Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Rock or bust: Ageing, alcohol, and popular music

Duncan Wheeler 
Gemma Matthewman
Great Britain


AC/DC live on stage
AC/DC Concert
Toronto, November 7, 2008

Don’t you know that I feel alright
Doin’ what I do
I ain’t gonna tow the line
Not till’ I turn blue
All I got is one short life
That’s what people say
And I ain’t gonna waste a second
Doin’ what you say.

(Lyrics to Slash featuring Lemmy, “Dr. Alibi”)


The lead singer of The Who, Roger Daltrey, has been the driving force behind the Teenage Cancer Trust concerts for over twenty years, with his group frequently giving court at benefit concerts held in the Royal Albert Hall. Not surprisingly, they almost invariably drop “My Generation” from the set-list; “I hope I die before I get old” may have been a clarion call to the Mods of the 1960s, but it is hardly appropriate to the context or the surroundings. This ostensibly cheap and tasteless joke conceals a very serious question: what happens when rock ’n’ roll gets old and, perhaps even worse, if rock ’n’ roll makes you old? Elvis Presley’s death was not as a widely reported in 1977 as we might retrospectively expect, and his legendary status in the twenty-first century media-sphere is reliant on images of his earlier incarnations rather than the overweight figure, bloated by alcohol, drugs and fast food, that he had become in his later years.

Multiple studies have demonstrated that the glamorization of drinking through music videos is liable to increase hazardous alcohol abuse amongst viewers.1 It is difficult to over-estimate the importance of this issue when The World Health Organization calculates that alcohol accounts for approximately 3.2% of the global mortality rate,2 and indirectly contributes towards many other health and social problems. Less attention has, however, been paid to how audiences are responding to increasingly fragile popular music icons whose ill-health may, on occasions, have been accelerated by their lifestyles. Lemmy is most famous amongst the general public as the living embodiment of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, a staple of lads’ magazines who has appeared in adverts playing a country-and-western inflected acoustic version of his signature tune, “Ace of Spades,” while a wide variety of patrons sip away at their pints of Kronenburg lager. Lemmy (Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski, 2010), a largely hagiographic depiction of his day-to-day life in and around Los Angeles’ infamous Sunset Strip nevertheless reveals a succession of medical problems such as hypertension (high blood pressure) and type two diabetes; he was later hospitalized as a result of an irregular heartbeat. All these conditions can be associated with alcohol consumption.3 A series of shows were subsequently cancelled in 2013 and, on his return to the stage, the singer, who claimed to have replaced Jack Daniels and coke with wine,4 was visibly thinner and more fragile; his band’s traditional grueling tours of medium-sized theatres were tellingly replaced with shorter runs through larger and more lucrative venues. In spite of his proclamations to the contrary, Motörhead’s erstwhile front-man is not, sadly, indestructible.

In the remainder of this piece, we would like to focus on the reception to the announcement that two very different musical performers have dementia: country-music superstar Glen Campbell (b. 1936) and AC/DC founding member, rhythm guitarist and chief songwriter Malcolm Young (b. 1953). As has been documented in BBC4’s recent documentary, Glen Campbell: The Rhinestone Cowboy (Steve Freer, 2014), the singer’s career and persona appeared as the epitome of the American dream as this southern gent escaped the shackles of poverty through his ascension through the ranks of country music and the national music charts. By the late 1970s, however, the hits began to dry up and he was less in demand as a television and live performer; this marked a descent into alcohol and cocaine addiction, which he claims to have defeated through the stability provided by a new marriage and turning to Christianity. Glen Campbell: I’ll be Me (James Keach, 2014) charts his farewell tour, on which he embarked after announcing that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The tragedy of this condition is mitigated although by no means obliterated by the film being framed to suggest that the impossibility of recovery does not preclude personal and collective redemption. Campbell’s most successful tour in years depicts, literally and metaphorically, the healing powers of music, frequently in a more rigorous manner than a cursory reading of the film synopsis or listening to his final composition, the Oscar-nominated “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” might suggest.

In the words of Petr Janata: “Among the most significant behavioral and emotional problems confronting patients with dementia and their caregivers are those of agitation, aggression, anxiety, and depression. The potential for music to alleviate such symptoms is gaining considerable attention.”5 Although it is clearly unusual and not necessarily representative for the patient in question to be a global icon, the affective and medical conceit of Glen Campbell: I’ll be Me is predicated on it being a visual and aural manifestation of the observation that “Many patients, families, and caregivers consider music – or the ability to play, remember, learn, or otherwise benefit from a song– one of these rare cases in which general skill and memory are preserved in spite of otherwise severe overall impairment.”6Furthermore, there is growing evidence that music mnemonics can aid recognition amongst patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease to a far greater extent than amongst healthy older adults.7 Campbell’s farewell tour is thereby shown not only to be a cathartic and musically proficient experience for the audience and performer alike, but also as being beneficial rather than to the detriment of his health.

