You need to be willing to kill chickens

In a previous post—"Taking Care of Business"—I argue that the great rock bands have been worthy exemplars of aspiration, ambition, motivation, and drive. But that's not sufficient. There are obviously other qualities needed to be successful.

I thought I'd illustrate this with a story of a particularly hardworking rock & roll group—one of several "almost famous" bands I performed in a few years back.

The Berries—later known as The Band of Angels—were a four-piece Hollywood proto-glamor-rock band. (I'm not sure what that means either.) Our claim to fame was our residency in the early '70s as house band for Gazzarri's, a legendary dance club on Sunset Strip.

Gazzarri's was famous for two things: the surprisingly good bands that began their career there for little pay—including the Byrds, Doors, Buffalo Springfield (with Neil Young and Stephen Stills), Van Halen, Guns N' Roses, Motley Crue—and its underage dancing girls. (If there was any connection between those two phenomena I haven't been able to document it.)

Our band received the customary $40 per night per band, from which, after deducting expenses for rent and band expenses, I could lavishly distribute a dollar a day to each band member.

The club gave us good exposure in Hollywood—and a significant upgrade in our social life. But despite our success on the Strip we never lost sight of our long-term goals and eventually recognized we were not getting the big-time notoriety—or record contract—we thought we deserved.

So one day we took a drive up to Hollywood Boulevard and sought the advice of Jim the Record Producer (not his real name, even in Hollywood). Jim wasted no time in giving us trenchant advice in hushed tones: "Being talented songwriters and musicians isn't enough. You've got to be willing to do whatever it takes to grab the public's attention and stand out from the pack. You need to be willing to kill chickens!"

Horrified and perplexed at this cryptic counsel, uttered with the authority of a Delphic oracle, we held several band meetings in the next week to try to decode this message and discuss our options.

We thought we were willing to do anything to be successful. After all, my band mates spent hours everyday working out on their guitars and blow driers. (I sported a Jimi Hendrix-like Afro hair style which was immune to anything but a garden rake.) But sacrificing chickens seemed a little extreme for four sensitive, animal-loving artists in leather jackets. Besides, if Bill Gazzarri got upset when we spilled sunflower seeds on his club's plush red carpet, how was he going to deal with chicken entrails? And what if the go-go dancers were offended by the chickens? (Or—more likely—what if the chickens were offended by the go-go dancers?)

But one band member had a stunning insight: Jim's message might be a metaphor! After looking up the meaning of metaphor, we immediately started dreaming-up gimmicks that might be as outrageous—but not as cruel—as killing chickens. Finally, after much soul-searching, our lead singer Dave came up with the bold idea of changing our name to "The Skunks" and bleaching white stripes in our hair!

Our first reaction was we'd rather sacrifice chickens. (Our second reaction was we'd rather sacrifice go-go dancers.) The truth was we weren't ready to sacrifice our social life—or hear people say "The Skunks stink."

To his credit, Dave was not hesitant to bleach a large white stripe in his own hair—and, as it turned out, he adjusted quite well to living alone. The rest of us never followed his example, and the band eventually broke up without ever gaining media attention or signing that elusive recording contract.

I'm certain to this day our disappointed fans shake their heads and mutter: "That band could have been huge, but they just weren't willing to kill chickens."

One lesson to be drawn here is that a business team needs to be willing to do whatever it takes to separate itself from the competition.

Alas, we took the more comfortable route and dared not to be bold. (Ok, we chickened-out.) But a less obvious lesson is that there are many ways to stand out from the pack. For instance, we could have performed at Gazzarri's with chickens and go-go girls dancing together on stage—perhaps combining a "dirty dancing" routine with "the funky chicken" (a big dance craze at the time).

Who wouldn't pay to see that? We could have billed it as "funky chickens dancing dirty"—or "funky dancing with dirty chickens." (Now there's an idea for reality TV.)

Chalk up another business lesson from rock.

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  1. didn't alice cooper used to kill things on stage -- birds or snakes? i wouldn't be surprised if ozzie ate pigeons. black sabbath was capable of anything.

  2. Alice performed with a live python on stage. He claims he accidentally killed a chicken once when he threw it off stage, expecting it would fly. After that he said the ASPCA would regularly show up at his gigs. There's apparently a true story about his python swallowing an electric blanket. They performed quick surgery on the snake and liberated the blanket before it killed the snake. One of my bands opened for Alice Cooper in California in 1968. He was actually a pretty ordinary - and very likeable - guy.

