Like many bands with waning popularity, Queen
embark on a tour of Britain's Universities, where
along with the new line up, Brian May completes
a PhD backstage at each venue as part of his
‘And that’s when he got up on to the table, and in front of the whole pub, snorted a line of drawing pins whilst ingesting a bottle of Jack through his left eye.’ Everyone loves a good rock n roll anecdote, and it is this indulgence that informs the entire genre of retrospective music documentaries. A bloke, usually in a leather jacket and sporting a face resembling a tube map, sits in a pub (now a wine bar) where an infamous piece of rock folklore allegedly took place. I say allegedly, because you never can be too sure. The bloke in question has been telling that one in various pubs since 1976, and jumps at the chance to regurgitate stories of the old days to a television audience who’ll lap it up like Keith Moon on a stag do.
The thing is, everyone wants to believe the rose-bespectacled roadies, producers, biographers and journalists who routinely apotheosise their idols through the medium of the talking head. I’m not saying these things didn’t happen, but the fact is that the people doing the remembering were often as largely drug-addled as everyone else in the 70s. Except Queen. I watched a documentary recently in which Brian May and Roger Taylor laboriously took me through their entire career, from the band’s inception through to Freddie Mercury’s death. Fascinating. Except it wasn’t, not really.
The problem with May is that he’s too damn clever. There’s nothing wrong with a rock star Post-Grad per se, it’s just that he didn’t take enough drugs in his heyday to translate his story successfully to television 30 years later. Good for him, of course, but a little staid for the rest of us. He could even remember which part of the middle eight he wrote on ‘Killer Queen’ which, being a rock star, he has no right to remember. Ozzy Osbourne, for instance, can’t even remember how to sing.
Contrast this with Motorhead, and the quite excellent documentary they produced in the 90s. My favourite anecdote involved drummer Phil ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor who, having taken an alarming quantity of acid, narrowly escaped death after attempting to escape his dressing room by climbing out of the bathroom mirror. Love that guy.
Yes, I concede that this is all very juvenile behaviour, pitiful really, but for me, the hedonistic antics of rock musicians in the 1970s helps to define the era and contribute towards its rightful status as a behemoth of musical history. The argument that Hendrix (60s, I realise), Moon, Bonham, Morrison et al would never have achieved such legendary status had they lived to be fat, old, leather jacketed men is erroneous and academic. The focus should be on the prodigious talents they did display during their blistering, if relatively short, careers. Twice as bright, half as long as they say.
Some do make it out the other side, but not always successfully. Roger Daltrey looks more like a hip old geography teacher these days, and Brian May, well, the hair was bad enough before it greyed.
With the current vogue for band reformations, a nod must go in the direction of the Rolling Stones, who despite trying their level best to kill themselves repeatedly over the years have managed an unrivalled longevity at the top of their respective games without the need for a break, apart from Ronnie Wood’s rehab and Keith Richard’s ‘Palm Tree’ episode. Scorcese’s 2008 film Shine a Light was simply superb, and the physical condition of Mick Jagger at that gig was nothing short of phenomenal. Admittedly, if we didn’t already know him to be particularly svelte, one would either think he was dangerously malnourished or a twelve year old girl, or both, but that’s by the by.
Some rock stars manage to juggle the respectability of unrespectability alongside a clean living lifestyle. Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden not only shunned the long hair, but also now pilots the band’s private jet on world tours. Impressive, considering the band’s reputation. I’d have loved to see Keith Moon try that; it may have been marginally more successful than his attempt to drive a hovercraft through the side of his local pub.
Now I wasn’t born in the 70s, and I realise I may have fallen into the trap of drinking the same anecdotal whisky I derided earlier, but I make no apologies for that, it's more fun that way. It does lead me to think though: what enduring legacies and Winter’s Tales will the current crop of popular musicians leave in their wake? Remember the time that Chris Martin of Coldplay held an all-night smoothie binge? And what about the time when Justin Bieber took four groupies backstage to play Wii? Classic.
Lemmy once expressed his annoyance at seeing bands getting on the tour bus with laptop computers – ‘There’s no place for that in rock and roll’ he said as he sipped his first whisky of the morning. But, unfortunately for Lemmy, that is rock and roll in 2011, and there just isn’t a place for the Rolls-in-the-swimming-pool approach to life on the road anymore. It’s one reason why the 70s is so fondly remembered; a time when men were girly-looking men, groupies hadn’t quite grasped their equal rights and more importantly, when record companies had more money than they knew what to do with and would surround their stars with a comfort blanket of cocaine and sex, just to keep the creative juices flowing. The Rolls Royce thing never happened by the way, which just goes to show the lengths to which people will go to keep the memory of those days alive.
So, we should be content to consign the days of rock ‘n’ roll excess to where they belong; the heyday of the superstar rock band and of globe trotting lunacy. It would be an exercise in futility for today’s wannabe stars to even attempt to live up to the reputations of Zeppelin, The Who or Black Sabbath. Pete Doherty? Oh please, Lemmy would be turning in his grave had he died when medical science dictated he should.