By contextualizing these rock stars chronologically, we can start to trace the excesses, where they went wrong and where the very idea of the rock star began to lose any sort of cultural currency.
It’s fitting that David Hepworth’s Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars sees 1995 as the end of an age ushered in by the arrival of Little Richard. Argued here as the first true rock star, Little Richard’s flamboyant, outsized personality and approach to his instrument set the standard for nearly every musician who was to follow within the rock and roll – and later just rock – idiom. A short 40 years later, following the cosmic explosion that was Nirvana’s arrival as a mainstream rock success, nearly anyone with a guitar and a few chords under their belt could ape the rock star mentality. The trouble is, true rock stars existed in such rarified air that, by the time Nirvana – along with the internet – helped democratize music, the very concept to which these people aspired was no longer a viable proposition, having been extinguished when made available to the masses. This and, as Hepworth argues, the ubiquitousness of the term “rock star.” Stripped from its original context, we suddenly found ourselves awash with rock star chefs, lawyers, politicians, authors, etc.
Using this thread as an opening thought on the rise and fall of the titular rock star, Hepworth proceeds to break down the mythos behind these larger-than-life characters, taking a pivotal moment within each year from 1955 to 1995 to help show how the rock star was created, nurtured, celebrated, elevated and, ultimately, killed off by an excess of the very excesses that once defined a rock star. It’s an interesting way in which to observe pop music and its prime movers and shakers, often taking a contextualized look at a watershed moment at the start, middle or end of a rock star’s career. With Little Richard, it’s the end-of-the-session one-off that was “Tutti Frutti” that helped to not only launch Little Richard into the stratosphere, but also establish a baseline for what a rock star could and should be.
From there, we’re taken on a tour encompassing everything from the day John met Paul at the local village fete to Buddy Holly’s ill-fated desire to launder his clothing to Black Sabbath’s serendipitous name swap from Earth to the mistranslated name of a horror film on a marquee to Ian Dury’s unlikely rise from pool-water-swallowing-polio victim to one of the biggest rock stars – in the U.K. – by the end of the 1970s. And while many of these tales have been told time and again, often slipping more into legend than factual occurrence (Jim Morrison’s penis in Miami? Not likely.), never before have they been broken down and reassembled as Hepworth does here to create an overarching narrative that explores the rock star archetype through very specific examples. In other words, by book’s end, the names and faces are more or less irrelevant, leaving their personal trials and tribulations, triumphs and failures as the main take-away rather than any sort of specific cultural impact.
Like modern day gods, these rock stars saw themselves time and again revered as near super-humans worthy of otherwise absurd levels of respect, adulation and praise. As the field became more and more crowded, fewer and fewer true rock gods were allowed to become fully formed, the public’s attention being drawn in a myriad directions, with options growing exponentially each year. Indeed, save perhaps the Gallagher brothers, there have been no true rock stars in the traditional sense in the last almost 25 years. That this coincides with the rise of the internet, home recording and the digitization of music is no surprise. As with any basic economic scenario, supply and demand eventually played out as it always does when faced with a surplus, the cream of the crop briefly rising to the surface before being overlooked in favor of the latest flavor of the week.
By contextualizing these rock stars chronologically, we can start to trace the excesses, where they went wrong and where the very idea of the rock star began to lose any sort of cultural currency. From Led Zeppelin’s foolish belief that they could sell out Knebworth two consecutive weekends after a nearly four-year absence on British soil in the wake of the punk explosion or Paul McCartney’s offhand remark about having more than enough money at a certain point in his career (1968, to be precise), the overinflated ego and overabundance of hubris showed the rock star pinnacle and what we now consider when we think of the term. That there were real people behind these almost cartoonishly outlandish characters is often overlooked. Uncommon People seeks to remedy this, reminding us that, while these musicians may have once been seen as gods amongst men, even the mightiest will eventually fall. Hepworth does a fine job of bringing this all into focus in this fascinating book.