Rock the Cashbox

The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Sellout

by Jim Yoakum

14 April 2014


Woodstock Was the Man Too...

In the summer of 1969 several hundred thousand people gathered on Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York to listen to a little music. Woodstock Ventures, the promoters of the counterculture’s biggest bash (it ultimately cost more than $2.4 million) was sponsored by four very different, and very young, men: John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld and Michael Lang. The oldest of the four was 26. John Roberts supplied the money. He was heir to a drugstore and toothpaste manufacturing fortune. He had a multimillion-dollar trust fund, a University of Pennsylvania degree and a lieutenant’s commission in the Army.

He was the Man.

They all hoped to see a tidy profit—after all, the cream of ‘60s rock was scheduled to attend: Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Who, Jimi Hendrix… Abbie Hoffman, the head of the Yippies, an irreverent left-wing quasi-political organization spawned from the Death of Hippie movement, wanted the money to fund various community projects, including New York City storefronts they rented to shelter runaways and defense funds they established for the “politically oppressed”. The large majority of music fans wanted the event to be free. The promoters were selling out, they cried, trying to make bread off of “their music, man”.

Days before the festival, Hoffman and his lieutenant, Paul Krassner, mimeographed thousands of flyers urging festival-goers not to pay. Of course, that issue became moot as soon as the fence went down which they did almost immediately after the festival opened on Friday. On Saturday night, Janis Joplin, the Who and the Grateful Dead refused to play. Their managers wanted cash.

In advance.

Woodstock Ventures feared the fans would riot if the stage was empty so they pleaded with Charlie Prince, the manager of the White Lake branch of Sullivan County National Bank, to put up the money. Peace and love and a cashier’s check, man…

* * *

It’s convenient to put ‘selling out’ in a box marked ‘Relics from the 1960s’, but it doesn’t stop with Woodstock Nation. The accusation of selling out is still often made against punk bands who sign to major labels, since punk too has a cultural tradition of independence and doing it yourself.

Punk also has a cultural tradition of rejecting not only authority, but also the previous generations of Hippie music. Similarly, the sell out cry is often heard in the indie rock and metal communities which, like punk, have a tradition of mainstream rejection and/or anti-consumerism. Metallica is perhaps metal’s most famous supposed sellout. On the other hand (and there’s always the other hand), Metallica brought metal to the mass audience…

Nirvana did a great job of anti-sellout by writing a hit song about a deodorant, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, and never cashing-in on it, although the Mennen Company, which produced the deodorant, wouldn’t say whether the song caused sales to spike, but six months after the single debuted, Colgate bought the company for $670 million.

Of the older crowd, Bob Dylan too outraged folk music purists by, in their view, selling out their favorite music for rock ‘n’ roll in 1965, at the Newport Folk Festival. However, Dylan has changed direction repeatedly throughout his career, always gone his own way—something made blindingly obvious in the ‘90s when Bob licensed his music for a commercial. No doubt all the folk purists from Newport smiled and muttered “I told you so” when a television commercial for the Bank of Montreal came on accompanied by “The Times They Are A-Changin’” on the soundtrack.

And again, in 2003, “His Bobness” caused heads to swivel when he went so far as to actually in a commercial for Victoria’s Secret, singing “Love Sick”. Is this selling out, or is it simply an older artist trying to reach his audience, utilizing the medium in a new way? I’m not sure, but Bob did it again when he actually starred in a TV commercial for Cadillac in 2007.

After all, in this new Age of Acquisition, where only three or four major conglomerates control what is played on commercial radio, it’s a real struggle for older rockers to remind the world that they still exist. Part of the problem (especially in Dylan’s case) is that it’s all so confusing to know what to think. On the one hand you’ve got the man who wrote “money doesn’t talk, it swears” and “don’t follow leaders, watch parking meters”, while on the other hand Dylan is quoted as saying in a 1965 interview that the only product that might tempt him to sell out was “ladies undergarments”. (Hmm, maybe the Victoria’s Secret thing isn’t so weird after all…)

Which statements did he believe?

Any of them?

The floodgates to the all-out rock ‘n’ roll sell out opened up in 1981, when the Stones inked a deal with Jovan cologne to sponsor their 81-82 world tour. Since then, Led Zeppelin has endorsed Cadillac (Rock ‘n’ Roll), Iggy Pop (“Lust for Life” for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines), and Ringo Starr appeared (with three of the Monkees) in a Pizza Hut commercial and had a tour sponsored by Century 21 Real Estate. In return for the sponsorship, Starr appeared in one of the mega-firm’s TV commercials and chatted on its website. “When we were all 20, we were really anti-establishment,” Starr is quoted as saying. “Now,” he says of corporate tie-ins, “it’s part of the business.” (Ringo also did commercials for Charles Schwab and Sun Country Classic wine coolers, to name but two others.)

