Saluting the old masters of rock'n'roll

They didn't die before they got to this age, but neither did they fade away. Andy Gill salutes the stars who have managed to stay creative

While hopeful young wannabes of all shapes and styles industriously traverse the termite-mound of fanciful ambitions and bogus alliances that is the MySpace/Facebook world of virtual music for virtual people, precious few of them, it seems, manage to make it onto an actual stage to play in front of actual people. Increasingly, that has become the domain of older, tried and trusted acts, many of them squeezing back into stage gear they haven't worn in decades, in order to strut once more in front of an ever-thinning crowd of ever-thinning heads of old fans lured by that free album they've just downloaded from the artist's website.

It's the new business model for rockers of a certain age: using giveaway recordings as loss-leaders to promote paying gigs. It only works if you already have a certain profile, of course, and is thus of no help to up-and-coming acts. And frankly, in many cases, particularly those involved in reunions undertaken following a lengthy fallow period, sudden exposure to the artist's time-ravaged presence may put the cap on their career once and for all, as traumatised former devotees go scurrying for refuge back to the virtual world where their old heroes – and by extension, themselves – remain forever young.

Revivals, reunions – and the Rolling Stones – are one thing, but it's a different matter for those few precious souls who have managed to remain creatively potent throughout a long and illustrious career, without ever completely losing their credibility. The current climate is surely commercial heaven for the Dylans, Springsteens and Paul Wellers of this world, while even lower down that longevity ladder, the likes of Kate Bush, Nick Cave and The Fall's Mark E Smith can find their recent albums and shows acclaimed with unprecedented fervour.

In part, this situation is explicable in simple demographic terms, according to the changing leisure requirements of different generations. In the Sixties, the young had little besides pop music to call their own, whereas the range of activities and cultural components competing for the attention (and money) of today's equivalent youth seems to expand daily, with videogames, computers and mobile phones dealing taking a huge toll on music's potential audience. At the same time, the spread of illegal downloading and file-sharing has devalued music catastrophically: once upon a time, hippies fought for the principle that music should be free; but the inevitable corollary, now that it actually is free to all intents and purposes, is that a generation considers it all but worthless.

The only demographic groups that still place a serious value – both intrinsic and actual – on music are those for whom it served as the bush-telegraph and barometer of their cultural development, ie those who grew up in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. Hence the continuing popularity of artists from those eras, while younger acts blossom and wither with alarming speed, their careers collapsing within weeks as their audience's gnat-like attention spans alight upon some more colourful diversion.

But this doesn't explain why some acts from those eras should sustain, while others disappear. For the most prominent superannuated stars, such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young, sheer persistence is certainly a factor: Dylan's relentless touring schedule has ironically helped disprove the adage that a rolling stone gathers no moss, as his shows have continued to attract fresh legions of younger fans searching for something with a little more substance. But mere industry alone does not explain the continuing creative energy responsible for his brilliant trilogy of recent albums, Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft and Modern Times, the last of which secured Dylan the unique distinction of being the oldest performer ever to have an album enter the American charts at No1, and deservedly so.





Watch the video for the Bob Dylan track 'Cold Iron Bounds'




That a 65-year-old – and furthermore, the sole recipient of both an Academy Award, a Grammy and a Pulitzer Prize – should wield such commercial power through prolonged artistic potency speaks volumes about Dylan's unique status as the most towering pillar of American popular culture. His creative energies remain a constant source of surprise, not to mention mystery. Through the years, there have been rumours and reports of his "borrowing" from various sources – lines apparently lifted from The Maltese Falcon, from a Japanese Yakuza memoir, and most recently from a little-known American Civil War poet, Henry Timrod – but such magpie tendencies are probably just (admittedly brazen) extensions of the way he would adapt traditional folk tunes for his earliest compositions; and if he needs such tangential devices to refresh his own muse, few would argue that they aren't put to good use.

Young's popularity and creative vitality is a more unusual case. Most artists' longevity relies upon their fidelity to a format tacitly agreed upon with their audience: Van Morrison has effectively made the same album for several decades, recycling his trademark blend of R&B mysticism and memories with varying degrees of success; and Brian Wilson's fans would be heartbroken if new material didn't conform to the exacting standards of Pet Sounds and Smile.

But, for years through the Seventies and Eighties, Young appeared to be in headlong flight from his own career, torturing his audience through a succession of stylistic volte-faces that swung haphazardly from rock to country, R&B to bluegrass, folk to techno, in such a typically cavalier manner that his own record company once tried to sue him for not delivering an album that was recognisably "Neil Young", as they understood it. His profile and fortunes ebbed and flowed accordingly, until his album Freedom – and particularly the sardonic anthem "Rockin' in the Free World" – saw him, effectively, regain his artistic compass. Luckily for Young, this coincided with his adoption as the check-shirted grandfather of grunge, since when his reputation has been secure.

Other artists, such as Leonard Cohen and Steely Dan, have profited from the high value their audiences place on the intelligence and sophistication of their work: the well-turned lyrical conceit, and the cleverly wrought melody, offer more lasting pleasures than the thin gratification of immediate sensation. Weaned on sources apart from the familiar rock'n'roll influences – respectively the Canadian poetry scene, and late-Fifties hipster jazz – has enabled both acts to treat pop with a certain disdain, which has effectively inoculated them against the vagaries of musical fashion, a common source of the rust that corrodes so many creative spirits.

Intelligence seems a crucial factor in accounting for the resilience of many rock'n'roll careers. It would be absurd, for instance, for punters blessed with a certain hard-won wisdom to regard the poltroon posturing of most heavy-metal bands with more than amused contempt; an interview with Brian Eno, a narrative by Nick Cave or a lyric by Leonard Cohen or Richard Thompson, on the other hand, can be relied upon to prompt mature reflection, without patronising its audience with infantile fantasies.





Watch the video for Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds' track Dig, Lazarus Dig!!!'




Ironically, while many British and Americans eagerly immerse themselves in the diversity of black African music, black American music has consistently suffered from a lack of equivalent interest in its home market. It's hard to explain why, but many black Americans seem to have a strangely dismissive attitude towards their own cultural achievements, overturning previous modes so swiftly and thoroughly that they become extinct almost overnight. When European blues fans sought out their heroes in the Sixties, they discovered giants like Muddy Waters playing to mere handfuls of fans, while legends like Son House had long since given up music to become shop assistants and janitors. For some black Americans, that old blues music was simply an embarrassing reminder of their former subjugation, summarily abandoned in favour of successive strains of showier musical styles whose bling-laden gaudiness was mistaken as evidence of their emancipation.

For the time being, tragically, creative longevity seems to be the sole property of white folks, a damning indictment of an industry largely built on black genius.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview