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'What Really Happened' Podcast Looks at the 27 Club Theory

Amy WInehouse at Union Chapel, London, UK in 2006. © Jill Furmanovsky

The 27 Club has become something of a phenomenon in rock music, and it’s something that’s explored in a new episode of the podcast What Really Happened. The club is one which, ideally, would be great if it didn’t exist. Because it refers to the age at which some of rock’s most notable musicians have died.

These include Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse and Brian Jones—the six musicians who are the most commonly associated with the club. The podcast, which is hosted by documentary maker Andrew Jenks, explores the concept of the 27 Club and attempts to “examine and contextualise historical events while discovering untold stories and unravelling newfound narratives.”

Jimi Hendrix on stage in Copenhagen in 1970, a few weeks before he died. © Jorgen Angel

In a trailer for the show published on Rolling Stone, Jenks says that at first he was skeptical about the idea of there being some connection to these famous musicians dying at the same age—other than it being some quirk of coincidence. But then he looked at some of the history of it.

“Some say this is nothing more than a media-manufactured term. That’s what I originally thought. But extensive studies going back over 100 years show an unusually high number of musicians and artists who have died at 27 years old.” Jenks notes. “After speaking with doctors and statisticians, while The 27 Club is simple enough to remember what’s happening is a bit more complicated. When you factor in elements of fame, drugs, alcohol, money and the mind of an artist, I wonder, what really happened?”

The Stones, with Brian Jones front right, having a cigarette before their appearance on 'Thank Your Lucky Stars' at ATV studios in Birmingham in 1963. © Philip Townsend

In the podcast Jenks talks about author Howard Sounes and his book 27: A History of the 27 Club, which looks at the phenomenon through the lives of the previously mentioned six musicians. Sounes made a list of 3,463 musicians who died between 1908 and 2012 who became famous make popular music. He then sorted out at which age they all died. Which ranged from 15 to 105. He found that there was a spike at the age of 27.

But the idea of the 27 Club is a relatively new concept, in terms of its popular adoption. Jenks notes that it wasn’t until Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994 that it became a popular—something that the media, music fans and now the internet, have helped to become something of a modern myth.

Outtake image of Kurt Cobain from a Nirvana publicity photo shoot to promote 'Nevermind', following their famous baby album cover. © Kirk Weddle

He also looks at what connects these six musicians and how essentially, the club is one that is deeply tragic, not something to be celebrated or idolised as it is so often portrayed. Firstly Jenks notes that many of the above six could be classed as geniuses or near-geniuses. Anyone with an IQ of 140 or above is considered genius. Jenks notes Morrison’s IQ was 149 while Winehouse was a huge bookworm, spelling bee champ and academically successful.

Other factors he notes, which is where the more dark elements set in, are they all come from parents who have divorced, or they have had some traumatic childhood experience with their parents. Many also have mental health issues, from bipolar to depression.

And it's these two last factors which feed into the sorrow behind the success. Because, although highly successful at writing and performing music, they put out many cries for help. And it meant they were more extreme risk-takers when it came to drug-taking and alcohol which resulted in a carelessness about their own lives. So, ultimately, as the podcast notes, the reality behind this “club” is more tragedy than celebratory.

You can listen to it online here or on iTunes here.

Kurt Cobain's guitar, gently floating at the end of the famous 'Nevermind' cover shoot. © Kirk Weddle

See more iconic images of Amy Winehouse, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana.

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