by Jacob Wingate-Bishop
We’re moving into a ‘post-celebrity’ age. It sounds pretentious, but no longer are we revering public figures like they’re gods among men. It feels as though every week we’re reading about some reputable politician or rising internet star caught doing something shady. As a society, we’re beginning to realise that no individual should be placed on a pedestal, and mindless worship of anyone is unhealthy. The word ‘problematic’ looms over everyone, and celebrities pinball from public scandal to disgraced affair.
But in the world of music, especially, we’re seeing the ‘old guard’ shift day-by-day, as more weathered rock musicians and those behind the sound desk are, quite rightly, brought back into the light, their sins drawn out for the world to see. From late, ‘great’ rock gods, to living legends and beloved guitarists, we need to recognise that there were some very dark days behind the stage. And those days aren’t necessarily over.
I get it. Rock ‘n roll has always been a symbol of the past. By its very nature, it’s no longer in the present (for the most part, I’m aware there’s a lot of rock bands still making great music and plenty of new talent in the industry). Classic rock isn’t ‘current’, so why worry about it? Why not let the aging rockstars have their glory days, and move on? There’s greater injustices in the world.
Well, because – on the face of it – half of those who grace the arenas appear to be sexual abusers. The most recent allegations came in December 2022, when Aerosmith frontman, Steven Tyler, was sued on grounds of sexual abuse of a minor throughout the early ‘70s. Allegedly, Tyler convinced the parents of Julia Holcomb to hand over legal guardianship to him around the time of his band’s rise to stardom. The idea was that Hilcomb could live with, and engage in a sexual relationship with the screamin’ demon himself (it is worth noting that in the case of this particular lawsuit, Tyler is not named, but Holcomb has been vocal about her ties with the singer in the past, and quotes directly from his book were used in court documents).
It’s an awful revelation, but surely, I speak for most here when I say, it’s hardly a surprising one. I’m a huge fan of classic rock, and I adore Aerosmith’s music – I recently bought Permanent Vacation on vinyl – but I’ve always just sort of assumed that half the rockstars of the 1970s and ‘80s had engaged in this kind of illicit murk. Young, fifteen-year old ‘groupies’ threw themselves at men dressed in tight spandex and leather, thrice their age. Teens were escorted backstage. It’s a disgusting reality, but reality all the same. And I realise that me accepting this blindly – using my inability to change the past – is part of the problem. We all are. We assume rockers had tour bus encounters with fans and that, hey, that was just how things went. It was the culture. We know different now, but we didn’t then.
Rock and roll has always been at the forefront of cultural revolution, too Fresh. Rebellious and fuelled by the culture of drugs, booze and sex. Hell, perhaps the poster boys of late ‘80s rock, Motley Crue, had a song called ‘All in the Name Of…’, in which writer/guitarist Nikki Sixx confesses to being infatuated with a girl ‘only fifteen’. In the same song, the band mention the word ‘legal’ not really ‘being [their] scene’. And Crue were just one of many bands in smoky, whiskey-soaked backrooms, reeking of testosterone and adolescent fantasies.
Moving on from sexual abuse for a moment, Vince Neil – frontman of the band – was charged with vehicular manslaughter in 1984, when a drunken car crash resulted in the death of his passenger (Nicholas ‘Razzle’ Dingley, drummer of fellow glam rock outfit, Hanoi Rocks). Neil ended up serving 15 days in jail and paying two-and-a-half million to others involved in the incident. That’s it. Motley Crue are a band plagued with death, addiction and accusations uttered in hushed tones. Yet they were the subject of a Netflix film produced in late 2019 (The Dirt). They’re also still together; they just finished a massive, North American tour with the likes of Def Leppard, Joan Jett and Poison. How are they still permitted to play music anywhere?
Though half as rebellious as Crue, iconic rock group The Police, are no strangers to suspicion. One of their radio staples, ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’, deals with the exposure of a teacher/pupil relationship (the song even makes explicit reference to Nabokov’s novel, Lolita). Bassist and vocalist, Sting, worked as a teacher before turning to music. Yet he swears the song isn’t based on real life events.
The king of rock ‘n roll, Elvis Presley, met his future wife, Priscilla, when she was just 14 years old. When at last they married, she was 21. He was 32. One of the greatest guitarists of all time, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, is 45 years older than his current girlfriend, Scarlett Sabet. Ex-bassist of the Rolling Stones, Bill Wyman, was 52 when he married Mandy Smith, just 18. Such statistics are found in the odd comment section of respective social media posts, but that’s it. Elvis is still cool (he was the subject of an incredibly successful Baz Luhrmann picture just last year). Led Zeppelin are undoubtedly still seen as the masters of classic rock, and Wyman leads a successful career in other artistic pursuits.
This is all readily available information; it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to find out that John Lennon abused his first wife, Cynthia, when they were together. All it takes is a quick Google search to discover that John Peel – one of the most influential DJs of all time, responsible for breaking hundreds of then-underground artists – admitted to engaging in underage sex with several publications, such as The Guardian in 1975, The Sunday Correspondent in 1989 and The Herald in 2004. The music industry of the 1970s and ‘80s – particularly in the male-dominated genre of rock – was inundated with enablers, abusers and rapists. Some of them are dead, some of them in prison (there was a time when Gary Glitter was a hugely successful glam rock artist, lest we forget), but most of them still grace the stage. Many of them perform legacy circuits and headline slots at festivals. There’s the odd bit of controversy – an online petition or two – but little more. You bring it up, you’re told to stop whining about something which happened ‘ages ago’. Move on.
I’m also part of the problem. I still listen to Aerosmith. I love ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’. I’m going to see Motley Crue in concert later this year – chiefly because they’re co-headlining with Def Leppard, one of my favourite groups, but that’s hardly reason enough to contradict my morals. I just accept that most of my favourite artists have, at some point in their life, done some pretty unforgivable things. But like all the rest, I overlook that, label these men ‘problematic’ at best and put my headphones on. The radio stations still blast their summertime, stadium rock anthems. What would these icons have to do for me – for the collective millions of fans – to finally leave their records in the sleeve, once and for all?
What will it take for us to finally shut the door on these untouchable, beloved figures, and realise that art isn’t a scale-tipper for abuse and violence? You can separate art from the individual, you can tell yourself that bad people produce great things sometimes, but there comes a point when healthy separation becomes a flimsy excuse. And I wonder when we, as a society, will see how far the line has blurred.
You raise some interesting points in the article. Where is the line, and who decides to say enough is enough?
We are human, and so we are flawed and hypocritical in our thinking at times, especially if you are a music or film lover.
I was not listening to or buying R. Kelly records long before the allegations came out, but do I stop listening to Chuck Berry, James Brown, Phil Spector?
Ted Nugent has always been problematic but since he’s not made a good (let alone great) album since the seventies, he’s quite easy for me to ignore.
How much can one separate the art from the artist if said artist is an outright Neo-Nazi and espouses racial hatred? (“I don’t listen to the lyrics, I only care if the riffs kill!” Sure, Jan!).
Or runs a record label that promotes Neo-Nazi bands and gives some of their profits to Neo-Nazi causes?
Or said artist calls for a fatwa against another artist for the victimless crime of blasphemy?
How many times has anyone played the lostprophets in the last decade or so? Could you separate the art from that artist?
I never thought Roman Polanski was much cop as a film maker but I love a lot of Woody Allen films. Am I a hypocrite? Probably.
And do we now stop watching all Harvey Weinstein produced films?
There is probably no right or wrong answer here, just a personal line in the sand to be drawn that will probably be a little flexible for some artists over others, and will shift again when the next round of wrongdoings come to light.