Book Reviews - Review 404
Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars
Category: Music | Published: 2017 | Review Added: 02-09-2020
A fascination with the lives of pop stars is hard to justify: only occasionally do they have much of interest to say, and only occasionally are they agreeable people. But three generations have grown up with pop music as the soundtrack to their youth, and the cheap but sharp high of listening to the music they loved became conflated with their attitudes to the makers of that music. The feeling of connection is one of the most powerful of human emotions, and as David Hepworth writes in the Foreword to this book, "The idea of a rock star contains, if not exactly multitudes, then certainly a number of facets all of which speak to our depths."
As a young person, I was as addicted to pop music as anyone, and would read Q magazine cover-to-cover, starting with the pieces on my favourite stars and ending with those on heavy metal. David Hepworth was one of the founders of the magazine, and contributed a fair few articles and reviews. He wasn't my favourite contributor: his prose was coolly analytical, lacking the enthusiasm and whimsical charm characteristic of the house style. Also, he was a generation older than me, and his musical heroes were those of the 60s and 70s, many of whose work I considered anything but timeless.
But now I've grown up, and can see that Hepworth's earnest approach to rock journalism is the sane one. It's suited to books that stand back from hero-worship, to see the broad picture of pop music as a phenomenon that affected the mood of its age in ways that are historically important. That the music itself doesn't always bear much artistic analysis does not diminish the impact it had on social and cultural attitudes.
Now of retirement age, Hepworth has spent most of a lifetime acquiring a professional knowledge of pop music, pop stars, and the music industry, that is as broad as it is deep. In Uncommon People, he presents the phenomenon of the true rock star as one that lasted from the mid-1950s to the mid-1990s. Since then, as he sees it, the rise of the Internet has diminished the power of music and the mystique of its makers.
For each year from 1955 to 1995, he picks out a rock star or group in a pivotal phase: on the ascendant, at their apogee, entering terminal decline, or in some cases dead. Acts of major significance receive extra coverage: Elvis gets two chapters, the members of the Beatles four. Most stars who reached the zenith of fame are represented - Little Richard, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Freddie Mercury, Madonna - and they are accompanied by a few names from lower down the ladder, such as Ian Dury and Ozzy Osborne. In a couple of chapters, the artist isn't the real subject of the story: Duran Duran's is all about MTV, and Bonnie Raitt's about musicians giving up booze.
By viewing the history of rock music via a cross-section of acts and incidents, Hepworth has space to consider the bigger picture, and the book provides a luminous overview of rock music's progress from pure fun in the 50s and early 60s, through deeper and darker times in the late 60s, periods of self-conscious image cultivation and mounting record sales in the 70s, to the status of the music industry by the end of the 80s as an overpowering commercial monster consuming everything in its path. The book ends, appropriately, with the suicide of Kurt Cobain in 1994, and the invention of the MP3 music file format a year later. You may or may not agree with Hepworth's thesis that the MP3 killed off the rock star, but he tells his story so skillfully that you let him have his way. What is writing without a flourish of rhetoric?
Cast from a different mould from the average rock journalist, Hepworth is a deep thinker who balances enthusiasm with detachment. His prose is reserved in tone but always piquant and pithy. This isn't a book to read to have your passions validated - Hepworth gives away little about his own tastes - but it's a fascinating work of cultural history, written with much insight and wit.