Rocking and rolling on the gravy train
Major album promotions by record companies are famously lavish.
There were times when the Orient Express seemed more like the Chattanooga Choo-Choo as veteran rock group Supertramp hosted one of the most lavish and exotic promotional parties ever thrown to launch a new record album.
More than 100 journalists, broadcasters and assorted VIPs from radio, television and the record industry had been invited to join the band for the 22-hour journey from Paris to Venice.
It was champagne, gourmet food and free gifts all the way, from the moment the carefully selected guests from all over the world were flown to Paris to board the train at the Gare de l’Est.
At the end of the line, they were treated to a sumptuous buffet supper followed by an overnight stay at a five-star hotel on the Venice Lido.
By the time they were ferried, bleary-eyed and somewhat bloated, to the airport to catch their flights home none of them could have been forgiven for not knowing that Supertramp were about to release their first album for three years and that it is called Brother Where You Bound?
In the annals of free-loading or “ligging” as it is known in the music business – there has never been anything quite so unashamedly extravagant as this. Seasoned liggers have to cast their minds back to the 1970s, when record companies still had money to burn, to recall anything nearly as grand.
Queen once flew a large party of media people to New Orleans for a few days to ensure a well-publicised send-off for their album Jazz and there was, of course, the notorious Brinsley Schwarz “hype” when an entire planeload of people were whisked to New York for the night to witness the band’s first concert.
At an estimated £75,000 for the Orient Express junket can the group hope to get value for money?
“Oh, absolutely,” beamed bass guitarist Douglas Thompson. “Especially as we’re not paying. The record company are picking up the bill, so when they suggested the idea they had to wait all of half-a-second before we said yes.
“Although we’ve been consistently successful for a long time we have remained a faceless band – so when we want to attract a bit of publicity we have to do something pretty special.”
Rick Davies, the keyboard player, describes himself as “a musician rather than an entertainer.” But he accepts that he has to join in a bit of showbiz razzmatazz to sell records.
“Supertramp come from the era of Pink Floyd, Traffic and Procol Harum – the era of musical bands when there was not quite such an emphasis on personalities and rock wasn’t like showbiz.”
Since Supertramp’s co-founder Roger Hodgson left to go solo after their last album, Famous Last Words, the group – whose total record sales now top 35 million – have been managed by Davies’s American wife Susan. She has no doubts about the importance of publicity and image-building. “The market is much more visual than it used to be and you can’t hide away in the closet any more.”
Understandably, because of Hodgson’s departure there is extra pressure on everyone involved to make sure that Brother Where You Bound? is a hit. “A lot of people thought the group had broken up altogether”, said Susan. “We need to make it clear that they are alive and well and putting out new product.”
The Orient Express idea was dreamed up by Russ Curry, director of European operations for the group’s record company, A&M. He declined to discuss the cost of the trip. “I think it detracts from the whole idea of the trip to talk about money”, he sniffed. “We have deliberately tried to keep the whole thing low-key to avoid any suggestion that we are trying to hype the album. We just wanted to give people the chance to meet the band and get to grips with the album.”
His relaxed attitude may have had something to do with the fact that most of the bill was being footed by Polydor International. It has just forked out around £30 million for the right to distribute A&M’s records throughout Europe. This naturally gave polydor very good reasons for making sure that the Supertramp album – the first to be released under the deal – was launched with as much of a splash as possible.
What’s an extra £75,000 when you have just spent £30 million?
… and David Sinclair describes how publicists resort to absurd ploys to gain attention
When Bruce Springsteen begins his tour of Britain and Ireland in Dublin on June 1, he will become the most sought-after subject of media attention in the rock world for a time. The national press, television and radio programmes will vie mercilessly for the best coverage.
The biggest problem facing Springsteen’s press and promotion staff will be to decide how best to limit meetings with the media so the performer has enough time left to play his concerts and obtain sufficient rest without disturbances.
This was not always so. Springsteen’s first two albums sold negligibly in Britain and in 1975, to coincide with a brief visit at the time of his third release, Born to Run, his record company, CBS, mounted a publicity campaign of such absurd proportions that it practically defined the word “hype”. For weeks, billboards and the music press were swamped with advertisements proclaiming: “I’ve seen the future of rock ‘n’ roll and its name is Bruce Springsteen” and asking: “Is the world ready for Bruce Springsteen?” “If not,” retorted one graffitist, “CBS has blown this year’s promotions budget”.
Massive advertising is only one aspect of the unflagging pursuit of publicity in the music business. A rugged corps of publicists are permanently engaged in the battle to outdo each other in dreaming up ever more bizarre gimmicks and stunts to gain column inches or airtime.
One time-honoured technique is the giving of theoretically useful items. Editors, producers and disc-jockeys could clothe themselves from head to foot with free promotional items.
There have been Bob Dylan hats, leatherette jackets (Mick Taylor), ties (Stephen Bishop), belts (Styx), jeans (David Dundas), Kickers shoes (Carl Perkins), underpants (Squeeze), socks (Sha Na Na), handkerchiefs (Clarence Carter), raincoats (Prince), wristwatches (Elton John), key-rings (ZZ Top), coffee cups and tray (Supertramp), chocolates (Scritti Politti), bananas (King Kurt), and luncheon vouchers (Billy Bragg), to name but a few.
Expenses-paid trips to exotic locations are another familiar ploy. Media people love to travel, and it is sometimes easier to induce a record company’s A&R man (talent scout) or a journalist to go to see a group playing in Scandinavia than in the Marquee in Soho.
Hunger for publicity may lead to strange deeds of derring-do. When still a relatively unknown support act at an outdoor event at Anaheim Stadium, California, in 1977, Van Halen effected an entry at the start of their performance by parachute – or so it seemed. The stunt was widely publicised at the time, and to this day few people are aware that it was not the group who leapt from the plane above the stadium but four expert parachutists dressed up and wearing wigs to make them resemble the band. They landed with perfect timing and accuracy in the backstage enclosure and moments later the band bounded onstage in a tumultuous welcome.
Where excitement is not enough, stunts may take the form of outrage. The Sex Pistols were masters of the art and set new standards with such antics as issuing a vigorous string of oaths on live television with Bill Grundy, public vomiting at Heathrow Airport, and signing a recording contract with A&M Records outside Buckingham Palace before travelling to a reception where they laid waste to the company’s head office. An American group, The Plasmatics, chose not to perform at the Hammersmith Odeon when the GLC refused permission for them to use dynamite to blow up a car onstage as part of their act. In the United States, where, it would seem, safety regulations are less strict, they have performed the feat on many occasions.
But perhaps the depths were most thoroughly plumbed in 1978 by the appropriately named group Anti-Social, who advertised in all seriousness, so they claimed, for a vocalist willing to commit suicide on stage.
It is unlikely that Bruce Springsteen will elect to arrive anywhere by parachute, and one suspects that only people tempted to commit hari kiri during his visit will be those journalists who are refused access to him by publicists.
Thanks to John Lock for locating this article and to Jill McMahon for the typewriter torment
More mentions of Procol Harum in The Times