Sunday, 30 March 2008

We Got It For Cheap

I finally bought the second Clipse album last week. It wasn't something I'd been planning on, after all it came just over a year ago and despite excellent reviews, disappeared without a trace. But after a meeting in the West End I found myself wandering into Fopp and there was a pile of Hath Hath No Fury piled high by the entrance.

Before I go on, I must just confess to something: the truth is that I am incapable of being in the vicinity of a record shop, without going in and checking what's in stock. I just can't walk past. And more often than not, I'm not going in there to find out if they have Foals or Vampire Weekend. No, I'm looking at a map of my past, a whole host of album sleeves (now in miniature, of course) that I am already very familiar with. In my Pink Flag book, there's a story about a man (he happens to be schizophrenic, but don't let that distract from the point) who takes solace from this. He points out that no other highstreet shops operate in this way - i.e where the products they sell are always housed in the same packaging from the day they first appear. Not even books, he says, insist on the same artwork from day one. I wonder whether anyone else takes comfort from the familiar in this way - ah, look, there's the four men walking over the zebra crossing, there's the baby swimming underwater, and there's the prism... If albums had to be repackaged and redesigned every six months they surely wouldn't hold the mystique that they hold for music fans like him. And me. Of course, some do undergo such reworkings, but crucially even if Unknown Pleasures or This Year's Model or, I don't know ... What's Going On do suddenly become double CDs with unreleased live recordings, full colour booklets and vinyl slipcases, they still keep the images that have always resonated; the 'classic' images...

I'm sure that so much of pop music's obsession with what is 'classic' is wrapped up in this museum-like status of the record shop. Every month there are at least three magazines devoted to the chronicling of 'classic' artists with seminal albums that stand the test of time. It sounds like I'm complaining but really I'm not - I love to read about albums I own, love to pour over alternative track-listings, outtakes, demos, stories about the songs that nearly-were or almost weren't. But the point is that the more of this stuff there is, the more it makes you feel that pop's best days are over. When even the NME starts branding 'classic' artist compilations, when Q Magazine do issues entirely devoted to 'classic' music from the decades, when bands themselves opt to do shows made of their 'classic' albums played in the authentic running order, it kind of feels like pop music is entering the arena of the archive. And the shops, always at the sharp end of any change in the market, are where it's most evident.

OK, dudes, I know I risk, like, appearing like, really really ancient? But record shops used to have an exciting Anything Might Happen atmosphere about them - you never knew what would be in stock, they would always be able to surprise you. There's a Nick Hornby anecdote (although I might be incorrectly attributing it to him) about always checking the Clash section whenever he was in a shop, long after they'd split up, just in case they'd thought to release something new, which he hadn't got. But when I walk into a branch of Zavvi, all I can smell is the dust, the piles of exhibits that no one is interested in, mounting up in corners, the indifferent curators and the unstoppable looming tsnami of cheap DVDs.

Fopp has been resurrected by HMV, bless them, and still retains a little bit of its former glory. I always used to bump into like-minded obsessives in the massive, now closed, branch of Fopp on Tottenham Court Road, whether it was my friend William (who alphabetises his CDs in separate genres - oh yes!) or Pete (a writer, who gets sent more CDs than he knows what to do with, yet still can't resist the lure of the record shop) and we would exchange sympathetic glances over teetering piles of jewel-cases as we sidled up to the check-out. But even Fopp is now really just HMV in slightly more fashionable trousers - the Top 50 albums, some catalogue, a smattering of hipsterish books...

So there I am in Fopp, getting the 'Oh God, why am I here?" sinking feeling in my stomach that I now get in all record shops (it's too late, the habit formed when I was a teenager so there's no shaking it now! ) when I see the aforementioned pile of Clipse. And do you know how much my copy was? One pound! It could have been on sale in my local Walthamstow 99P Shop. I wonder whether Malice and Pusher T anticipated this retail development when they penned opening track We Got It For Cheap. It didn't make me want it or value it any less - the album is great, by the way, particularly final track Nightmares which is like 21st century Curtis Mayfield. But ultimately, it makes the shrine, the church of pop music that so many of us have put our faith in - with its icons from Arrival to Hot Rats - feel slightly less important, slightly less essential and leaves me wondering if pop was always just a bit of fun to pass the time.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Dads on Drugs

The band were playing in Stockton on Tees last night. I stayed in London and celebrated Easter by helping my daughter and nephew find chocolate eggs in my dad's front room. Fortunately, I had hidden most of them in the first place so got to them early, "Oh hello! Here's another one!" I would say. They would get all excited and then reward me with one of the already discovered eggs from their little bags. The mugs! I must have eaten about 50 before they realised.

