Coachella is America’s biggest annual music festival, drawing nearly two hundred thousand attendees to southeastern California for two magical weekends in April. The 2016 lineup has been announced, with this year’s eclectic mix ranging from Ellie Goulding to Ice Cube, from Sia to the Chainsmokers. With such a diverse pool of talent, there’s definitely something for everybody.
Of course, the main headliners draw the lion’s share of the publicity. This year’s big Sunday act is Calvin Harris, who will surely turn in a triumphant set, given his current reign as EDM’s golden boy. However, the real surprises are the Friday and Saturday night headliners, as both nights feature unlikely reunions: LCD Soundsystem are top of the bill on Friday, while Guns ‘N Roses will be the big draw on Saturday. The two bands couldn’t be more different if they tried: Guns N’ Roses is a hard rock band whose biggest hits were in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s; LCD Soundsystem is a ‘00s dance music outfit who were more critics’ darlings than commercial stars. But only one band can truly rule the Coachella 2016 weekend. So we’re going to take a look and determine which reunion will be the best!
Obviously a band is only as strong as their back catalogue of work, so we’ll start there:
Guns N’ Roses: When Guns N’ Roses exploded onto the scene in 1987, their raw, unbridled rage instantly differentiated them from the cheese-metal bands like Bon Jovi and Winger that ruled the airwaves. “Welcome to the Jungle” might as well have been a mission statement, introducing the band as a Rolling Stones for the MTV generation.
Follow-up, “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” showcased their more tender side, and the rock ballad gave them a number one in the US. A few years later, the dual Use Your Illusion albums spun off a ton of hits, with music videos that were elaborate (the wedding in “November Rain“), surreal (the three Axl Roses in “Don’t Cry“) or a strange blend of both (the dolphins in “Estranged“). Simply put: between 1988 and 1993, Guns N’ Roses were one of the biggest bands on the planet. Additionally, their long-gestating album, Chinese Democracy, was finally released in 2008, hitting number three in the album charts. However, despite the fact that the title track hit the top 40, none of the songs became enduring anthems in the same vein as their heyday hits.
LCD Soundsystem: LCD Soundsystem released their self-titled first album fifteen years after Guns N’ Roses’ prime. The album was hailed as an instant classic by critics, frequently populating decade “best of” lists for the 2000s. The album also housed their biggest hit, the cheeky Daft Punk homage, “Daft Punk is Playing At My House.”
Subsequent albums helped build a dedicated following, as “All My Friends” and “North American Scum” became cult classics. Their final album, This is Happening, was the band’s commercial high-water mark, hitting number ten, in 2010. However, despite the innovative music videos and critical success, none of LCD Soundsystem’s songs broke through to mainstream success, as all of their singles failed to crack the Hot 100 (or even the Bubbling Under, Alternative or Dance charts). Subsequently, while it could be argued that LCD Soundsystem have a better back catalogue of songs, Guns N’ Roses have, definitively, a more memorable collection of songs.
Winner: Guns N’ Roses, in a landslide.
Next, we have to examine each band’s respective history of performances.
Guns N’ Roses: In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Guns N’ Roses were everywhere, playing The Monsters of Rock in 1988, Farm Aid in 1990, and both the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert and the MTV Video Music Awards in 1992.
Additionally, the band toured extensively behind both their debut album, Appetite for Destruction, and again for the Use Your Illusion albums. Interestingly, the music was usually the least notable thing about a Guns N’ Roses concert, as threat of riots, fans getting ejected, cancellations, and/or walk-offs by the band meant that any night could descend into absolute chaos. The most notable example was when a show in St. Louis infamously ended in a riot as lead singer, Axl Rose stormed off the stage after security failed to apprehend a fan with a video camera. Because of this, a Guns N’ Roses concert came with an inherent element of danger, of untamed jeopardy, that was synonymous to — and helped epitomize — their bad boy image.
Unfortunately, the mammoth Use Your Illusion tour was the last time that the core Guns N’ Roses members played together, as Rose systematically jettisoned the original band and replaced them with glorified session musicians. The rotating cast of characters, which at one time included guitarist Buckethead, has been touring off and on for the past fifteen years to varying degrees of success. Their most recent show was on June 7, 2014, as part of a residency at The Joint, in Las Vegas.
LCD Soundsystem: While never reaching the same stratospheric heights as Guns N’ Roses, LCD Soundsystem managed to put on an impressive live show, playing some of the biggest festivals (Lollapalooza, Wireless Festival, Glastonbury) on the planet. Additionally, LCD Soundsystem shows were largely drama-free, with lead singer, James Murphy’s railing against scalped ticket prices being the most notable “scandal” associated with their shows.
LCD Soundsystem played what was then their final show, at Madison Square Garden, on April 2, 2011. The show sold out in less than a minute, a huge accomplishment considering their lack of radio hits, and was memorialized in the ironically-titled DVD, Shut Up and Play the Hits.
Winner: This one is down to personal taste, so I’ll call it a draw.
