Death should be a barrier to ‘live’ performances by stars like Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston and Frank Zappa – for all the wonders of modern holographic technology, writes Aidan Smith.
Someone once said that the only good rock star is a dead rock star. Now that’s a bit unkind. There are plenty of rock stars I don’t like. Plenty of fatuous, feel-the-warmth-of-my-sincerity guys who I would be very happy never to hear from ever again, but I don’t want them potted heid. Death, though, need not be the end. As someone else once said, it can be a very good career move.
The music industry has always cashed in on its corpses. Whether a member of “that stupid club” – performers who’ve expired aged 27 – or one who’s gone on and on and bloody on, death will push their LPs and CDs to the front of your local record store and Amazon will immediately up its prices.
Now death is no longer an impediment to the concert experience. You caught ’em live? Get ready to see ’em dead.
Earlier this month Frank Zappa’s hologram tour came to Edinburgh, 26 years after he succumbed to prostate cancer. The 3D Amy Winehouse isn’t quite ready yet but a trick-of-the-light Whitney Houston, who drowned in her bathtub in 2012, will soon hit the road when doubtless she’ll be belting out her big, blousy showstopper: “I Will Always, Even After Umpteen Greatest Hits, Best Ofs and Ultimate Collections, Want More Dosh From You.”
You can tell, perhaps, that I’m a bit cynical about these great gigs from the sky. Dionne Warwick, Houston’s cousin, has called the idea of a virtual Whitney “stupid” and it’s just wrong. More than that, holographic rock stars seem to me to be creepy, untruthful and even slightly fascistic.
Presumably they will be the best possible reflections of the originals: when the acts were absolutely on top of their game, writing like a dream, singing lustily, moving like Jagger (the Mick from half a century ago, obviously, not the recent heart-valve replacement version) ... when they had the world in the palm of one hand and M&Ms (no brown ones) or possibly slightly stronger stimulants in the other, and with groupies queueing round the block back at the hotel and the private jet being readied for the next show.
The holographs will be from a moment well before liposuction, anti-greying, rhyming dictionaries, style makeovers, new directions, crack lawyers and detox were all urgently required. The moment, indeed, when Madame Tussauds phoned up the rock god and requested a sitting. But, though I’ve never seen a laser-generated concert and possibly never will, won’t the experience of gazing at a holograph be not dissimilar to inspecting a waxwork?
Actually, scrub that: the Tussauds dummies are no more lifelike than any of the crummy statues erected in tribute to footballers in the last 20 years. The problem I’d have with these LED disinterments is that the rock stars would be perfect, the sound quality would be stupendous, that the experience would be antiseptic and something of a swizz.
Probably I’m showing my age here for I remember a time when the sound quality was atrocious and, in a funny sort of way, I miss it. The PA was invariably abysmal for the support act and then there would be an interminable wait for the main attraction. A hairy roadie yelling “One-TWO! One-TWO” into every microphone ad nauseum would be greeted with slow hand-clapping likely to develop into a full-scale riot. But you always thought, ah well, at least after such comprehensive testing, all potential gremlins should have been banished. But they never were.
Even for the biggest bands the speakers were very likely to blow, the singer would be lost in the mix and you wouldn’t be able to hear the drums for the 747 roar of the bass guitar – except for during the drummer’s solo spot, 30-or-so minutes of cymbal-crashing sensory deprivation. But, not knowing any better, we loved it. Indeed we loved everything about gig-going back in 1970s Edinburgh, even having to queue from pre-dawn for tickets (the record was five hours for Deep Purple). If the show was at the old Empire Theatre, there was an additional wait for two bingo sessions to finish. When David Bowie came to town, beehived grannies passed boys with roughly applied tangerine eyeliner on the stairs of the auditorium – me and my pals having moved on from heavy rock to glam – and what a thrilling culture-clash that was.
If you’re used to bands using backing tapes and autotune, which artificially adjusts notes so the vocals are always spot-on, then you would probably think that the concerts of my youth were rubbish. But they were the most brilliant rubbish. They could be disrupted by gang violence, so if you managed to come through the night unscathed there was another achievement to place next to having survived the drum solo. These gigs were authentic. We knew fakery, and could spot groups miming on Lift Off with Ayshea a mile away, and we didn’t seek the perfection that a hologrammed rock star will presumably offer because we didn’t reckon it was possible without cheating.
The hologrammed Whitney will not be the occasionally tired and emotional one that some who saw her in the flesh will remember. Similarly the hologrammed Amy won’t be the over-refreshed one I witnessed deliver an erratic, indulgent – but real – performance in Glasgow. And what’s the point of a hologrammed Frank Zappa, playing the same crazy, jazzy guitar solo every night in a new town when the original would never have repeated himself?
Obviously I wished I’d seen the Beatles play Edinburgh, the Incredible String Band play Woodstock and Roxy Music when Brian Eno was still twirling feather boas and making his synthesiser squelch. Who wouldn’t? But I can live without the virtual versions – they’re always going to be more exciting in the imagination, anyway.