The Grim Reaper is the perfect salesman – that became obvious not only with David Bowie, Lemmy Kilmister or Glenn Frey, but might come true for Dr. John as well. It’s a strange dynamic that once inspired Bill Drummond, former KLF mastermind and manager of the Teardrop Explodes, to write a very sarcastic song.
You get a strange feeling when stars who provided the soundtrack to a substantial part of your life (either as idols or objects of contempt) suddenly die, usually too soon. Of course I know: The death of a VIP can’t compare to the death of a close relative or good friend. But even a star who has passed means that you lose something central to your daily life. The world will never be the same again, memories of your youth re-surface, long-forgotten hopes and desires, wonderful moments, perhaps some broken dreams. If nothing else, you become aware of your own mortality.
Collective grief, a uniting consolatory event
Even more disconcerting than the death of a VIP is the PR surrounding it. Especially impressive was what happened after Mr. Motörhead Lemmy Kilmister died at the end of December 2015. It was rather bizarre to see all the people who suddenly claimed to be hardcore fans and sang songs of praise about brute rock. Very nice and decent folks, whom you would rather think would be part of the Roxette universe, wrote weepy social media posts and demonstrated a toughness and wickedness they obviously had hidden for a long time. Conservative newspapers honoured Kilmister as a ”noble savage“. Even public service broadcasting celebrated the heavy metal pioneer and his sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll-lifestyle almost as passionately as former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who had died a few weeks before. Everybody was on first name terms with ”Lemmy“ – as if this Lemmy had always been his or her best mate. Against the backdrop of horrible daily news from the fields of economics and politics, the collective grief for a deceased star, whom many people had rejected during his lifetime, seemed to become a uniting consolatory event.
The fuss about David Bowie was similarly strange. Of course his death was very bad news for pop music, i.e. for fans and fellow musicians around the world. But the way radio hosts uttered their distress for hours and hours (and then managed to play only the two more than obvious Bowie hits Space Oddity and Let’s Dance) was kind of embarrassing. Posing is an art David Bowie himself mastered much better. The almost biblical exaltation columnists around the world voiced was just as cringey, as were the relentless posts on social media. These took on a life of their own as sheer nerd competitions, according to the motto: Who can post an even more obscure Bowie song or an even more bizarre cover version?
The reactions to the death of Eagles cofounder Glenn Frey were a bit more restrained. Nothing more than friendly words – although there was a time when the Eagles were considered the epitome of rock star decadence. It’s always the same: A star dies – and a pseudo-community comes together to celebrate itself.
I never cared much for Lemmy Kilmister and Motörhead. All the stories about vast amounts of alcohol and drugs or about the women Lemmy had “traded” with his own son didn’t do it for me. The same is true of Mr. Kilmister’s singing style, his songs, and of the extremely high volume at which he played them live. But I was impressed by one or two of the interviews he gave, e.g. to the German magazine ”GALORE“: To my surprise, Kilmister turned out to be incredibly astute and cynical, and he took a clear stand about current events. What the fans loved, of course, was this nonconformism, the aura of danger surrounding him, and his ”Kiss my ass!“ attitude. He represented a boldness that ordinary fans lacked. His open machismo, his irresponsibility, and a certain amount of self-destructive behaviour, that is: the personal tragedies behind the mask, were things these fans ignored. I was much more into Bowie, although in my opinion he had released too many mediocre albums with only a few highlights. No hard feelings, of course, for Bowie had recorded many epochal songs and exerted a huge influence on rock music during the first decades of his career.
Becoming Nr. 1 with impenetrable songs
Now I would never think of buying a rock star’s CD just because s/he died recently – let alone that star’s complete back catalogue. That’s why it never fails to astonish me that the Grim Reaper always turns out to be the perfect salesman. A case in point: Bowie’s rather impenetrable album Blackstar, which was released at almost the same time as his death, made it to Nr. 1 on the US album charts – the first Bowie album ever to do so. And after Lemmy Kilmister died, three of Motörhead’s albums even entered the German charts, while Ace of Spades, Motörhead’s signature song, entered the Top 100 of the German singles charts for the first time ever.
