Remembering the cultural iconoclasts: Little Richard, Jim Morrison, and John Lennon.

So many anniversaries, so little time…

Sunday marked the seventy-eighth birthday of the "architect of rock & roll" Little Richard—a true cultural pioneer when he burst on the scene in late 1955 with his first chart hit "Tutti Frutti."

Elvis Presley of course was the one who put R&R on the map in the following year, but it was Little Richard Penniman's screaming vocals and wild piano-pounding—inciting teen hysteria (and occasional riots) at many of his gigs—that made rock & roll dangerous, and therefore all the more attractive to young audiences. (Imagine the backlash if the culture police knew he was also gay!)

But after a string of raucous hits (including "Long Tall Sally," "Lucille," and "Rip It Up") Richard left show business in 1957 when he literally "saw the light"—a flaming streak in the night sky, which he took as a sign from God to quit rock & roll and become a preacher (a logical conclusion that anyone would take).

The light turned out to be the Russian satellite Sputnik, but he nevertheless abandoned his tour the next day.

Fortunately Richard kept his music alive as a gospel-singing evangelist and eventually returned to rock & roll five years later, beginning with two tours of England (where the early Beatles and Rolling Stones opened for him), leaving an indelible impression on the next generation of rock & rollers.

Today is the sixty-seventh birthday of the late Jim Morrison, the Doors' lead singer, who is expected to be pardoned tomorrow on his conviction of indecent exposure while performing onstage in Miami in 1969.

The outgoing Governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, has requested the posthumous pardon of Morrison, based on the fact that there was little evidence—and no photographs—of the extraordinary charges, denied by everyone on stage that night.

Morrison—who, in the spirit of Lenny Bruce, loved to push the envelope of acceptable performance—did admit to a profanity-laden rant (an apparent first in Dade County) and taking off his shirt (a potentially capital offense in Florida in 1969).

Amid increasing controversies, Morrison eventually left the band and settled in Paris, where he died in 1971.

Today is also the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Beatles' founder John Lennon, occurring two months after his fortieth birthday, the anniversary I prefer to focus on (as I did in an earlier post).

Suffice it to say, on that night in New York we lost perhaps the most innovative force in popular music. Chalk it up to coincidence, but the three decades of rock music after Lennon's passing don't seem to hold up as well as the two-and-a-half decades before—especially in terms of breakthrough innovation. To echo Lennon's own lyrics: Tell me why.

The common denominator among these three artists? They were rock & roll deviants who took enormous creative risks, disrupted business-as-usual practices, and broke cultural rules to bring something new into the world.

If you believe in the power of disruptive innovation—a useful starting point for twenty-first century entrepreneurs (aren't we all?)—then Penniman, Morrison, and Lennon have a few things to teach you.


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25 Comments

  1. There must be something about innovators and December. December 4th marks the anniversary of the death of Frank Zappa in 1993. RIP. December 7th is Tom Waits' birthday and December 11 McCoy Tyner's. And let's not forget today (Dec 9) is Donny Osmond's birthday... ok, there's exceptions to every rule!

    BTW: best wishes to John and everyone else for a great Xmas and a great New Year.

  2. Its a mindblower that Little Richard is still going strong. Morrison was out of his mind in those days but Richard's antics made Morrison look like a choir boy. Richard was even more of a party animal after he became a preacher. 45 years ago nobody would have expected he'd be alive at 78.
    Jeff

  3. Yeah, who' da thunk? Little Richard's life was like Fellini Satyricon. With Morrison I always had the sense that he WILLED himself into the crazy persona (with some pharmaceutical help)—as many artists and actors have successfully done. (More on that some other time.) Eventually of course it becomes the real thing and Morrison became entrapped by it. But Richard was the real deal: a free-thinking libertine (at least during the week) who tried to tame his inner beast on Sunday. That inner struggle made his shows all the more explosive. Mick Jagger said the young Stones were stunned by his wild performances when they opened for him in 1963. Little Richard inspired so many of the great piano rockers, from Elton John to Leon Russell. McCartney was a devotee too.

