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The nostalgia business

The extraordinary thing about rock’n’roll is its longevity.

20 November 2010

12:00 AM

20 November 2010

12:00 AM

The extraordinary thing about rock’n’roll is its longevity.

The extraordinary thing about rock’n’roll is its longevity. When the Rolling Stones started out in the early Sixties, they can hardly have imagined that they would be doing much the same thing, though on a far larger scale, almost half a century later.

If you’re Keith Richards, of course, you are also astonished that you have survived at all. His new autobiography, Life, deserves the plaudits it has received. The honesty, the humour and the man’s passionate love of the music come shining through on almost every page, while his attacks on the vanity and controlling instincts of Mick Jagger often made me laugh out loud.

Casually to let slip that the leering rock’n’roll sex god and serial philanderer has a ‘tiny todger’ is devastating but I also loved the more laconic quips. Take Mick’s first solo album She’s the Boss, when he was trying to carve out a solo career away from his troublesome band-mates (he failed). ‘I’ve never listened to the entire thing all the way through,’ confides Keef, before adding, wickedly, ‘Who has?’

Having kicked heroin and more recently cocaine — though I think it is fair to assume that Keef still likes the occasional drink — Richards says he now ‘leads a gentleman’s life — listen to Mozart, read many, many books’, and there’s a lovely shot of him lying on a chaise-longue in his handsome library and strumming an acoustic guitar. Mind you, even libraries can be a dangerous place when Keef’s around. He was once knocked off his library steps by a cascade of heavy volumes, hit the desk with his head, blacked out and woke up with a punctured lung. Scoring smack from dodgy drug-dealers was nothing like as dangerous.

But much as I enjoyed Keef’s memoirs, there’s no getting away from the fact that the Stones now seem like a parody of themselves rather than the real thing. I saw them live a decade ago and even then they seemed like a really good Stones cover band, rather than an outfit with great new songs and fresh horizons to explore. Essentially, the Stones are now in the lucrative nostalgia business.

Which raises the question of how sexagenarian rock stars with more than 40 years in the business can make music that still grips and appeals. They have a bright future behind them. Can they offer anything more than recycled golden oldies or variations on the same old theme?

I had high hopes of a new joint effort between David Gilmour, Pink Floyd’s superb guitarist, and the Orb, the vintage ambient electronic outfit. Early reviews suggested Metallic Spheres was going to be a psychedelic trip to match the Floyd’s early albums. In fact, it just struck me as a lot of often tiresome noise with Gilmour doodling routinely in the background. I didn’t manage to get through the whole thing, but as Keef would say — who has?

Santana’s heavily hyped latest, Guitar Heaven, is actually guitar hell. There’s no doubt that Carlos Santana is a great guitarist and the early Santana albums blending rock and Latin American rhythms remain a joy to this day.

Here, however, in what looks depressingly like a take-the-money-and-run operation, Santana perform ‘the greatest guitar classics of all time’ with a lot of guest vocalists, including Joe Cocker, India Arie, and the rapper Nas. Even the cellist Yo-Yo Ma is in there somewhere. In the course of the album, great numbers such as ‘Whole Lotta Love’, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and ‘Little Wing’ are reduced to grandstanding exhibition pieces, an empty display of virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake. It is deeply depressing.

Happily, a few oldies are still making music worth listening to. Neil Young’s new album, Le Noise, features just the man himself on solo and electric guitar singing songs about love and war. The twist is that the producer Daniel Lanois adds all kinds of echo, loops and other atmospheric effects to create a sound that proves unexpectedly enthralling, while Young’s characteristically raw, awkward sincerity is often powerfully affecting.

But the album I have enjoyed most over the past couple of months is the latest from Eric Clapton, called simply Clapton. It largely consists of cover versions, but they are played with warmth and panache by Clapton and a cracking band.

The music is splendidly eclectic, ranging from down-home blues to the kind of music Eric heard on the radio as a child, including Fats Waller’s ‘My Very Good Friend the Milkman’, Irving Berlin’s ‘How Deep Is the Ocean’ and the French chanson, ‘Autumn Leaves’. Clapton sings with palpable affection for the songs, and the playing is admirable in its finesse and restraint. The overriding impression is that this is a thoroughly grown-up labour of love. Other sexagenarian pop stars could usefully profit from its example.

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