I spoke to Jack from the band, after lunch, telling him where I was.
"You're such a family man, Ben, aren't you?"
And it's true. I do like a bit of family action, particularly at Easter. But part of me felt bad at not being with the guys up in Teeside, and, the day before in Carlisle. I wrote about being paternal towards them in the last blog when I was talking about booking hotels (and boy, did that ever polarise people) and there is no way around it, a manager is the band's dad. For example, I got a text yesterday from one of the guys telling me that the rider was boozeless - not in a moany, whiny way, but asking if this was some clever Machiavellian plan to force them to have a sensible night before the following night's gig when they would be appearing in front of a man who might be investing in us. If only I had thought of that! Frankly, that sort of forward planning surely only happens in novels, and besides, if a band wants to get fucked up it will manage it regardless of the quality of rider.

I'm glad this band are fairly sensible. I mean, don't get me wrong, they love a drink - the drink the sort of amount, which if drunk by me renders me a hiccuping, slurring fool who hates himself in the morning. Crucially though, they don't appear to have any really worrying vices. But would I notice? Just as Maddy managed to sneak in at least a dozen mini eggs yesterday without me noticing, the band could actually be crack-dealing under my nose and I would just think they had some weird friends. I say this based on all my years in the music business without noticing people having drink or drug problems. OK, so when I was A&Ring 60ft Dolls, even I noticed that there may have been issues when the drummer tried to shoot me in the studio with an air pistol and the bass player seemed fond of red wine for breakfast. But on the whole, I honestly didn't see anyone really losing it. And it wasn't that I was far away it - I mean, I drove Elastica to their first handful of shows! Yes, that's me at the wheel of a Transit with a seasoned heroin addict in the back introducing enthusiastic newcomers to Mr Brown - or so I'm told, at least. Me, I was wondering if we were at Membury Services yet. My first Head of A&R actually had Talcum in his nickname, but did I ever see him doing coke? In fact, did he ever offer me any? No. Bit annoyed about that, come to think of it - maybe it was just a rumour, maybe he just used a lot of baby powder after taking a bath. Then of course came the full-on Britpop years - where everyone was supposedly on coke. My main memories are of people trying and failing to buy it in the small hours - like a teenage boys trying to lose their virginity - more energy being expended on talking about it than actually doing it.

There were eventually some dark years when I worked for a indie label whose owners did a lot of drugs. But again, I had to be the organised one; I had to be the 'dad'. It was annoying really because most of them were my age or older and yet they seemed to be having all the fun while I had to be the one who was together and reliable. I remember one time where I had to pick up the singer - a very famous British TV actor - for a live TV appearance. He was also one of the owners and therefore my employer. He'd been out all night and I'd failed to get hold of him on the phone all afternoon. With about an hour to go before the show aired, I drove round to his house in Tufnell Park. Eventually, he answered the door. Naked.
"Oh hello, love - what time is it?"
"It's 5.30 - you've got this show at 7."
"Oh right," he said, totally unfazed,"Hang on a tic..."
When we got to the Whitehall Theatre, where they filmed the daily Jack Doherty show, we had 20 minutes before it started. We raced through the stage door entrance and up the back stairs to the dressing room. Without pausing to hang up his jacket, make himself at home, or even take a breath, the singer b-lined it to the loo and started chopping out lines with the door wide open behind his crouched frame.
"You want a line, love?" he asked over his shoulder.
"I'm fine, thanks."
"Not a great drug taker are you, Ben?"

I'll never forget that line. And frankly, I'm glad it's that kind of a line and not the other sort. But I love the use of the word 'great', as if it's a heroic and noble thing to be able to do. Still, it must be said, he actually was a great drug taker: he went on stage 15 minutes later and completely charmed the audience. I drove him home afterwards and as far as I remember, he fell asleep in the car - just like a toddler being taken home after a nativity play.

The band did a great show in front of the money guy last night apparently. In fact, since the Nottingham show, I described last week, they've been going down rather well. I feel - yes, you guessed it - like a proud parent. Chocolate eggs all round!

