Creation Stories: Riots, Raves and Running A Label - Alan McGee (2013)

Chapter 11. GIVE OUT BUT DON’T GIVE UP

Doing the deal with Sony mostly made us feel triumphant. We’d got through a situation that looked certain to crush us and we’d survived. But it was also the moment that Creation began to die. It’s almost unheard of for an indie label to have had our kind of success and not buckle under the changes selling to a major forces on them. The only one I can think of is Beggars Banquet and XL with the success they’ve had with Adele. Success can be as dangerous as failure. Going to the top of the ladder gives you much further to drop.

We had surrendered some of our independence but we handled the presentation of the deal perfectly and managed to avoid any negative press at the time for selling out. The press, I think, were just pleased we hadn’t gone under, like Factory did that November.

I was gutted for Tony Wilson when that happened. I loved Factory because it had a spirit of independence but also ambition. They weren’t aiming low. It wasn’t a moral cause. They just wanted to release the best music they could and do it in style. I thought it was crazy that with his bands he wasn’t doing better. (Though did he not spend a million pounds on a table Peter Saville had designed that hung down from the ceiling? Cocaine’s a wonderful drug.) It was hard for Tony after Factory went down, and probably hard, over the next few years, to see me do so well out of a Manchester band he turned down.

Oddly enough, the negativity we got for selling Creation all came later, and it would arrive in bizarre places you weren’t expecting it, for example from some Icelander in Reykjavik who’d bound up to me and shout, You have sold out ze culture! (Everyone in Iceland I’ve found wants to either fuck you or batter you. And it was normally battering me. For selling out ze culture.)

I had changed my drug habits in response to my windfall. Overnight I went from buying one gram at a time to buying seven. It was the inaugural year of the Mercury Prize and Primal Scream were shortlisted for Screamadelica. We were one of the favourites but didn’t know in advance if we’d won. The band didn’t even want to go to the event, but I was playing the game for Sony just then, and I hired them a limo to get them there on 8 September 1992. They got in the limo but Bobby refused to get out when they arrived. Instead, he spent almost the whole night driving around in it – god knows what he was on, he always took the strangest drugs of anyone – and then he walked in at the last minute to the Savoy Hotel to hear the announcement. Saint Etienne were on the list too, who Jeff Barrett had put out as a Heavenly release using Creation’s distribution, and my old mates the Jesus and Mary Chain were there too with Honey’s Dead. I didn’t nominate Loveless because I thought Kevin Shields would win it and he’d annoyed me too much at the time. Petty? Yes.

And the prize goes to . . . Screamadelica! Everyone from the label was overjoyed. The band didn’t seem to care less and ran away from all the publicity that had been arranged.

Jeremy Pearce from Sony came along to the afterparty with us, and I think that was when he first understood what absolute drug addicts we were. We went back to Tim Abbott’s weird turreted house in Highgate. There was a pyramid of cocaine the size of a sandcastle on the table and everyone was just digging into to it with teaspoons and throwing it up their noses. Everyone had told Jeremy I had some issues with drugs but I’d managed to keep him uncertain of the extent until then.

That night Alex Nightingale managed to lose both the award and the cheque for £25,000 and had to ring up the Mercury Prize the next day to ask them to write him a new one. They must have really wished they’d given the prize to someone else.

If Primal Scream were getting all the critical acclaim, Teenage Fanclub were quietly doing the business in America. They did Saturday Night Live. Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love turned up to see them in LA and I got to meet them. Cobain was incredibly quiet, really softly spoken, whispering. Courtney Love sounded like a bomb going off, ‘Hey, yeah, motherfucker!’ That wasn’t the last I’d hear from her.

I remember Thirteen, the follow-up to Bandwagonesque, as a bad record, but in retrospect it probably wasn’t. They took over a year to make it in Manchester, staying in a Jurys Inn, which would have depressed the hell out of anyone. The thing about music is you have a window, a moment, and you have to take it. Bands make the mistake of thinking they’ve all the time in the world. They might only have a month, and if they don’t do what they need to do in that month to sell the records they need to, they might never have the chance again. What people want to hear at a certain time, there’s no way of predicting how that will change. In 1991 Teenage Fanclub had the world at their feet; by 1993 it was a different story. The world heard Bandwagonesque and in the time it took for Thirteen to come out it had moved on and it was ready for Oasis.

All the cocaine I was doing in those days made me pretty unpredictable. It was a way of ignoring my unease about the Sony deal. I kind of knew I’d given up a lot of my power then, and I resented it. I’ve read about how I’d shout down other people like our press officer Andy Saunders, like Tim Abbott – this is not a democracy, this is a dictatorship, all that. Well, yeah, but it was.

And yeah, we bored a lot of people with all the drugs we did, but we also gave people the perspective that Creation was a rock and roll label. Tim was another rock and roll obsessive, like me, like Bobby and the Scream. There was a lot of people before Tim who were steeped in the indie thing. I was never interested in indie. It was rock and roll we were interested in. This was in 1992, when it was quite unfashionable to say this. The indie thing was just a term to me. Rock and roll was about the Stones, it was the same spirit that the Jesus and Mary Chain had which attracted me. It was bad behaviour, it was fuck you. Tim Abbott backed that up. If we were an ‘indie’ label to begin with in the 1980s, by the start of the 1990s we were in my mind a full-throttle rock and roll label. There were a lot of people in the company who thought that Tim was arrogant, that I was a lunatic, but we had a spirit that took things to the edge.

