What Dead Rock Stars Might Have Sounded Like in the 1980s

Articles | Oct 16th, 2007

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Some of rock n’ roll’s most legendary musicians were those who died young; they lived, they loved, they left a legacy only heightened by death. But perhaps we remember them because they never had to face the 1980s, and there were no comebacks to speak of, no big hair, and no cheesy synths. But let’s imagine what might have been if fate hadn’t doomed these stars.

Buddy Holly
d. 1959

Perhaps one of rock’s first tragic deaths, Holly might have been one of the best pop songwriters to perform his own music until his untimely death in a plane crash. In my opinion, had he lived a longer life, he might have proven to be one of the generation’s foremost songwriters. Had he not died, he might have traded licks with Dylan and inspired a whole generation of nerds to pick up the guitar and rock out.

But in the 80s…

Holly, after struggling through some subpar albums in the late 1970s, and unwilling to accept disco or even the burgeoning hard rock, puts together a comeback album of sorts in 1984, with help from a legion of rock and roll legends as well as admirers. Ritchie Valens (who never died in that plane crash) duets on one latin-flavoured track that finds Holly’s electric guitar accompanied by an electronic drum beat and Valens soulful croon. Meanwhile, Elvis Costello, who the media is certain is Holly’s son, produces. Despite cries that Holly is selling out, the over-50 singer hits triple platinum, winning over critics by proving that he hasn’t lost his talent, and finds a new audience in a young generation; two years later a greatest hits collection spanning four decades once again becomes a best seller. And in 1988, The Buddy Holly Story stars Tom Cruise.

Otis Redding
d. 1967

Redding’s songwriting craft and performances were only beginning to cross over into mainstream pop music, after popular performances at Monterey and across the world began to ignite under predominantly white audiences, years after paying dues in smaller venues. A victim of a tragic plane crash, one can only assume he would have been deeply involved in much of the same politicization in the late 60s and into the 70s. His popularity would remain strong through the 70s with a set of funky disco pop singles…

But in the 80s…

Redding’s popularity does not begin to wane until the early 1980s. In fact, only when Marvin Gaye gets shot by his father does Redding’s status as soul music’s number one star begin to subside. Insanely jealous of the attention of his career-long rival, Redding plots a fake kidnapping in hopes of stealing the media attention once again back to him. However, this misfires as investigative journalists learn of his plan, and his popularity sinks worse than ever. After battling alcoholism and a drop from his label as a result of the fallout, he puts out two awful albums in the 1980s with poorly produced attempts at rap music with topics ranging from his still alive sexual prowess to his dislike of Reagan. However, the most jarring track is Redding’s war of words against his constant competitor Gaye, whose career becomes far more legendary; the track Starvin’ for Marvin’ is dismissed as bad taste for its jabs at Gaye’s widow and father. Not long after, he retires from music altogether.

Janis Joplin
d. 1970

Joplin was fortunate to live in an age where image was not what defined a musician. Unlike the music-video savvy 1980s, the 1960s allowed uniqueness and talent to come to the forefront. While some critics have debated the level of actual talent of Joplin, few contest that her voice was one of the most interesting and mesmerizing to come from the era. Had she not overdosed, she would have forayed further into the blues, and while never finding commercial fame in the 1970s, she would have developed a rabid cult following, having toured with the Grateful Dead on several occasions. Towards the end of the 70s, still touring over 200 days per year, she would put out an album heavily influenced by punk music, namely Patti Smith. This record would inspire a new legion of fans who likened her to be the queen of west coast punk rock.

But In The 80s…

Fresh from her success with a louder, brasher music, in 1983 Joplin would once again look to reinvent herself. This time looking to artists like Blondie and Pat Benatar, Joplin prepares an arena ready rock record, complete with a leadoff radio single and music video. However, for a generation who judged almost completely on looks, the already 40 Joplin would look haggard and unkempt, an immediate turnoff for the MTV generation. Even an opening slot on Joan Jett’s tour would not garner new fans. Her rock album is a commercial failure, and with her voice beginning to weaken, Joplin ponders whether or not to quit the music business. However, prompted by Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, Joplin decides to self-produce and independently release an album that she herself performs, accompanied only by guitar and her own voice, the album is likened to a female version of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, and is a critical and commercial hit. Joplin once again begins trekking across the world on what she calls a comeback tour, this time without a band. Her tenacity and persistence directly inspires the riot grrrl movement of the 1990s.

Jim Morrison
d. 1971

The Doors’ frontman was considered by many to be a poet, but much of the high regard for him was posthumous, as during his life he was seen mostly as a tortured rock star. Had he not overdosed, the Doors would have continued into declining popularity through to the mid-1970s, when, fed up with Morrison’s drug addiction and instability, he would be booted from the band. The rest of them would continue to play casinos for 30 more years with a rotating array of singers. Morrison, meanwhile would put out a long-awaited solo album in 1977. However, with most of hippies having gotten real jobs, Morrison’s drug-induced lyrics and overlong songs fail to spark sales or much attention.

But In The 80s…

Desperate to find fame once again, Morrison gets a perm, dons a one-piece track suit and a U-shaped electric guitar, and plays Depeche Mode style pop music. Seen by many as a joke, Morrison pleads to the public that he is serious about his musical reinvention. However, it may have been too severe. Having hired professional songwriters to write the melody, Morrison’s inability to write lyrics that don’t invoke thoughts of hallucination did not meld with the upbeat pop that he was singing. However, Morrison’s worsening drug habits forced him to continue trying for success, putting out countless albums hoping to garner success. He becomes especially jealous when former Beatle George Harrison has a hit with the song I’ve Got My Mind Set On You’ while his equally upbeat but titularly impaired The Maniacal Indignations of the Frog Prince at Night’ fails to even crack the Billboard 200. In a drugged out frenzy, Morrison attempts to kill Harrison, but is stopped before he can get a shot off. He spends the next 8 years in jail, stopping speaking altogether, and communicating only by the same really terrible poetry he had been spewing his whole life.