I can state from experience that it is very, very hard to write originally about famous rock musicians. Unlike politicians or business leaders, much of the artists’ most interesting or even outrageous attributes are already incorporated into their publicity handouts or their press coverage; to say something meaningful about people upon whom countless messages have long been projected by promoters, journalists, and fans is a huge challenge. David Hepworth’s Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars (2017) overcomes the clichés of rock history as comparable books seldom do, perhaps because the author begins by acknowledging, “The age of the rock star, like the age of the cowboy, has passed.”
Hepworth’s innovation in Uncommon People is to present not a chronological account of the genre but a sequence of vignettes from the 1950s to the 1990s, where crucial milestones of particular acts reflect the direction of the medium as a whole. Thus the stories of Buddy Holly’s fatal plane crash, Brian Wilson’s nervous breakdown, the Beatles’ launch of Apple, Bob Marley’s 1975 Lyceum concert, the TV spectacle of Live Aid, and Freddie Mercury’s death from AIDS are used to illustrate a broader story about the explosion of the global media industry in the last half of the Twentieth Century. Hepworth doesn’t really offer any new biographical details, but the ones he highlights (the rehearsal that produced Black Sabbath’s signature song occurred the same day as the Manson Family murders at the Sharon Tate residence, for example) show how rock music and the wider culture influenced each other for decades. In the end, the wider culture had the last word.
Uncommon People isn’t comprehensive; there’s little here on Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison, the Supremes, the Band, or the Sex Pistols. Nor does it cover the formal development of the music itself. Instead Hepworth explains how the unique qualities of the greatest rock performers were eventually ascribed to, or assumed by, any pop performer at all, among them Michael Jackson, Madonna, Axl Rose, and Kurt Cobain, and the resulting consequences for the rock star ideal. What killed rock, he argues, were music videos (looks and choreography came to matter as much as songs), new technology (CDs and the Internet reduced the art and the personalities to mere content), and above all to a worldwide saturation of fame that made it possible to speak of “rock star” fund managers and “rock star” computer programmers. Where rock stardom once had to be earned, through ambition, idiosyncrasy, recklessness, and even actual talent, it became but a shorthand for any and all celebrity, however acquired, whatever signified. As Hepworth puts it:
Rock stars were the product of an age when music was hard to access and treasured accordingly…What was once hard to find is now impossible to escape. Music no longer belongs in a category of otherness. It’s now just another branch of the distraction business, owned by the same multinational conglomerates as the theme parks and the multiplexes…In the new world [Steve Jobs] had ushered into being, there was no product release, no new album from Beyoncé or Jay Z or Adele that could be quite so exciting or could touch quite as many people as the release of a new piece of software.
This detached perspective, so different from most romanticized, self-contained studies which consider only the cosmetic changes from one musical subculture to the next, is a welcome critical advance. It’s one thing when a movement occasionally generates standout figures like Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, or Janis Joplin, Hepworth suggests – once the movement is wholly defined by its most visible or extreme practitioners, the fundamental quality at its centre diminishes. For those of us resigned to the end of rock ‘n’ roll as an expanding but still distinct style, Uncommon People is an uncommonly thoughtful analysis of how the endless expansion finally depleted the tragic, glorious distinctiveness that characterized rock ‘n’ roll.