Why “Beat It” Is Eddie Van Halen’s Defining Moment

Social media continues to erupt with comments about Eddie Van Halen, who passed away October 6, a victim of cancer. Most of the posts (including a few of my own) consist of very loud audio clips of Van Halen shredding the guitar with his famous finger tapping technique.

More than a few discuss his lifestyle of debauchery and excess (after all, he was a god who walked the earth, and being a rock god confers carnal privileges that mere mortals can only dream of). But my enduring Eddie Van Halen memory comes from hot, sweaty day in 1983 when a bearded dude named Bobby schooled me on Van Halen’s impact on popular tastes.

I was helping a family member move apartments – back-breaking work on any day much less a summer afternoon. I can’t remember exactly how Bobby fit into the picture. But he was a helping hand. And because I’m the last person you want to rely on to transport a fold-out a sofa without the thing opening up and pinning your volunteer moving crew against the wall, I greatly appreciated Bobby.

For most of the day, I stayed out of everyone’s way, which was the best move I could make for the safety and patience of all concerned. But I did strike up a few conversations with Bobby while he grunted and lifted and I looked busy doing nothing. Bobby, who wore cowboy boots and could have won a Kris Kristofferson lookalike contest, regaled me with his music passions, which were simple: country, rock and roll, and nothing else. Basically, if a song didn’t feature a hard driving guitar, a pedal steel guitar, and a testosterone-fueled lead singer, he had little use for it.

“But you know,” he said, in a laid back voice that predated the Dude by 15 years, “I gotta tell you something that really, really surprises me. I never thought I’d ever say this, but that new Michael Jackson stuff rocks hard! He’s got it down right.” And then he proceeded to play air guitar to Eddie Van Halen’s “Beat It” solo.

Michael Jackson didn’t need Eddie Van Halen to become a global superstar. By the time “Beat It” was released as a video and radio single in early 1983, the Thriller album was already taking off big thanks largely to “Billie Jean,” which exploded in January 1983. But it was “Beat It” that changed everything by fusing rock and R&B. “Beat It” not only made Thriller rocket to Number One, it also helped Michael Jackson become a crossover star, reaching a far wider audience, including cats like Bobby who would never have given Michael Jackson the time of day. At a time when music was becoming more programmed and segmented, “Beat It” defied expectations. 

Eddie Van Halen’s song canon includes far more complex and intense guitar solos, but perhaps none more influential than “Beat It.” And that’s just what Michael Jackson and Producer Quincy Jones wanted. Jackson wanted to include a rock song on Thriller “I wanted to write a song, the type of song that I would buy if I were to buy a rock song”). Jones was happy to oblige. (In fact, depending on what source you read, the idea of recording a rock-oriented song was Jones’s idea.) Years later, Van Halen would remember joining Jones in the studio to record the famous solo:

Michael left to go across the hall to do some children’s speaking record. I think it was “E.T.” or something. So I asked Quincy, “What do you want me to do?” And he goes,

“Whatever you want to do.” And I go, “Be careful when you say that. If you know anything about me, be careful when you say, “Do anything you want!”

I listened to the song, and I immediately go, “Can I change some parts?” I turned to the engineer and I go, “OK, from the breakdown, chop in this part, go to this piece, pre-chorus, to the chorus, out.” Took him maybe 10 minutes to put it together. And I proceeded to improvise two solos over it.

I was just finishing the second solo when Michael walked in. And you know artists are kind of crazy people. We’re all a little bit strange. I didn’t know how he would react to what I was doing. So I warned him before he listened. I said, “Look, I changed the middle section of your song.”

Now in my mind, he’s either going to have his bodyguards kick me out for butchering his song, or he’s going to like it. And so he gave it a listen, and he turned to me and went, “Wow, thank you so much for having the passion to not just come in and blaze a solo, but to actually care about the song, and make it better.”