The life of touring musicians is not always so conducive to physical and emotional well-being as the case of AC/DC clearly demonstrates. Original lead-singer Bon Scott died at age thirty-three in 1980; although conspiracy theories abound,8 his death certificate registers the official cause as “acute alcoholic poisoning” and it was classified as “death by misadventure.” Malcolm Young was reportedly drinking a bottle of vodka a day when he, first, physically attacked and sacked drummer Phil Rudd and, secondly, found himself embroiled in a violent altercation with his teetotal brother, Angus, before deciding to take a year off the road to battle alcoholism in the late 1980s.9 Although he didn’t give up drinking, he was not inebriated on stage during subsequent tours as he had occasionally been previously. Sadly, however, by the 2008 “Black Ice” Tour, he was suffering from dementia, at the young age of 55. Only 5% of people with dementia in the UK are under the age of 65, so this is clearly unusual. 10% of this significant minority has alcohol-related dementia;10 alcohol can have myriad affects on cognition, with estimates of 50 – 80% of alcoholics not affected by other neurological conditions having cognitive impairment. From the limited and tightly-controlled information made available to and through the media, it is impossible to know exactly how much alcohol might have impacted Young’s health; it is, however, well documented that alcoholism can lead to memory loss and cerebral atrophy (brain shrinkage),11 both conditions from which the AC/DC camp have retrospectively admitted he was suffering.12

Following the completion of the highly-successful tour, speculation over the bands’ future centered primarily on the health of lead singer, Brian Johnson (b. 1947), who was diagnosed with Barratt’s esophagus,13 and whose increasingly limited vocal range and use of a teleprompter marked the most noted decline in relation to previous outings. In retrospect, if you compare footage from the DVD release of “Live at River Plate” with the earlier “No-Bull” concert-film from 1996, it is noticeable that Malcolm Young looks more disorientated, and is featured discernibly less on both the large screens in the outdoor stadiums and on the concert films themselves; the fact that Angus has always been the visual spectacle at the centre of the AC/DC live experience makes this less immediately apparent than it might have been in other groups. News of Malcolm’s illness and permanent retirement from the band was announced in Autumn 2014, a month after it was reported that Rudd (who returned to the band in the 1990s) had been arrested on charges of threatening to kill someone, and possession of methamphetamine and cannabis; the drummer’s misdemeanors received far more press coverage,14 due in part to the fact that they fit more readily into pre-existing discursive paradigms for rock ’n’ roll.

Heavy metal provides a particularly blatant example of how the popular music-press and fans tend to romanticize excessive drinking in spite or perhaps even because of the number of alcohol-related deaths. AC/DC included the song “Have a drink on me” on their first post-Bon studio album, Back in Black, and the following fan letter was sent to Sounds magazine: “Bon Shall Return. For it is written in the book of Rock that he shall pass through the Highway to Hell and return in the Powerage with Blood and Balls and head for Sin City, where he shall smite the world with a good, hard Kick in the Teeth.”15 Tales of excess are crucial to the mythology and, indeed, on-going commercial success of iconic artists such as Motley Crüe, Slash and Ozzy Osbourne. However, recent events suggest that the genre may eventually have to grow up: if the musicians who forged their reputations in the last century are reluctant to relinquish their titles as stadium gladiators, they, their fans, and the music press will have to develop new discursive and medical means to address distressingly routine alcohol abuse and related ailments. As AC/DC, minus Malcolm, Bon (and possibly Rudd) gear up to embark on their multi-million “Rock or Bust” tour, now is a particularly pertinent time to consider the social and artistic costs of excessive alcohol abuse amongst their ranks in order to address wider questions about public and private health.


