Creation Stories: Riots, Raves and Running A Label - Alan McGee (2013)
Chapter 9. SHOEGAZING
Ride had a good manager, Dave Newton. He was in his late twenties and protected them, asked the right questions of me and of Sire. Allowed them complete creative freedom, even when the commercial arguments were opposed to it.
The band were no problem at all to begin with. The ticking time bomb was the tension between Mark Gardener and Andy Bell. They credited the whole group for the songwriting but we all thought it was Mark Gardener. Mark was nineteen years old but could have been twenty-nine, one of these guys who was just confident, an equal. He was the most outgoing, the most charismatic on stage. He was less shy than Andy, got more involved with the parties in the office - just made himself visible in a way that Andy didn’t. Then one day Andy Bell came up to me and asked why I never spoke to him.
‘You don’t talk to me,’ I said.
‘Do you know I write the songs?’ he asked me then, which surprised me a lot, because I didn’t. Maybe Mark wasn’t telling us he wrote all the songs himself but he certainly wasn’t correcting us. Andy and Mark were both really talented, that’s the thing. At the start they wrote songs as a band and worked on each other’s songs, the McCartney and Lennon, Richards and Jagger model. Mark was just an amazing frontman, a really great producer, really underrated. He seems to be going out again on the road now and doing acoustic gigs, which I’m really pleased about. Mark was one of my favourite people we had on the label.
They were all nice lads but that didn’t make for great press. Laurence was always trying to work out how we could make them say something more nasty, more quotable, but they just weren’t that sort of lads. So we tried to promote Mark perhaps a bit more over Andy as the frontman, as the pin-up - and that was probably a mistake, because then the jealousy set in when Mark appeared on his own on an NME cover.
The album, Nowhere, went in at number 11 in October, which was the highest chart position we’d ever had at that point, and went gold. In the space of a year they’d gone from playing the upstairs of pubs to headlining to over a thousand people a night. Everything was great at that point.
Ride were not the only band we signed around then who had been influenced by My Bloody Valentine. Slowdive were Creation fans, still at school when we signed them. They were sixteen years old, very Valentines influenced. They were a very good band. I recently listened to their third album Pygmalion, which is terrific. By the time they’d got to this point they were sounding like Talk Talk. That album came out at the time Oasis and Britpop were going through the roof so it got completely overlooked. We got them a deal in America. We should have kept going with them for another album but it was towards the end of Creation, and again, it was unfortunate timing. So much of success in the music industry can be about luck. I really liked them as people, Rachel and Neil.
Swervedriver were a brilliant group - I was a big fan and still have a lot of love for them. I saw them a lot in America. They hit an anglophile audience and had more success out there than here. England had gone Britpop but America still had more of an audience for a harder rock sound.
In a book like this it’s easy to pass quickly over the bands that didn’t sell as many records as Oasis and Primal Scream but I’ve always been very proud of these bands. We didn’t bring out records by bands unless someone in the office loved them.
From the beginning of 1991 Ride were trying to break America. That was Seymour Stein’s responsibility now. They didn’t have the greatest of times but then most bands don’t. America’s so much harder than England and my bands have always been pretty terrible at it. You really have to play the game over there. British bands were always too cool to do the meet and greets, to tell the guy from Boise, Idaho that his wife was fantastic and it was an honour to be on his show. As soon as my bands left Los Angeles and New York they were in trouble.
If anything, it went wrong for Ride when I started playing them Byrds and Beatles records after a couple of years. They started dressing like the Byrds and trying to write songs like them. They were more original at the start. They were bloody wonderful: the My Bloody Valentine who actually made records! I think they’d have sold more over the long term if they hadn’t changed their sound so drastically - perhaps I could have got another five shoegazing albums out of them. That was probably a more transferable sound to the US, a more distorted, college-friendly sound for the rock fans.
I had four ‘shoegazing’ bands with My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Swervedriver and Slowdive. The music press called it ‘shoegazing’ because the bands didn’t look at the audience and spent a lot of time hitting effects pedals. That was my sole contribution to creating a musical genre, and, anyway, it was all Kevin Shields’ fault. Though they weren’t all big bands in the UK market they were lifesavers for Creation. As usual, we were about to go bust. The way I managed to keep things going in those days was flying to America and selling one of our bands over there. Dick Green would tell me we were fucked unless I jumped on a plane to America and sold a band. It was exhausting and stressful but I loved the excitement of flying over to America and incredibly I normally managed to do it. I kept myself going with booze and drugs. Whatever’s about to go wrong, try not to think about it: that’s how I coped. There was a lot I refused to think about, a lot that would bite me on the arse in the near future. We got a $250,000 deal for Swervedriver. It was the only way we managed to keep our heads above water.
