Everybody in my circle is debating the merits of the new Home Box Office television series, Vinyl, about the music business in 1970s NYC, produced by Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, Rich Cohen, and the Sopranos’ Terence Winter.
So far, not so good. The first installment of the show was packed with hackneyed themes and clichéd performances by misogynistic, chain-smoking, coke-tooting cartoonish characters—mixed with predictable Goodfella’s-style violence. (It also had some flaws, but let's not be picky.)
Episode #1 included a sleazy promo man killing a sleazy DJ and mobsters beating up a black singer for not cooperating with his record label—the usual Scorsese fine touches. But the person getting bludgeoned the worst was the viewer, or at least this viewer. A line from a Boston Globe review summed it up best for me: “It’s a story of excess told excessively.”
And yet…the film helped draw connections in my brain between the wild and woolly rock & roll business and the disruptive brand of American free enterprise in general. At a time when the extremes of capitalism run amok are being assailed daily (and properly) in a presidential campaign season (at least by one party), it’s useful to remember that the libertine spirit of rock & roll—a freedom that underlay both the music and the business—has allowed for both dissolute debauchery and unparalleled creativity.
I thought this would be a good time to reprise an earlier post and make a point about the relationship between vision/dream/ambition and talent.
There's only one answer to the question, "Who's the top rock act of the last 30 years?"
This band has grossed more at the box office in the last decade than any other musical act except the Rolling Stones. They've sold over 170 million records, the most of any alt rock group. And they've won more Grammys (22) than anyone—ever.
So it might come as a surprise to learn that when U2 first started out in 1976, they were all talk and no talent. At the time they could have qualified for the lowest talent-to-ambition ratio in rock history. In fact, they could barely tune their guitars or sing on key.
Following up on my post last week about the “woman problem” in pop music, I’m reminded of the fate of the Dixie Chicks—who are finally back this year with a headlining tour of North America, for the first time in 10 years.
The Dixie Chicks, despite being one of the world’s biggest Country music acts at the time, were banned from Country radio in 2003 after their lead singer, Natalie Maines, made some intemperate remarks from a London stage about President Bush and his preparations for a U.S. invasion of Iraq.
After being roundly vilified by Country media and fans for such uppity (and "treacherous") behavior, the Chicks took some time off, before returning in 2006 for their Accidents and Accusations Tour. Their new album Taking the Long Way, debuted at #1 on the pop charts and gave them five more Grammys (for a total of 13). After that they went into temporary retirement to pursue other projects.
We’ve talked before about the diminished role of women performers in early rock and pop—a problem which finally began to improve, beginning in the 1970s.
Given where we started, I’ve argued, it’s no small accomplishment to have so many talented women among the ranks of today’s pop stars, including Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Hayley Williams (of Paramore), Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Adele, to name a few.
I’ve even made the point that pop music has been doing better than mainstream business in making stars out of women. It’s still an embarrassment that in 2016 only 4.2% of S&P 500 companies have women executives and 19.2% have women on boards!
But I confess I wasn’t looking hard at the record chart data. After doing a little digging I could see that in the last two decades women singers (or bands featuring women vocalists) rarely accounted for more than a quarter of the hits. (In 2015 Taylor Swift and Adele were the only women with #1 hits!)
Barely a week after David Bowie’s passing, we hear of the death of Glenn Frey, the leader/founder of The Eagles, whose catalog of hits included “Hotel California,” “New Kid in Town,” "Desperado," and “The Best of My Love.”
The Eagles, thanks to Frey, were a band that featured exceptional songwriting—which was unusual for a band that also showcased guitar virtuosity, including the talents of Bernie Leadon, Don Felder, and Joe Walsh at various times. But even more unusual—especially for a 70s country-rock band—was their steel-eyed focus on being commercially successful.
Glenn wanted a band that had everything going for it. “Everybody had to look good, sing good, play good, and write good. We wanted it all. Peer respect. AM & FM success. No 1 singles and albums, great music, and a lot of money.” This was a band with a mission—and a business attitude. (See the post I wrote on that, after I caught their Hartford concert last July, on what would be their final tour.) As band mate—and co-writer on many of their hits—Don Henley said this week, “Rest in peace, my brother. You did what you set out to do, and then some."