Fame is the bitch-goddess of Western culture, a thing to be reviled as much as it is to be coveted. Our reality-TV addicted habits of recent years is but one example of people doing pretty much anything to become recognized for something, anything. Yet, from the mouths of the most famous names we can think of, we hear stories of lost identity, lost humanity, interspersed with tales of artistic and personal triumph. Is fame all it’s cracked up to be? It seems to be a bit of a catch-22. Only the famous can really answer that question. And for them, the answer is a moot point. Funny old world, isn’t it?
So, in lieu of a definitive answer for the benefit of those who sing into their hairbrushes daily, here are 10 songs about fame – the triumphs, the low-points, the delusions, the cynicism, the survivor’s tales, which shed some light on a distinctive late 20th-early 21st century phenomenon which is mass celebrity. Judge for yourself whether your name in lights is a blessing, a curse, or both.
Above image courtesy of RecoilRick
Chuck Berry has been quoted as saying that if his job as a painter had made him more money than the music, than he would have stuck with the painting. But, this tale of a poor country boy who ‘never learned to read or write so well/ but he could play the guitar just like a ring in a bell”, is about someone with, possibly, fewer options than Chuck, but with a singular gift to transport him into the stratosphere. This is a classic rock n’ roll story – perhaps the only rock n roll story – lived out by the chosen few, although in many cases with more than they bargained for. But, Chuck Berry is setting up a fantasy story here, not one for real life. This is a 1950s American Dream story, of a poor boy who makes good. Indeed, in the follow up song, “Bye Bye Johnny B. Goode”, Johnny flies off to Hollywood to become a star, a dream realised, with our hero flying off into the sunset. End credits. This is the dream of fame, the idea of it, not the reality. After all, dreams have sold more records than reality ever has.
The song hit the charts in 1958, a smash success, and appeared in many forms both by Berry, and by other artists who recoginised it as the quintessential rock n’ roll story. It appears on the must-have Chuck Berry compilation The Great Twenty-Eight.among a number of songs which would immortalize Berry’s own fame. Yet, it’s “Johnny B. Goode” which was included in the package sent into space on the Voyager mission in 1977. It’s hard to rival fame like that, when visitors to our world can potentially riff along with Chuck when they arrive.
By 1966, the Beatles had seen enough of fame in an annis horriblis that involved a disasterous experience in the Philippines, when they had ‘snubbed’ the Marcos family when they were called upon like good little pop stars to attend a state dinner, and chose not to attend. This was also the year that Lennon was quoted by a friend in the British press that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus”, which caused a furore in the States that included radio bans and (incredibly) burning of Beatles merchandise. The trappings of fame had gone south for them. But, at least through it all they kept their perspective which would carry them through.
“Drive My Car”, taken from their 1965 album Rubber Soul, showed that the Beatles knew that the pursuit of fame was mostly about the accessories in the end. “I got no car and it’s breaking my heart/But I found a driver and that’s a start”. These young men had perspective, that those truly seeking the accouterments of fame are ultimately ridiculous. And it was after time spent among many of these types of people, those who wished to bask in their reflected glory, that the band would decide to quit touring, and to quit attending the ‘right’ parties in order to concentrate on the business of being serious artists. This new pursuit was more about escaping the trappings of fame than embracing them, and ultimately was the driving force in transforming pop/rock music into something to be respected, rather than something simply on which to hang an image.
By the end of the 60s, a lot of money could be made in the pop star game, and so the star-maker machinery was built up to full-steam, crushing many a dream in its wake. Not ones to miss the changing times were the Byrds, who had been inspired by both the electrified jangle of Beatles and the folk leanings of Bob Dylan to construct what became known as folk-rock. This 1967 song from the album Younger Than Yesterday offers ironic criticism of the whole fame game, when the benign act of learning to play an electric guitar leads to selling …”your soul to the company/Who are waiting there to sell plastic ware”.
Things had changed since the early part of the decade when a good deal of the major labels saw pop music as an insignificant tax write-off, rather than as a multi-million dollar industry. And there must have been a lot of harsh contrast between the hippie ideal and the demands of capitalism which began to drive the industry more and more on a grander scale. This would certainly be a dynamic in the ensuing decades, this idea of selling out, when worldwide fame of rock stars was directly proportionate to perceptions of their lack of artistic integrity.
