Saturday, November 5, 2011

The 5th man

Flicking through TV today, I stumbled upon Coldplay being interviewed by Ellen (way to rock!) and I decided to watch it - so sue me. Anyhow, Chris Martin alluded to their fifth member which I guess refers to their manager but it reminded me of something I'd read about them. When they perform live they have a fifth member who plays with them but off stage. I'm sure this happens all the time but not many bands like to talk about it.

Apparently, they learnt the trick from U2 who maintain the iconography of Bono, Edge, Larry and Adam in the arena but also have an extra player to fill out the sound. That huge U2 live sound is courtesy of five musicians but you only see the four icons from the album. This seems to be more common than you think. A while back Buddyhead reported when Korn lost a guitar player they employed a similar trick of having a hired hand on the side of stage playing guitar hiding behind a curtain (apparently, he made metal guitar face and did rock moves even though no one could see him but has since left the band, apparently a man can only play Freak on a Leash so many times in his life).

I always wondered about this because really, what's the big deal with having another touring band member to fill out the sound? I understand the mystique of rock n' roll but I hardly think that would be shattered if there was a second guitar/keyboard player on stage was at the back of the stage. Let's face it, Coldplay and U2 have huge stages, would the delicate balance of their egos be disrupted by having another player on stage? Would it confuse the audience "Like OMG, who is that guy?"

More to the point, how would any band be able to improvise if their fifth player is not within eyeshot? Some of my favourite live moments have been when musicians face off, improvising, jamming and spurring each other on to play which moves the song into something transcendent and inspired. Surely, the 5th man set up doesn't really lend itself to this. Anyhow, just saying I find this phenomenon weird. Just get the guy on stage, people won't mind...



  1. here's my take, and take it for what its worth- Rocknroll, at that level- you know, 2000 seats plus- is like pro-wrestling. It's "real" in that there are people working on that stage, or in that ring, and it's "real" in the sense that somebody hit that piledriver, or that downstroke, but it's "fake" in the sense that it's more about the show than anything else- and the show must be able to be duplicated tomorrow night, in the same fashion, in the way that the audience expects. So, you hide the keyboard player and a guitar player, you open the palm instead of a closed fist, you play up the glamour shots, and you make the whole thing look as effortless as a dream.

  2. You're right - I guess it can be all about the show and the mystique of rock n' roll but sometimes I think it's over done. Seriously, Korn don't need to hide a guy behind a curtain. Maybe if they all played behind a curtain, maybe that would help.

  3. I'd say: put the whole band behind the stage. And a lone singer pouting/preening out front. Hell, you might as well use a backing tape/cd/dat for all the difference it's going to make. Or use plenty backing singers to cream out your fluff notes. Or do what P-Funk do, get everyone ON the stage, including roadies, to bust out some silly solos.

    I like what Matt said: the 'show' is the oldest illusion.

    I think U2 have been doing that for a while - Edge's riffs are sometimes sooooo simple, and yet there's a full sound coming from somewhere else. When a back-up muso is offstage, it's just a polite way to prevent him getting any attention or solos. It's just another effect (boom boom)

    At least You Am I put their 2nd guitarist on stage.

  4. Putting the whole band offstage? Umm, that really is a "back to the future" idea- they called it an "orchestra Pit".
    I'm good with either way, by the way. I can see the point with having the band onstage, sweating it out, to play "authentic" rock and roll.
    I can also see the point with doing everything for "The Show", as well-I've enjoyed seeing U2, or the WWE, or electronica type outfits where it is basically a showman onstage with DAT's- and that can work from the ultra-gritty ( ever seen Jim Thirwell?)to the spectacular ( Ever seen Deadmau5?)
    That's part of why I was good with seeing Bob Mould do the solo accoustic with backing tapes and projection screens thing. I was also good with seeing "Kraftwork" where they had robots on stage.
    The one element I'm not good with is when they try to present something as "authentic" and it most decidedly is not. Best example of that was the one and only time I saw Green Day- this is back before Longview was totally a hit, when it was still climbing the charts- and being the inveterate worker in show business that I am, I noticed pretty quickly that they weren't actually playing their instruments. I worked my way over to the sound engineer, and saw the bank of DAT machines, even labelled things like "guitar 4" and "vocal 8". I figured, no big deal, until the band started trying to engage the audience like it was a real punk rock show- trying to threaten them, trying to confront, etc. Now, I'm not the biggest fella, but I'm taller than all three of them, and I've been in more than one fight with a guy onstage, so I made my way up front, immediately, and started confronting them about it- yelling crap like " you want a riot? then, play your fucking songs". It took all of about five minutes until loads of other people noticed, and they were booed off the stage, and a near riot occured. Mike Dirnt offered to come down and kick my ass- so I literally jumped past security, and the band high-tailed it out of there. I think it was quite awhile before they played Mesa, Arizona again.
    Partially, I'm telling that story because I still think it's funny- but the more serious reason is this- if you're trying to sell me on "authentic" rocknroll set pieces, like a Sex Pistols styled Shtik, or (in Korn's case) a heads down boogie metal workout, then be authentic, and I'll be OK. If you're not, make it a real show, and I'll be good with that, too. It's when you're trying to sell "authentic" and fail that the audience will turn on you. I think that's the real danger of the "fifth man" syndrome. U2 sidestepped the issue by trying to convert wholesale to "showbiz" after Achtung Baby- but can you imagine if they'd tried to keep up the Unforgettable Fire/Joshua Tree levels of "authenticity"? I bet if Coldplay got found out, they'd get a lot more flak, than if, say, Lady Gaga did. It really is all about audience expectations....

  5. Such practice is utterly disrespectful to the audience; a cheap, misrepresentative and fraudulent trick. Acts which have to add to their sound by the use of an invisible player, kept out of sight and out of mind, are treating the audience as if they are stupid, or don't know.

    We the audience are wiser these days: do know what instruments sounds like, and if we the audience, for example, see a quartet on stage consisting of drums, bass guitars and vocals, but the sound includes a string section, organ, piano, and a huge variety of other tone colors and sounds that are obviously not emerging from the visible instruments on stage, then what the audience is being subjected to is a parallel to what Milli Vanilli were guilty of.

    We pay our hard earned dollars to watch and listen to *all* the show, not listen to all of it and see some of it. Enough already.