In 1965, The Rolling Stones released (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. According to Keith Richards he started the song on March 6th of that year which happens to be the day I was born. The band was on tour in America at the time. “I’d woken up in the middle of the night, thought of the riff, and put it straight down on a cassette. In the morning, I still thought it sounded pretty good. I played it to Mick and said, ‘The words that go with this are: ‘I can’t get no satisfaction.’ That was just a working title. … I never thought it was anything like commercial enough to be a single.”
The song attracted attention for its implied, risqué content but I always enjoyed the knocks it made against the media, advertising, consumer culture, and materialism. In the lyrics, the radio broadcasts “more and more about some useless information” while the television advertisements tease with personal improvement and brand status: “how white my shirts can be – but he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me.”
With great irony this stand against materialism launched the Rolling Stones and grew their collective bank account. Along with the Beatles, the Who, the Kinks, and the Animals, they produced timeless songs that continue to attract and keep fans. Make no mistake, these bands are brands and music is their product. If you think they did what they did solely for artistic or altruistic reasons you would be wrong.
These bands had commercial intent and marketed with energy. Paul McCartney was honest on this account, “Somebody said to me, ‘But the Beatles were anti-materialistic.’ That’s a huge myth. John and I literally used to sit down and say, ‘Now, let’s write a swimming pool.’”
At one of their first American press conferences the Beatles were asked by the press gallery if they would sing something. All four shouted back, “NO!” The press were skeptical about their voices because concert crowds had been drowning out the band at every venue with screams and shouts. The follow up question was, “Can you sing at all?” To which Ringo Starr responded, “No, we need money first.”
So line up for this magical marketing tour. There is much to learn about how these bands deliberately and accidentally built their brands. What follows is divided into three sections. Shared Tracks explores what the bands had in common. Individual Hits digs into the uniqueness of each. Lastly, Liner Notes wraps it all up.
You cannot be a successful brand or have any longevity without good product. Consumers catch on quickly and will punish any lack of quality and value. The Beatles have forever stunned the world with their incredible playlist. In hindsight, each album now seems like a greatest hits release. Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles (renamed by fans the White Album) and Abbey Road brim with songs we sing along with, ponder, and play as the soundtrack of our lives.
The Who have released just one album of new music in the last 30 years yet their brand is undeniably strong. This is attributed to their constant play on television commercials, television shows, Broadway plays, live albums and greatest-hits, and tours. Just this year The Kinks musical, Sunny Afternoon, won the Olivier Award in the United Kingdom for Best New Musical. The show is introducing the band and its songs to a new set of fans. All five bands produced amazing music and are honored by continuing sales, accolades, and influence on other artists.
Bruce Springsteen honored the Animals in 2012 during his keynote at SXSW. Attendees and media at the film, interactive, and music festival heard him deliver an acoustic rendition of We Gotta Get Out Of This Place which he followed by saying, “That’s every song I’ve ever written… That’s ‘Born to Run,’ ‘Born in the U.S.A.,’ everything I’ve done for the past 40 years including all the new ones. That struck me so deep. It was the first time I felt I heard something come across the radio that mirrored my home life, my childhood.” Springsteen then played the opening to The Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and his own “Badlands” back to back, then said, “Listen up, youngsters! This is how successful theft is accomplished!”
The five bands succeeded, on a relative basis, for three reasons that are building blocks for any business and brand. You may think that talent and creativity would be chief among them and those certainly do not hurt. It is interesting that so many of the members of these bands attended art schools before pursuing music. These included Ray Davies, Pete Townshend, John Lennon, Eric Burdon, and Dave Davies who said, “I was an art student at the time, like thousands of others.” Their talents and creativity are undeniable and great assets but they are also superseded by hard work, passion, and innovation.
The bands made it primarily because they did the work. The Beatles ground away in dingy clubs in Hamburg for over two years. There they honed their skills, grew their reputation, and recorded for the first time. Roger Daltrey said, “Fifty per cent of rock is having a good time.” What he fails to mention is the other fifty percent is damn hard work. These bands toured relentlessly to get their sound and messages out. At any spare moment they wrote music and locked themselves for weeks in the studio. They sweated details, faced rejection, and fought amongst themselves. It is no wonder hotel rooms got trashed, alcohol got drunk, and sex and drugs were in ample supply. They did the work and the work took its toll.