The solo didn’t happen because Eddie Van Halen spontaneously walked into a recording studio. The solo happened because Jackson and Jones possessed the artistic vision and commercial instincts. And Eddie Van Halen brought the genius for improvisation. That’s why guys like Bobby discovered Thriller back in 1983. And why they do so today.

The Best and Worst Musicians in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Music purists love to trash the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for being a creaky institution run by out-of-touch guardians of all that is old and irrelevant.

And yet, music writers can’t stop talking about the Hall, which, ironically, makes the organization relevant to the ongoing conversation about music. Take, for instance, a May 2 article from Vulture’s Bill Wyman that ranks every single Rock Hall of Fame member from best to worst. The article went viral shortly after Wyman unleashed this sprawling analysis that attacks and praises Hall of Fame members with equal passion, depending on his personal preferences.

The tone of his article, alternating between bitchy and smug, invites the kind of anger-laden debate that characterizes a well-written ranking. Wyman mercilessly attack Bon Jovi (ranked 214 — dead last) for producing “only one passable chorus in a 30-year-plus history” while fawning over the Ramones, a band he ranks in greatness above Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. Along the way, Wyman makes some mighty controversial choices. Here are some that stand out:

  • Prince, Ranked Number 6. Prince created his own style of rock and funk crossover — but are we prepared to accept a world in which Prince is ranked ahead of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Rolling Stones, Al Green, Little Richard, and Otis Redding? Seriously? Prince was great, but how many Prince albums and songs do you regularly listen to from his catalog post-Sign ‘O’ the Times?
  • The Doors, Ranked 172. The Doors represent everything that is great about rock: pushing boundaries, rebelling, and embracing inner chaos. Jim Morrison was not only one of rock’s greatest front men, he also created the template for musicians as visual artists. Anyone who aspires to captivate an audience through the power of live theater — Arcade Fire comes to mind — owes a debt to the Doors. The Doors also created an incredibly diverse and influential body of music in just five years, fusing psychedelia, jazz, and blues. But Bill Wyman dismisses them as nothing more than a “dreary band.” I get, it, though: when you challenge the status quo and redefine a genre, you anger people who want to keep rock in a well-defined box.
  • The Ramones, Ranked 7. The Ramones are the kind of band that critics love to hold up as the shining example of “real rock,” as in some stripped down kind of music devoid of pretension. And don’t get me wrong — I love the Ramones, or, more specifically, two or three highly listenable Ramones albums from the band’s peak. But they’re more famous for representing a movement, which elevates their music too high on Wyman’s list. The Ramones did one thing really well, but they were limited to their loud-and-fast formula. The Rolling Stones, ranked 15, were punk before the Ramones defined Punk.
  • The Rolling Stones, Ranked 15. Wyman’s ranking is a head scratcher. First off, let’s names some of the groups he ranks ahead of the Stones: the Sex Pistols, Nirvana, and, as noted, the Ramones and Prince. Really? Nirvana is more important than the Stones? But rather than defend his rationale, Wyman dives into a puzzling harangue about why the Stones’s original keyboardist, Ian Stewart, was allowed to be inducted along with the group — sort of like a historian ranking Millard Fillmore as a greater president than Abraham Lincoln and then launching into a discussion about the vagaries of the Electoral College. I’m left mystified as I listen to Beggars Banquet for the 500th time.
  • Michael Jackson, Ranked 58. In Wyman’s view, Michael Jackson is guilty of not being Elvis or the Beatles (“virtually everyone who bought a Presley or Beatles record was doing something they’d never done before. That’s different from what Jackson did.”) Fair enough. Jackson was neither Elvis nor the Beatles, both of whom are ranked reasonably in Wyman’s Top 5. But Jackson didn’t need to be Elvis or the Beatles. He reinvented pop music with his own sound. He also transformed pop for the visual age, turning the medium of video into a cultural phenomenon. Songs such as “Beat It” crossed racial boundaries in powerful ways. I think Wyman’s beef is not so much with Jackson as his fans. And Wyman takes out his resentment on the king of pop.

