From time to time I like to highlight some dates in rock history that convey a business lesson or two...
On July 23, 1979 the new leader of Iran, the Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, called rock & roll a corruptive force and banned it outright. This was just one of many denunciations of rock—beginning with a respected American psychiatrist classifying it as a “communicable disease” in 1956 to the John Birch Society labeling it “communistic” in 1966 to future pope Cardinal Ratzinger deeming it “an instrument of the devil” in 1996. (Rock managed to hit the trifecta: it became a medical, political, and spiritual menace.)
But the moral censure of something—especially in the modern age—only spikes interest in the forbidden fruit. So when the good Cardinal Ratzinger zinged in on particular bands whose songs conveyed "subliminal" satanic influences, such as the Eagles (who knew?), it led many of us to give that band a more sympathetic listen. (Ah, “Witchy Woman”—now we get it.) In the case of Iran, thanks to Brother Khomeini’s sanctimonious outrage, rock became a fixture of the Iranian underground. And the Clash were inspired to write "Rock the Casbah” about it.
As marketers know well, there's no better way to get promo on the cheap than getting the authorities to condemn what you’re doing. Andrew Loog Oldham, the early Rolling Stones' manager, and Malcom McLaren, the Sex Pistols' manager, applied this formula to predictable success. They could always find creative ways to incur the moral opprobrium of the gatekeepers—thus keeping their bands in the news, and selling records. It’s a tad riskier in mainstream business, but retailers like Urban Outfitters and Abercrombie & Fitch seem to be using the very same playbook, intentionally riling up dozens of interest groups with offensive advertising—which isn’t hurting their bottom line.
On July 25, 1965 at the Newport folk Festival, Bob Dylan strapped on an electric guitar and brought up the Paul Butterfield Blues Band to back him on three songs, which kicked up a firestorm of controversy. His second song “Like a Rolling Stone,” (see clip below) which had just been released as a rock single, seemed to especially offend folk purists in the audience. (Columbia Records, having the same reservations about the new direction Dylan was taking, almost didn’t release “Like a Rolling Stone.”) The reaction carried over to Dylan's tour the following year when he was greeted by boo's and catcalls when he brought his band up for the second half of the show.
But this is what happens when you don’t use focus groups! They surely would have indicated that Dylan's “going electric” would confuse and alienate his core customer base. “Like a Rolling Stone” did sell over a million copies and is considered by some critics as the greatest rock & roll record of all time—but what do fans and critics know? And Dylan did become a pop star—and has remained so for 48 years—but these are details.
On July 24, 1968 one of my first bands, The Morning, played a Hollywood Bowl concert featuring the Smothers Brothers, my favorite comedy act. Amazingly (or not) I don’t remember a thing about that day—including a performance by Bob Lind singing his hit, “Elusive Butterfly.” But the event is documented in Ursula Britton’s excellent memoir, Imperfect Harmonies. (Britton, the assistant of nightclub impresario Doug Weston—who owned the famous Troubadour coffeehouse in LA and who briefly managed my band—was witness to the rise of many a great act at the club, including Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Carole King, and those satanic Eagles.)
Four summers later I played a rock & roll show at the Hollywood Bowl in a different group, The Band of Angels—an occasion I do remember because of the star-studded oldies lineup of Del Shannon, the Coasters, the Shirelles, Chubby Checker, Freddie Cannon, Danny & Juniors, Bobby Rydell, and Bill Haley and the Comets. (To his credit, it was Bill Haley who became R&R’s principal defender in the 50s & 60s, rightfully pointing out that rock was one of the cultural forces that helped integrate a racially divided American society.)
My favorite part of the show was watching Del Shannon come back on stage for an encore, in the middle of the MC’s introduction of the next act, the Coasters. (AWKward!) But Del, God love him, always did things his own way—and provided a lot of free counsel to my band to do things our own way, especially taking charge of our business dealings, writing our own songs, and protecting our publishing rights. I was always grateful to the older rock stars of that era who passed on their hard-earned business lessons to the younger musicians like myself.
Now that I think about it, I still haven't recovered from "the rockin' pneumonia" since I first heard Larry Williams belt out those words on American Bandstand a lifetime ago. Maybe there's a disease element here after all.
(For more on Del Shannon's business advice, check here.)