Monday, 17 March 2008

"You guys need to get a girl singer..."

I've been very busy being a manager recently.

This is my rather showy excuse for not having written the blog for over a week. I appreciate that to many of you 'busy being a manager' must sound rather like 'I've been organising a piss up in a brewery, managing my own way out of a paper bag and negotiating the logistics of my arse and my elbow' but it does appear that there are actually quite a lot of things to do when you look after a band, and the moment you've done them all, there suddenly appear to be more things on the list that all should have been done way before the things you've actually just done.

There are indeed so many things to be done as a band manager that frankly I don't know how I'm finding the time to write this, not to speak of doing another thing for the Guardian. This one is about the Beatles incidentally, just in case you haven't read anything about them for a day or so. By the way, if you haven't seen today's Sun headline yet, you're in for a treat.

So our Scottish band are playing some dates outside Scotland for the first time. It's quite exciting. Well, apart from the boring stuff, like booking hotels - I've taken it upon myself to book their accommodation but some manager-chums are telling me that I should make the band do this, it sets too paternal an example, apparently. (Honestly, I don't know - you tell me - should I leave it to them?)

Anyway, at least I haven't had to book the shows myself. I was doing that for our girl band earlier this year and frankly it was the most dispiriting thing I've ever experienced- akin to trying to get served at a fashionable bar where everyone is taller, more attractive and louder than you, plus you don't speak the language. You email local promoters and they either ignore your mails or tell you that they only do 'metal' acts or 'local bands that pull'. Or you phone them up (if you've managed to get the number, which always appears to be a closely guarded secret) and it's like talking to a slightly stoned teenager - "Yeah , I'll check out the Myspace, dude..." At this point the temptation to say, "I've got 20 years music industry experience! I've made records you've danced to like a twat! I know what I'm talking about when I''m telling you they're great!" is quite intense but would possibly have a counterproductive effect. Charlie, my business partner, who actually has way more hit records under his belt than I do, had a go booking dates for the girls and for the first week was greeted with the same wall of indifference that I got. Then, just as he was about to play the Don't You Know Who I Am? card, someone gave him a gig. We took the rest of the afternoon off. I think the promoter may have given it to him by mistake but by then it was too late. Anyway, since he got it, he's been on fire - he's got them about ten shows now. Ra-hey! Me, I managed one Bath Moles and some gig in Bristol in what appeared to be a urine bottling plant. At the end of the night, the drunk promoter refused to pay us. Presumably he'd spent all the takings on lager in order to convert it into more wee.

So when it came to looking after the Scottish band I couldn't face doing the gig-phony-uppy thing. Fortunately, I managed to get them an agent and she's a total pleasure to deal with. I wish everyone I dealt with was more like her. Funny, as a manager you really notice all the things that you heard yourself being accused of when you did A&R: when people don't call you back for a day, or sometimes just never call back, or claim to have lost or eaten whatever it was you sent them by registered post. It's the real world, which, if you're sheltered from it - i.e. if you're someone to whom everyone wants to speak, because you represent warehouses stuffed with record deals, cash and supermodels - is a world you never see. It's good for the soul, I suppose, but not good for the mobile phone bill which - and I'm speaking to you, Mr and Mrs Orange - is an itemised monthly bastard.

Lucy, our booking agent, works for an old friend of mine, Charlie, who used to be The Levellers' agent then put his foot to the floor and now has his own agency, which looks after some of the UK's biggest groups. We are, of course, currently one of the UK's smallest groups, so the first step towards joining the upper echelons of Charlie's roster is to play some shows away from home. But how do you do this when no one has heard of you? Answer: The club show. These are essentially indie discos that have a few bands playing based on the theory that the DJs have the taste to play good records so may as well book the bands as well.

So I went up to Nottingham last week to see them play a club night called Radar. The venue -The Bodega Social - is a good old-fashioned building with high ceilings and a covered rear outdoor area where there appeared to be some sort of smoking competition going on. In the bar the walls are covered with framed photos of bands the Bodega has played host to recently - Kate Nash, Jack Penate, The Wombats... Next week Duffy was playing. We were getting a fee and a rider ("a crate of beers and softs" - mmm, got to love a soft.) Oh yes, it appeared we really had entered The Big Time.

