From Miley to Rufus: why it's not all about nepotism for rockstar children trying for a career in the spotlight
Whether they're following closely in their parent's footsteps like Dweezil Zappa, or trying a different path like Stella McCartney, the career of a celebrity offspring is a peculiar phenomenon
Any fan of the great 1960s supergroup Cream will know that they often got heavy offstage, too. Guitarist Eric Clapton would play peacemaker as singer / bassist Jack Bruce fought with Ginger Baker, the band’s famously uncompromising drummer.
Baker died on Sunday, aged 80, after a remarkably brilliant and turbulent career. But all three had destructive lifestyles.
Fifty years on, and the sons of Baker and Bruce are now retracing their fathers’ footsteps, alongside Clapton’s nephew and guitar protege, Will Johns, in a multimedia show called The Music of Cream. Their on-the-road regime is more reserved, however. “It’s very different,” laughs Bruce’s son, Malcolm. “I’ll practise piano, go running, do a few hours of yoga and meditation, cook some vegan food. Then the show.”
His drummer, Kofi Baker – Ginger’s son – is “very health-conscious as well”, says Malcolm. “We both tend to carry our own blenders.” Is this how to rebel against rock star parents? “When you’ve been around people with certain deep-seated behaviours, you can go the other way,” Malcolm says. “Not that I became a bank manager.”
Should celebrity offspring make use of the family legacy or try to escape it?
Embarking on a wildly different career might have been the healthiest option, in truth. For the offspring of renowned musicians, finding your own distinctive place in that world is an enduring challenge. Do you make use of the family legacy, or try to escape it? The struggle is particularly tough when your parents are flawed characters, too.
Malcolm admits to having an “incredibly challenging” relationship with his father, while Kofi was at one stage estranged from his dad. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is no traditional tribute show. Their own dynamic sounds quite intense.
The trio tell their own stories, using images and footage, although Malcolm is “always annoyed at Kofi” if he discusses Ginger’s addictions. Musically, they improvise around Cream’s bluesy classics, such as Crossroads and Sunshine of Your Love, but Kofi will accuse Malcolm of going “too far out”, the latter admits. The musicians make it work.
Playing your parents’ music can cause strife. Frank Zappa’s son, Dweezil Zappa, is touring a 50th anniversary take on Frank’s classic album, Hot Rats, but his previous tributes were clouded by legal feuds with other family members. They reconciled last year, although brother Ahmet’s claim that Dweezil might accompany a live hologram of their father on guitar is seemingly a bridge too far.
One notable example of such posthumous appropriation was Natalie Cole’s 1991 album Unforgettable... with Love, on which she covered standards once sung by her father, Nat King Cole; its big single, Unforgettable, also featured King Cole’s sampled vocals. The album and tour were massively successful, if critically less so. “Unforgettable? Not nearly,” suggested one LA Times reviewer, who called the song “the crowning moment of mush”.
Some musical sons and daughters rework beloved material, others ignore it
Reworking beloved material is even more provocative nowadays. “A small percentage of people come on Facebook and say ‘why don’t you write your own music?’” says Malcolm. “And I have responded, quite vociferously: ‘Well, I do. But also, this is a tradition.’”
The other option is to ignore that lineage. Touring Europe are the Irish band Inhaler, led by Elijah Hewson, the son of U2’s Bono. Not that many audiences may realise that.
Last week, Inhaler played the famous Galway venue Roisin Dubh, for example, but that website’s preview omitted the Bono link. “No, we weren’t tempted to mention that,” says venue booker Eoghan MacNamara, whose own label is named after a Cream classic, Strange Brew. “They’re more than capable of getting the show sold out by themselves and are getting great radio support.”
Inhaler are “on the rise”, says McNamara, although he admits he is “sure that some U2 fans were there to see what the next generation was like”. The inevitable Bono questions are rearing up in interviews, too. “We’ve known that there’s going to be doors open,” Hewson told NME. “But those doors will shut just as fast as they open if we’re not good. It’s the pressure to step up our game.”
Submerging your famous surname within a band can help deflect that pressure. The Wallflowers – led by Jakob Dylan, son of Bob Dylan – and Wilson Phillips, a group comprising the daughters of Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys and of John and Michelle Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas, both had sizeable 1990s hits and a fervent fan base. Earning genuine respect is the goal.
Take the Beatles’s multitalented offspring. Julian and Sean Lennon’s pop careers were always overshadowed by John, but Zak Starkey – Ringo Starr’s son – kept Starr’s real surname and became a renowned rock drummer, joining The Who and Oasis. Dhani Harrison, son of George, has enjoyed a quietly diverse career – he designed racing cars, collaborated in the development of the videogame Beatles: Rock Band and now scores major TV shows. But the most celebrated fab-four progeny? Stella McCartney, the fashion designer, who avoided music altogether.
From Miley Cyrus to Rufus Wainwright, perhaps a slightly different path is key to success
The pressure we heap upon rock / pop descendants is a curious phenomenon, given that music was always meant to be shared, to survive. That tradition continues in folk music
The US country scene has actively welcomed two further generations of Hank Williams (Hank Jr and Hank III) while Johnny Cash’s children and grandchildren also perform. The pop-stardom of Billy Ray Cyrus’s daughter Miley suggests that embracing different genres is the way to escape a family member’s shadow altogether, however.
Ravi Shankar’s daughters took different paths: Anoushka Shankar continued the sitar tradition, while Norah Jones – estranged from her father – became a mega-selling chanteuse. Rufus and Martha Wainwright took more experimental musical routes than their folky parents, Loudon Wainwright III and Anna McGarrigle, to much acclaim. But that also caused problems. “My dad and I had a very difficult relationship,” Rufus told The Guardian in 2016. “He was proud, but he also felt eclipsed.”
Rufus and Loudon have often performed together, which helps, and real collaboration is perhaps the perfect resolution to these family dramas. A highlight of this year’s Glastonbury Festival was Miley Cyrus bringing out Billy Ray to perform his hit Old Town Road, after some public tension, years ago. Malcolm admits that his own creative horizons have grown since his father died in 2014 – he is also working on jazz and an opera – but playing together was clearly cathartic.
“I’d always jump at the opportunity to work with my dad,” he says. “I wish I’d done it more.” Giving his music a new spin is the next best thing.
Updated: October 9, 2019 04:44 AM