Book review: 'What You Want Is in the Limo' details the decadence of the first billion-dollar rockers


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It's a generally accepted truism of rock and roll history that the '60s reached its apotheosis with Woodstock in the summer of 1969. It is also generally assumed that the decade died along with Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison and the tragic events at the Rolling Stones' Altamont concert in December 1969, where an attendee was killed.

Michael Walker's new book, "What You Want Is in the Limo," makes the case that the cultural transition from the musical paradigm of the '60s to the current definition of rock stardom didn't take place until 1973, the year that rock music became a worldwide corporate billion dollar industry. He illustrates this by following the three largest grossing tours of 1973.


"WHAT YOU WANT IS IN THE LIMO: ON THE ROAD WITH LED ZEPPELIN, ALICE COOPER AND THE WHO IN 1973, THE YEAR THE SIXTIES DIED AND THE MODERN ROCK STAR WAS BORN"
By Michael Walker
Spiegel & Grau ($26).

The Who had been phenomenally successful since the British Invasion of the '60s. In 1969 it set the stage for the giant rock show tour with the release of "Tommy," an album and live show that had met with critical and financial success.

In 1973 The Who toured in support of its rock opera concept album "Quadrophenia." Today "Quadrophenia" is considered a classic, but at the time it was met with mixed reviews. The audiences responded positively to the classic Who hits but seemed underwhelmed by the new material.

The expensive stage show included pre-recorded music and light shows that led to many mishaps, mainly because the vision of The Who, and specifically of Pete Townsend, were beyond the technological capabilities of the time. Still, this was a prelude to what stadium rock would become.

There is really no band that symbolizes the excessive lifestyle of the decadent rock star more than Led Zeppelin. In 1973 the members were touring in support of "Houses of the Holy." Given their stature today it is hard to believe that there was a time when they received very little radio airplay and were reviled by the mainstream rock press.

The band built its following through live shows, one audience at a time. The musicians were successful enough at this that by 1973 they were touring in a private jet and setting the standard for groupies and drugs and booze for every successive generation of rock star. They went from being merely musicians to being rock stars to being rock gods to whom the rules did not apply. In 1973 this was unprecedented.

Alice Cooper (originally the name referred to the whole band, and that is the context I use it here), was perhaps the most hated band on the planet, by the rock press and parents' groups and churches and, well ... everybody really. Except the fans who bought its albums and went to its shows in spite of, or more likely because of, the negative press.

"We were the dagger in the heart of the love generation," Alice Cooper has said in countless interviews. The album "Billion Dollar Babies," while not a concept album like "Quadrophenia," was a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the phenomenon of fame and fortune. Alice Cooper was making so much money at this point that the record label seriously considered putting a real $1 bill in every copy of the album (a fake one was eventually agreed on).

It was one of the top albums of 1973 and one of the top grossing concert tours ever at that time. The expense of transporting and setting up the stage show, which included costumes, actors and a working guillotine, ensured that the band actually made less money than acts who sold less tickets. No one had turned a rock concert into a revenue-generating traveling theater before this, at least not at this level.

The book focuses on the creation of the albums, the details of the tours, and the relationships of the bands and their inner circles. It is not devoid of salacious tales of sex and drugs, but these are not the focus.

This was the era when the rock star was elevated to a position of privilege previously reserved for only the wealthiest members of society. It set the stage, literally, for the arena rock of the '70s.

Although not mentioned in this book, by the end of 1973, KISS had put on the makeup and begun what would become the biggest and arguably the most successful marketing behemoth in the annals of rock history. Today we take this lifestyle and this type of spectacle for granted. Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus are surrounded by stage shows, dancers and actors who add theater to the music. We are no longer surprised by excess. We expect it.

Wayne Wise is a freelance writer and novelist living in Lawrenceville: tetroc@gmail.com or www.wayne-wise.com.

 


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