Messing with perfection – when artists should leave well alone

It’s a crime cliche that serial killers are often drawn to revisit the scene of their crimes, risking their capture and arrest. If only your average murderer was that stupid. In fact, the only time this is likely to happen is when their arrest has already occurred, and they are led back to the murder scene in handcuffs.

Unfortunately great pop artists don’t often show the same good sense in refusing to go back to their finest work, revisiting the scene of the sublime. Again and again great bands have reformed, permanently sullying their legacy (hello, Sex Pistols), or writers have returned to their best material, only to suffer from the law of rapidly diminished returns (hiya, Irvine Welsh). Yes, some have fared better  – the Stone Roses recent reunion seems to have left a mostly sweet taste in the mouth, except for those nostalgic fans tempted to take Es for the first time in twenty years – but they seem to be the exception.

oh dear

Yesterday the ever brilliant Popjustice, recognising the perils of the reunion, took the rather ingenious step of presenting the reformed original members of the Sugababes – Mutya, Keisha and Siobhan – with a contract to be “amazing for the foreseeable future.” The three have signed and one can only hope there will be harsh consequences should they breach these terms. Like being added to the current line up of the Sugababes, for example.

In other troubling news, just over a week ago, writer Neil Gaiman made his announcement that in 2013 he would be releasing his first new proper Sandman comic book in 16 years.

For those who have lived their lives tragically unfamiliar with The Sandman comics, they rank among the greatest works of pop art – any art in fact – of the 20th century. Starting uncertainly in 1989 and running for 75 issues, the comic opened a window into a vast universe where Gaiman’s imagination, intelligence and extraordinary storytelling ran riot to spectacular effect. Funny, heartbreaking, weird and original, and filled with unforgettable characters  (Death as a delightfully cheerful goth, jovial Abel and his sadistic brother Cain, the terrifying Corinthian) only Alan Moore’s From Hell or Art Spiegelman’s Maus rival it for the title of greatest comic ever.

A panel from Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece The Sandman

“I’m delighted and nervous”, Gaiman declared himself on the task ahead, which is surely how most sane fans will feel. Actually adding to the depth and beauty of The Sandman comics seems an almost impossible task (Gaiman’s last attempt at revisiting the Sandman universe, 2003’s Endless Nights, was a mixed success, sometimes beautiful, and sometimes wearisome), while the odds of fucking it up are unfortunately high, as the following five dire warnings from history show.

The Beatles – Anthology

John Lennon’s death at least spared us one horror – The Beatles reforming and joining The Rolling Stones on the endless living dead tour from hell – but did unfortunately leave the way open for The Beatles Anthology. While the Anthology documentaries themselves were fascinating creations, the unreleased material was often superfluous and the decision of the remaining Beatles to indulge in a bit of grave-robbing, digging up a John Lennon solo demo and turning it into the gloopy, grisly “Free As A Bird” (video here) was nothing less than a humiliation (the first new Beatles song in decades couldn’t even reach number 1) and sacrilege. There are laws against that, you know, yet McCartney and Starr still walk free. Fortunately, “Let It Be… Naked” wasn’t quite such a cruel slap in the face, probably because the original wasn’t all that great anyway.

JRR Tolkien – The Silmarillion

JRR Tolkien’s influence on pop culture has been a mixed bag at best, and many are the atrocities carried out under his influence (from Terry Brooks’ dreary Shanarra pastiches to joyless films like Willow.) But the charm of The Hobbit and the peculiar portentous power of The Lord of the Rings are undeniable, and made for three of the best blockbuster films in recent memory. What a shame Tolkien himself couldn’t resist adding to his ouvre and doing it even more harm than the Brooks of the world. There are those who claim to love The Silmarillion’s deadening mythologising, embarrassingly awful writing (“There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made”) and dreary storytelling, including Tolkien himself. Which just goes to prove that the artist isn’t always right.

The Phantom Menace

George Lucas’ endless, often ruinous attempts to fiddle with the original Star Wars trilogy are well known (there may now be more versions and updates of the trilogy than there are of the Itunes software, which currently stands at 10.6.3) but none quite prepared the world for the ghastliness of The Phantom Menace. Awful new characters, weightless special effects, a script carved from ancient oak and, worst of all, deathly dullness reigned supreme. Funnily enough, Attack of the Clones showed marked improvement and Revenge of the Sith was actually pretty good, but the damage was done and nobody would ever be able to see the original trilogy with quite the same affection again.

This Life + 10

This Life, having stumbled through a middling first series, suddenly seized the zeitgeist in 1997 and created a second series that was nothing less than perfect. Its secret was nearly flawless writing and indelible characters (especially Daniela Nardini’s flawed, wondrous Anna: remember her picking her way drunkenly through a bar, trying to pick up an obviously attached man and reacting to his girlfriend throwing a drink into her face with a blink, a huge smile and the immortal words “you should have warned me, I’d have opened my mouth”). Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the creators of such genius couldn’t resist the reunion show, This Life + 10. The awful title was the first warning of the horrors to come. “After a decade away from our screens, This Life returned, like a long lost, much-loved friend,” said The Guardian. But if so it was a friend who had subsequently become an appalling, embarrassing, self parodic wreck and who you wanted out of your house immediately. “Terrible. Witless. Insubstantial. Saggy. Navel-gazing,” wrote Tim Teeman. He was being kind.

The Tears

When Bernard Butler departed Suede in 1994, he left a band at the peak of their preposterous early fame, with two extraordinary albums and some of the greatest B sides ever written as a legacy. Many onlookers at the time drew two conclusions: that this was British pop’s biggest loss since Morrissey and Marr split, and that nonetheless the Anderson/Butler songwriting partnership were assured of their chapter in the great British book of pop. Eleven years later and things hadn’t quite worked out like that: Suede under Anderson had become an embarrassing pastiche of themselves and Butler had become a journeyman musician occasionally reminding us of his genius (see McAlmont and Butler, or Neneh Cherry’s Woman) but just as likely to work with dullards like Duffy. So when Suede broke up, the reunion of Anderson and Butler seemed like an inspired move. The album, Here Come The Tears, swiftly disabused fans of that notion. Although containing a few moments which recaptured their early glory (the exquisite A Love As Strong As Death and the glorious epic Apollo 13), the album was mostly weighed down by plodding, tuneless indie like Refugees, 2 Creatures and Co-Star. Some mostly dull and  foul tempered live shows later, which mostly saw Brett Anderson sniping at the audience for not being more excited to see the two of them on the stage together, the two shuffled away from each other awkwardly and without announcement, like a divorced couple who had failed a reconciliation badly. Long may they stay apart.

So – which obvious mistakes and misfires did we miss? Which sequels and revisits make your skin crawl even to think about? Let us know in the comments or by emails.

By Neil


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