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Miscellaneous - Burning Out or Fading Away?

  by Mark Rowland

published: 3 / 10 / 2011

Miscellaneous - Burning Out or Fading Away?


In the opening instalment in his new regular column, 'Rock 101', Mark Rowland questions whether it is better for rock bands to burn out or fade away

The break-up of R.E.M. 30 years since the band’s inception generated plenty of column inches in September, as did long-terminated band Nirvana on the 20th anniversary of their seminal ‘Nevermind’ album. One band trundled to a halt, the other snuffed out. It’s a reflection of that age-old thing that has been resurrected regularly since the maturation of the rock and pop market: is it better to burn out than fade away? It’s an argument that refuses to burn out or fade away itself, a symptom of our obsession with rock n roll excess, the romantic notion of dying young and leaving a beautiful corpse. That debate is a bit too simplified. It’s too easy for us to look for patterns in things, to lump things in categories. It’s an evolutionary thing, once used for survival, now detected in any number of aspects of modern life, from pop culture to mathematics. Therefore, a lot of things tend to become a ‘thing’, when they aren’t really a ‘thing’ at all. Take the rock star ‘death age’ – 27. Kurt Cobain was 27 when he shot himself, the same age as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, D. Boon, Brian Jones and Robert Johnson when they died. It has become the ‘average’ age of premature rock star deaths in many articles and gossip, most recently dredged up at the tragic death of Amy Winehouse, who was also 27 when she died. But looking at just the rock stars who have died prematurely (and that is quite a long list), it’s clear that the ‘27’ deaths are a minority. The Christian website AV1611 (the absurdly-named Dial-the-Truth ministries) compiled at http://www.av1611.org/rockdead.html a list of the premature deaths of 321 rock stars in order to promote its religious message. This completely backfired as it was passed around the internet http://www.stumbleupon.com/url/www.av1611.org/rockdead.html by rock fans, adding fuel to the already well-established fascination with the sudden and dramatic rock star death. Those statistics give a broader view of the premature rock star death, which debunks the 27 myth to an extent. The average age of premature death for a rock star, according to the survey, is 36.9, and the most common cause of death is not drug overdose or suicide, but heart attacks. The age of death ranges from the tragically young 18 (Phalin Jones of the Bar-Keys) to 58 (Fela Kuti, Chet Baker and Chas Chandler from the Animals). Let’s not also discount the particularly famous rock deaths that don’t fit the pattern: John Lennon (40), Sid Vicious (21), Ian Curtis (23), Buddy Holly (22) and Elvis Presley (42). Suddenly the pattern doesn’t seem so clear. One of the reasons that the ‘burn out’ notion tends to give us our rock icons is the fact that in most cases the artist in question leaves behind a legacy of unfulfilled promise. People are left to imagine what subsequent works might have been like; we don’t get to see the artist produce a bad album. The audience is left wanting more, the band doesn’t outstay its welcome. It is (in theory) quality over quantity. Compare that with bands like the Rolling Stones, still lumbering on despite not making a decent album for the best part of 40 years. They’re constantly parodied, painted as shuffling geriatrics playing at being teenagers. Youth is inherently linked to rock and pop, partially due to its links with fashion, but also with its sense of identity, something that tends to be more important to teenagers. It’s also very easy for a band to trade on its past glories and the nostalgia of its original audience, which is minimum effort, maximum payout. Go to a town, go through the hits and walk off stage hundreds of thousands of pounds richer. It’s clear why that’s appealing. But just because that option is there does not necessarily mean a band or artist will take it. The bands that avoid ‘fading away’ tend to be those that try to reinvent themselves and incorporate new styles and sounds into their work. R.E.M. did that up to a point, but without moving drastically from the melodic guitar pop template that they set with debut album ‘Murmur’, gradually moving away from their initial post-punk influences to a broader pop pallet. Perhaps they lucked out to some degree, but that gradual broadening of horizons gave them enough steam to get through two decades as a band. After drummer Bill Berry left, they lost it, almost as if the rest of the band wanted to quit too, but decided to keep going for lack of anything else to do. Radiohead are a great example of a band keeping themselves relevant by pushing themselves artistically, as is Bjork. Though often accused of being pretentious by their detractors, both generated big headlines with their new releases this year, most recently Bjork, with her album/multimedia project, ‘Biophilia’. This is perhaps oversimplifying the issue as much as the typical burn out/fade away argument. There are so many mitigating factors in the success or failure of an artist –blind luck being the biggest one ¬– that it is almost impossible to work out some kind of overarching formula for success. We either respond to a piece of music, or we don’t. Though we’re constantly looking for ways to explain music and why we like it, nobody has ever come up with a truly satisfactory one. In my opinion, it’s because as important as music is to the human race, we don’t really understand it, or why it can affect us so profoundly. Music is a language that everyone on the planet can understand, but a tiny percentage can speak fluently. Those who can make great music, who can communicate with so many different people in such an inherently primal and emotional way, are the privileged few, seemingly touched by the gods. The techniques of songwriting can be taught, but no one can be taught to write a great song. It’s no wonder we put these people on a pedestal, and why these people can end up in the understandably difficult position of being labelled as a voice of a generation.

Visitor Comments:-
485 Posted By: Lisa , Chicago on 20 Oct 2011
I vote for burn out. Hang on to the very, last, moist delectable crumb. When fans stop going to see the Stones, or The Who, I'm sure those guys will pack up their gear, but until that time they'd be crazy to go home and knit booties for their great-grandkids, while their wah-wahs are gathering dust. Great theme, Mark!
483 Posted By: Myshkin, London on 19 Oct 2011
A great thought-provoking piece. But I'm on the side of burning out every time. Pop music, rightly or wrongly, is a youth culture. For the young, by the young. Quite frankly anyone middle-aged or older (the Rolling Stones) just look ridiculous and pathetic trying to be cool on stage. Or how about The Who nowadays trying to get away with singing 'My Generation'?. Why don't you all fade away? Indeed. These aging acts, basically have nothing left to say, and no doubt said it all decades ago too. I can't imagine anyone goes to a Stones' gig nowadays to hear their latest songs, they just want the classics so they can relive their youth in a nostalgic way. Best, if you ask me, to get up, say what you need to say, and then pass the mic on and get out of the way.

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