In the modern, digital age, when there are more bands vying for your attention than ever before, something a little out of the ordinary needs to be done in order to endure. Nowadays, every move of Lady Gaga or Rihanna is meticulously planned and choreographed, but it hasn’t always been this way. Clash looks back over some of the most notable attempts at increasing sales, featuring some artists who can thank one moment of inspiration for almost their entire career, to some who must still be wishing they’d just returned to the drawing board.
Robert Johnson sells his soul
Bluesman Robert Johnson is widely regarded as one of the most influential guitarists of the 20th Century, with his landmark recordings of the late 1930s inspiring an entire generation. When Johnson’s guitar playing ability went from distinctly average to phenomenal in a suspiciously short space of time, questions were asked. The popular myth that’s prevailed is that Johnson wanted to be a great blues guitarist so badly, he indulged in a Faustian pact; going to the crossroads and selling his soul to the Devil. There’s no proof that Johnson ever commented on the story, so it appears that the discovery of his recordings years after his early passing (he died of poisoning at the age of twenty-seven) led to this urban legend. It can’t have hurt his sales or his image one bit – the first example of a gimmick in popular music, and it wasn’t even created by the man himself.
The career of GG Allin
If your birth name is “Jesus Christ”, it’s unlikely you’re going to live a normal life; GG Allin’s was anything but. His brutal hardcore punk gained a devoted fanbase, but it was mainly thanks to his terrifying live shows where he would regularly take the stage covered in his own blood and excreta. In an ongoing quest to make his performances more and more extreme, he’d take laxatives before gigs and regularly proclaim that he’d commit suicide on stage. Frequently arrested on various charges, Allin died of a heroin overdose in 1993 after a typical show that ended with him walking the streets of Manhattan naked. Not a gimmick to everyone’s tastes, but it’s undeniable that GG’s image was the making of him and his entire career.
The relentless self-promotion of KISS
If you never perform out of costume and are rarely seen without thick layers of face paint, it’s fair to say you’re a well-established brand. In the 1980s, KISS were rock and rollers that were particularly popular with kids, due to their cartoonish nature. Each of the four members had different facial designs and as a result, they were possibly the first band since The Beatles who had such distinct identities. Never ones to pass up a chance to make a quick buck, the KISS marketing effort went into overdrive with everything from the usual (T-shirts and badges) to the extreme (coffins and pinball machines) going on sale with the famous logo. Think of KISS and you may think of four goons with daft drawings on their face, but those four goons have shown a great deal of marketing savvy which has seen them earn preposterous amounts
But if we’re talking rock n’ roll images, has there ever been anyone who was known purely by their look so much as Slash? Guns N’ Roses burst onto the scene almost twenty-five years ago, yet Slash still appears exactly the same. Almost a caricature these days, Slash is a long top hat, a mass of tangled curls, a cigarette nonchalantly between the lips and as little face visible as possible. It shows how much his gimmick was valued when Axl Rose attempted to replace him in GN’R with Buckethead, a preposterous no-mark who played with an empty KFC bucket perched atop his head. A generation later, and Slash is still instantly recognisable and since Velvet Revolver albums began to stay glued to the shelves, it’s Slash’s image that is his main selling point.
Radiohead’s honesty box
Throughout the early part of the 21st Century, record companies blustered and stalled about digital, seemingly unsure of how best to implement it in their business models or turn it into profit. Radiohead were one step ahead of the game, however, announcing in late 2007 that their forthcoming album, ‘In Rainbows’, would be made available online, with fans able to pay whatever they believed to be the correct amount. A third of downloaders took the album completely gratis but the ensuing hype and publicity led to ‘In Rainbows’ being the most profitable album of Radiohead’s career. It also resulted in the Oxfordshire five-piece being regarded as pioneers in the world of technology and marketing, as well as music.
Michael Jackson floats himself down the Thames
He used to be the biggest star on the planet but in the years preceding the release of greatest hits/new album package, ‘HIStory’, Jackson’s career was in tatters. He was cleared of any accusation of sexual abuse towards children but rumours persisted and he was dubbed “Wacko Jacko” by the tabloids. So, what better way to show how normal you are than by floating a ten-metre steel and fibreglass statue of yourself down the River Thames? ‘HIStory’ sold by the shedful, but the newer material was poorly received and Jackson’s days as a tastemaker and force in modern music were forever behind him.
Duffy takes the Diet Coke dollar
After scoring the biggest-selling UK album of 2008 with ‘Rockferry’, Duffy launched her comeback with a bizarre Diet Coke advert, in which she delays the encore of her own show by inexplicably riding a bike through a supermarket while murdering a Sammy Davis Jr. track. The fall-out from the commercial was almost instantaneous; Duffy went from being the UK’s biggest female artist to sulkily threatening to quit the music industry after second album, ‘Endlessly’, sold 90% fewer copies than its predecessor. Adele said, thank you very much, stepped into the space vacated by Duffy, and the rest is history.
INXS audition a singer via TV
What do bands do after the tragically early death of one of their number? Especially bands where that member was the frontman and focal point. Well, if you’re INXS, you decide to desecrate your legacy by auditioning a replacement singer on a TV reality show. CBS series Rock Star: INXS ran for three months in summer 2005, with viewers able to vote for their favourite contestant on a weekly basis. The three contestants with the lowest vote tally would then perform an INXS song for the band themselves before the group decided who left the show. INXS made their comeback – including a new studio album – with new singer J.D. Fortune shortly after the completion of the show, but never again hit the heights of their Michael Hutchence-led heyday, before finally parting ways with Fortune earlier this year.
The battle of Britpop
In the beginning, when Select magazine coined the term, Britpop was good, and it captured the imagination of music fans across the UK. But as its popularity grew and it began to exert more of an influence on mainstream culture, it suddenly became inescapable. Tony Blair rode into No.10 on the wave of ‘Cool Britannia’, a new wave of ‘ladettes’ were forever in the tabloids and – the nadir of it all – the (carefully engineered) Blur vs. Oasis chart battle was featured on the Nine O’Clock News. Blur won the battle, Oasis won the war, but everybody else lost. Britpop disappeared in a self-congratulatory haze of lager, cocaine and bloated albums, only to be revived by second-rate indie landfill bands in the last decade.
Preston goes on Big Brother
Difficult to believe now, but there was a time when The Ordinary Boys were the next big thing in UK rock. Their debut album, ‘Over The Counter Culture’, was a fiercely opinionated record which rekindled the spirit of The Jam and took vicious pot-shots at the small-minded and the humdrum. Therefore, eyebrows were raised when frontman, Preston, turned up in the annual reality TV tedium-fest. Some hoped it was some kind of elaborate plan to bring down celebrity culture from the inside. But no, upon leaving the show, Preston embarked upon an ill-fated relationship with glamour model, Chantelle Houghton, The Ordinary Boys fizzled out, and Preston was left on the scrapheap. So keen to join the ranks of those which he once so vehemently opposed and lampooned, Preston got found out as one of them in the end.
Words by Joe Rivers