A hip-hop band espousing non-materialist themes, doing ad campaigns for Walmart and Target. A gay icon playing Rush Limbaugh’s wedding. A band that started out as an anarchist punk group, selling a song to GM for an ad campaign. We take a look at 5 times bands “sold out”.
“She ripped her glittering gown / Couldn’t face another show, no / Her deodorant had let her down / She should have used Odorono” – Pete Townshend/The Who
If only “she” had picked up a copy of The Who Sell Out, the classic 1967 album by the London-based quartet—or merely passed its cover in a shop window. The album, which interspersed seamless pop songs like “I Can See For Miles,” “Armenia City in the Sky” and “Can’t Reach You” between 18 faux commercials for a variety of products—features Who leader Pete Townshend rubbing an oversized bottle of Odorono under his skinny left arm. A blurb beneath the photograph assures the customer that Odorono “turns perspiration into inspiration”.
Not only did The Who Sell Out “sell,” it was praised by critics for its satirizing of consumer culture. It also gave the band carte blanche to move units of their own product without being accused of corporate shilling.
And yet, the Who really has sold out, many times over since that time. You now regularly hear “Baba O’Riley” in Cisco ads and “Happy Jack” in ads for the loathsome Hummer. Even more egregiously, the Jefferson Airplane whored out the song “Volunteers” to Tommy Hilfiger—“Volunteers,” an anthem for youth revolution, no less! And, although no one really mistakes Aerosmith for a “serious” band, their song “Dream On” being used by Buick or Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” being used to peddle Cadillacs seems to violate some unwritten rock & roll code.
Even the sweetly innocent Donovan Leitch—whose Micky Most-produced albums of the 1960s changed the course of pop music—has dipped deep into the wishing well of corporate lucre. His “Catch the Wind” is used in an ad for General Electric and “Happiness Runs” is used to flog Volvos to rich hipsters, as are other jingle-friendly cuts from Donovan’s back catalog.
Perhaps this is a warning to all of us—especially those who hold some vague idea about the ethical purity of rock & roll—not to look too far into this subject. The closer you look at how particular favorite artists—at least the financially stable ones—keep it together, the more it resembles that old adage about how sausage is made. You just don’t want to know.
Case in point, Ray Davies. Is there any rock personage more beloved for his integrity than Ray Davies? Well, say it ain’t so, Ray! The head Kink has sold the rights to “All Day and All of the Night” to a mattress company to use in their TV ads and “Picture Book” to Hewlett Packard, and is probably fishing around for more of the same from whoever will have him.
Lest one be blinded by punk’s maverick status, don’t forget that the great Iggy Pop harvested some commercial crops when he sold “Lust for Life” to Royal Caribbean Cruise line (is there anything LESS punk than a bloody cruise ship?). The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” has been used in a Pepsi ad, which for some reason makes a little more sense. Don’t even get us started on the Rolling Stones, whose portfolio of product tie-ins and ad jingles rivals Warren Buffett’s.
The need (and desire) to sell records and other “merch” has been a part of any rock & roller’s mindset. One would have to be plenty naïve to think otherwise. How else are these musicians supposed to make a living? But sometimes, the sales pitches go way beyond the pale, contradicting the countercultural status that rock bands have always been accorded by their fans. With that in mind, here are five of the bigger sellouts in rock history.
The Rolling Stones Self Censor on The Ed Sullivan Show
On September 11, 1966, The Rolling Stones followed the path set forth by The Beatles to achieving stardom in the U.S.—performing on The Ed Sullivan Show. But the second wave of the British Invasion got off to an inauspicious start when singer Mick Jagger agreed to censor a line in the song “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” Sullivan told the band the line would have to be changed from “let’s spend the night together” to “let’s spend some time together.” Perhaps influenced by the rise of Beatlemania that followed The Beatles performance on the show in 1964, Jagger caved and changed the line. To his credit, he did protest the change — with a noticeable eye roll at 1:03 of the following video — but the decision to change the line stands out all the more because of Jim Morrison’s refusal to change the lyrics of “Light My Fire” when The Doors played The Ed Sullivan Show the following year. Morrison famously agreed to change the words to omit the lyric “girl we couldn’t get much higher”, before singing the original line on stage. Though it resulted in a ban from the show, it didn’t hurt The Doors’ popularity and opened the door for other rock performances on late night TV. It could have — and should have — been Jagger and The Stones who broke that barrier.
Elton John Plays Rush Limbaugh’s Wedding
If selling out is defined as a betrayal of core values for a payday, then nothing fits the bill better than Elton John taking $1 million to play at the ultra-conservative radio host’s wedding in 2010. There’s no need to revisit the extensive list of atrocious, bizarre and outright false claims Limbaugh has made over the years to advance the far-right agenda in America; suffice it to say he has a long history of making homophobic and anti-gay statements on air and opposes marriage equality. It’s very strange, then, that Elton John would betray his status as a gay icon for a seven-figure payday. Although some reports from the time suggest the money was donated to an AIDS charity run by John, the legendary singer still validated Limbaugh by associating with him and giving him a memorable wedding night — at a reduced rate. Reuters reported in 2009 that John charged $2 million for wedding gigs that year, the most expensive act around. When asked why he played the gig, John said he wanted to build a bridge with someone who disagrees with him and, in an interview with USA Today, said: “He sends me the loveliest e-mails,” said John. “What I get from Rush privately and what I get from Rush publicly are two different things. I’m just trying to break him down.”