Finally, a reunion tour works best when a proper amount of time has passed, so we have to look at…
How Long They Have Been Away
Guns N’ Roses: This one is tricky: After a hiatus in the late ‘90s, some caricature of Guns N’ Roses has been touring off and on since 2001. In that sense, they never really went away. But the band has been bleeding members as early as 1990 when original drummer, Steven Adler was kicked out. Additionally, the “classic” core lineup (consisting of at least Rose, guitarist Slash, and bassist Duff McKagan) haven’t played together since the mid-’90s. Since their departure, Guns N’ Roses had a sort of “Destiny’s Child” revolving-door policy, meaning that nearly twenty different musicians have at some point been in Guns N’ Roses.
So, depending on how you look at it, Guns N’ Roses either haven’t gone away, or they’ve been out of commission for twenty years.
LCD Soundsystem: Despite James Murphy’s involvement in other post-LCD Soundsystem projects, the band hung up their shiny disco ball after that Madison Square Garden gig five years ago, and have been silent ever since.
Winner: Absence makes the heart grow fonder, effectively turning LCD Soundsystem’s half-decade “retirement” into more of a “hiatus.” And while it can be argued that Guns N’ Roses never went away, the “classic” lineup of twenty years ago is the one any fan actually cares about; this one goes to Guns N’ Roses.
So, logically, Guns N’ Roses should be the more impressive reunion. The relative familiarity of their hits and their history of incendiary live shows, coupled with their long time away from the spotlight means they have the ability to blow LCD Soundsystem out of the water. Unfortunately, this probably won’t happen, for two reasons:
1. The original Guns N’ Roses lineup might not even happen.
Despite (or maybe because of) Guns N’ Roses continued touring, the only incarnation that anyone truly cares to see must consist of at least Rose, Slash, and McKagan.
And while all three members are currently on board, with the promise of a continued tour after Coachella, this combination might combust before it has a chance to ignite. For starters, Rose’s megalomania — which systematically dismantled the band in the ‘90s — could derail the entire project before a single note is played. Given his track record, especially where live performances are concerned, this is a very real possibility.
And that’s assuming that nothing else goes wrong. Rose could fly off the handle because of unruly fans, festival conditions, the weather, perceived lapses in security, feuds with other bands on the bill, or if Tommy Hilfiger happens to show up.
There’s an unpredictability about Rose that makes a Guns N’ Roses show an exciting prospect. But the flip side is that fans get short-changed if the band storms off the stage. The same thing happened with Amy Winehouse’s shows in the late 2000s when her wild inebriation torpedoed many of her shows. Do fans really want to plunk down $400 for a band who might not even show?
2. Even if the original Guns N’ Roses lineup does occur, it’s bound to disappoint.
Guns N’ Roses were not only of the biggest bands in their late ‘80s and early ‘90s glory days; they were also one of the best bands. Consequently, they have a lot to live up to. So even assuming that they get the original lineup on the stage and the show goes off without a hitch, there are a billion other variables that could shoot them down.
For starters, with so many former members, the question becomes: who else will be included in this reunion? Dizzy Reed, who has toured with the band since 1990, is most likely a sure bet. But what about founding member, Izzy Stradlin, who left in 1991, and has only been tangentially related to the band ever since? Will Steven Adler be the drummer, or will they recruit Matt Sorum, who played on the Use Your Illusion albums? And how much would any of these former members add to or dilute the original brand?
Then, of course, there’s the songs. While LCD Soundsystem’s relatively small catalogue means that they’ll inevitably play every song any fan would want to hear, Guns N’ Roses will have to be more selective in their choices. They’ll definitely play “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Sweet Child ‘O Mine,” but dedicating more than one or two songs to Chinese Democracy would be unwise.
However, most damning of all is the strange paradox that traps any hard rock band divided by civil war: In order to see the original lineup, the members are going to have to kiss, make up, and play nice… which neuters any of the original temperamental danger that made them so exciting in the first place. Consequently, even if the original lineup goes on without any hitches and only play the hits, we’re still doomed to a watered down Guns N’ Roses. What that means is that this reunion will be, at best, a sort of nostalgic victory lap for the band (a la the Rolling Stones, once again), but at worst, would tarnish what remaining legacy the band have. In that sense it looks like nothing can save them from sliding into pastiche.
Meanwhile, LCD Soundsystem are not shackled with these same confinements: While James Murphy has employed the same familiar faces in his music videos and live shows, the band is essentially just him. His band has not suffered continued lineup changes, thereby allowing the LCD Soundsystem brand to remain safe and consistent. Furthermore, his band have never reached the same stratospheric heights as Guns N’ Roses, which means that his threshold for success is much lower. In other words, all Murphy needs to do is show up, play a reasonably decent show, and it will be a success.
So LCD Soundsystem are, surprisingly, going to be the better of the two big reunions over Coachella weekend. LCD Soundsystem’s reunion might not resound in the same way as the Guns N’ Roses reunion we’re all dreaming of, but at least it’s not doomed to disappoint. Should Guns N’ Roses ever find a way to transcend all the “if/thens” that plague them, it will be one of the best reunions of all time. But for now, LCD Soundsystem are going to win the weekend. See you out there!