Nobody knows exactly when or where rock and roll started, but it’s probably a good bet that it started at the crossroads in Mississippi where blues legend, Robert Johnson, made his pact with the Devil. There are many variations on this theme as all great origin myths deserve. One describes how Johnson was directed to arrive at midnight at a plantation crossroads where the Dark Stranger tuned his guitar. In another version, he was given a guitar by the father of all agents and learned how to play like a demon in just one night while sitting on top of a gravestone in a local cemetery. What we do know from Johnson’s contemporaries who described his amazing, seemingly overnight talent and success, and his surviving masterpiece recording are enough evidence to speculate on a supernatural origin for his unique skill. Whatever actually happened, the Faustian bargain certainly informed a lot about music industry business models ever since. But what’s more important is that rock and roll has always been informed by a death wish probably since it’s an adolescent music at heart that is uncertain about mortality, but as foolishly daring as a teenage driver with a fast car.
The first recording with the actual title, “Rock and Roll”, was released by the Boswell Sisters in 1934. Hardly a rhythmic cousin inspired by the long snake moan of the Delta Blues, this trio’s song spreads the message in a big band, pop setting, but the meaning is still clear despite it’s white bread, if swinging delivery. It’s still all about sex even though drugs and electrification would arrive later. Rock and Roll takes a cue from the industry standard of “farewell tours” in that, its death has been exaggerated and proclaimed many times from early cynics like Frank Sinatra and Steve Allen. The former loudly denigrated rockers as lowlifes, miscreants, traitors, and troglodytes. He especially singled out The Beatles who he called “creeps” and cultural enemies of the state—though he was later to repent with a rather flaccid cover of “Something”. Steve Allen famously tried his best to cut the young upstart rock and roll down to size by humiliating Elvis Presley during an early TV appearance when he had the King sing “Hound Dog” to a real dog set on a pedestal.
They were not alone in the 50’s when “concerned” parent groups, white “citizen’s councils” and other community organizations attempted to alert families to the dangers of this musical form which created juvenile delinquents and whose connections to African Americans and the sensual abandon of jazz were clearly outrageous game changers. Nobody could have predicted what was to come despite early warnings like the West African beat of Bo Diddley. You didn’t have to drum along to the “bump de bump, bump, bump, bump” to add the grind to the recipe and realize that this music was all about the beat and like a jungle telegraph echoed its earlier tribal origins.
Maybe the white status quo sensed that this revolutionary music of slaves and field hands like the great American 20th century poet, Muddy Waters, could lead somehow to overturn the Establishment—their instincts were correct given rock and roll’s eventual cutting of a swath from the Delta through to America’s blackboard jungles, urban sprawl and a neo-tribalistic sequence of youth mutations of sock-hops, boogeying in the back of mom and dad’s car and at the drive-in, screaming Beatles fans, love-ins at Monterey and Woodstock, fan sites, Hip Hop culture successfully invading the suburban mall, and web rings, and Band MySpace pages.
Even the attempted co-opting of rock and roll by safe, white singers like Pat Boone, for example, who hijacked Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” , divesting it of its undulating, native rhythms and innuendo (“Got a gal named Sue, she knows just what to do”) was only a blip. Disco was another Barbarian at the Gates which ultimately failed to take its mantle and actually inspired post MC5 punk, and was ceremoniously served its own funeral pyre at a disco record burning at Comiskey Park in Chicago in 1976. In a frightening reprise of 50’s censorship and parental concern, the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Council) spearheaded by drummer and Vice Presidential spouse, Tipper Gore, was successful in providing convenient labels for popular music to point out its incipient dangers to parents too lazy to listen to the lyrics themselves. Rock and roll survived the labeling system and other vain efforts to stop the beat of time.
Who killed rock and roll, then? Well, like its historical collateral damage of multiple rock and roll suicides, it actually succumbed to self-immolation like a speeding kamikaze guitar run—not in a grand crescendo of Marshall stacks feeding back overamped to 11 with smoke bombs and drums thrilling in deafening splendor—but in greed, naiveté, and most of all, as the result of a generational shift. The beginning of the end was actually in 1968. It was in that year that The Doors decided to sell “Light My Fire” to Buick as a soundtrack for a car commercial. It not only was a source of contention between Jim Morrison and the other three band members—because Jim didn’t want to do it—but the start of a lethal love affair between Madison Avenue and its musical concubine. It was Advertising that killed the Beast.
If Mad Ave killed rock and roll, then MTV was the nail in the coffin. The idea of “music” television may have sounded like a good idea at the time because the inmates had never run the asylum. Rock and roll was always an embarrassment in the television of the 50’s and 60’s. Shows like “Hullabaloo” and “Shindig” suffered from producers and network executives doing too much frugging at clubs with go-go girls and having bad acid experiences that became the TV light shows of op-art, fisheye, multiple single-frame, swirling psychedelia of wall paper surrounding recording artists of the day. Rock was certainly the wicked stepchild of the musical arts. It always seemed to be introduced as the embarrassing poseur, and black sheep of the family—which it was proudly when it worked well.
