Thursday, March 5, 2009

Steal Your Face: Branding The Grateful Dead

In 1975, the San Francisco Bay Area band, Hot Tuna, released their fifth album, “America’s Choice.” The cover was designed to resemble a box of laundry detergent, complete with suds overflowing on the box. Was this a jab at American consumer culture from members of the quickly disappearing counter-culture, or was this an acknowledgement that, indeed, their record album was a product like any other and they were trying to sell it? I imagine it was a bit of both.
At this time one could say that the band was in a bit of an identity crisis. It wasn’t sure what it was or how it was going to present itself. Looking back on the previous four albums, the band’s identity was based around members Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassidy’s mutual love of old blues combined with the free approach exemplified by their previous band, Jefferson Airplane. Now they were beginning to go for a more traditional hard rock format. Was this evolution or trying to sell records? Did this shift have something to do with the deliberately generic album cover design?
When people discuss branding, more often than not they think of a product in terms of something that is artless and utilitarian. Talk to any amateur musician about branding their work and usually the words “sell out,” “philistine” and “Michael Bolton” will enter the argument. Yet, they will spend hours discussing “their sound” or having a designer friend of theirs come up with a “bitchin’ logo.” And yet, why is this not referred to as branding? It seems that applying any business model or language takes away from the artistry, so people simply call it other things. When successful bands form their own record labels, as the Grateful Dead did in the seventies, and actually take control over production and manufacturing, this is done in the name of “artistic control” never referred to “vertical integration.”
I am not going to say that Hot Tuna broke up because of a branding crisis. However, it is notable that as seventies went on, Cassidy and Kaukonen seemed more geared towards finding new audiences than holding on to the one they had, exemplified by the fact that they both formed New Wave bands after the Tuna dissolved in 1978.
The Grateful Dead on the other hand, well, say what you will about them, but they knew how to hold on to their audience. Alright so they may have dabbled in some disco beats in the late seventies, but they never lost their core, even when their music was most at odds with the pop music trends. While their peers faded from the scene, they persisted, monopolizing their audience of aging (and neo) hippies. Am I saying that they did all of this because of a “bitchin’ logo”? Of course not.

It certainly didn’t hurt, though. The logo, derived from an old stencil that was used to identify the band’s gear when playing at venues and festivals where numerous other bands were playing, ultimately ended up adorning the entire cover of their 1976 live album “Steal Your Face,” giving the logo its unofficial name. Since then, the logo has adorned tickets, posters, t-shirts, archival releases, websites and all manner of merchandise. The image is so well known, and so associated with the deadhead culture that law enforcement officials in some states even made it probable cause to search for narcotics when seeing the logo on a bumper sticker.
At first glance, the logo would appear to evoke a more heavy metal sound, with the image of the skeleton and the lightening, but the same could be said about the name of the group. Personally, as a fan who doesn’t necessarily appreciate being lumped in with the majority of “Dead Heads,” I appreciate the simplicity of the logo, the design of which also counters the more “hippyish” aspects of the music and culture (“The dancing bears” seem more appropriate). The fact that most Dead Heads would disagree that the design is somehow inconsistent with the music that they make is evidence of the fact that the image has become so inextricable from what it is intended to represent.
The design itself is very effective. Essentially a logo within a logo, the inner circle containing the lightning bolt dividing a circle into red and blue halves is often used by itself in band images. The red white and blue obviously speaks to the colors of the American flag, as well it should. The music of the Dead, being hugely inspired by old folk, bluegrass, and blues, is distinctly American. The lightning bolt signifies that music is vital, a living creation emerging from the traditions of the past. In the outer circle the skull (Skull = Dead, no-brainer) frames the inner logo, indicating that this mixture takes place within the head space. Again, the outer circle is almost as recognizable on its own without the lightning bolt, also being incorporated into many images and packaging designs.

All in all, I would say that the logo is incredibly potent and effective for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is ubiquitous. People know what it means and whenever any part of that logo shows up anywhere, the viewer knows that the “product” will somehow be associated with the Grateful Dead or the Dead Head culture. Secondly, though the colors are striking and clearly have symbolic value, the image is completely recognizable in black and white and still has power when the image is altered, or shown in part. Lastly, it is aesthetically appealing, a powerful image that, artistically, is even a bit more “badass” than the band portrays itself.

(On a side note: Hot Tuna finally got their “bitchin’ logo” when they reformed years later. Not as ubiquitous or versatile, but it looks awesome on a t-shirt.)