Gimme shelter from rock-star sleaze . . .
Why do we give creepy musicians a free pass when it comes to underage lust, asks Ed Power
When is a dirty old man not a dirty old man? When he's in a rock band, apparently. It is worth considering why normal standards of outrage are not applied to rock stars – and why the music industry's questionable attitude towards children has gone unscrutinised for so long.
Can you, for instance, imagine the uproar were anyone other than a bad-boy rocker to sing "I can see that you're 15 years old . . . No I don't want your ID." This is from the 1968 Rolling Stones hit 'Stray Cat Blues'. Aged 25, Mick Jagger already sounds like a fully paid up member of the creepy senior citizens brigade.
Sleeping with an adolescent, the song argues in a later verse is 'no capital' offence.
In case the sentiments went over anyone's head, performing the track on the Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out live album in 1970 Jagger lowered the age of the would-be paramour to 13.
Such lyrics sadly were typical among musicians of the time. Led Zeppelin, the original heavy metal band, wrote an unsettling dirge 'Sick Again' about young 'groupies'. It contains the memorable lyric: "Lips like cherries and the brow of a queen/ Come on, flash it in my eyes/ Said you dug me since you were 13". Lovely.
An even more infamous case was provided by Blind Faith, a so called 'super-group' featuring legendary guitarists Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton. The cover of their debut album features a topless pubescent girl (rumoured to be 11 – a 14-year-old having allegedly proven to be 'too old' for the designer's requirements). She pouts at the camera, holding a phallic Chevrolet hood ornament. The image is at best tasteless, at worst quasi pornographic – but will it dissuade aging Clapton fans from trooping along to see the musician in their thousands when he visits The O2 in Dublin next year?
Other acts had their creepy moments, too. Best known for their wedding dance staple Avalon and for launching the career of Bryan Ferry, the band Roxy Music were notorious for plastering their record covers with images of semi-dressed young women.
Rather than throwing the standard come-hither gazes at the camera, these models look vulnerable and afraid. To this day the pictures are supremely unsettling.
Even when they weren't singing about underage sex, musicians in the sixties and seventies were capable of shocking fans with their references to extraordinary nastiness and misogyny.
It's hard not to listen to The Stones' 'Midnight Rambler', a tale of a footloose rapist from their 1969 'masterpiece' Let It Bleed, and not feel a chill.
"Did ya see me jump the bedroom door," snarls Jagger. "I'm called a hit-n-run raper, in anger."
For once there WAS controversy, with many hearing parallels between the 'oh don't do that' lyric and accounts of the Boston Strangler Albert De Salvo, who killed 13 women between 1962 and 1964. De Salvo told police that one of his victims had uttered those very same words as he slit her throat.
The Stones just about weathered the public backlash. The lesson was lost on the wider music community, it appears.
Ten years later, the Dublin 'hard rock' band Thin Lizzy released a graphic song called 'Killer On The Loose', apparently inspired by Jack The Ripper.
In it, singer Phil Lynott – whose statue off Grafton Street attracts hundreds of pilgrims to Dublin every year – declares 'I'm a mad sexual rapist'. The timing could not have been worse as the Yorkshire Ripper serial killer was in the middle of his murderous spree in Britain.
There was a huge outcry – though nothing that actually threatened Lizzy's long term career.
In the case of the Stones the lyrics to 'Stray Cat Blues' were to prove prescient. Not even born when the song was released, Mandy Smith was 13 when she met Stones' bass player Bill Wyman in 1983. Then 47, Wyman was set on wooing her and she has said she was 14 when they slept together. They married when she was 18. The relationship – can you believe it? – didn't last.
The curious thing is that rather than be disgusted by such carry-on we place these rockers on pedestals. They are, we tell ourselves, projecting the ultimate alpha male lifestyle – partying non-stop. In other words, living the way any red blooded guy would if only he had the opportunity. We make heroes of these people and it never crosses our minds to disapprove of their behaviour.
Again and again with rock stars the double standards are breathtaking. There is bad behaviour and there is rock star bad behaviour.
If you are a professional rocker, engaging in the artistic equivalent of heavy breathing over a (very) young woman is, it appears, no more serious an offence than chucking a TV out a window.