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Rock bottom… July 1, 2017

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

A scathing review in the IT recently by Liam Cagney of David Hepworth’s book ‘Uncommon People: the Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars’. Have to say, and in fairness I have not read the book, it doesn’t sound too hot.

It’s a narrative that assumes rock to be, like cave painting, a thing of the past. Hepworth is a music journalist and editor who founded or edited a string of notable publications such as Mojo, Q, and Smash Hits and whose last book was the faintly dull 1971 – Never a Dull Moment: Rock’s Golden Year.


Although Uncommon People has a promising premise – to orient rock’s history around the centrality therein of freaks – his narrative quickly settles into the usual stale postures and platitudes. Much the same arc, not coincidentally, as we find in the careers of those stodgy male rockers to whom he’s beholden.

It takes a year at a go – as with other recent books – and

examines a specific artist to represent that year. Which leads to some curious choices…

Once we’re out of the 1960s, though, rather than keeping his focus on new blood, Hepworth tends to stick with mainstream 1960s artists as they grow complacent, conceited and musty. This suits his narrative of nostalgia and decline and ignores the more vital rock musicians of recent decades.


His 1986 shuns The Smiths for the frog-throated Dylan. His 1989 is summed up not by The Pixies, nor Sonic Youth, but Bonnie Raitt (!) No room at Hepworth’s cocktail party for tatty types like Beefheart or Big Star, or for abrasive women like Nina Hagen or PJ Harvey. No punk (Ramones, Sex Pistols, Slits), and nothing that’s not Anglophone (Serge Gainsbourg, Can).

And what about dance and electronica which were the coming thing in the late 1980s and even if not exactly ‘rock’ certainly were a phenomenon which in some ways replaced it or appropriated aspects of it and then ran in tandem with it. There’s another point along with the gendered aspects of focusing on a ‘rock’ canon – that of race.

And beyond those important caveats…

Hepworth has two theses. The first is that rock apotheosises societal freaks. Rock stars are those who “had no reason to expect that they would ever be special” yet who also ‘”refused to accept that they would ever be anything but exceptional”. These are people who ascended society’s ladder usually without having typical advantages such as an expensive education or social connections. Hepworth’s second thesis is that the rock star as an animal is now dead, made extinct by the changing digital environment much like the polar bear will be made extinct by climate change. “The true rock stars rose and fell with the fortunes of the post-war record industry. They came along in the mid-fifties and passed away in the last decade of the century just gone.”

Possibly so. Possibly so. In relation to both counts. Though listening to a lot of soft rock recently – it seems to me the freakish aspects of rock is overdone and that they are a taste, a flavour, rather than the whole dish. And in relation to rock being extinct…

As someone interested amongst many other genres in hard/heavy/rock etc I’m struck by how much of a live phenomenon it is – how many of those groups from the 70s onwards are still gigging and how popular they are. This doesn’t – of course – invalidate Hepworth’s thesis. Something has changed – as we have often discussed here. What that is is perhaps a little more difficult to determine. Perhaps it is that many things have changed – social media, the collapse of certain formats, the rise of others, streaming and so forth. The fact that groups now tour to make money is in itself a significant shift. And so on.

And yet – and yet – there I was at the beginning of the year at a Sabbath gig which was pretty packed. There’s an appetite there for some sort of spectacle. Whether those that come after and those that come after those that come after can provide the same spectacle is a different question.

Perhaps – as always – this is about another example of the fracturing of what once had a cultural status that was much higher, or at least more prominent. It is, of course, difficult to envisage any musical movement having the same media (as distinct from actual impact) as punk. Or even dance in the early 1990s (remember the legislative efforts to deal with that in the UK?). There’s too many alternatives – sport is in a way more prominent, more pervasive (coverage of it anyhow), computer games and other pastimes likewise, television itself is something there seems to be a greater focus on, not least because there’s so much of it. And so on. How could ‘rock’ compete? How could music?

And yet it prevails. Indeed this I think is spot on.

Rock is a paradigmatic art of the mass-media age and, contra Hepworth, that age is still very much with us, even if the media and instruments continue to evolve. “On the air you could be anyone you wanted,” Hepworth says of how radio and TV enabled early rock. So long as young people still have the imagination and drive, our mass media age will continue to engender such mythic monsters and superfreaks.

