Trying to guess how history will judge an era in pop is a famously tough call. Nostalgia twists and distorts what actually happened. Stuff that seemed hugely important then isn’t always what seems important years on: stars get forgotten, hits vanish from memory, emphasis is subtly shifted to reflect subsequent changes in tastes or to fit a wider narrative that wasn’t apparent at the time. Even so, it seems a fairly safe bet to say that when people look back on 2016, they will think about death.
Death was the year’s big breakout star. The charts were full of it: posthumous hits choked up the Top 40; the success of the year’s most unexpected No 1 album – Viola Beach’s eponymous debut – was down to the band and their manager’s deaths in a car crash five months previously. No meticulously planned stealth release, with its carefully cultivated air of surprise and concealed impact date, was as surprising as David Bowie or Prince’s death. December’s traditional pop story – about the race for the Christmas number one – was completely eclipsed by the death of George Michael. It was what people talked about: more column inches were occupied, more covers given over, more social media posts posted and blogs blogged about pop stars dying than about those who lived, even Beyoncé or Kanye West.
There were articles publicly mourning dead pop stars and articles examining the nature of publicly mourning dead pop stars that posited theories that people were grieving not for the stars themselves or even for what they represented, but for their own lost youth, transfixed by Starman on Top Of The Pops or snogging to Careless Whisper at a local disco or – if they were too young to remember the late star’s glory days firsthand – for a mythic, imaginary, perfect pop past they never knew: the weird result of rock music’s obsession with its own history over the past 25 years.
There was even a mini-industry in pieces telling people to stop publicly mourning dead pop stars. The kernel of truth in said pieces – that some of the tributes were mawkish and overblown, and others smacked of nothing more than a desperate desire to join in (“We salute you Rocket Man!!!” offered Ticketmaster UK’s Twitter feed during the Brits’ Bowie tribute) – was overwhelmed by the fact that they were always the work of the kind of columnist who evidently loves no music as much as the sound of their own voice.
“No one needs to hear Station to Station twice,” snorted Giles Coren, as if Station to Station were a legendarily terrible Bowie album, rather than one made at the peak of his powers and that most people consider to be among his best: the feeling that Coren hadn’t actually heard Station to Station once, let alone twice, was difficult to avoid.
For all the talk of 2016 as an extraordinary year for pop deaths, there is an argument that it was more or less ever thus. Death has loomed over pop almost from the minute that pop began: rock’n’roll had been a mainstream phenomenon for barely two years when Buddy Holly and Richie Valens died in February 1959. In a world without social media as an outlet, public grief for pop stars took on weird forms. There is a theory that the late 50s/early 60s vogue for “death discs” – hit songs in which the protagonist or their partner or both died, such as Tell Laura I Love Her, Johnny Remember Me, Teen Angel – was a sublimated mourning of Holly, Valens, Eddie Cochran et al.
There was another spasm of morbidity in pop in the early 70s, the years immediately after the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones and Jim Morrison, when the charts played host to a succession of latterday death discs – from Bloodrock’s DOA to Hot Chocolate’s Emma – and some of the 60s originals became hits again. You might have thought the Twitter tributes and the vigils and the wonky Bowie murals were a bit de trop and vulgar, but they look like the height of restrained good taste compared with, say, going out and buying Danny Mirror’s I Remember Elvis Presley, a Europe-wide hit on which a rotund Dutchman in a fringed jacket did an impersonation of Presley a matter of weeks after his death in 1977.
Still, 2016’s deaths felt exceptional, and not merely in their profusion. Plenty of legendary artists have died in recent years – from Lemmy to Lou Reed, Whitney Houston to Amy Winehouse – but you would have to stretch back to the death of Michael Jackson in 2009 to find a comparable cocktail of stardom and epoch-defining influence to that possessed by Bowie and Prince.
Their deaths, and the manner in which they were mourned, seemed markedly different to Jackson’s, perhaps because they were bolstered by social media, still in its relative infancy when Jackson died (Facebook had 305m users in 2009 and more than 1.6bn in early 2016; Twitter’s servers crashed on the night of Jackson’s death because more than 100,000 tweets were sent in an hour containing his name, but by the time of Prince’s death, an average of 21m tweets were sent per hour on a normal day). Or perhaps it was because Jackson’s life and career appeared to have been falling apart for years – fans had grieved for the passing of the exuberant kid who sang ABC and the genius who stole the show peforming Billie Jean at Motown’s 25th anniversary long before he actually died – while Bowie and Prince were in the midst of renaissances.
Rumours about the state of Bowie’s health had circulated for some time – the Flaming Lips had even recorded a song titled Is David Bowie Dying? in 2012 – but they had been strenuously denied when he returned to recording with The Next Day in 2013. He had also just released his best album in decades and seemed very present in popular culture at the time of his death (as, curiously, did George Michael, who hadn’t released a studio album since 2004, but who died at the time of year when Last Christmas by Wham! becomes an inescapable presence on the radio and blaring out of shops). There had never been any suggestion that anything was wrong with Prince: his live shows in 2015 seemed like the work of an artist at the top of his game, not a man in chronic pain who had become addicted to opioids as a result.
