Photo courtesy of: DLindsley/ Wikimedia Commons
Music can be easy to forget. There’s so much of it out there that it’s impossible to listen to and certainly keep track of. Every artist has their high points, low points, a beginning and an ending. Some careers are long lasting, and some are over in a day. But those who have been lucky enough to have long lasting careers are still fighting strong today. Old age means nothing if the spirit is high enough.
Paul Simon’s music has never been loud or angry. It has been political at times, but, being folky in nature, its main purpose is to tell a story. Simon was, of course, the main component behind the group Simon & Garfunkel in the 60s before breaking off and continuing solo work up until 2018.
Simon announced his retirement that year, along with going on one last tour and releasing his final album, In the Blue Light. What’s interesting about this album is that it is composed entirely of songs Simon wrote earlier in his career that not many people know of. It’s not addressing an audience, it’s not ruminating on the past, it’s Simon making peace with the fact that this is it. This is the end for him and he is just accepting it. He’s telling a few more stories, and then it’s time for him to leave.
The second song on the album, “Love,” illustrates this idea beautifully. Simon sings, “When day breaks, hopes have come and gone, just love yourself and pass it on.” When it comes to this kind of thing, he doesn’t want to think about an audience, he wants to think about himself. That’s not him being selfish, that’s him, in the context of this album, thinking about his past and how he’s going to let go of it.
One artist who has resurfaced in this new age of older music is from the generation after singers like Simon, is the “Prince of Darkness” Ozzy Osbourne. Once frontman of British metal band Black Sabbath, Osbourne has had steady solo success for the past three decades. He has had much controversy and PR issues throughout his career, but has still managed to hold onto adoring fans and a growing audience.
After 10 years of silence, Ozzy released what might end up being his last album, Ordinary Man. Osbourne starts his return with the song “Straight to Hell,” where he warns the listener they will be “flying higher than a kite tonight.” After taking them on a short journey of the power Osbourne says he has, mixed in with heavy guitar and loud, slamming drums, a choral background cuts in and the heavy riffs stop. “Something is missing and you don’t know why,” instead of being said in Ozzy’s shrill metal voice, is said in a pondering, almost scared fashion, as if he is finally questioning a life of being this hardcore rockstar all the time.
This sharp kind of contrast is present throughout the album, and it is done most certainly on purpose. Ozzy is a sick man; he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in Jan. 2020, and plus, he has lived the life of a god of metal music for decades. There are many interludes or pauses in the songs on this album that are uncharacteristic of both him and the subject matter that can almost be understood as Osbourne catching his breath or regretting what he has done.
The title track, “Ordinary Man,” features vocal and piano contributions from icon Elton John, who has also lived a turbulent life as a rockstar, and the two men are both approaching the inevitability of fallout from a life like this.
Elton sings of understanding and hope, with lyrics like “I don’t want to say goodbye, but when I do, you’ll be alright, afterall, I did it all for you,” while Ozzy sings lines like “I was unprepared for fame, then everybody knew my name,” that make the listener almost feel bad for him. They both talk about how they just didn’t want to be normal, but there is just enough contrast to invoke a sad emotion in an educated listener that’s different than what was most likely intended.
The pioneer of the proto-punk rock scene in the 60s was British band The Who. Led by songwriter and guitarist Pete Townshend and frontman Roger Daltrey, this band brought a grittier feel to rock than, say, the Beatles did. Their music was not dark like how Ozzy’s would feel, but much of it was angrily charged and more political than what most bands were doing in the early 60s.
Remaining dormant for 13 years after their last studio release, Townshend and Daltrey released an album in Dec. 2019 that seemed to encapsulate their entire careers, labeled only with the blunt but bold title, WHO. This album does not have an atmosphere of personal reflection. Instead, it takes more of a look at the world and the music scene and what they have become in the eyes of these figures in pop culture.
The opening song, “All This Music Must Fade,” is The Who introducing themselves to a crowd that doesn’t know who they are, a crowd that has forgotten the glory age of music and what it meant to people. Daltrey sings “it’s not new, not diverse… it’s just simple verse,” in which he tells the audience that they are old, but they can still write a song and they can do it better than many people now.
This is the main theme throughout all of these albums and what they represent: legacy. Ozzy screams for his listeners “don’t forget me as the colors fade,” while Daltrey approaches it with an attitude of not caring, singing “I’m long gone and I ain’t ever coming back.” These musicians know that they’re getting close to their last hurrah, and the question they have to ask now is how they will really be remembered. It’s really a somber topic, and one that is approached differently by every artist that encounters it.
Unquestionably amongst culture, the most influential musical artists of the past 50 years have been the Beatles. Their legacy has lasted unwaveringly, landing multiple number one albums and songs as a group, even after breaking up more than 20 years previously. Each member has had a steady stream of solo success for whatever amount of time they were able to create music (John Lennon’s assassination and George Harrison’s loss to cancer), but the most successful and longest running solo career of the Fab Four has been that of Sir Paul McCartney.
The bassist for the band and half of the lead songwriting team resurfaced in 2018 and put out the chart topping album Egypt Station. McCartney has always been a fan of assimilating mostly to whatever style of music is popular at the time for his projects, with examples like his brass-ridden Wings projects in the 70s and the song he wrote for Rihanna and Kanye West, “FourFive Seconds,” but he abandoned that for the most part and came back to more of his Beatles roots.
While the album is reflective, it is done so in a more upbeat, lighthearted way than the other artists approached their new material. With the exception of the sad and reminiscent “I Don’t Know,” which has the repeated line “what’s the matter with me,” most of the songs are phrased like or sound like happier memories; less regretful than Ozzy’s and less angry than the Who.
With many of the anthems on McCartney’s album (for they carry that same sort of epicness about them), the messages are that, even in an older age, don’t give up. There are still lessons to be learned in “Dominoes,” relationships to be treasured in “Confidante,” and actions that need to be taken in “People Want Peace.” The longing of wanting things to be different from the “Yesterday” years is not lost, but now McCartney’s stance is to either accept it or do something about it, a very culturally relevant point of view for someone who’s heyday was in the 1960s.
Audience is everything for a musician, and McCartney knows this. His fans come from all different backgrounds and ages, and the emotions that they feel when they hear his songs are happy and uplifting. He created something with Egypt Station that has an old enough feel for people to feel nostalgic, but just new enough for it to feel fresh and bold to his younger listeners.
McCartney knows his legacy is intact. The music of the Beatles isn’t going anywhere, but its members will have to leave eventually. This album isn’t Paul not wanting to go anywhere; he’s perfectly content. Instead, he is more consoling his fans, lifting them up like he does so well because he knows that’s what they want and what they’ll need once he’s gone.
All good things come to an end, but this legacy of classic rock will continue for quite some time. No one will ask who. None of these people will die ordinary men. As McCartney wrote, “in time we’ll know, it’s all a show. It’s been a blast.”
This story was originally published on The Chatterbox on March 3, 2020.