When Covid first hit, my idea of a long audio book was 12 hours. That, I imagined, together with a fit dog, would get me through. Now, many Covid centuries later, I laugh in the face of 50-hour durations. The dog doesn’t, he’s half dead, but I increasingly see anything less as not worth the shoe leather.
So I embraced Philip Norman’s 60-hour biography of Paul McCartney. I got it on a ‘two for one’ offer. Like a child at the checkout seeing sweets, I just threw it in the basket. I never thought I’d actually listen, but then a lot of people also thought they’d never make sourdough bread.
I now know a lot about Paul: he owns the cufflinks Buddy Holly was wearing when he died, he once bought a rare Beatles recording from an school friend, told him to ‘call this number’ to chat and then had the number disconnected. I know intimate details of his sex life with Heather Mills. I know too much.
But one little nugget amazed me. Paul really didn’t think The Beatles would last. Even in his earliest dealings with EMI he was looking beyond the band. Options were quietly discussed about a possible solo deal when the band failed. Even after he’d written Yesterday, he saw no real tomorrow in music.
No one really did. Many of the early acts The Beatles, pre-fame, toured with had once been huge. The Beatles, and others, looked at these former gods and thought, this might be me, soon! The result of such systemic insecurity led to names that might surprise you to grabbing any commercial deal offered.
Hence, long before Michael Jackson embraced Pepsi, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin were duetting about Coca-Cola. But so was Tom Jones. So was Marvin Gaye. And even David Bowie (sigh!) and Tina Turner succumbed to Pepsi.
In brand terms these were the lucky ones. The Rolling Stones declared sex and drugs to be one thing, but nothing beat Rice Krispies. The Yardbirds, where a young Jimmy Page was making plans to later lay waste to America in Led Zeppelin, took time out to recommend a milkshake and, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Motown’s supreme hitmakers had their own range of sliced bread.
I wish I had known all this when Generation X threw Johnny Rotten under a bus for advertising butter. I was called into an evening talk show to defend him. “Johnny wrote Anarchy in the UK,” I told the host. “He fired the shot that was heard around the world. He can advertise anything he wants.” But I wasn’t as sure as I sounded.
Since then Pele has become synonymous in my mind with both soccer and Viagra. I have a recurring dream where Iggy Pop tries to sell me car insurance. The Happy Mondays’ Bez, whose life skills I thought were limited to ‘being out of it and dancing’, launched an online fitness class, Buzzin’ with Bez. He is currently advocating a return to riding horses as an alternative to cars.
In my heart of hearts I would prefer these heroes of mine to not do this stuff. I would prefer they didn’t have to. But I accept, that just as Pink Floyd simply had to allow The Great Gig in the Sky sell Dole Bananas in the early 1970s, sometimes needs must.
Johnny Rotten is now a full time carer for the love of his life, his wife Nora Foster, as she struggles against the ravages of Alzheimer’s. His dedication, attitude, love and resilience are touching. He cites having the money to care for her as one of the things he is most grateful for.
If a butter ad or a celebrity appearance helped pay for that care, then who would begrudge him? And, equally, who could begrudge any artist, in a business whose brutality Covid has so clearly exposed, to not do likewise.
Woody Allen used to joke that his phone rang once and a man had asked if would be endorse ‘Orange Drink'. Woody said, “No. I don’t drink orange and if I did, I wouldn’t drink yours.” The man told him the fee was €20m to which Woody then said , “excuse me, I’ll put Mr Allen on the line”.
If these things keep artists in the business, then good luck to them. Meanwhile I have a 78-hour Sherlock Holmes compendium to re-listen to. Are there defibrillators for dogs?