Phew: midnight. It is now 1st January, 2017 and while I didn’t get an awkward kiss with a stranger I am relieved to report, after spending the last several hours breathlessly refreshing google alerts that our irreplaceable, 94-years-young national treasure Betty White is still counted among the living. It doesn’t bring back anyone we lost, true enough, but its a win, and one I’ll happily take – I think we all need one. Cause WTF was that waking nightmare of a year
I we all just lived through? Since when is death zeitgeist? Since 2016.
Death was 2016’s big breakout star, and the charts were full of it: posthumous hits choked up the Top 40; the success of the year’s most unexpected No 1 album – Viola Beach’s eponymous debut – was down to the band and their manager’s deaths in a car crash five months previously. No meticulously planned stealth release, with its carefully cultivated air of surprise and concealed impact date, was as surprising as David Bowie’s or Prince’s death (which of course happened on the day my very purple Bowie Labyrinth memorial tee arrived from loot crate). Before January was even up, Bowie and Alan “Snape” Rickman gave up the ghost to cancer followed by Abe Vigoda, who was, when he was still with us, the oldest living member of the Friars Club for 3 decades, with 2 websites dedicated to his alive/dead status for 20+ years. December’s traditional pop story – about the race for the Christmas number one – was completely eclipsed by the deaths of George Michael, Carrie “Leia” Fisher, who not only single-handedly made feminism work and de-stigmatized hitherto stupidly stigmatized standard human ailments, she showed us it’s totally kosher to be a rebel commander who also looks sexy AF in a gold bikini… and then her mom??!! I’m sure her brother totally doesn’t feel utterly abandoned right now. You know, again, (dad Eddie Fisher left mom Debbie Reynolds for Liz Taylor when he was a baby).
If Prince’s death was the most shocking, and Bowie’s the most spectacular, then Leonard Cohen’s was the most telling. The traditional pop-star death narrative paralells George Michael: the cruel snuffing out of talent prematurely, usually accompanied by lurid speculation over their private lives and/or struggles. The one thing pop stars never did was die of old age. But Cohen was 82, a pretty good innings by anyone’s standards: a few weeks before he passed away in his sleep, he told an interviewer he was “ready to die”. And that’s the kind of pop star death of which we’re going to see more. We’re 60 years away from the rock’n’roll explosion – as far away from Heartbreak Hotel and Blue Suede Shoes as they were from the premiere of La Bohème and Mahler’s Third Symphony – and half a century has passed since 1966, arguably the pivotal year in the development of 60s pop.
It seems faintly miraculous that any of the architects of the former are still alive, but they are: Little Richard is 83, Jerry Lee Lewis is 81, Chuck Berry is 90, and his first album in 36 years is due for release in 2017. The architects of the latter are now into their 70s: you didn’t have to be a cynic or incredibly ghoulish to sense that impending mortality was a factor in people paying up to $1,599 for tickets to this year’s Desert Trip festival that brought together the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, the Who, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney. Whether we become increasingly immune to pop legends passing away, or whether 2016’s outpourings of grief keep a regular cadence in 2017, remains to be seen.
As the leader of Earth, Wind & Fire – not just a singer, but a songwriter, arranger, producer and bandleader – Maurice White has a claim to be one of the most important people in pop history, leading his band to the forefront of successive movements in black music: funk, disco, electronic R&B. He died on 4 February, aged 74.
And that is still barely scratching the surface of the year’s fallen greats. Congolese music lost a giant in Papa Wemba (24 April, 66); Sir George Martin, who was so crucial to the Beatles, died on 8 March, aged 90; Glenn Frey of the Eagles, whose Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) is the sixth-bestselling album of all time, passed away on 18 January, aged 67; Rod Temperton, who went from working in a frozen food factory in Grimsby to writing megahit after megahit for Michael Jackson, died in October, aged 66.
Every kind of music lost heroes. Hip-hop saw the tragically early deaths of Phife Dawg (above) of A Tribe Called Quest (22 March, 45) and Prince Be of PM Dawn (17 June, 46). R&B legend Otis Clay died on 8 January, aged 73, his death utterly overshadowed by Bowie’s two days later. Funk lost the great Bernie Worrell of Parliament/Funkadelic (24 June, 72) and folk saw the departure of the brilliant fiddler Dave Swarbrick of Fairport Convention – whose obituary had first been printed, much to his surprise, years earlier, on 3 June, aged 75. Mose Allison, one of the greats of jazz, was 89 when he passed away on 15 November.
And this is before we look at those figures from the edges and the backrooms who gave their lives charting new boundaries in music. Pioneers like Alan Vega of Suicide, who showed the punks what confrontational really meant (16 July, 78). Or Scotty Moore, the guitarist on those great early Elvis cuts (28 June, 84). Or David Mancuso, whose impeccable taste and style shaped generations of DJs and clubbers alike (14 November, 72). Or Chips Moman, the producer who also co-wrote two of soul’s greatest songs: Do Right Woman, Do Right Man and The Dark End of the Street (13 June, 79).
And all this without mentioning Sharon Jones or Vi Subversa or Paul Kantner or Colin Vearncombe or Pete Burns or Bobby Vee, or myriad others. It was a sad, sad year – for the US, for multigenerational collective pop culture, and most of all for music.
All is all, 2016 is the obsessed, toxic ex who burns down your house before tossing the spare keys you didn’t know they had to your new beau 2017 with a “she’s all yours, bro.”
So, yeah. F-U-C-K-[space]-Y-O-U, TWENTY-SIXTEEN. YOU CAN GO KICK ROCKS.
psst… Hey, 2017: Want to prove you’re both the year we need and deserve and even the year we want? Then, sometime before New Years Day 2017 on the Gregorian Calendar is over, please, please, pleaaaaase can we get Bowie back, no gotchas? Please?