Side Members: The Band Behind the Band

Editor’s Note: You might have come here today expecting a cover vs original of the song “Woodstock” (as promised in this week’s playlist). Guess what folks, things change. Today’s article will be about something – or rather some people – we don’t think about very often. Who are these ignored people? I like to call them side members.

Side members? What the heck are those?

A side member is a member of a backup band. They are not the “main attraction,” but side members contribute to the band with back up instruments, vocals, and even composition. Side members are, by every definition, part of the band. Side members often get overlooked by the general public. Still, the main performer or band recognizes their side members as every bit important as themselves. This is what separates the side members from a normal backup band. When these side members leave for whatever reason, there’s a gap. Something is missing from the music.

Now that we know what a side member is, let’s take a look at a few examples of side members, how they’re respected by the main act, and what they contribute to the main attraction.

Side Members Joan Jett and The BlackHearts
Joan Jett and her Side Members, The Blackhearts. Image Credit: swimfinfan from Chicago / CC BY-SA

Abba’s Rutger Gunnarsson and Ola Brunkert

We know ABBA as a quartet, but none of the four band members played bass or drums in concert. Even in the studio, most of the bass and drums were handled by two people: Rutger Gunnarsson and Ola Brunkert. Both Gunnarsson and Brunkert played and toured with ABBA from their first recording until ABBA split up. Listen to “Waterloo,” one of ABBA’s earliest hits. That catchy little drum beat came from Brunkert. And what would Super Trouper be without that bass groove, courtesy of Gunnarsson?

As far as what ABBA properly thought about Gunnarsson and Brunkert, there’s not much on record. However, Gunnerson played on the Ulvaeus and Andersson album “Chess.” Brunkert toured Sweden in the early 2000’s as part of the ABBA orchestra in concert. So, chances are, ABBA recognized their two side members.

Weird Al Yankovic’s band

Weird Al Yankovic has had the same backing band for most of his career. John “Bermuda” Schwartz has worked with Al since “Another one Rides the Bus” on the first album. Jim “Kimo” West and Steve Jay joined Al’s band for the recording of “In 3-D.” Finally, pianist Rubén Valtierra joined the band in 1992. These four members have played on every tour and album Al has had since. They even played on Al’s stripped-down acoustic tour.

As far as Yankovic’s recognition of the band, it’s overwhelming. Firstly, on tour, Weird Al makes sure to express his gratitude to his band. It’s clear the five of them have a close working relationship. There’s also the song “Al’s Band” on the Weird Al tribute album, “Twenty Six and a Half.” This song chronicles the journey of the band throughout the years, and how much they enjoy this journey. Finally, I must mention that John “Bermuda” Schwartz was animated in an episode of The Simpsons guest-starring Al. While there’s no evidence that Al championed Schwartz’s Simpson’s cameo, Al must have been ok with Schwartz stealing a little bit of the limelight.

Dan, Dan, Dan, and Marty (They Might Be Giants)

They Might Be Giants are John Flansburgh and John Linnell. And also three other guys. From 1999 to 2004, TMBG was musically backed by three guys named Dan. In concert, they were officially known as “A Band of Dans.” In 2004, drummer Dan Hickey left and was replaced with drummer Marty Beller, who has kept the beat strong ever since.

Guitarist Dan Miller has specifically become an integral part of TMBG. Miller provides a flamingo style guitar solo before TMBG’s most famous song (Instanbul, Not Constantinople). Miller even sings lead vocals on a few parts of Fingertips. He also appears on both Linnel’s and Flanberg’s solo albums.

The Fifth Beatle

A side member sometimes plays a less visible role in a band. For example, a producer will shape and direct a band to a certain sound, and even jump on instruments from time to time. We’ve seen this with bands such as U2 and the Talking Heads, with producer Brian Eno. However, The Beatles producer for most of their career, George Martin, may as well have been the fifth Beatle.

I’ve already shown what an influence Martin had on Revolver. Martin was the genius that came up with the tape loop idea for “Tomorrow never Knows.” Martin also played piano and organ on “Good Day Sunshine” and “Got to Get You Into My Life.” If you look at almost every other Beatle’s album, Martin’s name is in the credits, playing everything from organ to harpsichord to the piano and even an odd stringed instrument. Matin also handled several string arrangements for Beatles songs.

Upon George Martin’s death, Paul McCartney stated “If anyone earned the title of the fifth Beatle, it was George.” Julian Lennon also called Martin the fifth Beatle. John Lennon, while commenting on the people who helped make The Beatles famous, expressly mentions Martin. It’s clear, The Beatles respected their producer and side member, George Martin.

Other Side Members worth noting

Rock and pop artists owe their existence to side members. Bruce Springsteen’s “E Street Band,” for instance, has been with Bruce (off and on) ever since the beginning of his career. The same goes for Huey Lewis (and the news). Joan Jett insisted she needed a band, and didn’t want to go solo. Thus, The Blackhearts were formed. Even the B-52s featured side members extensively on the video for Roam.

I love Weird Al, They Might Be Giants, The Beatles, ABBA, Joan Jett, and the other artists mentioned today. However, without the contributions of their side members, these artists would not be where they are today. Imagine The Beatles without George Martin pushing them. Imagine The Joshua Tree without Brian Eno. Think about ABBA without that crucial drummer and bassist. These bands just wouldn’t sound the same. In some cases (The Beatles for instance), we might not even know the band’s music. These artists might not have even gotten their big break without their side members.

Which side members have backed your favorite artists. How have they contributed to the featured artist? And does the featured artist recognize their side members? Let me know in the comments.

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