My Bloody Valentine’s progress was so slow it was killing us: 248 nights of recording took place during 1990 and 1991. I had to go and borrow money from my father - money from my mum’s life-insurance policy - to complete the album.
Kevin never understood. He was a perfectionist genius who couldn’t see past the problems he’d set himself. I remember putting my mum’s death money into the account, paying for another studio session and having Kevin shouting at me because I was only thinking about money. That was the breaking point for me. I’d borrowed money that had made me ashamed to ask my dad for, and Kevin was still talking to me like I was trying to rip him off.
My relationship with My Bloody Valentine didn’t end officially that day, but in my mind I probably knew it couldn’t go any further.
I don’t blame Kevin now for his behaviour. I don’t think he had any idea how far in debt we were getting. He was obsessively creative - he could only consider his own creative problems. It’s the price you pay to work with geniuses. Kevin was erecting tents in the studio to get a special guitar sound only he could hear in his mind, experimenting relentlessly. He was a pure pioneer of sound.
I don’t think our bands could have made the albums they did if they weren’t on the edge. They’re psychedelic masterpieces. They’re extreme records. The people who made them were pushing the envelope.
I’ve always been proud that I managed to squeeze two albums out of Kevin Shields in five years, which no else ever managed to. Even if I knew I couldn’t put myself through working with Kevin again I refused to give up on Loveless. But I really had to resort to desperate measures. They were always asking for more money for more recording. I had to cry down the phone to him. I wasn’t really crying. Well, maybe on the inside. It was the only way to make him understand what he was doing to us - otherwise he was too wrapped up in his perfectionism.
He let us hear more songs. Exceptional songs. We put them out in February 1991 as the Tremolo EP, and it went straight into the Top 30, their highest position yet. They were getting bigger and bigger just through word of mouth and live gigs and the fact their records were undisputedly incredible pieces of music.
We could never pull the plug because we were always so close, because there was never a second’s doubt that when it came the music would be mind-blowingly good.
But if it didn’t come soon, we’d go under. There were times when I nearly couldn’t pay the wages to my staff. If I’d thought about things like I should have done, I don’t know how I’d have coped. I remember thinking, What happens when I have to come off the drugs? I knew already that they were what fuelled me and took away the stress. You couldn’t stop the bands from making you stressed, but you could always buy another gram.
We’d also signed another of our biggest bands by then, Teenage Fanclub. Again, it’s Bobby Gillespie I have to thank for that - he was instrumental in persuading them to change labels for Creation. I’d known them for a few years as they were from Glasgow. When they started to get a name for themselves in 1990 I used to run into them in Euston station, me jumping a train to Birmingham to see Belinda and them getting off from Glasgow to play some gigs in London. They had a deal already with Matador and another album contracted to give to them. There was some legal wrangling before they could sign to us as Matador didn’t want to accept the instrumental album that was offered to them to complete the deal. Matador thought I was behind that. People are always ascribing Machiavellian manoeuvres to me, and I find that quite flattering, but they’re normally incorrect. It was all the band’s doing. They wanted to be on Creation and set out to try to fulfil their contract to Matador. Once that was sorted they headed off to the studio.
I wasn’t involved at all in the recording of Bandwagonesque. I went up to the studio in Parr Street in June expecting to hear an indie album that would sell a maximum of 30,000 copies and heard hit after hit instead. Don Fleming had done a brilliant job producing it. It was really melodic and influenced by Big Star, who I adored. And mixed in with those tracks were harder grungier tracks that would appeal to Nirvana fans. Suddenly we had another big record to add to the year’s schedule next to Loveless and Screamadelica.
Midway through 1991 Dick and I realized how truly and absolutely fucked we were for money. We needed three-quarters of a million quid to survive. My Bloody Valentine had fucked us. We had a killer schedule ahead of us - we’d just added Saint Etienne (who I’d started managing and who we were joint releasing as a one-off with Jeff Barrett’s new label Heavenly) - but none of the money was in yet. We needed records out quickly to pay the bills that were coming in and so we tried to double our output to get the cashflow going. We’d put out pretty much anything in those days - we released four Ed Ball albums. He’d do them for hardly any money and we’d get them out as quick as possible.
