Creation Stories: Riots, Raves and Running A Label - Alan McGee (2013)
Chapter 5. ELEVATION
The Jesus and Mary Chain may have sacked me, but my reputation had grown after I had found them and managed them into the big time. I had a profile now and the music press loved me. I thought I could use my success to get me into a partnership with a major label. I picked myself up and decided to try again. After all, I’d only just turned twenty-six.
The first thing I did was to sign a new band, a band who would completely transform my fortunes again. I’ll come to them in the next chapter. First I started a new record label with backing from a major.
It was Rob Dickins who had brought Geoff Travis to Warners. I’d always liked him. He’d seen the appeal of the Jesus and Mary Chain straight away and supported Geoff Travis in his bid to sign them. He didn’t mind when I made stuff up to the press about the Reid brothers nicking his wallet and trashing his offices. He’s been unpopular with the Mary Chain, Echo & the Bunnymen, with other bands. But do you know what? He just told the truth. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a guy who just says I like it or I don’t like it. In my book that’s all you can ask for from a record company: the truth.
Interest in Pete Astor’s new band the Weather Prophets had been building steadily. I was managing them as well as putting out their records. Their first single ‘Almost Prayed’ was brilliant pop, and Dickins came to me and offered a £75,000 advance to sign them to Warner Brothers. I had a better idea – he could fund me to start an offshoot label of Creation that was distributed by Warners. It would be for the bands on Creation with the biggest potential once they were ready to make a jump to the top division. Rob Dickins liked the idea and I managed to negotiate a deal for Primal Scream too, getting him up to £55,000. It meant the bands could get a wage, spend more on recording. But it also meant they’d no longer be eligible for the indie charts and would have to make it on a less forgiving stage. I called the label Elevation, another psychedelic name to go alongside Creation.
I’d tried to get Felt a deal too but what they offered was minuscule, and I knew Lawrence would be better keeping his independence. This was at the same time Creation released their Forever Breathes the Lonely Word, one of the best records I think we ever did, Creation’s equivalent to the Smiths’ The Queen is Dead or Low-Life by New Order. It was too muted to be commercial, too art to go pop, too pop to go art – but it was a perfect combination of all my influences, all that I loved about music at the time.
Lawrence was a minor-scale indie celebrity. He thought he wanted to be famous, but at the same time he wanted to stay in the underground. They were incompatible urges he never reconciled, and so he was never sure of himself. Danny Kelly loved him at the NME. He was famous for his clean living, for having this meticulously hoovered house in Birmingham, hovering by the bathroom when journalists came to interview him in case they had the cheek to try to shit in his toilet.
Warners just didn’t want him enough – he’d have sunk without a trace there. There was an advantage to being on an indie label – he wouldn’t alienate his core fans and he’d continue to qualify for the indie charts and get noticed that way.
The Weather Prophets went straight into the studio with Lenny Kaye – their first major label recording session. They were used to recording all the instruments at the same time, playing live in the studio essentially. But Kaye stripped it down to one track at a time, standard procedure on the majors. You get a cleaner sound this way, but if you’re not very careful you lose the energy.
They’d finished the record by the end of the year and Warners were really happy with it. Graham Carpenter, who was the guy at Warners I worked directly with, loved the record. The signs were great. Pete called it Mayflower and they loved the title. There was something in the back of my mind though telling me the record wasn’t quite right. I was too inexperienced then to put my finger on it instantly, and so I joined in with the optimism.
Recording the first Primal Scream album was a much harder experience. Warners were really keen on Stephen Street, though I should have known from his experience with the Mary Chain that he wasn’t temperamentally suited for working with bands who weren’t technically great musicians. Punk had shown the world you didn’t need to be technically great musicians to have great musical ideas and record great songs – but not everyone had got the message. We booked Rockfield studios in Monmouth and the whole of the Scream decamped to the Welsh countryside, not so far from where I live now. Street was a hotshot producer at the time; he’d just produced The Queen is Dead by the Smiths. But the Smiths were experienced musicians, and Street couldn’t get past the fact that Primal Scream’s drummer Tam McGurk couldn’t keep time. Street also insisted on recording one track at a time, the way you recorded session musicians. He was trying to enforce early starts, early to bed too: it’s hilarious he tried that with the Scream. You should have seen the way they lived in Glasgow. Andrew Innes wasn’t in the band at the start of that recording, though he was by the end. When the sessions began, the line-up was Bobby on vocals, Jim Beattie on twelve-string guitar, Tam the drummer and Throb was then the bassist so we had another rhythm guitarist in Stuart May. He wasn’t very good. No one was very good then. Things got ugly when they came in one morning and Stephen Street played them a guitar part he’d written and recorded for the song they were working on. Jim Beattie took the tape and wiped it, told him to go and record his own LP if that was what he wanted. After that, they were very wary of each other. A horrible atmosphere.