In an interview in May, 2015, Ronnie Wood criticized the new crop of artists who expect instant fame and success. “There’s a lot to be said for the grind – going up and down the country in a van, playing gig after gig after gig. I feel sorry for bands now that aren’t exposed to that way of life. For so many, they think it’s either straight on in front of millions of people or they’re destined to be forgotten but there is another way; it involves cutting your teeth the hard way and it can be a slog, but it can be done. Rehearsing in a garage, getting in the gig wagon and playing hundreds of shows, that’s what it’s all about. More young bands should try it.”
The second ingredient is passion. George Harrison stated throughout his career that fame was never the goal. What the Beatles were after was success and if you do not know the difference you may be doomed to mediocrity at best. The Beatles’ unstated mission was to save the world from boredom and that required overwhelming commitment. For each band, the music became their calling. Ray Davies likened it to religious zeal, “The more we played, the more we wanted to do it. And it got to a stage where we wanted to do it all the time.” Mick Jones felt it too, “Rock n’ roll means so much more to people; it enriches the culture. Also, it inspires people; there’s no half-feeling.”
That passion and commitment drove innovation. The progression and sophistication in each band’s music over a few short years is remarkable. They explored and pushed boundaries. The Rolling Stones assimilated various musical genres into their own unique, collective sound. The Who defied convention with two rock-opera masterworks, Tommy and Quadrophenia. Pete Townshend praised the Davies’ brothers and the Kinks, “Dave was a real innovator and Ray was a gobsmaking genius.” Originally the Beatles sound was rooted in skiffle and beat music. It did not take long for them to experiment with several genres, ranging from pop ballads and Indian music to psychedelic and hard rock. And like all successful brands, the Beatles were differentiated.
Who would have thought that collarless Edwardian suits and mop haircuts would create such fervor? Without the benefit of advertising agencies or public relations firms, the world got caught up in Beatlemania and everyone seemed to know the names of each member of The Fab Four. Curiously the band name had been a moving target. They began as the Blackjacks before moving onto the Quarrymen. Then they chose the Beatals as a tribute to Buddy Holly and the Crickets that then led to the Silver Beatles and finally, the Beatles.
In the early days, they kept their brand simple and authentic. No aspect of their image was overcomplicated. It is a template that has been copied through the decades. George Harrison sarcastically noted years later, “We were the Spice Boys.” They were a group of individuals that sported a shared, cheeky independence. The four members were highly entertaining especially at press conferences. A reporter asked them, “What is the reason you are the most popular singing group today?” John Lennon fielded the question, “If we knew, we’d get together four boys with long hair and be managers.” A reporter queried Ringo Starr, “Would you ever accept a girl in your group if she could sing, play an instrument, and wear the Beatle haircut?” He responded, “How tall is she?”
The band knew the benefits of positive exposure and often chose it over short-term dollars. The Beatles took less money than deserved for their famous appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. Instead they negotiated not one but three shows each with top billing. The debut attracted 73 million viewers driving incredible album sales. It was a shame they did not have a handle on product placement as the Gretsch and Rickenbacker guitars they used on the show flew off the shelves the next day.
Beyond their signature appearance and intriguingly misspelled name, the band’s simple but memorable logo was instantly recognizable. This helped make a visual connection with their audience. The boys also embraced every medium and saw the value in putting out movies. A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine, and Let It Be were ninety minute videos before there were videos.
The band’s brand has been stringently managed through the years and that has paid off. Villanova University professor, David Fiorenza, notes, “Their financial impact today is bigger than any other artist, living or deceased. The surviving members and the group’s holding company continue to search avenues that weren’t available to them in the mid-1960s. They’ve always been on the cutting edge.”
The Beatles have sold over 600 million albums worldwide. The group once held the top five spots on the Billboard 100 in 1964, an achievement unlikely to be challenged. They made $25 million in earnings that year or nearly $188 million in today’s dollars. In one of those bizarre twists in branding history, Apple Corp ended their squabbles in 2012 with Apple Inc. over the company name and music rights. The Beatles formed their company in 1968 for tax advantages; the computer company was founded in 1976. The peace treaty finally meant that Beatles music could be sold on iTunes.
