Saturday, 16 October 2010

The Prefabricated Image in Rock 'n' Roll

"Image is everything." Andre Agassi

"So you want to be a rock 'n' roll star?
Then listen now to what I say.
Just get an electric guitar,
Then take some time
and learn how to play,
And with your hair swung right
And your pants too tight,
It's gonna be all right..."
(Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, "So You Want to be a Rock 'N' Roll Star")

Almost from the beginning, when their first album was released and the TV show debuted, critics railed against The Monkees for being four actors hired for a television series as opposed to a rock group that formed more organically. Their detractors labelled them "the Pre-Fab Four" and maintained they were not a "real" rock band. To this day there are many who will insist that The Monkees were not a "real" rock band, even though very early on in their career they wrested themselves from the control of music impresario Don Kirshner and started making their own music.

What The Monkees' critics ignore is the fact that throughout the history of rock 'n' roll, there have been managers and record producers who have shaped the image of various singers and rock groups, even when those rock groups had simply originated as four or five guys who played music together. In fact, the rock band whose image was never shaped by their manager, their record producer, or even their record company, may well be the exception rather than the rule in rock music.

Indeed, the practice of creating a specific image for a pop music performer by a manager or a record producer was very old before The Monkees debuted. This was standard operating procedure for Bob Marcucci in the early days of rock. It was Bob Marcucci who discovered Frankie Avalon and cultivated his teen idol image, even urging Mr. Avalon away from rock 'n' roll and into pop ballads. When Frankie Avalon grew too old for his teen idol image, Bob Marcucci discovered Fabian. Not only would Bob Marcucci and partner Peter de Angelis choose the songs Fabian would sing, but they even chose the clothing he would wear and how he would wear his hair. Both Frankie Avalon and Fabian would break free of Mr. Marcucci, but it was Mr. Marcucci who cultivated their early teen idol images and played some role in their early successes.

Of course, both Frankie Avalon and Fabian were discovered by a music impresario who insisted on controlling every aspect of their careers, even when they chafed at the idea. Even when a manager and a rock group have a less adversarial relationship, that manager can have a strong impact in shaping their image. Indeed, this is no less true of The Beatles, considered by many to be the greatest rock group of all time and definitely the most successful. With the exception of John Lennon (who actually had an upper middle class background), The Beatles all came from the Liverpudlian working class.  Aside from their mop top haircuts, all but the most devoted fans of the Fab Four probably would not recognise them in their early days in Hamburg and later The Cavern in Liverpool. They dressed in leather jackets. They even swore on stage. Their act was a much rawer one than it would be after they became famous.

It would be record store owner and music columnist Brian Epstein who would transform The Beatles from the rough and ready band they had been in the early days into the more clean cut, familiar Beatles of early Beatlemania. He first met The Beatles in November 1961 after seeing one of their performances at The Cavern. By December 1961 the band had signed him as their manager. It was Mr. Epstein who encouraged The Beatles to cease wearing leather jackets and blue jeans, and swearing smoking, drinking, and eating on stage, and to start wearing matching suits instead. He also suggested the synchronised bow with which The Beatles ended their performances (most famously on their appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show). The one thing that remained of The Beatles' original, leather clad image were their famous mop top hair styles, designed by fifth Beatle Stu Sutcliffe's girlfriend Astrid Kirchher in Hamburg. Here it must be pointed out that, unlike Bob Marcucci, Brian Epstein did not demand The Beatles make these changes and received each of their agreement before proceeding with them, but the point is that it was Mr. Epstein who suggested that they stop wearing leather and behave more professionally on stage. Even with Brian Epstein as their manager, The Beatles would drift away from the mop top, matching suits image which they first presented themselves to the general public, but it seems quite possible that without Mr. Epstein advising them they might never have become the success they did

The Beatles were hardly  the only British Invasion band whose image was largely shaped by their manager. Indeed, the process by which Andrew Loog Oldham shaped  The Rolling Stones' image could be described as "The Beatles in reverse." Indeed, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, and Charlie Watts all came from middle class backgrounds--only Keith Richards and Billy Wyman had any real working class credentials. It was in 1962 that Brian Jones formed his own blues band, initially called "The Rollin' Stones" but eventually renamed "The Rolling Stones." It was in April 1963 that The Rolling Stones signed a management deal with young, rock 'n' roll press agent Andrew Loog Oldham. Initially Mr. Oldham outfitted The Rolling Stones in matching suits, not unlike The Beatles and other British bands of the era. In fact, they wore suits in their first television appearance on Thank Your Lucky Stars. The suits would soon fall by the wayside. The Rolling Stones disliked wearing suits and actually "lost" bits and pieces of them--a pair of trousers here, a waistcoat there. At the same time, many in the press took a dislike to The Rolling Stones. Andrew Loog Oldham soon noticed this and decided to exploit the bad boy image which the press seemed intent on forcing on The Rolling Stones.

