Singing Out: A Little Redemption For Stephen Demetre Georgiou   Leave a comment

By Any Other Name. . .

January 1, 2017

Music is one of life’s universal experiences. Styles and genres may differ, but the idea of some type of music being a central ingredient in each of our lives is a reasonable assumption. Usually for better and occasionally for worse, something about a particular passage or verse connects and begins to echo within the chambers of our brain. Recently, for me, the “better” was a chance listening of a track from the 1980s, “Waiting For A Star To Fall”, a wonderful hit record performed by songwriters George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam (aka Boy Meets Girl). However we’ve all experienced the “worse”, that is some piece of music we’d prefer doesn’t echo or get stuck in our heads. Consider “Plop Plop Fizz Fizz” a tune written as an Alka Seltzer commercial a half-century ago. (My apologies if the plops are once again echoing through your brain.) Technically the phenomenon is referred to as an earworm, a catchy piece of music that continually repeats through your mind long after it has stopped playing. Advertising agencies love it when the song stays with you because, obviously, you remember the product, and that’s the whole point of advertising.

In 1991 the advertising agency Campbell Ewald selected a particular recording for an ongoing campaign for Chevy trucks. Many of us then (and certainly now) are familiar with Bob Seger’s classic recording “Like A Rock”. Rolling Stone tells the tale of Chevy and Seger’s 1991 connection to sports television:

. . . when you tuned in to watch any football game, from the middle of the country to the East and the West, you couldn’t escape Chevrolet’s “Like a Rock” commercial. . . . [To] an entire generation of sports fans who saw the commercial in their formative years while watching their home team on network TV long after the 1970s success of albums like Night Moves and Stranger in Town, [“Like A Rock”] became Seger’s defining song and also the one that evokes the strongest memories of a time in sports and America that feels so long ago.

With Seger providing the ‘soundtrack’, viewers saw slow-motion shots of Chevy trucks effortlessly getting through mud, snow, and water, towing a gigantic load, or climbing a steep hill; along with numerous American flags, good-looking men, strong women, and lovable children. The images became synonymous with Seger’s song. For more than a decade, while some listeners and viewers grew tired of “Like A Rock” many more loved it.

These days ad agencies look for hit records from any decade to make the case for the product they’re selling, yet they will evaluate every recording for any possible risk. That being said, I could not have been more pleasantly surprised to see the latest television commercial for Jeep’s Grand Cherokee Trailhawk and Summit models. As high-tech as these new vehicles are, the Jeep commercial opens with a phonograph. Viewers see a tonearm drop, and the needle settles into a groove on a vinyl record. Yet the juxtaposition of a 2017 Jeep and a 1970s phonograph provide a perfect connection for the music and the product.

Included in the Jeep commercial’s many visuals are two jeeps—one red, one silver, a variety of twenty and thirty-something young adults singing along with the radio, or backpacking; and women doing yoga or boxing for exercise. There’s a series of headshots—a well-dressed Black woman with a buzzcut, and a white male with shoulder-length hair and beard—followed by a split screen of both. Two Jeep SUVs: the male driver of one exits his car and heads for a BBQ diner; the other driver heads toward a vegetarian restaurant. There is (no surprise) an American flag, plus B&W footage of WWII-era jeeps. Numerous bumper stickers declare “I’m With America”, “I Love Animals”, “I’d Rather Be Hunting”, and “America: With Us Or Against Us”. Then a stylized representation of the word “Together” (with cross, crescent, and Star of David,) is followed by “Make Love Not War” and “Support Our Troops”. Finally there are two
together-sticker12stickers, one with a Republican elephant and the other with Democratic donkey. The commercial’s tagline is “What unites us is stronger than what divides us”.

All of this is memorable. But here’s the real interesting part. The music playing underneath all of this, that many of the participants are singing along to is “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out”. This track from thirty years ago is perfect for the television commercial but is also a surprising choice. As many of my friends know, I spent almost 20 years at A&M Records. And although already a Cat Stevens fan going back to his 1967 single “Matthew & Son”, it wasn’t until about 1972 or ’73 that I met him in Chicago on one of his concert tour stops. I realized that there was something on every Cat Stevens album released between 1967 and 1990 for me to like. In fact I liked his music so much that two A&M senior staffers—me and Jeff Gold—convinced label president Gil Friesen to let us create a deluxe retrospective CD release covering Steven’s entire career. Great idea.

As we began to develop ideas on what music would be included, who would design the package, how we’d market it and so on, something completely unexpected changed our plans. The trajectory of Cat Stevens’ career changed, as did the worldview of the artist, born Stephen Demetre Georgiou, reborn as Cat Stevens, and reborn again as Yusuf Islam. Caught up in the emotion of the controversy erupting from the publication of Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses and the subsequent condemnation of Rushdie by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini was Yusuf Islam’s reported support for Khomeini’s death threats against Rushdie. Radio stations all over the world opted to discard or destroy any copies of Cat Stevens’ music in their libraries, they condemned him on the air, and Stevens disappeared from much of the public media. The project Jeff and I had begun working on was never completed.

After the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center in New York, and then the September 11 attacks in 2001, this country saw the beginning of the demonization of a religion, instead of a focus on the perpetrators. Emblematic of the manufactured fear after 9/11, Georgiou/Stevens/Islam was not even allowed to travel to the United States (in 2004 he was detained after a flight from London and immediately img-cat-stevens_155554724126returned to the UK.) He has subsequently been allowed in to the United States to tour and perform, but it’s a far cry from the crowds of the 1970s who attended his SRO concerts. Yet today his original 1984 recording of “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out” is the foundational backdrop for a television commercial selling two new 2017 Jeep models.

Redemption is a powerful thing, but the United States seems divided like nothing we’ve seen in 150 years. Like attempting to unring a bell, Cat Stevens will never outlive the venom spewed in the wake of the Rushdie mess. Like it or not he owns both his actual and fictional (manufactured) quotes. But even in a divided America, I am reminded that in 1972 Cat Stevens wrote and recorded “Morning Has Broken”, a much-loved gem of his glory years. Within that wonderful song is this passage:  “Praise with elation, praise ev’ry morning, God’s recreation of the new day.” Happily, every day is a new creation, a re-creation. And so may it be for all of us. It’s better if we sing out. Particularly in these troubling political times.

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Posted January 1, 2017 by Jazzdavid in Uncategorized

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