1980 was a rough year for rock icons. The Rolling Stones produced Emotional Rescue, a weak ass album that has some of their most dreadful songs - the title track and "Indian Girl"to name two - and continues that late '70's, early' 80's sound of Charlie's overly loud drums and disco-y beat. Dylan was in the middle of his Holy Trinity of Jesus-music. Saved, his loadoff entry of the new decade, was the worst of the three. Paul Simon suffered the first flops of his unblemished career in both the film and record of One-Trick Pony. Led Zeppelin bit the dust after drummer John Bonham did first. For the ex-Beatles, the year began with Paul McCartney in a Tokyo jail and ended with the assassination of John Lennon.
The musical legends of the 1960's were still dominaning the charts for most of the 1970's. It was the following decade that proved to be ten years of transition and grappling with relevancy (except for Lennon, of course). McCartney decade was a long slog of mediocre albums (1982's Tug of War the lone exception) and the abominable Give My Regards to Broad Street, a film that made Simon's movie look like Citizen Kane. Dylan's descent into dreck ended with his Traveling Wilburys rebirth in 1988. The Stones, well, the Stones finally fell apart. Tattoo You was a monster seller in 1981, but by mid-decade Mick and Keith had fallen out and the band was no more until Steel Wheels in 1989. Richards' first solo work, Talk is Cheap, is the best album of the 1980's by the erstwhile Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World. There's no reason to get into Robert Plant and Jimmy Page's solo works. No on need be reminded of The Firm or The Honeydrippers.
Simon rebounded the quickest, with Hearts and Bones, Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints. Perhaps because Simon was the least rock starish he made the easiest switch to middle age. To be fair, rock and roll had never grown old. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, they were strictly oldies acts by the time they were 40, blasting out their hits in Vegas and at state fairs. Elvis died cold and alone on his bathroom floor. How did one grow old gracefully and maintain a creative spark? This was uncharted territory.
Lennon did have the key with Double Fantasy, his last collection of songs. He wasn't looking backward on his youthful adventures. He was 40, a father and husband and that was fine. He was comfortable with it and sang with the passion and confidence of a man his age. For the others, it was starting around 1990 that they came to grips with who they were - superb songwriters and musicians. Turning 50, fuck that!
Since then, though sales don't show it, these artists have produced some of their greatest works. Dylan's last four studio albums (not including the Christmas album romp) stand up against any four records he's ever put out. McCartney has never released a consecutive string of five strong albums since he's recorded as a solo act. The Stones' A Bigger Bang is certainly as good as their best product since Exile On Main St. Simon keeps knocking them out, 2006's Surprise an adventurous and finely crafted work.
As much as these men created the rock and roll we know today, the music that merged 1950's animal energy with lyrical sophistication and poetry, they have created the mold for a complete and fulfilling career for rock musicians. The 1980's weren't easy, but it served as a period of growth. Sure, their fans waded through a lot of crap, but it was worth it to get these legends to where they are today.