It has been a bad year to be a rock star – David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Ross Hannaford, Sir George Martin, and Jon English are all gone.
Then there’s Bill Wyman battling prostate cancer and Brian Johnson going deaf. We’re facing the twilight of the baby boomers.
However, there are many musicians out there not prepared to go quietly into the good night. In fact, some have found old age to be really quite invigorating.
The career trajectory for most 1970s and 1980s superstars was an initial career lifespan of 10 to 15 years. After that point the fans really weren’t looking for new music.
If you made a second greatest hits compilation that was about all the fans required. Record sales just declined for new releases and hopefully the only way to stay relevant was ever more extravagant tours.
Once the internet and mp3s arrived and record sales really went into the chute, it was common for stars and songwriters to announce their retirement from new material. Billy Joel vowed to never make another new tune and Phil Collins retired from the field to write nothing other than alimony cheques – of which there were plenty.
Then a couple of years ago things started to change. Elton John announced he was going to make records again without the expectation that they would chart, but just because he wanted to.
An album of remixes with Australian electro-duo Pnau then put Elton back on the top of the UK charts. He subsequently made The Diving Board, produced by T-Bone Burnett, which was a return to his 70s form and last year’s Wonderful Crazy Night, one of his best LPs in three decades.
Russell Morris, who began his career in the late 1960s, had his first top five album in 2013 with Sharkmouth; and it was a No.1 LP on many charts. The album was made of songs about Australian legends in a folk-rock kind of arrangement.
Unanimously critically acclaimed, Morris, now well into his 60s, is getting the response he has looked for since The Real Thing in 1969. Subsequent albums Van Dieman’s Land and Red Dirt Heart have built on that success.
Bonnie Raitt has had a few starts at a career. A blues woman in the early 70s, then an alcoholic and then a country rock superstar in the 1980s, now at 66 she has dropped one of the most sophisticated and laidback albums of her career. Dig in Deep does. Her songs such as Unintended Consequence of Love and The Ones We Couldn’t Be are powerful, emotional firestorms that carry the weight of a life fully lived. This is no collection of Moon/June teen romance songs. Raitt also has some choice covers from the great Joe Henry and even INXS.
Mavis Staples is reinventing herself at the tender age of 76. Always regarded as one of the great voices, a few years ago she began recording with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Her latest album Livin’ On A High Note is passionate and loving and profoundly political.
Staples, who actually knew Martin Luther King, sings his words and producer M Ward’s tune on MLK Song and just floors it. Elsewhere on the album she works with material from youngish writers like Nick Cave, Neko Case, Aloe Blacc and the ultra hip TuneYards. There is nothing like bringing the gravitas of life fully lived to the enthusiasms of youth.
The other trend with ‘heritage’ artists is to go back to the old ways, forsaking the electronic trickery of the modern studio for sessions where all the musicians are in the same room at the same time on the same song.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers adopted just this approach on their last record Hypnotic Eye. It’s an album with spite and anger sung with milk and honey melodies that Petty does so well and it feels live.
Tom Jones, 75, of all people has gone right back to his roots. He has teamed up with Ethan Johns (son of legendary producer Glynn Johns) for a series of hard-core gospel and blues albums. Jones, with just a stripped-back band, goes hard into these old songs.
There’s no sweet coating on any of the tracks, which range from traditional blues to obscure Rolling Stones cuts and modern songwriters like Gillian Welch. Jones brings such grit that it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
There’s life in the old dogs yet.