Keith Olbermann tells all:
In 1994, Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder said Ticketmaster was raping its customers with excessive fees and that putting Pearl Jam on the cover of Time magazine would have been a nail in the band’s coffin. But that was when grunge was at its high-water mark and Kurt Cobain was “slagging them off” as Nirvana and Pearl Jam competed to define a genre. Things changed by the turn of the century. In 2000, Pearl Jam gave the company SFX exclusive rights to promote its concerts, which industry insiders said encouraged smaller contemporary bands to sign on with the company, according to the Chicago Tribune. Though it doesn’t appear the band benefited significantly from the move, it helped SFX executives squeeze smaller local promoters out of the market. Things only got worse from there. By 2009, Pearl Jam were the stars of their very own Target commercial promoting the retailer’s in-store music inventory. But what else could honestly be expected from the face of grunge; punk rock’s whiny, neutered cousin?
The Black Eyed Peas
Founded in 1988 as an alternative hip hop group, the Black Eyed Peas’ first album, Behind The Front (1998), received positive reviews but flopped commercially. Their stylistically similar second album, Bridging The Gap (2000), peaked at 67 on the Billboard 200. It wasn’t until the group’s third album that co-founders apl.de.ap and will.i.am decided to take the band in a radically different and more pop-oriented direction. The addition of Fergie and Justin Timberlake’s role as a producer ensured the group’s 2003 album Elephunk’s more mainstream hip hop sound. Lyrically, the band moved on from the non-materialist themes of Behind The Front’s Fallin’ Up to shallow club hits like “Let’s Get Retarded” (has a recent song ever aged more poorly?). Pretty soon, Black Eyed Peas music started appearing in ad campaigns and they never looked back. A hit from Elephunk called “Shut Up” appeared in an XM Radio commercial in 2003 and since then the band has contributed to numerous ad campaigns including ones for Walmart and Target. In a 2004 interview with The Independent, will.i.am denied selling out, saying: “All that ‘sell-out’ stuff comes from the same people who held us close to their hearts for our first two records,” he says. “And they call it ‘sell-out’ for what reason? Because we have a white girl in our group now? I don’t think that just because one day you do a jazzy record and then you do a funk record, don’t mean you sold out.” In a 2005 interview with the Aquarian Weekly, will.i.am said he would never change art for commercial reasons.
Still, it’s hard to reconcile the content of “Fallin’ Up” with the current incarnation of the Black Eyed Peas.
This will seem strange to anyone who only knows Chumbawamba for their poppy 1997 hit “Tubthumping”, but before the band began producing bland radio singles they were a hard-core anarchist punk group. The band’s first album, Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records (1986), a 33-minute LP, opens with the line: “I’m the boss of the company/And I’ve got hunger working for me”. The rest of the album is a critique of the Live Aid concert, which Chumbawamba derided as an ego-trip for the participants that did little to affect the lives of those in Ethiopia experiencing famine. The lyrics are overtly political and condemn the media and capitalism for creating and benefiting from extreme poverty. Their follow-up album, Never Mind The Ballots… Here’s The Rest Of Your Life, opens with a skit in which politicians make canned promises in exchange for votes. The next track, “Come On Baby Let’s Do The Revolution”, is a purposefully dissonant protest song that openly advocates for revolution. When the band traded in their political anthems for Tubthumping, neatly packaged for radio, many of their fans derided them as sell outs, but the band members don’t see it that way. In a 2016 interview with The Guardian, guitarist Boff Whalley said: “I still really like Tubthumping. I don’t feel embarrassed by it at all. I know some bands who hate their songs being popular, but I just think, “Get off your high horse!” The whole point of art is to have an audience.”
Ironically, the band members have come full circle from their early days: Now they’re the media monkeys atop the BBC tree pretending to effect change. In 2002, the group donated the 70,000 British Pounds given to them by General Motors for the use of their song “Pass It Along” (2000) in an ad campaign to anti-corporate groups CorpWatch and IndyMedia. The move wasn’t entirely altruistic according to Whalley, who reportedly wrote on the band’s website: “What we get out of it is exposure; people might hear the song and go out and buy an album. An album that came out ages ago, which isn’t readily available, and which contains a totally different version of the song. That’s the knock-on effect for us.”
Chumbawamba’s net worth is estimated at $10 million. Despite that, vocalist Dunstan Bruce is making a self-congratulatory documentary about the making of “Tubthumping” through Kickstarter, where 1,200 backers have pledged over 46,000 British Pounds to make the movie happen.