'Dinosaur bands' rock all the way to the bank, fuelled by fans' nostalgia and fear

What's old is … well, it's actually still old but it's certainly popular — and profitable — when it comes to rock and roll.

'It speaks to this almost unquenchable thirst for one's youth and for the music of one's youth': John Einarson

Rock legend Alice Cooper performing at the Fezen Festival southwest of Budapest, Hungary in 2017. The 70-year-old rocker will hit the stage at Winnipeg's Burton Cummings Theatre in August. (The Associated Press)

What's old is … well, it's actually still old but it's certainly popular — and profitable — when it comes to rock 'n' roll.

A scan of Winnipeg's concert listings for the next few months might make think you fell into a wormhole and re-emerged in a time when headbands, tube tops, snakeskin tights and big, back-combed hair were popular.

"It's dusty," joked longtime concert promoter Kevin Donnelly about some of the acts and their vintage.

Among them is 70-year-old Vincent Damon Furnier, better known as Alice Cooper, playing at the Burton Cummings Theatre in August — nearly 50 years after his band released its first album.

American rock band Chicago is seen in this file photo from 1970 when they were in England to top the bill at the Isle of Wight festival. They'll be at Winnipeg's Bell MTS Place this September. (Ian Showell/Getty Images)

Dennis DeYoung, the 71-year-old former lead singer of Styx, is touring in celebration of the 40th anniversary of that band's breakout 1977 album, The Grand Illusion, which launched them to stardom with many songs he wrote. He'll also be at The Burt in August.

And Joe Jackson, 63, whose first hit, Is She Really Going Out with Him?, came out in 1979 is here in July.

Another 20 bands or solo artists will also be performing in the city between June and December, all of whom have been performing at least 30 years, and some as long as 51.

That's not to mention tribute bands to Queen and the Beatles that are also passing through, or the acts that came through earlier this spring, including 73-year-old Rod Stewart, 74-year-old Steve Miller, 68-year-old Peter Frampton, and Santana, which has been going since 1966.

British rocker Rod Stewart, who has been performing since 1961 and is one of the best-selling music artists of all time, played in Winnipeg in April. (Owen Sweeney/Invision/The Associated Press)

"Classic rock is probably bigger now than when it was the new music of the '70s. It's huge," said John Einarson, a music historian from Winnipeg.

"These dinosaur bands really play a huge part in the live music market in North America. Their share or percentage of the live music gate that's out there is really quite massive."

Nostalgia, baby

So what's propelling it?

Two main drivers are sentimentalism and apprehension.

The first is the same thing that makes people drag out old yearbooks or drive past their childhood homes, boring their kids with stories that begin with "When I was your age."

Songs are powerfully linked with memories and many people "experienced seminal moments and their formative years listening to certain music," said Donnelly, who heads up venues and entertainment for True North Sports & Entertainment, which owns and operates Bell MTS Place and the Burton Cummings Theatre.

As those memories slide further into the past, the desire to cling to them grows.

"Nostalgia is a powerful thing," said Einarson. "And the popularity of these bands speaks to this almost unquenchable thirst for one's youth and for the music of one's youth."

Mike Reno of Loverboy performs on stage in 2016 in Inglewood, Calif. Their latest tour brings them to Winnipeg's Club Regent Event Centre in July. (The Associated Press)

As the baby boom generation aged, the '50s and '60s bands like the Searchers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and Gary Lewis & the Playboys experienced a renaissance, Einarson said.

"What you see now is that nostalgia moving away from just the baby boomers and into the classic-rock era. We're talking about the '70s and into the '80s."

It happens whenever a generation hits middle age and finds itself with disposable income to fuel that nostalgia. Whereas they scraped together money for a concert ticket when they were 19, they now they have careers and spare cash.

"You want to go out and have a nice evening with your spouse where you can relive the music of when you first got together or your shared experiences as teenagers," Einarson said.

"These acts cater to that."

Last chances

The other push behind the revival tours — apprehension — stems from the concern that time is limited to see those aging acts.

Robin Zander, left, and Bun E. Carlos from Cheap Trick perform at the 31st Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in April 2016. They're at the Burton Cummings Theatre in August. (The Associated Press)

"It may be the last time to see [blank], and you can fill in the blank with a long list of names," said Donnelly.

"People are really mourning the absence of Tom Petty and the Tragically Hip now, and bands that you thought you had an opportunity still to participate in a live setting with … but are now gone forever."

The notion of a "farewell tour" has become the butt of jokes as bands routinely claimed they were done with the road, only to return a few years later.

But it's becoming increasingly clear, with the recent deaths of some big-name stars, that "farewell" could truly mean "final."

"The growing number of artists on that 'this might be the last time' list is growing and it has created a resurgence of interest in them," Donnelly said.

Who's that in the band?

The funny thing is, in many cases, it's not even the original band — there might be a couple of original members, Einarson said.

But the average person might not necessarily care, as long as whoever's on stage is able to reproduce those hits and tap into those memories.

"The lead singer from Styx is coming to Winnipeg, not even with the band Styx. He's coming and performing those songs because they still resonate with people of a certain generation," Einarson said.