But however confounding Bill Wyman’s list is (and this isn’t the only one he has written), the music world would be a lesser place without it. Lists trigger arguments. Discussions. Agreements. The creation of more lists. Lists act as gut checks on our own tastes. So, check out his list and let me know what you agree with — and disagree with. Long live rock.

Selling Elvis in the Age of Instagram

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Image source: Vegas.com

Elvis never left the building after all. Seventeen years after his death, Elvis Presley remains one of the most lucrative names in show business. According to Forbes, he is the second wealthiest deceased celebrity, earning $55 million in 2013 through merchandising, licensing of his image, and his Graceland estate. And now, thanks to hologram technology, he will come to life in the digital age. Welcome to 21st Century branding, where yesterday’s artists can endure as immersive brands for a visual generation that speaks the language of Instagram and Vine.

According to Adweek‘s Michelle Castillo, Authentic Brands Group (which manages his estate) and Pulse Evolution are creating an Elvis hologram that will appear in commercials and movies — and host a residency in Macau and Las Vegas, the latter location being especially fitting given the legacy Elvis created in the 1970s through his extravagant shows at the Las Vegas Hilton. The residencies may even involve holograms of Elvis and Michael Jackson performing together (the King of Pop has already appeared at the Billboard Music Awards thanks to Pulse Evolution’s technology).

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Michael Jackson hologram appears onstage. Image source: Rollingstone.com

Jamie Salter, CEO of Authentic Brands Group, told Adweek, “We want you to go to the show and say, ‘Wow, oh my God! I saw Elvis 50, 60 years ago, and this is exactly the same thing.” But will the Elvis hologram appeal to a Millennial generation that never saw Elvis perform? I believe the virtual Elvis will resonate with both the Baby Boomer generation and Millennials for these reasons:

  • Elvis is a massive brand. Elvis lived large, died before his time, and captured the public’s imagination. As his standing in the annual Forbes list attests, his name is as big as ever. Everyone knows who Elvis is even if not everyone cares too much for his music, and name awareness is a strong foundation upon which to strengthen a brand.

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Image source: arts-stew.com

  • An Elvis hologram is tailor made for the concert experience, and concerts are one of the few reliable ways that the music industry can generate reliable revenue streams  across all generations (as I mentioned to Michelle Castillo in the Adweek article). Elvis was a charismatic performer onstage who engaged an audience. It makes perfect sense to bring him back for a residency, where all audiences, including Millennials, will see him in a new context.
  • A hologram is the perfect way to make a brand relevant to the Vine generation. Holograms are visual. Holograms are sexy. Holograms bring music to life visually. Elvis was a visually savvy musician who famously used both his body and his stage costumes to complement his singing.

Holograms will not work for every famous musician who has passed away. You need a musician with a strong brand, visual appeal, and a reputation for delivering memorable stage performances. We’ve already seen holograms create tremendous buzz for Tupac Shakur and Michael Jackson. I can easily see Jim Morrison, Freddie Mercury, and Whitney Houston some day returning as holograms. Elvis is a classic, cool brand launched in 1954 when he began recording at Sun Records, just as the Ford Mustang was launched in 1964. And now we can conceivably enjoy several “Elvis models”: the swaggering country boy in a gold lamé suit, the confident man in black leather, and the larger-than-life spectacle who changed the nature of live shows in Las Vegas.

Who do you think will get the hologram treatment next?

TMZ: The Time Inc. of Fame Inc.

