Category: Arts & Culture

The ‘Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band of All Time’ that Wasn’t — and Why

The Kinks’s songs were often inspired by everyday scenes of British life, like this Waterloo Sunset. Photo by Steve Walker, is licensed under CC BY 2.0
By Mike Kuczkowski

In the early 1960s, a band emerged from Great Britain that would change the very face of rock ‘n’ roll.

Led by a dynamic duo, this band started its career by recording covers of songs by American R&B and blues artists. In the mid-1960s, they began penning their own tunes. Their third single was a jolt to the airwaves, producing a sound that had never been heard before and skyrocketing to the top of the charts.

Over time, the band staggeringly produced a rich catalog marked by melodic songs, evocative lyrics and a wide range of styles. They drew on diverse influences: blues, jazz, folk, country, British dance hall music and show tunes. They introduced Indian music to a Western pop music audience. In 1972, Rolling Stone’s Mike Saunders declared them “none other than the greatest rock and roll band of all time.” Decades later, bands like Oasis and Blur would cite them as a major influence.

I’m not talking about The Beatles, The Who or The Rolling Stones. I’m talking about The Kinks.

Brothers Ray and Dave Davies formed The Kinks in 1963 in the Muswell Hill part of North London, when Ray was 19 and Dave was 16 years old. In 1964, after struggling to get a record deal, they released their third song, the distorted three-chord rock single “You Really Got Me.” Dave Davies achieved the sound by slitting the fabric of his amplifier’s speakers with a razor. A legend was born.

They went on to produce a series of hit songs and strong albums over the next eight years, covering an incredibly wide swath of musical territory.

No one is making the claim that The Kinks are the greatest band in rock and roll history, not even me. But, they were very, very goodbetter than they are remembered today, and their case holds important lessons for marketers and brand leaders about the ways in which a great product can fail.

I rediscovered The Kinks last summer, when their back catalog from the 1960s and 1970s quietly appeared in Apple’s iTunes store without fanfare or promotion, marking the band’s 50th anniversary.

Listening to these albums was eye opening. The hits I knew were as good as I’d remembered, but there were dozens of tracks I’d never heard or barely remembered that were simply brilliant. Why was this band not a dominant part of the musical conversation? The Rolling Stones and The Who sell out stadium shows, grossing hundreds of millions of dollars. The Kinks, who broke up in 1996, don’t even get an artist’s profile in the iTunes store. If they reunited, they would be a theater show at best – no arenas.

What caused The Kinks to wind up in the dust bin of rock and roll?

In his best-seller “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell makes the case that social epidemics – a proxy for breakout commercial successes – are driven by a combination of factors he terms “connectors”, “mavens” and “salesmen.” His concept is that a small innovation can go “viral” and become a breakout success if it can cultivate people who are well-connected, people who curate new information, and people who are charismatic advocates for that innovation.

Surely The Kinks lacked one or more of these critical factors. Let’s look a bit more closely.

Mavens: They had well-regarded, “maven-ish” advocates, in the form of musical peers like the Who’s Pete Townsend, who declared that Ray Davies should be Britain’s poet laureate, and David Bowie, who says “I’ve never heard a Kinks song I didn’t like.” John Lennon is also said to have been a fan. Upon hearing The Kinks single “Wonderboy,” Lennon reportedly asked the DJ of a London restaurant to play the song over and over again one night. (Davies was no fan of Lennon’s, regarding Lennon as arrogant.)

Connectors: The Kinks had “connectors” in the form of critics, who largely liked the band and its music. While Saunders’ 1972 quote above, in a mixed review of The Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies, is a bit of hyperbole, no editor cut it out. Rock critic Robert Christgau described their 1967 song “Waterloo Sunset” as “the most beautiful song in the English language.”

Salesman: They had charismatic “salesman” in Ray Davies himself, who has all the traits one could want in a frontman—hubris, a wild imagination and great stories to tell. Davies was famously truculent with the media, arrogant and irascible at times, but that would only serve to aid the promotion of many other frontmen. Dave Davies, the guitarist and sometimes singer, was also good with a quote. When asked if the band was trying to play heavy metal in the 1980s, the younger Davies replied “It wasn’t called heavy metal when I invented it.

