Deep Dive

Rolling Stone’s Super Bowl Hail Mary Pass

All of this talk about the new NFL season has me thinking back to my days as the publisher of Rolling Stone magazine. Each summer the business and editorial sides would huddle as a team, and brainstorm on new ideas for special issues and feature stories. In 2007 we spent part of that time kicking around some ideas for the NFL. During an advertising sales call with the league we had learned that they were running out of ideas for the Super Bowl halftime show. For those who have watched that festivity over the last few years you can probably see that their concerns were valid. As bad as some of these performances have been, the ones before 2000 were pretty unwatchable.

When I was growing up, halftime show headliners were people like the Spirit of Troy, the University of Southern California Trojan Marching Band. In fact, up until 2001 the halftime shows were all thematic, tied loosely to the market in which the big game was being played. Maybe the most cringeworthy was 1983’s “Kaleido SUPERscope (A Kaleidoscope of Color and Sound).” I recently watched a video of that performance and the debate that was underway in the YouTube Comments section was about whether the performance was worse than the actual game it interrupted. That debate continues on but the theme-driven approach to the halftime show would end in 2001.

In 2002 the NFL locked down U2 (the band) to host the next halftime show and for a moment it was like the world stood still. U2 delivered an arena-like performance that moved not only the folks in that stadium but anyone watching across the globe. It was such a hit that it got other established bands to rethink football. The Super Bowls that followed would feature Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, and perhaps the greatest halftime performer of all time, Prince. These cats owned that midfield stage and delivered performances that were often more engaging than the game they halved.

 

As great as this was the league knew it couldn’t last. The list of potential performers who were of this magnitude was limited and would soon reach its end. The NFL also knew that they needed help. They couldn’t do this all on their own. The thought was to move away from single acts and build out a viable “concept” concert as opposed to a literal run-through of any bands’ half-dozen best-known hits. This couldn’t be a return to the goofy concepts they had embraced before. This had to embody a genuine coolness that was easy for anyone to “get.” That opened the door for Rolling Stone to not only think about a special issue with a few bells and whistles. It prompted us to think REALLY big.

I’m not sure who came up with the idea first. I’m not even sure how close the final product was to the original concept. But I do know that when the idea surfaced everyone started nodding in unison. This was a winner and it was greenlit right then and there. I don’t even think we had to run it by the owner, Jann Wenner, before we got underway with building it out.

The idea was simple: “The 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.” It was a clean and easy concept, and less difficult to execute than you would imagine. An all-star panel of judges could easily be convened to kick around their thoughts and the list could probably be nailed in a matter of days. In fact I think that the entire edit package was actually completed that quickly.

As the readers of Copper probably know, lists work. They spark spirited debate and are easy PR sells to the media. Advertisers quickly get the concept and move fast toward finding a part of the content they can own, their own private beachhead. But as is the case with every “simple” idea there’s a chance that it might get hung up on a snag or two in the execution. That snag usually involves talent and ego. When you start to rank guitarists, ego comes quickly into play and things can get chippy right quick. Boy did they ever do just that here!

One of the key features of any magazine special issue is the cover. If you want to make a special issue really special you can do a gatefold cover. Gatefolds open off of the main front cover to fold out and create a larger canvas for the art director to play with. They also create a larger billboard for the lucky advertiser whose ad runs on the cover’s flip side. It’s usually win-win, draws a lot of press, and ensures that the issue will become a collectible one day.

For the 100 Greatest Guitar Songs issue we knew right from the start that we wanted to do a gatefold cover. It just seemed like a natural, and everyone thought that it should be an ensemble shot. We would fill the space with a photo of some the best guitarists in the game. This kind of shoot, however, can present some speed bumps, most of which involve logistics. But in this case the challenge didn’t just slow things down. It brought everything to a halt.

For these big ensemble shots, a lot of people assume you are lucky enough to get everyone together in one room to pose for a group picture like you might do at a wedding or reunion. Instead, you shoot individual photos and snap together something that’s like a finished puzzle. With schedules as they are you never want to exclude anyone. You especially don’t want to pass over someone that you believe is a must-have because they couldn’t meet your deadlines. So we shot them separately. Usually, this works.

In this case the wish list of folks we wanted on the Rolling Stone cover emerged almost immediately. B.B. King and Buddy Guy were everyone’s top choices. Then there were the old-guard rockers: Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Carlos Santana. And of course, guys from my generation like Eddie Van Halen, Prince, and Kirk Hammett had to be there or it would seem disjointed. Lastly there were the young guns, the cats who were quickly making a name for themselves through their virtuosity and fun, fresh approach. It was decided that John Mayer and Omar Rodríguez-López from The Mars Volta would get those two open slots.

