From The Times – week of August 9th, 2014
By Simon Napier-Bell
Unbound Books, £17.99
Simon Napier-Bell tells Mark Ellen about six decades of excess
Simon Napier-Bell tends to start sentences with "On our third, fourth - maybe fifth - bottle of red wine ..." or "I was in a nightclub in Bangalore drinking cocktails at three in the morning ..." On this occasion he begins as follows: "One night with Andrew Ridgeley we drank eight bottles of champagne and ended up in an Egyptian belly-dancing club in Queensway, as one does, where we poured the last bottle over our heads in a sort of bonding situation. And we had to get home, which was difficult because we were falling over and covered in drink and I said, 'Let's sleep in my Bentley till we're sober', me in the front, him in the back. But the car somehow started itself and set off - as cars do when you're drunk at four in the morning - so I said to Andrew, 'I think it'd be safer if we went on the pavement. So I drove from Queensway to Marylebone on the pavement and it was only when I was crossing the zebra crossing at Bryanston Square, only then did the police turn up. Andrew ran away and I was arrested. My lawyer said, 'Don't plead guilty; they've made a mistake with the paperwork,' and he got me off, case dismissed. I asked him what I should have got and he said a £40 fine and forbidden to drive for two years so I gave 40 quid to Oxfam, sold my car and didn't drive for two years.
"I told George Michael this story and he said, 'That's disgraceful. You should have been punished and sent to jail!' George always lectures people," he says, laughing to himself.
"He's terribly moral."
What would George have said now, I wonder, after being so stoned in 2010 that he famously drove his Range Rover into the window of Snappy Snaps in Hampstead?
"Ha! He'd go, 'Naughty George!'" Napier-Bell, who managed Wham! in the Eighties, slaps his wrist theatrically. "He's incredibly sensible and incredibly stupid all wound up into one - as most artists are. He's the cleverest, smartest person ... but if he's so clever, why does he smoke and take silly party drags and drive cars through shop windows?
He never meant to be in Wham! in the first place," he adds. "Wham! was Andrew Ridgeley and never anything else. When George was 13 he was a podgy little Greek boy with curly hair and glasses and sat next to the handsome lad of the class - real cowboy stuff - so he bought a hair-straightener and thinned himself down and got some contact lenses and became a second Andrew. He wanted to create a group but he never saw himself in it - he was the Svengali and the songwriter, and Andrew and some other guy would be the band. So when he couldn't find the second person he thought, 'I'll join the group and act the part for him, it was like a movie. Which is why he was right not to come out at the time, because he wasn't George - who was gay - but a copycat Andrew."
Napier-Bell, famously, once thought of suing someone for suggesting he was heterosexual. "Well, Brian Epstein had fallen in love with me and got in a flutter and took a lot of sleeping pills - I wasn't having an affair with him but his last message was to me. And the Mail did a thing on it and they printed a picture of me and Epstein and said I wasn't homosexual. And I thought it made me look dishonest, as if I'd been lying all my life."
But your books reveal you slept with a lot of girls, so why didn't you think you were bisexual? "Because you just know! Bowie said he was gay when he was actually bisexual and came up with my favourite line of all time: when some writer asked him in '72 why he was going on tour wearing a girl's frock, he said, 'It's a man's frock!' I'd go to clubs in the Sixties and get drunk and wake up the next morning and there'd be this gorgeous-looking girl beside me and I'd say, 'Look, here's five quid, would you mind getting dressed and getting a minicab home?' And then another morning I'd turn over and there'd be some spotty-looking guy with black teeth and I'd say 'Can I make you breakfast?' You know you're gay. It's in your bones."
I look around this low-lit bar in the Kensington Hilton, at the mid-afternoon meetings in a haze of lounge-jazz, and think what a shame they can't hear us. The world's highest-grade rock'n'roll gossip and the only person listening is me - and we've still got the Marc Bolan and Japan years to come. I feel like standing up and shouting, "Do you know who this person is? This, people, is the tirelessly decadent Simon Napier-Bell — manager, rogue, songwriter, theorist, string-puller, gastronome and loose-lipped bon vivant who's met everyone in six decades of the pop industry and has a hair-curling story about all of them. Yes, him! For God's sake, pull up a chair!"
You'd expect Napier-Bell to be a flamboyant type in a candy-striped blazer and felt hat, but he speaks in a soft and ceaseless stream full of waspish asides, his eyebrows dancing with delight and feigned surprise, an untouched pot of tea beside him. And he's impressively young-looking for 75, a well-built, almost boyish figure in a slate-grey linen jacket, his unlined countenance a glowing testament to many relaxing hours in expensive restaurants. He made his name managing the Yardbirds and co-writing the lyrics to Dusty Springfield's You Don't Have to Say You Love Me when he was 27 and declared he'd retire at the ripe old age of 30. And he did. And it didn't work out.
"I had a house built in Spain, beautiful place with a pool and guest suites, and I sold up and moved there," he recalls. "I was bored stiff. Got very drunk, danced alone to Rolling Stones records, fell asleep on the sofa. After three days I called up an estate agent and told him to put the place on the market. I missed it all - the travel, the argy-bargy, the interesting people."
You can't imagine why he ever thought this would work, someone so magnetised by drama that he's spent the vast majority of his colourful life finding wildly ambitious people and shepherding them towards success, celebrity and - very often - outrage. People like Marc Bolan. Mention a name, you light the blue touchpapcr and he's off again.
"Marc rang me up and said, I'm a singer and I need a manager. Would you like to hear some of my songs?' and minutes later he was knocking on my door - tiny character, like a Dickensian urchin, guitar slung over his shoulder. He chose the biggest of my armchairs, disappearing into it, and sat cross-legged and played every song he'd ever written. And I was utterly fucking entranced. I booked Kingsway Studios and we drove over and recorded them all. Then we went to dinner and talked for two hours and went back to my place and went to bed. He said, If you're going to take 20 per cent of my income, I want 20 per cent of your brain,' and he stuck his tongue in my mouth."
How did you start making him a star?
"I told him he needed to join a group so the world could get used to his little vibrating voice and encouraged him to join John's Children. And they went on tour with the Who in '67 and stole the show. We bought some chains and a kilo of feathers and shoved them in the back of my Bentley. The other singer, Andy Ellison, showed the audience how to break their chairs and they filled the whole place with feathers and then whipped each other with chains and smashed the drums. Marc loved it. And then the Who came on and Roger Daltrey couldn't sing because he'd got feathers in his throat and the chairs were all broken and the audience were exhausted. And their manager, Kit Lambert, said unless we changed our act we were off the tour. And we did it again the next night and Kit called the police - and these were Nuremberg riot police, a bad lot - so we had to take an alternative route back to England in case they were following us."
David Sylvian of Japan must have been a little less exacting. "Five years of my life I spent breaking that fucking band," he says in measured tones, "but Japan became the most influential group of the Eighties. Then David said, 'I don't want to be a rock star. I don't want to be famous. I just want to be a kind of Left Bank poet, known and respected a bit' - a gorgeous David Sylvian moment. That should have been the guy who drove his car into Snappy Snaps; George Michael should have gone through the front window of Harrods!
"The only thing to look out for as a manager," he adds, "is that the musicians you represent have a total, obsessed, near-suicidal need to be a star. Nothing else matters. The energy and push that makes an artist a star comes from them, not you. You latch yourself on like a jockey on a horse: the horse runs, you pass the wanning post and you get your 20 per cent. And when you ask them what they want, they say they want to be successful - they don't say, 'We want to have our spots cleared up or be psychoanalysed' - and to do that very often we turn them into monsters. We cut them off from every aspect of normal life and put them in hotel suites and pack them in cotton wool, an enclosed world with a crew around them. And we put them in limousines and separate them from their public and send groupies and drugs and drinks to their rooms and eventually they find the whole thing ... not very nice. They get unhappy. They get miserable."
And then they blame the manager.
"And then, yes, they blame me! But that's the job they asked us to do."
Don't you think a lot of musicians need love and approval because they were starved of it when they were young? John Lcnnon, Tom Petty, John Martyn, all seemed to be trying to prove something to fathers who abandoned or rejected them. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, whose father died when he was five months old, once told me, "Musicians have holes in our psychology that only adulation can fill."