The Rolling Stones
In the 1979 documentary, Heroes of Rock and Roll, narrator Jeff Bridges cleverly noted that the Rolling Stones, unlike the Beatles, would not be content with only holding a girl’s hand. Musicologist Wilfrid Mellers was more direct, “If you compare the Beatles with the Rolling Stones, who were their contemporaries, the Beatles remained innocent but the Rolling Stones didn’t. The Stones used dark elements in a very savage way.” The band exhibited a defiant individualism and uncompromising dedication to personal expression.
They were commercial but were never accused of selling out. In their early days, the Rolling Stones did a jingle for Rice Krispies cereal. Cadbury’s paid $2.5 million to use Satisfaction and Start Me Up was licensed to launch Windows 95. Mick Jagger has been credited as a sharp businessman but it is Andrew Loog Oldham, a publicist, who is now getting more credit for building the band’s brand assets.
Oldham changed the spelling of the band name from “the Rollin’ Stones” to “the Rolling Stones”. He first dressed the band in uniform suits as was the trend but the band members drifted back to wearing their everyday clothes. Bill Wyman noted, “Our reputation and image as the Bad Boys came later, completely there, accidentally. Andrew never did engineer it. He simply exploited it exhaustively”.
The band’s tours created awareness and advocates because of the energy and danger each show creatively suggested. Mick Jagger is fond of saying, “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.” The albums they pumped out were compelling in name, packaging and content. Beggars’ Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main St. all possessed an edge that appealed to a surprisingly wide demographic.
Sticky Fingers was the first to feature the logo of Rolling Stones Records. This eventually became the band’s logo consisting of a pair of generous lips with a prominent tongue. Sean Egan, author of The Mammoth Book of the Rolling Stones, wrote, “Without using the Stones’ name, it instantly conjures them, or at least Jagger, as well as a certain lasciviousness that is the Stones’ own … It quickly and deservedly became the most famous logo in the history of popular music.” In 2003, VH1 named it the “No. 1 Greatest Album Cover” of all time. I was amazed that it originally incorporated an actual zipper affixed within the cardboard.
When punk rock became influential in the late 1970’s, critics labeled the band decadent, aging millionaires recycling stagnant music. This coupled with notable scraps between Keith and Mick created turbulence that largely calmed by the 1990’s. In many respects the band has earned their self-claimed moniker as ‘the world’s greatest rock and roll band’. Their longevity is a study in ongoing brand relevance though they have been questioned when it comes to a key hallmark of branding, namely differentiation.
Paul McCartney observed, “The Stones are a great group and I love them. I love what they do. But when I look at their history, they always did what the Beatles did, a year later.”
In 2009, Paul McCartney observed, “The Stones are a great group and I love them. I love what they do. But when I look at their history, they always did what the Beatles did, a year later.” To put this quote in marketing terms, the Beatles benefited from first-mover advantage while the Rolling Stones followed the path and avoided mistakes. Both happen in business everyday.
In a recent interview, Pete Townshend talked about the Who brand, “In fact, from the very beginning we had been obsessed by “image.” It was clear that even our rock ‘n’ roll elders understood image-building and PR. Some of them, like Johnny Kid & The Pirates, dressed up insilly costumes, but you never forgot them. Their band also happened to be blindingly powerful and driving. I never regretted the visual stuff, and always felt it was a big part of the work we did. I still like to have a highly visual show.”
Those shows thundered out My Generation, Substitute, Magic Bus, Happy Jack, I Can See for Miles, and Won’t Get Fooled Again. The band’s now famous smashing theatrics began in an unscripted fashion during a 1964 performance. Townshend accidentally broke the head of his guitar on the venue’s low ceiling. He did not react well to the resulting laughter from the audience so took it out on the guitar.
The news got around and people showed up the following week for a repeat thrashing. The unpredictable drummer, Keith Moon, was happy to oblige. He beat up his drum kit and from then on this ‘auto-destructive art’ became a feature of the band’s shows. Bassist John Entwistle was never a fan of the demolition because replacing the expensive equipment cut into his pay.