  4. Thanks, Mark! In the interest of space I didn't mention that yesterday was also the birthday of the iconic Greg Allman, and—one of my favorite drummers of all time—Bobby Elliot of the Hollies. Today is the birthday of the great Rick Danko, the Band's bassist and high harmony singer, who co-wrote "This Wheel's On Fire" with Dylan. Monday was the birthday of the late Mike Smith, the lead singer & piano player of the Dave Clarke 5. There's another dozen famous rockers I could mention—and that's just for this week.

  5. Just heard that it is official - Jim Morrison is pardoned! That seems like exactly the right thing, and maybe the best thing on the news today. I watched the news today -- oh boy.

  6. Dorothy, I do believe it was a bogus charge, although Morrison did have a habit of partially disrobing in front of audiences (a problem of course we all share).

  7. Speaking of creative deviants, I mentioned in an earlier post that many of the famous classic rock bands were founded by art school alumni: /notes/2010/09/rock-roll-by-design%e2%80%94the-influence-of-the-brit-art-schools

    I should add film school to that, given that Jim Morrison and Doors' keyboardist Ray Manzarek met at UCLA's film school.

  8. "So many anniversaries, so little time...."
    You said it all right there John!

    A lot of us are innovators....The Grateful Dead turned rock and roll business on its ear.

    Miley Cyrus is innovating right now....what do you think was in that bong?? When you do something innovative (like Miley did here), you don't have to pay publicists to promote you....free controversy generates its own publicity. Just one example....

    Well have a great day and catch ya soon!!

    :-)

  9. Nick, I didn't know about the Cyrus-bong business, but you're right about the Grateful Dead. There's even a book out, "Marketing Lessons From the Grateful Dead," that details the many business lessons we can learn from these apparent "anti-capitalists." The Dead, whom I'm writing about in my book, are such an interesting story. So many musicians I know belittle their playing and singing (and even the members themselves are self-effacing to the extreme) but these guys were true innovators on many levels—as improvisational musicians, as consciousness pioneers, as product marketers. As I've argue in a previous post, their "give-it-away-free" business model had an ENORMOUS effect on the marketing paradigm of the interent. /notes/2010/02/business-lessons-from-the-dead

    And the Dead were one of the first business teams to actively encourage user groups. (I could elaborate on that sentence, but not on this blog.)

  10. I like rock 'n roll as much as anybody and I admire the creativity of your "iconoclasts" -- especially John Lennon. (BTW, I saw the Beatles in the summer of 1966 at Crosley Field in Cincinnati and have been a Lennon fan ever since. Their outdoor appearance was postponed for a day because of rain. I remember him singing Rock and Roll Music and Nowhere Man).

    But what does “disruptive innovation” mean to a manufacturing worker -- in Payroll or Shipping or Security? How much effect can a front-line employee really have on innovation?

  11. Thanks, Dirk. A useful perspective from the front line!

    For starters: innovation, whether incremental or radical, isn’t restricted to the products (or services) a company provides its customers. There’s also “underground innovation” relating to internal systems and processes (IT, production, ways of communicating and collaborating, etc.). Innovation can occur anywhere. And if you have an “empowered” workforce where decisions can be made locally, from the ground up, anyone should be able to implement new ways of doing things, as long as they make provide demonstrable value.

    But if the company is so bureaucratized or command-and-control-oriented that front liners have no voice, you can start by effecting LOCAL change — within the department or function, for example — and sell the benefits of it to the larger organization. This requires time and patience. (Every company and culture seems to have its roadblocks to change.) But it can be done.

    As I point out in my upcoming book, the great rock & rollers weren’t working within oppressive corporate cultures that can severely curtail innovation. But they WERE operating within oppressive societal cultures that were just as stifling. The creativity, enthusiasm, drive, and tenacity of John Lennon, for instance, in the years before The Beatles came together as a band — from 1957 to 1960 — is a testament to that. It wasn't his musical talent (which didn’t blossom until later) that made the difference. He was out to shake things up from the beginning.