This was the A List. A backup list was assembled in case someone was unavailable or just didn’t want to play along. Once everything seemed in place the outreach began. Every conversation has its own story and these exchanges in and of themselves could make their own Copper article. But the big one was this:

When Prince was contacted he asked who else would be on the cover with him. The editor ran through a sampling of names that Prince could expect and when they got to John Mayer, Prince promptly replied, “I’m out.” He was dead set against being on a guitar greats cover with John Mayer. In short, he didn’t think that Mayer had the kind of talent to belong on that “stage.”

I’m pretty sure that the editors at that point were saying to each other, “well, we’re not going to forgo having Prince on this cover for a guy who sang ‘Your Body Is A Wonderland!’”

Next: fast forward to our conversation with Eric Clapton. He had been an early advocate that Mayer be included in the ranking. When he heard that Prince would turn down the cover if Mayer was on it, Clapton responded by saying, “Really? Well then I won’t do it if John Mayer isn’t on the cover!”

Soon the issue began to lose a lot of its steam. The debate over whether we needed Prince or instead Eric and John burned through valuable time. After a lot of hand-wringing the decision was made to just go with Clapton and Prince.

But by then their schedules wouldn’t allow it. So in the end, Mayer made the cut and got onto the cover.

 

That decision left a sting I guess that stuck. Prince would later watch Mayer perform at the next Grammy awards. In a brief moment during a pop music medley the television cameras shifted to Prince watching Mayer play. As I watched the telecast I wondered if anyone outside of our circle had any idea what was behind Prince’s obvious scowl. Man!

This kind of discord is exactly what you don’t want when you are pitching a big idea to someone like the NFL. They want everything to be as smooth as glass. That’s what you need to demonstrate if you are going to help them pull off an event of Super Bowl magnitude.

So what was the big idea we had for the NFL for their next Super Bowl? We developed a concept that we thought would  change the dynamic of the halftime show. Our idea was tied to the 100 Greatest issue’s theme. Imagine that the stage assembled mid-field is shaped like an electric guitar. The one difference is that this electric guitar has multiple necks, say eight. The backing band sits on the part of the stage that’s the body of the guitar. Then one by one, various guitar legends take to the stage and walk down their own guitar neck, and there they play a lead from a song that they made famous and that’s on the Rolling Stone 100 Greatest list. The last song would bring the band together into one large all-star jam with wailing for the ages.

The NFL loved it. The record labels loved it. The musicians loved it. We will never know if the fans loved it because it died. But it would have been something to witness. Imagine the guys who ended up on that cover of Rolling Stone sharing a stage so magnificent, on television’s biggest night? It would have broken through a construct that everyone at the league was afraid to dismantle. It would have opened up a lot more performers to participating in an event that’s such high risk/reward. Performers certainly don’t make much money taking that stage. But it can be a game changer, for all involved. Oh well…

The 100 Greatest issue took longer than expected to come together and the NFL quickly developed cold feet. Sensing that they had moved on, Rolling Stone pushed the issue back and it ultimately fell in the month of May. In the end the NFL’s decision to “pass” was likely helped by their ability to secure Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as that year’s halftime act. Though I have to say TP and the gang delivered an incredible performance. The following two years brought forward Bruce Springsteen and The Who. Both ripped the roofs off of their respective stadiums. But that would be that. From there forward, the show would often be overshadowed by mishaps and controversial artists and performances. What a lost opportunity.

 

In the end this “100 Greatest Guitar Songs” issue declared Chuck Berry’s 1958 rock classic “Johnny B. Goode” to be the best guitar song of all time. I can dig that. That’s where it all began for so many of us. The list that follows is at times hard to grasp. It’s quirky and debatable. However, that’s what these things ought to be. They spawn the kind of great debates that friends of mine and I have managed to go back and forth with throughout our lives. Some still have gas to this day. Ultimately, that’s the real gift of a special issue of this kind.

 

Rolling Stone hasn’t always gotten it right. But this is one of those moments where I gotta say, our heart was in the right place. The issue did OK but it lacked the firepower that an association with an organization like the NFL usually provides. That would have catapulted the entire experience to legends status. There would have been download programs, promos on Coors Light 30-packs, in store, on premise, at checkout signage, radio live reads and more. Those did happen for that Super Bowl. They just didn’t involve Rolling Stone or the 100 Greatest issue. The good news? There’s still time to pull this idea off and boy do I hope that the NFL tries to score while there’s still time left on the clock and they have the ball in the red zone…

 

Header image: Coldplay performing at Super Bowl 50. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Arnie Papp.