It was a good job then that the big deals I’d negotiated in the US weren’t as lucrative for the labels there as I’d claimed they were going to be, or I’d suddenly be having to pay the artists a shitload of royalties. If Swervedriver had done what I’d hoped, it would have bankrupted us. We were terrible at planning for the future. We just winged it, day after day.
We owed money to Ride and they could have walked - they were very loyal to us.
The scariest thing was whether we would even have the money to put out Screamadelica. Scary because it was such a masterpiece. It had been a slow process getting it out of them because the band were quite messy by this point. They were available for work two days a week basically, Wednesday and Thursday. They’d be partying Thursday night through to Sunday, then need two days to recover. Two-day weeks! They did not suffer from the Calvinist work ethic, that is for certain. And Screamadelica got made this way, while other bands were nicking our space.
After ‘Come Together’ we considered releasing ‘Don’t Fight It, Feel It’, which is a terrific song, a total house classic, a floor filler. But I was convinced the singles needed to keep having Bobby on them or we’d lose his power as a figurehead. So we picked ‘Higher Than the Sun’, perhaps my favourite single we ever released on Creation, a collaboration with the Orb. It’s not an obvious single in many ways - you’d never have a major label release it. I always tell people I was more about the money than the music, and I still think that’s true, but - make your mind up when you listen to this. You don’t know what you’re hearing to start with, there’s no beat, just weird organs and long sliding whale groans before Bobby comes in and sings. The beat comes in with the chorus and the whole thing is so euphoric and psychedelic, just beautiful. It’s basically a hymn to drugs, a celebration of where they can take you creatively, spiritually. It’s the music I’d like to have played at my funeral.
We put that out in June but it only charted at 40. The whole office was mad about that single, and it was disappointing. But we knew they’d made something more important than that, something that would last the test of time.
The album wouldn’t be out till September but they were starting to do gigs and had recruited Denise Johnson to tour with them for the rest of the year. They were going to be very different shows to the ones they’d toured Primal Scream with.
My Bloody Valentine finally recorded the vocals for Loveless during May and June in 1991. The end was in sight. We found Shields yet another studio where he thought he could finish the album. Dick Green was in a bad way, so stressed about the numbers that were about to doom us. I thought maybe there was light at the end of the tunnel. Then Shields decided the studio wasn’t working after all. That was when I started to weep down the phone line again at him. It was September or something when he finally finished. It takes a day or two to master an album. Shields took thirteen. But after those thirteen days, it was done.
We rushed out ‘Don’t Fight It, Feel It’ in August, and it failed to go Top 40. Each single had done worse than the last and so it was a frightening time leading up to the release of Screamadelica. We’d already released half the album as singles. It wasn’t new to us, more like a compilation album of singles and extra tracks. Would people feel they were being cheated?
We hoped not. We were happy with the way the new tracks had gone. I’d suggested we bring in Jimmy Miller as a producer for some tracks, the legendary producer of some of the Rolling Stones’ best albums, from Beggars Banquet to Goats Head Soup. I’d met him at New Music Seminar in New York in 1989. He had a bright red face and, Okay, I thought, he’s a fucking alcoholic. Like I could care less. He played me a track he’d been working on with another band and it sounded exactly like it could have come from Exile on Main St. I realized immediately this is his sound - and the next thought was, I can apply this to Primal Scream. They learned a lot from Jimmy Miller. He taught them how to get the groove that the Stones had. It was about using cowbells on the off-beats, hand claps and different percussion. Call and response with the vocals and the guitars.
The Scream anyway have always been the world’s biggest Rolling Stones fans, and what’s brilliant about that band is that they don’t see any contradiction in starting their acid house album with a Jimmy Miller-produced song that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Stones album. ‘Movin’ On Up’ is a perfect start to the album. It’s an acoustic guitar riff you hear first that Innes made up, then Duffy’s classic piano, Miller’s touch bringing in the congas and shakers, Bobby calling and a gospel choir and Throb’s guitar solos responding. The whole band’s happy. It’s the start of a weekend, the start of a bender!