Graham Carpenter drove us there for the first time three weeks into the recordings. The recordings were shit. Street was hung up on recording one song – ‘I Love You’ – over and over. The band were complaining straight away. I was tempted to sack Street. But I thought I should give them a chance to work it out on their own and Graham drove us back to London.
Street called me back soon afterwards. The band were losing it. The drummer was holding everything up with his inability to keep time, and the band were beginning to take it out on him. It was obvious to everyone that Street didn’t have enough belief in the band’s musicianship. Bobby was having a particularly bad time with the vocals. I assumed it was because although Bobby was a natural singer he had no confidence then – it took him a decade to really get comfortable with his voice. He wanted to record it one word at a time.
I drove up with Yvonne. When we got there at first it seemed like Street was exaggerating. The band seemed fine to me. But as the day wore on they grew more and more angry. That night Bobby, Jim and Throb locked themselves in the room next to where Yvonne and I were trying to sleep and played fucking Burundi drums until seven in the morning, at which point we drove off. That was their way of letting me know they were unhappy.
I thought it would be a good idea to bring Andrew Innes in. A musician who knew what he was doing, who Bobby knew already and would trust. For a while that seemed to help, not least because he immediately realized why Bobby was having problems. The keys were all based around Jim Beattie’s twelve-string guitar riffs. The band hadn’t noticed any problem live, but when they tried to record they were impossible for Bobby to sing to. Andrew changed the keys; problem solved. Andrew’s a great musician and a kindred spirit. From there on in, he was in the band.
Then I got another call from Street. Bobby had vandalized the studio. Fucking hell, so off I go again to Monmouth, with Yvonne again and this time with Christine, Andrew’s girlfriend. The girls thought they’d combine the trip with an outing so they headed off on a pony trek.
The idea that some people were going to have some fun during the recording seemed to provoke the band. It was when we arrived that they really lost it. Bobby, Jim and Throb barricaded themselves in one of the cottages with mattresses and threatened to pour a bucket of boiling water over anyone who tried to get in. It was all getting a bit medieval now. I’d forgotten to bring any siege enginery so I had little choice but to leave them to it. They never left the cottage again, until one morning, five days before Christmas, they watched Stephen Street take the master tapes, load them into his car and drive away. It was the very last they saw of him. It was going to be interesting to see if the band would have the balls to come back from this.
We needed to do something so we sacked the drummer. There was only one song that was useable from weeks of recording. We’d used three-quarters of the advance on that one song! I now had to tell Rob Dickins that we were scrapping the album and starting again. He was underwhelmed by the recordings he’d heard, but he hadn’t lost faith yet. I don’t remember being particularly stressed about it, except it meant that the Primals were going to be staying on my floor a lot more when they came to London, and that really wasn’t going to help my relationship with Yvonne. For about three years Primal Scream and the Jesus and Mary Chain were regularly sleeping in my living room. I think that would be enough to break any marriage up.
We went into the studio again to record a single, ‘Imperial’, this time with Clive Langer. First thing he did was hire a session drummer, the guy from Prefab Sprout, and things went a bit more smoothly, though by the end of the session Langer was drinking a lot of vodka.
Meanwhile, the money situation at Creation was typically desperate and Yvonne wasn’t helping. She was wandering into the office at 4 p.m. going, ‘I’ve just been down to Boots and spent forty quid on the credit card.’ Things were getting worse and worse between us. I’d be trying to make her see how desperate things were and she’d just think I was trying to boss her around. We weren’t happy together in the office or at home. It had become a toxic relationship and I think we both knew in 1987 that we should have gone through with the split in 1985, when Yvonne had gone back to Glasgow for a while. We’d been together now for eight years, and we’d completely changed. We made the mistake of trying to carry on when deep down we knew we couldn’t. We were both too scared to split up. I was twenty-seven, she was twenty-five. I was pretty unworldly; she was the only girlfriend I’d ever had. And I understand why she didn’t want to give up on a marriage at the age of twenty-five. There was no winner in this situation. I’m sorry for any hurt I caused her because I really did love her. But we’d grown too far away from each other.
