Rock ‘n’ roll never dies
Simon Napier-Bell, one of the world’s greatest music managers, on his forthcoming tome on the history of the music business
I am the total opposite of a control freak. If other people want to put their fingers in the pie and keep them there night and day, I’m happy to let them do so. Management is the art of taking credit for other people’s work and the biggest mistake is to do too much of the work yourself,” writes Simon Napier-Bell, one of the world’s greatest music impresarios, in his memoir I’m Coming To Take You To Lunch: A Fantastic Tale Of Boys, Booze And How Wham! Were Sold to China (2006), about managing pop stars George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley in the 1980s.
A new tome will be out this year. Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay is Napier-Bell’s fourth and already- much-tweeted-about book. It surveys the entire history of the music business, taking off from a day in 1710 when a copyright law was passed in Britain, suddenly making it possible to trade in music—buy and sell songs, and maximize profits by paying off celebrity singers to perform them. “The music business has always been full of opportunists. They see an opening and grab it. They may not be fully qualified; they may not have really earned the right; but they jump in and grab it and hang on, then build something out of it,” Napier-Bell observes as he zooms through the centuries up to the present day, analysing every significant industry development from printing sheet music and inventing gramophones, to Broadway, The Beatles, payola, MP3s and YouTube, and everything else you always wanted to understand in its proper context.
Among the many smaller revelations is that the recording industry couldn’t have got going without a resin produced from the secretions of an Indian bug: shellac, which was used to manufacture records before vinyl was invented.
Napier-Bell started out as one of the hip 1960s pop managers. Part of the same gang as Brian Epstein (The Beatles), Andrew Loog Oldham (The Rolling Stones) and Kit Lambert (The Who), he managed bands like The Yardbirds that launched three of the world’s greatest guitarists: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Napier-Bell also produced albums, edited film theme songs such as Burt Bacharach’s superhit What’s New Pussycat? (1965), co-wrote Dusty Springfield’s 1966 monster-hit You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, and discovered glam-rock star Marc Bolan.
Napier-Bell’s books are peppered with outrageous anecdotes, funny observations and high drama that will make you laugh or cry or both. With wet lunches and late nights aplenty, and a jet-setting seven-star lifestyle of sex and excess, he comes across as nothing short of the James Bond of the music business.
While in Beijing recently, I heard that Napier-Bell was in town, working on two Anglo-Chinese film deals (he has recently gotten into movie production too), so I decided to walk across to the swanky Capital M to celebrity-stalk him a bit.
I found him sitting alone in the bar overlooking Tiananmen Square and Chairman Mao’s mausoleum. We had never met before, but the moment I say I am from Bangalore, he confides that he had one of his best brainwaves in a joint there called Purple Haze, after a long evening of listening to rock classics and putting away 17 bottles of champagne with a drunken friend.
Really, how is that possible?
“I had to go and pee, you see,” he explains, “and on the way I wanted to congratulate the DJ on his impeccable taste, only to discover that it was a live band playing all the hits of rock history.” So while answering nature’s call, you came up with a plan? “The idea was simple: Form the greatest rock supergroup ever and have it play a 2-hour set of all the greatest rock songs of the last 50 years,” he explains.
After mulling it over (and presumably nursing a severe champagne hangover) he contacted Sir Harry Cowell, with whom he had earlier managed bands like Ultravox. “We worried that it was such a simple and obvious idea that anyone else could be thinking of it at the same time. This always happens with good ideas.” As a precaution they hired an all-star band to cut an album first, with veteran rockers like the ex-drummer of Toto, a guitarist who had played with Alice Cooper and Bruce Springsteen, and a bass player who had recorded with practically everybody from Art Garfunkel to Rod Stewart and even The Doors—which seems to have scared off any competition for the same idea.
While listening to Simon I realize that the clever part of the plot is that all these old musicians, who were members of supergroups 20-30 years ago, still need jobs today. Many of them work as session players in Los Angeles, US, and jumped at the opportunity to get a well-paid gig in nearby Vegas.
That’s the way to make money, I think, but am then shocked to learn that some of Napier-Bell’s biggest projects haven’t brought in huge fortunes. Case in point: his plan to make Wham! the world’s biggest band in the shortest possible time. That plot involved bringing the teenage heart-throbs to Beijing to be the first Western pop group to play in communist China in the 1980s.
Napier-Bell flew back and forth between London and Beijing (at a time when business visas were practically impossible to get, so he obtained tourist visas from a dodgy travel agent en route in Hong Kong), to splash out on any number of luxury lunches for Chinese bureaucrats.
Ultimately he convinced the Chinese leaders that hosting Wham! would be the best way to prove that China was finally opening up to the West: The presence of 70 international TV teams and 200 photojournalists at the Beijing Workers’ Stadium concert validated the claim.
Then, immediately after their global breakthrough, Wham! announced that they were splitting and George Michael was going solo. How did that feel?! I exclaim.
“Free at last,” is Napier-Bell’s spontaneous comeback. “I’m always ambivalent about management. It’s a 24x7 job, and for all the power you appear to have over other people, a lot of it is very tedious—a lackey to a jumped-up teenage millionaire. Usually, the period of breaking a new group is fun. The group is dependent on your know-how and skill and is respectful. Then once you’ve got them there and they start earning money, it’s less fun.”
Napier-Bell has always been an adventurer. He tells me about sneaking off from home as a five-year-old, jumping on random buses to explore the city (he’s from suburban London), and how, when he was asked what he was going to be when he grew up, he cheekily answered, “Well, me, I hope.” At 11, he started playing the cornet and imagined himself a black musician, forming his first jazz band at 13.
The headmaster at school was sceptical about young Napier-Bell’s attitude and sent him off to see a psychiatrist. At 18, he went to Canada and performed on the trumpet for two years but to practise every day was “like a prison sentence”. So instead he hitchhiked for a year in the US (this was around 1959) until he realized he wanted to be a writer.
“Since no one would be interested in what a 20-year-old wrote, I would have to do something else for about 10 years first. But because I was going to write about it, it simply didn’t matter at all what that something was,” he says.
“And so I decided on the easiest way forward I could: Follow my dick. Where it pointed I followed. And finally it led me to the music business.”
In his writings, he frequently describes music companies as the enemy. He explains: “For rock and pop managers the first priority has always been to fight the record company: arguing, manipulating, coercing and cajoling them into doing whatever’s needed to get success for their artistes. Frankly, I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.” But then he points out that the scene is different now: “As the companies conglomerated, instead of continuing this balance between commerce and creativity, they simply chased profit. They became dull, deaf, greedy, blind, stupid, grasping and dishonest.”
Napier-Bell still jets around the world, although he has a permanent home in sunny Thailand, which he shares with his boyfriend of 25 years. Restless as ever, he has multiple projects on his hands, including cooperating with Pete Townshend on a biopic on their mutual friend Kit Lambert (who discovered Jimi Hendrix and The Who). He still works in the music industry, helping people develop projects—“as a consultant, with someone else doing the day-to-day stuff.”
What’s next? “I’m certainly thinking that movie-making suits me as I get older, more than the music business. The music business is very scornful of people getting old,” says Napier-Bell.
“No one really questions the age of a movie producer. If he can come up with the subject and raise the money, it doesn’t matter if he’s a hundred.”
And Simon Napier-Bell, after all, turned only 75 in April.
Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay releases in the UK next week. It is available for pre-order on Amazon.com for $12.44 (aroundRs.745).
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