"Precisely. A lot of them have suffered some kind of abuse -1 mean abuse inflicted by circumstance, not some old man touching them. When he was nine, Eric Clapton discovered the girl he thought was his sister was his mother and his 'mother' was his grandmother and the reason he wanted adulation in the Yardbirds was because he needed it. Madonna suffered terrible abuse that nature heaped upon her. There was no suggestion that anyone was unpleasant to her, but she suffered horribly. Her mother died when she was five and she was taken to see her lying in an open casket, as if she were asleep, and noticed her mouth had been sewn up. She said, 'That final image of my mother, peaceful yet grotesque, haunts me today.' She was terrified her father could be taken from her and refused to go to sleep unless he was next to her, and resented the housekeepers he brought in because she felt they were replacing her mother. And when he married one of them and had two children by her, Madonna loathed him for ever and thought she was utterly alone.
At school she did anything she could to put herself at the centre of attention, did cartwheels in the hallways, swung by her knees from climbing frames in the playground, pulled up her skirt in class so boys could see her panties."
This is textbook Napier-Bell. Beneath the barbed humour and immaculate observation lies a meticulous level of analysis. Never has anybody had so much fun, remembered it so precisely and made so much sense of it all.
His 1998 memoir You Don't Have to Say You Love Me and 2007 romp, Black Vinyl White Powder, are warm, funny, first-hand accounts of his working life in an industry rammed with buffoons and egomaniacs, but his latest book, Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay, is a sharp, fast-moving and beautifully written popular history spanning three centuries of wheeling, dealing, horse-trading, cigar-chewing enterprise and skullduggery. Take the jacket off and there's a message embossed on its hard cover: "WELCOME TO THE MUSIC BUSINESS: A WORLD OF GREED, CORRUPTION, SELF-INTEREST AND FUN". He took three years to write and research it and read nearly 2,000 books in the process. One constant theme since the 18th century is that every artist attracts a raft of devious business folk - song-sheet salesmen, publishers, agents, managers, promoters, film moguls, record execs and, eventually, digital file and stream vendors - all trying to claw as much money as possible from their catalogue. Has that ever really changed?
"It hasn't changed - it's just getting hold of something valuable and then trading it, like stocks and shares," says Napier-Bell. "What's changed is the 10,000 per cent profit record companies used to make from vinyl and, later, CDs. Obviously you needed a song, a label and an artist's name on the front but, broadly, you could sell a slab of vinyl that cost a penny for ten pounds, a vastly inflated price, and that made them incredibly rich and incredibly fearless with their money — cocaine and overpaid executives, huge buildings in every city. And that's why record companies never really respected artists properly: they were just one ingredient in this monumental mark-up."
Napier-Bell's theories tend to be built around the largest and most fascinating characters, one of my favourites being Eva Tanguay, the mesmerising American showgirl who, he claims, even in her heyday of the early 1900s, was the first artist to really understand the value of even bad press.
"Onstage she slurred, screeched, cackled, poured bottles of champagne on her head, danced like a demon, shimmied her breasts and sang bawdy tunes with titles like Go as Far as You Like. She had a dress made from four thousand pennies. Her smallest costume was just a wisp, her bra just an encumbrance. Anything that happened to her she used for publicity: when a fellow dancer walked in front of her as she hurried to a dressing room, she stabbed her in the stomach with a hatpin; when the police arrived she made sure she got in the papers by throwing them a roll of banknotes and wailing, 'Take it all and let me go for it is now my dinner time!' Her father had died when she was six and, from then on, she sought constant attention. She fell in love with notoriety. Her stoiy was the template for creative artists before and since: the need to be in the public eye and feel the love of an audience triggered by childhood misfortune and wretchedness - from Irving Berlin to Ethel Waters to, once again, Madonna."
Today's music industiy, he says, isn't in decline but simply changing, the profits now made in a variety of ways such as internet radio royalties. But it's just as exploitative and "the last form of indentured servitude". And artists are still queuing up to sign contracts. He quotes Tom Waits who said, "People are so anxious to sign, they'll sign anything. Like going across the river on the back of an alligator."
"The business was at its best in the Sixties and Seventies when very clever businessmen who loved music were running it," says Napier-Bell. "They wanted to make money, but they wanted fun, to drink and take drugs and hang out with musicians. Then it got taken over by people with no interest in music whatsoever."
The best - or worst - example of this, he says, is Guy Hands, who made a fortune buying up motorway service stations in Germany and installing bathroom facilities, later heading up the private equity giant Terra Firma who in 2007 took over EMI Records, venerable home of the Beatles, Queen, Radiohead and Pet Shop Boys. Only when some of his artists objected to his coldly commercial approach - and told him so and left, reducing the share value - did he learn that musicians couldn't be managed like pipes and washers. "He learnt," as Napier-Bell drily notes, "that sometimes shit is better swallowed than flushed away. Robbie Williams's manager was furious when news was leaked that Hands had authorised the sale of a million surplus copies of Robbie Williams' Rudebox album to China to resurface roads.
"But the thing about the music business now is that everybody knows how it works. And this is very strange when you get a group like One Direction. All these young kids know how this group's been manipulated onto them, how it's been put together, but they still accept them."
Maybe it just shows there's always an appetite for teen fantasy and that's stronger than any understanding of how it's being sold - whether it's the Bay City Rollers or One Direction?
"But previously there was a manipulation and they were the object of it; now they know they're the object of it and they still want to fall for it! One Direction is one of the saddest examples I've ever seen. It's horrific. I listened to their new record - what's it called? - Midnight Memories - the verse is My Generation by the Who with Queen's We Will Rock You as the chorus. If this was a group called Stealing the Past or Rock Thieves or something, and they dressed like Frank Zappa and made that track you'd think, 'This is brilliant, this is sardonic, it's satire!' Instead of which it's pathetic. At least Westlife were good singers. And Take That. Even Boyzone would have said, 'We're better than that.'"
The business was always a contrivance, he argues, but it's now so self-evident he's amazed it's still convincing. "Bruce Springsteen standing silently between numbers, fingering his guitar ... Is it really thoughtfulness, the idea that rock'n'roll should be meaningful, or just a pose he's come up with that he knows works? There's something odd about him pumping out those angry words in Badlands, then smiling happily at the end when people applaud.
Is there really any feeling left after playing 500 stadiums? It's an act. After 30 years it has to be an act!"
But the Napier-Bell of the 21st century now seems above it all, one of the last grandees who could rack up a fortune watching the "argy-bargy" with amused detachment. Why should he worry? He lives in Thailand with the boyfriend he met on a beach in 1989,43-year-old interior designer Yotin Chaijanla, and the gentle flow of revenues from his Las Vegas musical, Raiding the Rock Vault, a management company and a 14 million-selling Spanish hit he wrote called Perdoname all fund an enviable life of first-class air travel, hotels and restaurants.
Are the huge, colourful characters like Simon Napier-Bell still out there today or was he just a product of his time?
"There's always been big personalities and there were many a lot bigger and madder than me. Andrew Loog Oldham, who really created the image of rock by pushing the Stones to be so anti-social. Peter Grant, who pushed the promoters for the maximum money, 90 per cent of their takings, when he managed Led Zeppelin - but he was also violent and quite brutish so it's rather disgusting to think he's still revered: the big award at the annual Music Managers' Forum is called the Peter Grant award, which is like an Italian restaurant winning the mafia awards. And Malcolm McLaren, of course. I don't think he ever really achieved anything, which was probably what he wanted; he just wanted to cause trouble. Very middle class, actually. We used to go to the Westbury in Mayfair for afternoon tea, completely at odds with this guy who wanted to destroy the world."
Where will tomorrow's entertainment come from? "Well, not from the music business as it's too exposed, too understood, too known about. We're going to have far more artists all selling fewer records. That huge monster megastar thing can never come back."
From Mojo4Music – week of June 25th, 2014
TA-RA-RA-BOOM-DE-AY: The Dodgy
By Simon Napier-Bell
Unbound Books, £17.99
A fascinating, witty and
optimistic music biz history,
by one of its legendary
insiders. By Pat Gilbert.
In the 1950s, if a songwriter wanted
Elvis to cover his song, he had to give
the singer 30 per cent of the publishing
royalties. This levy was called ‘the
Elvis tax’, and it helped make the already
rich Presley even richer. It also guaranteed
that the writer would still make a
packet and that we, the public, would
have another hit like Don’t Be Cruel to
hum. It was a money-go-round fuelled by
sharp practices and sheer greed, which
benefited everybody – and that, argues
Simon Napier-Bell in this compelling
history of the ‘business’ side of the music
biz, has been the general model since
1710, when the British passed a law
enshrining copyright in written music.
