Fiona Shepherd: The music legends we lost in 2016

The deaths of David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen hit the music world hard in a year where fans seemed to stumble from one loss to the next. But we will always have the music

David Bowie

As Benjamin Franklin well knew, there’s nought certain in life, bar death and taxes. Some affluent musicians seem intent on avoiding the latter but as rock’n’roll ages and even its younger sibling, pop music, is looking to its wrinkles, our seemingly immortal pop stars can’t dodge the inexorable march of the former.

Even so, music lovers were shaken throughout 2016 as a trio of seemingly indomitable pop giants were felled while still demonstrably in peak creative condition. Their premature passing became the dominant music news stories of a year characterised by an extraordinary number of fond farewells and, it felt, precious few hopeful hellos.

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As an augury of things to come, the first and most startlingly fresh album release of 2016, Blackstar, was summarily followed by the death of its creator, David Bowie, while Hogmanay hangovers were still clearing. The timing was almost too perfect – album out on his 69th birthday, one weekend to digest a legendary living artist’s stunning new work, and then he checks out, triggering global grieving of an intensity not witnessed in years, and hasty reappraisals of what was now recognised as his glorious swansong.

Leonard Cohen PIC: Diego Tuson / AFP / Getty Images

Enigmatic to the end, Bowie had kept his terminal cancer diagnosis secret from all but those closest to him and continued to work like an artist reborn. The tributes of course hailed his multiple iconic works, the incalculable cultural significance of his sexual ambiguity, his groundbreaking fusion of theatricality and rock’n’roll, the sheer technicolour impact of his presence in greyer times.

But Bowie was not just a veteran campaigner, his glory days behind him. Rather, he was still a work in progress, returning to general ecstasy and acclaim in 2013 after almost a decade of public silence, with The Next Day, a glorious grab bag of Bowie goodness. Blackstar was even more audacious and, though Bowie must have appreciated it could be his last album, his collaborator, the New York jazz bandleader Donny McCaslin, has said that Bowie was on a roll right to the end. He died with his boots on.

Prince, very sadly, died in a lift in his Paisley Park home following another purple period of activity with his new band 3RDEYEGIRL, involving multiple guerilla gigs, relatively unvarnished arena shows (like that other live powerhouse, Bruce Springsteen, there was no embellishment required) and a couple of albums, Hit n Run Phase One and Phase Two. There had been rumours of ill health, but his death in April at the age of 57 came as a huge shock to a music world still mourning Bowie, Prince being one of only a very few artists who could be considered in the same breath for his vision, influence and formidable catalogue.

The death of Leonard Cohen, aged 82, in early November, was perhaps not as shocking but, like Bowie, his passing came hot on the heels of a new album release, the mordantly witty You Want It Darker, on which the baritone bard confronted his second favourite topic with his customary poetic wit.

Prince PIC: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Following the death of his muse, Marianne Ihlen, in July, Cohen had remarked “I’m ready to die” but quickly recanted, saying “I intend to live forever”. Given his flurry of activity over his last few years when he released a trio of albums and returned to touring with alacrity, many would not have bet against this charming man discovering the elixir of life. Needless to say, artistic immortality is a safer wager.

Cohen’s death is a great loss, rather than a tragedy, but the deaths of a group of musicians at the other end of their career could certainly be described thus. Warrington indie band Viola Beach hit the headlines for the saddest of reasons in February when all four members and their manager died in a car crash in Sweden. Thanks to the efforts of fans, friends and family, their self-titled debut album was propelled to the top of the charts when it was posthumously released in the summer.

Closer to home, Gary Watson, frontman and driving force of upcoming East Kilbride quartet The Lapelles died on the morning of his 22nd birthday after falling into the River Clyde. His shell-shocked band have played again since in tribute to their late singer, with fans left to wonder what could have been.

As the year drew to a close, there were a couple of other significant goodbyes. Edinburgh’s Ripping Records, noted independent suppliers of CDs and concert tickets, shut up shop after 41 years when owner John Richardson retired. Gone are the romantic days when fans queuing overnight for T in the Park tickets forced the closure of South Bridge, but at least Ripping still offers an online service.

Leonard Cohen PIC: Diego Tuson / AFP / Getty Images

Speaking of T, it has yet to be established if we are saying au revoir or adieu to Scotland’s biggest music festival, but T in the Park will definitely not be taking place in 2017. Organiser Geoff Ellis has expressed a desire to return to its current Strathallan Castle site despite the operational difficulties which have led to the fallow year.

The much loved Wickerman festival, which has taken place on farmland in Dumfries & Galloway over the past 15 years, is emphatically no more but goes out with head held high. With Ullapool’s bijou Loopallu announcing an enforced change of site and consequent downsizing, it has not been a happy autumn for Scottish festivals, but fans can take consolation in plans for a weekend music festival on Glasgow Green next summer, brought to you by TITP hosts DF Concerts but intended to be distinct from T in character. Let’s end a downbeat 2016 on that promising note, shall we? ■

Significant others we lost in 2016


Prince PIC: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Strictly speaking, redoubtable Motorhead frontman Ian “Lemmy” Kilminster died at the fag end of 2015 but his was the first significant passing to rock 2016.

Leon Russell

Stellar songwriter who collaborated with Dylan, Elton John, The Beach Boys and Sinatra, but is best known for penning the deathless A Song For You.

Glenn Frey

Founder member of The Eagles – according to his co-songwriter Don Henley, the band has died with him.

Pete Burns

Androgynous frontman of Scouse electro pop act Dead Or Alive, much loved for his sharp wit and all-round non-conformity.

Alan Vega

The frontman of cult New York electro garage duo Suicide was a true punk pioneer.

Sir George Martin

The producer Sir George was instrumental in helping The Beatles develop and realise their sound at Abbey Road Studios.

Prince Buster

Ska trailblazer Cecil Bustamente Campbell wrote One Step Beyond; Madness are named after one of his songs and wrote debut single The Prince in tribute.

Keith Emerson/Greg Lake

Prog rock supergroup Emerson, Lake & Palmer lost two of its titanic triumvirate when keyboard maestro Keith Emerson died in March followed just recently by singer/bassist Greg Lake. Their surviving bandmate Carl Palmer led the fanfares for these uncommon men.

Merle Haggard

Country outlaw who witnessed Johnny Cash’s San Quentin prison concert while serving time and never looked back.

Sharon Jones

Brilliant nouveau soul diva, left, from Brooklyn who found fame in middle age, but had been fighting cancer for a couple of years. ■