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The Age of the Rock Star – A Play in Three Acts

The age of the rock star, like the age of the cowboy, has passed.”

So begins Uncommon People, the latest book by music journalist David Hepworth. Hepworth contends that the age of the rock star was finite and its span, like the Jazz Age before it, was about two score years. That’s not to say you can’t find good new rock music these days, or indeed good new jazz or classical music. But the chances of guitar-based music unearthing in 2017 someone with the cultural impact of a Presley, Lennon, McCartney or Dylan are slim to none. It’s hard to disagree with Hepworth on this. Indeed I would be more specific and say that the age of the rock star lasted almost exactly 40 years – beginning on 23 March 1956 with the release of Elvis Presley’s first album and ending on August 11 1996 in a field just outside Stevenage.

The Age of the Rock Star was in fact a play with three distinct but overlapping acts, with each act reaching its denouement on a stage in the open air to unprecedented numbers of people.

Act 1 – Rock n Roll – from Memphis to Shea Stadium

Each new age must destroy its antecedents. Provide a scorched earth upon which a new generation can roam free. So it was with Elvis Presley and the Rock n Roll explosion. 1956 was a musical Year Zero for kids all over America. Whatever they had been listening to the day before, from that point on Rock’n’Roll was the only music that mattered. Sure you could say that Bill Haley and others had got there first but it was Elvis who made millions of girls scream and millions of boys reach for the Brylcreem. From that point it was hard to imagine music not created by a combination of guitar, bass, drums and vocal.

The original rock’n’roll explosion was like the original Big Bang. Short-lived in itself, but sending out ripples which can still be felt. Within two or three years Elvis and most of the other main protagonists had departed the field in some way or other. Elvis joined the army and his manager Colonel Tom Parker felt he would be better served making formulaic movies every year rather than developing his music career. The day the music died according to the song was when the plane carrying Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper came crashing to earth, but it could have easily been the day that Elvis joined the army. Two other giants of Rock n Roll – Chuck Berry & Jerry Lee Lewis – fell foul of the law and the court of public opinion with Berry serving time for sex with a 14 year old and Lewis marrying his 13 year old cousin. Little Richard went another way entirely, finding God and leaving the music industry to start his own ministry.

The thrill of early American rock n roll was soon subsumed into a preppy mainstream, saccharined and brushed up for a wider family appeal. But over the water people had been listening, and rock n roll thrived in the clubs of Liverpool and Hamburg. If you want to hear full-on unreconstructed stripped back rock’n’roll at its best, listen to a recording of The Beatles in Hamburg. They played with the verve and energy that Elvis had lost by that point. So the music went underground for a few years, but The Beatles and the British Invasion they spearheaded brought rock n roll back home to its heartland and re-ignited the flame.

Beatlemania took rock stardom to a new level. It went truly global and reached all generations. When The Beatles played Shea Stadium in August 1965 to a then world record crowd of 56,00 it was the peak of Beatlemania and brought the rock n roll age full circle, and to its natural conclusion. Of course The Beatles would hit greater artistic heights over the next few years, but as rock n rollers this was their pinnacle. They were to quit playing live the following year after an ill-starred US tour marred by the ‘Bigger Than Jesus’ controversy. So the rock and roll story had come full circle, with a bunch of Englishmen reminding America of the excitement of the music and bringing to a close the first act of the Age of the Rock Star. But the story was by no means finished.

Act 2 – Rock – from LA to Live Aid

To both close the first age of the rock star and herald the dawn of the second takes a pretty special talent. The Beatles had such talent. Their legacy was to change forever the template by which rock music was created. From The Beatles on groups and singers were supposed to write their own material, release coherent albums rather than singles, experiment musically and take their time in the studio to create complex works.

Such was the creative energy inspired by The Beatles and Bob Dylan, there was no specific scene from this point on, no clearly defined movement as rock n roll had been. When Dylan went electric and The Beatles went Psychedelic, rock music shot off in a thousand different directions. People were not trying to sound like The Beatles, they were trying to create like them.

Things got heavier, and trippier. Guitars got louder. In the UK The Who went from edgy West London mods to rock behemoths with guitars clanging, locks flowing and hotel TVs defenestrated. Heavy rock abounded. Led Zeppelin became a money-making machine who re-defined what a rock tour was and how to get the most from it, both financially and otherwise. In LA and the West Coast bands like The Mamas & Papas, The Birds and Crosby, Stills & Nash took on Bob Dylan’s  Folk Rock mantle. By the time The Eagles came along to refine the sound to its commercial optimum it had become massive. Everything was AOR with the former hippies of Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac scoring huge transatlantic hits and selling albums by the bucketload.

Somewhere along the way rock had got very big and some people got very rich indeed. Five of the eight albums to have sold more than 40 million copies worldwide come from post-Beatles rock acts from this period*. Stadium gigs went from the novelty of Shea Stadium to becoming the staple of any major rock tour. And it all came full circle again one July day in 1985. In Live Aid, Bob Geldof and Harvey Goldsmith put together the biggest worldwide concert in history. Two concerts really, interchanging between Wembley Stadium in London and the JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. All played out to a global TV audience of just shy of 2 billion.

