Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Why I never got my hands on a Hirst

It was Joe Strummer who told me the news that they were going to wind up the company: "It's not working out - none of us can agree on anything - apart from that smoking's really good." Fair play to them though, it was the best redundancy I've ever had - being let go by the lead singer of the Clash. All the directors and myself had just consumed a massive kebab lunch at Efe's on Great Titchfield St ("These are my people!" Joe had said, referring to his childhood spent in Turkey) - it was clearly a planned coup.

I'm reminded of that time - the time, as I think I have mentioned here before, when I briefly ran a label for Damien Hirst and rock pals Alex James and Joe Strummer - because the artist is of course in the news again this week for being £111 million richer. Not so much Golden Calf as golden goose. I'm also doing some work at another music web site based not far from the offices where the label was based, so I get reminded of the sandwich bars I used to go to, where I used to sit and wonder what the hell I was doing with my life. What?! I hear you say. Surely running a label for the world's most groundbreaking and successful living artist, your childhood hero from the Clash and the extremely personable bass player from Blur must have been a dream job! And initially it did seem like that was how it was going to be. But despite all the complicated stuff that I won't bore you with, the basic problem was that, as Joe rightly pointed out, they couldn't agree on anything - basic things like what type of music to sign, for example, were swept under a BonViveur's carpet with the oft repeated call of "Get on board!" An expression I heard Hirst use in a interview with Mark Lawson only the other day. I duly got on board but it was more Titantic than Double Deckers.

My job initially, was of course A&R but very quickly it became apparent that the job was everything but that; the A&R part, i.e. the deciding on what music we were going to put out, was up to the directors. And the director with the most in-your-face charisma was not Joe or Alex or even Damien - although they clearly put up some stiff competition No, the man who had that in spades was Lily Allen's dad, Keith.

Keith of course, had fronted the hugely successful Fat Les record Vindaloo which Telstar had released earlier that year to tie in with the 1998 World Cup. Now Keith had another event-related idea for Fat Les and the event this time was Christmas. Now the label name Turtleneck was actually going to become a real label. Of course I blame myself for everything that went wrong - you should know by now that I'm that sort of person. Clearly, the record was not a patch on Vindaloo in terms of pop simplicity or conceptual appeal but somehow I got swept along on the tide of Keith's enthusiasm. We all did. Well, actually, no, not all of us. Damien, didn't like it and said so. But he was outvoted. And very quickly, Keith's sketchy idea, written with Roland Rivron was fleshed out with Strummer on guitar, Alex on bass, Bryan Ferry and The The producer Bruce Lampcov behind the desk at Air Studios - and soon after Paul Kaye, David Walliams and Matt Lucas and a host of other soon-be-famous faces appeared in the meticulously directed (by Keith) video.

Naughty Christmas (Goblin In The Office) was no one's finest hour, it must be said. But we were all so wrapped up in it at the time that it felt like it could easily emulate Vindaloo and be embraced by a nation obsessed with the idea of cheesy Christmas past: Mary & Joseph and Morecombe & Wise as Squeeze once sang. After all, everyone can identify with making a fool of oneself at the office party. Actually, if the record had contained a fraction of the ideas contained in the video (which you must have a look at if you haven't yet - the quality on the above link is terrible but you'll get the idea) we would have been away. But even though you could hardly accuse Vindaloo of being lyrically verbose, Naughty Christmas went so far as to actually swerve the use of the word Christmas. Yes, that's right, we released a Christmas single which didn't actually mention the word Christmas. It's amazing we even got Woolworth's to stock it.

By the time Christmas arrived it was all over. We'd actually sold quite a few records - about 40,000 or something - a huge amount by today's standards and Keith's tireless self-promotion had done more than any amount of creative pr could do and made us a weeky fixture on LWT's chart show. But compared to the curry record which had sold a quarter of a million and of course, it also didn't have the cache of being connected with football. As a proud football ignoramus, I am always amazed at how much crassness is accepted in the name of the 'beautiful game' - do you really enjoy wearing all those synthetic fibres advertising airlines you've never flown or travel companies who leave you stranded?

At Damien Hirst's own office Christmas party - a relaxed affair at a lovely restaurant on the Farringdon Road, it was clear that we - the record label - were the runt of the Hirst litter. Everyone at Damien's company, Science, obviously thought he was wasting his money but actually he displayed a canny commercial nous that no one I've ever met in the music business had. At the marketing meeting I put together to discuss the campaign for Naughty Christmas, as distributer, plugger, PR and record company sat round the table discussing how many copies we thought we should manufacture and where we should stock them, Damien said, "Why don't we just make one fucking record and sell it for a million quid?" At the time everyone laughed indulgently: yes, very funny, Mr Hirst, you may not know much about music but you know what you like... Stick to your formaldehyde, sonny, let us professionals handle the campaign. What fools we were! Had we done exactly what he said we would have made a load of money and probably still got played on Radio 1. As it was, in the words of, oh probably Alex James, Naughty Christmas was "No Vindaloo".

