Rock the Cashbox: The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Sellout

Jim Yoakum

How you can’t sell your soul to rock ‘n’ roll because it has already sold its soul... There once was a time during the new Age of Aquarius when the length of someone’s hair meant more than the balance in their bank account.

Microphone in front of bright lights from

How you can’t sell your soul to rock ‘n’ roll because it has already sold its soul... There once was a time during the new Age of Aquarius when the length of someone’s hair meant more than the balance in their bank account.

THIS WAS THE CITY, Los Angeles, California. The time was 1968. The scene: 8512 Santa Monica Boulevard, the recording studio of the counter-culture rock band, the Doors. Lead singer and pop poster boy, Jim Morrison, was standing in the middle of the studio screaming, but it wasn’t part of a song, he was screaming at his band mates.

“You made a pact with the devil!” he shouted. “You sold us out!”

“It’s not your call,” Robby Krieger, the Doors guitarist replied. “It’s not even your song. I wrote it.”

“That doesn’t mean shit,” huffed Morrison. “I’m the guy singing it and I don’t sing jingles!”

Morrison had just learned that while he’d been away on holiday the other members of the Doors: Robby Krieger, John Densmore and Ray Manzarek, had agreed to allow Buick to use their hit single "Light My Fire" in a television commercial.

“It’s good exposure, we can use it.”

“Don’t try to justify it. I don’t do deals with the Man! That’s not what we’re about.”

“It’s $75,000, Jim.”

“It’s a fucking car commercial! I’ll tell you what, you go through with this and I’ll personally call up Buick and say I’ll smash one of their fucking cars on stage with a sledgehammer ...”

* * *

If you were born any time after 1970 you might be asking yourself exactly what Jimbo’s problem was. The idea of somebody getting upset because some major corporation wanted to give them $75,000 to use one of their songs in a TV commercial seems preposterous. Happens all the time today. Hell, rock stars these days openly lobby to have their music included in the latest Gap or Volkswagen commercial; rappers have rhymed for years about their Rolexes, diamonds and Mercedes-Benzes. Who was this Morrison guy, you might ask, some sort of troublemaker? Well yeah, he was, but that’s not the point.

The point is, there once was a time during the new Age of Aquarius (roughly 1967-1972) when the length of someone’s hair meant more than the balance in their bank account, and calling a rock star a “sell out” was one of the vilest accusations you could level against them. In fact, it was a badge of honor to be perceived as a disenfranchised, disenchanted, dropout, long-haired pot-smoking rebel who would rather kiss Richard Nixon full on the lips than dare prostitute the integrity of your music (i.e., “sell out”) by making deals with corporate America (i.e., “The Man”).

There once was a time when rock musicians openly rejected materialistic society (at least they gave it lip service), preached free love and gave free music festivals. There was a time when they put flowers in their hair, painted peace symbols on their foreheads, cut the soles off their shoes, learned to play the guitar and muttered “come the revolution” the Man would be one of the “first muthafuckers up against the wall". Consequentially, and not too surprisingly, the Man wanted nothing to do with them either.

To the Man these “commie pinko fags” were nothing but dirty, smelly, long-haired, draft-dodging bums who did nothing all day but have sex, do drugs and bang on the drums like a chimpanzee. It was labeled by Life and Time magazines as “the Generation Gap", but in a time when the entire world was polarized between the Left and the Right, Conservatives versus Liberals, Young versus Old, Corporate versus Cosmic -- it was less a gap than a great divide.

But it hadn’t always been like that. Before the mid-'60s, teenagers were basically harmless. They might have irritated their parents with that “rock ‘n’ roll nonsense” but they hardly frightened them. They were “good kids” who were “going through a phase", not rebel youths or drug-taking demons. Rock ‘n’ roll was still around, but the beast had been tamed.

So had Elvis.

His stint in the Army had seen to that. He was now churning out songs like "Are You Lonesome Tonight" and movie fluff like "Girls, Girls, Girls". Teens were portrayed on TV as pleasant and slightly-addled ‘young adults’ and embodied by the likes of Gidget and Dobie Gillis. But there was another side to teendom, a more somber and slightly darker side; the land of the Hipster and the Beatnik, the Folknik with the torn sweatshirt, sandals and goatee who carried “Ban the Bomb” signs.