Ed Sullivan opened up the television stage in what seemed to be a genuine commercial desire to connect with music of all kinds—but the network censors did their best to emasculate bands like The Doors—who infamously did not change the word “higher” in their performance of “Light My Fire” and The Rolling Stones, eventually to become one of rock’s billion dollar conglomerates who did, in fact, change the lyrics to “Let’s Spend The Night Together”, by substituting “some time” in lieu of “the night”. Maybe the art of negotiation made them a better business proposition in the long term. As they say, "you can’t always get what you want."
But, creating visual interpretations by twenty-something, music video “directors” is dodgy because it eliminates the primary experience that is the salient feature of music as an art form. Music videos substitute a visual interpretation that is often quite literal or at the other end of the spectrum, totally contrived, as a substitute for the listener coming to terms with their own experience as it connects with what a song is saying. They were also blatant commercials to upsell records. When The Beatles did early videos for songs like “I Am The Walrus” from “The Magical Mystery Tour”, and “All You Need Is Love”, there was a purity and charm to them because they were unpremeditated and seemed almost like afterthoughts.
The other danger factor was pointed out to me once during a conversation with Frank Zappa just after MTV came on the scene. “How did MTV change music, Frank?” I asked. Without losing a beat, the Maestro intoned, blowing out a plume of smoke, “It turned musicians into models.”
It also had the effect of connecting popular music more directly with the advertisers who would be its nemesis. While it was a rarity for rock and roll to infiltrate the province of Madison Avenue jingles and Hollywood soundtracks, that began to change as rock and roll, itself, became less of a movement and more of a business. Its mass appeal could no longer be denied as it became newsworthy when colorful, Dionysian multitudes grew to attend festivals and stadiums. Even the gold and platinum standards for record sales had to be adjusted higher to accommodate increased audiences for the category. Movie executives were also smoking dope and doing the Swim, and started catering to yuppie audiences with nostalgic, Motown-infused soundtracks replacing or augmenting original motion picture scores. Like music videos, some movies such as “The Big Chill” leaned far too heavily on conveying emotional weight by literally using “The Weight” instead of dialogue and character to drive story structure.
In the 50’s and 60’s, rock and roll wasn’t really a business yet because it was easy to deny. I remember a visit with Little Richard at his house which had been at the Hyatt on Sunset for many years. He proudly displayed his gold records to my brother and me, and remarked that they were the first he’d ever received. This was in 1995. The rip-offs of seminal artists like Richard, Chuck Berry, and others who were denied royalties or entered into bad deals is now the stuff of history with some reparations made, usually through court settlements. Contracts in the 60’s looked like they were signed with a pen in one hand and a joint in the other. I watched “Monterey Pop” recently with my kids who are 8 and 15 and saw that—through their eyes and questions—that it was almost like viewing an ethnographic documentary. It all looks so naive and innocent, and many of the musicians were, too, with respect to the business side of music.
I’ve worked with D.A. Pennebaker on a number of projects who with Richard Leacock and also with the Maysles were largely responsible for cinema verite style of film making. Pennebaker is also well known for his great documentary, “Don’t Look Back”, which documented Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England. When I was clearing the video rights for “Don’t Look Back” and “Monterey Pop” as well as on another project for the 20th anniversary of Woodstock, I had to reference the original artist contracts. Jimi Hendrix’s contract for Monterey was signed by his lawyer and most likely never seen by him. The Who were paid $2500 for their Woodstock performance, and were only among several who insisted—and actually got paid for the celebrated free festival. Although he was the first artist to be paid a hundred-thousand dollars for one concert, Jimi left only twenty-thousand when he died. Tom Petty talks about when, as a teenager, he first signed with MCA Records and didn’t understand how books entered into it when he saw the clause about “publishing”. He had the courage and fortitude to eventually sue to get his royalty earnings from publishing, but many such sagas do not share such a happy ending. Even if artists were not paying a lot of attention to deal terms, there were a lot of record company executives, managers, shysters, agents, interlopers, and operators who were.
It was only natural that rock and roll became an industry in the 80’s fueled by cocaine, hookers and other fresh marketing tactics that innovated from the original 50's payola techniques. But most of all, it was the introduction of the CD format that changed the business model. And why shouldn’t it have? Imagine the first meeting where the concept was tendered: “I want to replace vinyl with this!” (Holds up disc which glints like gold in the Hollywood sunlight streaming through the high windows). “What is that?” “It’s plastic. The total cost is going to be about $2.50 to manufacture and including all your distribution and marketing costs! And guess what? We can mark it up as much as 100%! And it will create a whole new market for players, too!” The executive probably was cynical at first, especially at the low cost, but the rest is history as we replaced our collection with an audiophile digital version—even though “Who’s Next” still sounds better on vinyl.
Inevitably, in a lesson that Wall Street should have paid attention to, greed caught up. The Industry now only consists of several major labels left standing or somewhat tottering worldwide in a landscape of thousands of independent labels, a new singles business invented by iTunes, Limewire, MySpace fan pages, Mac garage band, and Amazon downloads. The Internet broke the bank with the Napster peer-to-peer sharing model and a generation that took piracy to another level entirely—evidenced now by Apple relenting last week on DRM. Not only were the inmates now running the asylum, but they were controlling the distribution, too.