Napier-Bell’s previous books have
been rambunctious insider accounts of
the pop industry, written from his
standpoint of former Yardbirds/Bolan/
Japan/Wham! manager, film entrepneur and long-luncher. Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-
De-Ay is different: at 300-odd pages, its
tone is characteristically witty but the
content more scholarly and its scope
vast, spanning the ages of Victorian
sheet music, Broadway, the first
gramophones and Hollywood musicals,
to the arrival of bebop, rock’n’roll, MTV,
downloads and streaming. The Beatles
don’t appear until page 175, when Brian
Epstein cuts an iffy deal that gives almost
a third of Lennon & McCartney’s song
writing income to a struggling publisher
friend of George Martin’s called Dick
James, who sells out to ATV’s Lew Grade,
enraging Macca (who is criticised for later
exploiting Buddy Holly’s catalogue).
Chicanery, ever present, started
hotting up in the 1890s, when a raft of
New York Jewish immigrant music
entrepreneurs like Max Dreyfus and Leo
Feist realised that owning copyright in
songs was the way to make a mint.
Publishers employed ‘pluggers’
to sing their material, thus
driving up sales of printed sheet
music (the industry currency
until the 1950s) to professional
players and amateur pianists.
When the industry
twigged that, once
popularised, a song
earning, it invented
ASCAP and the PRS to
collect payment every
time a song was
performed in public.
Then, come the lift off of the
after World War I,
terms to the publishers and songwriters.
It was a ying and yang that went on
through the (temporary) decline in
record sales in the Great Depression, the
coming of the talkies, radio and TV, to
today’s 360-degree deals that take a cut
from every stream of an artist’s income.
Fortune seemed to favour the
cavalier: when blacks from the South
migrated to Chicago, Cleveland and
Detroit after WWI, creating an instant
market for blues and jazz recordings, the
(white) Original Dixieland Jazz Band from
New Orleans stuck their writing credit on
all the songs they knew and reaped huge
rewards. Then there was the rise of the
jukebox in the Depression, great for
‘plugging’ records but not subject to
performance royalties. By the ’60s, the
successful publishers/record labels
weren’t the ones who had an ear for a hit
melody, but those able to predict the
next Frank Zappa or Grateful Dead.
Napier-Bell rounds off with how, in
2014, we’ve ended up with just three
major record companies – one
French-owned (Universal), one
Russian (Warners), one Japanese
(Sony) – but seems optimistic for
the industry’s future, largely on
the evidence that some
avaricious, devious bastard
always comes up with a new way
of making cash from music and
writers, thus keeping the whole
shebang afloat. An essential text.
From THE BIG ISSUE, week of October 20th, 2014
TA-RA-RA-BOOM-DE-AY, by Simon Napier-BellSEPARATING THE ROCK FROM THE SLOP, by John Bird
Unbound Books, £17.99
When Simon Napier-Bell went to New York as a young man responsible for the lyrics of a successful Dusty Springfield hit single, the record company he visited wanted him to go into a big building and sit from morn till night composing songs.
It struck him, and it has continued to strike him, that this was not some form of art; this was not about self-expression, though some got in along the way; this was another piece of machinery. A business, knocking out merchandise as if you were tied to a sewing machine and producing mass-produced wedding dresses for someone's big day. This was an industry, and you, the songster, the singer, the guitar player, were little more than essential elements in the creation of money - sorry music.
Any sentimental, personal angsty, sloppy emotional journey was a million miles from the harsh reality. And as the often-laconic Tom Waits says about signing a record deal, it is a bit like hitching a ride across a river on the back of an alligator.
Yet Napier-Bell's book is not a cynical book. It is a lively espousing of how the music industry comes into being in the second half of the 19th century, starting first with mass-produced sheet music, followed by the advent of the reproducible voice on wax and then shellac; later giving over to plastic.
The book buzzes with stories about how this industry developed among immigrants new to America, with the smack of poverty ever present. Reading it you feel you are reading about the early days of the oil industry, or of fashion-makers in sweat shops.
Popular music is crafted, broken, deconstructed and reconstructed; imitated, and zeroed, only then to rise as a new music, a new set of descriptive melodies. But always the music of common people singing it, making it and listening to it.
Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay is one of the finest histories you would want to read about American capitalism, as it spreads itself worldwide before the First World War as popular music, then finishes the cultural impe-rialism off at war's end, and on then into the century. Did America ever have its own music? Did it ever just stop imitating Europe and cut out on its own? You bet your bottom dollar it did. And Napier-Bell captures that vast sense of industrial energy and creativity, driven by the star-spangled dollar, ever hungry for fresh fortunes and fresh areas of cultural occupation.
Napier-Bell does not leave out our side of the water, showing how those musical developments made over here were quickly copied, dunked in glitter and made nearly always more splendid stateside. Record companies, artists, composers, shysters, confidence tricksters, all get drawn up in the maelstrom of energy created by the vast fortunes that can be thrown up by popular music.
This, though, is not just about money and the cynical play of the cash register, the unseen musical instrument in all musical manifestations. The author covers the rise of the great music-makers including Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and the rise of jazz and blues.
He neatly sews the whole thing together like a well-made tapestry of form and content; not presenting popular music as if it were simply the wish of some to sing or play it to the many. But showing how you needed to have the record companies, the publishers, the material inventions to back up the 'artistes', who also needed to coincide with the desires of the audience, or create that audience themselves. For instance, Warner Brothers made for $300,000 the musical 42nd Street in 1932 under the inspired direction of Busby Berkeley, though unsure of the outcome. When the audience flocked to the launch the studio jumped. And laid on enough of the whistle-stop tours and mass marketing for them to net an almost unprecedented $2m profit.
You want to make music for people? Then you get the vast machinery behind you. This isn't the music-maker alone on the stage; there are hundreds running the machine, mostly out of sight. A voice needs this majesty of effort.
Popular music in our time bursts out of its historical shell 60 years ago when Sam Phillips of Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, engineers a renaissance of pop music. Sixty years ago the growth of modern youth-orientated culture finds its figurehead in Elvis Presley. All things flow from him, as he plays black music with an almost white boy's voice. The rest is history, caught here in all of culture from its figurehead its momentousness by Napier-Bell.
Elvis, though, had to leave the small Sun in his history of 100 Records operation and move to New York's years of music RCA, and there get well and truly magnified by the pop musical machinery.
I ended up wanting to write this book review because of a piece about the book on BBC radio. It seemed to suggest something that had never occurred to me: that there was a division between rock and pop. I am sure more sagacious musical observers than me have been kicking this division around for a while but it had avoided me. But then it got me thinking: what was 'love, love me do'? When I first heard it aged 16 I thought it was the usual crap that came out of Tin Pan Alley – Denmark Street. 'If there's anything that you want'? What was this all about? What were The Beatles but little more than syrup purveyors, always singing about someone not getting their leg over a certain charming young girl and having to suffer in the process. In fact, sometimes all this was so silly and innocent that the penis actual didn't even get a look in. The Beatles seemed penis-free, largely because most pop never had an erection in there anywhere.
To me music at the time was all about stiffies. You danced with girls in order to try and wear down their resolve. You got them hot and then hopefully stickily keen. Yet the lyrics were anodyne, suggesting holding hands might be the expected culmination of a good night out. I suppose I might have been the only 16-year-old at the time critiquing The Beatles lyrics and finding them wanting. While at the same time Chuck Berry made one priapic through music and words. You knew that one was rock and roll, and the other, The Beatles, were simply a mess of slops. Napier-Bell says that most pop stars tried to convert to the more earthy, artistically rewarding world of rock. And many succeeded. He maintains, though, that of all the big players, however hard they tried, even with Sgt. Pepper-ing themselves, The Beatles could never get away from the fact that like seaside rock they were pop all the way through. And just as sticky and sickly sweet. However consummate was their musical accomplishments, they just could not make the rock 'n' roll transformation.
Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay is a hoard of good thinking, great writing and joyous celebration of more than 100 years of popular music. But without an ounce of self-deceit. Napier-Bell is no outsider though to this repertoire of musical noises made to help us get through another day of Ebola and Isis. A former manager of The Yardbirds, discoverer of Marc Bolan, and one-time manager of Wham! and the George Michael extravaganza, he is up to his neck in pop. His current Las Vegas pop legends show is apparently rippingly successful.
Yet he managed to write this book without a handkerchief to hand to wipe away the sins of sentimentality that normally accompany insiders of this art form; no tears here thank you! Just rock hard info and fun.
From the Spectator – week of April 21st, 2001
BLACK VINYL WHITE POWDER
By Simon Napier-Bell
Ebury Press, £16.99, pp.390
The greatest book ever written about English pop....
