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Is the Age of the Rock Star Over?

Mick Jagger & Keith Richards from The Rolling Stones performing live at the legendary Madison Square Gardens, New York in July 1972 as part pf their 'Exile on Main Street Tour. © Bob Gruen

Is the age of the great rock star over? It certainly seems that that way these days and it’s an idea explored by music writer David Hepworth in his book Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars. Obviously the matter is open to debate, but in the book Hepworth looks at the lives of forty great rock stars from the years 1955 to 1995.

Dedicating a chapter per year Hepworth details what he sees as rock’s rise and fall, noting musically historical events that happened in each. From Little Richard breaking through in 1955 with “Tutti Frutti” to a teenage John Lennon and Paul McCartney meeting at the Woolton Village Fete for the first time in 1957. Along with Jimi Hendrix meeting Clapton in the 1960s. David Bowie hanging up his Ziggy Stardust costume, Prince becoming a symbol. He also remarks on The Rolling Stones firing Ian Stewart because he didn’t look the part.

Prince performing live on stage at his first ever UK concert at the Lyceum, London in June 1981. © Tony Mottram

He also talks about the excesses they indulged in, the stage antics, and partying of these rock gods and goddesses, all humorously and fully recounted too. The writer also notes of one evening when David Bowie met Iggy Pop and Lou Reed for the first time one night in New York. “Thus began the strange joint life of this unholy trinity.” notes Hepworth. “They were a three-headed attention grabbing device.”

David Bowie, Lou Reed & Iggy Pop during a press conference at the Dorchester Hotel, London in July 1972. © Mick Rock

The book also throws up throwaway trivia like Anthony Kiedis’ (from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) dad used to supply drugs to Keith Moon and Led Zeppelin. Hepworth also notes how Zeppelin were irked by the rise of punk music like The Clash. And also mentions Madonna’s controversial Blonde Ambition tour, and Freddie Mercury’s constant drinking and smoking. Along with these moments, iconic recordings and releases are noted too, like Bruce Springsteen recording “Born to Run.”

Madonna on stage at Wembley Stadium, London in July 1990 on the first night of the Blonde Ambition Tour. © George Jaworskyj

And then, in the penultimate chapter we get Nirvana’s arrival in 1994. “Kurt Cobain was a genuine rock star, possibly the last one.” notes Hepworth.

Hepworth correlates the birth and death of the “true rock stars” with the rise and fall of the post-war record industry. He also explains that when they first come around in the 1950s they weren’t actually known by this term. “Elvis Presley, Fats Domino and the like were coming out of nowhere, they might as easily have been called hillbilly cats, rhythm and blues shouters, specialists in western bop, plain pop singers or promoters of dance crazes.” he notes.

Elvis Presley at the Mosque Theatre in Richmond, Virginia in 1956. © Alfred Wertheimer

It was in the 1970s and 80s that the term rock star really started to become part of the popular vernacular. It was also, says Hepworth, when the industry recognised the importance of a brand. Before the term eventually became diluted. “There was no better brand than a rock star.” explains Hepworth. “A rock star was supposed to be somebody you could rely on, somebody whose next record you had to have, often regardless of its merits. After that, it was increasingly applied to everyone from Elvis Presley to David Bowie, from Morrissey to Madonna, from Ozzy Osbourne to Björk. By the twenty-first century, the term had been spread so thin as to be meaningless.”

Bruce Springsteen captured onstage at the Feijenoord Stadion in Rotterdam, June 1985 during his Born In The USA Tour. © Lex Van Rossen

Hepworth finishes the book by talking about the birth of the internet and how it changed the industry and how we listen to music. With hard copies giving way to downloads and now we don’t even own music. We simply stream it. Along with this Hepworth also says that another reason we won’t get rock stars like we used to have is that the rise of social media means we constantly know what’s going on in celebrities' lives. This constant invasion of privacy means the excesses and debauchery of, say, the old 70s band tours are no longer possible.

People like Bob Dylan making up a backstory about his life that helped forged his myth wouldn’t happen now. He would be called out and his story proclaimed as made up before it got a chance to nurture his legend. The music will of course always remain, but these rock stars of old a now a dying breed. So go out and see them live while you can, Hepworth says.

Cover artwork for Raw Power, Iggy Pop's iconic third studio album which was released in February 1973. © Mick Rock

“In the twenty-first century it seems rather inappropriate, to use a popular twenty-first-century term, to describe Kanye West, Adele or Justin Bieber as rock stars.” Hepworth writes. “These people are cut from a different cloth. The age of the rock star ended with the passing of physical product, the rise of automated percussion, the domination of the committee approach to hit-making, the widespread adoption of choreography and above all the advent of the mystique-destroying internet. The age of the rock star was coterminous with rock and roll, which in spite of all the promises made in some memorable songs, proved to be as finite as the era of ragtime or big bands. The rock era is over. We now live in a hip hop world.”

Jimi Hendrix after performing on Lulu's TV show in London in 1969. © Barrie Wentzell

David Bowie performing at Newcastle City Hall, UK on the Ziggy Stardust Tour in June 1973. © Ian Dickson

Rockarchive is delighted to be able to offer all these images for sale as limited edition photographic prints, along with many other photos of The Rolling Stones, Prince, David Bowie, ElvisIggy Pop, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Jimi Hendrix, and more.

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