Creation Stories: Riots, Raves and Running A Label - Alan McGee (2013)
Chapter 15. BACK IN THE OFFICE
When I started coming in to the Primrose Hill office, Abbott had gone to work with Oasis as a freelance managing consultant. It was for the best. Everything I’d loved about the way he worked was now the reason we were completely incompatible colleagues. I look back on the two years we had before my breakdown as having been really fun. He was a brilliant friend and colleague, and you have to hand it to him for the way he managed the Definitely Maybe campaign when I was out of the office. He was very likeable. The bands loved him because he was rock and roll. We were all on our way up. Good times. But once I’d cleaned up, it was never going to be possible for us to remain friends in the same way we had been. He was still on the same wagon. It wasn’t for me any more.
Abbott cleaned up in the end, in 2003. He studied to be a cognitive therapist and, bizarrely, he qualified. Long live the Abbott. He still heads out to parties, even though he’s given up the drugs. He rings me up at one in the morning telling me Grace Jones is trying to get off with him. Good on him. It’s not for me.
When I came back to work, two things were happening at once. I was sober and people found that very strange. I don’t know if they’d ever seen me sober. But the change was more profound than that. My whole personality was different. That’s what happens after a nervous breakdown. Now, I was much less aggressive, more considerate. People wanted to see me more than once.
The other thing that was happening was that Oasis were becoming the biggest group in the world. So the atmosphere was euphoric. How could they let it out? Well, not like they used to in Hackney. My new team, Jon Andrews, Andy Saunders, they were all pretty clean, or they were in front of me, at least. Everyone still on the drug train realized they couldn’t do it in front of me any more.
The ones who couldn’t stop were taken out by Sony to encourage me to come back. It all came from Sony really. It had taken me a long time to be convinced to return. It was my A&R judgement that they had paid so much money for – and so they had to make it a safe place for me to return.
It wasn’t the only part of the office culture that had changed while I’d been away. We had never had a marketing department before my breakdown but when I came back there was one firmly in place and I hated it. These people were probably only a reflection of what the music business had become. Or had always been, apart from us and a few other indies. It wasn’t that these people were bad people – I liked them all as individuals – but they didn’t have the energy and maverick spirit of the old Creation. And it zapped the mood of the office for me, and for the older members who remembered how it had been. But it was bigger than Creation – the independent music scene was dying, and this was just a reflection of that. Guitar music becoming popular in the way it did was one of the things that killed guitar music.
There was a lot for me to get my teeth into. Ride were straight back in the studio, and I wanted to play a bigger role in their fourth album. They’d started off so promisingly, with two gold albums, but they were in danger of disappearing after the disaster of their third. But in the end there was nothing I could do. Andy said he’d let Mark sing the songs, and then when they got into the studio he wouldn’t let Mark sing at all. Andy’s not that great a singer, so it was a bad move, and now there was an album with no songs by Mark and no singing by him, what else could Mark do but quit the band? Andy had taken over as the main songwriter but would only work on his own now. I didn’t blame Mark for his decision. It was a sad early end to a band who for a couple of years looked like they could have had it all. Andy formed a new band, Hurricane #1, influenced a lot by Oasis, with singer Alex Lowe’s harder-edged voice. Andy had realized – too late – that he couldn’t sing. I’d always loved Andy, and when I met Alex he was a ball of fire and I took to him instantly. There was never any doubt we would offer the new band a contract; we signed them immediately.
We expected success after Oasis. With a big success you need to hire more people to deal with it and so you need to have more big successes to justify your wage bill. We’d hit the heyday of Britpop now, with massive sales for Blur, Oasis and Pulp meaning loads of imitators were being signed by the competition. At the time Marcus Russell was keen that Oasis weren’t too associated with it. He insisted we pull them from a big ‘Britpop’ promotion, even though it was 20,000 orders. They refused to appear in a Britpop special on TV which Damon Albarn hosted. At the time, Britpop was a big deal; as a significant musical movement, was it fuck. Oasis were a rock and roll band: they never saw themselves as a Britpop band and Marcus thought that by standing outside of a hyped movement, they’d survive the end of it. The music press were always inventing scenes – they might be useful in the short term but they could kill a band’s long-term prospects.
We went all out, however, to take advantage of Britpop to promote the Boo Radleys, who had followed Giant Steps with an intentionally poppier follow up Wake Up! in March 1995. ‘Wake Up Boo!’, the lead single, was a massive chart hit. Radio 1 played it all summer and the album flew in at number one. We had indie bands doing stuff that wasn’t indie at all – the Boo Radleys being interviewed by Richard and Judy, doing children’s programmes.
The Boo Radleys became much bigger than I ever thought they would. In 1993, before I’d had my breakdown, they were supporting Sugar in America. Sugar did everything in a white Transit van, but the Boo Radleys had the Cult’s tour bus on loan. Sugar, the headliners, were selling out venues across America while travelling in a white Transit van; the Boo Radleys were in the Cult’s tour bus, losing $70,000 a week. How not to tour America if you want to make any money.
I think Martin Carr would laugh looking back at that. I hope. I didn’t rate their management. When Wake Up! took off, they were still coming to us asking for us to pay for tour support. If you’ve got a number one album, you shouldn’t be asking for tour support. They were another of the Creation bands that in the end cared more about being cool than about being successful. They tried being successful as an experiment and once it had worked they went straight back to strange, experimental records that were never going to have the same appeal to a wide audience. They did incredibly well for a band that didn’t have one good-looking member.