TMZ has transformed itself from everyone’s favorite guilty pleasure to a powerhouse news reporting and entertainment brand. The multi-million dollar organization managed by Harvey Levin long ago shrugged off its image as a snarky Hollywood gossip site and by beating mainstream news organizations such as CNN at their own game. When Mel Gibson was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving and hurled shocking religious epithets at his arresting officers, TMZ broke the news first. When Michael Jackson died abruptly in 2009, TMZ scooped the world. As Harvey Levin explained at a recent appearance at the SXSW Interactive Festival, TMZ has succeeded by covering celebrity news with the rigor and professionalism of a serious newsroom — while still retaining much of the snarky voice that endears TMZ to some and infuriates others. And yet, something else beyond Harvey Levin’s control has helped legitimize TMZ: celebrity news itself. “Celebrity” is like a vertical market akin to retail: an industry with many inter-related stake holders such as from celebrities themselves to the media who cover them, the merchants to sell them, the products who rely on them for endorsement, and the media that spin content out of their lives. As I discuss in a new post for the iCrossing Content Lab, celebrity news sites have become diversified and specialized, ranging from Egotastic, which focuses on “the sexy side of celebrity gossip,” to Bossip, which covers black celebrity news. TMZ now rules as the Time Inc. of Fame Inc. Check out my post for more insight.

Old bands, great brands shine in 2010

There seems to be no end to the merchandising of so-called legacy rock stars, and 2010 was no exception:

  • Elder rockers ranging from Robert Plant to Roger Waters made headlines with new music (in Plant’s case) and an updating of a rock classic via a stunning tour (Waters).

As I’ve blogged before, legacy rockers (sometimes from the grave) provide a relatively young art form (rock) the gift of perspective as they come to terms with their past and chart a course for the future. What did they say about themselves in 2010? Here’s my take:

  • “The king is dead. Long live the king.” God bless Robert Plant. After re-uniting with three quarters of Led Zeppelin to perform at London’s O2 arena in 2007, Plant endured tremendous pressure to tour again with his old band mates under the Led Zeppelin banner. But Plant would have none of that. Instead in 2008 he toured with Alison Krauss to promote their celebrated Raising Sand. In 2010, Plant continued to firmly keep Led Zeppelin in his rear-view mirror by releasing his latest solo album, Band of Joy (the name is a reference to one of his bands prior to Zeppelin). Anyone hoping for a Zeppelin reincarnation was disappointed. He chose a quirky mix of Americana covers spanning folk and rock (recorded with lesser known musicians) and embarked on a modest tour in places like the Robinson Center Music Hall in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was rewarded with some of the best reviews of his career.

  • “Remember us.” The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Elvis, and the Rolling Stones kept their names in the public eye without releasing any new music. Amid much hoopla, including a weeklong celebration on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the Rolling Stones unveiled the remastered Exile on Main St. Months later, Keith Richards, surprising fans with a still-intact and lucid memory, published his 565-page autobiography, Life. In August, Elvis Presley’s entire catalog was released via a massive 30-CD box set retailing for more than $700 — and in an era in which CDs are supposed to be dead, the first-edition limited release sold out. In October, Sony released mono CD editions of Bob Dylan’s seminal recordings from the 1960s (the box set included a thoughtful essay by noted rock historian Greil Marcus). I think that Dylan, the Stones, and the caretakers of Elvis’s brand essentially were re-establishing their places in history for newer generations of rock critics (and it sounds like John Jurgensen at The Wall Street Journal wasn’t convinced). None of them technically released new material (the previously unreleased Exile tracks date back to the making of the original album). Instead, they continued to keep their past achievements relevant (even to the point of the Stones successfully licensing “Gimme Shelter” for use in a video game). I think it’s also significant that the Beatles finally made their music available digitally through iTunes. I don’t think the move was about generating sales (although sales did result) but rather passing the band’s legacy down to digital generations both today and tomorrow.

  • “I am an artist!” It’s no secret that Roger Waters and his ex-Pink Floyd band mates have fought bitterly over who is the rightful owner of the Pink Floyd legacy. In 2010, Waters made a statement in the best way possible: performing the 1979 Pink Floyd classic The Wall as a high-concept solo tour, replete with the construction of a giant wall in the elaborate stage act (as Pink Floyd with Waters did via a limited series of concerts decades ago). So how was The Wall tour different from the re-release of Exile on Main St.? Because Waters re-interpreted and updated the music he wrote in the 1970s as a modern-day statement against corporate greed and bellicose governments (the U.S. war in Iraq among the topics he explored with the modern-day performance of his songs). And having attended one of The Wall concerts, I think he suceeded.