What went wrong?

The Kinks had three problems that I would describe as system barriers.

Market Access: During the critical period of 1965 and 1969, when they were making their best music and bands like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones were feeding and feeding on a music-led culture, The Kinks lacked access to the biggest commercial market in the world, and the market that set the pace for the industry.

In 1965, after a brief American tour in which the band fought on stage and destroyed equipment, the American Federation of Musicians banned The Kinks from touring in America. The strike was not resolved for four years.

The American ban hurt. In 1967, when “Waterloo Sunset” was released, it went to #2 in Britain, but failed to chart in America. Today, Rolling Stone ranks that song #42 on its list of the 500 greatest rock songs of all time. (“You Really Got Me” is #80.)

Timing: The Kinks were often out of step with their times. While The Beatles were experimenting with psychedelica and absurdist lyrics, and hard rock and heavy metal were emerging as dominant forces, Ray Davies was writing about tea, sunsets and sunny afternoons. This focus on the details of everyday life is at the core of indie rock 25 years later, but in the late 1960s and early 1970s it was not popular. One example: In 1971, while The Kinks’ heavy metal descendants were celebrating excess and drug abuse, The Kinks recorded the remarkable lament “Alcohol,” a swinging, New Orleans-style dirge about a man whose life had fallen apart because of his drinking. Years later, when heavy metal was breaking through, The Kinks released the mediocre “Give the People What They Want,” an uninspired attempt at capitalizing on the popularity of the genre they helped create.

Product consistency & availability: The Kinks suffered from two basic “operations” problems. They were often rushed in and out of the studio, and the band often complained that the production quality of its singles was far short of its expectations. You can hear this, particularly in the mid-1960s albums. Kinda Kinks, the band’s second album, was rushed out of the studio in two weeks. (As Ray Davies later said, “a bit more care should have been taken with it… It had better songs on it than the first album, but it wasn’t executed in the right way. It was just far too rushed.”) In 1967, with the release of Something Else by the Kinks, the label rushed out the single “Autumn Almanac” to try to boost flagging sales. It would be the band’s last top 10 single for the next several years. The band also suffered distribution problems. With a series of bad label deals, their back catalog has often not been available. Pye Records – their mid-1960s label – kept few of The Kinks’ original masters, opting to rerecord other artists over their session tapes. When Van Halen hit it big with “You Really Got Me,” The Kinks Greatest Hits was hard to find. One of their most highly regarded albums, 1969’s Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), still isn’t available for download on iTunes or Amazon in the US.

What lessons do these issues hold for marketers?

First, it’s critical to understand the environment, and have a strategy that is right for that environment. Getting locked out of the US market at the peak of their creativity was a huge blow to The Kinks’ success. In 1970, the UK was an aging market of 55.6 million people. The US, by contrast, was a youth-oriented market of 207 million. When singles began to chart in the UK but not break through in America, it should have been a single that The Kinks’ lack of presence in America was dragging them down. Yet the ban was not resolved until after the release of The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society. By that time, audiences and promoters weren’t interested in The Kinks anymore. Dates were cancelled. The tour was a flop.

Second, operational excellence plays a crucial role in establishing and maintaining a brand’s reputation and its commercial success. When Pye Records rushed out Kinda Kinks, I’m sure it had very good intentions of capitalizing on a strong run of hits. But when the quality of the recording did not hold up, it undermined the band’s long-term legacy. If you compare contemporary recordings by The Beatles, like Help, with Kinda Kinks, there’s simply no comparison.

