Simon Napier-Bell on the unscrupulous history of the music business
The ultimate observer of the music business, Simon Napier-Bell talks us through its pharmaceutically fuelled history as chronicled in his all-encompassing book Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay
“Any artist who comes into the music business is doing exactly that. They’ve decided they don’t want to be an artist, they don’t want to sing for the birds and find their inner soul. They want to do business, they want to make music to sell.”
It’s an opinion to shatter naïve fan illusions of creative ideals. But in response to any naysayers or non believers, it's given credence by the fact the man who utters it has been perfectly placed throughout his professional life to understand that the most important line in mainstream music is the dotted one – a line of artistic compromise clearly drawn the moment a performer signs upon it.
Simon Napier-Bell, originally a keen jazz musician who, in his own words was neither talented nor black enough to make it, instead became enticed by what lay behind the music. “I realised, to be honest, it really wasn’t the music I was interested in… it was stories, the business... it was the gossip.” So he entered this world, initially as manager of The Yardbirds, later to discover Marc Bolan and sign Wham! – conjuring their overnight international stardom as the first pop group to play Communist China. Preceding all this, Napier-Bell wrote the lyrics to Dusty Springfield's UK number one You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, abandoning this lyrical career once exposed to the 1960s soulless battery hen method of hit-making (witnessing Carole King and Neil Sedaka grinding out eight-hour days, writing in sweatbox cells for United Artists). So he is both the ultimate instigator and observer, ideally positioned to write Ta-ra-ra-Boom-de-ay, a hugely informed and highly enjoyable history of the whole thing. “Not a history of music,” he’s keen to stress. “A history of the music business. It’s very important, this difference, because I think George Martin is making a programme for the BBC called The History of Pop Music. I wasn’t interested in that. I never have been.”
He guides the reader along a musical and mercantile journey from pre-Broadway and ragtime, through the amphetamine fuelled formation of rock'n'roll, onto rap, disco, boybands and beyond. Introducing us to the monstrous moguls at the top of the tree, publishers, managers, A&R men and assorted hustlers, entrepreneurs and songwriters. Oh, and of course the stars, those most accidental and interchangeable commodities. “Stars are people who come along at just the right moment and are prepared to compromise with how the industry works.” As opposed to simple musicians, who although often more technically talented, “are like plumbers, you call them in and they do the backing track.” Napier-Bell employs the same methods conversationally as in his written work, sugar-coating facts with anecdote; juicy gossip flavouring any dry data. “The record company had this thing… they make 10,000% profit by taking vinyl and turning it into a record and to do that they need a label and a song and an artist, and the artist is just seen as one of the four or five things that are needed: 'We’ll use this one or that one.'” As Keith Richards once commented, "Record companies would love to get rid of musicians entirely, those bothersome things who talk back and want to do it better."
“As a manager it’s not your job to cure an artist of anything” – Simon Napier-Bell
So Napier-Bell became the bridge between rampant capitalism and his artist’s fragile creativity. “You do sit in the middle, you sympathise with both sides. The main thing is to draw them together. You know that you’re going to have to pull your artists towards commercialism. A group like Japan [Napier-Bell’s former charges] couldn’t happen until they slowly edged towards something more commercial.”
But although he felt an enormous responsibility for his artists, parental guidance was an indulgence too far – especially when it came to the dangerous terrain of narcotics, which in his previous book Black Vinyl, White Powder are placed on an equal level of importance as the music itself. “Well, I think it’s always been a huge part of creativity... music always coalesced around parties and places where drink was,” he continues. “Alcohol from the very beginning was a part of how music was performed and where it was performed; popular music anyway.” As the world turned, booze was joined by powder and pills, with musicians always amongst the early adopters – a double edged sword of danger and creative opportunity. “As a manager it’s not your job to cure an artist of anything,” he states, with a hint of self-absolution from the Faustian pact performers enter into. “If an artist comes to me and they want to be more successful and that’s what they commission me to do, and they’re on heroin, probably the worst thing you can do is stop them taking heroin because whatever it is forcing or helping the creativity, that’s going to be one of the parts.”
A young Napier-Bell was schooled while witnessing girls troop up to the hotel suites of a fellow manager's band in a conveyor belt of sex and drugs: “Groups don’t hire managers to moralise about their private lives.” The hypocrisy being that many managers ‘looked after’ their charges in more unseemly ways than those words suggest. “For one thing, if they’re on heroin you’ve got to make sure you can get it," muses Simon in the third person (perhaps: he did of course manage Clapton and Page), "or you end up with them in jail… You don’t want them to go off to some awful den and passing out.” Then again, those on the business end often behaved no better, and Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay lists the names and indiscretions of moguls and managers enticed for all the wrong reasons into a business where bad behaviour is not only tolerated but encouraged. “It used to be thought that that’s why the artists came into it," he agrees. "They’ll get sex and drugs and applause, but actually it’s quite clear that’s why most of the major figures on the business side come into it too.” It's a rogues' roster; the book highlighting many lesser spotted industry characters alongside the more notorious: The Who’s Kit Lambert, The Beatles' Brian Epstein and Led Zeppelin’s behemoth of bad behaviour Peter Grant – the latter described by promotor Bill Graham as "a dictator with this little army… They fucked with promoters… They surrounded themselves with physical might… They were ready to kill at the slightest provocation.” Simon suggests as their motivation that “they just decide they want to get drunk, live well and hang out with musicians. And how do they do it? Some become journalists. Rock journalists are usually just groupies with a flair for writing and these guys are groupies with a flair for business.”
But drugs played a far more influential cultural role than quelling a lead guitarist’s ego, a vacant smile on his face and a needle in his arm. Mind altering substances have always been catalysts for musical transformation. “After the war there were always amphetamines floating around.” he says. “Truck drivers used it and it just went from the front to the back of the bus. If you look at the three years when rock 'n' roll evolved it was a very quick evolution. It was sort of 1949 to 1953 and was pretty much amphetamine driven. Even Elvis admitted it. It was just hyped up country music.”
“It [rock 'n' roll] was one of the musics created by drugs, as was electronica in the 80s, completely and totally created by ecstasy.” A statement supported by Altered State, Matthew Collins’ essential history of the chemical generation, arguing that although the scene's premier art was music (“a constantly changing sonic narrative conjuring a magic that is beyond language”), the movement was largely pharmacologically fuelled. Towards the end of Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay, he contends that dance music’s distancing (at least overtly) from this drug culture has resulted in its anodyne Disneyfication for the US mass market – where re-branded terminology has rendered rave a dirty word. Not only genres have been chemically influenced over time but the format and unit length in which music is consumed. Acid may have changed the way people viewed the world, but also, more practically, how often they were willing to get up off their arse. “It certainly created the need for the album.” Napier-Bell says. “If you take some LSD, three minutes was…” He pauses, perhaps nostalgically. “You didn’t want to change the record.”
Yet focusing solely on these salacious tales of drugs and debauchery misrepresents the colossal achievement of Ta-ra-ra-Boom-de-ay, this unparalleled insight into the music business from its birth. As much as it is magical, it's often a business like any other, where commerce rules and what’s created is not only art but product. Combined with Napier-Bell's self-deprecating allusions to his anecdotes and observations as simple gossip, it’s possible to underplay his contribution to the music business – substantial while a part of it, incomparable when chronicling it.
Ta-ra-ra-Boom-de-ay is out now in paperback, published by Unbound, RRP £8.99
Black Vinyl, White Powder is also available in multiple formats