They may not be absolute mutual exclusives, but popular music and food are hardly the most obvious of bedfellows. Granted, the myth and legend of Elvis Presley, particularly those latter, bulging jump-suited Las Vegas years — not to mention his distended, sedentary demise — are inextricably bound up with matters comestible, specifically a highly calorific Southern diet involving squirrel meat, sautéed potato sandwiches and peanut butter deep fried in, er, butter (for the full, intestine-elasticating, Man Versus Food-style horror show tuck into David Adler’s tome Eating, the Elvis Presley Way). Similarly, when The Beatles first found global fame the once stick-thin John Lennon responded by gorging with Bacchanalian gusto on a smorgasbord of ingestible stimulants, the gastronomically rich as much as the narcotically mind-blowing, thus engendering his soi disant ‘fat Elvis’ period. And that’s not to mention the less than snack-averse likes of Fats Domino, Mama Cass and Meatloaf, of course; or Blur’s Alex James and his infernal cheese…
Still, those stellar examples remain the exceptions; the lifestyles and predilections of successive generations of rock and pop musicians have been more readily associable with a contrary refusal to eat practically anything, with a widely pervading reverence for rib-revealing thinness that borders on the fetishistic. While contemporary popular music artists appear as keen as (uneaten) mustard to subject their bodies to all manner of hedonistic indulgence, the road to wisdom is apparently paved with every kind of excess except the culinary, with the typical backstage rider still more likely to be heavier on the Absinthe and Cristal, if not speedballs and Crystal Meth, than it is on five-a-day fruit and veg. Indeed, while the story of popular music is inextricably intertwined with mythic tales of debauchery, Dionysian rock’n’roll and cordon bleu cookery somehow refuse to equate. Chefs and drugs and rock’n’roll just doesn’t cut it as an edgy t-shirt maxim. Typically, and notoriously, rock legends Led Zeppelin supposedly found all manner of ‘creatively’ miscreant uses for a freshly caught fish, none of which involved actually eating it. The Rolling Stones, preternaturally petit and skeletal to a man even as septuagenarians, meanwhile, obviously kept all references to food for their albums covers (see Let It Bleed, Beggar’s Banquet, Goat’s Head Soup et al…) and, allegedly, helped Marianne Faithfull find an alternative way to consume a Mars bar. As a musician, it seems, swallowing a pharmacy every day for fun is fine, just as long as you stay thin. Every other sin is sanctioned in the laissez faire fiefdom of popular music, but, somehow, gluttony remains verboten.
Latter-day music fans seem as vicariously thrilled in seeing their idols drunk and drugged to the eyeballs as they ever have, but woe betide those who pig out and pile on the pounds. Indeed, there are plenty of music idols whose very credibility seems to be intrinsically linked with their steadfastly gaunt physiognomies. Picture a chubby David Bowie (the Portly White Duke anyone?), a corpulent Iggy Pop or an obese Bob Dylan, for example: all practically unimaginable. With a few notable exceptions (Beth Ditto for sure; Antony Heggarty perhaps; Boy George at a pinch, not to mention a litany of operatic tenors, for whom corporeal heft is a singerly expedient, or several European chansonniers whose bon viveur delight in food and wine reflects their viscerally emotional engagement with the world) to succeed in music is to say ‘no’ to seconds.
Where does this enduring reverence for the underfed musical body actually come from? Not from the aforementioned Fats Domino, for sure, but, perhaps, from other idols of the past whose musical breakthroughs occurred early in life, enshrining their image in the leanness of youth (a leanness often, as with the young Elvis, the result of childhood impoverishment). To a large extent, pop music remains the principality of youth (or a means of revisiting youth which has long departed); thus, the eternal man-child or gamine star has become a pop image trope, and the consumption of anything more than subsistence quantities of food practically taboo. Add to that music’s wide-scale borrowing, from Romantic art and literature, of the durable tormented-artist-starving-in-his-garret stereotype (even millionaire pop star David Bowie managed, in the mid-1970s, to contrive just such an artily famished image by first retreating to the Hollywood hills to exist almost entirely on cocaine, then high-tailing it to West Berlin to recuperate not with steak and fine wines but with a paltry diet of raw eggs and uncooked peppers) – the dubious contention being that no one will believe an artist is truly suffering for his or her art if he or she has a belly flopping over his or her belt – and you begin to see why ‘Food, Glorious Food’, the opening song from Lionel Bares musical Oliver, would never have been covered by a rock band, its lack of musical appropriateness notwithstanding.
For some musicians, food, or rather the globalised, corporate production and dissemination of food, has been such an anathema that it has actually inspired musical creativity in and of itself. Experimental artist Matthew Herbert, for example, has made politically provocative recordings with an unambiguously anti-food industry subtext by sourcing sounds from crumpled McDonalds hamburger boxes, dented Coke cans and close-mic’d Starbucks Frappucinos, among other high street consumables. Typically, his piece ‘An Empire of Coffee’, from his 2005 album Plat du Jour, contains a sample of “60 Vietnamese robusta beans being dropped into an empty container of Monsanto-made roundup weedkiller”. 60 beans being the approximate number used to create a shot of Starbucks’ espresso.
Food has also been known to bite musicians back. Rotund Mamas and The Papas vocalist ‘Mama’ Cass Elliot died in 1974, so legend has it, after choking on a ham sandwich, while one-time Tyrannosaurus Rex percussionist Steve Peregrin Took perished in 1980, bizarrely, not by consuming the industrial quantities of morphine and hallucinogenic mushrooms he had assembled to celebrate the arrival of a heft royalty cheque, but by gagging on a humble cocktail onion.