Browsing through album release schedules recently, I was struck by how active rock's old guard were at the present time, with some weeks' lists appearing less like album schedules than seating-plans for the annual charabanc outing from the Home for Old Rockers.
We've all become used to the phenomenon of Sixties and Seventies bands reuniting for lucrative tours, whilst up-and-coming combos struggle to find appropriate venues to showcase their talents: you should never, it seems, underestimate the promotional value of an illustrious past. But while heritage rock might furnish a pleasant evening of nostalgic fun, would you really want to hear an entire album of their new material? With one or two notable exceptions, of course not.
Those exceptions are self-evident. Robert Plant's new album, and his collaboration with Alison Krauss on the Grammy-winning Raising Sand, more than justify his reluctance to join any Led Zeppelin reunion; Tom Jones has struck a seam of intriguing possibilities with his retro-styled gospel album Praise & Blame; Leonard Cohen exerts an undiminished fascination on his new Songs from the Road; and the recent comeback successes of AC/DC and Iron Maiden suggest that some old heavy-metal warhorses were built to last. But Phil Collins trampling all over your Motown memories? Cliff Richard getting your gran all excited again? And Ronnie Wood jamming with a bunch of his Heavy Friends? What's the point of a vanity project like that? As for the forthcoming five-disc set of Yes's 1996 live reunion tour, Keys to Ascension, for once the overused epithet "life's too short" can be employed in its most literal sense.
These are just the tip of an unwieldy iceberg of old lags' albums released now or in the coming weeks. Next week, Neil Young straps on his big fuzz-tone guitar again for the aptly-titled Le Noise, and Eric Clapton issues Clapton, whose unforthcoming title is probably equally indicative of his album's content. Bryan Ferry and Joe Cocker have albums due, and there are a couple of admittedly intriguing collaborations, Metallic Spheres promising a prog-tastic hook-up between The Orb and Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, while The Union finds Elton John working with his hero, piano legend Leon Russell. The forthcoming Jerry Lee Lewis duets album Mean Old Man, meanwhile, seems to feature most if not all of the above as guest contributors.
All of which begs the question as to whether it's possible for old rockers to grow old gracefully, and when they should, in the words of the old song, hang up their rock'n'roll shoes for good. Ringo Starr made a botch of it when he simply announced via his website that he was no longer going to sign autographs – though that apparently hasn't stopped him readying the imminent release of the live album Ringo Starr & His All Starr Band, a picture of which might usefully be used to illustrate the dictionary definition of "unnecessary".
Some rockers, of course, ought to grow old disgracefully – Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards have never seemed that bothered with propriety, and Jerry Lee Lewis has his reputation to uphold, after all. But in the main, the continuing value of superannuated stars' output seems directly proportionate to the rootsy authenticity of their music. If their original fame depended primarily on the momentary fashion of an era, they will be forever trapped in that era. No amount of bogus distressing or antiquing, for instance, is going to make an ageing New Romantic or glam act seem anything other than tacky, while as recent releases by Mavis Staples and Solomon Burke demonstrate, blues, soul and gospel music can actually improve with age and experience, which is why the likes of Muddy Waters and B B King continued performing into their dotage with dignity intact. As an astute commentator once observed of the latterday Bob Dylan, tireless sexagenarian king of the road: he spent most of his youth trying to sound like an old man, so now he actually is an old man, he sounds more natural than ever.