There is something of Oscar Wilde about Simon Napier-Bell, and it’s not just his name. A man of wealth and taste, capable of great works of art on occasion (‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’ — I rest my case) yet bound by whim of iron to an underworld of crooks, charlatans and cheap, beautiful boys; that is, the music business. In the Sixties he discovered and managed Marc Bolan; in the Seventies he turned down Julio Iglesias and in the Eighties he wooed, won and mislaid Wham! Typically, he now manages Russia’s biggest pop star; he always was a boomtown sort of boy, and it is probable that the current Britpop business is just too safe, too sterile for him.Three years in the making, Black Vinyl White Powder starts from the premise that ‘drugs and drug culture have been absolutely central to the development of the British music business — ‘drugs helped the music industry invent itself and at different times have sustained it, revitalised it and even refinanced it.’ Pop — by which we mean that crazy thing that happened in the Fifties, up till when songs were published, sheet music sold, singers sang and that was that — was also one of the very few businesses built by homosexuals (even fashion and hairdressing as we know them were started by mainly heterosexual men and women) and the combination of two types of illegality invariably gave birth to an art form which was furtive, frenzied and freakish unlike any other.
Many people have set out to write histories of the British popular music business, but only someone as scurrilous, suave and simply in there as Napier-Bell could bring to the job the extreme lack of gravitas that it takes to render such a tome nothing like a tepid, quiet-in-the-library bore and every bit as bittersweet, quicksilver and volatile as pop itself. The curator attitude to pop has brought many to grief — most notably Jon Savage — before; it is the very lack of midnight oil burned, you sense, that makes this book so breathtakingly brilliant. You can’t imagine Napier-Bell ever poring over neat, dated, filed clippings as he collates his stardust memories; you imagine him in his cups at Kettner’s, suddenly sitting bolt upright, slurring into a little tape machine, ‘And another thing’ .
Like Sir Henry Wotton before him, Napier-Bell has no illusions about the intellect or moral character behind the pretty faces he dotes on...
James Palumbo wanted to be Prime Minister. ‘How could you be?’ I asked him. ‘You know nothing about politics. You don’t have a point of view on anything political, not even Left or Right.’ ‘But I don’t need one yet, do I?’ he insisted. ‘When the time comes, I’ll read up on it and decide where I ought to stand on the crucial issues.’ It reminded me of David Sylvian writing Tin Drum from a book of photos of China and planning to make an album about politics on the basis of buying a copy of the Times.
Touchingly, we learn that the New Romantic exquisite Sylvian, leader of the pop group Japan, was really named David Batt; his band-mate Steve Jansen was, sadly, Steven Batt, and it is often in the real and assumed names of Napier-Bell’s protégés, in the gap between memory and desire, that we grasp the sad, striving essence of pop.
I can see that Napier-Bell subscribes to the same philosophy of life as I do, namely, ‘If you can’t say anything good about someone, come and sit right down here by me!’ I thought I knew how most people around in the the Eighties and Nineties had ended up, but I had no idea that cheery family favourites Amazulu had ‘drifted into a haze of heroin’ or that the Soft Cell singer Cindy Ecstasy was, according to Marc Almond, ‘Basically our dealer. She supplied us, so we thought, Let’s put her in the group, then we’ll have her with us all the time.’ I suppose the name was a bit of a giveaway. How much nicer sounds Ken Tappenden, the Kent policeman who spent two years of his life trying to close down E-fuelled raves and now says ‘I often wonder why we bothered. Super lights, lovely people, and I wish them well for the future.’
Napier-Bell knows everyone, and he is gloriously rude — usually, these two things don’t go together, and friends of the stars are rather mealy-mouthed to ensure that their meal ticket remains viable. For instance, after pages of ridiculing Duran Duran in some detail, he concludes, ‘And the Thompson Twins were even more full of bullshit.’ But unlike most muse-biz homosexuals, he is not a misogynist, and points out that, despite the occasional Spice Girls or Madonna, the music business on the whole prefers to work with boys as ‘their egos are bigger, they are more easily seduced by the rewards of success and they don’t get pregnant’. It is this extremely rare ability to embrace what he loves even while holding it at arm’s length and calculating its worth to the nearest penny that makes Simon Napier-Bell such a giant amongst men, and this book probably the greatest ever written about English pop.
From the Sunday Telegraph - Sunday March 25th, 2001
BLACK VINYL WHITE POWDER
A gripping chronicle of the snortings and injectings of a generation of rock stars
By Simon Napier-Bell
Ebury Press, £16.99, pp.390
You might not have heard of Simon Napier-Bell, but from the birth of rock to the boy band era, he has cropped up everywhere: as roadie and dope supplier to the Johnny Dankworth jazz band; as co-writer of Dusty Springfield's You Don't Have To Say You Love Me; as the man who landed the Yardbirds a better recording contract than the Beatles; as the discoverer of Marc Bolan; the rejecter of Julio Iglesias; and, perhaps most notably, as the manager of Wham!
But if Napier-Bell is going to be remembered for anything, then it ought to be for this masterly book. On first glance it may look like just another lurid, cut-and-paste compendium of hoary rock 'n' roll drug anecdotes. Read more closely and you'll find one of the most authoritative, intelligent, diligently researched, conscientiously indexed, and thoroughly unpretentious disquisitions on the history of the British pop scene yet written.
Napier-Bell's main thesis - that rock stars tend to ingest an awful lot of narcotics and that this has a noticeable effect on their music - is hardly a novel one. What is new is its clear-eyed directness.
For a trendy rock literateur like Greil Marcus or Jon Savage, the subject would have been an excuse for rampant socio-political pseudery; for a gonzo rock hack, a cue for recalling just how wrecked they got that night with Mick 'n' Keef. Napier-Bell - with the cynicism and detachment of all good rock managers - is beyond all that. He just tells it like it is.
Of course, if all you're interested in is music's seamier side, the book does not disappoint. En route, you will learn about the alleged length of Iggy Pop's favourite appendage (13 inches - though it didn't look nearly that big when I last saw him whip it out on stage), about the rock manager who hired the Queen Mary for a party and served a different drug on each deck; and, least edifyingly, about why it was that John Lennon nicknamed the Animals' Eric Burdon "Eggman".
By far the best bits, though, are the ones where Napier-Bell pauses to reflect. There's a particularly fine chapter explaining precisely why rock stars take "uppers" like cocaine and speed (time zones; insane tour schedules); and an equally good one on why they invariably end up on heroin (it's the only thing that cocoons them from the crushing awfulness of those moments when they're not on stage).
He's also very lucid on the direct link between drugs and specific musical genres: marijuana spawned the blues; speed led to rock 'n' roll and punk; LSD created psychedelia; cocaine fuelled glam rock and Britpop; and dance music was and is inextricably bound up with Ecstasy. Of course, once you stop to think about it, it's blindingly obvious. But the point is that no one ever has stopped to think about it before.
It's the same with his conclusion: that pop stars are nothing more than puppets manipulated by their Svengalis and exploited by a money-grubbing industry. This has become such a well-worn cliche that we might be inclined to think it's a glib exaggeration. Napier-Bell convincingly demonstrates that it isn't.
You think young, pretty Cliff Richard invented all those anguished arm-clutching stage moves? No, he was told by producer Jack Good to pretend he'd been asleep and had been woken up by someone sticking a hypodermic in his arm.
The Who, then. Surely they were authentic? But no, it turns out that "their managers told them to watch the Mods in the audience as they danced then recreate their steps on-stage so the next audience would think the band had originated them". Cue, a sudden but undeserved reputation as figureheads of the Mod movement.
Dance music, meanwhile, was apparently the cynical invention of one man, German music publisher Peter Meisel. Realising that white Europeans lacked the ability to dance to complicated beats, he decided to make records using only a very basic, four-to-the-floor (four beats to every bar) bass drum rhythm. To make it sound credible, he decided to have black vocalists singing on top. Thus, the birth of disco.
Yes, I suppose Napier-Bell is bound to take the line that all the real creativity in the pop business lies with managers and producers rather than musicians. The problem is, it's so often true.
Take the anecdote about his search for someone to record a catchy potential hit in Australia. The night before, in desperation, he handed an air ticket and demo cassette to a man smoking a cigarette next to him on the balcony of a Newcastle pub. "If you learn this and come to Melbourne tomorrow afternoon you might end up a star." And so the man did. Not long afterwards John Paul Young had a massive international hit with Love Is In The Air.
'It's the Monkees all over again'
Daily Telegraph March 22nd - feature by Mick Brown
Simon Napier-Bell, the music guru who managed Wham!, has written a controversial book about the business. He talks to Mick Brown about the plastic pop phenomenon
LOOKING back over almost 40 years of hypes, scams, media and market manipulation and keeping his finger on the pulse of pop, Simon Napier-Bell can afford a wry smile at the success this week of Hear'Say, the chart-topping spin-off from the television programme Popstars.
