Uncommon People by David Hepworth

In Uncommon People, David Hepworth zeroes in on defining moments and turning points in the lives of forty rock stars from 1955 to 1995, taking us on a journey to burst a hundred myths

The age of the rock star, like the age of the cowboy, has passed.

The idea of the rock star, like the idea of the cowboy, lives on.

There are still people who dress like rock stars and do their best to act as they think rock stars would have acted in an earlier time, much as there are people who strap on replica holsters and re-enact the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

It’s increasingly difficult to act like one or the other and keep a straight face.

The true rock stars rose and fell with the fortunes of the post-war record industry. They came along in the mid-fifties and they passed away in the last decade of the century just gone. We came to know them as rock stars but at first they had no generic name. In the early days, when Elvis Presley, Fats Domino and the like were coming out of nowhere, they might as easily have been called hillbilly cats, rhythm and blues shouters, specialists in western bop, plain pop singers or promoters of dance crazes.

The term ‘rock star’ really came into widespread use in the seventies and eighties when the music business was looking to sustain the careers of its biggest names. The business was no longer happy to hop from fad to fad. It was beginning to realize the value of brands. There was no better brand than a rock star. A rock star was supposed to be somebody you could rely on, somebody whose next record you had to have, often regardless of its merits. After that, it was increasingly applied to everyone from Elvis Presley to David Bowie, from Morrissey to Madonna, from Ozzy Osbourne to Björk. By the twenty-first century, the term had been spread so thin as to be meaningless.

Uncommon People

Rock stars were uncommon people. They came from the masses and got to the top without the help of education, training, family ties, money or other conventional ladders

In the twenty-first century it seems rather inappropriate, to use a popular twenty-first-century term, to describe Kanye West, Adele or Justin Bieber as rock stars. These people are cut from a different cloth. The age of the rock star ended with the passing of physical product, the rise of automated percussion, the domination of the committee approach to hit-making, the widespread adoption of choreography and above all the advent of the mystique-destroying internet. The age of the rock star was coterminous with rock and roll, which in spite of all the promises made in some memorable songs, proved to be as finite as the era of ragtime or big bands. The rock era is over. We now live in a hip hop world.

The game has changed. Rock stars were the product of an age when music was hard to access and was treasured accordingly. The stars of music no longer have a right to public attention simply by virtue of existing. Their products now compete on a level playing field with everything from virtual reality games to streaming movies. What was once hard to find is now impossible to escape. Music no longer belongs in a category of otherness. It’s just another branch of the distraction business, owned by the same multinational conglomerates as the theme parks and the multiplexes.

Why the title? Rock stars were uncommon people. They came from the masses and got to the top without the help of education, training, family ties, money or other conventional ladders. They came from ordinary lives and had no reason to expect that they would ever be special. At the same time they refused to accept that they would ever be anything but exceptional. Most surprising of all, many of them had careers that lasted far longer than they had any right to expect, because long after the hits stopped coming, their legends continued to endure. They endured because, like the stars of the great cowboy films of that earlier age, they were playing themselves and, at the same time, they were playing us.

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