  12. In my financial services company, if Morrison started disrobing in Accounts Receivables, nobody would even look up ... especially at month end. We'd send him to HR where they'd take a month to evaluate him. If they concluded that "his brain is squirmin' like a toad" they'd steer him into trading. — pat

  13. Pat, your cynicism is unbecoming of a serious reader of a business blog of this stature. Do you mean to suggest that psychopaths with squirming brains MIGHT work in financial trading operations? Even investigative reporter Matt Taibbi would be shocked to hear that. Obviously you don't work on Wall Street, where they have vowed to work at a VERY high standard. (As Goldman's CEO recently said, "I do God's work.") Though the financial reform act isn't strong enough to prevent further casino gambling on Wall Street, I think we should let the major financial institutions (which have all gotten enormously bigger since the financial collapse) see if they can govern themselves this time around. After all, they're REALLY too big to fail now.

  14. Thanks, CC! We're obviously looking for the most creepy and most twisted here at BLFR, to capture the most coveted demographic slice of business readers. We appreciate the tip. (And we actually follow My Chemical Romance.) But have you ever considered having a brain scan for toads?

  15. It should be noted that radical and disruptive innovation is a concomitant of free market capitalism, though many rock and roll artists seem dismissive of it, including many of the musicians promoted in your blog. That's why the most successful rock artists are ensconced in the US, even if they grew up elsewhere.

  16. I could write a book in answer to your comment, Publius (or is it Alexander, or James, or John?). But the short version...

    State control of the means of production is certainly a creativity killer. (As a side note: the creativity and freedom of rock & roll played an important part in the overthrow of Communism in the USSR and Eastern Bloc, as even Gorbachev has explicitly acknowledged.) But that doesn't mean that in a capitalist economy decreased regulation and reduced government involvement in markets leads to a corresponding increase in innovation (radical or otherwise)—at least the productive kind. (The Wall Street meltdown should give us pause.)

    The most successful rock artists often wind up where the taxes are lower, so that's one of the reasons many have emigrated to the US. But they didn't necessarily do their most creative work in the US. After all, the most creative rock team of all time (the Fab Four) did its most innovative work while living in Britain in the mid to late 60s - not a time and place of unfettered markets. In fact, the Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Cream, and Hendrix (who started in England) COMPLETELY reinvented rock at that time, with Swinging London at its epicenter. But I don't want to put too fine a point on it — this is squishy stuff, especially if we're not defining free market capitalism.

  17. All of these guys had something in common: they had no idea what they were doing. Richard Penniman was just taking the gospel-inspired dirty-lyriced race/blues music of his time and shaking it up a bit. But it was certainly no less wild and crazy than the wildest gospel performances of the time. They got just as out there. Little Richard had no idea he was carving out this radical new genre. He was just doing what came natural.

    Lennon certainly had no clue. You see those interviews from 1965 and he's saying stuff like "I think we might be able to make this work for another 4 years or so." He and McCartney's dream was to write for Frank Sinatra. They didn't get it. They fell into their iconic pioneer role quite by accident. Not planned at all. They were all just along for the ride.

    Morrison was just this stoner poet. Couldn't play an instrument to save his life. Manzarek and Krieger wrote all the melodies and chords and Morrison just shoved his junior high school-level poetry in there. He certainly hadn't the slightest clue what he was doing.

    When I hung out with Clapton, he had zero plan, no future ideas, not even a concept of what they were doing in Cream. It was essentially a jazz band playing "standards" written by Jack and Pete Brown or old blues tunes. Clapton was just there to riff off of the "standards", the starting places of chords and rhythm premises. He hadn't the faintest clue in hell where any of that was going, it was all just fueled on raw talent with not much structure. Very existential jazzer mindset involved. Though of course, Clapton has never been able to play a single jazz chord or riff in his entire career. But it was very much a powerful infantile fantasy: Just show up and be great. Don't work anything out. No arrangements, no hassles, no reality. Just stand there and blow, and be adored. Blues guys, jazz guys, and some rock guys get to approach that ultimate wank-off. No work, just play, be adored.