Primal Scream were doing their best to take over from My Bloody Valentine’s role as the biggest threat to my sanity. Loveless is legendary as the album that nearly bankrupted us, so what a lot of people don’t realize is that Give Out But Don’t Give Up took just as long to make and cost far more. £420,000 in the end! We spent the first £48,000 demoing new songs in the Roundhouse in Camden with Jimmy Miller. This was September and October 1992. Unfortunately I was right about Jimmy Miller’s excessive lifestyle. It was very bad for his health to introduce him to Primal Scream and he died soon after those sessions from liver failure. He was dabbling again during the recordings. It wasn’t actually the Scream that killed him, but it can’t have helped. He was a great guy, a genius producer, but as reckless as the rest of us, and much older. He was always phoning me up saying, ‘Alan, I want you to buy my points [royalties] off me’ – for Screamadelica – and I’d say, ‘Jimmy, I don’t want to buy your points off you; one day they’ll be worth money for you.’

We call the two months they spent at the Roundhouse together the Brownhouse sessions. All they did was smoke heroin, watch The Simpsons and record cover versions. Sony have about sixty different versions of ‘On the Dark End of the Street’ covered by Primal Scream, produced by Jimmy Miller. It’s an okay cover, but fuck me. They never even came out as B-sides. That was the Brownhouse sessions. The producer was addicted to heroin and three of the band were. And then there was the entourage. Brighton is full of smack. Camden is full of smack. They were practically falling over it.

I couldn’t believe we’d just come through Loveless and it looked like it was going to happen again. Why were all my bands so dysfunctional? Probably because I signed them. Later on, I just gave up trying to get bands to deliver albums. Just come and see me when you’ve got one finished was my new philosophy.

Primal Scream were never going to do any work in Camden, that was for sure. So we had the bright idea of sending them to record in America, in Memphis. And, actually, they did find it harder to get heroin there, but of course – and this is what always happens with bands – the first guy they met was a cocaine dealer driving a taxi. By the time I got there they were on the strongest coke I’d ever tried, perhaps the strongest coke known to mankind. I had one or two lines of it and had to stand against a wall in Memphis for three days to make sure there was no one creeping up behind me.

My relationship with Bobby went through one of its rockier times then. But I didn’t give up. It was all about loyalty with Primal Scream. I’d given everything to the Mary Chain and I’d got fucked. William Reid told me in Times Square I was the fifth member of the Mary Chain and then it felt like he betrayed me. I knew Bobby wouldn’t fuck me. And that’s why I went to the wall for them. I just believed in them. It wasn’t about music at first. It was about people. I knew they had talent. I knew they were rock stars. I believed in their attitude, in Bobby and Andrew and Throb.

So I wasn’t too annoyed with how irresponsible they were being. It wasn’t personal. They were just like that. They’d thought they were superstars when they lived in Brighton with fuck all, when no one knew who they were. And now they’d had a massive album. They had always been obsessed with the mythology of rock and roll and now they’d tasted success they had the drugs to finish off the obsession. But I wasn’t going to give up on more Primal Scream albums.

So in early February 1993 we had to have a crisis meeting to address the fact that half the people there were addicted to heroin. This was eighteen months after Screamadelica had come out and they had no new tracks we could use. The message was, clean up or ship out. It was the lowest point in their history, but they acknowledged it and wanted to move on. So they gave up heroin and became alcoholics.

Thankfully, not everything was as difficult and dark as it was with Primal Scream. I’d signed one of my favourite musicians in the world, Bob Mould, with his new band Sugar. I’d always loved Hüsker Dü but after they’d disbanded Bob Mould’s two solo albums had completely bombed. He came to the office and told me they’d sold 80,000 copies but I checked and they’d actually sold 7,000 – we had to lower his advance quite a bit after we found that out.

We put out two records by him. The first, Copper Blue, was released on 4 September 1992 and became an absolutely massive record. We had world rights and he sold 400,000 copies internationally. His second, a mini album called Beaster, went in at number 3 a year later and sold really well too.

He’d come out as being gay at this point. I was in New York with him, in Queens, in a studio. He was sitting in front of a huge mixing desk. Swervedriver were playing round the corner and I asked him, ‘Do you want tae head?’

Here was another man who couldn’t understand my Scottish accent: he thought I’d asked him, ‘Do you want some head?’

He sat bolt upright and turned around. ‘What!’

I probably should have been offended. I slowed down and said, very slowly, ‘Would you like to go to the Swervedriver concert now?’

Bob Mould was looking at me thinking, You weird little fucker.

It shocked us all how well we did with Sugar. It made me really happy because Bob’s a great guy and so talented; he deserved everything he got. It was significant for me because Copper Blue was the first record we released after the Sony deal. We put it in the chart and watched it explode. There seemed to be no reason for it – his solo albums hadn’t done anything. Again, it was about timing. Nirvana had opened up people for that sound – even though it was Bob Mould and the Pixies and Dinosaur Jnr who’d invented it. Suddenly it was trendy to be Bob Mould.

I was glad to have had my judgement vindicated again too, just when Sony were realizing what a dangerous investment they’d made in Primal Scream. The way they were going, Screamadelica looked like it might be their masterpiece, and their swansong.