"When you think about it," says Napier-Bell, "it's just the Monkees all over again, except in those days they didn't film the auditions. The Monkees were put together specifically for a TV series. In this case, the auditions became the TVseries."
Been there, done that. There isn't much about the music business that can shock or surprise Napier-Bell.
A chunkily built man in designer leisure-wear, with the looks of a dissolute cherub, Bell, who is 61, is one of the few people still working in the music business whose pedigree stretches back to pop's infancy in the late Fifties - "at least", as he puts it, "one of the few who can still speak straight".
Having started out at the age of 17 as band-boy for the Johnny Dankworth group, rolling joints in the back of the tour bus, he went on to manage the Yardbirds and Marc Bolan; to co-write the lyrics to Dusty Springfield's You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, and to enjoy enormous success in the Eighties, managing Wham!.
He has now written an entertaining, gossipy history of the British pop business, Black Vinyl, White Powder. The book is most amusing when Napier-Bell is admitting to his own failures. He once passed up the opportunity to manage Julio Iglesias in favour of another Latin singer called Junior, and quit as Marc Bolan's manager shortly before Bolan became an international star.
Set against that are his successes, with the group Japan (despite marketing the group's lead singer David Sylvian as "the most beautiful man in the world" - much to Sylvian's mortification) and most conspicuously with Wham!, whom he made international stars by the clever expedient of persuading the Communist government of China to allow the group to play there, thus ensuring global news coverage.
Napier-Bell served his apprenticeship in the early Sixties, an era when managers were a true force in the music industry. It was a period, he says, when record companies were almost totally run by middle-aged, public-school-educated men, "none of whom understood how to deal with, or even talk to artists; and they certainly didn't understand the nature of marketing to a teenage audience".
As a result, entrepreneurial mavericks such as Brian Epstein, Andrew Loog Oldham, Tony Calder and Robert Stigwood flourished.
"The manager was everything: he discovered the artist, he devised the marketing, the image for the group, the scams, the publicity, everything. It was all being invented from the ground up, and we were having a fantastic time. We all went out to lunch every day and drank, then out to dinner, and drank, and then to discos, and drank."
Contrast that with today, he says, when the manager is little more than an administrator. The planning, the production, the marketing - all are handled by the record company. "Managers no longer discover raw talent and mould them into stars. Nowadays, the record company make the mould and find the people to fit into it.
"It's pop music by market research. If something is successful, make something as close to it as you possibly can. So Westlife were a replacement for Boyzone, and Hear'Say are a mixture of Westlife and the Spice Girls.
"On one level, I think they're abysmal. But on another level they are going to sell half a million records in the first week, and this is a business, after all. I'm not saying it's wrong, but it means you don't end up with real artists in there, and I can't see what my role would be with a group like that.
"If you manage somebody who doesn't know what they're supposed to be doing, they're only in this group because they've been to acting school and then they get a hit and become a bit uppity . . . There's no fun in that."
Napier-Bell's thesis, explored in Black Vinyl, White Powder, is that British pop music has been largely shaped by two factors: the ubiquity of drugs - which is obvious; and, less obviously, by the influence of homosexuality. As black culture has been to American pop music, he argues, so homosexual culture has been to British.
No surprises: Simon Napier-Bell describes manufactured bands such as Hear'Say as 'pop music by market research'
It was no coincidence, he believes, that the most important managers of the Sixties were gay or bisexual, from Larry Parnes, whose sole criterion for signing aritsts such as Tommy Steele and Marty Wilde was whether or not he fancied them; through to Brian Epstein and the Beatles.
This influence has been felt successively through glam rock, "when everybody had to own up to being gay even if they weren't", through Take That, whose stage presentation was basically "one big homo-erotic fantasy", to the importance of gay clubs in shaping the explosion of dance music.
Napier-Bell's own sexuality has always been "flexible" - his boyfriend of the past 11 years is a Thai dancer - and his enthusiasms sybaritic. He has made, and spent, several fortunes - "eating, drinking and living in five-star hotels. It's the rock and roll lifestyle, not to be regretted later, and nor has it been."
In 1990, he was declared bankrupt after being hit with a tax-demand for ?6 million. Napier-Bell took it in his stride. "I saw it as one more interesting thing in life. Boredom, repetition, is the worst thing for me. I would rather contract a life-threatening disease than have to go and watch the same group for the 300th time in some grotty club and make polite conversation with the promoter's wife, because I've done that."
After his travails with the tax-man, he had no intention of going into management again, planning to write and live on the royalties from his song-writing. But a year ago he was approached to manage the Western launch of a 17-year-old Russian girl called Alsou, who is already a sensation in her native country, and rose to the challenge.
His enthusiasm goes into overdrive when he talks about this. Her new single, he says, has the fastest-rising video since the first Britney Spears record on the teenage music channel the Box, which bases its chart on viewers' requests - "and you really can't rig that", he says, as if to allay any suggestion that he might have done. "OK, you can get your friends to phone up and get it into the 90s, but above number 70 it's unfixable."
Napier-Bell gives a satisfied smile. "Mark my words, she'll be top 5 in four weeks."
GREAT GIG, SHAME ABOUT THE SHOW-TRIAL
DAILY TELEGRAPH - Caspar Llewellyn Smith - 2 April 2001
An account of pop that is bitchy, shrewd and worthy of its subject
IN APRIL 1985 Simon Napier-Bell took Wham! to Communist China. He had been managing George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley for two years by then and had helped to turn them into the most successful pop group in Britain. Now they were the first Western pop act to play Beijing.
Did it change anything? Not for the Chinese. A month later, Napier-Bell returned to the same city. A show trial was being staged in the arena in which the concert had been held. In Black Vinyl, White Powder, the Svengali writes:
A shifty bunch of officials sat on a podium passing judgement on a succession of hang-dog petty criminals . . . Most of them received the death penalty. They were then taken outside to a field near the river and given a bullet in the back of the head.
Happily enough, however, the gig proved good business for Wham!, not to mention the biggest hit of Napier-Bell's extraordinary career. The former public schoolboy fell in love with the music business in 1956 at the age of 17, when he landed a job as a roadie with the Johnny Dankworth Orchestra. Later he managed the Yardbirds and co-wrote Dusty Springfield's smash You Don't Have to Say You Love Me and in the 1970s discovered Marc Bolan. In the 1980s he turned the group Japan into stars by billing their singer David Sylvian as "the most beautiful man in the world" (against Sylvian's wishes). At the moment, he is grooming a teenage Russian singer for chart success.
Where most rock writers can only press their noses up against the windowpane, Napier-Bell is uniquely placed to write about what has gone on within the industry. The author of a previous account of pop in the 1960s (named after the Springfield song), he has now produced a more ambitious history that is by turns bitchy, glib, fun and shrewd - pretty much like its subject.
The book begins with the impresario Larry Parnes and his stable of butch young stars, including Tommy Steele and Marty Wilde, and ends with a telling account of the latest batch of boy bands such as Boyzone. Napier-Bell highlights the homoerotic undercurrent which links the generations. It is no coincidence, he believes, that just as the music industry in America was driven by Jewish businessmen and black acts, in this country gay managers such as Parnes and the Rolling Stones' Andrew Oldham predominated: pop is all about the business of being an outsider. Besides, boys were always easier to manage than girls:
Their egos were bigger, they were more easily seduced by the rewards of success, and they didn't get pregnant.
A second key theme is drugs. Just as acid house in the late 1980s was linked to the rise of ecstasy, so the first rock-and-rollers pulled apart asthma inhalers and dunked the Benzedrine-sodden wads of cotton wool they found into their cappuccinos.
The picture Napier-Bell paints of the industry today is one of gloom:
It had gone through its childhood, had a mad adolescence, struggled to bring up the kids, reached middle-age and had at last got the hang of life. The result was a service industry which provided the public with a backing track to live by, but little more.
But Napier-Bell characteristically sees a silver lining. Pop music's very blandness has been a force for good:
Black or white, Chinese or Indian, gay or straight - everyone was sold as one big happy family. Sometimes it came across as pure kitsch, but by setting standards for children as young as seven, it was doing more for future racial harmony than any protest song had ever done.
Throughout this book, its author sides with his fellow scammers and schemers (indeed there's a tendency to overemphasise the role that some of them have played). Their story is frequently unsavoury. But if Napier-Bell has sometimes acted cynically as a manager, his honesty in writing such an engaging expose of the business is to be cherished.
