Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars by David Hepworth – review

Hepworth’s lively study of rock’s greatest stars, from Little Richard to Kurt Cobain, underlines how much the music industry has changed

In Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars, music writer, presenter and author of 1971: Never a Dull Moment, David Hepworth, not only pronounces “the rock star” dead, he traces the time of death to around the mid-1990s, with Kurt Cobain described as “a genuine rock star, possibly the last one”.

Cobain’s own death, in 1994, is the penultimate chapter in a book that starts in 1955 with Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti (originally a celebration of anal sex). It goes on to cover, year by year, pivotal moments in the 40-year life span of the cultural force that is the rock star – a magnificent, at times venal and ridiculous, but ultimately vulnerable creature, dependent for survival on a record industry, which, Hepworth wryly notes, “fancied it was going to be around for ever, but lasted not much longer than the people who made the What the Butler Saw machines”.

It’s nigh on impossible to distil whole years into a single moment, and Hepworth also lists key recordings to give more context. The effect is that of faded, evocative, partisan Polaroids scattered from the memory of one obsessive music fan. Paul McCartney and John Lennon meeting at a fete in Woolton. Janis Joplin trying (and failing) to heal her inner emotional abscess by attending her high school reunion. Ian Stewart sacked from the Rolling Stones for “not looking the part”. David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed forming an unholy trinity at a party. Led Zeppelin being rattled by the arrival of punk in the 1970s. Madonna simulating masturbation on stage during 1990’s Blond Ambition tour. Freddie Mercury defiantly smoking and drinking, even as he died from an Aids-related illness. The police searching Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch, with Hepworth writing: “It was as though they had breached the diplomatic immunity of the sovereign state of stardom.”

Some omissions are bound to irk (there’s not enough punk for my tastes, nor enough on female artists), but that’s one of the pitfalls of books by music journalists – other music journalists whingeing from the sidelines about what’s been left out.

As Uncommon People arrives at the modern-day digital reckoning, it becomes apparent that, while it’s full of death (Buddy Holly, Presley, Lennon, Bowie), the most significant death is that of the music industry as it used to be. I largely agree with Hepworth that where the game of rock and pop is concerned, “it’s never been easier to play; it’s never been harder to win”. For all the flaws of the old-style industry, I’ve become weary of the “next big thing” being “discovered”, strumming an acoustic guitar into a bedroom webcam, singing a well-known song a little slower in a whiny voice, because, hey, man, that’s so counterculture. Sometimes it isn’t – sometimes it’s just cheaper, as well as repetitive, and really rather boring.

Is Uncommon People another blast from the publishing wing of dad rock? Well, yes and no. Just as a heritage industry has sprung up around music (old acts playing old hits to old fans), so too have books like these – accounts of times gone by, written by and for people who give a damn. I, for one, am glad of them.

Ultimately, Uncommon People emerges as part of the drive to capture, analyse and archive key moments in musical history that might otherwise vanish from popular memory before we know it.

• Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars by David Hepworth is published by Bantam Press (£20). To order a copy for £17 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Contributor

Barbara Ellen

The GuardianTramp

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