Sitting gobbling quality chops at that Christmas party, with our record already a certified disappointment, I looked around the room and my eye alighted on a table of young, hipsterish folk who were about 15 years younger than all the alleged 30-somethings in the room. "Who are they?" I asked Damien's wife,"Them? Oh they're the spot-painters." Up until then I hadn't realised what almost everyone now knows now about Hirst's production line approach: he mass produces art in a way that record companies once made singles, whilst advocating making one copy of a record and selling it like an old master. Talk about being ahead of his time. And that's why last week, on exactly the same day that the know-it-all financial markets went tits up and all those people in their safe, proper jobs were made redundant, Damien added a quiet £111 million to his fortune.

If only he'd shown as much genius in choosing the music. That was supposed to be my job and, as I say. I blame myself for not putting my foot down and saying - "listen, what about the bubbly-haired singer we saw at the Bull & Gate? - he's good, a bit rubbish looking, I grant you, but he's got a great voice!" No, we never signed Coldplay. You can take a Hirst to water but you can't make it drink. And I did take the guys to shows - Damien was keen on Welsh indie janglers Murray The Hump and Keith came along to see them at the now defunct Falcon in Camden. Within two songs, he'd managed, via semi-complementary heckling, to divert attention from the band to himself. Murray the Hump didn't stand a chance after that. Keith just wanted to sign himself. Strummer had a huge musical knowledge but seemed pretty wrapped up with getting the Mescaleros together and never brought anything to the table other than a noble world music yen - he wanted us to sign something unusual. Alex, like me, wanted to get a cool indie band on the label - partly because that was his taste I think, and partly because he knew me best and was confident that that was what I could deliver. And Damien? Damien wanted to sign his mate Bez. I know, it sounds really prosaic, doesn't it - somehow you hope he would have had some ideas involving wild animals braying mixed with the sound of an organ transplant, all produced by Eno and the Aphex Twin. But no, Hirst plumped for the Freaky Dancer.

We once all went up to see Bez's band BMW (not sure how he planned on convincing the Bavarian car giant that they should share the name with him) in Manchester and they were more akin to a Skoda. After the gig we ended up in some house in Chorlton Cum Hardy, surrounded by some very frightening looking Mancunians who were overly keen on establishing exactly how much we going to sign BMW for. The next morning, the bloke I ran the label with, Alan, who had brought an disturbing amount of drugs with him, was getting no reply when he tried to phone Damien's room in the Britannia so he got the lift down to Hirst's floor to see if the great man was up yet - after all we had a train to catch. When he got to the room the door was ajar."Damien?" he tentatively asked before pushing it open. Instead of Hirst, there in the middle of the room was Bez - doing the Bez Dance! IN TOTAL SILENCE. Alan stood watching him for a moment before the Happy Monday noticed him. He stopped, gave him a a psychotic smile and said, "Alright mate... hey - you got any more of that stuff you ad last night?"

After Christmas , Alan and I returned to the Turtleneck office but it was obvious things weren't going to last much longer. Frankly, I couldn't wait for them to end. Working with hedonistic celebrities was like being a parent waiting in the car outside a party while your kids are inside having a great time. Actually, come to think of it I did wait outside the Groucho club several times. As I said earlier, I heard Damien being interviewed on the Front Row last week and he sounds a lot more mellow than he did in those days. Back then I remember thinking that if he hadn't done art he surely would have gone into some branch of entertainment, he had a wit quicker than most and an uncanny perceptiveness. On looking through a bunch of Polaroids that some of us had taken in the office, he paused on one of me standing on a table pouting into the camera. He looked up and said to me,"how old were you when your dad left home?"

I don't have many regrets in life but I must say, I do wish I'd left Turtleneck with some hard evidence that I'd worked for those guys. The obvious and most sensible thing would have been one of Damien's numerous sketches or doodlings that he did on postcards. I remember Alan nabbed one at the time and I think I may have mocked him for it. It's probably worth a few quid now. But actually what I really regret not saving, is nothing Hirst created at all. All I wish I had was a fax. I wrote the directors' biographies for the Turtleneck website (yes, we were cutting edge in 1998!) and everyone was fine with what I wrote. Everyone except Joe - he sent me a beautifully written three page fax. I say beautifully written in the sense that it was the same characterful handwriting you remember from various Clash books which reproduce it. But it was also beautiful in the sense that he managed to tell me he didn't like what I'd written about him (for example he objected to being cited for influencing U2, "I hate those guys") whilst being charming and complementary. And it was full of musical opinion too.

After Strummer told me that Turtleneck was all over, he suggested we go to the pub. And over several pints of fighting lager, presumably because he thought he owed it to me, Joe regaled me with war stories from the early days of the Clash. I went home with one less career opportunity but happier than I'd been in months. Yes, I wish I'd kept that fax more than any Hirst work.


  1. Ahem. I own Naughty Christmas and


    actually rather rate it.

    I have never seen the video (presuming there was one) - so as a stand alone piece of musical oddness I can promise you it's fabulous.

  2. A satisfied customer! We should, in the words of Basil Fawlty, have him stuffed! And possibly then put into formaldehyde and sold at auction...

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