These kids read Kerouac in coffee shops, they listened to Dylan and Baez, discussed the Vietnam War, civil rights, talked openly about sex and injustice and, most of all, saw straight through the white picket fence and blue sky bullshit being fostered on them by the older generation. It was the early beginnings of the Protest Movement, which officially began on October 1st, 1964, when a University of California student named Jack Weinberg was arrested for distributing leaflets promoting civil rights on the Berkeley campus. Before a police car could take him away, 2,000 of Weinberg’s fellow students surrounded the cruiser, sat down, and refused to move.

The stand-off (actually the first recorded sit-in) lasted for 32 hours and marked the beginning of the Free Speech Movement which shaped the ‘60s Generation, and frightened authorities. Some time later, when officials appointed a young man to negotiate with the FSM, Weinberg famously remarked, “We don’t trust anyone over 30.” Although he admitted later that he’d said in jest, it became the unofficial slogan of the coming counter-culture.

Adults were wary and scared by these developments and by its representatives, and they did their best to diffuse the creeping menace by portraying the kids as dirty bums in the press, and on TV as fangless and goofy cardboard cutouts. (Exemplified by the Maynard G. Krebs Beatnik character on Dobie Gillis, played by future Gilligan, Bob Denver. Maynard said that “the G stood for Walter".)

The teens viewed them with both curiosity and trepidation; repulsed and fascinated. They represented something serious and dark and so ... grown up. Emboldened by the assassination of President Kennedy and the anti-violent message of Martin Luther King, the Beats (as they became collectively known) began to shout a little louder.

But their message was soon drowned out by the screams of Beatlemania, and they were ultimately overwhelmed by the perky power -- and sheer numbers -- of those who would rather listen to the Beach Boys than discuss the plight of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. But the Beats and Folkies never truly went away, they just mutated into new forms which eventually came out in the music and politics of bands like the Byrds and people like Jim Morrison.

In a complete reversal of fortune, the beliefs and politics of the Beats -- which had been mocked and ignored at the start of the '60s -- had, by decade’s end, become the prevailing attitude of their generation. By 1969, the Beach Boys (who had ruled the airwaves in the early '60s) were hopelessly square and out-of-date while Che Guevara’s picture was plastered on posters and t-shirts and proudly pinned to the walls of crash pads and college dorms across the country.

Riots and protests, sit-ins and draft card burnings were as commonplace as sock hops and beach parties had been. And not just on college campuses either. High school and grammar schools also saw their fair share of turbulence too, mostly in the Deep South where the forced busing of school kids was a hot topic.

Leaders were being assassinated.

The President was conducting secret wars in Southeast Asia.

The country was tearing itself apart and the music and the musicians reflected this.

And then sometime around the mid-'70s, things changed. The Vietnam War ended. Nixon was thrown out of office. Rock ‘n’ roll was coming into its own as the dominant force in mainstream culture. The malcontents who, just a few months before, had railed against the Almighty Dollar and the Man realized that they didn’t have to storm the barricades after all; they were given the key to the palace.

And once inside the golden gates they worked to turn the music of a disenfranchised people into the sound of the mainstream -- and make a ton of cash in the process. Thanks to bands like Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac, albums now sold in multi-platinum units. Rock ‘n’ roll was Big Business and young entrepreneurs (like David Geffen) were in charge. As rock music grew in power, as a driving force in pop culture, it transformed from a small movement and into an industry (which it what it became by the mid-'70s). The idea of “keeping the faith” and “sticking it to the Man” grew from a rallying cry of the disenfranchised into a marketing ploy.

By the late '60s the “marketing boys in the backroom” (who merely shifted in age as a younger generation of ‘Hippies’ were brought in to ‘relate to the kids’) used the philosophy and words of the counter-culture to sell them product. The most ludicrous example is the marketing slogan used by Columbia Records in 1968 to promote their catalog. A slew of ads appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone announcing “But the Man Can’t Bust Our Music". The fact that were the Man (or one of them anyway) didn’t seem to occur to them. Regardless, now that the corporate Big Boys had put a toe into the water the counter-culture was doomed.

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