Every great band needs a great image.
Saying that, I can already hear the purists with their music-snob radars hurling insults in my general direction. No worries, one day their fog of denial will lift and they will understand that the reason Wilco never got the mass acclaim they deserve is that Jeff Tweedy is about as interesting as nuns lawn bowling. Don’t get me wrong, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is one my favourite albums, but I’m not running to Chapters to pick up Tweedy’s biography.
There is no point in denying the importance of image in rock and roll. Granted, image isn’t everything. Nickelback would still be utter shit if Chad Kroger looked like Janis Joplin and Liam Gallagher’s love child. Even so, the lineage of great bands is adorned with people who looked cool beyond comprehension.
No one defined what it meant to be a rock-star as well as Elvis. With his black leather suits, immaculate hair, and his threatening-yet-sexy lip curl, he was the personification of cool. He had fantastic songs but he also had the look that gave the songs meaning. Do you think people would be singing Hound Dog or Jail House Rock in every corner of the globe if it had been sung by Otis the Obese Trucker? I’d wager on “no”. Look at pictures of The Beatles before they wore suits and they were simply copying the Elvis template of slick hair and black leather.
Of course, The Beatles [or their manager] soon realised they needed a look of their own if they were to become the Elvis of their generation so the mod suits and mop-tops were created (with the help of their German art-school friend).
The Beatles mop-top haircuts had to be one of the smartest marketing ploys in music history. They had the cleanly-tailored suits to get on TV and the shaggy hair to get the kids watching. They were simultaneously fooling and attracting both worlds. As their fame grew, The Beatles were intuitive enough to realise that “cool” changes every thirty seconds. If their music was to stay relevant, their image would have to change with the times. The fluorescent military uniforms of Sgt. Pepper followed – then the vests, granny glasses, and beards of the later years. The Beatles were masters of image.
Dylan’s androgynous electrocution-victim appearance of the mid-sixties marked the dawning of a new era in rock. He couldn’t plug in his guitar and still dress like Woody Guthrie, after all. His new kind of music needed a new kind of look to complete the effect, and it is an image that is still being copied. Personally speaking, no one has ever achieved the level of cool that Dylan did between 1964 and 1967. Just a year ago, listening to Highway 61 Revisited caused me to drop about a hundred and fifty bucks on a pair of Ray-Bans. I’m not alone in my vulnerability to rock cool. The same can be said of every person who has ever bought tie-dye shirt after listening to a bootlegged Grateful Dead track. There is a reason that pre-teens on Halloween dress in tie-dye and flash peace signs. The link between the peace sign and the freaky hippie image is so synonymous with the music scene of the late sixties that it seems wrong to have one without the other. The Grateful Dead would be broke if they couldn’t sell a billion tie-dye shirts a year.
The jam band / psychedelic scene and the punk scene set out to be very different from one another, but they are alike in that they are defined as much by their image as by their music. Late seventies punk bands had classic tunes, but there are teens that can whip up a punk uniform despite the fact that they would not know a Sex Pistols’ song if it kicked them in the head. Of course, that is often the result of having a great image to go along with the music. It eventually becomes commandeered by people who know nothing of its meaning.
But maybe mindless imitation is a good thing. It forces the next group of innovative artists to create to their own image to counteract the previously cool but now plastic manufactured style of the previous music scene. In the eighties, hair metal bands desecrated the rock god image of Led Zeppelin, culminating their efforts in the commercial masturbatory experience of stadium rock. Grunge music emerged to give the finger to Poison. Grunge bands had to create the anti-Bon Jovi look – flannel shirts and Doc Martins worked nicely.
Music and image play a similar role in sending a message. They go hand-in-hand to make the point that a new era has arrived. It would be silly to bring a new music to the masses while sporting the old style. How ridiculous would Kurt Cobain have looked if he sang Lithium in a feather-boa, makeup, and nut-hugging trousers?
This isn’t to say that image outweighs music. There have been loads of band with a distinct look but shit tunes. Group like the Darkness prove that music must be in the doesn’t suck zone before anyone cares what you’re wearing. The goal is to hit the sweet spot where your album is good but your image becomes a significant side note.
In print it looks something like; “The Strokes’ Is This It has resurrected rock from the ashes . . . and damn do they make a pair of Converse shoes, stone wash jeans, and corduroy jackets look good.”
I’ve realised that I have written almost a thousand words about image in music without mentioning either Bowie or Madonna. It seemed too easy. Bowie and Madonna are masters of image. Their looks really ARE as important as their music. With Ziggy Stardust, Bowie had people wondering if he really was from Mars. And Madonna changes images more often than American senators get caught with hookers. But they are the exceptions.
The general rule is that good bands need great music. But great bands need great music and an image. The music business is, after all, about entertainment and the more you give people to gawk at and talk about the more successful you’ll be.