The tour to accompany the album would be ferociously hedonistic. It wasn’t all about ecstasy any more. The irony was that the Es started getting shit just as Primal Scream released their perfect ecstasy album. You still got good ones occasionally but more and more they were cut with smack, and that gave you such a different buzz - it erected boundaries between you and other people rather than broke them down. I’d switched more or less completely to coke by then and there was a lot of coke on the Primals’ tour too. Not that I ever saw myself as a cocaine addict. I was an everythingist. Whatever was going, I’d have some of it.
But the spirit of collaboration on Screamadelica was something very in keeping with the way ecstasy and the acid house scene broke down boundaries. It had changed the way Primal Scream made music forever.
We thought we had recorded one of the best albums of all time, but we thought it would remain a cult classic, maybe sell 50,000 copies if we were lucky. Fuck were we wrong.
We’d sold all 50,000 of those by the Thursday of the week it came out. We’d never done anything like it.
The tour that accompanied it was Rolling Stones madness, Cocksucker Blues-style. Heroin had made an appearance and some of them had started freebasing cocaine too, which was a horrible thing. They loved it and I tried it with them a couple of times. There’d be about six of us round a table, smoking cocaine through a pipe made out of a water bottle and tinfoil, and by the time two people had had their turn after you, you wanted to kill them, because you were so desperate again for a hit. They called it ‘going on the pipe’. It was always, I remember, a Vittel bottle. It was their Brighton version of crack.
I really hated it. It was so dark. It brought out the snidey snidey versions of us all. What I loved about E was it brought out the good versions of us all. But the Primals, they were obsessed with the dark side of life. And they loved it because it brought out the worst sides of their character.
As I’ve got older I’ve got more interested in the dark sides of our natures, but then I wanted to be happy. I wasn’t happy a lot of the time, but I was trying! They were almost trying for the opposite. Out of curiosity I guess. It was such a dark phase. It was antisocial. I hated it.
We had to kick the reporters out of the dressing rooms when they started reporting what was going on in there. It was fun to start with, but it quickly got frightening.
During all this time I became very glad I’d moved to Pinnacle because Rough Trade distribution completely collapsed. For a while it took out Rough Trade records, Mute, 4AD, and pretty much everyone bar Factory, us, and One Little Indian. We were probably the eighth or ninth biggest independent label before it went down, and afterwards we were number two. I felt bad for a lot of the labels, some of whom never recovered from it. But I didn’t feel sad for Rough Trade. They’d taken the piss for ages with the percentage they charged us and always treated me like I was an oik, even when I was making them a lot of money. Me and Joe Foster partied like we’d never before. We danced on their graves. It was a glorious week. For us it was like the death of Thatcher.
I did my best to forget it but the House of Love still existed and I was their manager. My relationship with them was awful now. I couldn’t really hide that I thought they were all such babies, and I was still furious that they’d thrown out Bickers. They invited me along to the studio one day and Chadwick tried to bollock me for not being interested enough. When I said I didn’t want to manage them any more he begged me to stay. I did, but I should have quit straight away.
The album actually wasn’t doing that badly by then. It sold about 500,000 copies worldwide in the end so it wasn’t as big a disaster as it’s made out. It did really well in France, though we nearly didn’t notice. A woman rang me up from Phonogram in Paris. ‘Do you have any idea what’s going on in France?’ she asked me. We’d put the record out there about nine months ago and sold about 10,000 copies.
‘What’ve you done, about 20,000 copies?’ I asked, feeling optimistic.
‘Alan, we’ve done 100,000 copies,’ she said. ‘I need you to tour over here immediately.’
And House of Love were suddenly massive pop stars in France. They played two nights at the Olympia, where the Rolling Stones play if they come to Paris, and then we did a sold-out regional tour to at least 2,000 people a night. You can never predict what the French will like. Pete Astor was really big there. Pete Doherty is massive there now. Once they’ve decided they like something, they just don’t take it off the radio.
But I was much more interested in the success of Creation by then. So when Guy finally sacked me I wasn’t at all surprised. I hadn’t called him for five weeks, I didn’t really give him any option. He expected me to be gutted and was annoyed at how well I took the news.
