The 27 Club is a phrase that alludes to Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain who all died 27 years old. The term has floated around pop culture ever since Cobain's death in 1994, but the concept is farther-reaching than four of rock's most famous icons. In fact thirty-four musicians died (or in the case of Manic Street Preachers' Richey Edwards disappeared) aged 27 years old.
Recently a group of university researchers at Liverpool John Moores University in England quantified that rock stars do in fact die younger than the population at large. We asked Dr. Bellis to check 27s compared to any other age group in their data pool (all musicians who performed on Virgin's All-Time Top 1,000 albums). He queried the database and found that more rock stars did in fact die at 27 than any other age. The researcher's database is by no means all-inclusive of deaths-27 or not-but the finding offers at least an indication of the phenomenon.
If you think that only the biggest stars really matter, consider this. Fame is just one of many artistdom's parameters; others include ingenuity, a recognizable sound, message and a vision. In our celebcentric society we collectively disregard even marginal celebs in favor of what's hot, but luckily most people know that majority of the creative playing field is not disclosed in glossy mags & gossip rags. When we look back it's not always so.
History is typically what's remembered about the past in the present-a trap even classic rock fans sometimes fall in. Ten names I immediately associate with classic rock: The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, the Allman Brothers, ZZ Top, Van Halen, Lynard Skynard.
Obviously classic rock is so much more. Exclusively listening to the same few bands quickly becomes idiosyncratic so most music aficionados will search for new bands to listen to. Sounds that pique, challenge, and thump; addictive hooks and soaring leads.
This way the classic rock universe expands beyond what the typical classic rock station has on rotation. Nick Drake, King Crimson, Canned Heat, the Soft Machine, Badfinger, Ry Cooder, the Band, Little Feat, Triumvirat, Fairport Convention, the Electric Prunes. The names get increasingly obscure, but collectively the bands make up the classic rock movement. And that's how The 27s fit together as well. They're sprinkled throughout rock history and across sub-genres. Some were important at the time, whereas others have influenced what's going on today.
Name a song by Spanky & Our Gang. No? The group had five Top 40 hits in '67 and '68, but "Lazy Day" and "Sunday Will Never Be The Same" don't sound quite as exciting to our ears as "Purple Haze" and "Unknown Soldier." Still, Spanky & Our Gang's hits are still included on '60s pop compilations. The group's guitar player and arranger Malcolm Hale died from monoxide poisoning aged 27 and is thus one of the thirty-four 27s.
All right, that might've been a little esoteric, so here's another example. Brian Jones founded the Rolling Stones, hustled the band's early gigs, selected cover songs for all those early singles, and was rock's proto bad boy while Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were still pretty square. Cue Martin Scorsese's "Shine A Light" documentary about the Rolling Stones and the group's first leader is barely mentioned. Brian Jones was 27 years old when he drowned in his swimming pool in 1969.
Jones isn't the only forgotten member of a well-known group. Bassist Michael Alexander of the original Stooges was fired in 1970 and died at 27 five years later. He was a childhood chum of the Asheton brothers (who plays guitar and drums in the Stooges), was a huge influence on Iggy's persona, and contributed on the group's first two records. Rolling Stone magazine include both "The Stooges" and "Fun House" on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Sadly, the remaining Stooges hardly mention Zander's influence or the fact that he's missing from their "original" lineup.
Remember Harry Nilsson's hit "Without You"? Yeah, it's the same song that catapulted Mariah Carey into divaness in 1993. Neither Nilsson nor Carey wrote it. Pete Ham and Tom Evans of Badfinger did. After years of being screwed over by scrupulous managers, records execs, lawyers, and bad luck, Pete Ham (27) hung himself. Tom Evans followed eight years later. "I can't live, if living is without you."
The story of The 27s is invariably tragic, as young deaths always are. But it's important to contemplate how much The 27s accomplished during their brief careers and subsequent legacies.
Big Star's Chris Bell accidentally wrapped his car around a lamppost in 1978 and died as a bitter 27-year-old. Today millions cherish his music and he is an oft-cited influence on bands such as Cheap Trick, the Flaming Lips, Wilco, and many more.
The indie groundwork tolled by D. Boon (another 27) and the Minutemen in the early '80s paved way for Kurt Cobain and the alternative movement's mainstream success in the early '90s.
Gary Thain, one of rock's best deep-enders, propelled Uriah Heep during its golden age until he was booted for heroin addiction in 1974. A year later he OD'd with a needle by his side. Regardless of his addiction or band affiliation many consider him the grooviest classic rock bassist of all time and he continues to inspire.
Rock & roll history is made of hard working musicians who experienced success & defeat, highs & lows, hits & flukes, and fame & loneliness. The 27s embody these characteristics like no other group and they're found blazing trails in blues, rock, pop, funk, power pop, punk, alternative, hard core, hip-hop, avant-garde, and beyond. The 27s is The Greatest Myth of Rock & Roll.
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