Creation Stories: Riots, Raves and Running A Label - Alan McGee (2013)
Chapter 10. MILLIONAIRE
By 1992 I was flagging. The pressure hadn’t let up for a second. Dick didn’t want me to be crazy Alan McGee all the time in the office but he needed me to be that with the Americans, to turn up mouthing off about having found the biggest bands in the world. He’d try to make me look at the figures and take his advice but I wasn’t willing to listen to him most of the time. I’d decided I was going to do it my way. My energy came from booze and pills and lines and whatever else might give me a bump. It was a lonely lifestyle sometimes. That’s why meeting Tim Abbott was such a relief for me. It didn’t make me any less tired, high or deranged, but at least I had some company. I first met him in Birmingham. I’d gone up one night with Bobby in 1991 when ‘Come Together’ was in the charts. We were there for a Heavenly gig, Saint Etienne and the Manic Street Preachers, which Tim was promoting. Nicky Wire had a dig at Bobby Gillespie during ‘We Love Us’, shouting, ‘Yeah, let’s all come together!’ before going into one of their mad punk songs. Bobby didn’t care one bit. We went back to Tim’s gaff for an afterparty, whereupon he produced ten more Es. I liked his style immediately. He was working as a management consultant and running a club called The Better Way at weekends. He knew where to get brilliant pills and was one of the few people who still could in 1991 and 1992. Anyway, I invited him to the office in Hackney to do an audit of something or other. Not the type of thing we had spent a great deal of time worrying about in the past, hence the financial disarray we were often in. I ended up offering him a job and he moved down to London.
He had some good ideas that saved us money – like stopping outsourcing the artwork and getting our own art director. He definitely saved us money there. He was good at his job, though a lot of people in the office hated him. He was an unknown quantity. He’d arrived from nowhere and started doing time and effectiveness studies on them. Nothing of the kind had ever been attempted in the Creation offices. They were thinking, Who the fuck are you? The fact was, he was my mate and I was in charge, so I could bring him in if I wanted. And I wanted to. They didn’t have to like it and they didn’t. I think they all thought I’d given him a job just because he loved drugs and bad behaviour as much as me.
Well, if that was true to begin with, what was wrong with that? People not liking what I was doing was often what most firmly convinced me to do it.
For two years we ran riot together. I moved him into ‘the Bunker’: the office Dick and I occupied in the basement. It was a bit of a boys’ club in there. My wall was covered in pictures of Helena Christensen and Kate Moss and other supermodels. It’s just totally sexist! said Belinda, whenever she came into the office. Yeah, she was probably right.
Abbott’s wall was worse though: pictures of prison riots and mutilated people, people shot to bits in America, sick stuff like that. And there was a big homage to Chris Eubank there too. Abbott and me loved his fuck-you attitude to the world.
Dick’s wall was a bit more practical. Some charts. Release dates. You’d look at Dick’s side of the room occasionally and surprise yourself by remembering you worked for a record label.
Sex on my wall, death on Abbott’s, flowcharts on Dick’s.
I wonder sometimes if we pretty much invented Loaded magazine’s idea of lad culture down there. This was January 1992, before that kind of lad iconography was fashionable. We were the trailblazers. I think James Brown might have copied that from us when he launched his magazine a year later. He must have been down to the Bunker. And he did call his magazine Loaded. And he did become addicted to drugs.
It wasn’t unusual that Abbott would rack out a line of coke at two in the afternoon. And if he did one, I’d do one. And then I’d pick up the phone and rattle off whatever abuse came to mind at whoever came to mind. That was when Creation was fucking great fun. We spent a couple of years on the absolute razzle dazzle.
Poor Dick. He must have been thinking, How have I got myself into this situation with this pair of loonies? I wouldn’t have liked to meet myself in those days if I wasn’t on drugs. I don’t know how he coped with the pair of us. I think he had enough of me then to last him a lifetime. I love the man very much, but it’s probably not a coincidence we’ve only seen each other three times in the last thirteen years. Having to cope with my behaviour on a long-term basis might have had an adverse effect on the friendship.
Having said that, I don’t want to make out that Dick was boring. Far from it. He’d come out and enjoy himself too. But not like us. He had a family back home. We didn’t and we were extreme. Abbott was single (he normally was). Belinda and I had moved in together that year to a flat in Rotherhithe but she would always be leaving and going to stay with her parents in Sheffield. In the end I moved out of the flat we shared and into a penthouse flat in the same block with Grant Fleming and Karen Parker. I loved Belinda, don’t get me wrong. I did. But we were on and off. She’d come and stay with me in the penthouse for a while but she was always leaving me. I was too much for her. She couldn’t keep up with the lifestyle. I’m not proud of that. No one could keep up apart from Abbott. We were running riot together.
