Friday 15 November 2019

The men behind the music icons

John Meagher on an entertaining new book that celebrates the record industry's power-brokers through the years

Visionary: Bono, right, with Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, the label that launched U2 in the 1970s
Visionary: Bono, right, with Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, the label that launched U2 in the 1970s
Madonnna performing on the Blond Ambition Tour in Tokyo in 1990. Photo: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images
John Meagher

John Meagher

These are tough times for the record industry. Despite HMV Ireland posting buoyant figures for last year, the global picture is sobering: album sales in freefall, more and more musicians becoming dissatisfied with the streaming model and small labels going to the wall.

But this branch of the entertainment business has been in the doldrums several times in its century-long history only to bounce back spectacularly thanks to technological advances. Quite what will save the music in the immediate future is anyone's guess, but as Gareth Murphy's enlightening overview shows, the industry is nothing if not resilient.

In the 1930s, for instance, it had shrank to 5pc of its former size thanks to the spread of 'free' music on radio, but the arrival of the jukebox in the 1940s gave it a whole new lease of life.

Dubliner Murphy, a record company veteran whose CV includes the Buddha Bar compilation albums, pays special attention to the industry's earliest days and there are absorbing accounts of gramophone pioneers like Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. The latter demanded total control on the records pressed for play on his machine [the phonograph, as gramophones were initially known] and his dislike of "opera perverts" meant a pig-headed refusal to release potential hits.

The industry has long been populated by brilliant but dictatorial men like Edison and Cowboys and Indies tells the compelling stories of such visionary figures who changed the business for better and for worse from the fledgling days of 'race records' and novelty songs in its infancy right up to the present day.

Although totemic figures like John Hammond and Sam Phillips have both been subjects of several books in their own right, Murphy's lively mini biographies are never less than engaging. The former discovered Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, among many more, while Phillips' ear for talent unearthed Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.

In a book stuffed with quirky anecdotes, there's one that may be unfamiliar to even seasoned students of 1960s music: Andrew Loog Oldham was managing the embryonic Rolling Stones but an early recording session was going badly. To clear his head, he went out for a walk and bumped into John Lennon and Paul McCartney, then enjoying their first flush of fame. The Beatles pair trooped back with him back to the studio and gave Jagger & Co tips about how to make their song 'I Wanna Be Your Man' come alive. It worked, and it charts well.

Across the Atlantic, Motown founder Berry Gordy had an incredible instinct for talent and Murphy regales the reader with an account of Gordy taking a chance on his receptionist Martha Reeves.

There are playful accounts of the drug-fuelled 1970s and 1980s - a period where the industry gorged on its laurels - and delivered such larger-than-life figures like Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant and record company Midas David Geffen. Among a slew of gossipy stories attributed to the latter is one about Bob Dylan, whom Geffen claimed "is as interested in money as any person I've known in my life."

While Murphy details the various deals and takeovers that helped shape the modern record industry, his potted history comes alive when focusing on music's great characters, such as Sire Records founder Seymour Stein.

The New Yorker was keen to sign fledgling singer Madonna (who had been turned down by Island Records boss Chris Blackwell), but he was concerned that as he was in hospital undergoing treatment for a heart condition at the time, the young singer would be put off signing on with him.

Fretting about her appointed visit to his bedside one evening he ordered new pyjamas and had his barber come in order to make him look presentable. Madonna turned out to be utterly unperturbed about the hospital surrounds or of Stein's chances of making a full recovery. "I could have been lying in a coffin," Stein said. "It didn't matter to her. All she wanted was a record deal."

There's also an intriguing look at Steve Ross, the entrepreneur who bought Warner Bros at the end of the 1960s and would go on to found MTV a dozen years later and Rick Rubin, an A&R maven who would go on to become one of the most influential producers of his generation.

While some of the figures that Murphy looks at are only sketchily drawn - unsurprising considering the wide scope of the book - he gives the reader a real feel for fellow Dubliner Dave Robinson, who founded Stiff Records and was a key figure in the Island story, helping to manage the early careers of U2 and Robert Palmer.

Murphy's book is less compelling when examining the state of the industry in the digital age, although he is quick to acknowledge the lasting influence of one of Britain's great contemporary characters, Martin Mills of the Beggars Group. With influential, and critic-adored labels like 4AD and XL Recordings in his roster, Mills is responsible for one of the biggest success stories of this century so far: Adele.

Ultimately, Murphy is optimistic about the industry's ability to reinvent itself. "Sometimes," he writes, "all it takes is one big fix - sometimes even a three-minute song - to spark a cultural explosion that in turn opens up a billion-dollar goldmine."

Cowboys and Indies

Gareth Murphy

Serpent's Tail, pbk, 382pp, £14.99

Both available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091709350

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