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.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Sells the Burgers, Man...

So, here we are today with rock ‘n’ roll, the music once the sound of outcasts and outlaws, being used to flog everything from automobiles to hamburgers.

So? Why does anyone care? Why should you care?

People don’t get upset when some country music star hawks Ford trucks on TV. But rock ‘n’ roll is still rebel music (even if in image only these days). Since its inception, rock music fans have held their heroes to a higher degree of responsibility and consistently struggled with the paradox of “selling out". For to be considered “authentic", rock music must keep a certain distance from the establishment and its constructs; however certain compromises must be made in order to become successful and to make music available to the public. This dilemma has created friction between musicians and fans, with some bands going to great lengths to avoid the appearance of selling out.

Some artists have resisted Madison Avenue (Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits to name a few), but the paradox of rock ‘n’ roll is, despite all its anti-establishment rants, it has never been completely immune to the corporate lure. Selling out has always been less a question of If than of When. Back to the original example: Despite Jim Morrison’s passionate position, he ultimately lost his fight with the band. While Buick never created the “Let Buick Light Your Fire” TV commercials as planned, they did run a similar-sounding print campaign for the Buick GS 455, in 1970 (which only goes to show how out of touch the automakers were to try and bask in the reflected glory of a three-year old song).

To tweak the band for having even considered working with the Man, Morrison added a little ‘jingle’ of his own to their 1969 hit "Touch Me". At the very end of the song you can make out Jimbo singing “stronger than dirt". That was the slogan for Ajax cleaner. But the Doors were by no means the first rockers to nuzzle up to advertisers...

In 1954, Elvis Presley did his one and only endorsement, a radio jingle for Southern-Maid Donuts, as part of his contract with the Louisiana Hayride show. In 1963, the Rolling Stones cut a jingle for Rice Krispies cereal. Not only did they record it, they wrote it (for the record it's called "Wake Up in the Morning" and it’s really a pretty good tune). It stands as the only song they ever released that was written by the late Brian Jones. (Interestingly, the writing credits actually read Jones/J.W. Thompson. J.W. Thompson is J. Walter Thompson, the advertising agency behind the commercial, surely the first, and last, time an anonymous copywriter at an ad agency shared writing credit on a Rolling Stones song.)

During the peak of “First American Visit Beatlemania” it was not uncommon at all for the Fabs to endorse local radio stations, even going so far as to quote their tag lines on air and wear promotional shirts, and George and John inadvertently doing an advert for Marlboro cigarettes. Of course, these were done in innocence -- they weren’t really endorsing anything per se, just having fun.

While the love affair between rock and revenue has not always been smooth (there was a period when the corporate world was scared of its “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” stance) it has remained steadfast and true to the point where, today, it’s a mutual admiration society.

Coca-Cola was one of the original leaders of the trend. Roy Orbison did a Coke jingle (as did the Supremes, Jay and the Americans, the Moody Blues, Jan and Dean, Petula Clark, and Ray Charles). And when the decade ended with what was perhaps the most successful television ad campaign for Coca-Cola, the so-called “Hilltop” commercial featuring the song "I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke" -- which actually became a radio hit for the New Seekers -- the line between art and commerce was becoming as cloudy as Roy’s vision. And while we’re on the jingle bell rock theme it bears mentioning that (although they were hardly rock ‘n’ roll) the Carpenters’ big hit, "We’ve Only Just Begun", was originally written by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols as a radio jingle for a California bank.

Also, Tony Asher, Brian Wilson’s lyricist for the legendary Pet Sounds album, was originally a jingle writer. Warren Zevon got his start as a jingle writer for Chevrolet, Hunt’s ketchup and Boone’s Farm wine. And, as every child knows, Barry Manilow was the writer of the infamous "You Deserve a Break Today" jingle for McDonald’s. Harry Nilsson, the Beatle’s favorite singer, started out singing jingles, his most famous being for Ban Deodorant. Iron Butterfly did one for them too. Blurring the already splotchy line between art and advert yet even more, Nilsson also recorded a commercial for himself, a song of the flip side of his "Down to the Valley" single titled "Buy My Album".

Things were getting weird indeed.

* * *

Rock ‘n’ roll rose in popularity in the '50s as a direct response to the stifling popular music of the day which, for the most part, consisted of innocuous ‘pop’ tunes like "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" aimed not at the youth but at their parents. Before the rise of the (now infamous) Baby Boomers, youth (soon to be labeled “teenagers”) was merely a short, awkward, stage of growth between childhood and adulthood. It was a stage to get out of as fast as possible, not relish and luxuriate in. The idea that the teen years should be celebrated -- and marketed to -- was quite new.

Before Elvis, the world of teenagers was a small time affair. Major merchandisers hadn’t yet learned to aim their wares at youth, and so teens were left alone for the most part to wallow in fads and fancies, to which the world of grownups was oblivious. Out of this private world of secret language and signals came a true sub-culture. It was the teen who cared about acne, eye liner, fuzzy pink sweaters and leopard-skin pants.

