‘I certainly don’t have any aspirations to live to seventy,’ Freddie Mercury once said after wowing Australian and New Zealand audiences for the first time in his thirtieth year. ‘It would be so boring.’
Well, yes it would, if you put it like that, and no he didn’t.
The rock group Queen’s playful frontman was as dead as a doornail at forty-five. Not so his sidekicks. They’re all well into their seventies now, soon enough to be pushing eighty, and by the looks of it booked to be performing all the ancient hits back on our shores until they are well into their nineties, if not a little beyond.
At a time when national drawbridges are being lowered and northern hemisphere entertainers are making their way back to our neck of the global woods, it’s striking to note how many of the big ones currently on the circuit are well past their own three-score-and-ten quota. So many set-lists these days are crammed with stuff from forty or fifty years ago.
How must it feel to spend one’s autumn years endlessly rehearsing one’s spring hits for the fans? Pretty weird, I should have thought. I mean, imagine you wrote an essay in high school that you got to read aloud in front of all the kids at assembly. Imagine if everybody loved it and the headmaster patted you on the back and approvingly tousled your hair. Now imagine having to get up in front of people and read the same piece of writing every night for the next sixty years of your life. Congratulations. Your name is Brian May or perhaps Roger Taylor, and from somewhere beyond the grave your former bandmate Freddie is shaking a manicured fist at you.
Not that Queen are the only chronological culprits. Say what one will about the likes of Alice Cooper, Sir Elton John, Rod Stewart, George Thorogood and Patti Smith — all big-ticket acts who were booked for Australasian tours before the pandemic and most of them now likely to return soon enough — they are no spring chickens, either.
Neither am I, come to think of it, but then again, nobody ever booked me to appear at venues to read collections of my old music reviews. Isn’t rock and roll’s fair trading act supposed to protect the fans from this sort of thing?
Ever since that Memphis morning when the gaunt Elvis Presley first stood in front of the bathroom mirror, dipped his comb into the cold water and fashioned his hair into the shape of a duck’s bum, rock and roll has supposedly been a young person’s gig. ‘Hope I die before I get old’ isn’t just a stupidly great line from the far-off 1960s hit by the Who (another of the superannuated acts yet again touring their youth anthems this year) but an essential part of the scene.
Stay in the game too long — or so the thinking goes — and you begin to look strange. Or if you do, then for heaven’s sake be like David Lee Roth and at least do it with lashings of self-deprecating humour. ‘I used to jog,’ the famous Van Halen frontman was wont to say, ‘but the ice cubes kept falling out of my glass.’ The wizened old rocker first said this in 1979. He was twenty-nine.
If this is true of the performers themselves, how about those of us (gulp!) who write about them?
Somebody — I think it may have been me — once said that you can always guess a rock critic’s age and year of birth by subtracting seventeen years from the date of release of what they insist is the greatest album ever recorded. Invariably, these canonical works will have come out when their critical champions were around that age, which of course is the hugely more important point they are looking to make when they say that such-and-such an album by the Clash or Nirvana can never be topped. It really has little to do with music. They want you to know they are forever at the point in life when guys tend to be at their most virile and their female counterparts are held to be (absolutely incorrectly, in my opinion) at their most sexually attractive.
All of which casts an interesting light on the likes of the aforementioned Queen, whose remaining two members are currently touring with the talented but slightly annoying singer Adam Lambert. Even allowing for the fact that Lambert is just a slip of a lad of forty, the trio’s combined age is positively ancient. They ought to be calling themselves The Queen Mother.
That’s not to say all of the current crop of touring acts ushering fans back through memory lane are at death’s door; some are well past it. In recent weeks in Britain, for example, the pioneering German electronic band Tangerine Dream received some of their most gut-punchingly effusive notices for their latest ‘absolutely magnificent’ performances since the release of the group’s first album in 1970. All well and good, except none of the original line-up are with us any longer, the original members having long since gone on to other musical projects or else departed permanently for that great citrus grove in the sky.
Tangerine Dream aside, though, the currently creaky state of the tour circuit does rather underscore the need to put the slip on one’s shadow.
In his mid-fifties, the one-time teenage heartthrob Scott Walker managed to do just that, abruptly swerving from girl-meets-boy themes of his earlier hits into ice-cold songs about the Holocaust, gay film directors and the perfumes of Arabia. Leonard Cohen achieved something similar. An older, more mature Nick Cave, who’s down for a couple of Victorian shows at Hanging Rock this November, has similarly evolved.
Another option for the punters is to avoid the nostalgia circuit altogether and go see performers the first time around. That’s what I intend to do as soon as the borders fully open. I’m off to Ireland for a week of back-to-back concerts, culminating with one in Dublin by the fragrant Olivia Rodrigo. And if the nineteen-year-old turns in a show for the ages, well, I suppose we can all look forward to an inevitable tour Down Under another sixty years down the cobwebbed tracks.
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