The support band - if such a thing exists in the context of a club night - were female fronted. "And she's French," pointed out Jack, our singer. The French singer in question was, it must be said, really attractive too: kind of damaged blonde with a waspish figure and violent cheekbones. All this and French. We couldn't wait to check out her band Tramp (incidentally, I wanted to put a link to their Myspace here but it doesn't appear to exist).

Expectations for Tramp were perhaps excessive. As the singer stalked the stage, gurning at members of the audience in a Hazel O'Connorish, wide-eyed, I'm-a-bit-mad-me sort of way, the rest of the band plodded away in the background. She had an odd voice that ticked all the boxes like 'in tune' and 'powerful' but managed to remain resolutely unappealing. I felt a warm glow of confidence and relief that those involved with bands get when they know there's no competition - like the band who meet Spinal Tap in the lobby of the hotel who are playing the Enormodome. We watched the rest of the set along with the rest of the small, bloke-heavy crowd.

When my band went onstage it was to an even smaller crowd, made up largely from members of Tramp and a couple of their mates. It started well and drinkers from the adjacent bar sauntered round the corner so they could see who was making this truly fantastic music. Or so I thought. As the show progressed there seemed to be a nice little knot of people who were getting into it, some of them even dancing. But then, inexplicably, one, then two, then three of the girls in the crowd decided it was time for a wee or a fag and b-lined it out of the room. No problem, I thought, as I stood there alongside two spindley indie blokes, the girls will be back soon with a whole new crowd of converts. Then the two indie men meandered back to the bar and it was just me and the sound guy left.

Jack and the band heroically played on. They did a new song, which was fantastic, the sound wasn't great but all the bits were falling into place musically and the band were performing their hearts out - Will's backing vocals keeping the whole thing underpinned beautifully and Robert locking everything down on the drums . Towards the end, a handful of people came up and had a conversation in front of the stage.

Eventually, like an operation, it was all over. We returned to the dressing room (more of a dressing corridor, actually - like the office that Tuttle gets in Brazil). We cracked open the crate of beers, we downed a few of the softs, we did the gig post-mortem thing.

There was no great secret as to why we hadn't connected. As the promotor said later: it was a club night, sometimes audiences can be weird - especially when there's a WKD promotion going on downstairs. Plus, people had come to dance to records they knew - that's how some club nights are - no doubt Duffy would have a field day the following week. This was proven later as the dancefloor was rammed with 2 For 1 Bacadi Breezer drinkers in mini-skirts dancing to the Klaxons. As the band and I joined the smoking competition going on outside, someone from Tramp sidled up and offered us one solution: "Tough one tonight, you guys need to get a girl singer, then your problems will be over..."

Next time: The band play Newcastle and Leeds. Rock and, to be perfectly frank, Roll!

Sunday, 9 March 2008

The 'Industry Scum' Genre

So I said I'd write about Kill Your Friends and true to my word, I will. I'll try not to go into it at length because it would spoil it for you, but I will say that there are two things, which instantly recommend it: it makes you want to find out what happens right to the end and it makes you laugh. There's not really much to argue with there is there?

As you probably already know, it's a book about an A&R man and it's set in the late nineties, just before the Internet took hold and, come to think of it, just before all the other things we deal with on a daily basis took hold: reality TV, ubiquitous mobile phones, Al-Qaeda and terrorism fear, eco-fear and Coldplay-style alterno-balladry.

The music business Niven describes is one I was very familiar with and he catches the time very well, apart from one major plot twist involving use of many different Internet cafes by the central character - I don't recall there being any Internet cafes around in 1997 and if there were, the A&R people I knew then wouldn't have known their arse from their email. I remember getting Internet lessons en-mass when I was at BMG, given by one of the facilities guys who happened to know a bit more than anybody else about the new technology. This bloke, a laid back, charming surfer dude is now is now one of the most powerful players at Universal, in charge of all their European online strategy. If Niven's character really had existed in '97, his prowess with a computer would have certainly furnished him with an alternative career once the A&R stopped paying.

But I'm nit-picking, the book rollocks along with a masterful pace. As I said in a previous blog, I'd never heard of Niven but a few people I know worked with him and one of them tells me his own character is not a million miles away from his character Steve Stelfox, a coke and booze-fueled sex addict who has no interest in music and gets away with murdering people. Clearly, Niven never murdered anyone but apparently the tales of coke-fueled visits to prostitutes and general misogyny are based largely on his own experiences.