John Mellencamp, who will be in Winnipeg in October, is seen during a concert in 2017 in Nashville, Tenn. (The Associated Press)

DeYoung can't call himself Styx, because other members of the band are still touring under that banner — along with 59-year-old tourmate Joan Jett and her band the Blackhearts — but he can legally say he sings the songs of Styx.

That's the key — getting the band's name in somehow, said Einarson.

Another example Einarson gives is the Guess Who, Winnipeg's own legendary rockers. The band still tours all over the United States but just one original member is currently performing with the group — drummer Garry Peterson.

"They keep really busy because they can do a reasonable facsimile of the Guess Who songs and whip the crowd up, and everybody goes home with American Woman and No Time in their heads and can claim they saw the Guess Who," said Einarson.

"It isn't necessarily the authenticity of the members of the band. It's the name and the songs."

'Pension-fund tour'

While fans are driven by nostalgia, many of the bands are driven by need.

"Rock 'n' roll musicians aren't necessarily known for saving money. Some of these are known as the pension-fund tour," Einarson said.

While that doesn't apply to enduring iconic rockers like the Rolling Stones or The Who, "for some, there's a financial need for sure," he said.

Boney M. playing in the West Bank city of Ramallah in 2010. Just in time to get you into the Christmas spirit, they'll be at the Club Regent Event Centre in December. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

In an era of music streaming, records aren't much of a financial stream anymore. The way to earn those dollars is through touring and selling merchandise.

And for many veteran rockers, now is the time in their careers where they can actually make some decent money, said Einarson.

That's because the bands aren't seeing their income siphoned away by agents, promoters, managers, producers, lawyers and record labels.

"There are plenty of acts that never made a penny from records that sold in the hundreds of thousands, even in the millions, because they owed everyone money," said Einarson.

"When you're an indentured servant to the record label, which advances you money to make the record and go on tour, you have to pay that loan back before you see anything."

Harlequin's original guitarist, Glen Willows, left, and vocalist George Belanger, right, performing at a July 2016 Fort McMurray fundraising concert in Edmonton. The Winnipeg band can now tour 'and get top dollar because people recognize the name,' says rock historian John Einarson. (Terry Reith/CBC)

Vocalist George Belanger from Winnipeg band Harlequin makes more money now than he ever did in the group's heyday during 1980s, said Einarson, who has been a friend of Belanger's since they were teens. 

"Now he can go out as Harlequin and get top dollar because people recognize the name. Plus, he's the voice, so it doesn't really matter who the other guys in the band are."

Just as Belanger, DeYoung, Jackson, Cheap Trick and Alice Cooper are doing now, Einarson expects to see retro tours eventually pay homage to the music and memories of the '90s and 2000s, and many of those overplayed songs you hear right now.

"If they're the songs you connect with at that coming-of-age time in your life, you're going to want to hear them in your later years because they bring back fond memories of a particular time," he said.


Tours hitting Winnipeg this year

  • Social Distortion, the punk rock band formed in 1978, plays the Burton Cummings Theatre in June.
  • Melissa Etheridge, recording since 1988, is at the Club Regent Event Centre in July.
  • Wang Chung and Cutting Crew, formed in 1980 and 1985, respectively, are at The Garrick in June.
  • Loverboy, formed in 1979, play Club Regent Event Centre in July.
  • Joe Jackson, who's been recording since 1979, is at the Burton Cummings Theatre in July. 
  • Dennis DeYoung a founding member of Styx in 1972 and the former lead vocalist, is at the Burton Cummings Theatre in August.
  • Blue Oyster Cult, formed in 1967, is at the Burton Cummings Theatre in August.
  • Trooper, formed in 1975, is at Club Regent Event Centre in August.
  • Nazareth, formed in 1968, plays the Burton Cummings Theatre in August.
  • Headstones, formed in 1987, play the Burton Cummings Theatre in August.
  • Alice Cooper, 70, whose band put out its first release in 1969, is at the Burton Cummings Theatre in August.
  • Cheap Trick, formed in 1974, is at the Burton Cummings Theatre in August.
  • Chicago, formed in 1967, plays Bell MTS Place in September.
  • Metallica, formed in 1981, hits the stage at Bell MTS Place in September.
  • The Rewind Tour featuring Aqua and special guests Prozzak and Whigfield, is at Bell MTS Place in September.
  • The Proclaimers, formed in 1983, play the Club Regent Events Centre in September.
  • Winnipeg's own Crash Test Dummies, formed in 1988, play the Club Regent Event Centre in October.
  • Steve Earle, who has been performing since 1974, plays the Club Regent Event Centre in September with his band, the Dukes.
  • John Mellencamp, who has recorded since 1976 under different names — Johnny Cougar, John Cougar, and John Cougar Mellencamp — is at Bell MTS Place in October.
  • Boney M., formed 1974, plays the Club Regent Event Centre in December.

And of course, there's the second annual Winnipeg Classic RockFest in August with a lineup that includes Tom Cochrane with Red Rider (they started playing together in 1978), Kim Mitchell (active since 1973), Holly Woods & Toronto (whose first album came out in 1980), and former Guess Who member Greg Leskiw (part of the band from 1970-1972), playing with his new band Monster Hollow.

About the Author

Darren Bernhardt

Reporter/Editor

Darren Bernhardt began his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009.

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