Wednesday 19 June 2019

The rough guide to becoming a rock legend

Leonard Cohen can still pull in the crowds, of all ages, for his concerts
Leonard Cohen can still pull in the crowds, of all ages, for his concerts

Joe O'Shea

Ask most music fans about their gigs of the year so far and names like Cohen, Young, Morrissey and Springsteen will almost certainly come up. Further enquiries about the hot tickets still to perform will draw excited predictions for the likes of Tom Waits, Kraftwerk and The Sex Pistols.

Even the most serious musos, the trend-makers who are obsessed with spotting the next hot act since the last hot act, are getting all hot under their vintage collars about My Bloody Valentine at Electric Picnic.

That's the My Bloody Valentine who released a hugely acclaimed second album (Loveless) back in 1991 and then virtually disappeared for a decade and a half.

You might expect ageing indie-boys, veterans of the Punk Wars and techno nerds to get excited about the likes of My Bloody Valentine, Sex Pistols and Kraftwerk gigging again in Ireland. And Leonard Cohen was always going to get a good crowd for his gig at the Royal Hospital.

But when music fans in their early twenties tell you that Laughing Lenny's performance was "the gig of the year, by a mile", you have got to start asking serious questions.

These young'uns were probably only at Cohen or Springsteen because their 'Embarrassing Dads' dragged them along to show them what "real music" should sound like.

They never put in the hard hours in the bedsits of Rathmines, listening to Songs From a Room or Harvest. So it cannot be just nostalgia. Somehow, the likes of Cohen and Young, and less venerable icons like Morrissey and Kraftwerk, have not only managed to hang onto their loyal fans but also connect with the latest generation. But what is the secret to longevity in the rock icon business? Why do some acts keep going from year to year and some fade away?

The canny few keep recording and touring to critical acclaim -- most end up as footnotes or dragging their tired old bones around the nostalgia circuit, dressing up in costume and sleep-walking through their old hits for the office party crowd.

So what are the golden rules? And why do so few get it right?

Well, the handbook for Rock Survival should probably include advice to ...

n Ration Yourself

Chuck Berry could claim to have invented rock with his three-chord template, hooks, riffs and innovative lyrics on the classic themes -- cars and girls.

But Berry never stopped gigging and was notorious for being too mean to pay for a proper touring band, preferring to pay peanuts to the local musicians he picked up on a neverending stream of one-night stands.

Like the majority of the first wave of rock'n'rollers, Berry was too busy making money while the sun shone to worry about protecting his legacy or keeping the public hungry for more.

Prince is another legend who has failed to locate the "off" button, tarnishing his reputation with a bewildering stream of half-realised albums (including one given away free with a Sunday newspaper, for the love of Elvis!).

In later years, Bob Dylan would get on everybody's nerves with his own Never Ending Tour (two decades on and still delivering mediocrity). At least Bruce Springsteen has the sense to deliver properly thought out albums and tours that are spaced out enough to be major events.

n Maintain An Air of Mystery

Leonard Cohen disappeared into a Buddhist monastery, Brian Wilson disappeared into his own mind and Morrissey has spent the past two decades messing with us.

Kraftwerk, who will perform in Ireland in September, apparently spend most of their time plugged into some sort of motherboard in Germany.. My Bloody Valentine took over a decade off and just watched the legend grow.

The great survivor of Dad Rock, Paul Weller, has spent at least half of his career trying to sabotage himself and annoy the critics. However, these critics in particular love the self-consciously tortured, troubled or just plain contrary. Those with staying power adhere to the mantra: "Treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen."

n Re-invent

In pop, Madonna has built an unprecedented career for a female vocalist by being able to spot each new trend that comes along and hurl herself onto the bandwagon. Her genius is to take underground sounds and pasteurise them for mainstream consumption.

Neil Young has gone from hippie to Reagan fan to gnarled champion of the environment and arch-provocateur -- just check out the crowd reaction to Let's Impeach the President on the current Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young movie.

In the process he has covered everything from country-rock to electronica and taken the blame for Grunge. The words "Rock chameleon" and "David Bowie" come together in cliché.

But Madonna and Bowie have shown that if you don't want the public to get bored of you -- or become typecast -- you have got to keep ch-ch-changing.

n Take Yourself Very Seriously -- Or Not At All

Let's look at the long and successful careers of metal titans Mettalica and Iron Maiden.

Metallica are prone to taking themselves very seriously indeed, to the point where they did an documentary about band relationships and how it's, like, really, really hard to be millionaire rock stars.

Iron Maiden, on the other hand, have been doing exactly what it says on the Metal tin for nearly three decades of riotous riffs and hugely entertaining live shows. Both have massive fanbases and both still command the sometimes grudging respect of the serious music mags.

And Iron Maiden have forged a long career in the most unfashionable of music genres by never forgetting what made them a success in the first place -- delivering kick-ass rock.

n Prove Your Staying Power

Billy Joel has never, ever -- not even for five minutes in his own front room -- been fashionable.

But Joel has had the kind of career that most recording artists would kill for and it can't be just down to recording annoyingly catchy tunes like Piano Man and Uptown Girl.

Despite all of the blows, the divorces, suicide attempts, Westlife covers and ill-advised facial hair, Joel has managed every time to get up off the canvass like the boxer he so resembles.

It's easy to admire genius -- but you have got to also admire the staying power of those who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge changing fashion and just keep plugging away.

n If All Else Fails -- Call Rick Rubin

Johnny Cash had long since stopped recording vital music when uber-producer Rick Rubin helped him to come back from the dead with American Recordings in 1994.

Cash won a new generation of fans and lived out the last years of his life in a late burst of creativity and personal fulfilment.

Rubin is a sort of artistic crash-cart -- reviving the careers of artists who had long since flat-lined critically and commercially. His latest successful project -- even more unlikely than Cash -- has been Neil Diamond with 2005's 12 Songs and this year's Home Before Dark.

But Rubin has also been working recently with Metallica and -- in typically eclectic fashion -- '80s boogie-rockers ZZ Top.

If your career is dead, if no one is returning your calls, maybe you can hire ... . Rick Rubin.

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