The great Rock & Roll ego is one of the enduring cliches of modern music. From band members travelling in separate limousines to singers refusing to go onstage because they’ve been given the wrong brand of mineral water, it is the greatest obstacle to an audience’s affections (though evidently an infinitely surmountable one).
But what does it really mean to have a rock and roll ego? I’d argue that storming off because the lights are the wrong shade of puce or swearing at fans who want to be close to you are not necessarily examples of arrogance but rather insecurity. The real ego maniac is the one that stands on a stage and mistakes the moment with forever, who believes that what goes up need not necessarily come down. Someone who ignores the great career graveyard of icons past and declares “I am the exception.”
Often it’s not the established acts that manifest this trait, but rather those starting out – the quick success stories who don’t acknowledge that the speedier the climb the more rapid the fall. Also the hopefuls – those that never were nor will be – pushing and pushing and pushing, in the thrall of a misplaced notion that says “if my songs reach millions of people that will be all I need, my life will be sorted/fixed/meaningful… that will be it.”
But what happens afterwards? What will you do when they begin to stack the chairs and sweep away the popped balloons at your big party? I hear the Bee Gees invested their early royalties into cheap housing rented out by agencies (or is that one of those urban myths?). If their stardom had stalled the Gibbs would not have starved. Of course, their souls might’ve.
It’s hard to look at your own career objectively. Only the other day I asked myself a difficult question: Have I already peaked? And if so, how long will it take me to realise? And what will I do next? I’m not sure I’m really the landlord type.
It isn’t very Rock and Roll to have a contingency plan. You’re supposed to just point your cadillac towards the edge of the cliff and put your foot on the accelerator. But one day – maybe even one day soon – you might leap off that stage and find there’s no one there to catch you. I live in Manchester, a place where an endless conveyor belt of new artists explode and disappear on a daily basis. In my experience, those who get described as “hotly tipped” one minute tend to get coldly tipped away the next. Sometimes you’ll go for a drink and find a member of a successful 90s indie band pulling the pints. And down the road to Liverpool, who’s that conducting the River Mersey boat tour? It’s Gerry from Gerry & The Pacemakers. That was probably the last thing on his mind as he walked down the steps on the runway at JFK airport during the height of the British Invasion.
Pop idols and rock stars are now dying of old age rather than drugs or car crashes or suicides. The new generation of performers can look back on the entire life span of the popular music practitioner – from obscurity, to big break, to riches, to fall from grace, to comeback, to heritage act, to obscurity again. That’s the Seven Ages Of Man – rock and roll style. And the odds of surviving every step of that bitter comedy are very slim indeed.
You can forgive the early stars their naivete. They were pioneers. The youth movement was new. Pop as a religious phenomenon was new. There was no set procedure or infrastructure in place. No one had ever navigated a career path like this one before. But an artist starting out in the twenty first century (with a far more sophisticated notion of self publicity) should use this temporal advantage to better effect than most actually do. The loudest wing of the music industries is the one devoted to what’s new (though its engine room is catalogue and copyright). The reason why some artists are hyped up so much and so quickly is because there is a sell by date. Justin Bieber might be one of the biggest phenomenons on the planet but can you imagine him bald with a couple of extra chins? No, there will be a new Boy Wonder long before that happens and we will all laugh at his ageing cherubic face and say “not so smug now”. But did you know Bieber is a venture capitalist with stakes in dozens of tech startup companies? Seems he is a lot less naive than most of us think. He knows what he is in a way that so many rock acts (fuelled by truth, passion and integrity) sadly don’t.
The kind of ego that inspires an artist to believe their audience is just going to keep growing, that they will continue onwards where all but a handful have failed, that’s the kind of ego you’ve really got to worry about. There is a reason why Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones can still fill arenas. It’s the same reason why Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are the only men who walked on the moon that everyone can mention by name. They were the first. And the one thing that today’s rock stars can NEVER BE (no matter how good they are) is first. And the same goes for the party lifestyle: who’s going to care about how Pete Doherty ends up when we already have the legendary doomed hijinks of Keith Moon as part of the Rock & Roll narrative? What an amateur Pete is.
Yet still we get the same pantomime again and again and again. It’s as easy to ape the excesses and ignorance of past icons as it is to make their subsequent mistakes. But it’s a lot harder for the rest of us to forgive when the crib notes were on display all along. Sure you can live the fairy tale, but no one would blame you for looking a few chapters ahead to see if there’s actually a happy ending or not.
Even members of the Beatles had to do the Frog Song and voice Thomas The Tank Engine occasionally. Still, when the radio royalties dry up I’m sure Swift Cover insurance will welcome you with open arms.
Rock & Roll.