Destroyed hotel rooms also impacted the bottom line. Surprisingly, the Who learned this from the pop band, Herman’s Hermits. The two groups toured together and the Hermits were far raunchier than their public image ever suggested. They enjoyed drugs, practical jokes, and over-the-counter explosives like cherry bombs. Keith Moon was a quick study. Moon recalled attempting to flush a bomb down the toilet, “That porcelain flying through the air was quite unforgettable. I never realised dynamite was so powerful.” One gig on Moon’s 21st birthday in 1967 resulted in $24,000 of damage to a hotel or $170,000 today.
The Who were ingenious and ironic. One release, The Who Sell Out, was a concept album featuring humorous jingles and mock commercials between the songs. The band saw themselves as a pop art group and viewed advertising as an art form. They happily recorded radio advertisements for canned milkshakes and the American Cancer Society. Such efforts defied the anti-consumerist ethos found in their fan base. Townshend stated, “We don’t change offstage. We live pop art.” This attitude only won more followers.
Everyone knows All Day and All of the Night and You Really Got Me. They are two of the earliest hard-driving songs of the British Invasion. Brothers Ray and Dave Davies fronted a band that was critically successful but a commercial failure. The Kinks albums reflected a keen observation of English culture and lifestyle. Face to Face, Something Else, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, Arthur, and Lola Versus Powerman are among the most influential recordings from the period.
Ray was the chief creative force and friction with his younger brother produced better music but eventually chafed too deep for the band to stay together. Ray remains a curious personality. Mark Ellen writing in The New Stateman scratches at this, “It’s intriguing to learn that Davies, as the leader of what became the third-biggest band in Britain (the Stones being the second), disparaged the Beatles in public and switched off the radio when it played their music. Yet when his manager reminds him that he’ll never get started unless he adopts their hit formula of using the inclusive words “you” and “me” in their song titles – She Loves You, Please Please Me, From Me to You – Davies dutifully responds with You Really Got Me.”
The band was not immune to a gimmick to gain attention. That began with their name. The kinkiness factor or something naughty it implied had impact. Strangely, that thread continued with one of their biggest hits Lola. The story of a confusing romantic encounter with a transvestite remains an anthem. The lyrics originally contained the brand name “Coca-Cola” but for legal
reasons the recorded version was changed to “cherry cola”. In concert, the Kinks were happy to revert back to “Coca-Cola”.
Their music was unlike The Beatles, their shows more dangerous than the Who. Early Kinks’ concerts had promoters wishing they had booked the nicer and more polite Rolling Stones. At the height of their popularity, the American Federation of Musicians barred the Kinks for four years from the U.S. No specific reason was given but it is largely attributed to questionable onstage behavior.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website states, “Ray Davies is almost indisputably rock’s most literate, witty and insightful songwriter.” The album See My Friends carried an original East Indian influence that, in turn, influenced The Who and The Beatles. In fact, that influence led to writer Joe Penhall’s development of the just launched Kinks musical, “When I first started writing plays, The Kinks were a big source of inspiration for me. I would listen to the lyrics of songs, not the hits, but the buried songs on albums, and kind of mine them for inspiration, certainly use them as kind of rocket fuel.”
The Animals were outranked in transatlantic chart action only by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and the Kinks. Their heated version of the traditional folk-blues classic The House of the Rising Sun vaulted them to the top of the charts. We Gotta Get Outta This Place, It’s My Life, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, Monterey, Sky Pilot, San Franciscan Nights proved that the band could write and perform songs with the best of them. The band went through a host ofconflict and personnel changes prompting front man, Eric Burdon, to pursue a parallel career as lead vocalist for the band War whom had a huge hit with Spill the Wine along with Low Rider and Why Can’t We Be Friends?
Eric Burdon is one of the more active surviving members of the British Invasion. At age 74, he appears at blues-rock festivals around the world and collaborates with young artists. His raspy voice and early bad boy appearance cloaks his collegiality. Reflecting on The Animals heyday he notes, “It was a very co-operative scene. The Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and Manfred Mann in London; the Beatles, Billy J. Kramer, Gerry and the Pacemakers and the other Mersey Beat bands in Liverpool; Herman’s Hermits and Wayne Fontana in Manchester; The Troggs in Andover. We were all supporters of each other and would trade gigs at our hometown clubs. We didn’t plan on “invading” America but all of us shared a love for American blues, rock and roll and jazz, so we all dreamed of going there someday at least to visit. When the Beatles broke, it opened the floodgates and we all swam with the tide.”