I look back on the early days with House of Love as being great times. We were good mates. Then the money corrupted everything. Guy nearly got himself a butler, for Christ’s sake. He thought he was royalty. Suddenly I was managing Mick Jagger. He was known as a lunatic in the Creation offices. He’d ring from a tour in America, out of his mind, at what was eleven in the morning for us and three in the morning for him, just to flirt with the receptionist. I should feel guilty, I guess, for getting them that big deal. But I would much rather have kept them on Creation: I just did what they’d hired me to do.
One thing was for sure: I was glad not to be involved in the recording of the next record, Babe Rainbow. It was enough to have My Bloody Valentine and Primal Scream on my hands.
Ride spent the summer of 1991 doing European festivals and preparing their new album which was to come out in 1992. Andy Bell met his wife Idha while he was in Sweden.
They were changing their sound then. All the sixties records I’d played them had made their mark. They were more distinctive at the start but they wanted to try a cleaner, less effects-driven sound, without the quiet bit then loud bit structure that worked well for them on Nowhere.
Their first single from the new album was amazing - an eight-minute powerhouse called ‘Leave Them All Behind’ which was easy to mistake for an instrumental as the vocals didn’t come in for a good two minutes. It was a statement of intent I guess - they didn’t want to be part of any ‘shoegazing’ scene. It was an ambitious record. When you have a young band delivering you something that shows they’re wanting to stretch themselves - you’d be dead if you didn’t get excited. I suppose there were poppier choices of singles we could have chosen. But we were Creation, we were pioneers - we loved bands who pushed things forward. And so did record buyers - the single went straight in at number 9.
The year 1991 ended with us releasing two masterpieces in the same month.
Loveless by My Bloody Valentine was an incredible album, no way of disputing it. It arrived on 11 November in the shops, more than two years late. It did well, and we reached 50,000 sales quite quickly. It’s sold steadily ever since and I still make money from publishing it today. But back then I couldn’t really listen to it, it had been too hard an experience, it wasn’t something I wanted to think about. Dick Green never played it. We’d been smashed by the whole experience. We were proud that it existed, but we were never going to do it again. You can only do so much crying on the phone. It wouldn’t have worked a third time.
The third masterpiece of the year after Screamadelica and Loveless was Bandwagonesque by Teenage Fanclub. It was a brilliant record, a lovely pop record, with great harmonies.
This was the biggest surprise because when I signed the band I never thought they’d ever be more than ‘indie big’. Their last single ‘God Knows It’s True’, released by Paperhouse in the UK, had been indie big, played on the radio in the evenings. I thought we’d sell 30,000 copies of an album.
They sold 400,000 copies of Bandwagonesque worldwide. Half of those were sold by Creation in the UK and Europe: the other half by Geffen in America. America got them straight away - it was their classic rock sound, with the heavy guitars of grunge. Kurt Cobain was a fan. They did great live shows, full of banter and charisma.
I always thought they didn’t become as big in America as they could have. They could have been massive. The reason why they weren’t bigger is actually quite simple: they just didn’t want to be.
Teenage Fanclub didn’t want to play the game. It’s not for everyone. There were people jumping out of the cupboards who they didn’t want to know. The real music business in America took interest, and these people are different to the guys you find on indie labels. They’re not cool. They’re corporate as fuck.
In the end Teenage Fanclub were happier being the big group in Glasgow, a big group on Creation, than in smashing America with Geffen. Success isn’t just about talent, it’s about aspiration. Noel Gallagher wanted more than anything to be in the biggest band in the world, and he wouldn’t stop believing that. I wouldn’t stop believing it for him either. It wasn’t plain sailing for them - Liam and Noel were walking off US tours to start with, but when they realized what they had to do, they did it. With Teenage Fanclub, there was an element of self-sabotage in the way they went about their next album. It’s a Glasgow thing, of wanting to be cool rather than big. It’s why I offend the Glasgow music scene so much - because I’ve never hidden that I’d rather be big than cool. It sounds crass to go on about wanting success, but there’s nothing wrong with ambition. It was why I loved it in America and they loved me. It was so refreshing. In Britain you have to be embarrassed about any success you’re having. Americans loved me because I didn’t have any of this embarrassment. I’d say it straight: I want to make loads of money, how do I do it? What do I have to do to become successful? Someone would tell me who to talk to, and I’d knock on their door and talk to them.
I was flying to America at least twice a month by 1991. I loved it. But I was flying on seriously heavy fuel by now and, high as I was, I wondered sometimes how long it would be until I crashed. There would be a big explosion if I ever did.