'Music? The key to getting rich, high and laid'
Black Vinyl White Powder by Simon Napier-Bell (Ebury Press, ?16.99)
By Charles Shaar Murray - The Independent - 05 April 2001
"So here it is," writes Simon Napier-Bell, "money, sex and drugs. What more could you ask for, except perhaps for a little music?" Indeed. Music often seems like a mere by-product of an industry primarily dedicated to supplying itself with the largest possible quantities of Napier-Bell's unholy trinity. Few know this better, and describe it with more acrid wit, than the charmingly louche and urbane former manager of The Yardbirds (but not Jeff Beck), Marc Bolan (but not T Rex), Wham! (but not solo George Michael), and Japan.
Black Vinyl White Powder is the belated sequel to his delightfully scurrilous, hugely entertaining and piercingly insightful pop-biz memoir, You Don't Have To Say You Love Me, named after an Italian song for which he wrote an English lyric during a 10-minute taxi ride. That was a hit for Dusty Springfield in the Sixties and was revived by Elvis Presley in the Seventies, providing Napier-Bell with both an income over and above his management earnings and a licence to bite the hand that feeds him.
The first book was a sort-of-autobiography; this one is a an eye-opening social history of the British music business analysed in terms of ? you guessed ? money, drugs and sex. Peppered with first-person anecdotes, it's also the cold-print equivalent of a sparkling evening in the company of a world-class raconteur.
"If you can remember the Sixties," goes one of the hoariest gags in the catalogue, "then you weren't really there." Napier-Bell drops so many micro-clangers (the editors of Oz were busted for obscenity rather than sued for libel; The Dave Clark Five's records were issued by EMI rather than Pye; The Rolling Stones were on London Records in the US during the Sixties, rather than CBS; Eric Clapton left The Yardbirds to join John Mayall rather than to form Cream; The White Panther Party was Mick Farren's drinking club masquerading as a political movement rather than a band; and so on) that it constitutes definitive proof that he was there.
Napier-Bell's lifelong involvement with the music business began in 1956 when, as a 17-year-old wannabe jazz trumpeter fresh out of public school, he became the "posh bandboy" for the Johnny Dankworth Orchestra. He soon discovered that his duties included more than setting up the instruments ? that when required to roll an endless supply of joints for the musicians, it was more practical to carry a chunk of hash than a bag of grass.
As a gay man exploring the music business, he joined a parade of posh gay managers who acquired stables of sulky-pretty working-class louts and sold them on to teenage girls. What keeps the book jumping is his acute sense of the multiple dialectics (between idealism and commerce, bohemian elitism and mass culture, art and entertainment) and complex power structures (producers, promoters, publicists, performers, publishers and publics) that drive pop's evolution. "Rock'n'roll wasn't the music itself," claimed Jack Good, the pioneer of British music television, "it was the response to the music."
In the context of the ecstasy-fuelled dance boom of the Nineties, Napier-Bell tells us: "Like amphetamine sulphate in the '70s and acid in the '60s, the drug created the audience. Kids on E wanted E-culture music. To profit from all of this, all the music industry had to do was to identify the kids who were taking it, then provide them with the right records."
In a welter of gossip, scams and statistics, Napier-Bell provides a one-stop-shop education in what the music business ? as opposed to the music itself ? has always been about: get rich, get high, get laid. "Black vinyl may have gone," he concludes. "White powder seems here to stay."
Simon Napier-Bell is keenly aware of, and has spent his life both exploiting and chronicling, the most delightful of pop's paradoxical verities. It is a con job that actually delivers; a lie that tells the truth; and a wholly cynical mechanism that somehow contrives to supply successive generations of youth and post-youth with some of their most authentic dreams
Simon Napier-Bell: 'Svengali? Me? I'm more like a butler'
Simon Napier-Bell has been managing bands since the Sixties. Here he talks about sex, drugs and what passes for rock 'n' roll these days
From 'The Independent' by Steve Jelbert - 20 March 2001
"You feel a bit like someone who's made a good living cleaning toilets when you've managed a pop band. It's not like you're a star, or a songwriter. You're just someone who's run around and done the dirt." Simon Napier-Bell, the last of the legendary managerial figures of the Sixties to retain an interest in the business, is disparaging about his own role.
"Management isn't really much fun," he reveals. "The level it puts you at is fun, and the money is fun. It's nice when everyone thinks you're a Svengali, but you're not. You're just a stupid butler for some teenage kid who's a popstar."
Though he's ostensibly promoting a new book, Black Vinyl, White Powder, a conversation with the one-time manager of The Yardbirds, Japan and Wham! (and not a few that got away, such as Marc Bolan, the idiosyncratic Jeff Beck and George Michael solo) is an instant music-business seminar. People pay to hear this kind of knowledge. Literally, as Napier-Bell occasionally works as a consultant, often to people who disregard his conclusions. "You have to get used to the fact that you give people well-thought out, practical advice and they never take it, no matter what they pay you," he says.
It was ever thus. He describes artist management as a "strange job, because you advise people and if they don't take your advice you have to take their instructions to execute exactly the thing you advised them not to do." Something keeps calling him back though. He's currently representing Russia's top pop poppet, although her name just flies by in passing.
Black Vinyl is a brave attempt to tell the history of the British music business through wider social trends, namely fashions in drug use. Napier-Bell is apologetic about its straight ahead nature, somewhat at odds with his natural practical cynicism. "Publisher's orders," he explains, though he's rightly proud of how it accurately places Genesis in the pantheon of pop. (They're not even mentioned.)
Being a carefully researched, well-structured volume, it's obviously no match for his previous work, You Don't Have To Say You Love Me, a magnificently scurrilous account of Napier-Bell's Sixties, adored by all aficionados of bitchy camp. This collection of dinner-party yarns committed to print featured Keith Moon twice saving its author from hairy situations in foreign brothels; revealed that a Bee Gee was generally known to all of Swinging London as the "singing goat"; and explained how Napier-Bell and his business partner, Ray Singer, manufactured non-existent groups for export. The list of acts still charms - "Anton, which was really Ray singing; Heavy Jelly - Ray singing with another voice; Plus; Brut; Fresh; Bang; and many more."
Unsurprisingly, then, he's delighted to discover that Fresh's Fresh out of Borstal, an early concept album that attempted to stir interest in a hapless north London beat combo by pretending that they had "form", has been discovered by the sample generation.
Napier-Bell regrets the death of the scam. "These days everyone does their scams in videos. Every one of Robbie Williams's is a scam. Throwing meat around - in the old days he would have thrown it straight at the audience," he huffs.
But he considers Robbie to possess something, unlike the auditioned "bands" that currently rule. "When you put together one of these groups, anyone who's got real star quality gets passed over, because they're going to be trouble," he observes, probably delighting Darius from Popstars, that Chris Eubank of teeny pop.
"I only look for one thing, that absolute, white-hot dedication to being a star. If they look good enough and they've got the drive, anything else can be sorted out. They can learn to sing, to dance. That's not a problem," he says, but he gives short shrift to "karaoke monkeys". "They've been to acting school or dancing school already, so they can't have cared that much about being a pop singer. I couldn't think of managing one of those acts."
Pop stars just aren't what they used to be. He tells a truly unbelievable story about Moon involving search parties, a 100ft ravine and, inevitably, alcohol, concluding: "If we live vicariously through Westlife, what a boring nation we are."
The unspoken subtext of his book is that no matter how creative young scamps might be on LSD, ecstasy or speed, they always seem to graduate to cocaine as soon as they've made a bob or two. As a long-time observer, rather than a participant, in the drug-use he records, Napier-Bell is dismissive of the devil's candy. "It is the worst drug. I can manage people on heroin - once a day you've got to give them 10 minutes, then they're fine," he says. "It only gives you a problem when you're not taking it. Unless you're overdosing, of course. But cocaine - if you don't take it you're hopeless, if you do take it you're hopeless."
Napier-Bell prefers good old booze. "I do like being drunk. I could piss you around saying I have a few glasses of wine, but I like to rampage around, falling over and making a fool of myself. It's bloody marvellous," he unashamedly admits. Though he doesn't generally use drugs, he says he can't wait for legalisation. "We're not all going to take heroin. When Prohibition was lifted in America, people weren't drinking wood alcohol. They were drinking Ch?teau Latour," he proclaims in the manner of one who's drunk more than a few bottles of the stuff.
Now in his early sixties, and splitting his time between the Far East and London, he still looks pretty good on it. He sleeps only four or five hours a night, and claims to find everything "interesting", even an armed mugging. "Nothing is truly bad," he explains. "I was knifed in Holland a few weeks ago. There was a moment of terrible fear, but immediately afterwards I'm thinking 'this is interesting. I haven't been knifed before'."