The record business is now the iPod economy with well over 100 million sold, over half a billion iTunes software downloads, over $120 million in 2007 profits, and well over a $1billion worth of digital downloads annually. The major labels should have seen that we were on the eve of a new singles business—instead it decided it was a better idea to sue its own customers.
As the mass audience for music grew in the 80’s, arena rock established the tour and merchandise as the revenue model. With the decline in record sales in the last decade, looking to the 90’s heyday when million-sellers used to be the rule, now a hundred thousand unit seller is a big deal outside of certain legacy performers. The only two growth markets for records are for world music and Christian rock which grew from 4% of overall sales in 2000 to over 10% last year. Maybe Jesus will resuscitate the Big Beat, but given the cryogenic state of the industry today, it is clearly a job for an entity with supernatural powers.
Where we are now is that the music, itself, is the Trojan horse stalking consumers as the advertisement for the tour and merchandise. On average, there are forty-thousand concerts a year with average attendance of five thousand tickets sold. The average merchandise per person is 6-8 per customer, but it can be upwards of $20 depending on the artist and with annual market of approximately $1.5 billion. That’s a lot of t-shirts.
The band logo is the final stamp of the rock group as corporation. Advertising killed rock because it legitimized it. Rock and roll’s very existence was that it was the illegitimate child of rhythm and blues, jazz, the Delta, and far off Yoruba beats. As the baby boomers grew older, they became the captains of industry and technology and Madison Avenue and selfishly wanted to hear their own soundtrack—even if appropriated to a thirty-second spot. Bruce Springsteen ordered a cease and desist when Ronald Reagan tried to use his “Born In The USA” for promoting the Republican cause in the 80’s. That should have been a sign.
I mean, Fleetwood Mac in association with Bill Clinton is self-explanatory in a cuddly, yuppie sort of way. But now, rock music is a featured player without guilt and plays party agnostic at political conventions, on the campaign trail, and inaugural balls. How does this scenario equate with “Born To Be Wild” and the bikers getting blown away at the end of “Easy Rider”? How does political endorsement add up when compared to the spirit of Jimi Hendrix’s deconstruction masterpiece performance of the National Anthem during the Vietnam War and Berkeley riots?
When I was growing up in the 60’s, my junior high school gym coach used to call me “Hair” and vilified my music wishing that it would die. It made my passion for the music even stronger. Now, I find it irksome that Bruce Springsteen and Prince perform at the Super Bowl, and rock and roll is the soundtrack to television sports—adding its energy, guitar army, and percussive attack to connect with its viewers who all apparently have grown too old to remember when rock and roll was outlaw music. And am I alone in wondering what “Who Are You” has to do with forensics? Maybe it’s in memories like my battles with the gym coach where rock still lives—as a memory, the music exists as a reference point in time when a song or a band or a show references a moment in our lives that was significant—or even if it was insignificant as Robert Plant once put it—as something “deep and meaningless”. He also said, “I’ve lived a hundred years in rock and roll.” Perhaps that’s long enough for those who have really lived it, but that’s another story…
The day after Keith Moon died, my brother, Jeff, finally got to interview John Entwistle and Roger Daltrey for his movie, “The Kids Are Alright”. During the interview, he asked Roger about the future of rock and roll—a pointed question for The Who, at least, given that they’d just lost their key man. Roger said to him, “Rock and roll doesn’t have a future, so shut up!” That sort of ended the interview, but Jeff still used “Long Live Rock”, with its anthemic refrain, “Rock is Dead” for the end credits of the film—whether to give hope or irony, I’ll never ask for fear it would be a repeat of what Pete Townshend once said to him when Jeff asked what the meaning of his song, “Who Are You” was. Pete replied slyly, “Ask Harold Pinter.” My brother and I always wanted to riff on Pete's famous lines from "My Generation" and say to him, "Hope we get old before we die..." But, we never found the right moment and the lyrics seemed to have haunted him ever since anyway. Rock and roll does not look well in the mirror.
Rock and roll suffers from having become our classical music. It’s cross-generational now. When I was running the Jimi Hendrix Foundation, he had a greatest hits collection called “The Ultimate Experience” that had been selling twenty-thousand units a month for almost two years. Estate Creative Director and former Hendrix producer, Alan Douglas, wondered who was buying all these records and conducted a marketing survey. The results were that 60% of the albums were being bought by fans under twenty. Jimi was now effectively converting his third generation of fans from beyond the grave. But, then again, Jimi is a classical composer now.
Rock and roll shouldn’t age gracefully for some kind of old timers day, endless reunion tours, and unplugged sets. Maybe Keith, Jimi, Janis, Jim, Brian, Buddy, Ritchie, Gene, Eddie, Otis, and all the others were lucky in some way to be frozen in time. The problem with rock and roll is that it was always a euphemism for the mystery dance, so perhaps we were screwed from the beginning. And maybe, just maybe, rock and roll isn’t dead after all, but is just about to start out on one of its annual “farewell tours.” As the song says, “Hail, hail…”