Too old at 50? Too young to die ...

Elton John is 50. It's not too old to keep rocking. David Lister reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Elton John would be unwise to sing his seventies chart topper "Saturday Night's All Right For Fighting" at his birthday party tomorrow night. Fifty is a difficult age for rock stars. And there's nothing the cynics like more than the incongruity of rebel rousing lyrics and paunches and balding pates.

A perception of absurdity persists in the notion of fifty-pluses singing rock n roll. It is a joke never made about jazz or blues artists where it is considered de rigeur for the creative juices to continue flowing after the age of fifty. Indeed sometimes they do not even begin until the age of 50. A Sonny Rollins tour receives none of the vitriol or arthritis jokes that accompany the Rolling Stones or Bee Gees.

In other musical genres longevity is a sign of virility. And sex is often a force in jazz and blues lyrics just as in rock music. Blues guitarist John Mayall has just released his latest album at 54. But this is child's play compared to John Lee Hooker whose latest entitled Don't Look Back will mark his 80th birthday this year. He has no intention of retiring, and is worshiped rather than mocked.

Mat Snow, editor of the rock music magazine Mojo, says: "With blues and jazz wisdom and experience become part of the music. One doesn't listen to rock for wisdom and experience. Nevertheless, there is much more acceptance now of older rock stars. Forty was the difficult age psychologically for audiences, the media and the artists. Fifty isn't turning out to be such a problem."

This summer the rock 'n' roll fiftysomethings are returning with a vengeance. Far from just doing the predictable greatest hits revival tours in moneyspinning stadia, they are headlining the open air festivals where the audiences are in their teens and twenties.

David Bowie will top the bill at the Phoenix Festival at Stratford upon Avon. At the Fleadh, one of London's trendiest and most boisterous gatherings, Bob Dylan will top the bill, followed by his fellow fiftysomething Van Morrison.

One of the Fleadh organisers, Caffy St Luce, said: "The music is timeless, and we've found no reaction among our young audiences at all against seeing these people. Indeed they're the people they really want to see on stage."

While Dylan, Morrison and Bowie remain intent on playing to a young audience at youth friendly venues, even more unlikely figures are trying to plug in to a younger market. Housewives favourite Barry Manilow has released a 10 minute techno remix of one of his songs to try to get a hit in the dance clubs.

This is less wise. As John Harris of the dance magazine Select said on the Today programme: "That's the sound of the disco grandad. He is using handclaps and other techniques that were briefly trendy five years ago. It's nowhere near the cutting edge now." A comment that could be applied to the even more grotesque spectacle of 70-year-old Pat Boone cutting a heavy metal album.

Though Bowie and to a lesser extent Jagger are fascinated by music on the internet, trying to be at the cutting edge is a high risk strategy for the fiftysomethings. They continue to draw crowds and critical praise for live shows, but the creative juices fail to flow as well in the studio. How many Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Elton John or Bob Dylan songs can one remember from the past five years? Yet their early work remains etched on most mental turntables.

Quite why the gift of creating new rock music should desert the rock legends while the ability to give an outstanding live show remains, is a mystery. Pete Townshend of The Who puts it down to a lack of the youthful energy that drives three minute pop songs.

Mat Snow says: "For the most part the song writing gland does tend to dry up, but that's not unique to rock music. How many Broadway composers kept churning it out after 50? " And live shows have other advantages. For those who play the conventional stadia and "middle aged gigs" rather than the youth festivals there is increasingly sound business sense for ageing rockers to keep going. The National Music Festival last year featured Dylan, the Who and Eric Clapton, and saw the largest number of corporate hospitality packages ever at a British rock concert.

Even the Who, whose leader Pete Townshend vowed never to "try to relive my youth" by touring again, have been wooed by a mixture of money and fan demand back on to the the road.

But if rock stars have got over their psychological crises and are happy to perform into their fifties and even sixties, it is hard to ignore one overwhelming factor. All the fiftysomethings are male. From Sandie Shaw to Abba, the chanteuses of previous decades have all left the limelight. The omens are not good for the Spice Girls graduating to Old Spice.