That's everything except today's chart music. "The cost of making 'pop' music is vast, so instead of taking a risk on somebody who looks interesting, they research the market and make the music for it," he says. "If you ask anybody what they want, all they can tell you is 'something like I had before'. Nothing new is going to emerge. It's how movies are now made in Hollywood."
His analysis is incisive. "That's how that level of the music business goes. Then, at the lower level you've got what is the equivalent of jazz in the Fifties. Sometimes something crosses over and hits the public nerve, just as you used to have jazz hits. But basically these things will stay separate as there isn't any na?vet? left in the teenage audience." Then there are new technologies such as Napster, which have wrong-footed unwieldy record companies. "After 70 years there isn't a copyright anyway. Shawn Fanning [Napster's inventor] is just saying that after five minutes there isn't a copyright," laughs Napier-Bell.
But he remains a music fancier, with a particular taste for trance, and makes no claims at second-guessing trends. "If you played Eminem to someone from the Sixties, they wouldn't recognise it as music. They'd think it sounded like a trade unionist having a rant at the government," he observes dryly, then admits: "I don't know what's going to happen. But the one thing the new Beatles won't be is four guys."
"I drink therefore I scam"
The Svengali behind Marc Bolan and Wham! has pulled a lot of stunts. Now he's spilling the beans, says Sheryl Garratt
The Observer - Sunday March 18, 2001
Simon Napier-Bell's career spans a large part of the history of British pop.He worked for Johnny Dankworth's big band and is old enough to have met Larry Parnes, the impresario whose stable of pretty-boy singers kick-started the business here in the 1950s.
He managed the Yardbirds in the 1960s, drank in the same clubs as the Beatles and the Stones and became great friends with the Who's eccentric manager, Kit Lambert. He co-wrote the words to Dusty Springfield's 'You Don't Have To Say You Love Me', and producedacts including Peter Sarstedt and the Scaffold. Later, he managed Marc Bolan for a while, then dabbled in punk before steering Japan to success. But perhaps the pinnacle of his career was getting his group Wham! to be the first Western group to play in China, a publicity coup that made the duo household names worldwide. Just a few weeks away from his sixty-second birthday, he still has projects on the go. This week sees the debut British single by his latest prot?g?e, Alsou, a pretty 17-year-old Britney soundalike who is already a massive star in her native Russia.
Napier-Bell is a manager. He sorts things for people. So, when I realise I've come to meet him without my tape recorder, he immediately takes control. Before I can finish my apologies, he's postponed his next interview and we're in his car cruising around west London to buy a replacement. He's a charming man, covering my embarrassment with a stream of enjoyable stories too libellous to repeat here. The lawyers, he says regretfully, cut some of the best bits out of his new book, Black Vinyl, White Powder, a string of lively anecdotes and personal experiences shoehorned somewhat uncomfortably into a more general history of the music business and its excesses. Nothing big had to go, he says, just a detail here, a punch line there. 'Anyone who dies between now and next year goes back in the paperback.'
He's also annoyed that the Mail on Sunday, while serialising his book, took the sections referring to the rise of ecstasy in the late 1980s/early 1990s, added references to Peter Mandelson, John Prescott and Cherie Blair and, under the headline 'Ministry of Drugs', seemed to imply that James Palumbo's Ministry of Sound club was still some hotbed of drugs activity.
Anyone who has been frisked by Ministry's bouncers will know this isn't so and, besides, Palumbo is a friend. Napier-Bell tells me a story from a business trip they made together to Thailand, where Palumbo ate raw jellyfish to psyche out a potential new business partner. After Napier-Bell and his publishers complained, the Mail on Sunday dropped the second instalment. 'I wasn't a bit sorry,' he wrote in a piece for the Telegraph 's media section last week.
Though full of repeatable stories, the new book lacks the flippant charm of his first music business expos?. Published in 1982, You Don't Have To Say You Love Me shocked critics at the time with its casual references to drugs, homosexuality, chart-fixing and the stories in which Who drummer Keith Moon ended up saving the author from sticky situations in brothels. Twice.
Napier-Bell readily agrees, saying he found the research for this longer book tedious, but then he's never been shy of admitting his mistakes. Some of the funniest parts of the new book concern his failures. He encouraged Marc Bolan to join a band called John's Children, an atrocious outfit he managed in a misguided attempt to cash in on flower power. Looking for a Latin singer, he rejected Julio Iglesias in favour of a terminally mean singer called Junior. He managed Culture Club's Jon Moss, but only when he was in an appalling punk band called London. Failures are always funny, he says, and besides, 'in between I got a few winners'.
Simon Napier-Bell was born in Ealing. His father was a documentary film-maker and a life-long communist, even though he left the party after the tanks rolled into Hungary. The family moved around a lot, and Simon was educated in a mixture of state and public schools, depending on how the finances were going at the time. Too posh for state schools, too common for public schools. As he moved from one to the other, he was constantly bullied and had to learn to adjust his accent and behaviour to fit in.
It was, he says now, perfect training for pop management, which in the 1960s required a certain chameleon-like quality. 'Ninety per cent of all the middle to senior staff in record companies were upper class. They found it very difficult to talk or deal with the artists.' This, he feels, is why so many of the successful managers of this period were gay. From the same class as the record company staff, they were equally at home with the kind of alternative lifestyles their artists often pursued. 'You're leading a double life all the time. Which is why, of course, the other people who are very good are Jewish.'
Napier-Bell's own sexuality has always been flexible. His current boyfriend is Thai; they've been together 11 years and he remains grateful to New Labour for making changes in the immigration rules that finally allowed them to live together in London. But he says it's sheer coincidence that the three major relationships of his life have been with men. 'I've always had sex with women as well. What I like is feminine men or self-sufficient women. All my life it's just been a certain type of person. It's of no interest to me what gender they are.'
Once, over lunch in 1966, he and his friend, Vicki Wickham, decided to get married. They were going to the premiere of Alfie that night, and would announce it at the party afterwards. 'I was the manager of the Yardbirds, she was the producer of Ready Steady Go. It would have been a big showbusiness marriage. We'd have big Sunday lunches with all our mutual friends; she could have her girlfriends and I'd have my boyfriends and where they overlapped, which they sometimes did, it would be no problem. And if we decided to have kids, we'd have kids. It was a brilliant idea.'
On the way to the party, Wickham stopped off to break the news to a girlfriend. Furniture flew. By the time they got into town, the party was over and so was the engagement. 'It didn't seem like fun any more.'
There was one excess Napier-Bell didn't get involved in. Despite being all around him, he has rarely taken drugs. He tried amphetamines once in the 1960s and hated them. He has always smoked joints, he says, but they give him a sore throat, so he prefers drinking. 'I like being drunk, falling over, behaving badly. If you ask me what have been the best, funniest experiences of my life, 90 per cent of them would be when I was disgustingly drunk.'
He's not anti-drugs. 'They should be legalised as quickly and sensibly as possible.' He talks intelligently about prohibition, arguing that were drugs to be legalised now, the big pharmaceutical giants could dedicate themselves to developing safer, better substances for us to enjoy. 'It's absurd. If you're feeling bad, you're allowed to take a pill to make you feel better, but if you're feeling all right, you're not allowed to. But we all take them anyway. Of some sort or other. Mine come in liquid form.'
What is noticeable in his books is that his friends tend to be other managers or musicians he didn't work with. He says this distance was always a conscious choice. 'We always get fired, in the end. Artists are great sponges, they soak things up. They learn it, and eventually they look at the manager and say, "Why should I pay you 20 per cent". I don't object to that at all. It's like bringing up a child - you put them through school and then suddenly they're an adult.'
Napier-Bell would prefer not to work at all, but if he does it has to be fun. Wham!'s concert in China may have been the last great pop scam. Dreamed up as a way to get the attention of the media, especially in the US, without months of tedious promotion, it was negotiated almost by stealth with the Chinese government, then presented to them as a fait accompli . 'I loved the scams,' Napier-Bell says wistfully. 'You don't do them nowadays. In the 1960s and 1970s we did them every day.'
He recalls the PR who shopped his clients, the Walker Brothers, to the police, saying they were bank robbers, the manager who had Goldie the eagle released from London Zoo to promote his act, Goldie & The Gingerbreads, and the riots he provoked on tour with John's Children. Back then,no one really understood how the music business worked. Now, your average teenager knows all about marketing and hype and they'll only enjoy a scam if they're allowed in on the joke.
Besides, soon after Wham! played in China, MTV made the video the main means of communication and video directors took over from PRs and managers as kings of the hype. 'It's less fun now,' he admits. 'There's no creative input any more, and you are just a go-between between all the people involved. There isn't any feeling of outrage in the music business and I don't think it will come back, really.'
