From Paul McCartney to Bruce Springsteen with Duran Duran in between, nobody imagined rock stars would still be performing decades after their debut, continuing to captivate fans around the world. There was no template for this in the early 1960’s but the music and the live performance is a magic all its own.
Everyone, or almost everyone, dreams of being a rock star. The fame. The money. The adoration of tens of thousands of fans gathered just to see you and your ability to rock the house. The exhilaration of taking the stage as the lights dim and the audience screams in anticipation of the first song. The pounding feet of those same fans, now properly shaken and stirred, at the end of the show clamoring for an encore. The arena itself thunders with the applause, reverberating in a call for just one more song. It’s a feeling most of the world can’t dream of having, ever. Most of us will not be on stage before a hundred people, much less ten thousand, fifteen thousand, or even a stadium show with upwards of 50,000. On the off chance we did find ourselves up there, we’d have nothing to offer the screaming horde other than an awkward smile. Of all the talents and gifts a person may have in this world, the ability to both craft the music and captivate an audience is incredibly rare and unique. It can’t be captured on paper or in a test score. It needs to be felt and experienced. You know it when you see it, or when you don’t. As Bon Jovi put it in “Wanted Dead or Alive,” “I’ve seen a million faces and I’ve rocked them all,” and, somehow, the best of the best make it look easy, natural, as if they were doing it all for fun. The most memorable concerts have a singular quality: The sense that the evening was special. The entire show unique. Put on for that audience and that audience alone, and then a moment lost in time for all time, something that will never be recreated ever again.
At the same time, the best of the best also spend years honing their craft. The couple of hours of music the audience sees is the end result of hundreds if not thousands of hours behind the scenes from the time spent writing and recording the original music to the soundcheck the day of the show. The ease is largely an illusion. The life of a rock star is built on something of an odd irony of repetition. It seems exciting, but there is an incredible roteness beneath the surface. The audience sees the show once. The rock star travels from city to city and performs the show dozens of times, often the very same setlist, but each and every time he or she needs to make the audience feel they are completely unique, experiencing it for the first and only time. Bruce Springsteen, for example, has performed some of his hits almost two thousand times. “Born to Run” has been played 1,746 times. “Thunder Road” clocks in second at 1,461. The “trick” is to make number 1,747 feel like the very first time and that is not so easy to do. Repetition frequently begets boredom and a lack of excitement. There are aging bands out on the road that don’t seem like they want to be there except for the paycheck. They’re going through the motions, playing the songs the audience came to hear but without the life, energy, and love fans crave. There are other aging bands that still have it, or at least the appearance of it. The difference is unmistakable.
You know it when you see it – even as the very idea of an aging band is a new phenomenon in general. There was no template for the modern rock star prior to the first British Invasion, prompted by the arrival of the Beatles in the United States. The legendary Paul McCartney wasn’t yet a legend on February 7, 1964 when the Fab Four first arrived in New York to throngs of screaming fans. He was 23 years old, more than a lifetime ago. At the time, I don’t think any of them, or their gathered fans, could have imagined an entire life spent onstage. No one knew what longevity this burgeoning rock movement would have, whether the songs would have staying power, or what the artists would do over the course of their lifetimes. It was completely uncharted territory, blazing a path that didn’t exist in prior generations. Mr. McCartney is still touring today at 80 years old, nor is he alone: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, and others are all rapidly approaching 80 and frequently perform. I’d be willing to bet that many of them didn’t even think they’d reach that age, much less remain active. Pete Townshend wrote the lyrics for The Who’s hit, “My Generation:” I hope I die before I get old. I doubt he feels that way today, especially after a career that has spanned another 50 years and produced several more classics along the way. Personally, I remember going to see Bruce Springsteen for the first time in 1999 at Brendan Byrne Arena as part of the E Street Band Reunion Tour. He was approaching his 50th birthday and hadn’t had a massive album since 1984. In retrospect, his work during that period, Tunnel of Love, Human Touch, Lucky Town, and Ghost of Tom Joad is acknowledged as a worthy part of his canon, but many felt him adrift without the E Street Band. It certainly wasn’t clear whether The Boss of Rock and Roll had a second act, much less that he would become one of the most famous people in the world, who’s every move is covered in the media. Personally, I considered him old to be performing (forgive me, I was barely 23). Mr. Springsteen will be 73 in September and is about to embark on another massive world tour. I already have tickets for April 1 at Madison Square Garden and am hoping it won’t be the last time I see him.
Duran Duran and other bands that began in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s occupied something of a nether region. There were the beginnings of a template for a rock band making it 20 years on, but any hope of continuing to thrive was offset by the disasters that beset others. Many would-be-legends barely made it out of the 1960s: Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, Jim Morrison, and others, were all dead. Another wave of deaths struck great bands in the 1970s and early 80s: Duane Allman, Ronnie Van Zandt, Keith Moon, John Bonham. Others survived, but imploded under the weight of their own fame. The Beatles broke up. Ozzie Osbourne left Black Sabbath. To many aspiring musicians, it must have seemed that the life of a rock star was brief and bright as a meteor, or simply got crushed out under the constant pressure of success. Perhaps Billy Joel said it best in “The Entertainer,” “you’ve seen me in the paper, I’ve been in the magazines, But if I go cold I won’t get sold, I’ll get put in the back in the discount rack, Like another can of beans.” The pull of stardom and the thrill of being a rock star overrode all other considerations for many, however, including Duran Duran. Despite the obvious pitfalls, there has never been a shortage of those seeking to take their place in the music world even though most will fail, either playing completely unheralded in some club for years and years, or choosing another career path at some point. The E Street Band’s Steve Van Zandt once remarked that the key to their own success was simply that they didn’t quit. In his view, there were musicians that were their equals or better once upon a time, but they got married or got a real job while Bruce and company kept at it. Bryan Adams in the “Summer of ’69:” Jimmy quit and Jody got married, I should’ve known we’d never get far.
