When rock stars were at their peak in the 1970s, Elvis Presley could show up at the White House, demand to see Richard Nixon, and stroll into the Oval Office wearing a shirt with a massive collar. Rock stars were God-like figures who had cult-like followings. They could do no wrong—or, at least, they'd get away with whatever wrongs they'd done.
But today, the only musicians who want to meet the President are Kid Rock and Mike Love. They're no longer seen as heroes or anti-heroes; they're not icons who bring pomp and chaos to culture. It's possible that, after all of the excesses of rock's dominant decades, the rock star is finally dead.
In his new book, Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of The Rock Stars, UK-based rock critic David Hepworth chronicles the journey of the rock star as a force in pop culture. The longtime music journalist, who hosted the legendary BBC music show Old Grey Whistle Test, believes that the rock star’s dominance in pop culture is over. His book covers artists from 1945 to 1995, exploring what he thinks has hastened the rock star’s demise.
“People like to think that the world moves faster now than it ever has done before. I don’t think that’s necessarily true,” Hepworth says. “John Lennon met Paul McCarthy in the summer of 1957 and in just ten years they went from being 14-year-old boys in Liverpool to being absolutely world famous. I don’t think that could happen at that speed nowadays, because I think the world is very different.”
From Little Richard and Chuck Berry to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to Bob Marley and David Bowie to the Beastie Boys and Guns N' Roses, Hepworth covers the spectrum. Noisey talked to him via Skype to talk about the first rock stars to catapulted into the national consciousness, what the term came to define in the '70s and '80s, and what it means now, years after hair metal and hip-hop broke rock 'n' roll's dominance.
Noisey: Why do you think the rock star is dead?
David Hepworth: I think music trends tend to have finite span. The jazz era starts at the end of the first World War and it’s kind of over by the middle of the '50s. Country music kind of starts in the late-1920s and it’s over by the 60s. It doesn’t mean to say there aren’t still people playing in that idiom, but you get a lot of reputation afterwards. The guitars started with Elvis Presley and developed through the Beatles and so forth, but pretty much stopped in the 90s. One of the things that strikes me is the rise of social media has made being a rock star as I used to know rock stars in the '70s pretty much impossible.
I think if people behaved in the way nowadays like David Bowie or Robert Plant or Jimmy Page behaved in the early-'70s, I think they would have great difficulty. We’re living a very kind of sensitive time and they’d be spending a great deal of their time apologizing for the very things that we used to idolize them for. The world has changed. The rock star had its day and hip-hop takes over. We’re obviously well into the hip-hop era now, but these things don’t last forever. One of the things that strikes me about rock stars nowadays is it’s used a kind of metaphor.
People talk about rock star politicians or rock star chefs or rock star football players or whatever. They apply the characteristics that they used to apply to rock stars to other people, because certain qualities that they associated with rock stars- the recklessness, the sexual charisma, and a certain wild willfulness- they like to think they can see in other people. Those were kind of the rock star virtues. I think the rock star idea started in the '50s, was more sophisticated in the '60s, became kind of clever and complicated in the '70s, became hugely popular in the '80s, and then kind of collapsed under the sheer scale of expectations a rock star in the late '80s and '90s faced.
Who were the first rock stars that catapulted onto the world stage?
It’s those guys from the '50s. When I started this book four of them were still alive—Chuck Berry and Fats Domino are no longer with us, but Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis still are. But the most influential rock star of all—a conclusion I came to while writing this book—was Buddy Holly. Buddy Holly didn’t look like a star. Buddy Holly looked like the guy next door. Buddy Holly wrote his own songs, about his own life.
People like Paul McCartney and John Lennon, who at the time were 13 or 14 years old in Liverpool at the time looked at him and thought we could do that. We could be like that. We could write songs ourselves and be with our friends in a group. I think Buddy Holly was the person who kind of served as an example to that whole generation that came up in the 60s. People like Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan were massively influenced by Buddy Holly. They always wanted to be like Buddy Holly who came along in the mid-'50s and changed everything.
What did the term rock star come to define in the 70s and 80s?
It came out of the tradition that you could have traced back to Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. It was very authentic. It was largely a male, somebody who played guitar, who could sing, and wrote their own songs. Which expressed their own feelings. They had a kind of certain independence to them with which we identified and they didn’t appear to be obeying anybody’s plan. They appeared to be going out there on their own with kind of no compass and making up as they come along. A huge part of their appeal, whereas I think it is very different nowadays.
I think the technology and everything makes it very difficult for people to behave in that kind of way. The idea of a rock star- the term didn’t start being used in a big way until the 1970s, when it already had been around for 20 years. When you look at Elvis Presley, he was this kind of hillbilly crooner and nobody ever called the Beatles rock stars in the 1960s. They were a pop group. It starts to come in I suppose in the mid-70s and it’s applied to people like Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen is kind of an interesting case because he set out to be a rock star. He felt people expected him to be a rock star. But that era couldn’t last forever. I kind of lived through this period, so I felt I was in a good position to write about that rise and that fall and I think it’s very important to have the fall as well as the rise.
Out of all the rock stars in your book who was the ultimate bad boy that embraced the live fast, die young mantra we associate with rock stars?
I think a lot of these people have a longer self-preservation than you think. Keith Richards has been teetering on the edge ever since about 1971, but he’s still here. These guys very often have a considerable preservation gene going through them. They’re very tough. As I said earlier it’s amazing that Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis are still with us, because if there was any justice at all they wouldn’t be. But they’re very, very tough people who know how to hang on. The greatest rock star that I ever saw was probably not somebody that people think of as a rock star [was] Bob Marley. I saw Bob Marley and the Wailers in London in 1975 and that was the greatest rock show that I’ve ever seen in my life. He was the most charismatic individual I’ve ever seen. Sadly, he didn’t live to fully exploit his legacy, but it was cancer rather than live fast, die young.
Why do you think rock stars are "uncommon people?"
They came from common people, they came from normal people. That’s the point about rock stars, that they were your neighbors. They were truck drivers or they were guys at school or whatever. They didn’t come out from some specialist stage school or drama school or anything like that. What they did was make themselves unusual. They made themselves remarkable. When you trace their stories they were kind of stars almost before they got on stage. When Elvis Presley walked around Memphis at the age of 15, he looked weird. People looked at him and thought that boy is unusual. That was a huge part of what made him a star when he started making music. The point I wanted to make is that they were unusual versions of us.
Do you think in the 1980s, with bands like Van Halen and Guns N' Roses, that their extravagance and over-the-top antics killed the rock star?
I think it got ridiculous eventually. I think Guns N' Roses played the part of a rock star or a rock band for the video age. They looked like a clichéd idea of a rock band and that’s what was needed in the MTV age, where most of all you have to look the part. It turned into a self-parody is my feeling about it. I also think that musically there wasn’t a lot they could do that hadn’t already been done before. That’s why music turned to hip-hop, because hip-hop was just a new sound, a new technology, a new aesthetic, and that proved to be more satisfying to more people. I think it’s very difficult to go into a studio and make a record in the Led Zeppelin idiom that wasn’t already done in 1972. I think it’s very hard to do.
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