A few words on image, style, band-as-brand, and so on…

I was at a conference the other week all about marketing in HE, and one of the last plenaries started with someone playing “Anarchy in the UK”. They asked us if we knew why they were playing it (their stated reason was because UK HE is basically anarchy at the moment because of govt policy) and I was the only person to pipe up and say “because Johnny Rotten and Malcolm McLaren are outstanding marketers”, and explain that everything I knew about branding and image and loyalty and emotional investment I knew from being into music and following bands.

So let’s tear up Embrace’s image and brand, for a moment.

Embrace’s (really) early image was pointedly of the ‘non-image’ school of thought – long-sleeve v-neck jumpers from Top Man, skatewear shoes, tatty jeans, long, greasy hair, massive corduroy coats – basically they looked like Ride, the complete antithesis of Britpop. (Actually, their ‘really’ early image, way before then, was that they were a bunch of post-Bunnymen goths. Well, they are from near Leeds.) What the semiotician derives from this early image is the message that “we know we look shit but we don’t care; we’re about the music and nothing else matters”, but it’s a little more complex than that; they were mocked for looking rubbish in some areas, and Danny has said, with more than a hint of hurt, that they literally couldn’t afford to dress any better. (Danny clearly got an expensive shirt at one point that he then wore all the time.) I actually really liked this phase of how they looked; it was pretty much how I dressed, it made them feel like a gang, and it made them seem as if they were outside fashion and trends. All of these things appealed.

In comparison at the time you had Jason Pierce wearing a spacesuit; Paul Weller dressed like a 60s Carnaby Street dandy; Noel Gallagher looking like a man from Stockport who owned a race horse and a pub (all signet rings and suede jackets); Blur in their Adidas and Fred Perry and bead necklaces; Elastica in all-black skinny jeans; Richard Ashcroft wearing a pair of Wallabies and a leather jacket over a denim jacket; Keith from Prodigy with his chaotic clown make-up. Embrace, by contrast, dressed like one of the ‘faceless techno duos’ I was so enamoured with back then.

Then there were the EP covers; stock photography of American youths in the 70s, gangs of street kids hanging out, climbing fences, the band not appearing on the cover of one of their own records until the album, which, of course, was shot in New York, and clearly went for that same kind of vibe, but just missed it ever so slightly.

Obviously there’s more to branding than just the band’s image, clothes, and record sleeves, though; there are musical signifiers which represent what a band is (and/or isn’t too, obviously). For Embrace these early musical signifiers, to me, included big choruses, brass (far more so than strings), loud guitars, ba-ba-ba backing vocals, middle eights that took the tune to somewhere new, a disorienting juxtaposition between loud, fast rock numbers and incredibly delicate, slow, sad numbers, and a post-acid-house sense of communality. Oh, and very long song titles.

Embrace’s early brand was also a lot to do with the music they talked about, which functioned as aspirational pointers; wannabe ‘strategic partners’ almost. I’ve always loved mining interviews for ‘influences’ (yes, I know it’s a problematic word), and Embrace’s early name checks were awesome; Sly & The Family Stone, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Beastie Boys, My Bloody Valentine, Elvis, Prodigy; they gave me a huge amount of background listening that helped build expectations, like a manifesto or, you guessed it, brand handbook.

Emotionally there was, to quote Danny, “a ‘Made It Through The Rain’ vibe”, a sense that bad things had hit you but that you’d overcome them. We know now that this was post-traumatic stress disorder, in Danny’s case, and that, emerging on the other side of it, writing the debut album, he was “hearing orchestras everywhere” and trying to squeeze this massiveness and colour into their music. This all amounted to a sense of forward momentum, of leaving the past behind; which is why “Come Back To What You Know”, i.e. a song exhorting some kind of retrogressive safety, felt off-brand to me. When it became their biggest radio hit, it altered the brand perception massively in the eyes and ears of the public. And how people perceive you is as much your brand as how you perceive yourself. Probably more so.

By the second album it was all dreadlocks, organ solos, bright t-shirts, kazoos, and unconscionably baggy trousers; the whole thing, image and music, was attempting to go dayglo and psychedelic, and almost getting there (if it failed it’s because, bar Steve’s acid flashbacks, Embrace have never had any truck with [illegal] pharmaceuticals; beta-blockers are a whole other story, though). Just look at the album and single covers – they documented a literal journey from black & white into technicolour, and while the band are still on the cover, it’s a drawing of them; figurative, expressionistic. At the time it felt exciting, like a prolonged party, a discovery, an epiphany, a realisation that you can be whoever you want to be, do whatever you want to do, and it’s OK, because life is about change. A rebranding exercise, if you like.