Of course, we can never say for sure precisely why, but some bands simply have staying power, and sometimes those bands are unexpected, not the ones giving all the rave reviews and rewards at the time. The groups you thought would fizzle out or find no place as the music world changed around them. On the way to see Duran Duran at Madison Square Garden last week for the 40th anniversary tour, my wife remarked that they used to be one of those bands that no one wanted to admit they liked. They’ve sold some hundred million records. They dominated the MTV scene in the mid-1980s. They have had five top five albums in the United Kingdom in five consecutive decades. Three top ten albums in the US across three decades. Two number one and ten top ten singles in the United States. All told, these are heights that few bands have ever reached. The very pinnacle of the music industry and a career most would-be musicians would likely sell their souls for, but apparently everyone thought they were strictly dedicated to pleasing the sensibilities of teen and pre-teen girls. Fortunately, that has begun to change over the course of the past twenty years, as the British Fab Five (unfortunately, often only four with Andy Taylor joining them on and off again over the years) have entered the latter half of their career. The pioneer new wave act has been getting a new respect both within the industry and with casual fans, and ironically for an act that road to stardom in clubs and playing synthesized music on TV, their live performances are undoubtedly a huge part of the renewed interest and continued respect. Nostalgia, of course, plays a big role in their ability to fill venues like Madison Square Garden, but I would suggest there is something much more at play, namely that the band still enjoys playing for playing sake and their enthusiasm is infectious. The magic remains as it once was.
Their recent setlist seamlessly combines the new and the old, selecting an equal number of songs from their debut album, Duran Duran, through their 2021 effort, FUTURE:PAST. Duran Duran was represented four times: “Planet Earth,” “Friends of Mine,” “Careless Memories,” and “Girls on Film.” FUTURE:PAST received the same treatment. “INVISIBLE,” “ANNIVERSARY,” “GIVE IT ALL UP,” and “TONIGHT UNITED.” These four decade bookends were interspersed with the requisite hits from the 1980s and 1990s, from “Hungry Like a Wolf” to “Ordinary World” with “A View to a Kill” in the middle. One has to consider the differences in age, environment, and wealth across the writing of these songs. The band didn’t truly hit it big until a couple of years after their debut. Their first effort was likely written in some combination of rundown English clubs, tiny apartments, and take out food places. Most of the music was cobbled together over the summer of 1980. The result of a combination of jam sessions and live shows that was ultimately distilled into an album. The majority of the songs were actually played before the album was recorded, including at their first live show which featured the future hit “Girls on Film” and “Sound of Thunder.” At this point, they didn’t even have a record label and had to rely on demo tracks and live performances to garner attention.
It wasn’t until a string of shows as the opening act for Hazel O’Connor between November 18 and December 6 that they attracted the attention of a record label. They were in the studio before the end of the year, recording for a total of about 6 weeks at two studios, sessions that were not without problems. The musical portions were recorded very quickly, but Simon Le Bon had no experience singing in a recording studio with headphones. Ironically, he had the reverse problem of Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson who excellent in the studio, but needed to take lessons once they were on tour to belt out the notes night after night. Duran Duran guitarist Andy Taylor described it, “Colin [Thurston, the album’s producer]…was a nice man, but he could be a bit pedantic. He was very rough on Simon and kept asking him to redo things.” There was even talk of replacing their front man and chief lyricist before the album was released on February 2, 1981 and no one knew quite what to make of it, including the band themselves. As Mr. Taylor described it, “We wrote the first album to kind of make up what we were going to be, what this futuristic sound was.” The contrast between the poppy, new age synthesizers and the more traditional guitar would define their unique approach for years to come. Mr. Taylor was a veteran of straight rock cover bands that showcased the likes of Van Halen and AC/DC. He described the combination of his playing and Nick Rhodes’ keyboards as “Nick would do Eno and I would do Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page.” Oddly, for a band with a guitarist that grew up on blues rock, there are no guitar solos. Annie Zaleski, a music writer, characterized the totality as a blending of “space-age keyboards, post-punk guitars, disco-inspired bass lines and Le Bon’s vocal croon.”
The writing and recording of FUTURE:PAST was an entirely different affair. Today, Simon Le Bon has an estimated net worth of $60 million. Jon Taylor somewhere around $30 million. The album was recorded over the course of three years spanning 2018 to 2021, likely extended because of the pandemic. The band met at studios on three different continents, from Europe to North America and Asia. In short, they weren’t exactly slumming it throughout the production process, and yet the unmistakable sound remains. INVISIBLE and ANNIVERSARY in particular in my opinion rank with their very best songs, sounding perfect in concert next to tracks recorded forty years earlier. Nor is Duran Duran the only aging band returning to their roots. Bruce Springsteen’s most recent effort Letter to You features three songs written in the early 1970s and a new song, “Ghosts,” that I consider proof a truly great track can be written in any era. This is the magic of the aging rock star: There are other celebrities, from actors to television personalities, but the reliance on video and film makes it so you can always guess the age and spot the era. No one mistakes Al Pacino in The Godfather for Al Pacino on House of Gucci. Tom Cruise might be the world’s only exception to the rule. The rock star is different, however. There is the opportunity for decades of timelessness even in concert, where if you squinted a bit at Madison Square Garden last week, you might think you were back in 1985. No one would have guessed this would be the case 50 or 60 years ago, and though rock music in general appears to be on the decline in popular music circles, no one knows what the future holds. We can only hope that some of these bands keep on truckin’.