The rapacious behaviour of rock’n'roll’s grim reaper
The death of The Eagles’ Glenn Frey is a reminder that rock’n'roll’s cast of icons will not be around forever
Another one bites the dust. The death of The Eagles’ guitarist and band co-founder Glenn Frey yesterday means that composing obituaries and appreciations for dead musicians is now a growth area for anyone in the business of writing about pop and rock. Coming on the back of the deaths in the last few weeks of Motherhead’s Lemmy and David Bowie, Frey’s death shows that rock’n'roll is not so much getting old as actually clocking out.
Forget comparing legacies and cultural impact – there will be many people who will be just as saddened and upset by the news about Frey as were by Bowie’s death last week – but note the fact that many of the artists who’ve made up rock and pop’s pantheon are reaching the end of their well-lived lives. Even rock stars are not immune from finite lifespans.
Over the next couple of years, you can expect to wake up to many breaking news reports about the death of various stars who’ve lit up your world for years. I was going to name a few of them here, but you know the list already and that might be tempting fate a little given the rapacious behaviour of pop’s grim reaper of late. You may not have bought their last few records, but you’ve probably gone to see them in concert in the last few years and their classic releases still register with audiences. They’re the acts who make up popular music’s canon and, thanks to the rise in business for heritage acts, a surprising number of them are still very much kicking around the touring circuit.
They’re the musicians who had the good timing to grow into their roles and pull a huge audience when media and popular culture combined to make it much easier to do so. Thanks to rock and pop becoming the lingua franca of the boomer and post-boomer worldwide generation, those big names from Bowie to The Eagles enjoyed the kind of success and profile few musicians of an earlier age could aspire to having. Rock’n'roll went global from the 1960s onwards and those artists who took their first steps, wrote their songs and got the big breakthrough enjoyed unprecedented acclaim and success as a result. The record business was booming and the artists reaped the financial benefits of that surge, a benefit the acts of today will never know.
Rock’n'roll also became part of the cultural conversation. Viewed as juvenile or trivial in previous decades, rock and pop developed heft from the late 1960s on. Stars we still look up to today like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and Brian Wilson saw their work develop the kind of serious cultural connotations which was never the case for the artists who had inspired and influenced them. Rock’n'roll got serious and the coverage increased, especially as fans grew older, became the cultural gatekeepers and dictated what got covered. Within a few years, the kids who’d listened to those albums in their teenage bedrooms were the ones deciding what was written about or broadcast. No prizes for guessing that they went for rock rather than classical.
All of which means the deaths of these figures when they occur will be widely marked and given much more coverage than many musicians who are still around today will ever see (except, perhaps ironically, in death). It will be the same with the acts who dominated the 1980s and 1990s, the same widespread writing and talking about what it all meant. You’d better get used to it because there’s going to be lots and lots of such occasions ahead. Meanwhile, there’s probably scope for some media training school to give a crash-course in how to frame an obituary to eager music writers looking to sharpen their skills in this regard.