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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent