A few months ago, I turned 27. Had I been a famous musician, I may well have dreaded this moment and gone into hibernation for a year, because 27 is the age of the rock star death.
The membership list of the ’27 Club’ – those musicians who met an untimely end at the age of 27 – reads like a Who’s Who of influential rock stars: Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones…and so the list goes on. A rather morbid website dedicated to the phenomenon names many more, and this year saw the addition of another high-profile member: Amy Winehouse, who tragically died last July from alcohol poisoning.
So why do so many musicians seem to crash and burn at the age of 27? Is it all just a spooky coincidence, or do rock star deaths really group around this fabled age? A team of statisticians in Germany and Australia recently set out to solve the mystery of the 27 Club once and for all.
In order to put the 27 Club to the test, researchers at the University Medical Center Freiburg and the Queensland University of Technology trawled through the UK albums chart history, noting down the birth and death dates of all artists (including band members) who had number one albums between 1956 and 2007. This gave a sample of 1046 musicians, with 71 deaths.
Sadly for rock folklorists, no statistical peak in deaths at age 27 was found. Out of the 71 deaths in the sample, only three were at age 27, and the highest number of deaths (four) was at age 32. “The study indicates that the 27 Club has been created by a combination of chance and cherry picking,” conclude the researchers. In other words, the 27 Club is an example of confirmation bias, where people focus on the results that fit the pattern they’re looking for.
However, the researchers haven’t completely invalidated the 27 Club. These conclusions only hold for musicians famous in the UK – the study’s definition of fame is based on the UK albums chart. Further surveys would be needed to suss out the effects of fame in other places, such as the US.
And although this study reveals nothing special about the big Two-Seven, it does find that famous musicians in their 20s and 30s are two to three times more at risk from death than the general UK population. Statistical proof, then, that the rock and roll lifestyle can curtail lives.
This finding is of international concern, say the researchers, because “musicians contribute greatly to populations’ quality of life, so there is immense value in keeping them alive (and working) as long as possible.”
I wholeheartedly agree. And even though the 27 Club itself has been exposed as a myth, its members won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
Wolkewitz, M., Allignol, A., Graves, N., & Barnett, A. (2011). Is 27 really a dangerous age for famous musicians? Retrospective cohort study. BMJ, 343 (d7799) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.d7799