In fact, nothing in pop history could really prepare you for the way Bowie died. In the past, rock stars who knew they were dying made music that addressed the fact before they did – Queen’s Innuendo is packed with songs that seem to allude to the fact that Freddie Mercury is not long for this earth; Warren Zevon’s final album The Wind ends with a song called Keep Me In Your Heart. But unless you’re the kind of person who believes the conspiracy theories about the continued existence of Tupac Shakur, Elvis Presley or Jim Morrison, no one had stage-managed their death quite like this: the hugely acclaimed, but apparently impenetrable new album, the contents of which suddenly pulled into focus three days after its release with the news of his death; the trail of clues left in the accompanying videos and the album’s sleeve; the way fans were forced into detective work, proposing different meanings for Blackstar’s title. His death would have been an event anyway, but Bowie carefully made it a bigger event still, without turning it into a circus. There was something almost joyful about it.
But if Prince’s death was the most shocking, and Bowie’s the most spectacular, then Leonard Cohen’s passing in November was the most telling. The traditional narrative of a pop-star death is that of George Michael: of talent cruelly snatched away by a premature demise, usually accompanied by lurid speculation about what had been going on in their private lives. The one thing pop stars never did was die of old age. But Cohen was 82, a pretty good innings by anyone’s standards: a few weeks before he passed away in his sleep, he told an interviewer he was “ready to die”. And that’s the kind of pop star death of which we’re going to see more. We’re 60 years away from the rock’n’roll explosion – as far away from Heartbreak Hotel and Blue Suede Shoes as they were from the premiere of La Bohème and Mahler’s Third Symphony – and half a century has passed since 1966, arguably the pivotal year in the development of 60s pop.
It seems faintly miraculous that any of the architects of the former are still alive, but they are: Little Richard is 83, Jerry Lee Lewis is 81, Chuck Berry is 90, and his first album in 36 years is due for release in 2017. The architects of the latter are now into their 70s: you didn’t have to be a cynic or incredibly ghoulish to sense that impending mortality was a factor in people paying up to $1,599 for tickets to this year’s Desert Trip festival that brought together the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, the Who, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney. Whether we become increasingly immune to pop legends passing away, or whether 2016’s outpourings of grief become a regular occurrence, remains to be seen.
As the leader of Earth, Wind & Fire – not just a singer, but a songwriter, arranger, producer and bandleader – Maurice White has a claim to be one of the most important people in pop history, leading his band to the forefront of successive movements in black music: funk, disco, electronic R&B. He died on 4 February, aged 74.
And let us not forget
Merle Haggard, by contrast, offered little in the way of good times, lyrically at least. He pioneered the Bakersfield sound, a Californian take on country that didn’t descend into Laurel Canyon introspection, but considered the plight of struggling working Americans to a hard-country backing that made him a geographically distant but artistically close cousin of the outlaw country artists in Texas. Haggard died on 6 April, his 79th birthday.
Equally important in their own fields were the pioneers of ska and prog. Prince Buster (above), who died on 8 September at the age of 78, was one of the great legends of Jamaican music, and someone whose music gained a second life when he became one of the inspirations for the 2 Tone movement in the late 70s. Not only was Madness’s huge early hit One Step Beyond a Prince Buster cover, the band also named themselves after one of his songs .
The theatrical excess of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, meanwhile, might have been one of the causes of punk, but they bestrode prog like cape-wearing, knife-wielding, concept-developing superheroes, and even those who never cared for them should consider the work of Keith Emerson (who died on 11 March, aged 71) and Greg Lake (7 December, 69) recorded with the Nice and King Crimson respectively before filing them in the not-for-me pile.
And that is still barely scratching the surface of the year’s fallen greats. Congolese music lost a giant in Papa Wemba (24 April, 66); Sir George Martin, who was so crucial to the Beatles, died on 8 March, aged 90; Glenn Frey of the Eagles, whose Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) is the sixth-bestselling album of all time, passed away on 18 January, aged 67; Rod Temperton, who went from working in a frozen food factory in Grimsby to writing megahit after megahit for Michael Jackson, died in October, aged 66.
Every kind of music lost heroes. Hip-hop saw the tragically early deaths of Phife Dawg (above) of A Tribe Called Quest (22 March, 45) and Prince Be of PM Dawn (17 June, 46). R&B legend Otis Clay died on 8 January, aged 73, his death utterly overshadowed by Bowie’s two days later. Funk lost the great Bernie Worrell of Parliament/Funkadelic (24 June, 72) and folk saw the departure of the brilliant fiddler Dave Swarbrick of Fairport Convention – whose obituary had first been printed, much to his surprise, years earlier, on 3 June, aged 75. Mose Allison, one of the greats of jazz, was 89 when he passed away on 15 November.
Let us remember, too, those figures from the edges and the backrooms who contributed so much to music. People such as Alan Vega of Suicide, who showed the punks what confrontational really meant (16 July, 78). Or Scotty Moore, the guitarist on those great early Elvis cuts (28 June, 84). Or David Mancuso, whose impeccable taste and style shaped generations of DJs and clubbers alike (14 November, 72). Or Chips Moman, the producer who also co-wrote two of soul’s greatest songs: Do Right Woman, Do Right Man and The Dark End of the Street (13 June, 79).
And all this without mentioning Sharon Jones or Vi Subversa or Paul Kantner or Colin Vearncombe or Pete Burns or Bobby Vee, or many, many more. It was a sad, sad year for music.
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