Finally, marketing strategy must reflect the qualities of the underlying product. When The Kinks were producing more introspective and personal songs, the promotion of the albums remained locked in to boastful claims of the group’s greatness. Notably, a radio spot for Muswell Hillbillies included in this year’s rerelease, quotes critics positive reviews heralding it as, in the words of one reviewer “The Album of the Year.” In fact, the album was completely out of step with its times – in a good way. But this was the year of The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, The Who’s Who’s Next, Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin IV, and The Doors’ LA Woman — big, loud albums completely at odds with the intimacy of Muswell Hillbillies. Frankly, they still don’t appear to understand this. The band’s official web site dates to 2011, it celebrates “32 years of greatness,” referring to the band’s 1964 to 1996 span. There are only three albums on the band’s YouTube channel.

It’s not like The Kinks were a complete flop. Four of their records went gold, and they had five top 10 US singles. And they left a fantastic legacy. There is a direct line between the raw three-chord rock of “You Really Got Me” and the pnk movement. “Everybody’s Gonna Be Happy” sounds like the British New Wave, 10 years too soon. “Lola” was an utterly unique hit single. The distorted sounds of “All Day and All of the Night” and “I Need You” presaged the hard rock of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.

One thing is clear, the factors that inhibited the success of The Kinks would not have had the same impact today. In an era when U2 can reach 500 million iTunes subscribers with the touch of a button, The Kinks would not have been shut out of America by a touring ban. I think their more narrative-driven albums would have found a larger audience. In today’s music world, I suspect strongly they would have made the charts more often, and with more staying power.

Luckily, it’s not too late. You can still listen to Face to Face, Something Else by the Kinks, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround and Muswell Hillbillies. If you do, you too will wonder why this band isn’t at the top tier of the conversation of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time.

Film Festival Lessons In Transmedia Storytelling

Filmmakers at the Mill Valley Film Festival spoke about how transmedia storytelling boosted their projects

By Mike Kuczkowski

The rise of what many call “transmedia storytelling” has been both exciting and disruptive for communications professionals. My former Edelman colleague Steve Rubel speaks and writes usefully and at length about this concept; I’ve lectured on it to college classes and found it quite a powerful organizing framework for communications efforts.

The concept involves developing a single piece of content or a theme, and activating it across multiple online and real-life channels. For example, a company might develop a piece of “owned” content, such as an interactive CSR report, on a corporate web site, “share” an infographic from the report on their Facebook page or other social media, and pitch elements of it to traditional (or “earned”) media and so-called “hybrid” channels, such as blogs or new digital media. Steve and Edelman use a cloverleaf construct to describe it; I use a solar system model. No one model is right or wrong, and as new channels and platforms emerge, the models themselves evolve.

The “Active Cinema Toolkit” panel at the Mill Valley Film Festival seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore the topic from a new perspective. It was billed as a discussion with “filmmaker-innovators” who would discuss new ways platforms could support filmmakers to inspire engagement.

I assumed filmmakers would be on the cutting edge of this.

I was wrong.

The panelists had no more of a playbook for what’s happening with new digital channels than anyone else. But, their stories did offer compelling lessons for communicators.

Here are synopses of their projects:

  • Denise Zmekhol, a Brazililan-born filmmaker, talked about “Trading Bows and Arrows for Laptops,” a project born out of her own documentary, Children of the Amazon, in which an Amazonian tribe collaborated with Google on a project that trained members of the Surui tribe in the Amazon how to document their tribe’s cultural history on Google Earth.
  • Filmmaker Helen Demichiel embarked on a traditional documentary about activists who were trying to change the way children eat in Oakland’s public schools. As the cultural and policy conversation about childhood obesity gained momentum, the project morphed into a Website with webisodes, activist tools and curriculum guides, and a forum for community engagement.
  • Kenji Yamamoto and his partner Nancy Kelly produced Rebels With A Cause, the story of how activists saved the Marin Headlands as open space starting in the 1950s. He talked about how social media tools allowed him to organize around the project, overcome barriers and become his own distributor for the film.
  • Zeresnay Berthane Mehari wrote and directed Difret, a feature film about a 14-year old girl who was abducted for marriage and later became the first girl in Ethiopia to be acquitted of murder on grounds of self-defense. The project, which took six years, has won multiple film festival awards and is this year’s Ethiopian entry for the Academy Awards.
  • Wendy Levy, the executive director of the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NEMAC), described the Oakland Fence Project, a large-scale interactive art project that will debut in Oakland’s Jack London Square in 2016. It’s built around a fence on which 6-foot-high photographs will be displayed. Observers will be able to get more information about the photos, artists and NGOs the artists support from their mobile phones while they stand in front of the pictures. They’ll also be able to buy the art or make a donation in the moment. It sounds brilliantly counterintuitive: a fence symbolizing a gathering place, as in “Meet me at the fence,” rather than a dividing line.