    Cream was very into that escapist, lazy, narcissistic delusion. It kind of worked for a while. The simple tunes were just jumping off points for musical masturbation on a grand level. Modern audiences would be appalled by the 5-minute drum solos and 20 minute guitar solos that were standard back then. Ego was king, arrangements and structure were considered "uptight" and "a hassle". Of course, drugs fueled the whole artificial reality engine.

    I guess they really were the good old days!
    ken

  18. Ken, I think you've nailed Clapton & Cream well — though I loved Baker's playing AND his solos. Clapton gave the band commercial blues cred, but Baker made the band interesting and strange. Cream with, say, Mitch Mitchell on drums wouldn't have been nearly as interesting.

    Re whether these folks knew what they were doing and where they were going, I think you have it right with Penniman & Morrison, but it's more complicated with Lennon (and McCartney too). As I'm writing in my book, L&M — well before Epstein came along — had a direction. Not a formal plan but a series of goals: get a manager, get a drummer, get a steady gig somewhere, make a record, get a record deal, etc. Some of this might have been McCartney's vision — given HIS ambition — but Lennon was uber cocky & bold so I think it was both of them. Once they realized early on that they could be bigger than Goffin-King as songwriters (John & Paul's first goal), they set their sights on the band being "bigger than Elvis" — and that became their compass. Whenever Epstein had a tough decision to make and came to them for their opinion, they would say "whatever's going to make us bigger than Elvis." Now that can sound pretty delusional, especially in 1962, but they backed it up. And I think it helped Epstein think strategically, not just tactically, re their career. Despite HIS shortcomings and inexperience as a business manager (he gave away 90% of the merch rights!) he DID take the long-term view. And I think he got that in part from Lennon, whom he worshiped.

    Later, I heard Lennon, at various times, confirm and contradict this. Sometimes he would say he KNEW early on that the band was going to be huge and he was going after that; other times he would downplay that — in his working class hero persona — as if that was too left-brained. But there weren't a lot of musicians in Liverpool who committed themselves to playing music FULL-TIME like they did (1960-1962) before they had a hit record. I don't think any of them worked part-time after their first Hamburg gig (despite pressure from parents and girlfriends). And McCartney at least had a promising educational path in front of him which he gave up for the Beatles.

  19. I think what I mean is, they had clue whatsover about the musical/production groundbreaking they were about to do. They were a surprisingly conventional bunch of guys. But they were led towards innovation by their commercial nemesis the Beach Boys, specifically Brian Wilson. They had to top that shit. Without the Beach Boys, and to a much lesser degree the Stones/Hendrix/psychedelia in general, the Beatles would never have experimented so much. And without George Martin...fahgeddaboudit. ken

  20. Yeah, the Martin influence was huge. And the Beach Boys, folk rock (Dylan, Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel, Spoonful), and psychedelic craziness pushed them further. It was a unique period in pop music when a few TOP musical artists were directly competing with — while influencing — each other. There was a healthy London-NY-LA rock rivalry happening then. I remember feeling the lid come off starting in 1965.

    But a few years before that The Beatles were actually breaking new ground in their songwriting. Though the London Times' famous analysis of their "pandiatonic clusters" and "flat submediant key switches" was a bit of a hype, they WERE writing songs as early as 1963 that were revolutionary in form for a rock & roll band. Even their first #1 hit in England, Please Please Me, was pretty creative and I Want To Hold Your Hand had several innovations. (46 years later I STILL can't figure out the time signature of the first few bars of that.) Even though they were ordinary guys in many respects, Lennon & McCartney decided early on that they were going to stand out from the pack, starting with their writing. Just the fact that they were writing their own songs was an innovation at the time. And the fact that they had two lead singers was another innovation. And the fact that they were probably the ONLY rock band in England as early as December 1960 that had an original look (longish hair, leather jackets, cowboy boots while everyone else was in gold lame suits) was yet another innovation. And their wacky humor — in full exhibit onstage before Epstein toned it down because it could be offensive at times — was yet another innovation. Norman Smith — George Martin's engineer who was part of their EMI audition — told me how unimpressed he & Martin were with their musicianship and crappy-sounding instruments, but they were knocked out by the Beatles' personality and humor. Norman said they figured they'd take a chance on them just because of that.

