Anyone who knows me knows that I. Love. Music. Oldies, modern pop, classic rock, classical… Across the spectrum, I can name songs and artists and recite all the lyrics for an enormous repertoire. But I am sad to report that I am not much of a music historian. So for Christmas, I decided to change that and put music biographies and autobiographies and memoirs on my list.
One of the gifts I received from my mother-in-law was a book that piqued my interest right away: Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of The Rock Stars. It has a young David Bowie on the cover. Hooked immediately.
Written by David Hepworth, a major British music journalist whose existence was lamentably unknown to me before reading this book, it explores 40 years of rock & roll history during which honest-to-God rock idols reigned over airwaves and venues on both sides of the pond.
The history starts at the very beginning with Little Richard and his rip-roaring “Tutti Frutti,” and concludes with the demise of Kurt Cobain– not really a spoiler for anyone with a passing knowledge of music, or who was sentient in the early 90s. The lense throughout is a little more focused, esoteric, however, than any story that would have broken in the major media at the time. Each chapter is a snapshot of a certain rocker on a certain day in a certain year– perhaps one of their historical moments, or maybe just a day that wasn’t much magical at the time but changed the course of their careers forever. Some you may know; some you may not. Either way, it weaves an interesting path through the timeline of one of the most garish musical genres of all time.
One thing that struck me, however, is that some idols are notably missing. Aerosmith, Journey, AC/DC, Metallica, Bon Jovi, The Eagles, Steve Miller Band, and other big names in the halls of rock stardom only get a passing mention in the telling of someone else’s tale, or simply listed as part of that year’s playlist. The perspective is distinctly British, and definitely that of a 1970s hipster.
That would, then, explain the multitude of mentions of The Beatles and Bowie and Elton John, though plenty of American acts take up many pages as well, most notably the King of Rock & Roll. This made it more conspicuous that one band was not among their peers: Queen. Freddie Mercury and company had one chapter, frustratingly close to the end of the book and consequently close to the end of his life as well. Seeing as they’re my favorite band of all time, I was a bit disappointed.
That did not, however, diminish my delight in reading Uncommon People. I learned so much I didn’t know about the timeline, about the scale of the change the first rock record set off, and about some of the magnificent and seedy goings-on that only came out after the fact. It’s a magnifying glass on an era that was unprecedented at its start and inimitable once it ended; as Hepworth points out, it was a period of mystique that cannot be replicated in the always-on digital age.
If you’re interested in taking a peek behind the curtain of rock & roll, if you’ve ever been curious about larger-than-life musical immortals, I cannot recommend Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars by David Hepworth highly enough. This is definitely the book for you.