ReaperYesterday it was Sylvia Anderson; today it’s the turn of Paul Daniels and Cliff Michelmore; last week it was George Martin and Keith Emerson. As far as famous names go, the one area of the economy currently experiencing a boom is undertaking. The Grim Reaper has seemingly never had it so good. A year only midway through its third month has seen a remarkably sweeping clear-out of characters from the entertainment firmament on a scale unseen since the mid-to-late 80s, when it felt as though every day saw the curtain come down on careers that had begun during the golden age of Hollywood. The 30s, 40s and 50s have been comprehensively covered and now the shadow of the scythe has fallen on the 60s and 70s.

What we have to remember, however, is that these two iconic decades are now forty and fifty years distant from the here and now, just as the 20s and 30s were when Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx died within a few months of each other in 1977. The silent era felt a long way away then because it looked very much like a different world, almost another century; but perhaps that was largely because those of us born in the post-war years had no first-hand memory of it. Then again, many aspects of the 60s and 70s still have a ring of present tense to them; look at any up-and-coming rock band (if there are any) and you will recognise the same sullen expressions, floppy hair and shoulder-shrugging sang-froid as emanating from the blueprint patented by the Stones in 1964. Then again, any contemporary musician worth their weight in gold discs still has one foot in the age when music meant more than a ringtone. And if you’re that way inclined, look at young women on the move along the high-street; the length of the hair and the shortness of the hemline hark back to the decades in which their parents were children.

Any regular viewer of documentaries who has been recording their broadcast off-air since the 80s will experience an acute awareness of the passing years when coming across one taped twenty or thirty years ago; the interviewees often seem well-preserved well into their forties when appearing as talking heads – a slight smattering of grey hairs, but jowls not yet sagging; it’s only catching sight of them as they were a couple of decades back and then comparing them to their present day selves that the ageing process really hits home. Sixties and seventies are the ages of man when time really begins to have fun with the face; but we have to remember that we too have aged during the same span. Perhaps their ageing acts as a trigger for reluctant realisations of our own.

The generation that grew up with the silver screen as the source of heroes and heroines will have undergone the same sensations when their adolescent icons began dropping like flies as the generation raised on a diet of television and pop are currently experiencing now that theirs are following suit. Although cancer and other incurable conditions have a lot to answer for, most of the giants still revered are approaching an age when natural causes will also begin to play a part. Moreover, there’s the dismal fact to contend with that few comparable successors have emerged to serve as compensation in recent years; it’s not much comfort to think we may have lost Bowie but we’ve still got Bieber.

Possibly what makes the latest crop of cultural cremations especially difficult to deal with is that the majority belong to the baby-boomer generation and therefore made their mark at a moment when thirty suddenly became a cut-off point. Previously, entertainers like Sinatra or Judy Garland reached a peak as performers when they were way past thirty; indeed, the former arguably made all of his finest recordings when he was in his forties. By contrast, there are few artists that appeared in the 60s or 70s who did much of any real value beyond thirty; all their best work was done when they were remarkably young. Ringo Starr was the eldest member of The Beatles when ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ was released, and he was just 27 at the time. Youth was the raison d’être of their era. Pete Townshend famously wrote he hoped he’d die before he got old, but he wrote that from the perspective of a twenty-year-old for whom there was only the present, and he’s had to deal with the ageing process every time Roger Daltrey sings that bloody line ever since – even with his earplugs in.

In a way, the emphasis on youth and the writing-off of what comes next has condemned that group of performers to the unenviable task of attempting to live up to their younger selves for the rest of their performing lives, something their predecessors didn’t have to worry about; Sinatra’s only concession to the passing of the years was his toupee. Whenever Keith Richards is interviewed, nobody wants to know about some new Stones album; they want to hear him talk about Brian Jones or the 1967 Redlands bust or Altamont. The band’s creative spark was condensed into a period of roughly seven or eight years, which must be a curious situation to be in – always perceived by the public as the embodiment of eternal youthful rebellion when you’re now older than Noel Coward was back when you were at the peak of your powers.

2016 has already seen the loss of Pierre Boulez, Ed Stewart, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey, Paul Kantner, Jacques Rivett, Frank Finlay, Terry Wogan, Harper Lee, Tony Warren, George Martin, Keith Emerson, Peter Maxwell Davies, Asa Briggs, Sylvia Anderson, Cliff Michelmore, Paul Daniels and Frank Sinatra Jr, to name just a few. Some were as old as 90, but none were under 65. Such is life – and death. And, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, the latter and taxes are the only certainties the world has to deal with.