The third album continued the dress sense pretty much (of course; it followed so quickly on) but with the colours muted, the mood toned down. Vaguely moody, atmospheric photography of the band in rural landscapes replaced the drawings and lurid colours on the covers. What did it mean? It felt less fun, but it didn’t seem like a conscious, deliberate move, more an evolution born of necessity and lack of space (or perceived need?) for reinvention. Musically it felt like a muted version of the second album, too; plenty of richness in terms of instrumentation, but the eccentricity knocked out, and the big choruses, when they appeared, felt half-hearted.

The fourth album, after years away and signing to a new label, very clearly saw the band’s image worked over by a stylist; these didn’t look quite like the clothes they would have chosen themselves; haircuts, while still long for some of the band (but never the drummer) looked more expensive, as if ‘product’ was involved (in my day we used to call it ‘gel’). Leather jackets, designer labels, stylised and pointedly professionally lit photography inside the sleeve, an abstract-ish cover photo that is of the band, but not at first glance (and, ahem, they’re ‘embracing’).

Musically, though, they felt galvanised, as if they’d codified their brand-book, as it were; Rik said as much to me during an interview; “songs; guitar; stuff” he explained, as a sliding-scale of significance in their sound. So the big choruses were back, with a vengeance, as were the crashing riffs and chords. That juxtaposition between fast numbers and slow numbers wasn’t though, and tempos instead edged closer together, resulting in a morass of mid-pacedness. (Still faster than the third album though.)

(An aside. The b-sides compilation, which I love and had the pleasure of writing the sleevenotes for, irritates me slightly because the font is wrong for the title and the band’s name; instead of being Arial Bold it’s Arial in bold, or vice versa, or something. Either way it’s not quite right. This is an example of disconnected record companies – it was released by EMI following their merger with Virgin / Hut, rather than Independiente, making for a gap between artist and label – not understanding how important a band’s visual branding and legacy is; because it’s ever so slightly wrong, it feels ever so slightly like a bootleg or an unofficial release, even though the photography and layout works hard to stay on-brand. Such simple little inconsistencies. I bet most people never consciously notice, though.)

The fifth album, like the third, followed on so quickly that little changed; the wardrobe got refreshed, but stylistically things were very similar. Given the timescales (and comments from Rik about tax years) it seems as though they were driven and marched by Independiente far harder and more stringently than they ever when they were signed to a major label; I get the idea they were seen as something of a cash cow by Andy MacDonald. (Notably Independiente have released no music by anyone since 2009, and, now Embrace have signed to Cooking Vinyl, they have no one currently on their roster.)

Fast-forward to now, and Steve wearing a Cardiacs t-shirt, Danny a streak of piss in skinny jeans, Rik in Dr Martens, and the rest of the band looking sombre, and, yes, a little goth; the aesthetic is somewhere between those very early days and the stylist-era. The graffiti’d front cover of “Refugees” is radically different from anything else they’ve released, whilst the back cover is almost Hieronymus Bosch or Chapman Brothers-esque; a mass of writhing, scribbled, gothic bodies. And then the eponymous album cover; a scrawled white tally on a black background that looks more like something from the Ian MacKaye Embrace; what does it mean? Does it represent, figuratively, the band again, the five of them still together, more than 20 years since they formed? I don’t know. Time may tell. But it certainly looks a bit goth. And musically? Well, that’s still to come, almost.

So Embrace, like all bands, are (or have) a ‘brand’; ‘brand’ is an unpleasant, late-capitalist term to use for it. You could say ‘identity’ or ‘self’ or ‘character’; ‘brand’ is just the term i have in my professional toolkit from my day-job. It’s something existential; the interface between how a band projects themselves and how fans perceive them.

The problem with brands, of course, is that we look to them for stability, to an extent, in an inherently unstable world (someone somewhere has probably written a PhD thesis on brands as manifestation of the desire for immortality in the face of death). But the things that make up brands – that’s people, in case you didn’t realise (which is the same thing that makes up bands, of course) – are inherently volatile and given to change. And bands are even more volatile than that. And don’t tend to have brand handbooks or manifestos (well, some of them have manifestos) providing guiding principles and keeping them on the straight and narrow, and preventing the kinds of off-brand activity (kazoo solos; songs written by the guy from Coldplay; dub remixes; football songs) that can and do cause fans cognitive dissonance.

Inspiration for this post comes from BB’s brilliant “Image bands” thread over at ILM.

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