Book review: Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars by David Hepworth
These uncommon people certainly took seriously the role that came (and went) with rock.
Then again so does David Hepworth, arguably the best kind of historian, who – having written about, broadcast about and spoken about music since the 1970s – once again reveals his passion for a subject he records so well from the start of side A to the play out groove on side B.
At times he draws on personal experience from decades of interviews, at others he shares the spoils acquired by the hours spent seeking out often little-known facts about the famous faces featured in his new book.
Groundwork done, Hepworth zeroes in on so many defining moments and turning points in the lives of 40 rock stars between 1955 and 1994, stopping there on the premise that beyond that time the term rock star had been spread so thin as to be meaningless.
It seems unbelievable today, with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band back in the charts half a century after the album’s release, that Ringo Starr – the last to arrive and now one of the two surviving members of the Fab Four – expected fame to fizzle out after a few short years in the world spotlight.
Leaving school in Liverpool at 15, the best his teacher could say of the future drummer was that he was ‘honest, cheerful and willing and capable of making a satisfactory employee.’ Once asked what he would do when The Beatles were no more, Ringo’s masterplan was to buy a couple of hairdressing salons for his then-wife. The ultimate common touch you might say.
So why does Hepworth see his subjects as ‘uncommon’ in the first place?
Simple. They came from ordinary backgrounds and got to the top without the help of education, training, family ties, money or any other conventional ladders.
And these ‘uniquely motivated nobodies’ rose in status thanks to the nurturing or exploitation (and sometimes both) of their fledgling talent by those who managed the post-war record industry decades before access to unlimited music, anytime, anywhere, became the greedy norm.
The first true rock star, according to Hepworth’s calculations, was Little Richard back in 1955, with Elvis Presley following in his footsteps – if not his outrageous hairstyle – the very next year, his success guaranteeing that he forever said farewell to a normal life.
Each chapter is devoted to a particular year. For example, Hepworth recalls ‘rock royalty close up,’ sharing the tribulations of his own interview with Bob Dylan in 1986 at Madison Square Gardens, New York. At that time Dylan was 45, ‘Methuselah in rock music terms,’ and when a record company official asked their star how the interview was going, Dylan’s brief response was: ‘I don’t know, he keeps asking me questions.’
The secret that Dylan did not share with anyone at the time was that he was going through his first bout of writer’s block, as well as having a crisis of confidence as a performer.
Other rock stars featured had lives cut short long before they could question their own talent or appreciate their influence on those who followed. Take a final bow Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, who all have their own chapters.
Bob Marley is acknowledged as the Third World’s first rock star as Island Records’ boss – white Jamaican Chris Blackwell – was determined to reposition reggae ‘which was previously regarded by smart opinion as good only for novelty hits and skinhead dance parties into the stuff of serious rebellion.’
So these are Hepworth’s uncommon people; although they had no reason to expect they would ever be special, at the same time they refused to believe they would be anything but exceptional.
The fact they still hold their own in the record collections of millions, thanks to a rich music legacy, suggests they long ago knew they were doing something right.
(Bantam Press, hardback, £20)