Rock the Cashbox

The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Sellout

by Jim Yoakum

14 April 2014


The Who Break Out...

In 1967, the Who were so keen to break through that they even recorded an entire LP, The Who Sell Out, where they interspersed their songs with original jingles for Rotosound guitar strings, Coca-Cola, the Speakeasy and Jaguar cars, among others. Of course, being the Who it was a brilliant record, done with great style and wit as a tongue-in-cheek Pop Art piece. But, as they themselves have said, the jingles were not recorded as spoof; they were serious attempts to arouse the interest of corporate sponsors to off-set recording and touring costs.

The idea had come from Who manager Chris Stamp (brother of actor Terence) who tried to interest advertisers in paying for the adverts recorded by the Who on the record but, with only 50,000 copies of the album expected to be printed, none of the companies would buy. The idea was revived with less artistic-success in 1986 by a band called Sigue Sigue Sputnik. They actually managed to sell commercial space on their LP, Flaunt It, to Tempo Magazine, Network 21 and Studio Line by Loreal.

The Who (or rather, Chris Stamp) was on to something. They were just ahead of their time, and not yet quite popular enough to make it work. That is what lies at the very heart of what selling out is all about. In order to sell out you have to have something worth buying and, bluntly put, for corporations, that means major acts on major labels with major hits. It isn’t a question of talent; it is a question of popularity. (Interestingly, this has proved less and less true since the ‘90s as virtually unknown or forgotten artists and their songs have actually broken in the mainstream market through their use in commercials.)

And the very act of inking a deal with a major record company is, in itself, a sell out of sorts.

Signing with a large label gets you a lot of money and a lot of exposure, but it can also carry with it some hidden dangers to the ‘ol’ street cred’ as some musicians in the ‘60s learned when it was discovered that two of the world’s biggest labels, Decca and EMI Records, the homes of the Stones and the Beatles respectively, were heavily involved in the production of electronic equipment for the huge munitions company Armscor, during the Vietnam War.

So while the Beatles were out singing “All You Need Is Love”, their parent record company (EMI) was helping airplanes more accurately bomb Vietnamese villages. Even non-controversial singer Tom Jones (who was on Decca) was so upset that he was compelled to make a statement. He released the LP, A-Tom-ic Jones, featuring the sex bomb gyrating in front of a giant mushroom cloud.

So, what’s a poor boy to do (as Mick Jagger once asked in song) when confronted with the realization that you sold out without even meaning to, that your image as a rock rebel has been compromised because your record company didn’t tell you that they were involved in the munitions industry. You go to an anti-Vietnam rally. But when Mick arrived at the 1968 anti-Vietnam War demonstration in London’s Grosvenor Square, he did so in a sleek, expensive car.

And although he sang about going down “to the demonstration” to get his “fair share of abuse” when the tear gas started pumping and the bottles started flying he was back in that sleek motorcar and on his way home before you could say “Jumping Jack Flash”. But all was not lost, he did manage to turn the experience into not one, but two top-selling songs (“Street Fighting Man” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”) which helped repair his credibility, and also made him a lot of jack, Jack.

But is it wrong to turn a political hot potato into a hit record? When did the idea of being a rich, successful rock star become something to hide anyway?

Until the late ‘60s, when the whole idea of revolution and anti-materialism was conceived, there was no shame in pop stars making money. Gallons of ink would be spilled in the major music magazines of the day gushing on and on about so-and-so’s new sports car, their gadget-ridden luxury apartment, and their beautiful model/actress/whatever girlfriends. Thousands of photo exposes were taken of rock stars (such as the Beatles and the Stones) attending gala luncheons to commemorate their having sold x-thousand units of their LP.

The rockers were seen smoking big fat cigars, sloshing back Champagne, chumming it up with politicians and publishers… wagging it up with some of the biggest wigs in the recording industry.

Some of them were awarded medals from the Queen. Others were on a first name basis with the Prime Minister. The stars hung out at the biggest and most exclusive night clubs, drank for free, drove Bentley’s into swimming pools, starred in movies, they had affairs with starlets…

And then one day it all changed. Suddenly Hipsters were out and Hippies were in. Cosmic consciousness was hot and commerce was not. The new Left was right, and the Right was wrong. Knowingly or not, a bond was created between artist and audience, a sense that it was Us against Them and a lot of bands were caught in the crossfire. Suddenly pop became rock and hit singles (or “product”) were less important than creating “art” and making “a statement”.

Some bands fell easily into the new way of thinking (the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Who), others were less successful with it (the Hollies, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones), while still others knew enough to realize that it was good business to at least give lip service to it and so donned their Nehru jackets and paisley print pants and bided their time until the fad passed (the Association, the Four Seasons, Paul Revere and the Raiders).

So where did this whole concept of selling out come from?

California, of course.

* * *

While no one person or band can be absolutely credited with the idea of selling out, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that it first took hold in the earliest days of the San Francisco music scene. Before San Francisco, New York had been the place where everything happened. It had been the home of the Brill Building, the fabled ‘music factory’ where songwriters like Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil sat in office cubicles churning out hit songs for everyone from the Righteous Brothers to the Shangri-Las.

