Rock 'n' roll brand

As an art student in New York, Dave Trott befriended a future punk pioneer who understood that image was more powerful than substance.

New York Dolls: Kane (far left) ‘saw Warhol as a man who had built himself into a brand  – so that you didn’t look at the art, the product, at all; that was irrelevant: you looked at the brand’. He died in 2004. Credit: Getty Images
New York Dolls: Kane (far left) ‘saw Warhol as a man who had built himself into a brand – so that you didn’t look at the art, the product, at all; that was irrelevant: you looked at the brand’. He died in 2004. Credit: Getty Images

In the late 60s, I was doing foundation art at East Ham tech. I was a mod. That meant being different, finding a new look before anyone else did. Clothes and hair were a way to express yourself, another canvas. So you really put a lot of effort in.

There weren’t any hairstylists in those days, just barbers who could only cut hair to look like your dad’s. So I used to cut my own hair: short and spiky at the front, and backcombed on top.

After foundation, I got a Rockefeller Scholarship to go to art school in New York. All my artistic heroes – Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg – were in New York. I thought it would be the most stylish place on the planet. Boy, was I wrong.

When I got there, everyone dressed like slobs, no-one cared what they looked like. Worse, because I cared what I looked like, everyone assumed I was gay. Style had totally bypassed the US, like the 60s hadn’t happened. This wasn’t the rebellious, outrageous, art-school atmosphere I’d been expecting.

I felt like I’d been exiled to an old folks’ home. I couldn’t believe I’d left London for this. Then, one day, I was walking across campus and this blond guy came up and asked me where I got my hair cut. He was from Queens and he sounded like Yogi Bear when he talked.

He liked my hair because it didn’t look like anyone else’s. He liked the fact that I looked different. I told him I cut it myself. He asked me if I’d cut his hair, so I said yeah, sure.

Where everyone else had a problem with how I looked, he saw it as interesting and unusual. And we became friends. His name was Artie and he too didn’t want to be like everyone else. We shared a student flat all through art school.

Between the drugs, we often discussed our favourite artists in different media. We were both fascinated by Warhol. But where I was intrigued by his art, Artie was intrigued by the man. I liked the bold and daring quality of his graphics. How the screen prints juxtaposed stark black-and-white photographs with flat blocks of bright comic-book colour. I liked the lack of subtlety, the fact that anyone could understand it, not just art critics.

Later, for me, it was only a few steps from pop art to graphic design to advertising.

But Artie didn’t see any of that. He saw Warhol as a man who had built himself into a brand – so that you didn’t look at the art, the product, at all; that was irrelevant: you looked at the brand.

If Warhol painted, or filmed, or photographed, or just signed something, it didn’t matter what it was – people wanted it just because it was a Warhol. Warhol made himself more important than the art. He made himself into a brand.

And he did it by being totally weird and shockingly different. By being outrageous, by being controversial, by shocking the art establishment, and getting more publicity than any other artist.

A light went on in Artie’s head.

He started buying all his clothes from thrift shops (the New York equivalent of Oxfam shops). But not just for cheapness: for weirdness. He would buy things you couldn’t find anywhere else. White hob-nailed construction boots, World War II floor-length ex-army greatcoats, sequin-covered trapeze-artist leotards.

Stuff like that.

The 60s turned into the 70s and we left art school. I came back to London to work in advertising. Artie stayed in New York and founded a group called the New York Dolls.

His full name was Arthur "Killer" Kane and he was the bass player. The group’s music wasn’t very good, but their image was impactful. They wore full make-up: lip gloss, eye shadow, eyeliner. Their hair was teased into huge, feminine styles. They had skimpy, girly sequin tops, skintight leotards and tall, spiky stiletto shoes. Their whole look was cheap, trashy transvestite, designed to shock.

And they became very successful – but not because of their music. They became successful because of their style, or lack of it: their couldn’t-give-a-fuckness. They were the group that would shock everyone in the straight world. They were a brand, not a product.

The New York Dolls came to the UK and visited Vivienne Westwood’s bondage shop. Malcolm McLaren saw them and became their manager. He said it was the first time he realised you didn’t have to be able to play a note to be a rock star. And he realised it wasn’t about product but about brand. All about image,
the pose.

Eventually, McLaren found four other teenagers hanging around the shop and formed the Sex Pistols. It didn’t matter whether or not they could play – they looked right. That’s what was important.

Punk was born. McLaren understood that people buy a product for what it does, but they buy a brand for what it says about them. People bought a New York Dolls album not for the high quality of the music.

They bought it for the rebellious image it gave them. They bought it for the badge.

Being seen with that album cover under your arm said more about you than listening to the record inside. It was an early example of brand over product, of the badge being much more important than the reality.

For instance, anyone can be a motorcycle rebel. You don’t have to own a Harley-Davidson, you don’t even have to be able to drive a Harley-Davidson. All you have to do to show the world that you’re a rebel at heart is wear a T-shirt with the Harley-Davidson logo on it.

That’s what Artie understood all those years ago.

He never did advertising, but he understood the power of a brand way before I did.

Dave Trott is the chairman of The Gate London