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Music

Five artists whose image was more important than the music

In the iconic surrealist sitcom, The Mighty Boosh, Noel Fielding’s character Vince Noir claims, “It’s not about music, it’s about what you look like,” while jokingly devaluing jazz music while conversing with his jazz-obsessed friend, Howard Moon (Julian Barratt). Today, I’m exploring the validity of this comment. Is the image more important than the music? 

Of course, you will now be thinking it’s a bit of both. Indeed, it is a little like saying what’s more important, the eyes or the ears? Musical purists among us will be tutting and saying, “It’s all about the sound! It’s music after all, isn’t it?” In saying this, you would be entirely correct. Why should I care what David Gilmour looks like? All I need is to hear some of his jaw-dropping lead-guitar voicings, and I’ll be on my way. 

While image isn’t fundamentally important for music, it is vitally important in cultural and historical significance. With this in mind, it’s very easy to see why bands and musicians before the 1960s wore the same old suits and had not one iconic haircut between them. If we flash forward to the 1960s, we suddenly had hippies dressed in all kinds of weird and wonderful technicolour clothes. In the early 1970s, we had the birth of glam rock, where David Bowie and Co. popularised the heavy use of makeup and hair dye. Shortly thereafter, we entered the punk era, perhaps the moment in music most dominated by image over music.

So looking at the 1960s and beyond, what changed? The answer lies in an increasing link between music and fashion and also in the popularisation of music as a key element of the Western countercultural movement. After the end of World War II, the baby boomers carried a newfound optimism and drove the capitalist machine, introducing new technological and societal ideas to shake the bones of their stubborn parents. 

Advancements in technology allowed music to develop at an extraordinary rate in the 1960s, allowing creative minds to realise their potential. With an increased means of record production and distribution, managers and record labels began to realise the power of marketing and the importance of standing out from the crowd. An artist was to have a strange abstract design on their album cover to draw the listener away from competitors and into their grasp. 

This same sentiment would gradually enter all aspects of the music business by the 1970s. The most successful groups couldn’t grab the audience’s attention with four handsome mop-top lads from Liverpool anymore. The business now required Elton John in ludicrous glasses, Bowie in a glittery intergalactic bodysuit and Bryan ferry in leopard-print jackets. 

The importance of image in popular music grew concurrently with the developing ideas in fashion, and either one would catalyse the other incrementally over time. Looking back on the past 60 years, it’s generally very easy to tell what decade an artist was from and what style of music they might have been making based solely on their fashion choices and demeanour. For some bands, their image was virtually all they had, and the music was very much a secondary factor in their prevailing popularity. 

Below, we list five artists whose image was more vital to their cultural significance than their music. 

Five artists whose image was more important than the music:

The Stooges

For this selection, I’m sure I’ll get my fair share of hecklers, but allow me first to assert that I am a big fan of The Stooges’ music and much of Iggy Pop’s subsequent solo work. But their sustained position in history was more pivotally influenced by their countercultural image of hedonistic proto-punk hell-raising. 

For those who weren’t aware, The Stooges liked to make a bold statement and so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see band members dressed in Nazi officer uniforms, Iggy Pop throwing objects at the audience, acts of indecent exposure and even bloody acts self-mutilation. These stunts were partially attributable to the group’s over-indulgence in drugs, but they were hardly going to make much of a statement if they turned up in suit and tie and thanked everyone for a pleasant evening on exit from the stage. The Stooges knew what rock ‘n’ roll meant and knew what it represented in society at the time – this was the key to their historical relevance.

Sex Pistols 

After mentioning The Stooges, I feel it’s now a good time to mention possibly the most deserving of a spot on this list. The Sex Pistols didn’t create punk music, but by golly did they embody the movement. Again, their music, albeit crude, rough-edged and lacking in talent, was important in its frequent anarchist statements and alienating stances on political matters and, of course, the English monarchy. However, their public image was arguably the more important factor at play, historically speaking.

The Sex Pistols had very little musical ability between them in comparison to, say, Pink Floyd as a contemporary example. But the group represented an angry youth, a counterculture that looked to scare parents across the country. They named themselves just like they dressed. Skinny reprobates clad in chains and scruffy leathers with greasy spiked-up hair opted for demonic nicknames like Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious. None of this was a fortunate mistake; the band knew the importance of image, as did their recently deceased friend, the punk fashion pioneer Pamela Rooke.

The New York Dolls

The New York Dolls made some fantastic music and made a little bit of history with their eponymous 1973 debut album. Their unique style that merged a primitive form of punk rock with heavy metal was an important influence on a wealth of subsequent heavy rock acts, but what lingers in mind is their striking on-stage image.

As depicted perfectly on the artwork for the band’s debut album, the group were known for their propensity to cross-dress. This was by all accounts a bid to jump on the glam-rock zeitgeist, but the Dolls took it to the next level with high heels, heavy makeup, spandex, dresses and eccentric headwear. The striking look certainly added to the band’s appeal at the time and has since helped to earn them an immortal notch on the bedpost of 1970s cultural history.

Prince 

This selection will be divisive among readers. Prince was in part successful because of his talent as a musician and singer. His rise to worldwide popularity was already well underway when he released his most notable work, Purple Rain, in 1984. But this release will help to illustrate my point that the pop star’s career was bolstered by his eye for marketing.

Purple Rain was famously accompanied by a feature film for the visual aspect of the recording, something that Prince considered invaluable. His time in the limelight throughout the 1980s was also aided by the rise of MTV during this period. The music channel popularised Prince’s big hits by showing his accompanying music videos, where he had yet another off-stage opportunity to express the visual element of his performance. Finally, in a more obvious marketing strategy, the pop icon decided that he would change his name to an unpronounceable symbol, the same flamboyant symbol the singer used to shape his purple custom made guitars.

Kraftwerk

The German electro-pioneers Kraftwerk are about as iconic as it gets in the realm of synthesised pop music. After a stint as an experimental krautrock group in the early 1970s, they dropped all traditional instruments for a wholly electronic sound using drum machines, synthesisers and vocoders. Their body of work was undeniably important in influencing modern electronic music via the synth-pop craze of the 1980s, but this likely wouldn’t have been achieved on such a grand scale had they not had such a striking image. 

They presented themselves as eccentric robotic humanoids hot off the production line of a German factory whose function was to produce music to please the people of planet Earth. In most people’s mind’s eye, Kraftwerk will be lined up in front of their equipment on stage wearing the Man Machine era red shirt and black trousers and tie combination, but they expanded their fashion scope to all manner of other eccentric outfits over the course of their illustrious career. This vivid demeanour and visual image directly influenced countless subsequent synthpop icons, especially the likes of Gary Numan, Visage, OMD, Ultravox, and The Human League.