Hung up on hanging up
CLASSIC ROCK THE GENERATION IS GETTING READY TO RETIRE, SO WHO’S GOING TO FILL THEIR SHOES?
The news-making thing to do in 2018 for classic rockers of a certain age is to call it quits. Or at least say that you’re planning to — once that one last tour is under your belt.
Over the winter, Elton John, Paul Simon and Joan Baez all announced they’re hanging up their rock-and-roll (or folk) shoes. Taken together, the announcements — along with others, like Ozzy Osbourne — send a warning signal to the concert industry.
For years, many of the biggest touring acts have been old reliable baby boomer rockers like the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, who remained huge decades after scoring their biggest hits. Those acts continued to command broad audiences in part because they rose to popularity when the culture was more unified than it is in today’s niche-oriented digital age.
But those old heads are not going to be around forever. That reality was underscored by the loss of stars like David Bowie, Prince and Petty in recent years, and the grieving their deaths inspired. And as the ageing step aside — if they ever really do — is there a next generation ready to step up and fill seats in arenas and stadiums?
Before we get to that question, though, let’s consider another: Can marquee acts with namebrand drawing power ever be trusted when they say they’re going to retire? Superstar music-makers have been threatening to exit since the beginning of time, it seems, but somehow they always find their way back.
Frank Sinatra retired in 1971, then released
Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back two years later. Jay-z announced he was done with The Black Album in 2003 but returned with Kingdom Come in 2006.
And, of course, the most egregious offenders are The Who, who first
claimed they were saying goodbye for good in 1982, and Cher, whose “Farewell Tour” in 2002 eventually became the “Never Can Say Goodbye Tour” and then ... well, she never could say goodbye. And for every act that makes noise about calling it quits, there are two that refuse to go quietly, such as Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac.
Scepticism abounds. As now 74-year-old Randy Newman told the Telegraph in 2015, “Musicians keep going. There is nobody applauding at home.” Neil Young called the trend “bulls***” and told Rolling Stone, “When I retire, people will know, because I’ll be dead.”
And when Rod Stewart was on Andy Cohen’s Bravo show Watch What Happens Live with current touring partner Cyndi Lauper, he was asked what he thought about “your friend Elton” announcing his retirement.
“I did email her and say, ‘What, again, dear?’” he said with a laugh. “I’ve never spoken about retirement, and if I do retire, I’ll just fade away. I think this whole, ‘Oh, I’m going to retire!’ thing just stinks of selling tickets. It’s dishonest. It’s not rock and roll.” Lauper, however, suggested they could market their tour as “For the Last Time! Or, Maybe the Second to Last Time!”
All kidding aside, though, there’s a seriousness to the retirement business this time around that has to do with chronology and impending mortality. Baez is 77, Simon is 76 and John, whose final jaunt is planned to last three years, is 71. Another hard-touring attraction, Neil Diamond, 77, announced in January that he too will no longer be hitting the boards after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
The gruelling nature of touring is bound to take its toll, as it did on Petty and Prince, whose deaths were painkiller-related. So, to borrow from a George Jones song, who’s going to fill their shoes? The question has arisen during several recent shows at the USA’S Wells Fargo Centre in which the building had lots of empty seats.
Last fall, Canadian band Arcade Fire, who have carried themselves like heirs to U2 for years, played the South Philadelphia arena and put on a terrific arena-size show, with one problem: There weren’t nearly enough fans there to fill the arena. More recently, both Lana Del Rey and Lorde did concerts at the venue in which the upper deck was entirely unsold.
The smaller-than-optimal crowds didn’t seriously mar the shows.
All who came got their money’s worth. But it also served as a reminder that while the concert industry as a whole is going like gangbusters — a record $5.65 billion (Dhs21b) in global ticket sales came in last year — the need to replace the old heads on their way out isn’t going as smoothly as might have been hoped.
On one hand, the dearth of true new headlining acts has been masked by the preponderance of music festivals. At events like Firefly in June — with Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar as one of its headliners — and Made in America in September (whose lineup has not yet been announced), 50,000 people or so can be lured by the value equation of seeing a dozen or more bands in a single day, and more in a weekend.
On the other hand, while some acts struggle to fill arenas, there’s a group of next-generation headliners that are huge draws. Among those are arena-size rappers like Lamar and Kanye West, who recently announced a new album and who appears to be ready to tour again. And larger still are acts like Beyoncé. The list also includes Taylor Swift, country star Kenny Chesney and Swift’s buddy Ed Sheeran.
What all those acts have in common is that they don’t play rock: They’re hip-hop, pop and country stars. After generations in the spotlight, soon-to-be-on-theirway senior citizen baby boomer stars like John and Simon are finally seeing their epic careers coming to an end and are yielding the communal space to a diverse group of voices making themselves heard.
For every classic rock act that makes noise about calling it quits, there are those like Fleetwood Mac that refuse to go quietly.