When Elvis blazed upon the scene in the mid-‘50s, arguably giving birth to rock ‘n’ roll, it had all the trappings of untamed youth banding together to give voice that the old days and old ways were on their way out. Here was a new music, a new attitude, a generation of youth creating their own world by their own “Teen God". This was, for the most part, complete bullshit. Elvis was an authentic talent all right, but he was hardly the leader of a new youth culture in the sense that he instigated any thing or led anybody anywhere. He took a sound that had been quite common in the rural South, a jump blues created by African Americans that was played on many a porch by many a picker, and made it popular.

Elvis didn’t invent rock ‘n’ roll, nor was he a committed rocker, as was proved by his later music. He was in fact the willing puppet of his handler, “Colonel” Tom Parker, a former circus barker who was at least a generation older than the teens he sold Elvis to, and was more interested in marketing than management or rock ‘n’ roll (he even covered all bases by selling both “I Love Elvis” buttons and “I Hate Elvis” buttons). Parker was not a military colonel, it was an honorary title given to him in 1948 by Governor Jimmie Davis of Louisiana. His pre-Elvis experience included shows called The Great Parker Pony Circus and Tom Parker and His Dancing Turkeys and was a veteran of carnivals, medicine shows and various other entertainment enterprises.

Parker was a man who saw Elvis not unlike the circus freaks he had previously worked with, as a sideshow attraction, a commodity to be sliced and diced, packaged and reshaped to the fans in any manner that made a buck before the fad faded. The fact that the Colonel was able to do the most wretched things imaginable to Elvis’ career over the years -- had him star in films that were as interchangeable as they were unworthy, and record crap like "Can’t Rumba in the Back Seat Baby" and yet have Elvis retain any degree of street cred is amazing. And that’s only because no matter what amount of poo was piled atop his persona Elvis was still, at his core, the real deal.

To be fair, the idea that Elvis, or rock ‘n’ roll, was anything but a commodity; a passing fad like the Hula Hoop that could be bought and sold like, well, Hula Hoops, had not yet formulated. It doesn’t matter whether it was Elvis, Ike Turner, Bill Haley or Chuck Berry who first “invented” rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis (well, the Colonel) was the first one to recognize the money that could be made off of the damn thing. In some respects it was Colonel Tom Parker, and not Elvis Presley, who was the true innovator.

Under the Colonel, rock ‘n’ roll and commerce got along splendidly for several years. But once the marketing boys in the backroom woke up to the fact that there was gold in “them thar hillbillies” all bets were off. They began to manufacture their own teen idols geared strictly to make the cash register ring and whether or not they could sing didn’t mean a thing.

They managed to best the Colonel at his own game and after Elvis went into the Army, Chuck Berry went to prison, and Buddy Holly went to rock ‘n’ roll heaven, the plastic pop stars they’d created, like Fabian and Frankie Avalon, took over.

They were then force-fed upon an innocent teen public as this year’s model and, sadly, the teens lapped it up. It didn’t matter to them one bit that their new heroes were about as authentic as Jane Mansfield’s breasts, they were cute and the fan’s simply didn’t know any better. It was at that point that mainstream rock ‘n’ roll went from rebel wild child to sweet painted whore, willing to drop her panties for anyone at any price. And it’s really been the same ever since.

* * *

It’s often thought with the appearance of early '60s bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones that rock ‘n’ roll became more of a movement truly belonging to teens; that they took it out of the hands of the elder image makers and created their own counter-culture. This is, of course, complete bullshit. The Beatles and the Stones -- both authentic rock ‘n’ roll talents -- were just as carefully packaged and sold to the teenagers as had been Frankie Avalon.

Brian Epstein took the scruffy leather-clad Beatles out of the musty Cavern and put them into suits. Stones manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, created the Stones’ image as the ‘anti-Beatles’ in one fell swoop with the headline “Would You Let Your Sister Go With a Rolling Stone?”

The difference is that these bands (and others) were more in touch with the authentic spirit of rock, and more in control of their own destinies -- after all, they’d been the target audience for the plastic pop stars that had come before them and had rejected them wholeheartedly.

Their management too understood the importance of “keeping it real” and, unlike the Colonel, were roughly the same age as the artists they represented. In the case of Oldham he was actually younger than the band. But that’s not to say that they didn’t also understand the importance of a dollar -- they were managers after all -- and thought nothing of having their bands endorse products or record commercial jingles. The Beatles cut the theme to the radio program "Pop Goes the Beatles" (years later McCartney wrote a song specifically as the theme for a Cilla Black TV series, Step Inside Love) and, as previously stated, the Stones cut a jingle for Rice Krispies.

What’s interesting about the Rice Krispies jingle is that the Stones did it under the stipulation that it never be reveled who the band playing it was. Whether that was because they didn’t want to be seen as shilling for the Man, or because they didn’t want to be associated with the song (an R&B workout which really isn’t any worse than a lot of songs on their first few LPs) we don’t know. Even the great avatar of anti-consumer-culture, Frank Zappa, did a magazine ad in 1967 for Hagstrom guitars.

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