Best Of Rock: Rock N’ Roll Refusals

By Ralph Greco, Jr.

There are those moments when you refuse, reject, say ‘no thanks’ — and though the minute passes with nary a notice — and later you come to realize that that magnesium flash second of refusal has changed your whole life. Then there are those other times you stare at over the edge of a precipice and know that the decisions to do or don’t will affect future generations of your family to come.

Or, more likely than not, you go about your day, do what you do, say yes to some stuff, no to other stuff, and it doesn’t amount to more then a hill of bat dung. It’s not the same in the topsy-turvy world of rock and roll. Cosmically shattering decisions that when first decided don’t seem to add up to much to the decider, do indeed rate high on the list for fans, historians and people like me who live for this crap. Below are the ‘no thanks,’ the polite refusals and the shrug-offs that made heroes out of the ordinary, history from the seemingly mundane and, more importantly, made this list of the 10 most important rock and roll refusals.

Waylon Jennings Gives Up His Seat
The infamous plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson would have claimed future country legend Waylon Jennings as well if not for a cold! Jennings was on this ill-fated winter tour playing bass in the backing band and more then ready to get on that plane, that night, but he gave up his seat because of his compassion for The Big Bopper. It seems the big man had a cold and wanted to get to the next night’s gig faster than a tour bus or car could take him. Fate, a runny nose, Jenning’s sympathy — call it what you will, but Waylon’s decision to give up his seat, to refuse to take that plane ride, saved his life.

Jim vs. Ed
Not ever the most cooperative of cats (even when he was sober), Jim Morrison was asked to alter the lyrics to “Light My Fire” for what would be the Doors’ one and only appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Of course, the Lizard King wasn’t about to change a thing and looked directly into the camera when he sang the supposedly, too-offensive for-TV line: “You know we couldn’t get much higher.”

John Lennon Gives Back His MBE
Though not the only celeb to do so, Beatle John Lennon was probably the highest profile figure to reject this honor of his queen. In 1969, he gave his Most Excellent Order of the British Empire medal back, having received it four years previous. His reasoning? “Your Majesty, I am returning this in protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam, and against Cold Turkey slipping down the charts. With love, John Lennon of Bag.”

Elvis Costello On SNL
1977 really was a banner year for music. Just look at the backs of your albums and you’ll see a whole host of classic ones released that year. It was also the year for the true emergence of punk, and the seminal punk band The Sex Pistols were all set to invade the late-night American airwaves via Saturday Night Live in December of that year. The Pistols couldn’t make the show, so last-minute replacement Elvis Costello jumped into the brink and as is usual with musical guests on the NBC comedy show, he and his band The Attractions would perform one number, run off during the commercial and wait around another half hour or so for what would be their second song. Seconds into their second tune “Less the Zero,” however, Elvis stopped, turned, and called for the band to stop playing. All on live television! He then addressed the audience with: “I’m sorry, Ladies and Gentlemen, there’s no reason to do this song here.” Then, he and the band crashed into a blistering “Radio Radio.” This stunt banned Costello from SNL until 1989.

Tom Petty Says No To A Dollar Price Hike
Coming off a recent self-inflicted bankruptcy over his contract, yet on the heels of one of the most successful records of the late 70s, Tom Petty found himself once again fighting the powers-that-be on the eve of the release of his fourth album, Hard Promises. Recall if you will the amazing hits off Petty’s third album Damn The Torpedoes — “Don’t Do Me Like That, “Here Comes My Girl” and “Refugee” and you shouldn’t be surprised that Petty’s record company MCA was determined to sell his new record for $9.98 instead of $8.98. The recent half-time rocker was having none of that. “If we don’t take a stand, one of these days, records are going to be $20.” Petty spoke those prophetic words back in 1981 and Hard Promises did go out with the lower price.

The Boss Disavows Reagan
Republican and Democrats alike love to get in bed with rock stars. Remember Fleetwood Mac playing for the Clintons? Or how ‘bout the time Ronald Reagan — of all people —cited Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” for its patriotism! The usually close-mouthed Springsteen jumped on that one real quick, saying he wanted nothing to do with Reagan’s politics or his speeches, and refusing to let his song be co-opted. These days, New Jersey’s favorite son is more overtly political even when he is trying not to be, but way-back-when one had to wonder if old Ronald Reagan had even listened to the lyrics of the song.

Pearl Jam Says No To Ticketmaster
Refusing to make videos was not the only wrinkle in the road from these seminal Seattle rockers. After the band played a pair of shows in Chicago, they discovered that Ticketmaster had added a hefty service charge to their tickets. Creating quite the stir over the price gouging, Pearl Jam was even contacted by the U.S. Department of Justice, who was investigating Ticketmaster. Two members of Pearl Jam (Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament) actually testified at a subcommittee investigation in Washington, D.C. Pearl Jam canceled its 1994 summer tour in protest.

Roger Waters Fights Pink Floyd For The Use Of Band Name
The feud between Roger Waters and David Gilmour seems to be water under the bridge these days in light of the Live 8 reunion. But back in the 80s, when Gilmour decided to helm the Waterless Floyd back into the studio and on tour, Waters took him to court to protest the continued use of the Pink Floyd name. As is well known, Gilmour won the case, and the Floyd name stuck with subsequent albums and tours. However, the infamous inflatable pink pig flown across stadium skylines at Floyd shows had to be altered so as not to infringe on Water’s copyright, which he retained. So in a gesture of ultimate “up yours,” Gilmour altered the pig just enough to pass muster by adding a pair of quite noticeable (and quite large) testicles to the pig’s underside.

Lars And Downloading
Love or hate the guy, Lars Ulrich, Metallica’s vocal and diminutive drummer, refused to let the millions of Napster users download his band’s music. Seen as a slap in the face to some by a band who always prided themselves on doing whatever they could for their fans, Lars even went on Charlie Rose to speak about what he pointedly called “stealing.” No matter which side of this debate you fall on, the man made his point eloquently and hipped us all to what was coming in the future.

Prince Says Shhhhh
Impossible to deny the guy’s talent, it is equally as difficult to deny the purple one’s sometimes seemingly wackiness. So he refusing to use his name in 1993, because, as he said at the time, “Warner Brothers took the name, trademarked it and used it as the main marketing tool to promote all of the music that I wrote.” Prince became known as simply “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince,” represented by a symbol and performing more often than not with the word ‘SLAVE’ written on his cheek. A lot of a little guy to handle, Prince has released hours of music on various labels since and went back to using the name Prince on May of 2000 after his publishing contract with Warner-Chappell expired.

Robert Plant Refuses A Whole Lotta Cash
After the 2007 Led Zeppelin reunion in London, everybody who was anybody was hoping that the band would carry on with a worldwide tour, which in all likelihood would bring in a shekel or two. Plant had always been the most reluctant to speak about future plans of a reinvigorated Zep, enjoying the moment as a one-off performance with good friends for a good cause. When finally confronted with astronomical cash projections, the aging rock legend still resists the idea of a full fledge Led Zeppelin tour. Could have been good, could have been…we’ll never know.

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