project. Pink Floyd may have moved on from Syd Barrett, but they never managed to move too far away from him!


Genesis being worse or better without  Gabriel to me doesn’t revolve around who was the better singer in the Gabriel/Collins dispute as both were great deliverers of songs. Indeed on A Trick Of The Tail, I thought Gabriel was still singing in the band on some songs!

The style of songwriting clearly changed as much as the on-stage performance with no flamboyant headwear or costumes and surreal stories between songs. PC could perform Supper’s Ready vocally equally as well as PG if not with the same panache but Ernie couldn’t deliver a joke the same way as Eric but that doesn’t make him worse just different!

Genesis obviously went in a completely different direction without  PG, more commercial perhaps but PG changed radically too. Could he have done the groundbreaking Gabriel 3 (Melt) with Messrs Banks / Rutherford?   

Everyone loved the unique brand of prog up to The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway but that ‘sound’ was as much to do with MacPhail, Phillips and Steve Hackett too. Genesis were definitely not the same when the latter left and no group would have been,  his distinct style prevalent in his solo albums and work with Djabe.

I did miss the drama PG brought to live performances, which although not always popular with the band wowed audiences searching for something unique on which to hang their fox hat.

I rued the day PG decided to split but celebrate what he went on to achieve globally. Sadly priced out of his current tour but his last concert in Manchester was memorable, as was the time he skipped passed me when he came off stage during his first solo tour at the Apollo Manchester. The former in particular rivalled the Selling England Tour.

Respect should also be paid to why the split occurred. PG openly cites family issues which as well as band musical differences, if not greater. What is significant is that both pre-Gabriel and post-Gabriel era Genesis has been a major influence on prog music and it still is to this day. 

Having listened to prog music bands from all around the globe it is astonishing, yet easy,  to pick out how strong an influence both eras have. Both variants of Genesis have a huge legacy and we should celebrate and congratulate that without wasteful and pointless divisions of opinion.

The difference is nowhere near as strong as the Tull without Martin Barre divide. However, the way their music is packaged now, it’s just Ian Anderson’s (as brilliant as he is!) music now, although the Tull name has been in use for the last album plus the imminent new one. Off on a  tangent but  Martin has not been replaced and I’m merely trying to express that the impact on the group of MB leaving is totally different from that of PG leaving Genesis. 

So which Genesis should you opt for? Well, whatever rocks your boat. Personally, I prefer The Musical Box to I Can’t Dance, Harold The Barrel to Follow You Follow Me but I prefer Mama to  The Battle of Epping Forest. So it’s swings and roundabouts really. Pick out what you like….I know what I like!!

Watch out for further thoughts on What happens when a band loses a key member? featuring Iron Maiden and more in the coming months…

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