We had our first number one single in May, when Oasis released ‘Some Might Say’. I was the only person in the office who was stupid/bold enough to suggest to Noel the B-side ‘Acquiesce’ should have been the A-side. I thought it would have been a brilliant number one. We believe in each other – what a revolutionary message. But by that point Noel was definitely not taking requests. When I suggested it people were looking at me, panicked: ‘Don’t annoy him!’ written all over their faces. I hadn’t got with the programme yet: whatever Noel says goes.
When it got to number one I remember being quite miserable about it when I saw Keith Stoll for my therapy the next morning. ‘I never asked for all this success!’ I said to him. I was still feeling quite depressed, still a long way from being better.
But I was trying to play a part in things now. It was at the party to celebrate being number one when the Blur v. Oasis rivalry first started and it was all my fault. There’d been a lot of testosterone flying around at the Brits earlier that year, when Blur had won Best Band and Oasis Best Newcomer. Liam and Noel are as bad as each other in that respect, both as stubborn in their animosities. Liam’s more direct; Noel’s more barbed. They’d been jeering and shouting at Blur all the way through the ceremony.
I’d always liked Damon Albarn and Blur, and Andy Saunders and I knew them socially – I even went down to the studio when they were making The Great Escape. So when we threw a big party in Covent Garden to celebrate Oasis getting to number one I invited them along. Noel and Liam were furious when they heard Blur were coming, but because I was paying for the party no one could take them off the guest list. I should have realized it would cause trouble. To be honest, I knew it would cause trouble. I wasn’t completely reformed.
As soon as Damon walked in Liam strode straight up to him. We’re number one, you’re not, you’re not. There was another reason why Liam hated Damon too, but I can’t tell you that. For the rest of the night he kept winding Damon up.
By now there was real animosity from Oasis towards Blur. I don’t think Blur understood how serious it was. Damon thought it was a funny game to wind up kids from a council estate in Burnage, but they wanted to batter him. They were both about to release new albums that summer, Blur with The Great Escape and Oasis with (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?. Both bands had singles scheduled for August that would be dead cert number ones. Oasis were due to release ‘Roll With It’ on 14 August while Blur’s ‘Country House’ was lined up for 21 August. But Liam had really got under Damon’s skin, so Damon moved the date forward by a week so it would be a head-to-head battle for the top spot. I wasn’t surprised when Damon did that: in those days his ego really was in charge of the band. I suggested to Oasis they could move theirs back a week and was told to shut up immediately. So it became a battle of independent v. major label – I made sure of that when I spoke to the press. We were still distributed independently, whereas Blur were EMI, so it wasn’t a lie: we were at a disadvantage.
We lost. There were problems with a barcode that wouldn’t register. They spent more money, gave more singles away free to the shops and multiformatted the CD so people would buy two copies. We did what we’d always done. But who knows, we might have lost anyway, even if all things had been equal.
But if Damon had thought that would settle who was the bigger band between Oasis and Blur he made the biggest mistake he could have done. Blur were four times bigger than Oasis at the time. We lost the singles battle but it helped us sell a lot of records. Then we put out Morning Glory and suddenly we were the biggest band in the world.
They let us into their party by moving their release date. We were top of the second division at that point and they were in the premier league, up there with Eric Clapton. They let us in! They let us into the boxing ring! Everyone in the country knew who Oasis were now. They might never have had that exposure if Blur hadn’t given it to them.
It was then that Noel Gallagher was quoted as saying he wished Damon Albarn and Alex James would both die of AIDS. It was an off the cuff comment in an interview, comic exaggeration gone wrong, not meant at all seriously, but journalist Miranda Sawyer ran it – she hated Oasis. It sounded much nastier than it was, and I don’t know if you’d get away with it these days. But the fuss soon blew over. It shows you what you can get away with when the wind is with you. Noel talked his way out of it as usual. It was supposed to be comic exaggeration, he didn’t mean it.
Morning Glory sold over 350,000 copies in the first week. It was selling to people who would never have bought a Blur album. People who’d never heard of Primal Scream and never ever would do. We more than doubled the numbers of Definitely Maybe too, and I knew I was getting better and better because I could really take pleasure in the success with this album. I went to their biggest gig so far at Earls Court in November and heard the band drowned out by tens of thousands of people singing their songs back at them.
I still wasn’t completely recovered though – not by a long way. That Christmas Kate flew off on holiday to Jamaica. I stayed at home, too scared to fly, thinking, Fuck, I can’t even go on holiday with my girlfriend.
We bought Noel a chocolate-brown Rolls-Royce to congratulate him on Oasis’s success. His girlfriend Meg Matthews left me with no option. We were in a marketing meeting at Sony. We’d employed Meg to run our ‘artists liaison’ and she was brilliant at it. She made us sexy in a way we’d never been before. We’d always been a party label, but before it had always been about drugs more than anything. Meg made us glamorous – we had the sexiest parties in town, Kate Moss and her friends showing up. Anyway, in this marketing meeting she reminded me that I’d said I’d buy Noel a Rolls-Royce if he sold, I don’t know, a million copies. I didn’t remember saying anything of the sort but before I could object she’d pulled out a brochure and was pointing at the one we should buy. Well, when Noel’s girlfriend tells you to buy him a Roller, that’s what you do. He certainly deserved it.
The success hammered the final nail in the coffin of the old Creation. It led to an Oasis/Creation split in the office, as more and more people were brought in just to work on Oasis. That was inevitable. And it must have been hard to have been Primal Scream or Teenage Fanclub. Sony would only want to concentrate their energies on one band, and that band was always going to be Oasis now.
Suddenly I had the biggest band in the world. Or did I? The four-year option for Sony to buy the rest of the shares in Creation would be arriving in 1996, and now it looked like it was going to be in their interest to exercise it. I was back working, I had achieved my biggest ambition, and now I could lose it all again. It was time to go back into battle.