These days, we ring up and moan to each other about our backs. How the train to London hurts mine, how his bag hurts his – and he tells me we’re like two characters from Last of the Summer Wine. But in those days we lived it large.
But as well as being my drug buddy, Abbott really was good for Creation. He was a fresh pair of eyes and could look at problems coldly. For example, the rest of the company were caught up in the church of My Bloody Valentine – no one would have thought about dropping them. He listened to the stories, looked at the figures and laid it on the line: They’re causing you nothing but problems, get rid of them, McGee. Which was exactly what I wanted to do, and I needed someone at that point who could see things clearly from a financial rather than emotional perspective. He was right. As soon as you took the cult of Kevin out of the company, the figures began to make more sense.
I rang up Kevin Shields on 6 January 1992 and told him we were dropping him. I wasn’t trying to be horrible but I said it straight: ‘It’s over. I can’t be doing more records with you.’ He was completely shocked. He didn’t realize what he was doing to me when he was having his shouting fit in Church Studios, paid for by my mum’s cancer money, whereas I’d known in my heart from that day it was over. The next day there were ten record labels battling to sign him. Island paid something around half a million for an album that they never saw.
After Creation dropped them, I fell out with Kevin for years. Then we buried the hatchet, watching Oasis in Dublin in the late 1990s. And then we fell out again when I read this interview in a magazine where he was calling me names, saying I hadn’t supported him. When someone slags me off in public, I keep coming back at them. So I was busy giving him stick for a while. What stopped a lot of my bitterness was the film Upside Down they made about Creation in 2010. Watching that made me remember that, actually, it was good, and everyone involved tried their best. No one was doing anything to hurt each other. We just had incompatible needs a lot of the time. I ran into Kevin soon after seeing the film and realized I really liked him, that all the grievances had been petty.
I hope we’re friends again. When he signed for Creation, I promised that I would stay out of his way and let him make his records, and within reason, that’s exactly what I did. He was a genius and bringing out his records made me look great. And for that, I’m grateful.
His new album came out in February 2013, only twenty-one years and three months after the one I put out. I suspect that’s about how long Loveless might have taken if I hadn’t had that sense of urgency in 1991. It was never going to come from Kevin. But the new album m b v is superb and I’m really impressed with the way he’s released it. You can only get it off their website, nowhere else; I love that. Well done, Kevin, you took out the record companies and did it yourself. You have to admire his courage.
Back in 1992, dropping My Bloody Valentine caused some problems in the office. Laurence wouldn’t stop trying to drag me down to see them, to get me back into the project. But at that stage I was never going to back down. There was nothing to suggest he wouldn’t do it again. He did do it again! He did it ten times worse! I’ve got nothing but love and respect for Kevin for making those two albums and letting me release them, but I’ve never regretted not being involved in the third.
Despite the regime of drug madness Abbott and I operated under, we were getting more and more professional as we attempted to sort out our finances. I was under pressure from James Kyllo to change the share we’d always agreed with our bands. It wasn’t standard any more, if it ever was – certainly you didn’t get that with the majors. I’d copied this model from Factory and always believed in it: a fifty-fifty profit share with the bands. I tell people these days that I was always in it for the money, but I was never in it to rip off the bands. So we’d always given them a good deal, a fair deal. It nearly made us bankrupt a few times but it also showed the bands we cared about them.
Bands would sign to us because they understood me. We were honest and we were generous. We were always late paying the bands, I acknowledge that, we were late for years, but we always paid them. No one ever got ripped off. Our reputation was always great in that respect.
It was quite an indie thing, being fair to the bands. Rough Trade were always fifty-fifty profit share with their bands too, and everyone’s always known they’re fair. I might think they’re all fucking hippies but they’re financially honest hippies at least.
One of the frustrations I had in those days was with international distribution and how we could improve sales in Europe. This is when selling a share to a major became very interesting to me – I thought it could take us to a new level internationally. Take Screamadelica for example: we were on about 11,000 in Germany and it was 180,000 in Britain, and I couldn’t understand how there could be such a disparity. I was tired of the indie structure, of alliances with other indies in Europe, and I was curious about what a big player could do to change the situation.
