Harley Davidson Gets it Right

Jan. 3, 2008
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This week Harley Davidson announced the headliners of its Harley Owners Group concert for the company’s 105th anniversary: Aerosmith and Kid Rock.

 You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief.

 Of course, Milwaukee residents and bikers alike remember Harley’s catastrophic 100th anniversary concert, an impossibly hyped event at the lakefront that drew national attention for its promised “secret headliner.”

 I was there, and like just about every one else in attendance, I was pretty damn sure I was about to see the Rolling Stones. For weeks, the buzz had it that the Stones would be playing—after all, what other band was monumental enough to commemorate such an anniversary?—and Harley Davidson, foolishly, did nothing to extinguish these rumors.

 Keep in mind that Harley’s main customer base, for better or worse (the company has certainly attempted to branch out, albeit without much success), is white males with disposable incomes and relatively conservative values. So it wasn’t a good sign when the opener at this centennial blowout was Tim McGraw, who, although a country singer, counts swooning young women as his primary fans.

 The evening rebounded somewhat with a crass set from Kid Rock that won over most of the bikers, even if some were taken aback by his “rapping.”

 But nothing could have prepared the crowd for the headliner: Elton John. As in Sir Elton John—not a rowdy, rebellious rock ’n’ roll band, but rather a flamboyant pianist.

 When John took the stage some cheered, others grumbled, some laughed and way too many made homophobic quips. It was a disaster. John was completely unable to relate to the crowd.

 “Harley Davison is a great brand,” he said between songs (I’m paraphrasing hear, since I don’t recall verbatim). Many had already flocked to the exits by this point. “I wish I had a song about a motorcycle, but I don’t. Here’s the closest I have.” He then broke into “Rocket Man.”

 At the Harley Davidson centennial, “Rocket Man” is not an acceptable substitute for “Born to Be Wild” or “Bad to the Bone,” let alone for “Satisfaction” and “Paint it Black.” With one expensive misfire, Harley alienated their customers, subjected John to what must have been one of the least accommodating crowds he’s ever played for, and invited hours of embarrassing press coverage.

 Five years later, though, Harley Davidson seems to have learned from their mistakes. This time they booked a safe, reliable headliner, Aerosmith, kept the one act from that last that worked, Kid Rock, and most importantly, announced the bill in advance. There will be no false hopes about a rare Rolling Stones show this year; just 40,000 appeased bikers who receive the exact concert they’re expecting.





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