Fame is an elusive mistress, with many well-known names – Vincent Van Gogh, Piotr Tchaikovsky, Edgar Allen Poe, and many more – who only won her favour after their own deaths. In 1969, British folk artist Nick Drake would ruminate on the the randomness of fame on this key track from the debut album Five Leaves Left , not knowing that he himself would serve as yet another example of an artist sharing similar post-mortem popularity.
Drake was a struggling musician, painfully shy, and wrestling with clinical depression, yet also wanting his music to be heard. His own thoughts here about fame being a fruit tree, fed by the deaths of those who seek it may well have been a case of sour grapes. Yet, I think it was just pure observation of the basic cruelties of real life. During his life, he made three complete albums, none of which shifted very many units. His fame would grow only after his passing in 1974 of a (probably accidental) prescription drugs overdose. It would achieve the heights of fame at the end of the 1990s, when his song ‘Pink Moon’ was used to sell Volkswagens 25 years after his death – far from his dying day indeed. Luckily, it’s not fame that is the point. It’s the supreme delicacy of his songs, his voice, and his superlative gifts as a guitarist which emerges. And the tragedy is not that he didn’t achieve fame in his lifetime. It’s that he didn’t make more albums, famous or not.
Everyone has a benchmark to use to measure when they’ve ‘made it’. By the mid-70s, when a pop star, the coveted cover of Rolling Stone magazine was surely the Superbowl of rock stardom. But, very few bands allowed themselves to drop their cool demeanours and click their heels upon reaching that goal. After all, rock n’ roll is not about acceptance by the press. It’s supposed to be about rebellion, about sticking it to the man. It’s not about getting ‘five copies to my mother’. Your mother? C’mon guys! You’re in a rock n’ roll band! Yet, this song by Dr. Hook gets to the heart of the matter, and pushes past the coolness that rock musicians are supposed to have in the face of widespread acceptance. The song points out that everyone, aloof rock stars especially, wants the respect of their peers, and of the public too. You can say you’re in it for the music. But, to say that you don’t care about acceptance? Well, you’re not fooling anyone, says this tune.
“Cover of the Rolling Stone“ is clearly a shot at rock n’ roll pretension, much of which was reaching a fever pitch around the time this song came out. Gigs were getting bigger, outsized only by the egos that were behind them. And this not to mention the money involved. Yet, this song suggests that it’s not any of that which really matters. What does matter is the moment of recognition that the greater culture acknowledges, even for an instant, that what you’ve done has had an impact. This is the essence of fame, to be tasted only once in quite this same way.
Where there are times when fame comes too late, there are quite a few more instances of fame not coming at all to those who seek it, despite their talent. In this tale of a man crushed by disappointment, and the woman who stays by his side anyway, fame is something that is no longer an option “proving too much for the man” and driving him homeward. Such is the tale of many who travel from far flung locations to the Big City, seeking fame and riches that may or may not exist in the way they are promised. This song is about the dark side of the rock myth about the boy from the country who makes good as a star. Sometimes, Johnny B. Goode just isn’t good enough.
But in Gladys Knight’s song, we don’t hear from the man himself, but from the one who has come to love him, with a hint that she has established some success, yet choosing to “live in his world (rather than living) without him in mine.” To this, fame pales in comparison to the greater forces of love and sacrifice. So, in the end this is a hopeful song, when success is defined by the two in question, which of course is the sucess of the best kind.
“Midnight Train to Georgia” from the I’ve Got To Use My Imagination album was Gladys Knight & the Pips biggest hit, after a string of chart showings when they were a Motown act from 1966 to 1973. This tune was the group’s only number one hit, their debut on the Buddah label.
When you really think about it, the mega-successful musician’s life can very easily fall into the realm of cliche. After all, what is it that these guys are getting paid to do exactly? Make up songs, sing them, and get what? Summer homes? Masseratis that do 185? Groupies? Drugs? Gold records for wallpaper? When you reduce fame like this to it’s bare essentials, it sounds absurd. And that’s what Joe Walsh does so brilliantly here; a song about stunted emotional development traded in for a life of leisure, perhaps half-joking, but then again perhaps not. The tune was a big radio hit in 1978, taken from Walsh’s solo album But Seriously, Folks…
Walsh was a late joiner to the Eagles, who were massive upon his arrival as well as before it. Before that, he’d forged a reputation in James Gang, as well as in a series of concurrent solo albums. He knew a thing or two about the fame game enough to write a song that reveals something of its true nature. And what you get in this song, underneath the vignettes of rock star excess, is that the narrator of the tune is lost and not in control of his own circumstances. Beneath the humour and the joviality of the laid back rock star is a hint that the narrator is only reacting to the forces in his life, not creating them. Fame has made him a bit player in the story of his own life.
