SIMON NAPIER-BELL talks to LESLEY-ANN JONES
“Dullness is a disease”, says Simon Napier-Bell. “Excess is in my nature. I need danger and excitement, I was not made to stay at home and watch TV. To this day I like to surround myself with sexy, eccentric and interesting people, because they make me feel more alive.
“I’m hopelessly restless and over-energised, and I’m a person of extremes. I never do anything by halves, and I nearly always do what I say I’m going to do. I give everything I’ve got, in whatever it is that I’m up to. There’s no point otherwise. I have the head for business but most of my life I’ve been guided by sex. I’m a bit like a eten-year old car – not exactly zippy, but if you fiddle with the clutch you can still get it into gear.”
And he’s as good at his job as he ever was, he says, “I can tell you for sure who’ll be a star or not without even hearing them sing. And I’m telling you now, the so-called Jackson Three have ‘superstar’ written all over them.”
The world’s most infamous rock and pop manager, who wrote hits for Dusty Springfield, made stars of Marc Bolan, the Yardbirds and Japan, created Wham! and made a global superstar of George Michael, never minces his words. Especially not on this subject.
“Growing up in the spotlight, yet in the shadow of a deranged dad who was a global icon and musical genius but a drug-dependent psychological wreck, has set them up perfectly”, he says of Michael Jacksons children – Prince Michael, 12, Paris, 11, and Prince Michael II, known as ‘Blanket’, 7, seen this week in Los Angeles paying touching tribute to their late father at the Grammy Awards.
“You only have to look at the surreal existence they’ve had so far”, he points out. “Being given up for huge money by their biological mothers (former dermatology nurse Debbie Rowe and an un-named surrogate) – therefore sold, effectively. Being dangled by their father from balconies, wearing masks in public, never having gone to school.
They’ve had no completely stable adult in their life, apart from, perhaps, their grandmother Katherine, who currently has custody. Almost everyone else in their life is a star, or has been one in their time. And all stars have issues. Having issues, therefore, is entirely normal to these children. And now they’re haunted, and will always be haunted, by the father who will be more famous in death than he was in life. Michael Jackson is never going to go away. With so much to fret about in their fragile young heads, they have the perfect makings of damaged superstars.
I’m pretty certain it won’t be long before someone like Berry Gordy (the 80 year-old founder of Motown Records, responsible for the careers of artists such as The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie and the Jackson 5, as well as Jermaine Jackson’s father-in-law) gets hold of them and puts them in the studio. If that happens, they will be megastars. And then it’s all downhill from there.”
After 50 years in the music business, Napier-Bell knows what he’s talking about. At 70 years of age he is as energetic and enthusiastic as ever, and shows no inclination to retire. He is based in Thailand (‘as good as anywhere, plus it’s sunny’) where he lives it up with his boyfriend of 20 years, and still works twenty days out of thirty. He flies first class, stays in five-star hotels and acts as a music business consultant to record companies and showbusiness corporations all over the world.
He is the author of three terrific, best-sellers about the music business: ‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me’, ‘I’m Coming To Take You To Lunch’, an eye-popper about his historic staging of Wham! in concert in China, at a time, during the Eighties, when that country had no pop culture at all, and the acclaimed ‘Black Vinyl, White Powder’, the definitive study of the music business and a major reference work in all universities and schools with music courses.
Napier-Bell tells outrageous stories at his own expense. He has been there, see it, done it with knobs, on, wouldn’t dream of wearing the T-shirt (he has far too much class) and has nothing left to prove. He’s an extrovert gay who has slept with so many household names (his, hers and both) that it would make your hair curl.
“Well it was the Sixties, everyone slept with everyone back then,” he says, when I cautiously ask whether it’s true that he slept with Marc Bolan.
“And George Michael too?” I venture dangerously, on a roll.
“For God’s sake,” he snaps, “they have to be pretty!”
An outrageous gossip and sensational flirt, he’s the man the entire music business wants to lunch with whenever he’s in town. Make that vintage champagne, thank you very much, and a five-hour meal in a proper restaurant, at the end of which you need to go back to bed.
He has had plenty of time to study the madness of stardom, and he doesn’t hold back.
“Being an artist is the ultimate cry for help’, he tells me over a very proper dinner indeed at one of the best tables in London, where we are visited by a constant stream of music business executives all wanting to shake his hand. Three courses take forever, and the bill is mind-boggling.
‘The business has changed’, says the former public schoolboy and teenage trumpeter, with a so-what shrug. His table manners are beautiful, his demeanour charming and relaxed, despite the tales which tumble hilariously from his mouth. He admits to being the classic gentleman who loves to slum it.
“Love food, hate God, enjoy rock, prefer jazz, mad about wine, sleep with guys,” he says when I ask him how he would describe himself.
“I’ve always played on the level to which I’ve worked. Thank goodness I’ve still got the energy for it. Retire? What on earth would I do with myself all day?”
Music alone is not enough these days, he reckons. “It’s the whole package they have to sell. And artists are not happy when their ‘art’ doesn’t sell. George Michael went to war with his record label Sony, saying ‘I am a pure artist, I don’t want to promote the record or do videos.’ Well if you’re an artist, go sing in the garden. Why do you want to sell records if you’re just an artist?
“That’s why I say that being an artist is a cry for help. All artists are terribly insecure people. They are desperate to get noticed. They are constantly seeking an audience. They are forced to be commercial, which I think makes their ‘art’ all the better.
“Plus”, he adds, “all artists have the same story. When I first saw Eric Clapton, I thought ‘he isn’t an artist, he’s just a musician’. In John Mayall’s band he played with his back to the audience, he was so shy. But as he evolved, I saw that he was an artist. And when you look into his background, he had the missing father, a sister who was really his mother and a grandmother he thought was his mum.
“Artists always have an abusive childhood, at least in terms of emotional deprivation. So they have this desperation to succeed, to get love and attention. All the others just drop out eventually. Because I’m telling you, it’s absolutely horrible to be a star.
It’s nice to get a good table in a restaurant, of course, but then you have to put up with people coming up to you every 30 seconds throughout the meal – we’re not even stars, and it’s happening every five minutes to us - so that you can hardly get it eaten. It’s a nightmare. Yet stars are perfectly happy to put up with that kind of thing. It comes with the territory. Stars are usually utterly charming with new people but there’s a dark side. When they’ve taken everything they possibly can from someone, they have no further use for them, and they spit them out.
“I’ve been spat out”, he admits, “but I couldn’t give a toss, to be honest. I understand these people, I know what makes them tick. It’s no use getting upset or angry about being treated unkindly or cruelly by some star. They are what they are. There is a certain psychological damage that runs through every one of them, and I guarantee that if you look through their childhoods, you will find it.
“What else makes you so desperate to win applause and adulation? So desperate that you’ll lead a lousy life that you can never really call your own? No normal person would ever want to be a star, not for any money. No one knows this better than I do. I’ll tell you who has the best job in the world: I do. I have money in the bank and the gift of the gab, which has earned me the right to get up to no good and hang out with superstars, without ever having any desire to be one of them. What could be better than that?’
It is said that the music business is a young man’s game, but he’s having none of it.
“To be honest, what keeps me going is good chat, good meals and good gossip, not music. Music just pays for it. If it didn’t, I’d have got out years ago.