Musicology - Backing bands

Beck with former backing band The Flaming Lips.
Beck with former backing band The Flaming Lips.

IN the world of pop music, no one cares about the backing band.

Who are those guys playing the instruments in the background while some popstar gets all the adulation? No one knows, but they're doing a lot of the hard work.

And every so often, the backing band goes on to big things or they're already a big thing.

Here are five famous bands who worked as backing bands at some point in their career.

The Flaming Lips

WHEN Beck released the album Sea Change in 2002, it was another curveball from the eclectic artist best known for the slacker anthem Loser and the classic cut-and-paste pop album Odelay. Sea Change dispensed with the oddball lyricism, threw away the funk of previous album MidniteVultures, and repainted indie icon as a sincere songwriter. To take the reinvention further, Beck decided to hire fellow alt-rock heroes The Flaming Lips as both his opening act and backing band on the US tour to promote the album. The performances were very well received, even if Beck was in danger of being out-personalitied by main Lips man Wayne Coyne. Although everyone looked to be having fun, Coyne was honest about Beck's diva-ish behaviour. "I don't really need people to drive me around town, when I check into a hotel I don't check out because of the way the pillows smell," NME reported Coyne saying. "He would take limousines when he could have just got in the van." Esquire Magazine, who followed the line-up on the road said it thusly: "Beck is the kind of guy who takes a limo and then worries about people knowing he takes a limo. Beck is the kind of guy who worries about this hotel room and walks out if he doesn't like the color of the walls."

But there is no bad blood, according to a Coyne interview with Contactmusic. "Beck didn't treat people badly, he was just so oblivious to other people's lives," he said. "None of it's horrible. He's not a Nazi or anything. He's just a little inconsiderate. To be considerate you have to have some idea of what's going on. I mean, we'd be set to rehearse from noon till midnight every day. And there'd be days when he wouldn't show up at all, and he doesn't call. I mean, we have cellphones. I still love his music and I still admire him, but there were days when you'd be like, 'if he does it one more time, we're all going home'."


FOR one show only, at Disneyland of all places, Eagles were the backing band for Linda Ronstadt. They weren't quite Eagles at that stage, but Ronstadt inadvertantly brought the four original members - Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon - together to form that band, which would go on to become one of the biggest acts of the '70s. All four members played on Ronstadt's self-titled debut album, which was recorded in 1971, with Henley on drums and Frey on guitar, and Meisner and Leadon guesting as session musos. During their time as part of Ronstadt's huge revolving backing band and studio line-up (25 people played or sang on her record, not counting Ronstadt), the quartet formed a group and signed with David Geffen's fledling Asylum Records at Ronstadt's urgings. That Disneyland gig proved to be a defining moment and convinced Frey, Henley, Meisner and Leadon to form Eagles. They rehearsed for two weeks, went to see David Geffen, and he signed them to his fledgling label Asylum Records.

The Beatles

THIS year saw the 50th anniversary of the first Beatles single, Love Me Do, and while it may be the first record credited to the band, it's not the first single the Fab Four played on. That honour goes to the 1961 single My Bonnie, which featured The Beatles as the backing band for Tony Sheridan. During 1960 and 1961, The Beatles played regularly residencies in Hamburg, Germany, where they met English singer/guitarist Sheridan. As their friendship grew, The Beatles would occasionally back Sheridan at his gigs, or Sheridan would jump up and do a couple of songs with The Beatles at their gigs. In mid-1961, at the urging of the German arm of Polydor Records, The Beatles (then with Pete Best on drums) and Sheridan teamed up for a recording session. They cut seven tracks (five backing Sheridan and two without him), including a ramped-up version of the standard My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean. Released initially as My Bonnie by Tony Sheridan & The Beat Brothers ('Beatles' was apparently too close to a German slang word for 'penis') it was later re-released under The Beatles name to cash in on their increasing fame. The single made it into the top 30 in Australia, the top 5 in Germany and the top 50 in the UK. The Beatles would play as Tony Sheridan's backing band one more time - in April 1962 - to fulfil their contractual obligations with German Polydor, but there is some debate as to which songs recorded in that session The Beatles are actually playing on.

The Band

BEST known as Bob Dylan's backing group, The Band were already experienced sidemen before the artist formerly known as Robert Zimmerman came calling. Drummer/singer Levon Helm was originally a member of Canadian rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins' backing band The Hawks, and one by one, Helm's future Band-mates became Hawks - bassist Rick Danko, keyboardist Garth Hudson, pianist Richard Manuel and guitarist Robbie Robertson were all poached from other bands to join Hawkins. 

In 1964, they tired of Hawkins and went off to form their own group, known variously as Levon & The Hawks or Canadian Squires, but their time as a backing band was far from over because in mid-'65 Dylan came knockin' on their door. Most of The Hawks who were with Dylan on his debut electric world tour, including when he was famously called "Judas!" by the audience in Manchester. After the tour, Dylan was in a bad motorcycle accident and in the wake of his recovery, The Hawks moved nearby to Dylan and began making what became known as The Basement Tapes. Renaming themselves The Band (Dylan's tour was promoted as "Bob Dylan and the Band"), they struck out on their own and made a string of excellent albums including Music From Big Pink, The Band, and Cahoots. They would reteam with Dylan to make the record Planet Waves in 1974 and then conducted a joint tour. The Band officially bid farewell with The Last Waltz concert in 1976 (released as an album/film in 1978) which saw them return to their roots by backing such luminaries as Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, and Muddy Waters, as well as playing their own amazing compositions.

The Meters

NEW Orleans band The Meters had a huge influence on music, helping to give birth to funk and going on to be one of the most sampled bands in hip hop history. From 1969 to 1972, they were the house band for Allen Toussaint's label Sansu Enterprises, churning out hits while backing vocalists such as Earl King, Lee Dorsey, and Betty Harris. In between they recorded their own hits (they regularly cracked the Billboard R&B chart top 40), including such early funk staples as Sophisticated Cissy, Cissy Strut, Look-Ka Py Py, and Chicken Strut. From '69 'til their initial break-up in '77, they recorded eight of their own albums and became well known in their own right, but were still highly sought as a backing group. Despite officially ending their house band days in '72, they went on after that to join Paul McCartney on the b-side My Carnival, Robert Palmer on his debut album Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley (which also featured Little Feat's Lowell George), and Dr John on the record Desitively Bonnaroo. The latter album inspired the name of the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee, which re-united The Meters and Dr John to play the album in full in 2011 - 37 years after its release.


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