And there are more examples. In its Elvis Presley biography, the internet platform ‘laut.de’ sums it up: ”The king is dead – long live the king! That was the melancholy media cry on August 16, 1977. Elvis had already sold 600 million sound carriers with his voice till then. After his death, 200 million sound carriers were added to this within a short period of time, and in the year 2002 their number had reached 1.6 billion.“ About another king, the ”King of Pop“, Wikipedia writes: ”Due to his death, 29 million Michael Jackson albums were sold in less than six months.“ The same internet encyclopedia writes about Austria’s biggest popstar: „Only a few weeks after Falco’s death, his album Out of the Dark (Into the Light) was released and became a huge commercial success. The album entered the Austrian charts at Nr. 1 and remained in the charts for the following three months. In Germany, the album maintained its position in the Top 100 for almost a year. In Germany and Austria alone, the album sold two million copies, the single Out of the Dark sold more than 3.5 million copies”. But did the same apply to rock group Queen and their frontman Freddie Mercury? It sure did, according to the web platform ”SPIEGEL Online“: ”After Mercury’s death, the turnover from Queen CDs quadrupled. Bohemian Rhapsody again reached the Nr. 1 position in the charts. And even a remixed Mercury solo album, featuring old flops pimped with a disco beat, became a moneymaker.“ The Grim Reaper as the perfect salesman – this is also true in the field of independent and alternative rock: In the year 1980, after Joy Division singer Ian Curtis had committed suicide, their Single Love Will Tear Us Apart was rereleased and became a worldwide hit. It follows the same principle every time: Unknown acts become famous – famous acts become legends.
Where were all the posthumous fans when their stars were still alive?
Which leads us to the question: Where were all these fans when their stars were still alive and could have personally profited from their enormous affection? And I’m asking myself: What is it that makes deceased stars so irresistible? Is it their morbid charm? The alarming insight that even idols are only human beings and that we are still alive? Do we celebrate an early death as the inevitable dramatic climax of this almost mythical game of “sex and drugs and rock and roll“, as a supreme discipline, so to speak? Or is it the feeling of holding a great legacy in one’s hands? Do fans suddenly feel the breath of history when the works of a deceased artist begin to transition into their museal state?
”Bill Drummond said …“
Whatever the case may be: Artists themselves are more or less aware of the sales- and fame-propelling power the sudden death of a VIP can have. Among the rock masters who explicitly and creatively adressed this mechanism is Bill Drummond. He was at the center of that Liverpool scene which caused a sensation during the late 1970s and during the 1980s. Post Punk and New Wave were happening, and Echo & The Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes were the biggest Liverpool bands. Members of both outfits had been playing together in other bands before. For example, Julian Cope, singer with Teardrop Explodes, and Ian McCulloch, his counterpart in Echo & The Bunnymen, had been members of The Crucial Three. The ”Bunnymen“ and the ”Teardrops“ were signed by Zoo, an indie label owned by David Balfe and, yes, Bill Drummond. Balfe and Drummond, in turn, knew each other from playing together in the relatively unsuccessful band Big In Japan and contributed substantially to the fortunes of their Zoo label fosterlings: Balfe was an occasional member of Teardrop Explodes, and Drummond worked as a manager for Teardrop Explodes as well as for the Bunnymen. During the first years of both bands, so the story goes, all participants were said to have constantly quarreled about which band should get the most promotional power – they were all friends, of course, but they were also jealous of each other. Whereas Ian McCulloch and his bandmates are still active today, Teardrop Explodes broke up in 1983 – because of these oft-quoted ”differences of opinion and taste in music“. Bill Drummond would later team up with Jimmy Cauty to realise art and music projects like The Timelords, The Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu and, most notably, The KLF – a step that earned him world fame. David Balfe, lastly, founded record label Food which also released some KLF records, of course.
Avantgarde art and marketing strategies
Legend has it that, back when Drummond was managing Teardrop Explodes, he and singer Julian Cope were constantly quarreling. Some people claim it was a downright feud. That may very well be true, because Cope was an egomaniac and eccentric who experimented with drugs, whereas Drummond had a passion for avantgarde art and marketing strategies. Drummond proved how seriously he took his idiosyncratic ideas in e.g. 1992, when he awarded Turner Prize winner Rachel Whiteread the „Worst Artist of the Year“ award of his K Foundation, including prize money of 40,000 GBP. A year later he participated in the public burning of – believe it or not – one million GBP. Although Teardrop Explodes started out well, they never made it to stardom, and one can assume that Drummond blamed their failure on poor musical and marketing decisions.
No wonder that one of the songs Julian Cope released on his 1984 solo album Fried was called Bill Drummond Said. It’s a catchy song that featured cryptic lyrics. But even if you don’t get the whole picture, you can pick up on the fact that Julian Cope blames the Teardrops’ failure on manager Bill Drummond. And that’s not all: He even suggests that Drummond ruined the band on purpose. The song characterizes him as a stone-cold manager who positively destroyed the delicate structure of the band by pushing the artists too hard towards success and maximum turnover. But did Julian Cope’s song really offend Bill Drummond? Probably not, because it is neither particularly pithy nor aggressive. On the contrary, it fuels the Liverpool scene myth of the 1980s, celebrating its creative masterminds, its libertines and eccentrics, its ”larger than life“ characters.