With each film, the rise and availability of new digital channels—though not necessarily case studies for integrated, transmedia storytelling—played different and important roles in their success.

For example, Yamamoto said he was unable to get a Bay Area theatrical release without a review in The San Francisco Chronicle. But in a kind of Catch-22, he could not get a Chronicle review without a guaranteed San Francisco theatrical run. He and his wife secured a screening at The Roxie, in San Francisco, and persuaded the Chronicle to review it.

Yamamoto and Kelly then self-distributed the film, securing week-to-week renewal deals with several area theaters, including what became an 11-week run at the Smith Rafael Film Center. They then used social media channels and screenings in small towns to drive further buzz and turnout. Interestingly, the power of good old-fashioned celebrity endorsement was key: After a celebrity agreed to promote film on her web site, their Facebook and Twitter views jumped from 5,000 to 26,000. They secured a deal with American Public Television to distribute the film to PBS stations, and hired a ‘station relations’ person to persuade more than 300 broadcast station managers to air the film, getting 83% of PBS stations on board during Earth Week 2014.

Mehari, on the other hand, started out wanting not to be an activist and being rejected by NGOs because his feature film was a non-traditional approach. Over time, though, he found support from an NGO that led to a dramatic spike in fundraising efforts, including two Kickstarter campaigns and a series of sponsored dinners in New York and London. (As with so many so-called “overnight” successes, Mehari had toiled for years without getting traction.)

Of all the projects, Levy’s seemed the only one to be designed as a multi-channel storytelling effort, with all the depth and dimensions that the technology allows. Hers is still in development. And while the interactive elements sound engaging, I wonder whether mobile devices will enhance or detract from the experience of viewing public art.

Here were my takeaways from the discussion:

  • Change is hard: Filmmakers, as creators, think of themselves as storytellers specific to their medium. So, while I might have thought that the rise of short-form video would naturally play to their strengths, it’s not necessarily so. As much as we say “form follows function,” in this case the functions have been emerging so quickly that it has been very disruptive, and hard to master, even for skilled artists.
  • Adaptability is critical: No single “model” dominates. Some filmmakers used multiple channels to raise money, some used it for publicity purposes. For the most part, it seemed that the filmmakers flexed to changes in their environment, and allowed themselves to explore new approaches in the face of unexpected challenges or opportunities. Demichiel made it clear that it wasn’t easy for her to let go of the concept of a full-length feature documentary, but the emergence of the childhood obesity issue and the needs of the activist community around it led to the webisode and resource center approach.
  • New skills are needed: As much as filmmakers know how to produce a film, they also needed to acquire skills in social media or, as in Zmekhol’s case, technology tools. Her videos of Google training Surai tribesmen and women in coding skills, so that they could embed their cultural map in Google Earth, was itself a fascinating story.
  • Old skills still matter: Yamamoto and Mehari said each said that a lot of what worked for him involved old-fashioned networking and pressing the flesh. “If I can’t look someone in the eye,” Yamamoto said, “I’m not going to be able to understand how to work with them.”
  • Passion counts: Asked by a novice filmmaker in the audience how to raise funding Mehari replied, “I could tell you the story of how I raised money for my film 500 different ways, but it would never happen the same way again. Ultimately, it’s about the passion you bring to the work; that’s what people will see in you.”