It was during my time at Elevation that I met Bill Drummond, later of the KLF. With Dave Balfe (who later set up Food and released Blur’s records) he’d managed the Teardrop Explodes and Echo & the Bunnymen. Now Rob Dickins had offered him an A&R job in Warners.
Neither of us belonged there, really. He loved the Mary Chain but was working with Stock, Aitken and Waterman on trying to make massive-selling chart pop. And his bands just didn’t work out. When he quit, still in his early thirties, he decided to record his own solo album and asked me if I’d put it out on Creation. He was disgusted with the industry. He wanted to say goodbye to it with an album that he’d write in five days and record in five days and thought I was the only one who’d be mad enough to put it out. Even so, I think he was surprised when I agreed without having listened to a note. I just thought the guy was probably a genius and he was offering to cover the cost of recording himself. There was nothing to lose, I thought. He delivered me a country folk album with him singing on it in a thick Scottish accent. We put it out, it got great reviews, sold fuck all, but I was proud of that album.
With money going from bad to worse, I needed to try something new at Creation and I came up with the idea of Baby Amphetamine. The charts were full of formulaic girl-group pop – I thought we could play this game and subvert it at the same time. I explained my idea to Nick Currie, otherwise known as Momus, who we’d just signed, and he helped me develop it. Then we decided to go and find our girl group in the Virgin megastore on Oxford Street.
We picked the three best-looking girls and I bought them all leather jackets. I wrote the lyrics as a rap and we went in and recorded them over a hip hop beat. ‘Chernobyl Baby (Who Needs the Government)’ – a great title but not the best song in the world, I’ll admit.
Now I had the band and a single I needed to put them on the cover of the NME. Incredibly, Danny Kelly went for it. And then the girls started to slag me off in the interview! Which was fine, that was the plan. It went wrong when they decided they were real artists. They might have been right, they might have been wrong: it wasn’t the point.
There was never another single. Everyone hated Baby Amphetamine except for Bill Drummond who started dancing around and punching the air when I told him about it. Two months later he told me he’d formed a new band, the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, and he was going to get in the Top 10
sampling Abba records. Abba’s lawyers put a stop to that. But it didn’t keep him down for long . . .
We released quite a few records by Momus. He talked a good game. One of my biggest regrets from the Creation days was from that period. Primal Scream were on tour with him. It was before the wall had come down in Berlin and there was a corridor you could stop off in between the East and West, where you could buy Polish vodka. The Scream had gone to get themselves some of that good stuff, with Momus in the van. Bobby rang me up.
‘Alan, can we leave Momus in No Man’s Land?’ He’d been driving them nuts on the bus. They couldn’t stand him.
‘Please don’t do that,’ I said.
‘Alan, please, can we just leave him here?’ Bobby asked again. He was surprised: he thought I would have been up for the idea. He really wanted to. I don’t know why I wasn’t more supportive. It could have been amazing, he could have been locked up for a couple of years . . .
It was so much fun hanging out with Primal Scream in those days (if you weren’t Momus). They just drugged and partied their way around Britain and Europe. All you had to do was get on the bus, and then everything was great. If nothing else, they’d learned the first rule of rock and roll: have fun!
The Weather Prophets’ debut album Mayflower came out in April 1987: a busy month for Warners. They were putting out new records by Prince, Fleetwood Mac and Simply Red, all at the height of their fame. You can’t blame Mayflower’s failure purely on this, but it definitely didn’t help.
It only charted at 67. This would have been great on Creation but it wasn’t nearly enough for Rob Dickins to be interested in, and of course, it was no longer eligible for the indie charts and so there’d be no word of mouth that way.
It smashed me for six. Everyone had been so bullish, and me more than anyone. There was a whole world between what I thought would happen and what actually did. Now I can hear immediately that it was produced terribly, that the sound was too flat. But at that time I didn’t have enough experience to know instantly what was wrong with it. By the time we got to Screamadelica, Loveless, Definitely Maybe, I could spot what was wrong, and what was right, much more easily.