But it was also the home of the Greenwich Village Beatniks and the folk scene, including Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary, artists who felt a higher obligation to use music as a political tool. New York was also the on-again-off-again home of record producer Phil Spector.

Although he first made his name in New York as a member of the Teddy Bears, and as the producer of hits by the Crystals (such as “He’s a Rebel”), by the early ‘60s Spector had returned again to Los Angeles. He was at the peak of his fame and his success showed those back in New York that “California was the place to be”; that it had a growing and productive music scene, a fact that was underlined by the popular surf sound of the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. Slowly the cream of Manhattan’s musicians, intrigued by Spector’s success and having grown tired of New York’s brutal winters, moved west. It wasn’t too very long before the trickle became a great flood.

John Phillips, later of the Mamas and the Papas and a seminal figure in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, recalls that it was all happening in California by 1964. Fellow band mate “Mama” Cass had already moved there from New York and that by the time Phillips, wife Michelle and Denny Doherty, returned to Manhattan after a stint in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands (where they lounged around on the sand, smoked pot, swam, and perfected their harmonies while John worked on some songs like good Hippes) they discovered that all of their boho music friends had already headed to Hollywood.

The great exodus west had begun. New places and faces invigorated the musicians and the music. Minds and morals loosened and drugs began to proliferate freely. Nowhere was this more true than in San Francisco, the city by the bay that has always prided itself on being the wildest in the wild west; a place where notorious (but harmless) loonies like “Emperor” Joshua Norton (a bankrupt British merchant in the 1800s who went mad and declared himself Emperor of the US) had been treated as seriously as their own elected politicians.

It was a broad-minded city that tolerated eccentrics, homosexuals, musicians and new ways of thinking. Encouraged it even. It eventually became the stomping ground for bands like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Moby Grape, Quicksilver, Country Joe and the Fish, and many other lesser-known but amazingly talented bands. And just about all of whom owe their success to a legendary, nearly-forgotten, acid-rock-western band called the Charlatans.

The seeds of the San Francisco music scene were first planted in 1965 in Virginia City, a small western Nevada town. It was there that Charlatans put on dance concerts at a dive called the Red Dog Saloon. Psychedelic posters celebrating their shows at the Red Dog began appearing in San Francisco and almost overnight folks started showing up at the saloon to find a happening music scene, one which soon spread west to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district.

With the new music came new attitudes, fueled by mind-expanding drugs like LSD (which was still legal) that de-emphasized the importance of ego, Eastern philosophy that taught harmony and peace with the universe, and groupies that showed sex could be free and fun with none of the trappings of marriage that ‘straight society’ brought.

Everybody was happy—at least until the eventual rot set in—and in their happiness they saw all they had and decided ‘the best things in life were free so who needs money?’ The vibe was shared by fans too, and they saw all the ‘non-enlightened’ rock stars—their heroes as well as their brothers in ‘the cause’—trapped, trying to measure their success by the Man’s rules: fancy cars, groovy apartments, and the accumulation of money. They saw them pawning their talents for 30 pieces of silver, thoughtlessly creating ‘product’ instead of the art they were capable of. Those musicians who saw the light got a pardon, but those who did not were called out and branded with the two words that spelled expulsion from the magical garden: Sell out.

Of course, ‘sell out’ was a relative term. Was it selling out to hawk the glittery beads and bangles of Hippiedom to gawking tourists at Haight-Ashbury head shops? Or was it simply a way to make a few dollars in order to support themselves without having to succumb to getting a straight job? Were they truly creating a new society, a counter-culture, based on freedom and love, or merely extending their adolescence? The touristic influx that accompanied the highly-publicized San Francisco Summer of Love (helped by the 7 July 1967 issue of Time magazine cover story: ‘The Hippies: The Philosophy of a Subculture’) did nothing to intensify counter-culture. In fact by the time Hippiedom became commercialized, mid-late 1967, being a Hippie had lost its real purpose.

Hippie society was being co-opted by the Man, so on 6 October 1967, dozens of mourners gathered in the panhandle of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco to mark the Death of Hippie, an imaginary character killed off by overexposure and rampant commercialism. A broadside distributed at the event stated, “H/Ashbury was portioned to us by Media-Police and the tourists came to the Zoo to see the captive animals and we growled fiercely behind the bars we accepted and now we are no longer hippies and never were.”

The mock funeral celebrated not the end of ideals and beliefs but hippie commercialism and its ultimate core site, the Haight-Ashbury. It was a commendable idea, but they didn’t really kill off the Hippie so much as wash their hands of things. There was a still lot of money to be made off of the counter-culture, and a lot of enterprising young people saw no reason why the Man had to be the only one enjoying the spoils. “Beatniks are out to make it rich,” Donovan had warned us in “Season of the Witch”. That was soon to become a prophesy.

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