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The Worst Rock’n’Roll Management Decisions In History

AS WE GET OLDER dreams of stardom inevitably slip away – who wants to be stomping round a stage at an age when a nice snooze holds more appeal than a line of cocaine? But what about management? How hard can that be? Surely you can just look at the fictional likes of Spinal Tap’s Ian Faith and Flight Of The Conchords’ Murray Hewitt and do the exact opposite and thus guarantee success. But in fact, things can go very wrong indeed, as these case studies show.

1. Brian Epstein

The 1963 Beatles/Seltaeb merchandising fiasco is well documented. In short, Beatle business “supremo” Brian Epstein, or more accurately his lawyer David Jacobs, sold the band’s image rights to posh bloke Nicky Byrne, an acquaintance from the Chelsea party scene. To Byrne’s surprise Jacobs accepted a mere ten per cent of any fees for his client, accepting his first speculative offer. Not believing his luck, Byrne flew to the USA, sold licences to eager manufacturers and lived the high life, running up a cool $100,000 in personal expenses. With the Wall Street Journal estimating that 1964 could see Beatles-branded goods turning over a hundred million dollars – forget T-shirts and badges, wig factories were working round the clock – Epstein rapidly renegotiated terms, then he was countersued. The whole industry ground to a halt just as the multi-millions were there for the taking, as worried investors like JC Penneys and Woolworths cancelled huge contracts. By the time matters were satisfactorily solved, the moment for exploitation had passed, and the band had grown moustaches. But no-one wanted Beatles faux-face-fuzz by 1967.

Consequences: No-one else got the money, so it all became a bit notional. But everyone since has kept tight control on their merch rights.

Moral: Don’t dole out lucrative contracts to men you meet at parties, even Chelsea parties. (This also applies to matters of national security.)

2. Rob Gretton

One of the obvious benefits of pop stardom is never queueing or paying to get into a nightclub. Hell, these days entire ‘careers’, admittedly of the Paris Hilton micro-talent ilk, involve the exchange of cash for one’s presence. But New Order, and their manager, ex-club DJ Rob Gretton flipped the norm on its head and effectively subsidised Manchester’s Haçienda club for the Mancunian public for years. Eventually the club took off, becoming popular enough to attract criminals and drug dealers and notoriety and frequent closures by local authorities, but at a huge cost. As management pretty much consists of keeping the talent alive and not losing all their money, the late Gretton didn’t score too well – Ian Curtis killed himself under his charge, and New Order’s biggest-selling single came in a sleeve that cost so much it was sold at a loss. But he’s still remembered, which is the most a manager can hope for.

Consequences: In his dotage, Joy Div/New Order bassist Peter Hook has to DJ and write entertaining books of anecdotes in an attempt to recoup the lost gazillions.

Moral: Manchester might be Britain’s second cultural centre after London, but all the serious financial business takes place elsewhere – London, Leeds, Edinburgh, even Halifax.

3. Doc McGhee

He doesn’t like to publicise his background – hell, even ascertaining his old medical school is problematic – but Doc McGhee famously crossed the line between shady and criminal when he was convicted in 1988 of smuggling 40,000 pounds of marijuana into the United States. Instead of receiving a long jail term, the manager of Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe and Skid Row was ordered to host a charity event to promote anti-drug awareness. And so in August 1989 the Russian public was sentenced to a concert featuring such famous clean livers as Ozzy Osbourne and the Crüe (whose Tommy Lee thumped McGhee in a dispute over the running order). So far, so cunning, but also playing were eternal German plodders The Scorpions who were thus inspired to write the flatulent Wind Of Change, which now accompanies every single shot of mulleted East Germans on every documentary on the fall of communism ever. McGhee, a believer in what he calls ‘full contact management’ (ie. hitting the artiste), currently manages Kiss and that bloke out of Hootie & The Blowfish.

Consequences: Post-Soviet Russia started with stadium rock – did they ever have a chance?

Moral: Even the best intentions have unpredictable consequences, possibly involving whistling.