As entertaining as the concert was and however much money it raised for the hungry in Africa, its biggest impact was on the music industry, changing it forever. In fact it heralded its demise, although this would not be clear for some time, and its demise was cultural rather than in income generation. With Live Aid came the realisation that rock had a royal family. Bands like U2, Queen, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones and singers like Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and Sting had gone from being the favourites of the rock fans to belonging to the world. In a sense they would never need to work again. Their back catalogues alone would bring them wealth beyond imagination. Their next records were not nearly as important as their last. This removed the necessity of coming up with constantly fresh material or for a fresh generation of rock stars to come along and oust the old. People would attend in their millions to hear these same rock gods playing their hits. That was all that was expected or wanted, and rock has been dying a slow death ever since. Was 13 July 1985 the day the music died?

Act 3 – Indie – from The 100 Club to Knebworth

The second and third acts of the age of the rock star are necessarily overlapping. For much of the time they represented a culture and a counter culture. A yin and a yang that brought a balance to the cultural cosmos, or two different and competing visions of what rock music should be about. Take your pick. In truth the counter culture has been there as long as there has been a culture, but I will take the emergence of Punk in 1976 as its Year Zero. The reason for this is definitely not historical accuracy. To dismiss the influence of acts like The Velvet Underground and David Bowie on the counter-culture would be specious. No, punk is chosen for the way it cleared the decks – ‘burn the hippy’ and disown everything made before 1976 regardless of its merits.

As well as its scorched earth policy, punk came not just with a sound and a look, but also with an attitude and a manifesto. It was egalitarian – if you signed up to these four tenets you were in. Musical virtuosos were not required. As with rock n roll before it the trailblazers of punk were short-lived. Part of this was due to the three-chord DIY manifesto. Most of the bands in the punk explosion simply did not have the talent to sustain a meaningful music career. Those that did (Sex Pistols, The Clash, Buzzcocks) burned out before they could fade away.

What remained was the attitude and the DIY ethos. Small independent record labels started to pop up everywhere. Labels like Rough Trade, Creation, Factory and Sub Pop gave an outlet to anyone who wanted to make an interesting noise and fed the appetites of all those who felt un-nourished by the fare on offer by the rock mainstream. While the giants of rock were making millions, the indies were defiantly non-commercial. There was just enough money swilling about in the music industry to make this possible. For the aim of indie record labels to be to fund the next interesting LP. Success was inevitable on occasion, but the indie ethos was to use whatever money came their way from any commercial success to make sure that the next Bogshed album could be made.

Scenes proliferated as youngsters sought to create their own punk. Not a repeat of punk, but a version from their own area, from their own generation with their own clothes and own distinctive guitar sounds. From new wave to new romantics, shoe gazing to grunge and from The Smiths to Madchester the indie scene was awash with clusters of bands all wanting to be seen and heard on their own terms. Provincial cities like Seattle and Manchester drew the focus away from the traditional musical hotspots of LA, New York and London.

But in this creative proliferation lay also the seeds of Indie’s demise. There was far too much talent in Indie to be ignored commercially. Inevitably some bands got big. Very big. Manchester bands like The Smiths, New Order, Stone Roses and Happy Mondays started to have a string of chart hits. In America independent bands like REM and Nirvana became world stars. And with this came fame, money and pressure. Some were more able to cope with this than others. Noel Gallagher was happy to drive around in his brown Rolls Royce, but Kurt Cobain could never shake the feeling that he’d sold out.

One by one independent labels were swallowed up by the majors. They kept their names and much of their roster but they were in fact very un-independent arms of international corporations. By 1996 the biggest indie band in the world were Oasis. They appeared as first item on the BBC Evening News. Their battle to the number one spot with fellow Britpoppers Blur was the biggest story of its day. In the end Oasis lost this battle but in effect they had won. They had become the biggest, most important band around. Over two days in August 1996, at Knebworth House, they played consecutive open air concerts to over 250,000 people. Over two and a half million had applied for tickets. That’s about 5% of the population of the UK,

Their label manager Alan McGee was standing backstage at Knebworth with his best friend and Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie. They stood with arms draped around each other staring out at the sea of fans. McGee turned to Gillespie and beamed, “We won, Bobby! We won!” He was talking about all of the Indie movement, who’d gone from knocking out a few hundred unheard of singles at small record shops to ruling the roost. The indies had gone from outsiders to the top of the tree.  But the truth is that by this stage they had lost, and this concert was to signal the end of the rock age they had loved so dearly. It was never to get bigger or better than that day.

The End of an Age

Broadcasting legend Sid Waddell once famously said: “At the age of 33 Alexander of Macedon cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer. Bristow’s 27!”  Well the rock star was 40 in 1996, and there was nothing new to say. Noel Gallagher himself claimed that his greatest ambition was to be in a Beatles tribute band (and he acknowledged that for all intents and purposes he probably was) The world belonged to hip-hop and the newly defined RnB. A splurge of new media demanded different qualities from its stars.

The end of the age of rock should not be mourned, rather celebrated and enjoyed. There’s plenty of good new music if that’s your thing. And if it’s not you’ve still got all of the old records and you’ll still get to see most of them on stage for a few more years. But when we lose the likes of  Bruce Springsteen he won’t be replaced. They simply don’t make them like that any more.

*They are – AC/DC Back in Black, Pink Floyd The Dark Side of the Moon, Meat Loaf Bat Out of Hell, Eagles Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 and Fleetwood Mac Rumours