  1. Slater, Michael and Kimberley Henry, 2013. “Prospective influence of music-related media exposure on adolescent substance-use initiation: a peer group mediation model”, Journal of Health Communications.18(3): 291-305; DuRant, Robert et al, 1997. “Tobacco and alcohol use behaviors portrayed in music videos: a content analysis”, American Journal of Public Health, 87: 1514; Robinson, Thomas et. al, 1998. “Television and music video exposure and risk of adolescent alcohol use”, Pediatrics, 102: 54 as quoted in R. Koordemanet al 2012. “Alcohol portrayals in movies, music videos and soap operas and alcohol use of young people: current status and future challenges”, Alcohol and Alcoholism, 47 (5): 612–623. Stoolmiller, Mike et al. 2011. “Comparing media and family predictors of alcohol use: a cohort study of US adolescents”, British Medical Journal Open, available at http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/2/1/e000543.full, last consulted on Jan 30 2015.
  2. Rehm, Jürgen et al, 2003. “Alcohol as a risk factor for global burden of disease”, European Addiction Research,9(4): 157-64.
  3. Samokhalov, Andriy et al, 2010. “Alcohol consumption as a risk factor for atrial fibrillation: a systematic review and meta-analysis”, European Journal of Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation, 17(6): 706–712; Rehm, Jürgen et al, 2010. “The relation between different dimensions of alcohol consumption and burden of disease: an overview”, Addiction.105(5): 817-4; Rehm, Jürgen et al, 2003. “The relationship of average volume of alcohol consumption and patterns of drinking to burden of disease: an overview”, Addiction, 98: 1209-1228.
  4. Keilty, Martin, 2014. “Lemmy ‘close to death’ during last surgery”, Classic Rock, 31 October: available at http://classicrock.teamrock.com/news/2014-10-31/motorhead-lemmy-close-to-death-surgery. Last consulted on 17 January 2015.
  5. Janata, Petr, 2012. “Effects of widespread and frequent personalized music programming on agitation and depression in assisted living facility residents with Alzheimer-Type dementia”, Music and Medicine, 4(1): 8-15, p. 8.
  6. Simmons-Stern, Nicholas et al, 2010. “Music as a memory enhancer in patients with Alzheimer’s disease”, Neuropsychologia, 48: 3164-67, p. 3164.
  7. Deason, Rebecca et al, 2012. “Music as memory enhancer: differences between healthy older adults and patients with Alzheimer’s disease”, Pscyhomusicology: Music, Mind and Brain, 22.2: 175-79.
  8. Walker, Clinton, 2008. Highway to Hell: The Life and Death of AC/DC Legend Bon Scott , 2nd ed. (Portland: Verse Chorus Press).
  9. Wall, Mick, 2013. AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be (London: Phoenix), pp. 365-90.
  10. For UK figures, see the Alzheimer’s society, available at http://www.alzheimers.org.uk/site/scripts/documents.php?categoryID=200294&gclid=CKu1_5-VvMMCFSIcwwodfbMA4A, last consulted on 30 January 2015. For US statistics, see Herbert, Liesi et al, 2013.“Alzheimer disease in the United States (2010-2050) estimated using the 2010 Census”, Neurology 80(19): 1778–83.
  11. Ron, Maria, 1983. “The alcoholic brain: CT scan and psychological findings”, Psychological Medicine Monograph Supplements, 3: 1–33;Bernardin, Florent et al, 2014. “Cognitive impairments in alcohol-dependent subjects”, Frontiers in Psychiatry, 16 (5), available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4099962/, last consulted on 30 January 2015.
  12. Cameron, Keith, 2015. “Triumph and tragedy: AC/DC, their last stand”, Q Magazine, February: 42-49.
  13. Fink, Jesse, 2014. The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC (Sydney: Random House Australia), p. 216.
  14. On 18 January 2015, we carried out searches on LexisNexis news service to see how many headlines of the previous twelve months contained “Malcolm Young” and “Phil Rudd” respectively: the latter was 322, with the former being less than half (160).
  15. Cited in Dome, Malcolm, 1995. AC/DC: The Definitive History (London: The Kerrang Files).



DUNCAN WHEELER read Spanish and Philosophy at the University of Oxford (2000-2004), where he subsequently completed his Masters (2004-2005) and doctoral thesis (2005-2009). Having arrived in Leeds in 2009, he was awarded a two-year Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellowship in 2010; he re-joined the faculty as a lecturer in 2012, and was promoted to Associate Professor in 2013. Duncan has recently been appointed editor of The Modern Language Review and is currently completing a book titled The Cultural Politics of Spain’s Transition to Democracy for Bloomsbury. At Leeds, he convenes the European Popular Music(s) Centre.

GEMMA MATTHEWMAN studied Chemistry at the University of Oxford (2000-2004), completing a Masters degree and then spending some time in Biochemistry research at the Medical Research Council, Harwell. She then studied Medicine at the University of Wales (2005-2009) and now works as a General Practice trainee in Dudley. She is also an Academic Clinical Fellow in the department of Primary Care Clinical Sciences in the School of Health and Population Sciences at the University of Birmingham. She is currently completing her second Masters, in Clinical Primary and Community Care. Her current interests are primary care research, specifically women’s health and alcohol in the media.


Spring 2015  |  Sections  |  Psychiatry & Psychology

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