Given his background, I say I'm surprised that he isn't manipulating a boy band right now, but he's shocked at the suggestion. 'You've got to feel some quality in the artists you work with. When I started managing Wham!, a lot of people said, "How could you do that after Japan?" But George was a great songwriter and they had a good act. I'd manage a boy band if it was a good laugh and they all had PhDs, but I haven't seen many of those around.
'The awful thing now is that they're mainly chosen by the record companies, not by managers, and they deliberately miss out the people with potential star quality. Because stars are always difficult people. I'm amazed Robbie Williams got through, because he's an archetypal star. Record companies take the dullest, most obedient people, the people who do what they're told. Where's the fun in managing that? It's just being a secretary, really.'
Scams, blags and pretty boys
Profit 'uber alles' is no way to view the music business, insists Jab Wobble
The Independent on Sunday – April 1st, 2001
Black Vinyl White Powder by Simon Napier-Bell
This book charts the development of the British music industry from the 1950s to the present day, linking every major development m music and fashion over the last 50 years or so with the appropriate drug: amphetamine sulphate in relation to punk, LSD with the hippie flower power movement, ecstasy and the rave scene and so on. It's a rather crass approach, but one which will, I suspect, help sales. Napier-Bell knows a thing or three about ruthlessly marketing and selling copious amounts of records and CDs. He was, after all, manager to, among others, Wham! and Japan.
This populist approach is defended to the hilt by Napier-Bell throughout the book. Profit and chart position uber alles is, after all, an industry norm. The attitudes and ideologies of worthier artists such as Paul Weller or Billy Bragg are predictably given short shrift. It's interesting that the one part of the book that does not feel authoritative is the section dealing with the punk phenomenon. The standard music industry profit motive was as evident as ever at that time; however, it was often challenged by the attitudes of some artists and managers, the Sex Pistols and Malcolm McLaren being the prime example. A genuine penchant for chaos and anarchy did, at times, come to the surface in the punk era. I couldn't imagine Napier-Bell managing Sid Vicious or Johnny Lydon. I suspect that, because of this; it wasn't the author's favourite time in the music game. I think that Napier-Bell just didn't "get it". However, he simply, and rather glibly, dismisses punk as nothing more than a sham. As soon as we hit the coke-fuelled New Romantic movement of the early 1980s, Napier-Bell is back in his element, dealing with pretty-boy artists totally prepared to play the game.
Another weak aspect of the book is the author's habit of making grand and unsubstantiated statements, such as: "Dance rhythms turn people in on themselves and make them introverted [whereas] Rock rhythms bring them out of themselves, arouse them, and provide a bond between performer and listener." Well, try telling that to the Rio Carnival, or, conversely, to fans of the Velvet Underground. This occasional display of stupidty belies what is otherwise an intelligently written book.
Most of the major artists and movements (in terms of commercial significance) are discussed here. The British music industry is a provincial little affair, so the same old myths, characters and legends are propagated and dissected, albeit with a real knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject. A myriad anecdotes are recalled; for instance, pop producer Micky Most talking of the time when, as a young singer, he was banned from going to the control room to hear the recording of his newly laid vocal: "If you didn't like it, too bad. In the studio, the rule was 'Where the carpet begins, the artist stops'." Believe me, there are many producers who would love to see a return to those days.
The book is a testament to the radical changes in social attitudes that have occurred in Britain over the last 50 years. For example, the change in the way homosexuality is now viewed by society is discussed. The author claims the advent of the 1960s dance craze the Twist made all the difference. At that time, states Napier-Bell, it became acceptable for men to dance together. Hardly a chapter seems to go by without mention of the strong links between the gay world and the music business. Napier-Bell records his own unfussy and pragmatic coming out at the end of the 1950s.
My favourite part of the book is the section that deals with the group Japan. It's the one time where I felt there wasn't a lurking attitude of cynicism and distaste for his artists emanating from the author. It seems that he stuck by them through thick and thin until, just as they really made it, they self-destructed.
The author's background as a musician surprised me, as did his knowledge and experience of musical production. He's certainly no Quincy Jones, but he does know a thing or two. He also makes some points about the direction that the business is taking, especially in regard to marketing, that are very salient in these days of Hear’say. All this more than makes up for the author's predictably libertarian, free-market cod philosophising, which is starting to sound tired and dated.
Like so many people in the music game, Napier-Bell loves a scam and a blag. He boasts about his greatest one to date, getting Wham! into communist China in the 1980s. I couldn't help thinking of Chairman Mao's comments about Western rock music leading to promiscuity, homosexuality and drug addiction.
Hmmm... perhaps he had a point.
BLACK VINYL WHITE POWDER
by Simon Napier-Bell
Adam Sweeting in The Sunday Times
Since the start of the 1960s, Simon Napier-Bell has been flitting around the music industry in a variety of guises, from film-maker to manager to writer and gossipy scene watcher. His first book, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, was a mildly outrageous memoir of the 1960s. Black Vinyl White Powder has grander aspirations, and purports to trace the history of the British pop industry from the early squawks and bangs of Tin Pan Alley to the current plague of toothpaste-and-hair-gel boy bands and the challenges posed by the internet.
Napier-Bell's insider credentials are something of a double-edged sword. While it's true that he met many of the leading bands, managers, record executives and promoters, for much of the time he wasn't at the cutting edge of the business he found so endlessly addictive.
Although he would manage pop superstars Wham! for a time during the 1980s, his efforts to depict himself at the heart of the tale he is narrating, like the Zeilig of Britpop, sometimes seem faintly absurd.
For example, while Andrew Oldham was masterminding the scowling, menacing mystique of the Rolling Stones, and while Brian Epstein was guiding the Beatles to immortality, Napier-Bell was fiddling about with a mixed-race pop duo called Diane & Nicky.
When scary super-manager Peter Grant was turning Led Zeppelin into the ultimate stadium-filling, drug-guzzling, groupie-defiling rock monster, Napier-Bell was struggling to get a decent record out of the Scouse novelty act, the Scaffold. He managed Marc Bolan for a time, but parted company with him before Bolan was transformed from fey hippie elf to chartbusting electric warrior. And at the moment when his client Jeff Beck scored a huge hit with Hi Ho Silver Lining, Napier-Bell is forced to confess that, "I was no longer managing him".
At least he tells his story with pace and a refreshing lack of pretension, never allowing himself to get bogged down in inconvenient detail when a provocative opinion or an apocryphal anecdote can carry him over the page. A sprinkling of daft errors lends additional spice, especially the renaming of Matt Aitken (of Stock Aitken & Waterman) as "Max" Aitken.
It is inevitable that the book should become drier and more analytical as it charts the industry's most recent business machinations, since the business has now become the plaything of financial analysts and marketing strategists, but it's hard to believe Napier-Bell is serious when he argues that "British pop music has never sounded better nor "been better produced". Presumably, he isn't referring to Al. He is much better value when he is writing about the sleaze, graft and sexual shenanigans of Soho in the early 1960s. His writing style is like a mixture of tabloidese and scurrilous music-paper gossip column, pasted together to resemble a seamless narrative. The pages cry out for some old-fashioned newspaper crossheadings, shouting "Perversion!" or "Scandal!" Some of his yarns are first-hand, others have been recycled from the ever-expanding library of rock'n'roll memoirs. He likes to appropriate stories and personalise them with an "as so-and-so told me..." introduction.
One of the main themes of the book is the titillating saga of the way in which various kinds of drugs have shaped different periods of pop's development. Only a cynic could suspect that Napier-Bell had built this theme into his narrative in order to attract the slavering attention of the tabloids.
As he tells it, at first everybody was charging around the country in beat-up vans, cranked to the gills on amphetamines and staying up for days on end. Then came acid and the Summer of Love, causing even Mick Jagger to become spiritual and beatific. Shadows gather over the story as cocaine and heroin begin to engender self-delusion and loss of identity. Then punk arrives, sending everybody mad on sinus-destroying amphetamine sulphate, then it's on to Ecstasy and the dance boom of the 1990s, ^fow, apparently, pop's top people are back on cocaine. According to DJ Lisa Loud, whoever she is, "the universal shift to cocaine was simply the E generation growing up and changing their habits".
Napier-Bell has a speedy pop potboiler disguised as an authoritative historical tome. That doesn't mean it isn't sometimes funny, entertaining and even shrewd, but it would be unwise to rely on it as a copper-bottomed historical artefact. The drivel on the dust-jacket claims that Black Vinyl White Powder is "as gripping and surprising as any work of fiction you are likely to read", which may be a little truer than it was supposed to be.