x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Why broken hearts can be good for a band

With the news that Sonic Youth's rock couple have split up, we look at other musical relationships and how the bands fared after marriage breakdowns.

The hedonistic, peripatetic lifestyle. The groupies, the bitchy jealousies. Life in a rock'n'roll band doesn't exactly encourage solid, loving relationships, does it? And yet, time and time again, love blossoms in front of the guitar amps. It almost always ends in disaster. But while falling in love might be dangerous for a band's health, it's not always a terminal state of affairs.

Last week, the co-founders of one of the most influential alternative rock bands, Sonic Youth, announced they were to separate. Ironically, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon have regularly been held up as the exceptions to the disastrous rock relationships rule. They'd survived 27 years of marriage and somehow managed to avoid either destructive arguments or lovey-dovey lyrics - to the extent that many fans didn't even realise they were a couple. They're not anymore. And a statement from their record label noted that plans beyond their South American tour dates in November are "uncertain". That's an understatement.

Still, unless there's some real muck-raking to come - unlikely, since Sonic Youth is essentially a gently bohemian art-rock band - they've got a long way to go to emulate some of the great rock relationship break-ups. Fleetwood Mac did most things to excess, but in 1976 they upped the ante considerably: the two couples in the band both split up at the same time. Incredibly, such a rocky state of affairs was actually the starting point for some of their finest songs. Lindsey Buckingham's venomous You Can Go Your Own Way – sample line, "packing up, shacking up's all you wanna do" – is a none-too-subtle dig at his girlfriend Stevie Nicks. Meanwhile, Christine McVie's Don't Stop – "I know you don't believe it's true, I never meant any harm to you" – was written as she was filing for divorce from John. No wonder Buckingham said at a 2009 gig in Manchester: "This band have a complex emotional history."

The relationships may not have survived, then, but Fleetwood Mac the band remained largely intact - probably because the bitterness and pain revealed in those songs were much more interesting for their millions of fans. The break-ups, in a way, made them superstars. After all, falling in and out of love is, essentially, what all the best pop songs are about - and when they seem to feature the parties involved, so much the better.

Which, perhaps, is something Abba can identify with, too. The Swedish pop group took its name from the married couples of which it was comprised: Agnetha Fältskog and Björn Ulvaeus, and Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. And while many of their best tracks came before their relationships began to unravel, their finest, most emotional song, The Winner Takes it All, is clearly about Ulvaeus and Fältskog's divorce. "But tell me does she kiss/ Like I used to kiss you," she sings, heartbroken.

The song, however painful, was recorded. They're even smiling on the sleeve. Proof that breaking up is by no means the end for a band. Take the White Stripes. When Jack White finally admitted that he and Meg weren't actually brother and sister (which was bizarre enough in itself), they had already been married and divorced. The track on the second album De Stijl, Why Can't You Be Nicer to Me, took on a whole new relevance – but its sentiments were less a death knell for the band and more a promise of the brilliant music that would follow over the next decade. In fact, Jack and Meg were so eye-openingly mature about the failure of their marriage rather than their relationship, Meg's next marriage was held at none other than Jack White's house. Which, actually, is a bit odd, isn't it?

Of course, sometimes the pain is too great to endure. Sonny and Cher and Ike and Tina Turner imploded romantically and musically - which, judging by the distressing stories that would later emerge, was certainly for the best. But on the whole, bands seem to be able to survive such traumas - for the sake of their bank balances and careers if nothing else.

So Sonic Youth fans needn't mourn the loss of their band just yet. What's actually lost is the idea that a loving, lasting relationship is possible amid tedious recording contracts, hero-worship and world tours. For now, Arcade Fire's married duo Win Butler and Regine Chassagne will have to take up the baton as the most admired couple in alternative rock. Although what did they call the debut album they recorded directly after their nuptials? Funeral. We're not holding our breaths.

* Ben East