Hmm. I'm not buying this; the character is a two-dimensional cypher. It's testament to the writing that you are bothered what happens next because not only does Stelfox have no redeeming features (there are times when I imagined Niven sitting, hunched over his keyboard, thinking, "Is he cunty enough here? Perhaps if I added a few more insults to the injury it would work better ...") but he also he has no backstory, no inner life, no third dimension. Comparisons with Patrick Bateman are obvious but the key difference is that despite there being no clear-cut backstory in American Psycho you get a very distinct picture of Bateman's pathology which you don't with Stelfox. And besides, Stelfox is no screw-up - he's frequently the only sensible-thinker in the story. Madman he is not. But you never know why Stelfox hates everyone and everything and needs to have sex with anything female and earn more than anyone. The only reason for this besides obvious dramatic reasons, is that this is what A&R men are supposed to be like; this is how they've always been depicted so why break with tradition? Everyone hates A&R men, just as they hate traffic wardens, tax inspectors and estate agents.

It was very enlightening to read all those responses to my piece in the Guardian last week - almost all of them were along the lines of "Die A&R men, die! You talentless, freeloading bunch of bastards!" The contentious headline 'A&Rs Are The Unsung Heroes Of The Music Industry' didn't help (the editor added this, the one I gave them, 'Guy Hands: The New Gerald Ratner?', clearly wasn't contentious enough). I think most people saw the headline and responded to that, they didn't actually read the piece. The point is that from the first fictional depiction of a talent scout (probably in 1959's Espresso Bongo - 'Johnny Jackson, a sleazy talent agent, discovers teenager Bert Rudge singing in a coffee house') to more recent things like Keith Allen's A&R man in that terrible girl band thing The Young Person's Guide To Becoming A Rock Star or Jimmy Nails equally rubbish Crocodile Shoes to the faux brutality of Simon Cowell on all his shows, A&R people (almost always male) are heartless, cash-chasing, bastards who lead privileged existences with little or no justification (I mean, when have they ever written a song or played an instrument?)

And actually when you think about it, shrift have always been shortest for those involved behind the scenes in the entertainment industry - not just music, but also newspapers (check out Burt Lancaster's genuinely malevolent gossip columnist JJ Hunsecker in The Sweet Smell of Success , surely the inspiration behind cartoon food critic Anton Ego in last year's Ratatouille) or movies (The Player) or ballet (The Red Shoes) or even other actors getting behind the scenes (A Star Is Born ). And incidentally I'm only mentioning quality stuff here, there are plenty more examples of evil entertainment industry types in long-forgotten TV series and films. (Here I must mention Jumping Bean Bag, a 1976 Play For Today, which my friend Russell salvaged from the BBC archives and eventually got shown with Bob Stanley's patronage at The Barbican)

So Niven's novel falls into the rich tradition of what we should call the 'Industry Scum' genre. As I said, there are laughs aplenty throughout, not least the slightly scary Goldie-like character Rage, who having failed to order a burger in a top Cannes seafood restaurant and asked for whatever they have, receives a plate of quivering squid: "Are you having a giraffe, cunt?" he asks the waiter. Also the descriptions of the on-a-sixpence loyalty turns that record company staff make towards A&R men depending on a good or bad Radio 1 reaction are spot on. Niven's depiction of the industry reaction to Princess Diana's death struck a chord with me too. Although he doesn't describe it as such, it was like a music business 9/11 - all-hands meetings about 'charity albums' taking place all over London and playlists getting changed overnight due to insensitive lyrics or offensive band names. He doesn't mention it in the book, but a band I A&R'd at the time had their big-break effectively nullified by Diana's death, when the re-release of You And Me Song was scuppered by their name. They were called, in case you're forgotten, The Wannadies.

Anyway, I've recommended the book enough now, not just here but to people I know who I think might like it. I can't help myself. But there is a part of me that still wants to read a book about the music business which doesn't depict the staff as bastards. Sure, they can be inept and comically talentless at times (we all have long lists of bands we saw and passed on that are now household names) but do they always have to be cynical, evil bastards? I want to read a book like David Nobbs' The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin but rather than it being set in Sunshine Desserts, I want it set in a record company. I can picture the CJ-like managing director already getting bands into his office to belittle them on his farting chairs while the A&R man squirms. It'll probably never happen, largely due to my agent's more astute grasp of the market than me, but hey I can dream...