The legend of the 27 Club
In reviewing a recent documentary film about the famous musicians who died aged 27, Fern Dunn explores the tragic phenomenon
The legend of the ’27 Club’ – a list of popular musicians, artists, or actors who died at that age – has been a prominent piece of music folklore. Artists dying young, in the prime of their musical careers, often under turbulent circumstances; tragic deaths that leave the world and fans reeling. I remember the moment my friends and I turned 27, we referred to this as the “rock and roll year” – that’s how much part of our popular culture it had become.
The film 27: Gone Too Soon, directed by Simon Napier-Bell, full of rare unseen footages of each artists era, takes a closer look at the legend surrounding this exclusive club of musicians, what led them to self-destruct, and if anyone could have prevented it. Filled with talking heads from a range of industry professionals, journalists and artists – Gary Numan and Chilli Jesson among them – we see a rounded view of how this group are perceived, many of the musicians themselves acknowledging how close they could have been to joining it.
Choosing to focus on the six main artists surrounding this phenomenon, we have Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison – all of whom died within three years of each other, inspiring the term 27 Club – before moving onto Kurt Cobain and most recently Amy Winehouse. There were far more than these six, and even more who though not 27 still died at the height of their fame.
But what are the elements that define this group of artists? Author and broadcaster, Lesley-Ann Jones gives us a list: dysfunctional childhoods; early trauma with no opportunity to process the events; full of angst; highly intelligent; misunderstood by their peers; rebellious nature; misplaced. “Is there a direct link between music and addiction?” asks music critic and rock historian Barney Hoskins. He attempts to answer the question, explaining: “Music offers us a release from anxiety, from being trapped in your own head with your own thoughts…it’s a release from that.”
As the film goes though the list one by one, it is striking how each tale works into the clichéd history of the destructive relationship between music and drugs, but also a sobering reminder this group themselves created these clichés. All of these deaths shook the industry, but as we see, not many lessons are learned, the temptations remain and are often the catalysts to the creative process.
As I see the narratives unfold on screen each time, I want so desperately for the story to be different. I wonder why more hadn’t been done to help them, and the overwhelming sense of loss of their talent, the albums we missed, and the concerts we will never see. I find myself shocked to see the parallels between Joplin and Winehouse – both strong female artists with raw soulful voices, an intense dependence on drugs well known to all around them and countless attempts to get clean that ultimately failed.
27: Gone Too Soon is incredibly factual, it doesn’t sensationalise the events or make light of the artists lives. There is no hint at conspiracies or a need to place blame on particular parties. At just under 70 minutes, it is quite short for a documentary, and trying to cover six musical histories in this time frame means that there isn’t time for much detail, but rather this being a negative it has fuelled my cravings to find out more about each artists fascinating lives. This is definitely one to watch for any music fan, but like any time that I think about this group, I am lead to wonder why them when so many survived this period. Was it inevitable that these bright young stars would think, as Cobain wrote in his suicide note: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
Some of the famous 27 Club members
All six artists have musical legacies that continue to this day in their own right, but have also spawned influences across all genres of music…
As founder of the Rolling Stones, Jones shaped the band’s image and sound long after his departure and death. Although not credited with songwriting, he provided the band with some of their now iconic melodies. Also adding his musical talent to tracks by the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, Jones’ stamp is on some of the most iconic music of the decade. [Legacy: The Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Rolling Stones, The Hives, Harry Styles, Oasis]
Guitar legend, Hendrix is known to many for his experimental guitar playing, combining traditional blues with roaring noise, pushing the instrument into unknown sounds that musicians still use today. [Legacy: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Prince, David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails, Slash… pretty much anyone who has ever picked up a guitar!]
Joplin’s voice is so distinctive she remains one of the most iconic identities in music. Despite releasing only three albums in her short career, she provided the blueprint for many female artists that came after, teaching them the power of raw emotion in songwriting and performance. [Legacy: Florence and the Machine, Stevie Nicks, P!nk, Joan Jett, Joss Stone]
Considered by many to be the ultimate rock and roll frontman, with his good looks, mysterious persona and poetic lyrics, so many musicians have used him as the template to create their own stage persona. For many, Morrison embodied the spirit of the hippie counter-culture of the era, opening up fans to new ideals and rebellion. Buried in Paris, his grave is a pilgrimage spot for any music fan. [Legacy: Iggy Pop, The Strokes, Velvet Revolver, U2, Fatboy Slim, Bon Jovi]
Frontman of the 90s grunge band Nirvana, Cobain was seen to be the voice of his generation. Embracing the angst, that so many of his teenage fans felt in the band’s lyrics, the Seattle band became a rite of passage for any modern youth at the time. [Legacy: Lana Del Rey, Arcade Fire, The White Stripes, Green Day, Alice In Chains, Muse]
The most recent member of Club 27, Winehouse played out much of her career in front of the cameras. Her decline was well documented; the first in a social media world. Like Joplin before her, Winehouse used raw power and emotion to create jazz-influenced pop smashes. She was able to express everything she was feeling in her lyrics and live performances. [Legacy: Adele, Duffy, Lady Gaga, Sam Smith, Bruno Mars, Paloma Faith]
Words: Fern Dunn
The documentary film 27: Gone Too Soon is out now on DVD and Digital HD…