There is an old proverb that says that “success is the best revenge”. Getting out of the small town you’re in, maybe changing your accent, and getting a new life is the goal of a lot of people. And sometimes, escaping one’s origins becomes a full-time job, making sure that there are enough props in one’s life to ensure that the true root of one’s identity is not seen as having not evolved from that which they once were. This is the underlying element in this 1986 song about the shallowness of success and fame found on Peter Gabriel’s smash record So
‘Overcompensation’ would be a great alternate title for this song, exquisitely damning of pop star hubris and greed, two watchwords of the 1980s me generation which was the degradation of baby boom idealism. This is a story of a big shot who attempts to distance himself from the small town in which he was raised, where “they think so small/they use small words/but not me; I’m smarter than that” by means of displays of fame, success, and material wealth. Yet once again, reaching the Big Time here ultimately comes down to the ridiculous, the downright childish, the juvenile “look at my circumstance!” cry of attention. This is a conclusion of fame for those of dubious self-esteem; that fame becomes little more than a means to an end, with that end getting lost in the noise of self-promotion and crass materialism.
For many, fame is not something to be sought, but rather something to be survived. The Travelling Wilburys was a composite of several branches in rock’s family tree, from Sun Records veteran Roy Orbison, to 60s icons Bob Dylan and George Harrison, to the kid brother figures in ELO’s Jeff Lynne, and of course Tom Petty. All of them had been through the grind of what it means to achieve, and be saddled with the burdens of being known wherever they went. Harrison had survived Beatlemania. Dylan was still trying to shake off his “voice of a generation” millstone, and the others too had known the rigours of the road and all of the instabilities that life brings. And this is why this tune, which sounds like a form letter to be filled out by new friends and lovers for people in the position of our Wilbury heroes. The very fact that each of these ‘legends’ took on stage names for this record and the one to follow, made it somewhat of a one-finger salute to their own images, or the images many had of them. And because these are legends at work here, this song is believable in that loneliness and weariness is as much a part of fame as riches and glory.
The song was the lead track from the 1988 album Traveling Wilburys , Vol. 1 a project which started out as a B-side to a George Harrison single, and blossomed into an entire record made by friends and contemporaries who wanted to bring the music back down to earth. And on this tune, we get Harrison’s trademark slide playing, Dylan’s wheezy harmonica, Orbison’s operatic tenor, and more delights for which each member had made their fame. Yet this was about making music in spite of fame, rather than because of it.
The temptations of fame and the dangers surrounding them all have one thing in common – pursuing them means abandoning the pursuit of finding out who one is. In this tune, taken from the album Nia the lead character Cysco is hoodwinked by fame, distracted by its promises to the point where his own identity is subsumed in pursuit of it. A perennial question to the newly rich is “will the money change me”? And it’s the terminally honest person who responds “how could it not”?
Yet, in the hip hop world, nothing is more valued than the strength of character it takes to manage the burdens of sucess, while at the same time staying true to one’s roots too – spending money, yet not being spent. In this story, the character loses his way in a labyrinth of materialism, dependence, and egotism. The result is inevitable – that fame turns on the unwary, and that where it’s possible to shoot to the top, it is even more likely that one will plummet to the bottom from such great heights.
Fame is a conundrum. The only way you know it’s worth it or not is to attain it. And then, you take your chances. It is a volatile cocktail of glory, immortality, and untold danger that few have not at least thought about. And yet, the pursuit of fame often leads many to places of either profound disappointment, or stifling solitude, not truly being able to share themselves because of how fame tends to blur the view to the true identity of those who are associated with it. Yet, despite it’s untamed nature, we as a culture are obsessed with it, so much so that fame isn’t necessarily attached to achievement anymore. Now, one just has to be perceived as famous in order to gain it, perhaps even when the more deserving of public recognition toil in obscurity. But, like life, and the animal kingdom, no one said it was fair.