It’s easy to dismiss this because, well, it’s Ringo—but when his Beatle band mate, Paul McCartney, agrees and says that he’s “less disturbed” by commercial use of Beatle music than he used to be then it gets sort of disheartening. But, less we forget, as owner of Buddy Holly’s music catalog, Paul is responsible for the licensing of Buddy’s music for advertising (although he insists he does only at the request of the widow Holly).

Perhaps the biggest shock of all was when Yoko Ono Lennon allowed Absolut Vodka to parody the infamous and controversial Lennon/Ono Two Virgins LP cover for an ad. (So have Bowie and the Velvet Underground, by the way.) How far have we come when an LP cover that was deemed so pornographic that it had to be sold in a brown bag is now displayed in the pages of a glossy magazine? Is that even progress? What’s next, Lennon’s Power to the People as the jingle for the electric company?

Contrary as ever, the late George Harrison said it best in 1987: “If (this commercialism) is allowed to happen, every Beatles song ever recorded is going to be advertising women’s underwear and sausages. We’ve got to put a stop to it in order to set a precedent. Otherwise it’s going to be a free-for-all. It’s one thing you’re dead, but we’re still around! They don’t have any respect for the fact that we wrote and recorded those songs, and it was our lives.” George was right. The Man’s got absolutely no respect for that sort of thing at all.
Then there’s the flip side, cases where the rock-and-ads marriage didn’t work out well at all. Madonna’s aborted “Like a Prayer” commercial for Pepsi, which aired less than a handful of times, fell apart after her controversial video for the same song showed her cavorting in front of burning crosses and featured a somewhat erotic encounter with a black Christ (although the only thing the commercial and the video shared was the music).

And we all remember Nike’s oops-a-daisy campaign featuring the Beatles song “Revolution”, although that was merely a mistake about what rights they had purchased. The late Michael Jackson, who controlled the music of Lennon and McCartney, had only allowed the use of the song itself, not the use of the Beatles themselves singing it.

And then there’s “Poopgate”, the little-remembered Huggie’s diaper commercial that appeared on US television in the early ‘80s. It featured the Dave Clark 5 singing “Glad All Over” while a baby cooed and giggled on screen and the announcer told us how new Huggie’s kept baby drier than ever. The fact that the company didn’t bother to get permission at all (assuming, I suppose, that Dave Clark was dead and/or didn’t care) is mind-boggling. Turns out that they were wrong. Dave Clark was not only alive, he was the head of a large British media company and owned all the rights to the DC5 catalog. The poop promptly hit the fan and the commercial was pulled.

Since 1981 the litany of rockers to bow to Madison Avenue is long and varied, including such acts as:

The Kinks (“Picture Book” for Hewlett-Packard), the Hollies (“Bus Stop” for JCPenney), the Rolling Stones (“Start Me Up” for Microsoft, “She’s a Rainbow” for Apple), the Beatles (“Help” for GTE and for Lincoln-Mercury, “Taxman” for H&R Block, “When I’m 64” for Allstate, “Come Together” for Nortel, “Getting Better” for Phillips), Suzanne Vega (“Tom’s Diner” for Nissan), James Brown (“Hot Pants” for Planters), Harry Nilsson (“Everybody’s Talkin’” for Wrigley’s), Queen (“I’m in Love with My Car” for Jaguar), Janis Jopin (“Mercedes Benz” for Mercedes Benz), Nico (“These Days” for KMart), Canned Heat (“Let’s Work Together” for Target), Jethro Tull (“Thick as a Brick” for Nissan), Roy Orbison (“You Got It” for Target), David Bowie (“Heroes” for FTD), Donovan (“Mellow Yellow” for the Gap), the Beach Boys (“Fun, Fun, Fun” for Carnival Cruise Lines), Van Morrison (“Crazy Love” for American Express), Elvis Presley (A Little Less Conversation for Nike), Jimi Hendrix (Purple Haze for Pepsi), the Ramones (Blitzkrieg Bop for Nissan), Sam Philips (I Need Love for Ralph Lauren), the Guess Who (“American Woman” for Nike), T. Rex (“20th Century Boy” for Mitsubishi), the Sex Pistols (“Anarchy in the UK” for Nike), the Who (“Overture From Tommy” for Clarinex, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” for Nissan, “Bargain” for Nissan, “Baba O’Reily” for Nissan), Cream (“White Room” for Apple, “I Feel Free” for Hyundai), Cat Stevens (“The Wind” for Timberland), the Buzzcoks (“What Do I Get” for Toyota), Steve Miller Band (“Fly Like an Eagle” for the US Postal Service), Marianne Faithfull (“Kissin’ Time” for Sony Ericsson), Stereolab (“Fiery Yellow” for Volkswagon), Creedence Clearwater Revival (“Fortunate Son” for Wrangler), the Smiths (“How Soon Is Now” for Nissan), Madness (“It Must Be Love” for Hunt’s) Iggy Pop (“Real Wild Child” for FTD, “The Passenger” for Guiness), Blur (“Song 2” for Mercedes Benz), AC/DC (“Back in Black” for the Gap) and…

...last but not least…

...John Lydon.