    I was never into Black Sabbath. I saw them open for Grand Funk at the LA Forum in the early 70s. I remember watching a teenager on quaaludes in front of me banging his head on a metal chair in time with the band. I felt badly for the chair.

  3. Both. Why stop? (I doubted he noticed the difference anyway.) The chair was a mess afterwards. I distinctly remember feeling VERY old at 25.

    At that point in life I feared for the future of rock & roll. But of course R&R reinvented itself many times after that - as we all did.

  4. Wow, John! This is an iconoclastic post with such relevance to business. Thank you!!! Loved it!!! I laughed a lot, especially at the Delphic oracle bit and the following subsequent quest to determine meaning. Too funny! Also loved the afro rake bit. My brothers would share in laughter here.

    There is a brilliant storytelling quality here (post and comment) that places the reader right in the scene. It also makes the alignment to business very clear to those who are in business. Are such qualities explored in your book? I really like it.

    By the way, I recently saw Almost Famous on cable and really enjoyed it! The acting and writing were great! When is that book coming out, John? Then're already famous! :-) Your experiences must have been wild--as in totally awesome!

    Thanks again, John. Did I say that I loved it?

  5. Thanks for the comment, Judith. But did you enjoy the post?

    All seriousness aside, I loved "Almost Famous." But I can't figure out how Cameron Crowe learned so much about my life.

    By the way, my afro earned me admission to a select group of funk musicians who actually assumed I was a brother. On one of these posts I'll tell the story of my audition (as drummer) for the Ike & Tina Turner Revue around 1974. (Tina liked my piano playing better than my drumming, but I wasn't likely to edge Ike out of the band - and live to tell about it.)

    My book should be complete within 6 years given the glacial pace of my writing. After that I'll decide whether to go through a publisher or - depending on the economy - give it away at intersections for lunch money.

  6. The killing chickens metaphor -- perhaps because of its absurd cruelty - - got my attention. After thinking about this all day I'd have to conclude that most organizations or businesses I've been a part of stopped short of doing whatever it took to separate themselves from the herd. A disturbing realization.

  7. Grand Funk had a superb pop song called "Bad Time" in their otherwise almost exclusively dire dirge-rock repertoire. I recommend it to all lovers of power-pop.

    I wonder if "Jim" moved into the financial sector at some point because it seems like a number of traders have heeded the rock n' roll lesson and been willing to kill chickens, not to mention several banks, entire communities and even a small Scandinavian economy.

  8. Mark, oddly enough I never thought about what Jim the Record Producer might be doing, but I HAVE wondered what became of the headbanger. He had a great sense of rhythm.

    Hey, "Bad Time" is a cool track. Just listened to it.

  9. Hey, Grand Funk is out of Flint, Michigan, right? Michigan's has had it greats, eh? I'd say! Listened to the track too! I heard two youtube versions. I prefer the live version taped outdoors, the cameraman was over the place. The lead voice actually sounds better some years later. The 45 version sounded way neat.

  10. "We thought we were willing to do anything to be successful."

    Yeah, lotsa businesses think the same thing. One chap we know is the quintessential old-skool small biz operator. He's willing to spend any amount to buy more profit.

    At one of my business classes, he asked where I bought my newsletter content. When I said that it came from inside my head, and that I lovingly inscribed every word with my own hands, his jaw dropped; for the first time since I've known him, he was speechless.

    When his voice returned, he said "But at some point, you'll be too busy to write it yourself. What will you do then, because I'm already there." When I told him that the day I'm too busy to write my newsletter myself, I'll quit having a newsletter, I got to see him speechless again. Twice in one night.

    I don't advocate killing chickens unless you plan on eating them, but you sure as tootin' need to be willing to do more than spend money to succeed.

    I feared for the future of rock and roll from 1973 to 1981. Tough decade for me. But now that groups like Marvelous Toy and the Avett Brothers are out there, and Jackopierce and Bob Dylan are still working (or working again) I think it's all gonna be okay.

  11. Judith, Michigan has its share of rockers - from Mitch Ryder to Alice Cooper to the MC5. But its best legacy is Motown Records of course, with Michiganders like Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, and Stevie Wonder leading the charge.