I bumped into Paul Russell, the chairman of Sony, early that year at Heathrow airport. It was a bad week: neither of the singles we had out that week – Primal Scream’s Dixie-Narco EP (which was number 12 but we needed Top 10) and Teenage Fanclub’s ‘What You Do to Me’ – had done as well as we’d hoped, or needed.
I wanted to know whether he thought Sony’s sales teams could have given them the positions I thought they deserved. He wanted to talk more about it, tell me what he thought Sony could do that Pinnacle couldn’t.
I was always being approached by the majors and up till then I’d always told them to fuck off. I remembered what an awful time I’d had with Elevation at Warners. It was only through me being able to do my own thing that we’d succeeded with the bands everyone else had written off. But I was at the point now where I knew I had records that should be selling more than they were, and I wanted to do whatever we had to do to sell those copies.
It never occurred to me that any of this might be due to a recession, that sales were down everywhere. I was so off my tits that the fact that there was a recession never penetrated once into my consciousness. For us it had always seemed like a shit climate so we were just getting on with business as usual. It wasn’t a new thing, we’d been going broke for years! The way I dealt with it was always by not dealing with it, with another pill or another line. As crass as it sounds, I just don’t remember the recessions. The price of bread might’ve been going up but a gram of coke was still fifty quid and a pill was always a tenner. Some things are reliable, even when the economy’s falling apart!
As I didn’t even know there was a recession it was easy to buck against the recessionary trends. I decided to launch three new labels. I’d been partying with Chris Abbott, Tim’s brother, for a while, and he started a Techno imprint for us called Infonet. He knew his techno, and no one else did, so he was the man for the job. And we hired Dave Barker, who was the first guy to sign Teenage Fanclub, to run a guitar label called August. And the third label saw the return of one of the early heroes (anti-heroes) of Creation, Joe Foster, who launched a reissues label called Rev-Ola.
Joe Foster’s music knowledge had always been incredible. I credit him with being a bigger influence than anyone on my music taste. He was an encyclopedia of the 1960s. You could never catch him out. He could tell you the name of every single member of the Artwoods. You could ask him what the B-side was on a German-only single by the Creation and he’d know instantly. He got me into the Velvets, got me into the Byrds, taught me that David Crosby was an amazing songwriter. You know how you have one swotty mate, who knows everything about everything? Well, Joe Foster was that mate. He was perfect for the reissues label, as you can imagine.
He put out weird sixties records, knew exactly what they’d sell. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy – each of their records sold 10,000 each and made £50,000, and Joe would buy them for about a grand. We got great reviews, a steady income stream. We didn’t make loads of money from it, but he knew what he was doing, knew his market, what they’d sell.
Of course, he was also completely vociferous and absolutely mental. You couldn’t invent Joe Foster. His sense of humour was so wrong. He’s probably the most politically incorrect person who’s ever walked the earth. For example, he found this album he wanted to bring out by Peter Wyngarde, an old TV actor who’d played detective Jason King in the 1970s: Joe loved records by weird actors. He had a thousand copies of When Sex Leers Its Inquisitive Head pressed up and ready to go. This is later, at the height of Oasis, the time I’m working for a government committee, taking Margaret McDonagh out for dinner. Someone in the office said to me at the time, ‘Have you heard that record?’ I was thinking, No, I never listen to Joe’s records. They were always very strange.
And they told me to listen to track 3.
‘Okay, what’s it called?’
Oh . . . I put it on and it’s this guy taking the piss out of a rape – talking about the Italian rape, the Chinese rape, the German rape, as if he was taking the piss out of going fishing. It was probably very ironic, but it was so ironic I didn’t get the joke. I’m thinking: a) I don’t agree with it; b) the Daily Mail are going to have my balls! Oasis guru advocates rape.
So I pulled it. Joe wasn’t happy. I had Peter Wyngarde ringing me up roaring down the phone, It’s Not About Rape!
Well, you took the rough with the smooth with Foster, and actually he did a great job with Rev-Ola. And in one respect he did come back to Creation a changed man: he had stopped punching people. In all other respects, he was exactly the same.
The week after Primal Scream didn’t make the Top 10, Ride flew straight in at number 9 with ‘Leave Them All Behind’. Number 10 in the charts was ‘Reverence’ by the Jesus and Mary Chain. Primal Scream number 11. I had a royal flush of bands I’d signed! Tim and I celebrated with a four-day party.