To this end, Mr. Oldham set out to make The Rolling Stones "the anti-Beatles." While The Beatles had their relatively neat, mop top hair styles, The Stones' hair would be long for the era and even unkempt. While The Beatles wore matching suits on stage, The Rolling Stones would wear pants that were a bit too tight with nary a jacket in sight. He led the pubic to believe The Rolling Stones were the ugliest band in Britain. When in February 1964 Melody Maker ran the famous headline, "Would you let your daughter date a Rolling Stone," Andrew Loog Oldham ran with it as one of the band's slogans. While The Rolling Stones went along with Mr. Oldham in exploiting a working class, bad boy image, even they were not always comfortable with it. When The Rolling Stones made their debut on American television in June 1964 on Hollywood Palace, it was to the derision of guest host Dean Martin. The Stones were not amused.

The Beatles would eventually lose their mop top, matching suits image, even as Brian Epstein remained their manager. The Rolling Stones stuck to their bad boy image all through the Sixties with Andrew Loog Oldham as their manager. There would be one major British band that would maintain the image created for them by their manager even after they had parted ways with him. The origins of The Who go back to two bands formed in England in the early Sixties. The Confederates were a trad jazz band formed by Peter Townshend and John Entwistle. The Detours were a rock 'n' roll  and rhythm and blues band formed by Roger Daltrey. Eventually Messrs. Townshend and Entwistle joined The Detours, which evolved into The Who. Largely products of the middle class, Peter Townsend was one of the many young English musicians to emerge from art school. The band's image would forever be changed after they hired Peter Meaden.

Peter Meaden was an ace face, one of the most fashionable and coolest of the fashion obsessed Mods. He observed that the Mods generally hated the music that made the charts  in Britain and that the Mods did not have their own band. To this end he set about transforming The Who into the Mod band, never letting the fact that The Who themselves were not Mods hinder him. Mr. Meaden would have a difficult time convincing The Who to develop a Mod image, but he would be supported by Pete Townshend, who as a former art school student was familiar with the pop imagery associated with the Mod subculture. At last the band came around to Mr. Meaden's way of thinking. To this end, Mr. Meaden had The Who's hair cut, took them to shops to buy the latest Mod fashions, and had the band change their name, yet again, to The High Numbers. He even planted a story in the press that Pete Townshend spent  £100 a week on clothes. Mr. Meaden also shifted the band's musical style more towards the rhythm and blues sounds of American labels like Motown and Tambla favoured with the Mods. For their first single, Peter Meaden re-wrote Slim Harpo's "Got Love If You Want It" as "I'm the Face," with "Zoot Suit" being a rewrite of The Dynamics' "Misery." The single would go nowhere, but the Mod image Peter Meaden created for The High Numbers would get the band noticed.

Peter Meaden's time with The Who/The High Numbers would not be long. By July 1964 Mr. Meaden found himself being replaced by the team of Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. To soothe any hurt feelings, Mr. Lambert would pay £250 to Peter Meaden in the way of a buy out. While Peter Meaden was no longer The High Numbers' manager and they would soon revert to the name by which they became famous, The Who, they continued to capitalise on the Mod image he formulated for them. The Who created the slogan "Maximum R&B" not only to describe their music, but to capitalise on the Mods' love of that genre of music. For much of the Sixties they utilised imagery associated with the Mod subculture, from the bullseye motif to turtlenecks. All the while, The Who were not in fact Mods themselves.

The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who were hardly the only rock bands whose images were shaped by a manager. From KISS to The Sex Pistols, many other groups over the years have had an image which originated with a manager. It is notable that for the most part these groups have never had their credentials as rock musicians questioned. That having been said, it would seem to be a very thin line between a manager taking an existing rock group and re-creating them in his own image and simply hiring people who would fit that image. Ultimately, it would seem that although most rock critics and historians would be loathe to admit it, the line between bands that grew organically such as The Rolling Stones and groups that were simply  "fabricated" like The Monkees is a very thin one.

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