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One more time: the jingle bell robbery

After hearing "Jingle Bell Rock" all day, I feel compelled to reprise my 2013 post about it.

It’s been getting steady play every December for 63 years now and has worked its way into dozens of Christmas ads, TV shows, and movies.

Given its rockabilly feel (and its Andrews-Sisters-like background singing), it swings more than rocks, but that’s ok. It’s still considered the first rock & roll Christmas song—because this is what rock sounded like in its early years. Here’s the tune.

I can hear your objections already: it’s FLUFF! Yup, but it’s fluff that’s superbly recorded, brilliantly arranged, and magnificently performed. It’s as elegantly and tightly constructed as a Swiss watch, with no superfluous parts. A miracle of minimalism. And since 1957 this two-minute-and-twelve-second classic has been the standard bearer for holiday cheer.

Unfortunately, there’s a business tale behind the song that’s not so cheery.

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A sad, sad day

John Winston Lennon would be 80 years old now. The Beatles might have reunited multiple times. He might have recorded a dozen more solo albums. He and bandmate Paul McCartney might even be touring today, as the greatest songwriting duo of all time.

All this and more, had Lennon not been slain in front of his New York City apartment forty years ago tonight (at the very moment—10:50 EST—that I publish this). For me, that ended The Beatles.

Counterfactual history is by definition a speculative exercise, so you might say I'm a dreamer. But I would argue that The Beatles were a lock to get back together. They had already considered it several times in the '70s, but according to McCartney, all four members never agreed at the same time. "One of us would always not fancy it. And that was enough, because we were the ultimate democracy.”

For business reasons alone the pressures would have continued to mount. Multi-million dollar offers had already been pouring it and would have only increased. Even if none of the four Beatles personally needed the cash over the next twenty years—which seems unlikely—eventually they would have caved to the demand to come out of retirement to raise billions for some worthy cause. (In this scenario, the end of The Beatles would have come in 2001, when George Harrison died.)

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Echo in the canyon

Just getting around to talking up this documentary, which was released last year but is available—as of this moment—on Netflix, Apple TV, and Amazon Prime.

As a ‘60s rock exceptionalist, I’m a sucker for a flick like this. I’ve always believed the songs of that era are unequaled in rock/pop history. Yes, I swooned over the rock & roll of the 50s. (I stayed home "sick" for months of elementary school to make sure I didn't miss the first 30 minutes of American Bandstand.) But R&R suffered a quick demise in 1959 (“The Day the Music Died”). Fortunately, five years later The Beatles reinvented rock, and I became a born-again believer. 18 months later the folk-rockers made a lyrical upgrade, and I became a lifer.

In the summer of 1965—thanks to Dylan and The Byrds (“Like a Rolling Stone” and “Mr. Tambourine Man”)—this primitive musical form was becoming a vehicle for art and poetry. Many fans shifted from consumers to analysts—deconstructing their favorite singles and albums like exegetes interpreting sacred texts. Such was the power and poetry of that music, especially what was coming out of Los Angeles.

Echo in the Canyon is an 82-minute rock doc that traces the music of this period—1965 to 1967 mostly—through the songs of The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Beach Boys, and Mamas and Papas. These pop pioneers lived, hung out, and swapped songs (and occasionally lovers) in the Hollywood Hills, in the woodsy neighborhoods of Laurel Canyon. This quickly became an innovation nexus that changed music forever.

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Dealing with grown-ups

Folks often ask me what prompted me to start up this blog over 12 years ago. In keeping with the New Year I thought I would update my response.

Simple answer: I wanted to use this space to make my business-lessons-from-rock case—namely, that rock & roll bands (who are essentially small business teams) have much to teach us in larger organizations about innovation, style, attitude, and taking fun seriously.

But then folks would say, “Ok, but what got you going on THAT?"

Well, when I first began management consulting and training 35 years ago, I felt a tad dislocated in my new environment. I had played in bands for a living up until then and had avoided anything resembling a corporate life. So when I started working in business I just couldn't relate to the lack of play, humor, passion, engagement, creativity, personality, design, chutzpah, and free-thinking autonomy that were in abundant supply in the music world.

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Muddling through the holidays

In the spirit of the season, I often reminisce about great holiday songs that have interesting backstories, especially if they provide a business lesson or two.

Every time I pick up the guitar to play “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”—arguably the most popular Christmas classic of all time—I’m reminded of two things: the song has a “copyright question” and there are entirely different versions of it.

The ownership issue is small potatoes compared to many such controversies, notably who wrote “Jingle Bell Rock,” which I’ve previously written about here and here. (Singer Bobby Helm and guitarist Hank Garland may have lost $100 million in royalties on that one. And there was a possible murder attempt on Garland’s life to shut him up about it. But we digress.)

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Our better and worse angels

This period in time marks the 50th anniversary of two events that nearly simultaneously captured the national imagination—and hit close to home for me.

On the nights of August 8 and 9, 1969, Charles Manson’s communal family committed the most shocking murders in LA history—which included the slaying of Valley of the Dolls actress Sharon Tate and four of her guests. The tabloids went crazy with the grisly details.

I was performing in a rock band that weekend on Sunset Strip, two miles from the first murder in the Hollywood Hills. Given the brutality of that crime and its tie to the entertainment industry, West Hollywood was in a state of shock. After the second murder the following night near Griffith Park, the condition became Code Red. Where would Charlie Company strike next?

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