    I admit I didn't get how original the early Beatles' songwriting was until years later. In 1970 I was playing in a Hollywood rock band that worshipped the Beatles. The other guys in that band micro-analyzed the Beatle songs and pointed out stuff I had missed — the unobtrusive key changes, the unexpected melodic movement, the funny time signatures, the word-plays, the internal rhymes. No big deal for a Broadway writer but a big deal for rock & roll writers. And this was long before Rubber Soul, when everybody started to pay attention.

    But, yes, without George Martin's help — as musical sounding board and arranger, not just as producer — a lot of the Beatles' creativity would not have seen the light of day. And I suspect — though Lennon and McCartney have never acknowledged it — that Martin made suggestions on actual chord changes in their first few years. With all of the interesting chord movement in their songs — especially in and out of bridges — there were very few "sour" changes, at least to my ears.

  21. What impressed me right away was their easy conversance with unexpected POVs: "She loves you". The singer is telling a guy that this girl loves him because he the singer is privy to her secret emotions. I mean, that's pretty sophisticated for 60's rock. It's very Cole Porter!

    Rubber Soul and Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow are my faves of all their work. And I guess Revolver. They fell on the world like music from another planet, it transformed, it practically terra-formed! Me and Catharsis heard the world premiere of Revolver out of a fading NYC station late at night when returning to Arlington from there and Eleanor Rigby comes on, and the station is kind of phasing out and in with these amazing fucking string quartet riffs all stark and those amazing giant vocals. Holy shit, it was like the voice of God or something. It was totally WTF??? Time, but in a good way. We knew we were hearing history coming out of this Ford station wagon am radio speaker. Not musical history...history.

    Anyways that period is about the only one in our lifetime worth discussing, everything that came after was shit, or at best, a faded carbon copy of the originals from the 60's. And I do mean 60's. I'm so sick of musicologists and commenters/writers referring to the sexual revolution, drugs and the rock and pop revolution as coming in the 70's!!! WTF. The 70's was all dogshit music. It was over by then. ken

  22. Ken, I forgot about the POV thing, but that's true. Yet another EARLY innovation by the Fabs.

    Those 3 albums you mention (especially the British versions which included more tracks) were my favorites. Sgt Pepper was a slight disappointment from a pure songwriting standpoint, but if Strawberry Fields & Penny Lane were included on it, as was their original intent, it would have been much stronger. (Of course the album was still a CULTURAL game-changer, and A Day in a LIfe will be played hundreds of years from now.) There's a recent Rolling Stone special edition on the best 100 Beatles songs, with a page of detail on each one — some of which was new to me.

    You're preaching to the choir re the 60s vs the 70s and later. (I even prefer the Stones of the 60s, tho they had some good tracks in the early 70s. But I'm a Brian Jones guy.) Even Dylan, IMHO, lost a piece of his brilliant madness after his motorcycle accident in July 1966 and his subsequent sabbatical. (Factoid: did you know Dylan worshipped Brian Jones as a guitarist?) After the 60s, mainstream rock lost its innovative edge. In the 60s the biggest bands were also the BEST bands. That was CERTAINLY not true in the 70s. But by the mid 70s I was transitioning away from rock to play the "hoots" (open mics) as a singer/songwriter/guitarist so I paid more attention to the singer/songwriter thing — James Taylor, acoustic Jackson Brown, John Prine, etc. I also got into the outlaw country thing — Waylon and Billie Joe Shaver — when I put together my own honky-tonk band in Connecticut in the late 1970s. Rock & roll was in steep decline by then, though punk had given it a brief shot in the arm. The 80s were really a lost decade rock-wise.

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