Why Julian Cope had to die
You can draw the same conclusion from Julian Cope Is Dead, a song that was released two years later, in 1986, by – guess who – Bill Drummond. The charismatic heavy hitter had been working as an A&R manager for the record company WEA for some time. Now he returned as an artist with his solo album The Man. Julian Cope Is Dead is everything but a deadly serious retaliation song about the former Teardrop Explodes singer. Music and vocal style echo the good old folksong genre, and born Scotsman Bill Drummond sings with a strong Scottish accent. It comes across like a rude drinking song from ancient times, author unknown. Everything we hear sounds just like a fairytale, whispering: No need to worry, it’s only folklore.
The lyrics also don’t sound very trustworthy: ”Julian Cope is dead, / I shot him in the head“, Drummond cheerfully sings, ”if he moves some more, / I’ll kill him for sure. / Now, Julian Cope is dead”. In contrast to Bill Drummond Said,the narrator’s perspective in this song is clear. InJulian Cope Is Dead, only one single person is singing, who turns out to be Julian Cope’s former manager, Bill Drummond. “I shot Julian Cope”, the manager claims, but the singer doesn’t seem to be dead because he can still move. However, and that’s what counts: The public thinks that Julian Cope is no longer alive. In the further course of the song we learn what happened in detail and what the manager has in mind. In short: The Teardrop Explodes was a a superb band, no question, and had some very good songs in their repertoire, but they never managed to leave their mark on rock history. They were just a footnote. Which is why the manager – for the band’s sake as well – came up with a smart plan: Let’s fake the frontman’s death and make the band bigger than the Beatles, let’s create a cult around the Teardrops, which will help to massively increase their record sales: ”Jules C. just follow me, / have your interests at heart. / Now take this knife, / And write to your wife. / Tell her it had to be. / Now Julian said no, / He didn’t want to go …“
An excellent idea: Kill the frontman, then you’re ”bigger than the Beatles“
But the singer, who according to this plan would have had to lie to his wife, didn’t want to join in. So the manager reached for a gun and wounded Julian Cope to keep him from sabotaging the plan: ”Now, Julian Cope is dead, / I shot him in the head, / He didn’t understand / The glory of the plan, / Now, Julian Cope is dead.“ Towards the end of the song the speaker imagines his future success and how he shows off to the neighbours: ”We’ll have platinum records, not gold / To hang on our walls at home. / When the neighbours come round, / I’ll always break down, / repeating the stories of old.“ We can assume that the singer is being hidden somewhere, because the song addresses him again during the finale. That’s when Drummond ridicules Cope’s posing as a martyr, but he also makes fun of the media who are constantly looking for savior figures: ”But who is this man / With holes in his hands, / A halo round his head. / That Arab smock, / And golden locks, / It can’t be, it could be, it is!“ The fact that the initials J. C. apply to Julian Cope as well as to Jesus Christ, plays into Drummond’s hands: ”J. C., please, you’ve got to see, / I was doing what a manager ought. / The records weren’t selling, / And Balfie was drooping, / And Gary had a mortgage to pay.“ The bottom line is that the manager just did his job.
From mate to saint
Aside from the suggestion that Julian Cope just lacked the necessary savvy for generating commercial success, Drummond uses his song as a vehicle to explain a ridiculous marketing strategy. At the center lies the insight outlined at the beginning of this article: The death of a rock star sets an unbelievable process in motion: Record, CD, and DVD sales skyrocket. In an interview Drummond himself reminds the readers of Ian Curtis, whose suicide turned indie heroes Joy Division into global superstars – and helped launch New Order, the subsequent project formed by his ex bandmates. In November 1998 Drummond talked to the internet platform ‘intro.de’ about his song Julian Cope Is Dead and said: “Do you remember Ian Curtis? Joy Division was friends with us, and when Ian died, the media stylised him into something like a Messiah. Of course I knew that death can turn pop musicians into something special, but to watch someone I knew quite well being transformed into a saint was a very intense experience. I then suggested to Mac (= Ian McCulloch) to fake his death. I told him to stay away from the public for two months to see what happened. But he didn’t want to lie to his family. So in the song I replaced Mac with Julian Cope.“
We can’t be sure if this story about Bill Drummond and Bunnymen singer Ian McCulloch really happened – but it’s a very nice story for sure, contributing perfectly to the myth around the Liverpool scene of the early eighties. Drummond achieves the same thing with his song Julian Cope Is Dead: It turns the (not authenticated) conflict between the Teardrop Explodes singer and his manager into a legendary anecdote. As a sideline, Drummond puts forward an ironic commentary about the mechanisms at work in the rock business. And who knows what will happen when Drummond himself bites the dust some day.