And the band played on: how to grow old gracefully in pop

Madonna may have hit a birthday milestone but, from Johnny Cash’s stark admission of age to Paul McCartney’s embrace of hip young things, there’s ways to keep your music fresh

The late rock critic Lester Bangs once wrote a piece headlined The Ol’ Fey Outlaws Ain’t What They Used To Be, in which he upbraided the Rolling Stones for their advanced age. They were, he opined, “just a buncha old men … getting flaky”, derided by hipsters as “senile old has-beens”. Mick Jagger, in particular, looked “tattered, old, used-up”. It is worth noting that this piece was published in 1973, after the release of Goats Head Soup. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had just turned 30.

Should anyone think that this was just a particularly ripe example of Bangs being Bangs, with his splenetic iconoclasm turned up to 11, the piece makes it clear that he was not a lone voice in suggesting the Stones were too ancient to rock: as early as 1969, Rolling Stone had published a photo of the group’s frontman onstage with the caption: “You could see the evidence of years in Mick Jagger’s face.”

You couldn’t ask for more dramatic evidence of how pop’s attitude to age has altered over the years. When Bangs was writing, it was strictly a young person’s game: the general tenor of his piece suggests that there was substantially more dignity in overdosing in a motel room at 27 than there was in taking the stage in your 30s: “The Rolling Stones lasting 20 or 30 years – what a stupid idea that would be,” he wrote, adding confidently: “Nobody lasts that long.” The notion that you were past it once your 20s had receded was parroted again and again in the 70s. The 1979 Who documentary The Kids Are Alright features footage of Keith Moon and Ringo Starr, visibly three sheets to the wind in Los Angeles: “We’re not drunk, teenyboppers,” says Starr, raising his glass to the camera. “We need our medicine because we’re getting on.”

Still going strong … the Rolling Stones.
Still going strong … the Rolling Stones. Photograph: Claude Gassian

How times change. Last week, Madonna turned 60, to general celebration. Only the Daily Mail, resolute in its longstanding mission to come up with the shittiest possible response to any situation, sought to mock her for her age: “Look who’s still desperately seeking attention … at 60!” offered its front page earlier this month, above a photo from the singer’s recent shoot for Vogue magazine, which, it suggested, made her look as if she were “en route to a goth-themed Saga sex party”. It proved a lone voice, because, in 2018, there seems nothing extraordinary about the idea of an aged pop star.

You can have fun playing mortality maths if you like – Madonna is now the same age that the guy who played grizzled fish finger-flogger Captain Birdseye was when her debut single was released; we are as far away from the records that turned her into a global superstar as Like a Virgin or Material Girl were from Jackie Brenston’s Rocket 88, arguably the first rock’n’roll record ever made.

But the truth is that being 60 puts Madonna very much in the junior league of heritage pop stars. The day before her birthday, Paul McCartney, 76, released his new single Fuh You: produced by Taylor Swift and Beyoncé collaborator Ryan Tedder, its chorus expresses a lustful wish for septuagenarian sex and sounds more improbably still like Maroon 5. Bob Dylan, who has just announced the next 36 dates on his Never-Ending Tour, is 77. Contrary to Bangs’s predictions, the Rolling Stones have lasted 56 years: the four members still touring have a collective age of 297; their last studio album was the most acclaimed thing they have put out in decades. Taking stock of Aretha Franklin’s career in the wake of her death last week, it was heartening to see how she constantly tried to stay contemporary, taking on disco, then glossy 80s pop, then collaborations with the likes of John Legend.

All of them, Madonna included, have faced accusations that they are past it and calls to pack it in, but those seemed to die out years ago. There has never been a better time to be an ageing pop star. The attitude of younger fans and artists alike tends to be one of reverence rather than punk-ish iconoclasm: grime MC Skepta heeded the call to make a guest appearance on Mick Jagger’s 2017 solo single England Lost, albeit with fairly woeful results; a recent album of Elton John cover versions gathered contributions from everyone from Lady Gaga to Demi Lovato to Queens of the Stone Age.

The appetite for musical nostalgia is such that there is a whole mini-industry dedicated to unearthing wildly obscure artists who garnered no interest at all in what was ostensibly their heyday, transforming their reputations and proving that age is no obstacle to becoming a cult star. Daptone Records elevated obscure soul singers Charles Bradley and Sharon Jones to an Indian summer of vast acclaim; folk artist Vashti Bunyan garnered a new audience of twentysomething hipsters in her 60s, 35 years after her debut album, Just Another Diamond Day, was consigned to the bargain bins; psychedelic singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez found himself in receipt of platinum albums and sold-out tours after years spent in such obscurity that he was widely rumoured to be dead. Indeed, there is even a slightly ghoulish argument that suggests the older you are, the bigger a live draw you become.