In the excitement we pressed too many of Ride’s new album Going Blank Again. The manager was talking about them playing Wembley. We sold 45,000 in the first week and it went gold eventually, but we’d pressed up far too many.
Meanwhile, the Screamadelica tour rolled on. It was great fun to start with. They’d gone from a tiny punk band to a huge live acid house explosion. But when they took the tour to America in February they started to come apart from all the drugs they were doing. It was serious now. Heroin had really set in among the band. I had some strange times out there with them. Completely deranged, being driven around by Kim Fowley, not knowing how I’d got there.
I was never officially Primal Scream’s manager, but I was the manager, from about 1985 to 1992. It really was a conflict of interests after a while. I wasn’t taking a percentage for managing their band and Bobby was ringing me up, screaming because a monitor engineer hadn’t been paid on time. That was the last straw. He was screaming at me as if I was his employee even though he wasn’t paying me a penny for managing them. If he’d paid me 20 per cent to be the manager I’d have put up with him screaming at me. (Guy Chadwick, he used to do that to me all the time on the phone. He’d be screaming and so I’d put the phone down on the side, go for a walk, get a beer out of the fridge, open it, come back, pick up the phone and say, Yes, I agree. I’d never know what I’d agreed to.) But I’d supported Primal Scream from the time they were nothing and taken no percentage for managing. I couldn’t do it any more. They were becoming an international act and they needed someone dedicated.
We brought in Alex Nightingale, their live agent, as manager.
I remember when I first met Alex. He’d been trying to get involved in the music business for years, but he couldn’t get a foothold because everyone knew he was Annie Nightingale’s son. We all looked down our noses at him at the time too – because he was Annie Nightingale’s son. No one would give the poor bastard a chance because they felt he wasn’t there on merit, just on nepotism. He lived in Brighton so we’d bump into him a bit, and one night I invited him to come back with us. I think it was me, my friend James Williamson and Alex. I was jumping around on an E and decided to test out his personality. So I started firing CDs at him, slinging them at him hard like little mirrored Frisbees. James joined in too. Both of us jumping on armchairs and hurling CDs at him all night, hundreds of CDs. What the fuck are they into? he must have been thinking, but he didn’t get the hump so I began to feel a bit of respect for him. That was his initiation and he passed. No one painted his balls; he was quite lucky really. In the morning, he told me he was going for an interview with Mike Hinc at a booking agency. Mike was one of my best mates in the industry from when he’d used to work at Rough Trade. I told him this and he asked if I could put a word in for him so I phoned up Mike and told him Alex was my pal, because I’d just fired two hundred CDs at him and he never attacked me – well, of course, I didn’t actually say that – and Mike gave him a chance and gave him a job.
That was how he got into the music industry and since then he’s been the agent for the Chemical Brothers and Lily Allen, and you’ve got to respect him for making a career for himself.
He was a good choice for Primal Scream at the time. You had to be mad to take on a job with those lunatics, had to be awake with them every night at 5 a.m. Towards the end of 1992, I think I had an inkling that I was coming out of that style of living. It took longer than I expected, and it was more dramatic than I expected, but I think I’d already begun to make the decision to change my life.
I quite liked Alex. The last I saw of him was on TV, a classic albums programme, about Screamadelica. He was weirder than me on it! That takes some doing. He’s obviously still into the idea of the music and the madness, and that’s fine, I’m sure he enjoys it and I’m not knocking it.
There was an election in 1992. I was too high to notice. I believe the Tories won. I’d play a much bigger part in the next one.
Dick Green had started to make plans for life after Creation. Although we’d had some good successes we still weren’t selling enough to justify what we were spending on recording and promoting the albums. We didn’t handle the money with any discipline and we were so far in the red it looked like it was over. I’d probably have come to the same conclusion without the regular cocktail of reality avoiders, but they gave me a bit more hope. That’s not to say I wasn’t desperate at times though. Quite a lot of times. There was only one thing that would save us – we had to sell a share of the company.
The first people who showed interest were China Records. Derek Green had set China up around the same time as Creation, but distributed through the majors until very recently when he switched to Pinnacle. He was very ambitious, wanting to expand quickly, and one way you do that is by taking over other companies, like us.
It’s always good to have someone interested when you’re trying to get a good deal with someone else. Now was the time to follow up on that conversation I’d had with Sony’s Paul Russell at Heathrow earlier in the year.
I met with him and his colleague Jeremy Pearce and listened to what they had to say. It sounded good. They’d throw a lot of money in, take care of international distribution but – they claimed – leave me with creative freedom as to who I signed.