4. Larry Parnes

Mr Parnes, Shillings and Pence was Britain’s leading starmaker in the late-’50s, giving exotic new names to hopeful rock’n’rollers like Marty Wilde (né Reg Smith), Vince Eager (né Roy Taylor) and Joe Brown (né Joe Brown). By the late-’60s, though, he had moved into traditional theatricals. But when he and the legendarily abrasive Don Arden, father of Sharon Osbourne and latterly seen as the other elderly male stumbling around the kitchen on The Osbournes, fell out over plans to co-produce a Broadway hit in London the late Arden, never a man to waste a grudge, devised an unusually imaginative revenge. At the time no-one could comprehend why the rich and successful promoter and manager Don Arden had released a scarily straight version of Sunrise, Sunset from musical Fiddler on the Roof. But, as he later revealed in his not entirely reliable autobiography Mr Big, the billboard campaign was restricted to one London site, a hoarding opposite Parnes’s bedroom window, where a giant image of scary old Don stayed up for a fortnight, greeting his victim each morning.

Consequences: None really. It might not even be true – the late Arden never let facts get in the way of a good story.

Moral: Do unto others, yadda yadda.

5. Bernie Rhodes

Starmakers And Svengalis, Johnny Rogan’s exhaustive history of British pop managers, divvied them up into categories: sensible accountants and lawyers, who generally ensured everyone ended up wealthier than before yet rarely made history; wild and imaginative enthusiasts as rock’n’roll as the talent; and the impossibly loyal, ready to lay down their life, or at least remortgage their home, for their charges. These days Bernie Rhodes is best known as the subject of the sardonic ‘Bernie Rhodes knows, don’t hargue!’ cry at the start of The Specials’ Gangsters. But as manager of The Clash he was rarely sensible and certainly not ready to lay down his life for them. But the Clash core of Joe Strummer, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, all from fractured family backgrounds, were easily seduced by his fantastical, fanatical belief in rock’s unlimited potential, even recalling him after ditching the conventionally profitable Peter Jenner/Andrew King team that replaced him. Yet Bernie overstepped the mark when Jones was squeezed out of his own band in an internal coup worthy of Soviet politics and he took over his co-writing role on the band’s valedictory and much reviled Cut The Crap. Like the USSR, Bernie has been left behind by history.

Consequences: Westway To The World, Don Letts’s excellent documentary history of the band, doesn’t even mention their last record.

Moral: The talent is the talent, and the management is the management.

6. Dads

What about family? Surely a father will defend his children’s interests? Not necessarily. Murry Wilson’s stewardship of the Beach Boys was basically an attempt to reinforce his control by belittling them at every opportunity, something his sons, rather more mature than dad, generally ignored. At one point they simply gave him a mixing console unconnected to anything else for him to play with in the studio while Brian carried on directing a couple of orchestras. But selling off their entire publishing catalogue for less than a million bucks in 1969 wasn’t too smart – Brian, long fragile, supposed
ly claimed it was akin to losing his children. Even those dads who aren’t acting out some freaky psychodrama via their kids can miss the point. I was once told of the time Paul Weller’s late father John, ex-boxer and bricklayer, arrived to renegotiate a recording contract. Bullishly demanding a large advance for his boy Paul, the collected execs checked that they’d heard right then instantly agreed to the figure, which was fully half of what they were expecting to pay.

Consequences: Some financial – although an advance is a loan and big ones can be more a curse than a blessing.

Moral: You can’t always rely on dad. As Macca said of Brian Epstein, “He always used to go to his dad for advice, but his dad knew how to run a furniture store in Liverpool…”

7. Doing It Yourself

As a rule, successful musicians aren’t beset by self-doubt; if they fancy their chances at acting or writing children’s books or winning Celebrity Big Brother, no-one is going to say ‘yeah, right’. And if anyone should, then someone else can always be found to tell them they can, nay, must. So why shouldn’t they have a go at representing themselves? The Beatles’ example is cautionary: after Epstein’s death in 1967, they tried getting by with just a little help from their friends, but their business affairs went even more spectacularly awry. Even less astute was John Fogerty, who for all his genius at recreating early rock, made some spectacular mistakes, such as signing a contract weighted entirely in the record company’s favour, and rejecting the chance to feature on the Woodstock movie and album – who now knows that Creedence Clearwater Revival headlined the biggest and grubbiest of all hippie gatherings? Was he bitter? Yep. I own a CCR biography with a detailed index- under ‘Fogerty, John’, the longest entry covers ‘bitterness and anger’, ahead of ‘songwriting’, ‘interviews’ and even ‘legal suits’. Clearly artists need management, or who else can they blame when it all goes tits-up?

Consequences: Years of misery, except for the lawyers.

Moral: The talent is the talent, and the management is the management. Let’s say that again.