Many bands were financially naïve in the 1960’s and were taken advantage of. Yet, even by the standards of the day, the Animals barely profited from their music. This led to a claim of mismanagement and theft on the part of their manager. The band could never get the business part of the business straight. There were breakups and several incarnations of the group that led to a legal spat over ownership of the band name. In 2013, Burdon won an appeal and gained the rights to the Animals.
These bands shared an amazing work ethic, were passionate about achieving success, and sought new ways of making music and entertaining fans. This does not mean they got it right all the time. After all they were young and blazing new trails. The music industry, media, and band management were all experiencing something the world had not seen before. It became big business and the playbook was being drafted in real time.
What is most interesting is that for commercial success, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who compromised on occasion. The Kinks and the Animals were less willing. Keyboardist Alan Price believed the original intent of the Animals could not survive in the real world, “The Animals had a particular concept of themselves as a band. There was an anarchic spirit in it, which was being flattened by commercial designs, attitudes, and needs.”
The Kinks and the Animals made missteps with the majority of these in branding and business not music and entertainment. “The Animals were their own worst enemy.” Says front man Eric Burdon. “The Animals were a band that couldn’t live up to their name.” Ray Davies observed in April 2015, “It’s a different musical landscape now. New bands are very knowledgeable and savvy about the business where as The Kinks didn’t have a clue. It shows itself in the somewhat contrived, corporate nature of some of new music.” In both lead singers’ words you can hear the defiance that originally fueled their careers.
Decades ago Mick Jagger said, “I’d rather be dead than singing ‘Satisfaction’ when I’m forty-five.”
The Rolling Stones heartily embraced the commercialism versus artistic integrity conundrum. In fact, they erased the line between the two. Decades ago Mick Jagger said, “I’d rather be dead than singing ‘Satisfaction’ when I’m forty-five.” Rather than call him out on his quote, you have to admire the conviction and energy he applies every time he has sung it over the past fifty years. It made for good business and fits the brand.
In the case of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who, any compromises were balanced with tenacity and the need to be a hard ass when it comes to business. As John Lennon said, “You have to be a bastard to make it, and that’s a fact. And the Beatles are the biggest bastards on earth.”
The Who artfully cultivated a counter-culture mystique while delivering on a market need. Pete Townshend expressed it this way, “What we learned quite early on is what was really important to early British pop that we produced, and this is where we were distinct from almost everybody else in this respect, is that it had to reflect exactly what the audience wanted us to say.” The Who have always been masterful at meeting and then exceeding fan expectations without overdoing it. As Roger Daltrey observed, “You can do too much and oversell your market.”
All five bands are amazing brands and on any scale have been wildly successful. They continue to exhibit passion and deliver innovatively. Surviving members are past retirement age but continue to do the work. Ray Davies tours and has interesting plans, “My next project is finishing the album to my book Americana and putting it on stage or film. I am also starting work on another musical. I write songs most days.”
The Who are in the middle of their 50th anniversary tour while Pete Townshend is remixing never before heard tunes from their earliest recordings. Then he has something else on the go, “I’m working on a big project at the moment which might be half rock opera, half art installation – I don’t know where it’s going to go. I’m going to start with a book.” A documentary has just been released called, Lampert and Stamp, who managed the Who in the early days.
Ron Howard introduced a new Beatles documentary at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015. It traces the band’s rise from 1960-66. Using new technology, Howard has repaired and synced footage from early performances at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, the Hamburg concerts, and the Beatles’ final tour stop at Candlestick Park in San Francisco in 1966. No doubt this will help sustain Beatle awareness and lift revenues.
The Rolling Stones are rereleasing Sticky Fingers in June of 2015. It will include previously unreleased material and re-worked classics. This coincides with a summer tour that will see the band playing fifteen dates in six weeks. While they will be traveling in style, one cannot help but observe they are still grinding away, playing gig after gig after gig.
The driving forces in these bands still do the work with passion and innovation. They have been rewarded with success and continue to influence music and the music business. Their relevance is proven by their longevity and it is here that Jon Bon Jovi gets the last word, “The Rolling Stones set the bar to where I look to as a band. But I don’t envision myself touring in the way they do. My knees won’t hold out.”