The Imprint Principle: Does it Hold Up?

I created a (little) monster.

A couple of days ago, I posted a blog about King Crimson, one of my three favorite bands. The group has undergone numerous personnel changes since its formation in 1969. I proclaimed the 80’s band was my favorite incarnation, to the consternation of a few fellow Crimson enthusiasts. How could I possibly choose this band over the original, or the others that recorded and performed between ’69 and ’74? In the end, the answer was relatively simple: the 80’s band was the first King Crimson I ever heard. They altered the way I viewed music from that day forward. Because of this, they became and remained my favorite, while I maintained high regard for the other bands.

The subject was heavily debated in my “comments” section (primarily on Facebook). Eventually, a theory was raised: most people chose the first rendition of the band they heard as their favorites, as that group made an initial, lasting impression. One of my fellow bloggers on WordPress said something similar, referring to it as “The Imprint Principle.” That’s a fascinating point of view. Naturally, it got me thinking.

I’m a fan of many bands who underwent personnel changes over the years. Was the first group I heard always my favorite? I had to test this theory. I had to know if The Imprint Principle held weight.

The first group to come to mind (after King Crimson, of course) was Yes. Like many others listening to classic rock, I was first exposed to the classic (but not the first) lineup. That band produced The Yes Album, Fragile, and Close to the Edge in rapid-fire succession. There could be no doubting the power and skill of Jon Anderson (vocals), Rick Wakeman (keyboards), Steve Howe (guitar), Chris Squire (bass), and Bill Bruford (drums). They made a remarkable first impression on a teenage music fan.

But I wasn’t hearing that particular song nearly as often as I was hearing this one in 1983. By then, Yes had undergone more than a few personnel changes, and their sound had definitely changed. I liked this song, and the album it came from, called 90125. But it could never take the place of the 70’s lineup and output.

Yes had continued to morph over the years. While I have respected the efforts made by the latter-day band, I don’t hold them in the same regard. That’s just the way it goes.

I’m a big fan of Brand X. I heard them for the first time in the early 80’s, courtesy of a cool record store clerk who noticed I was into Genesis. He had to let me know that Phil Collins was playing in another band besides the one I knew. Brand X’s music was right up my alley.

Of course, Collins didn’t stay with the band for much longer after this. He found mega-success with both Genesis and as a solo artist. Brand X continued to produce interesting music, and still does to this day. As a matter of fact, they will have a new live album out in the next few months. I look forward to hearing it. But I confess: my sentiment lies with the Collins-era band.

XTC was well-established by the time I was introduced to them in 1988. My entryway came via Skylarking, the album containing “Dear God,” a song that absolutely knocked my socks off. I couldn’t believe a band this literate wasn’t more popular.

The XTC I met was a trio. But they started out as a quintet some 12 years before. I went back and played those original albums, and they were very good indeed. But my sentimental loyalty remained with the Skylarking-era group, who also produced Oranges and Lemons and Nonsuch. They all remain among my absolute favorite pop albums. By the time XTC ground to a halt, they were down to a duo. The music was still excellent, but  the late 80’s material still remained my favorite.

No band blew me away quite the way Return to Forever did in 1978. My dad — eager to get me into jazz — managed to make sure I heard this band playing from the living room one Sunday morning. He had already introduced me to Jean-Luc Ponty. But this band was something else. Between the intensity of the music and the otherworldly cool of The Romantic Warrior album cover, I was a near instant convert.

I was shocked to learn that this wasn’t the original Return to Forever. The original formation featured flutes, percussion, and vocals(!). And while I tried to engage with that particular band, I found that nothing could take the place of Corea (keyboards), Al DiMeola (guitar), Stanley Clarke (bass), and Lenny White (drums). To my ears, they reduced the vocal-oriented RTF to near insignificance. Yet to this day, I plan to give that group another chance. My favorite lineup reunited in 2008, producing a live album I still enjoy. Then they morphed again, with Corea, Clarke, and White being joined by Ponty and guitarist Frank Gambale. Again, they are rock solid. But it’s not quite the same. The Imprint Principle held up once again.

But there are exceptions to every rule, it seems, including this one. To prove my point, I need to look no further than Genesis.

Like many others, I was exposed to Genesis by way of Abacab, which they released in 1981. As far as I knew, the band was and had always been made up of Phil Collins (drums and vocals), Tony Banks (keyboards), and Mike Rutherford (guitar and bass). They had more than enough going on to keep me entertained for hours on end.

So imagine how surprised this impressionable teen was to learn that not only was this not the original Genesis lineup, but that Peter Gabriel was the original vocalist. (As a matter of fact, Collins wasn’t the band’s original drummer.) And so I found myself “discovering” the Classic Genesis lineup of Gabriel (vocals), Banks, Steve Hackett (guitar), Rutherford, and Collins. This band produced my favorite Genesis albums, namely Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot, Selling England by the Pound, and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. That’s the band who produced my absolute favorite Genesis song, the epic “Supper’s Ready.”

A close second to this lineup is the band that produced my favorite live album, Seconds Out. Collins moved to the front, with Chester Thompson holding down the drum kit. During long instrumental passages (of which there were plenty), Collins would share the drum duties. At times, these lineups made it easy for me to forget about the 80’s Genesis.

I assembled a hasty list of bands I knew went through personnel changes, large and small. there were times when the Imprint Principle held (Dinosaur Jr., Primus, Dream Theater), and times when it didn’t (Chicago, Foo Fighters, Living Colour). In the case of Dire Straits, I could honestly go either way.

So the question remains: does the Imprint Principle hold up?

My best answer is this: That’s really up to you.

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