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From The Beatles to Sugababes to Rolling Stones: The pain of the almost-band-member

‘I remember when they headlined Glastonbury… I was sat at home, on my own’. Bands changing their line-ups is a cutting moment for the unwanted member

Everyone loves an underdog, right? And sometimes people do succeed against the odds. But they can also be stymied by bad luck, bad advice, bad decisions and, perhaps when they least expect it, ice-cold betrayal. As such, The Rejects: An Alternative History of Popular Music, by Jamie Collinson, is a salutary read for anyone interested in the dynamics of group gatherings – and essential if you happen to be in a rock or pop band or are thinking of being in one. Spoiler alert? Be careful what you wish for.

The original inspiration for The Rejects was Jason Everman, an early member of Nirvana and Soundgarden who left the music industry to join the United States army, where he served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I’d always remembered him because I was obsessed with Nirvana, and although he’s a tiny part of musical history, he loomed larger in my memory because I’d been into that band so much. But then he found his true calling, got these medals and became, sort of, a warrior poet,” Collinson says from Los Angeles. “I have always been drawn to characters that struggle a bit – they can be very difficult to be around, but at the same time there’s often something quite special about them.”

Collinson has looked into more than 30 rock- and pop-related figures, some relatively unfamiliar, others who were once in acts as well-known as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Human League, Metallica and The Velvet Underground. All suffer some level of indignity, treachery, heartbreak or mental battering, from the original drummer of The Beatles, Pete Best (“It’s like a cut. It bleeds, it heals, but the scar’s still there”), and cofounder of The Human League, Martyn Ware (“the simple idea that your best mate would betray you was incomprehensible”), to Siobhán Donaghy of Sugababes (“It was clear there was someone in the band that never wanted me in”) and Arctic Monkeys’ original drummer, Andy Nicholson (”I remember when they headlined Glastonbury… I was sat at home, on my own… just crying“).

Many were treated appallingly, Collinson says; others were the architects of their own misfortune. “There’s not much you can do about someone who’s struggling with drug addiction,” he says about Danny Whitten, the guitarist with Neil Young’s Crazy Horse, who died of a drug overdose in 1972, at the age of 29. Brian Jones, the original Rolling Stones guitarist, “probably wasn’t a nice man, but there’s something sympathetic about him, and there was something quite beady-eyed about the way Mick Jagger and Keith Richards treated him”.


One of Collinson’s underlying themes is the way people deal with rejection. “I really looked for people that had done something great after they got kicked out of bands, but it’s pretty obvious that most of the stories end in tragedy. I think most of them don’t really recover. The ambition that gets you somewhere means it’s very hard to leave, doesn’t it? I’ve seen it with friends who work in finance and stuff like that, and you think, well, why don’t they just quit? They’ve gotten enough of everything, yet the thing that got them there means they can’t ever really leave. That seems to apply to a lot of people in bands.”

Collinson has observational knowledge in these matters. Now in his mid-40s, he has more than 25 years’ experience in the music industry, initially with the UK record label Ninja Tune, which as a teenager he was fanatical about. “I started as an intern there and didn’t really leave for 20 years. I ended up managing the Ninja Tune hip-hop label Big Dada, and then gradually moved to the United States with them to set up their North American headquarters.” Several years ago he moved into management, and he is now part of a Los Angeles-based team overseeing, among others, Brian Eno and Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never.

There’s so much ego involved in music projects, and so many people decide that they’re actually the most important person

—  Jamie Collinson

The random nature of things, Collinson’s series of sorry stories implies, is that although it can be awful to be kicked out of something you love, it can also create unforeseen opportunities, via “magical moments where people simply shuffle together and make things work. There’s something very reassuring about that because lots of people just stumble into these great moments and become the right person for the job at the right time. It can give the lie to the idea of the perfect line-up and the romantic notion that the original line-up is everything, which often it isn’t.”

Collinson has seen record labels that aren’t as committed to their artists as they could be, and album-tour-album-tour strategies that are more akin to exhausting treadmills than creative undertakings. It’s therefore crucial to be able to process commercial success and failure. Every band, he says, will eventually miss the mark. “Even if you have a good run, failure looms large. That’s tough, because people have given it their all, and sometimes they haven’t focused on developing a backup set of skills. It looks very glamorous from the outside, I know, but the endless failure is something I’ve always felt quite alert to.” The workload is very heavy, he continues, and the artists who make it tend to be utterly committed, but “the brutality of the industry is there for everyone to see”.

Happily, there are bands that have stuck together through thick and thin and are, more or less, still out and about. They include Coldplay, Blur, Radiohead and U2, all of which are anomalies, it seems, in valuing relationships and friendships over the sticking of knives into backs.

“Some of these bands seem to instinctively know what a good thing they’ve got in a way that quite a lot of other bands often don’t. There’s so much ego involved in music projects, and so many people decide that they’re actually the most important person. Containing that within a band is obviously difficult, and the ones that understand what they’ve got are rare. The money side of things is very important, so the likes of U2 got that right from the very start. Drug addiction is clearly a major pitfall, as too many examples in the book show.”

A good boss, Collinson says, will be able to see these problems coming. “There are lots of other factors that apply, and ultimately it boils down to something that’s a bit like marriage – some people stick it out and some don’t. But, yeah, the main advice to any band where the members are all valued is to split the money. That’s a very good way to stay together.”

The Rejects: An Alternative History of Popular Music, by Jamie Collinson, is published by Constable