Why do musicians have to be young to be relevant? That was a question that cropped up a lot in Shut Up and Play the Hits, the documentary that depicts the final days of acclaimed American electro-outfit LCD Soundsystem and their sob-inducingly triumphant farewell gig at Madison Square Garden in 2011. The film finally received an Irish cinematic release last week.
For fans around the world, James Murphy, the main man of LCD Soundsystem, is to electronic music what Morrissey is to indie-rock. Murphy’s lyrics are biting, bone-dry, witty and often, as on Someone Great, emotionally wrenching.
All My Friends, Losing My Edge, Daft Punk is Playing at My House and North American Scum are just some of the blistering tracks Murphy has given the world. Once offered a job as a writer on Seinfeld, Murphy’s intent with LCD Soundsystem was to leave “a stain” on culture – and he has done that, and more.
But last year Murphy decided he’d had enough of being a rockstar. It was time to hang up his microphone and spend his days quietly running his record label, walking his French bull-dog and making coffee in his New York apartment surrounded by his beloved records.
The problem, mainly, was his age. Greying of hair and paunchy of stomach, Murphy, 41, would look in the mirror and worry about having a “face like a dad”. And he was far from alone in fretting. If there could be a support group for artists who fear they’re too old to rock out, that group would fill a stadium all on its own: the Rolling Stones, Madonna, the Pet Shop Boys, Elton John, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Tom Petty, Tom Jones, U2 and Cliff Richard are just a few who spring to mind.
These days, AA stands for age-appropriate – and it’s the audiences, rather than families, who are constantly staging interventions, contriving to push the elder lemons off the stage.
Ageism is anathema elsewhere, but it’s tolerated, even encouraged in rock music, where it’s okay to jeer about Madonna’s old-lady hands, Jagger’s dodgy knees and Elton’s fake hair.
In fact, reviewers and fans point-score on this front all the time, dreaming up nasty couplets about mutton dressed as lamb with the eagerness more usually reserved for snatching new version iPads from stores. Small wonder Kate Bush seems afraid to show her face in her most recent videos.
As a culture, we are horrible bullies. We refuse to allow our musicians to age before our eyes. Instead we demand that they clear off. This is despite the fact that unlike, say, Olympic athletes, musicians are not required to run 100 metres in ten seconds. They do not have to do the high jump. They just have to make good music. So why do they need smooth skin too?
Asked in the documentary what his grand failure was, Murphy answered that perhaps stopping was his biggest failure. If he believed in his music, why was he doing this? Sure, he wanted to have kids; he liked an anonymous lifestyle, but was the bigger reason simply that he was being pushed out?
There was a moment in the documentary when Murphy went to look at the band’s musical equipment that had been put in storage and would soon be sold. It was his chance to say goodbye. Standing on the hard floor surveying all before him, Murphy raised his hands to his face and began abruptly to cry.
This was “the controlled ending” he had planned. But who was really pulling the strings: Murphy or the culture that he had begun to fear would soon reject him?