OLD ROCKERS are putting younger bands to shame as they hit the comeback trail, writes Aidan Smith
One of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve had as a journalist was the day I spent at a retirement home for old showbiz troupers. Some of them made it on to television, but only just, such as Dick Emery’s straight-man, never seen on camera, whose job was to supply the clodhopping double-entendre which would prompt the comedian to remark: “You are awful, but I like you.”
Most of the hoofers never got out of the theatre, off the variety bill. They sang, danced or were sawn in half every night. Their place on that bill - too low for their talents - was still a sore point and there was much bickering. But by the time the armchair aerobics came round, followed by tea and sponge cake, everyone had kissed and made up.
It’s great such places exist because I’m sure that retired music-hall artistes would be tricky customers in ordinary sheltered accommodation. But more and more, the thought occurs: why isn’t there one for old rock ’n’ rollers?
This thought occurs when I learn this week that Keith Richards wants the Rolling Stones to record another album. Skipping over the fact they haven’t made a decent one in 30 years, he says: “I’d love to shove them in the studio in April, hot off the road.” Oh yes, the Strolling Bones are touring again. You’ll remember the story from last month, prompting universal mirth, about the “rider” for this latest outing for “This will be the last time” and other hoary classics: every hotel TV must come with easy-to-understand instructions. And to think these guys used to hurl TVs into swimming pools.
The thought occurs, too, when I note the one-star review given to Cliff Richard’s 75th birthday concert at the Albert Hall and the comparison made with the “agonising jollity” of a dance marathons in Depression-era America. The headline read: “Congratulations! Now can I go?”
And it occurs as I check on the bitchy bromance involving Rod Stewart and Elton John. Apparently they’re getting on better following much flouncing from John after he’d bought Stewart a highly expensive piece of art for Christmas and was given an umbrella in return. These two would fit right in at the twilight home I visited. They even call each other “Sharon” and “Phyllis”.
The problem for old rockers is that they’re pioneers. Regarding the septuagenarian years, Richard, Richards (71), Stewart (70) and John (68) are making it up as they go along. They can’t follow the template of the previous generation for growing old because there isn’t one. The other problem, of course, is ego: they don’t want to stop.
They will argue they can’t do much else, that a severe disinclination towards anything approaching a normal job got them into music in the first place. They will also claim that today’s acts are a bland bunch who lack staying power and interesting back-stories to say nothing of original talent, with so many being posh and trust fund-aided, and they have a point here.
But every year or second year - it’s all carefully strategised - the same old faces come round again. Old faces which strangely don’t look as old as the necks, with hair colour miraculously unchanged from the original moptop or Elvis quiff-a-like. And they sing their best-known songs with help on the high notes from brilliant backing vocalists and, apparently, without irony: “This will be the last time” … “Do ya think I’m sexy? … “And we’ll have fun, fun, fun ’til her daddy takes the T-bird away.” (The last-named is of course the Beach Boys. I loved their music as much as the next boy living an inconvenient 10,000 miles from California’s surf, but Brian Wilson plonked in the middle of a stage a few years ago and appearing not to know where he was or how to operate his keyboard has possibly been my saddest gig-going experience).
Not all the same faces, however. Let’s hear it for the Bay City Rollers and Gallagher & Lyle.
I make no apologies for the fact both acts are Scottish. Bands from these determinedly un-Californian shores have rarely suffered from too many people rating them as “cool”, whatever that might be. But maybe there’s a cachet to having become forgotten about, even assumed dead. Certainly these wrinkly rockers haven’t been boring us with comeback after comeback during the last 36 years.
1979 was when soft-rock troubadours Benny Gallagher and Graham Lyle, sons of Largs, broke up one of Scotland’s most successful songwriting partnerships. With classic Scottish understatement, Gallagher told me: “Ach, we needed a wee break from each other.” Lyle described the split as being “as painful as a divorce”. Bizarrely, they continued to live in the same London commuter town and sometimes didn’t exchange Christmas cards - or expensive art or umbrellas.
Then a few years ago they wondered if the old magic could be recreated. The resultant song required no discussion, which was always how they were crafted before. Summing up the long hiatus, Gallagher said: “It was like we’d just nipped out for a pint or something.”
Now their million-selling songs are to be turned into a musical in the style of Mamma Mia, a format which I’ve always thought would work for the Bay City Rollers’ fantastic oeuvre of clompy choons. But these guys - or as many of them as can be persuaded to don sawn-off tartan breeks again - are actually getting back on the road. 1979 was also the Rollers’ nadir - singer Les McKeown walked out - although musical snobs and cringeful Scots reckoned every year the band were in existence was a low one. Like our football team at the World Cup in Argentina, the Shang-a-Lang goons from Edinburgh were viewed as yet another embarrassment in plaid. But after being ridiculed and ripped off, after all the lurid headlines and lost millions, surely no one would deny them a wee shot in the spotlight - if the Stones and the rest would budge up a bit.