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Eight Rock Bands That Became More Successful After the Deaths of Original Members

(Bon’s up there in Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven, where brown M&M’s don’t exist and very few of the groupies have chlamydia.)

By Will Levith

This headline may sound a little bit morbid, but it’s true: You would’ve probably never been struck by thunder, eaten a peach, or had hot, steamy Californication if key members of big-time rock bands had survived the hand of the Reaper. Let’s take a closer look at bands that got big after a member got dead.

AC/DC (Bon Scott)

There’s no denying how great those early AC/DC records are. For better or worse, the late Bon Scott paved the way for every other lead singer who sounded like a drunk, shrieking grandmother. But props must be given to the band’s replacement singer Brian Johnson for picking up the pieces after Scott choked on his own vomit in 1980, and helping AC/DC to explode with popularity in their latter years. Back In Black, The Razors Edge, and For Those About to Rock We Salute You might have never been made had it not been for that change in personnel.

B-52s (Ricky Wilson)

One often forgets that the B-52s had a life before “Love Shack.” Their tune “Rock Lobster” was actually a major early success, thanks in part to the genius riffage of lead guitarist and co-songwriter Ricky Wilson. Sadly, the guitarist battled with and would succumb to complications from HIV/AIDS in the early ’80s, and the band was left without one of its major creative forces. But in one of rock’s greatest examples of promotion-from-within, drummer Keith Strickland stepped up to handle guitar duties after Wilson’s passing, and in 1989 the band released its unforgettable Cosmic Thing, which spawned the aforementioned party anthem and other great late-’80s nuggets like “Roam.”

Metallica (Cliff Burton)

The story of how Metallica lost its bassist, Cliff Burton, is seared into the memory of every Dungeons & Dragons-playing, long-haired freaky person on the face of the earth. That is, Burton lost a sleeping-arrangement bet on the band’s tour bus, it crashed, and he died. Fate, they say, is a fickle bitch. Burton’s presence is felt on those first few albums, all of which are classic metal monsters. There’s even that bass-solo tune — “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth” — on their 1983 debut, Kill ‘Em All, that makes every guitarist, for a few short minutes, want to be a bassist. But after Burton’s death, Metallica arguably came into their own as a mainstream rock-metal band. First, there was the breakthrough hit “One” off of …And Justice for All (1988); and from there, the self-titled “Black Album” (1991), which went on to become one of the biggest-selling albums in U.S. history.

Red Hot Chili Peppers (Hillel Slovak)

The original Red Hot Chili Peppers straddled the line between funk and punk — punctuated by the inventive guitar playing of Hillel Slovak. But drug abuse led him to an early grave, and the band was left reeling, trying to figure out a replacement; at the time, there was major buzz behind them in the L.A. scene, and they were on the cusp of stardom. Enter guitarist John Frusciante, about as close to a guitar god as the ’90s got, and the rest was history. Mother’s Milk (1989) was the band’s first with Frusciante — and not surprisingly, their breakout moment. Then there was Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Californication, and Scrooge McDuck-sized rooms filled with gold coins.

The Allman Brothers Band (Duane Allman)

You can hear Duane Allman’s expert slide guitar work all over the band’s first three albums (including the live album, At Fillmore East). Shit, you can even hear it on Derek and the Dominoes’ “Layla,” probably Eric Clapton’s signature song. But Allman was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1971, shortly after Fillmore, and the band regrouped and released probably its best known album: Eat a Peach. And then about a million more — all the while building a following of longhairs so great that they alone make the world smell 5 percent worse.

Joy Division/New Order (Ian Curtis)

Joy Division put out a pair of well-received albums with its original lead singer, Ian Curtis, that were highly acclaimed at the time and showed amazing potential. (The second was actually released after Curtis committed suicide in 1980). Instead of disbanding in the wake of their lead singer’s untimely death, the remaining members of Joy Division reformed as New Order and basically sat at the forefront of ’80s pop-music innovation. Those hipster bands you hear everywhere these days? They all take long pulls from the New Order pint.

Sublime (Bradley Nowell)

Sublime might be the most interesting case on this list, because the band didn’t really hit it big until their lead singer, Bradley Nowell, died of a drug overdose in 1996. Two months after the singer’s death, Sublime (the album) went nuclear, selling millions of copies, with no band supporting it on tour. It’s gone onto to be certified five-times platinum in the U.S. In recent years, the band has “reformed” with a new lead singer, but hasn’t come close to the success it had not touring and missing a lead singer. Think on that for a second.

Rolling Stones (Brian Jones)

Rock-and-roll purists will scoff at the post-Brian Jones Stones’ lineup, calling it a bastardization of that which he had been nurturing, prior to winding up floating dead in a swimming pool in 1969. While those early Stones albums show a band systematically taking over the world, sexually and stylistically — and Jones’ contributions are all over them, including a few on their ’60s high-water mark, Let It Bleed, the Rolling Stones arguably became the world’s biggest band after his death. Sure, it didn’t hurt that the Beatles disbanded in 1970, but the Stones have put out so many great albums since Jones’ death it’d be wrong not to at least mention them on this list.

Honorable Mention
Alice in Chains (Layne Staley)

Alice in Chains is a band that, without a doubt, had its peak level of notoriety in the 1990s with Layne Staley as the co-lead singer, sharing duties with lead guitarist Jerry Cantrell. This iteration of the band will be the one that someday gets into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But if you look at the number of grunge/alternative bands that survived past the 2000s — after the departure or death of a key member or members — we dare you to try and count them on one hand. (The band with Staley put out its last album in 1995; he OD’d in 2002.) With new co-lead singer, William DuVall, the band has scored a gold record (in 2009) and a No. 2 on the Billboard 200 (in 2013). That sounds like more than just a “second wind” to us. It sounds like a rebirth.

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