In 2010, we also heard from many other legacy rockers, including Bruce Springsteen, Jimi Hendrix, and later, in the year, the king of pop, Michael Jackson. I expect 2011 to bring more of the same. And I have mixed feelings about what’s happening here. I think we should give the giants of rock history their due just as newer generations of readers should continue to buy books by Hemingway or pay admission to see the works of Picasso. But for every dollar we spend honoring the gods, rock fans need to be supporting new music financially. How many new and emerging artists have you supported lately by actually paying money to enjoy their music (whether recorded or in concert)?

I hope you’ll make a commitment in 2011 to both the old guard and the vanguard.

Why we need Michael Jackson

If the elections in Iran have brought out the best in Twitter, Michael Jackson has brought out the worst.  His death June 25 unleashed a torrent of morbid celebrity gawking that brought Twitter to its knees.  (Ironically his death will also give him a bigger career boost than anything he had accomplished artistically in recent years.)  So what are we to make of his legacy?

Michael Jackson shaped the 1980s as we remember the decade, culturally speaking.  His landmark recording Thriller shattered the racial divide.  He and Madonna were to MTV what Michael Jordan was to ESPN: catalysts to an important phenomenon.  He was also a humanitarian who used his fame to raise awareness for HIV/AIDS research and charities.

But he was also a deeply troubled soul.  At first we tolerated his eccentricities, such as his fondness for plastic surgery and a chimpanzee named Bubbles.  But in 1993, after he was accused of child sexual abuse, his reputation was tarnished.  (It didn’t help that his sister La Toya accused him of being a pedophile.)  Although he was never criminally charged, in the court of public opinion, he was guilty.  Eventually he settled a civil complaint against the family that accused him.  Then in 2003, he expressed a fondness for having young boys share his bed, which led to more charges of child sexual abuse.  Again he was acquitted, but his reputation received another blow partly because of his own public statements.

Is it possible to divorce Michael Jackson the entertainer from the Michael Jackson the person?  Is it OK to accept the gifts of people we also ridicule, fear, and loathe?  Roman Polanski gave us Chinatown and The Pianist yet he remains a fugitive from the United States after pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor in 1977.  O.J. Simpson and Phil Spector were brilliant artists in their chosen fields, and both men are in jail.

In fact, we need these tragic figures and villains to remind us that people who do great things are capable of doing very bad things, too.   We not only allow ourselves to accept the contradiction between Michael Jackson’s life and his art, we need to do so.  We need to be reminded that he was a flawed human being, like we are

Top 20 albums of all time?

Just what the world needs: another top 20 albums of all time list, courtesy of the Y! Radish Music Blog. This list is a bit different from the usual critical assessments because it seeks to be more objective and empirical, weighing factors such as album sales, “critical rating value” (an amalgam of critical reviews), and number of Grammy Awards won. (The approach reminds me of those convoluted formulas that The Wall Street Journal uses to assess baseball and football players.) After all the dust settles, the Top 5 albums are:

5. Abbey Road, the Beatles.

4. Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin

3. Thriller, Michael Jackson

2. Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd

1. Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie Wonder

You can see the complete list here. I love these kinds of lists. They confound, inspire debate, and, hopefully, force us to think more critically — none of which I’m going to do here. But I do have some random thoughts:

  • I admire Stevie Wonder; but I cannot remember the last time I played Songs in the Key of Life. How many of your friends own it?
  • There are four Led Zeppelin albums on this list. Now, I love Led Zeppelin. But I also know full well that in its day, the band was consistently bashed by critics. It wasn’t until well after the band broke up that it achieved critical respectability. I wonder how well this list takes into account critical response at the time the albums were actually released?
  • An album’s staying power is a worthy measure as noted by the formula employed by the Y! Radish Music Blog. But by definition, newer bands are penalized simply because their work hasn’t been around as long. I don’t know how else you can explain Radiohead being completely shut out of this list.
  • It’s a hoot to see Van Halen crash the party like a drunk uncle at a wedding reception, making Number 14 on the list with its eponymous first album. But how on earth did George Michael sneak in?
  • No Rolling Stones? No Doors? No Dylan? I’ll tell you why: the list fails to take into account an album’s influence on other albums, which is why The Doors or nothing by Dylan made the cut.
  • Fortunately the list assigns very little weight to Grammy Awards won, but I question why the Grammy Awards should have been a factor at all. The Grammy Awards are notoriously out of touch with the times. This is the esteemed organization that honored “Winchester Cathedral” over “Eleanor Rigby” for best rock & roll recording in 1966. Enough said. I would stay as far away from the Grammy Awards as I could just in priniciple.

What are your reactions?

Top 20 albums of all time?

Just what the world needs: another top 20 albums of all time list, courtesy of the Y! Radish Music Blog. This list is a bit different from the usual critical assessments because it seeks to be more objective and empirical, weighing factors such as album sales, “critical rating value” (an amalgam of critical reviews), and number of Grammy Awards won. (The approach reminds me of those convoluted formulas that The Wall Street Journal uses to assess baseball and football players.) After all the dust settles, the Top 5 albums are:

5. Abbey Road, the Beatles.

4. Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin

3. Thriller, Michael Jackson

2. Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd

1. Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie Wonder

You can see the complete list here. I love these kinds of lists. They confound, inspire debate, and, hopefully, force us to think more critically — none of which I’m going to do here. But I do have some random thoughts:

  • I admire Stevie Wonder; but I cannot remember the last time I played Songs in the Key of Life. How many of your friends own it?
  • There are four Led Zeppelin albums on this list. Now, I love Led Zeppelin. But I also know full well that in its day, the band was consistently bashed by critics. It wasn’t until well after the band broke up that it achieved critical respectability. I wonder how well this list takes into account critical response at the time the albums were actually released?
  • An album’s staying power is a worthy measure as noted by the formula employed by the Y! Radish Music Blog. But by definition, newer bands are penalized simply because their work hasn’t been around as long. I don’t know how else you can explain Radiohead being completely shut out of this list.
  • It’s a hoot to see Van Halen crash the party like a drunk uncle at a wedding reception, making Number 14 on the list with its eponymous first album. But how on earth did George Michael sneak in?
  • No Rolling Stones? No Doors? No Dylan? I’ll tell you why: the list fails to take into account an album’s influence on other albums, which is why The Doors or nothing by Dylan made the cut.
  • Fortunately the list assigns very little weight to Grammy Awards won, but I question why the Grammy Awards should have been a factor at all. The Grammy Awards are notoriously out of touch with the times. This is the esteemed organization that honored “Winchester Cathedral” over “Eleanor Rigby” for best rock & roll recording in 1966. Enough said. I would stay as far away from the Grammy Awards as I could just in priniciple.

What are your reactions?

These are the real thrillers

thriller2.jpg

Before Michael Jackson became a walking freak show, he gave the world Thriller, the perfect fushion of art, commerce, and marketing. On the 25th-anniversary of Thriller’s release, I think it is instructive for marketers to consider those times when effective marketing has helped consumers reward a brilliant work of art. These are Thriller moments:

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These are the real thrillers

thriller2.jpg

Before Michael Jackson became a walking freak show, he gave the world Thriller, the perfect fushion of art, commerce, and marketing. On the 25th-anniversary of Thriller’s release, I think it is instructive for marketers to consider those times when effective marketing has helped consumers reward a brilliant work of art. These are Thriller moments:

Continue reading