In Memory of Viola Beach
There’s nothing quite as bittersweet as watching a deserving artist reap their highest praises posthumously. We’ve already witnessed this phenomenon once this year when David Bowie’s swan song Blackstar—released two days before his unexpected death—became his first ever number 1 album.
Now sadly, less than a month after Blackstar rose to the top of the charts, we’re faced with a similar situation. Budding indie rock band Viola Beach had been developing a following throughout the UK, and were gearing up to make some big moves in 2016. On February 12th this year the band played their first international gig at Sweden’s “Where’s the Music?” festival. During the early hours of the following morning, as the band and their manager drove from the festival back to the airport, they drove across a bridge as it was being raised to allow a boat to pass underneath. Their car struck a road barrier and plummeted more than 80ft into the canal below, killing all five passengers.
Unfortunately, rock fans are no strangers to untimely deaths of promising musicians. These tragic deaths are often the results of an uninhibited rock-and-roll lifestyle (or excessive alcohol and drug abuse, to put it less politely), as with legends like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. But what makes this particular tragedy somehow even more unfair is that preliminary autopsies have revealed that the driver of the car had no traces of alcohol or drugs in his system at the time of the crash.
Their deaths came on the cusp of what could very well have been Viola Beach’s breakthrough year: they were preparing to release an EP, they were about to be brought on tour by fellow indie rock band Blossoms, and they were supposed to play at a number of upcoming festivals. Viola Beach were even scheduled to play at Austin’s massive annual SXSW (South by Southwest) convention this summer, a platform that has a history of launching talented new musicians' careers. For some perspective, other nascent artists whose exploding careers coincided with high profile sets at SXSW are The White Stripes, The Strokes, Alabama Shakes, Miguel, Foster the People, Janelle Monae, and John Mayer—just to name a few.
In the weeks since their deaths, friends of the band have been remembering them as much for their free-spiritedness and sense of humor as for their music. BBC Radio Merseyside’s Dave Monks, who invited the band to play the live set featured above, described Viola Beach as “funny, polite, enthusiastic, and ambitious—especially Kris, who was the ideas man.” Adrian Hall, one of the band’s producers, remembered lead singer Kris Leonard showing up to the studio “wearing girls’ pants…and when you’d ask him about it, he’d say ‘I woke up this morning and they were touching my legs, so I just put them on.'” Of drummer Jack Dakin, Hall said, “I remember Jack arriving at the studio one day with a load of new tattoos, because he’d just bought himself a tattoo gun.” But the fond memories only remind their collaborators of the band’s bright future. “There’s…the understanding that there was a promise to this band that was so, so immense,” the band’s agent said to NME. “I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever where Viola Beach were going.”
And proof of that potential has begun to surface in the weeks since the crash. Thanks in part to some high profile support for the band from English musicians like rock band Kasabian and former Oasis singer Liam Gallagher, Viola Beach’s music has skyrocketed into the Top 40 charts. Within two days of the crash, their debut single “Swings and Waterslides” reached number 39 in the Official UK Singles Chart. By the end of the week the song reached number 11. On February 18th, less than one week after the crash, “Swings and Waterslides” hit number 1 on iTunes.
It’s a bittersweet victory for a promising young band. When Bowie’s Blackstar became the number 1 selling album, fans mourned that he would never get to witness his own achievement, but at least Bowie lived as one of the most renowned musicians of his time. Viola Beach never got to experience their breakthrough moment. If there’s a silver lining to their sad end, it’s that they’ve left behind a musical legacy that can never be erased.
All proceeds from “Swings and Waterslides” sales are going to the families of the band members and the family of their manager, so if you like what you hear, be sure to purchase the single here.