The band had started to hate the album too – they thought it was too sterile. The major-label method of recording albums in the 1980s was more suitable to high-gloss pop than to real rock and roll – and it was in the latter direction that Pete Astor had been trying to take the band.
At the same time the Jesus and Mary Chain flew straight into the Top 10 with their next single, ‘April Skies’. No comment necessary. And it was about then that I stopped talking to the music press. People had stopped taking Creation’s music seriously after all my antagonistic statements about the Jesus and Mary Chain, and I wanted attention to be focused on our music now. I’d been overwhelming that with my personality.
With the Weather Prophets performing so badly, Elevation’s future was in the hands of Primal Scream. We went into the Greenhouse studio with Mayo Thompson and Pat Collier at the controls. I think Bobby was still trying to record one word at a time, but the band hit it off with Mayo Thompson and we finished the recording.
‘Gentle Tuesday’ came out as the first single in June. It didn’t even reach the Top 75, and nor did ‘Imperial’ when we put that out in September. Though Warners didn’t give up immediately on Elevation they lost interest in Primal Scream straight away. They offered another £70,000 to record another Weather Prophets album, but they wanted control over the producer and Pete Astor said he wanted to do it himself.
That was that: they instantly dropped the band.
The first Primal Scream album Sonic Flower Groove came out in September 1987. Number 61. Warners weren’t interested, did nothing to promote it. Graham Carpenter left the company and was replaced by a guy called Malcolm Dunbar. He told me Primal Scream would never make it. I was fucking furious and if I’d believed him, they might never have made it. Luckily I ignored him. Well, I did more than ignore him – I told him exactly where to go. Now I can see he wasn’t such a bad guy, but at the time I couldn’t see past my rage. He was surprised at how aggressive I was to him. He caught two years of my frustration with major labels straight in the mouth. When I called him a cunt, I was really calling Warners a cunt. I was probably trying to provoke him into hitting me so I could hit him back. I knew I was going to have to go but there was no way I was going to go in a rational way. I wasn’t rational in those days. But there was no glory in it for me, that was for sure.
Then there was the crunch meeting with Rob Dickins. Who’ve you got for me next year, Alan? At the time, all I had was Momus. When that was all I could offer him, he pulled the plug and that was the end of Elevation.
I won’t pretend I wasn’t shattered by how badly things had gone. Tony Wilson was a big help then – this was when we really bonded. He took me to one side and gave me a huge fatherly talk for about two hours. Not about my personal life, which was falling to bits; just about the label. He told me to forget about the majors and gave his biggest band New Order as an example. ‘You have to hang on to your bands,’ he was telling me. ‘If you make Creation big enough, then the majors can’t fuck with you.’ I’ll always remember that chat and it’s why Factory were the only label I really felt an affinity with. I’d go in to see Geoff Travis at Rough Trade and he’d accuse me of ripping off bands I’d never heard of. ‘I see what you’ve done with the Loft,’ he’d say, ‘ripping off the Raspberries.’ Pete Astor and I had no idea who the Raspberries were! With Geoff I always got a sense of rivalry, a feeling that he was trying to get one up on me. Tony never seemed to be threatened by Creation – he saw us as on the same side. Geoff talked to me like a schoolteacher whereas when Tony spoke to me it was like listening to a naughty big brother.
I was glad of Tony’s friendship then because I wasn’t just losing Elevation and the Jesus and Mary Chain, I was losing my wife and my house. Yvonne and I couldn’t share the same space any more. In the end it was she who suggested it first: let’s break up for good. When I said yes, she said, I didn’t mean it. Too late: it was out there and it couldn’t be taken back. It was obviously what needed to happen, we just didn’t want to face it. We broke up that September and I moved out. Within the space of a year it felt like I’d lost everything: my big band, my new label, and now my home and my wife. It was inevitable but it was still shattering.
I went off the rails that winter. We went on a Biff Bang Pow! tour with Felt in Germany. I drank a bottle of vodka a day. I blacked out. People told me I’d chased a promoter around a venue until he had to lock himself in an office. I put my foot through dressing-room walls.
And I moved to Brighton. I needed to put some distance between me and Yvonne. The singer in Blow Up – one of our bands – found me a room there with two old gay guys. And there I was, miles away from the office, and not really bothered at all about what was going on there.