I still liked Derek Green too. But I couldn’t believe what he told me over dinner one night – he was the managing director at A&M when they dropped the Sex Pistols in 1977! How could I go into business with someone like that? Of course, I look back at the age of fifty-two and think, Really? You didn’t sign because of that? But at thirty-two you see things differently, especially if you’re a drug addict.
Perhaps there were other reasons the offer from China was less appealing than the Sony one. I suspect that in the end they would have raped Creation, sacked almost everyone but me, left me as head of A&R . . . It would have been terrible for the company. I’d have still got handsomely paid, but it would have bored me silly.
By July both China and Sony were offering around £2.5 million for half the company. Whatever the reasons, I decided fairly early on that it was Sony I was likely to do business with.
Word must have got out that we were in trouble and thinking of selling. In the middle of our talks with Sony, when they were offering two million and we were negotiating upwards, Derek Birkett from One Little Indian requested a meeting to discuss making an offer to buy us.
At the time I was fucking angry at the cheek of him, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was put up to it by Brian Bonnar, who as well as owning more than half of One Little Indian was also the managing director of Mayking. We owed Mayking about £200,000 for pressing our records and they had just put our account on stop so we couldn’t make any more. Perhaps Bonnar thought we’d be glad of any buyer.
Derek Birkett came down to the Bunker and offered £400,000, told me what a reasonable offer it was. He had no idea that Sony had just offered £2.5 million and that I was hopeful of getting more out of them. I listened to him trying to hustle me while I kept calm. You should have seen Abbott’s face when they started talking. He didn’t know if I was going to whack them with a chair. I kept calm, let Birkett say his piece. And then I told him he was an absolute piece of work, told him to get the fuck out of my office, that he should be embarrassed. I laughed at him. You’re a corporate whore. Told him to fuck off.
Everybody thinks you’re mad anyway, he said, and rushed out. We sent the little Indian packing.
There was quite a few of those type of scenes in the Bunker. I enjoyed them. People would come down and demand things of us and I’d just listen calmly for a while. And then I’d inform them, in great detail, why they could go and fuck themselves and in how many different ways they could go and fuck themselves and how they should get the fuck out of my office or I would demonstrate the ways in which the fucking fuckers could fuck themselves. Unbelievably, I kept my teeth. Somebody should by rights have come in with a metal bar one day and whacked me in the face with it.
After we did the Sony deal, just to properly torture Brian Bonnar we took all our business away from him apart from the Ed Ball records. He would get about a thousand pounds a month from us, where he had been having sixty or seventy grand a month. And of course, when Oasis happened he missed out on millions of pounds of work. It might have bankrupted him, poor man.
The deal with Sony took a lot of negotiation. We had a great lawyer in John Kennedy. I’d met him when we were doing the Mary Chain record deal. He was the guy who got the Stone Roses out of their madly exploitative deal with Silvertone.
We had to keep talking to both China and Sony in case one of the deals fell through. There was a lot of debt we needed to resolve. On paper, we were absolutely fucked. The figures did not add up! But Sony and China thought I had some kind of vision, and that Primal Scream had the potential to be international superstars. They thought I had the vision to find a band that would become massive.
If the deal had collapsed, then that would have been the end of Creation. I remember our press officer Andy Saunders leaving to go on his summer holiday. ‘Call me if we go bust or if we do the deal,’ he said on the way out. There wasn’t a middle option.
We survived. Sony bought 49 per cent of the company for £2.5 million in September 1992. The deal included an extra million to Creation to stop us from going bust immediately.
Our keeping 51 per cent was a clever way of slanting the publicity but it made fuck all difference to how much control we really had. It sounded like I was still in control but, contractually, they had huge power to influence what I did. To seal the deal I had to commit to give them the option to buy my 51 per cent of the company at market value in four years’ time. That was a worrying detail I tried not to think about. I wouldn’t have to think about it for four years but in 1996 I might have a problem. What they didn’t reckon with is what a stubborn cunt I am and what little respect I have for contracts.
I certainly wasn’t worrying about that at the time, anyway. I was a millionaire! I’d always said I was going to be a millionaire but I’d said a lot of things in my life that hadn’t come to pass.
Surprisingly, one of the first things I felt was sadness. I wanted to tell my mum. I wanted to tell her I could give her whatever she wanted, that she could be proud of me.
The next thing I felt was a burning urge to call my drug dealer.