At bottom, the slow adoption of new media channels by filmmakers may be a comfort to communicators who have taken a similar “go slow” approach. Levy recalled dealing with the filmmaking community in 2004 through her involvement in NEMAC. “They’d say, ‘I don’t need a Web site.’ I’m a storyteller. We’d get lots of resistance,” Levy said. “Then in 2008, they would say, ‘I don’t do Facebook.’” In time, those answers changed, she said.

Fastforward to 2014. The ad hoc experiences these storytellers have had with various social media channels shows they are now more open, and more willing to experiment, when it comes to emergent digital channels. Imagine the power they’ll unlock with a truly integrated, transmedia storytelling approach in the future.

On Influence | Appreciating Robin Williams

By Mike Kuczkowski

After Robin Williams’ death last week, many media outlets produced some fine tributes (and some have done some disgraceful things, too.) If you have not listened to Mark Maron’s podcast with Williams, you should.

Having just published a piece about Philip Seymour Hoffman, I didn’t want to write about Williams at first. But, I realized that while people were talking a lot about Williams’ career and his legacy, there was a point to be made about his influence that I thought was important and unsaid.

I think influence is something that we all think about in communications, and Williams had a tremendous and powerful influence, both within comedy and acting, and on the culture at large.

Williams meant a lot of things to people. Some people loved him as “Mork” in the 1970s, though, candidly, I never understood why. Some loved his comedic acting, in movies like “Good Morning Vietnam” or “Mrs. Doubtfire.” Others loved him in dramatic roles, like the teacher in “Dead Poet’s Society” or the psychologist in “Good Will Hunting.” As an actor, he credibly ranks among the best of his era, though he also starred in some clunkers. (One example of his star status: In The Birdcage, Williams got top billing over Gene Hackman and Nathan Lane. Not too shabby.)

But Williams was more than an actor. As a comedian, he was one of the greatest of all time. I was a huge fan of Williams’ standup comedy. My best friend in grade school looked a bit like Williams and proved adept mimicking Williams’ impressions. We had a lot of fun with it. We did Williams doing Jim Nabors. And Williams doing John Wayne. Williams doing a redneck and a gay hairdresser and an Arab and a Japanese tourist.

Williams was not a master impressionist, like Rich Little. His impressions were good, but not precise. It was as though, as NPR’s Terry Gross described it, he had a coterie of different personalities inside him, and it was never clear which would come out next.

But, his content was brilliant. In 1986, in “A Night at the Met,” he said “I’m Robin Leach, a man with a voice so loud even animals go ‘Who the f*ck are you?’” Where did that come from? I don’t even think Leach was particularly loud. But Leach, the host of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” was obnoxious, pretentious and overbearing in a manner best described as loud.

Williams pierced the cultural zeitgeist with his humor. And, whether it was true in the sense of accuracy or not, it did hang together.

As a kid who imitated comics, I could recite the dentist’s chair scene from Bill Cosby’s “Himself.” Or, Eddie Murphy’s “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood.” Those were acts; you could deliver those lines. But, Williams’ performances moved so quickly from one persona to another that following them gave you the comedy equivalent of whiplash. You couldn’t recreate him out of context.

This, however, gave his admirers the freedom to invent. We couldn’t recite the lines. Heck, it was hard to understand them, and I still don’t get all the references. But, we could tie together random things that seemed disparate and create something funny, at least part of the time, because he did.

In the tributes of the past week, many observers — particularly critics who had to try to represent his brilliance in print — have said of Williams that ‘you had to be there’ to appreciate his genius. I think it’s because the performance just isn’t that funny if you’re not there to see the free association happen. The brilliance is embedded in the high wire act of seeing him jump from topic to topic and then back again, and in not knowing what’s hiding around the next curve.

We talk about Williams as an improv genius, but I really don’t think that’s right. He was an associative genius. He took us on journeys, with bits that travelled from Walt Disney to Ronald Reagan to Moammar Quadafi, to Colonel Sanders to fast-food workers. (“You want fries with that?”) These are things that did not fit together, except through him.

In fact, this is the thing I think we don’t yet appreciate about Williams. His comedy made the randomness of life, at a time when the world was becoming increasingly random, make sense.