    Spinhead, you sent me scrambling to iTunes to hear these guys. Good stuff. Especially liked "The City is a Washing Machine" by Marvelous Toy and "Shame" by the Avett Brothers. I like your alt-folk sensibilities.

  12. John - Yes, Motown was great! The year the Superbowl was in Detroit I took a friend who's husband is an executive with the NFL to the Motown Museum. She couldn't wait to go. I had never been. It was a great experience! It was amazing the to see the kinds of technical things they developed just from pure ingenuity, and the process each artist and group had to undergo.

    Did you know that Barry Gordy bought a number of houses in a row and each house respresented the complete development of the artist from music, elocution, charm, presentation, vocal production, dance and drama. He modeled the shaping of the aritst after the auto assembly line. In developing Motown, Barry Gordy was definitely willing to kill chickens.

    By the way, isn't Ted Nugent from Michigan too?

  13. Judith, Berry Gordy was a rather fascinating - and controversial - character. Speaking of Michiganders, working on my book this morning I was just writing up Google as an example of a company with a rock & roll DNA. Larry Page, the co-founder, was raised in Lansing and developed an interest in "transportation systems" (the beginning of his fascination with "search"?) because of his proximity to Detroit. (And his dad, who taught at Michigan State, exposed young Larry to a steady diet of Grateful Dead concerts - which undoubtedly warped his young mind in a healthy way.)

  14. This is undoubtedly why Google's in Ann Arbor, the city of my alma mater, the University of Michigan, where his also dad graduated. Glad Google chose Ann Arbor over East Lansing, although both of his parents taught at State. I can believe that the Grateful Dead probably had some influence on the younger Page. This is not surprising in the least. Music has a way influencing us, even when it is not our chosen career path.

  15. I've long wondered how many business leaders (young and old) have been influenced in significant ways by frequent exposure to the Grateful Dead in their youth. I got the initial idea for my book (and indirectly this blog) a dozen years ago when the Republican Governor of Massachusetts, William Weld, a "Boston Brahmin," publicly confessed his love of the Grateful Dead and the Who. At that point I realized that rock & roll had come of age and that there must be many leaders in the world who had been reared on rock - and perhaps powerfully SHAPED by it. And if they were shaped by the counter-cultural bands like the Dead, could they have ever fully recovered? I immediately viewed Bill Weld in a different light, picturing him gyrating at a Dead show and participating in other GD sacraments. Paradoxically, this made me feel safer.

  16. A good question, rj. At first glance the Grateful Dead seemed tame by comparison to flashier bands. It was as if they didn't want to draw attention to themselves, preferring a kind of equal status with the audience. But in their own way they turned out to be very different by virtue of that. They refused to be showmen. They refused to put themselves above the audience. They refused to do a song the same way twice. They refused to pursue hit records. They refused to claim a proprietary right to their live recordings. In fact they encouraged their audience to tape their shows - and even let them plug into their sound board to get the best mix. They simply played by different rules.

    I never liked jam bands much, but after spending time with those guys I learned to really appreciate them. If brains count for anything they were some of the brightest guys to ever step on a stage. 40 years ago this month my band did a show with them (as we did several times) in Torrance, CA. There were a bunch of bands on the bill, including Alice Cooper. The Dead were so high they couldn't tune up so they abandoned their first song, got off stage, regrouped, then came out and did a dynamite set. I loved those guys.

  17. Not doing the song the same way twice is so very challenging. This requires a real artistry and love to keep it fresh. I understand this. The thought of performers not putting themselves above the audience is another wonderful quality.

    I like it when performers are not performing for me but relating to me. (Perhaps this is not a readily noticeable distinction.) But the former seems somewhat self-serving and the latter reaches out. Yes, I want a good show and I want performers to do their thing however they do it. But it's not really about them when there's an audience before them. Well, this is the way I felt at least.

    Performers in general usually have an element of showmanship but it becomes obvious when this has reached a level of pure egotisim. Can this be confused as being willing to kill chickens or simply being a peacock?

  18. Funny, John! I'm watching Almost Famous again for the second time. It's great! I'm also remembering talking with Frances McDormand often when she was not quite famous in New York. She worked out at the New York Sports Club on W. 80th Street right across the street from my brownstone. McDormand was really cool back then and this was before Fargo. She's awesome in Almost Famous! I love this movie! I haven't been a huge fan of rock, but since I've been coming to this site I've been listening more and getting into it. I've also learned a few lessons. Thanks, John.

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