In a way the curiosity is that it has staggered on as long as it has – and I’d cast the net wide in respect of the definition of ‘rock’, which is after all a whole different discussion. After all the trick – and it is to some extent the same trick – that interface between youth, enthusiasm, the excessive or the exaggerated, has been played quite a few times. Watch the Beatles and then punk and ignoring the cosmetic changes the enthusiasm and unchained energy are not dissimilar (albeit the numbers of those in relation to the Beatles was vastly greater than the latter). Whole genres have risen and fallen attempting to recapture that to varying effort. The thing is that that enthusiasm, so often a function of age, by dint of its very nature keeps recurring. And the wheel keeps being reinvented (sometimes in hugely entertaining ways – I’m not much of a goth despite loving lots of goth (and post-punk that shaded into goth) but looking at the faint xerox of goth that was emo I suspect I was closer in attitude to my parents incomprehension – or disdain – of my musical taste than at any time previously – although that’s not entirely correct because part of my problem was how retrograde emo was when compared with places actual goth had gone, futurepop/EBM, crossovers into trance and metal and so on with fantastic experimentation. Emo seemed so… tame… by comparison. Such a retreat, sort of the equivalent of the experimentation of the 1980s, good and bad, settling for Britpop in the 1990s).

And there are the micro-scenes, and small scenes. Talking to someone a bit older than me recently who had recently released an album on their own of 1980s style synth pop I discovered that there’s a whole synth pop scene in Dublin that worships at the altar of all things Erasure and OMD and so on.

In some ways the emphasis on the ‘super freaks’ is to get the dynamic wrong. They’re a product of, not the initiator of, rock.


1. sonofstan - July 1, 2017

“And yet – and yet – there I was at the beginning of the year at a Sabbath gig which was pretty packed”

With respect, watching a band in their 70s play music written close to half a century ago is hardly a sign of vigour..
Rock is heading for gentle but terminal decline. No rock act since the early noughties – the Killers, Kings of Leon – has graduated to automatic festival headliner status; meanwhile Adele, Bieber and Sheeran are filling the stadia. Kasabian are – god help us all – probably the biggest British rock band at the moment, and I doubt if anyone beyond the fan base can name any of them. Or can recall any of their songs. Compare and contrast with Oasis two decades back.
I teach kids who have never listened to a guitar band and probably couldn’t name one; like trad jazz in the time of the beat boom, rock now is the sound of the middle-class suburban faux-bohemian and the rugby hearty while the real action is elsewhere.


WorldbyStorm - July 2, 2017

Late 60s! Not 70s. 🙂

It’s hard to know though. Because we are by dint of age detached from a lot of this and it surprises me to find that people I work with in their late 20s and 30s are going to the Stone Roses or whoever when they arrive in town, despite most definitely not being around the first time they arrived. Somehow there’s a canon of sorts and that’s being pushed forward. Granted they’re a bit long in the tooth. But on it goes. I don’t entirely disagree with you re the headliners point (though above and beyond individual bands I’m thinking of the appetite for rock like spectacle – though as you suggest that may be fulfilled by other genres) but The 1975, Pendulum etc are all headlining this summer in the UK. I’m no great fan of them but it seems to me that the appetite persists.


2. E C - July 2, 2017

The Stone Roses were in Wembley Stadium last month! Which would have been hard to imagine happening at their zenith.
Read a review of a book on the iPhone saying that over a billion of em have been sold in the last decade. There has to be a connection between that and the banality of popular music now in most genres and not just pop. As for rock music as spectacle there’s an obvious reason the old timers still play live. The likes of Ed Sheeran and Elbow remind me of the (apocryphal?) exchange between Dylan and Neil Diamond at The Band’s last concert…


3. sonofstan - July 2, 2017

Re the iPhone – it occured to me the other day that the thing that dates videos/ films/ TV over the past 2 decades is not the music or the clothes but the tech. I was using this video in a presentation the other day and the music – 11 years old – sounds contemporary, the clothes being worn wouldn’t look in any way odd now, but the shot of the phone abour 5 seconds in dates it:


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