You know, growing up in the 1970s and ’80s was a very confusing time. (I’m sure it’s possible to insert any decade into that sentence, but indulge me for a moment.) We were born into the nuclear era, under the threat of the Cold War. We experienced American hostages in Iran, assassination attempts on the Pope and the president, the rise of Michael Jackson and MTV, the eruption of Mount St. Helens and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It all seemed fairly random, if not terrifying.

And here came this guy, Robin Williams. A fast-talking comic who changed topics and personas so quickly you barely had a chance to keep up. He talked about everything. Sometimes in one long, wildly meandering sentence. And, while we never knew where he’d be taking us, the ride often was more sense-making than the evening news. Much as Jon Stewart does today, on a nightly basis.

And the brilliance of it was that, while he was clearly a genius, he didn’t try to seem smarter than us or try to make some grand statement about what it all meant. He had the courage to leave it there and say “yep.” Much like we all had to do on pretty much a daily basis.

That’s what makes me most sad about Williams’ death. Robin Williams could look at the strange, random absurdity in the world, and, tie it together imperfectly but hilariously, and make you laugh until your guts hurt and then —— as he did when he walked off stage at “A Night at the Met” hand-in-hand with his imaginary 3-year-old son —– say ‘f*ck it’ in a three-year-old toddler’s voice. It made you feel like you could laugh it off, too.

Like Walter Cronkite in my parents’ generation, Robin Williams looked at the world and helped us make sense of it. And, his passing makes it make a little less sense overall.


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Robin Williams | Awardscore

Last month, to evaluate Philip Seymour Hoffman’s acting career, we created a framework called the Awardscore [1]. Here’s a look at where Robin Williams ranks.

Actor Age Noms Wins Oscar Noms Oscar Wins Awardscore
Jack Nicholson 77 71 95 12 3 351
Daniel Day-Lewis 57 35 127 5 3 344
Tom Hanks 58 86 71 5 2 288
Denzel Washington 59 85 73 6 2 281
Philip Seymour Hoffman 46 64 88 4 1 270
Javier Bardem 45 53 91 3 1 260
Sean Penn 54 63 76 5 2 260
George Clooney 53 92 60 4 1 242
Leonardo DiCaprio 39 122 50 4 0 242
Robin Williams 63 60 70 4 1 220

Among the peer set of Best Actor nominees for the past 30 years, Williams ranks 10th. He is also arguably the greatest star to cross over from comedy to drama. While one could make the case that Tom Hanks similarly moved from sitcom acting to a serious big screen drama career, none of the actors on this list were standup comedians of note besides Williams.

Which brings us to another unique point. Grammy awards are not included in our acting analysis. (Nor, some have noted, are Tony awards. Or women.) But if the Grammy award is included, and it is rated like an Oscar, Williams moves into elite territory.

Williams was nominated for seven Grammy awards and won five overall, four for best Comedy Album. (His fifth was for best spoken word album, in a collaboration with Ry Cooder.) Applying a similar Awardscore formula to Grammy awards, Williams would rank fifth behind Bill Cosby (7W, 12N), George Carlin (5W, 16N), Richard Pryor (5W, 10N) and Steve Martin (4W, 9N) among comedians.

An impressive career, however you look at it.

It’s worth noting that there are some flaws or distortions in this exercise. As film festivals and awards have proliferated in recent years, the rankings of older actors such as DeNiro, Newman, Pacino and Albert Finney, fall further behind the younger generation. Which, it’s worth noting, makes Jack Nicholson’s status as top dog among the past 30 years of Best Actor nominees all the more impressive.

[1] NOTE: As a reminder, the Awardscore gives actors 10 points for an Oscar win, five points for an Oscar nomination and two and one points, respectively, for overall acting awards and nominations listed in the database. For this ranking, we expanded our set of actors in the analysis to include all nominees for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role dating back to 1984. For the Hoffman piece, we were looking for objective data about the claim that he was “The Greatest Actor of His Generation,” which only took us back to 1997.

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