Granted, the commercials are pretty funny and it’s true that John has always followed his own muse with a stiff middle finger pointing the way. He’s been making the shift away from angry young punk (which he probably never, really, was) to eccentric old geezer for some few years now—in fact he’s starting to resemble another great British eccentric (dare I say it: his old nemesis, the late Malcolm McLaren—but… really John? Butter? Really? (To quote the Great Man himself: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”)

But it’s wrong to always wag a finger at the artists. Many times they don’t own the publishing to these songs (the late Michael Jackson owned the Lennon/McCartney catalog, former Stones manager Allen Klein the Jagger/Richards songbook up-to 1970), or in some cases the performance rights.

Some artists are surprised to find themselves hawking underwear as you are, but there’s little they can do about it. They already made their deal with the Man. Some bands, like They Might Be Giants, decide to write original jingles (as they have for Dunkin’ Donuts rather than have other songs appropriated while others end-up defending themselves from cries of ‘sell out’ when they had nothing to do with it at all.

In 1988, Tom Waits filed a lawsuit against Frito-Lay claiming “voice misappropriation” for having a sound-alike record a Doritos jingle that sounded a lot like a Tom Waits song (years later he did it again against Audi/Spain and General Motors—I’m guessing Tom’s never heard the Waitsianesque jingle for David’s Bridal or the growly Tom-like voice-over for Butcher’s Blend dog food). And then when you throw in a band like Gomez masquerading as the Beatles (singing the original “Getting Better” commercials for Philips—you’ve got some really weird kind of cannibalism going on; a mad cow of rock ‘n’ roll.

Even underground cult faves, like the late Nick Drake for Volkswagon), who never had any real degree of commercial success while alive can find themselves as pitchmen. Although it’s hard to begrudge someone like Drake or the Buzzcocks, if only because they never really received the recognition due them, but for others, like Sting (for Jaguar), James Taylor (for MCI), the Stones and the Who, it’s much harder not to wince.  And for still others, there’s no real feeling at all. Do we really care that Men at Work licensed “Who Can It Be Now” to KMart? That the Romantics licensed “What I Like About You” to about a zillion different companies? Likewise Katrina and the Waves with “Walking on Sunshine”?

There’s nothing wrong with rock stars enjoying the fat of their fame, but when you hear “Won’t Get Fooled Again” as the soundtrack to four different commercials between breaks during CSI: Miami then clearly there’s something askew.

“People don’t know how to do anything anymore except shop,” Tom Waits complains. “Eventually, all the products will be owned by one company and someone you know will be singing the theme song.” He believes public acceptance of the rock-and-ads marriage is part of a larger trend where consumerism has become religion and increasingly large monopolies serve as God. And all indications are that it will only get worse.

As in the case of older rockers who are still producing records but who have been ignored by radio (except for oldies and classic rock stations) and are frozen out of MTV and VH-1, commercials give them an outlet to fans new and old. And for acts like Elvis Costello, the Smiths, the Replacements, the Buzzcocks, Nirvana and Soundgarden—bands who are considered seminal but who were criminally underplayed on rock radio when they were new and vital—advertising serves as the Great Career Salvation; the Rock ‘n’ Roll Retirement Fund. How long it will be before we’re treated to the White Stripes singing Hello Operator for AT&T, or Elvis Costello crooning “Accidents Will Happen” for Bounty, is anybody’s guess however, Howard Kramer of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,  has made a frightening prediction.

Kramer sees sponsorship and endorsements going much, much further, going so far as to turn live concerts into “more sophisticated versions of Formula I racing events in which the drivers, their cars, their suits and their crews are covered with endorsements.” Kramer says that the only thing that would curb the trend is if the public stopped buying products that used rock music to sell them, and if they boycotted music events, and musicians, that are so saturated with product pitches and signage that they resembled a car race.

Hey Jimbo, uh… you still got that sledgehammer, man?

Jim Yoakum has been a professional writer for over 30 years. He is the author of non-fiction books, novels and is the screenwriter of three produced films. He has contributed articles to numerous magazines, websites and periodicals including Rolling Stone, The Onion and Goldmine. He was former writing partners with the late Graham Chapman of Monty Python and is U.S. Curator of the Graham Chapman Archives. He is also a professional musician. Some of his other writings can be seen at and his books are at

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