In recent years, pop music has become haunted by the spectre of mortality as never before. Irreplaceable musicians seem to have been dying off with a previously unimaginable frequency: Lou Reed, Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, Chuck Berry, and now Aretha Franklin. Some of them have followed the traditional pop-death narrative of talent cruelly snatched away by a premature demise, accompanied by lurid speculation about what had been going on in their private lives. But a lot of them haven’t: 60 years on from the initial rock’n’roll explosion, we have reached the point where pop stars are starting to die of old age.

You don’t have to be horribly cynical to suggest that adds a certain urgency to events such as 2016’s Desert Trip festival, that some people were willing to stump up $1,599 for a three-day pass to see the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Roger Waters, the Who, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney, because they weren’t sure if they would get another opportunity. Two of 2018’s hottest concert tickets have been to farewell tours, by Paul Simon and Elton John: there are bound to be more to follow.

Not just playing the hits ... Kate Bush at Hammersmith Apollo in 2014.
Not just playing the hits ... Kate Bush at Hammersmith Apollo in 2014. Photograph: Ken McKay/Ken McKay / Rex Features

Nor does the more mature pop star’s career have to be predicated entirely on nostalgia. You can do that if you want, to hugely lucrative effect – it doesn’t look like much fun being Brian Wilson, apparently condemned to barking out Pet Sounds in full for the rest of his days, although doubtless his bank manager would disagree – but there are other options available. There is a certain kind of artist who long ago established a reputation for doggedly ploughing their own furrow, regardless of anything else that was happening around them: their fans have become accustomed to gratefully getting what they are given, no matter how enigmatic that is. Age seldom turns them into craven crowd-pleasers: Young started acting like an ornery old coot in his early 20s and clearly sees no reason to change tack in his 70s; it seems profoundly unlikely that Kate Bush is going to celebrate her 60s by announcing an All The Hits … And More! tour. Occasionally, artists get so inscrutable with age that they end up attracting an entirely different audience from the one they started out with: it is possible that some of the ladies who screamed at the Walker Brothers now thrill to the sound of their erstwhile frontman punching a side of pork and wailing in a strangulated voice about the death of Mussolini, but you wouldn’t bet on it.

Alternatively, you can attempt to keep up with current trends, using the reputation you have amassed over the years as leverage to get the biggest and hippest young names to work with you, giving your latest music a sheen of contemporaneity: McCartney has been doing that for years, making pseudonymous ambient albums with Youth in the 90s, collaborating with the Freelance Hellraiser at the height of the vogue for “mash-ups”, and tapping Tedder, Mark Ronson, Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, and Greg Kurstin – of Sia and Adele fame – to work on his recent albums.

It is a high-risk strategy, as evidenced both by the aforementioned Jagger/Skepta collaboration – a record that did neither of them any favours, precisely because it sounded as if the latter had been parachuted in without much thought as to what a Jagger track with a grime MC on it might sound like – and by Madonna’s latterday career. A club kid from the start, her best albums are invariably those that plug her into what is currently happening in dance music: ballroom tracks on Vogue, the trance and ambient sound constructed with William Orbit for Ray of Light, Music’s excursions into Daft Punk-ish disco, the sparkling filter-house of Confessions on a Dance Floor. But there is always the chance you might misread what is happening, make the wrong call and end up collaborating with goonish pop-EDM rappers LMFAO by mistake.

Keeping up with the kids isn’t the only kind of contemporaneity the 60-plus pop star can strive for. They can come to a pragmatic accommodation with their own past, and revert to the style of music they made at the height of their fame and influence, safe in the knowledge that younger artists in awe of their early records will flock to assist them in reworking their “classic” sound, and that no one can accuse them of jumping on a latterday trend: a path taken by everyone from Iggy Pop to Mavis Staples to Giorgio Moroder.

It is not just artists who are getting older: their audiences are, too. There is no reason why you can’t make music that reflects life at your current age, in exactly the same way as the music that made you famous reflected life in your teens and 20s, and thus resonates with your audience, to hugely rewarding effect.

After years in the doldrums, Johnny Cash transformed his own fortunes by hooking up with producer Rick Rubin and making a series of albums that, for all the cover versions of tracks by Nick Cave and Nine Inch Nails, did nothing to hide his age: parched and stark, the American Recordings albums sounded like the work of a man in the autumn of his years.

Dylan’s career was reignited by the release of Time Out of Mind, an album that, as one critic put it, “transformed Dylan from seemingly obsolete icon to wise, wizened old visionary almost overnight”, because it explicitly dealt with the topics of ageing and mortality.

Leonard Cohen’s final album, You Want It Darker, felt like a step into fascinating uncharted territory for rock music: thus far, there just haven’t been many albums made about the process of ageing from the perspective of an octogenarian, although that state of affairs is bound to change over the next decade, as the surviving baby boomer stars hit their 80s. It seems far more likely that they will keep making music rather than quietly retiring: after all, pop music has learned to see its elders as much more than “senile old has-beens”.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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