© The Editor


AladdinDavid Bowie is dead. Still doesn’t sound right, does it? Standing at the crossing this morning, waiting for the red man to be superseded by the green man, a student girl in her late teens stood on the other side of the road, bright scarlet hair; and there, in an instant, barely a minute after locking the front door, I see the influence of David Bowie as one of Ziggy’s grandchildren faced me across the traffic. She may or may not know, I thought, but without him she wouldn’t be there.

Flashback to 1974, wandering around the aisles in the novel new Asda superstore, leaving my parents to attend to the weekly shop as I seek out the comic racks; en route, I find myself drawn like a little iron filing to the magnet nestled in the record racks, and I come face-to-face with that face – side-by-side are ‘Aladdin Sane’ and ‘Diamond Dogs’, works of art in an age when the LP sleeve was the contemporary canvas. Accustomed to painted faces via ‘Top of the Pops’ regulars such as Roy Wood of Wizzard, Steve Priest from the Sweet and the rest of the Glam court jesters, I nevertheless knew this was something on another level; the radio hits were already being absorbed – ‘The Jean Genie’, ‘Life on Mars’, ‘Rebel Rebel’, even the much-maligned ‘Laughing Gnome’, all sung in that strange neo-cockney voice that could range from high-pitched scream to low-pitched growl – as the otherworldly spectre hovering over a culture I was too young to participate in was unable to stand still. By the time I had begun spending my pocket-money on seven-inch singles, he was in drag to promote ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ as a prologue to anticipating the coming wave of pretty things poised to conquer the charts that came via ‘Ashes to Ashes’.

Aged 15, I experienced the colossal commercial monster of ‘Let’s Dance’ in a year when Bowie’s influence on mainstream pop was at its zenith as Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Culture Club were living out their adolescent Bowie fantasies on the world stage. His biggest period of sustained success for a decade inspired the canny cash-in of his former record label RCA, who reissued all of his 70s albums at an affordable price; I had an entire career ready and waiting for me to dive into and by doing so, I passed through a door that changed me forever and for the better. I wouldn’t be alone. The Punks, the New Romantics, and their bastard offspring the Goths, were all in his debt.

In 1983, I was mining a legacy that only stretched back fourteen years, yet there was enough richness in there to span a century. From acoustic folk to full-blown Metal, from Art School Glam to Plastic Soul, from synthesized soundscapes to endless isolated sub-genres that were never limited by labels, the variety was staggering. The restless artistic spirit rewards the devotee with an abundance of options and renders those who cling to a hit formula for life one-trick ponies who eventually subside into irrelevance. With Bowie, there was even an additional icing on the cake that proved just as influential for closet extroverts: for each musical about-turn, there was an accompanying visual one too.

The founder of the Biba fashion house, Barbara Hulanicki, once observed that British wartime and post-war rationing had left an entire generation malnourished, enabling them to mature into stick-thin clothes hangers ideal for the androgynous peacockery that Swinging London defined in the 60s and David Bowie remodelled in the 70s. Although he was born eighteen months after VE Day, Bowie grew up in a nation taking its time to recover from the conflict; both his older brother’s recurring mental illness that eventually led to his suicide and the stifling suburban conformity that the Jones family relocated to from dirty urban Brixton were factors that formulated his impatient oeuvre and contributed to his steady evolution from long-haired R&B ingénue to cosmic Leper Messiah, sprinkling stardust over a generation that had missed the 60s and cried out for their own heroes, escapist pied-pipers leading them out of the candlelit gloom of early 70s Britain to a divinely decadent parallel universe. Bowie, like his contemporaries Marc Bolan, Rod Stewart and Elton John, had been whispering Open Sesame for years, yet it took the abdication of The Beatles and the cold chill of a drastically different decade to create the climate that could facilitate the great breakthrough.

The second half of the twentieth century witnessed a pop culture supernova that the first sixteen years of this century have cowered in the shadow of. If the band that exemplify the supremacy of that supernova are The Beatles, the only comparable solo act in terms of a body of work whose influence stretches way beyond the parameters of its art-form is Bowie. Like Marilyn Monroe, Rudolph Nureyev or even George Best, Bowie was unique – an artist in a field of one, often imitated, never equalled. After all, these special people only come in ones and when they’re gone they aren’t replaced, for broken moulds, as with Humpty Dumpty, cannot be put back together again.

But we have the work; it’s still here even though its creator has gone, and it’ll still be here when we’re all gone too. Time may well flex like a whore and fall wanking to the floor, but he won’t erase that magic preserved on plastic. David Bowie is dead, but David Bowie simultaneously lives. And he always will.

© The Editor