Music

Anatomy of outrageous behaviour

Simon Napier-Bell, manager to super-successful bands says hell-raising has a lot to do with the manager’s attitude

Talking to Simon Napier-Bell is like watching the history of music unfold in Technicolor before your eyes. One of the most successful managers in music history, Napier-Bell is a contemporary of superstar managers such as Kit Lambert (The Who), Brian Epstein (The Beatles) and Andrew Oldham (Rolling Stones).

Napier-Bell has a portfolio featuring wildly-different acts from Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Japan, Ultra Vox and The Yardbirds to Wham! A fascinating raconteur, Napier-Bell, who has also written four vastly-entertaining books including Black Vinyl, White Powder, paints these vivid word pictures where you can see an endless parade of beautiful people in a never-ending waltz of drugs, sex and rock ’n’ roll.

Ask him who the biggest hell-raisers were and the 77-year-old who was in town for a talk at the British Library says, “None of the groups I managed were hell-raisers — the kind who devoured heroin by the jug full. Jimmy Page was not Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page when I was managing The Yardbirds. Andrew and George (from Wham!) were dreadful gigglers — but that is not hell-raising is it?

In the 90s, I was managing this group called Asia and Jeff Downs, the keyboardist, got busted for doing coke in Germany — does that count as hell-raising?” he asks with a twinkle in his eye.

“I think hell-raising has a lot to do with the managers,” Napier-Bell says.

“For instance, Kit Lambert, the manager of The Who was angry and anti-establishment.

He told Keith Moon (drummer, The Who) to trash a hotel room. Moon, being a good middle-class boy, wondered why he should trash a perfectly nice room. Lambert insisted and when they were checking out, asked Moon if he had trashed the room, Moon replied he had. Lambert went to check and found that Moon had upturned a table or done something equally mild. He took an axe and told Moon ‘I will show how to trash a hotel room.’ Moon was a quick learner and soon he was travelling with an axe. ‘I get bored, I just take out me hatchet and chop the room to bits — the bed, the chairs, the floor, the wardrobe, the tele, the toilet’.”

Outrageous behaviour from rockstars also stems from their “need for applause. An artist’s craving for attention is the fuel that drives the entertainment business. They desperately seek love. Madonna is a classic case in point.”

Napier-Bell quotes writer Nik Cohn’s description of touring in America with The Who for an idea of the kind of excesses that accompanied a rock star lifestyle. “You sleep in sunlight and soak in brandy for breakfast, Bloody Marys for elevenses, tequila for lunch; swallow uppers by the handful, downers by the tub…”

For all the glitter, gloss and fun times associated with the music industry, Napier-Bell comments, “There is a degree of amateurishness. While the music business is talked about as an industry, it isn’t. Contracts are not honoured, people lie and cheat all the time, there is an element of not following procedure.”

“ The fact that the music industry is outside of the mainstream, allows for a hint of naughtiness, which in turn attracts young people. The frustrations perversely are also the benefits of the system.”

At one point or another, we have all felt that an artiste did not deserve their success and conversely there would always be an artiste who we feel didn’t get their due.

Napier-Bell disagrees. “To be a pop star, you have to want to be a star. You have to have a certain talent — not all musical, you should know when to compromise and also instinctively know when not to, you should have the ability to be charming, be able to play the game as it were… So I would not say that so-and-so was a great artiste who didn’t get her due. By the same token, there is no star that never should have been.”

Press him for names and Napier-Bell concedes, “I don’t hate U2 but I don’t like their music. It never impinged on my mind.”

As Napier-Bell writes in Black Vinyl White Powder, “U2 took off in America where Bono performed the group’s tuneless songs like a trendy vicar introducing rock music at the evening service.” Napier-Bell also speaks of Tony Bennett, the great American singer of the pre rock and roll era, “Tony is a very charming man but he sings out of tune, he over sings, forces his voice.”

To all who have felt music is all about packaging now, Napier-Bell comments, “It is not pre-packaged as much as refined and exploited in every way. However, there has never been a hit solely because of publicity or style. You must never spend on publicity till you have a hit.”

Commenting that earlier record companies didn’t have a marketing department, Napier Bell says, “From the ‘30s to the ‘50s, the song was the marketing. Even with the internet, you need record companies. Justin Beiber got his first hit thanks to the internet, but he still needs record companies for their international infrastructure.”

Napier-Bell says the days of the super groups are over. “Rock bands are dinosaurs now. They are museum pieces. That whole swaggering, macho manner is a thing of the past.”

Underlying the male-dominated the rock scene, Napier-Bell says, “There are no female rock stars. Janice (Joplin) was not being a woman in a man’s world, she was trying to be a man, drinking and swearing in a man’s world.”

Ask him which does he prefer rock or pop and Napier-Bell says, “Rock is a lifestyle, a projection of an attitude while commercial pop is an extraordinary piece of art. Cold Play’s songs, for instance, are perfectly-constructed pop songs in a rock environment.”

Napier Bell says he got the idea for his hugely successful show, Raiding the Rock Vault “in Bangalore. I was at this pub, Purple Haze, and through the evening all the rock classics were played one after the other. It was when I got up to congratulate the DJ on the set, that I realised that it was a live band playing covers!”

“ That is when I thought I could set up a super group with musicians from well known bands and have them perform rock classics.”

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Printable version | Jun 4, 2020 8:28:14 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/anatomy-of-outrageous-behaviour/article15619587.ece1

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