According to the David Hepworth, rock music spanned a 40 year period from 1955 – 1995.
David Hepworth, a distinguished Rock journalist who has met many of the key players, casts a look back over this period and provides us with a succinct history of rock in his new book Uncommon People. The story is told in the form of 40 short essays, one for each year, each of which focuses on a day in the life of key musicians who deserve the accolade of “Rock Star”.
Qualities of a rock star include swagger, impudence, sexual charisma and recklessness.
Hepworth begins with Little Richard in 1955, who just pips Elvis Presley to the post in claiming to be the first Rockstar. Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ was released in Dec 1955, just a few months before Elvis gets his first US No 1 with ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. In addition to the perceptive essays on each artist, the author has also chosen 10 records from each year to give a flavour of the popular music scene of the time. The 1950s also feature John Lennon’s first band, The Quarrymen who were to evolve into The Beatles.
The 1960s was the decade when rock really took off and became mainstream. Bob Dylan, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Black Sabbath are amongst those who took the new music to great heights. Dylan was the first singer-songwriter, Hendrix the first guitar genius, and Janis Joplin the first female rock star.
The 1970’s was the golden age of rock with such figures as Jim Morrison (The Doors), Lou Reed, Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin and Bob Marley. Bowie reinvented himself as a number of different rock stars. Bob Marley showed that Third World countries could also produce rockstars. The Rolling Stones were the first band to be seen as royalty and the first to conduct massive world tours.
If rock reached its peak in the 1970s, its decline certainly began in the 1980s. MTV demanded pop videos which meant that record companies invested in bands with an attractive visual image rather than those with musical ability. Duran Duran, Michael Jackson and Axl Rose (Guns ‘n’ Roses) were the faces of the 1980s. You cannot talk about the 1980s without mentioning Live Aid and “Saint” Bob Geldof who achieves rock stardom on the basis of his good works rather than his musical output.
The 1990’s saw multi-media personalities such as Madonna and the strange career of Prince who fell out with his record company and changed his name to a symbol. The ’90s section concludes with the death of Kurt Cobain who Hepworth describes as the last rock star, a man who committed suicide because he could not live up to the rock star life.
The book ends with the rather sad observation that the 21st century is the era of soul divas, hip-hop artists and TV talent show winners. Music is no longer a precious commodity to be collected and treasured but merely something that is ephemeral.
We can now see rock music as being in the same position as jazz which also had a 40-year lifespan (1920’s -1960’s). Rock created a huge canon of great music which will continue to be appreciated for decades to come. Just as jazz is still studied, performed and appreciated even though it has not developed since its heyday. Through magazines, websites like The Carouser and classic rock radio stations, people of all ages can continue to enjoy great rock music. Uncommon People is highly recommended and comes with a comprehensive bibliography for those who want to read more about this great subject.
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