Simon Napier-Bell took George Michael’s Wham! to China and gave Marc Bolan his big break. The songwriter and music producer talks about his art and adventures—and Indian entanglements
Zac O’Yeah | 07 Sep, 2016
TO CALL SIMON Napier-Bell a ‘living legend’ is probably an understatement—as a musician, songwriter, music producer, filmmaker, pop manager and chronicler of music history, he has been at the centre of it all for five decades now. From creating big hits in the 1960s, managing The Yardbirds who later morphed into Led Zeppelin, discovering Marc Bolan who, with his band T. Rex, kick-started glam rock, and going on to make Wham! the biggest pop act of the 1980s, well… what more can you say? Actually a lot. At the age of 77, Simon is still full of energy, works around the globe—as was obvious during a recent speaking tour in India. We got the exclusive opportunity to spend a couple of days with the man and watch him enthral audiences with his potentially scandalous anecdotes about life among the stars. We also figured out the little-known Indian entanglements that led to his producing one of the most popular rock shows in Las Vegas.
Always well dressed in crisp shirts that look tailor-made and trousers with razor-sharp creases, I soon started feeling scruffy hanging around Simon during his week in India. But he turned out to be casual, chatty and affable throughout, except when taxis didn’t arrive on time, or didn’t arrive at all. “What a palaver!” he exclaimed more than once. Perhaps his best and most honest advice to event managers in India is something that he let out casually after a talk show: “The moderator should preferably speak less than the invited speakers.”
On his tours, Simon lectures on a range of topics—how to manage rock stars and ‘other misguided megalomaniacs’, the history of music management, and conducting creative business around the world—to all of which he brings insights based on his vast experience. But his best story is really the story of his own life and how he ended up where he is today: happy, rich and famous.
Born in England in 1939 to a dad who was a filmmaker, it wasn’t a big deal when Simon, in his early teens, wanted to be a jazz musician. What was rather more difficult was that he wished to become a Black musician. But that was typical Simon—he grew up a free spirit. “From the age of five I had a bicycle and would spend weekends cycling around, as far as I could get, just looking and watching. Or I would go on a train or a bus, alone, yes, even at five years old, and just watch the world pass by. When I was ten, I started to get pestered by relatives—‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’ I told one haughty aunt of mine, ‘When I grow up I’m going to have everything I want.’ ‘And how are you going to do that?’ she asked. ‘By not wanting anything,’ I told her, a smart-arse already then. But in general, it was true. I don’t like possessions and never have. At eleven I’d fallen in love with jazz and imagined myself as a black jazz musician. At 13, I formed a band with other like-minded boys. The headmaster loathed jazz and often lectured about it being the work of the devil. He was a creep anyway and I was always falling out with him. For which I was sent to see a psychiatrist. Anyway, the long and the short of it was that to go off to America at 18 years old, and be a jazz musician, seemed a good adventure to embark on. I did it, mainly in Canada, for two years.” To buy the ticket, he sold off his collection of jazz records.
In Canada, he played at a strip club. The strippers had a weekly holiday, when Simon’s band did their own show. Collecting a dollar each from the audience, they could afford to bring in famous guest performers—inevitably people whom Simon used to have posters of in his room, but who’d play for 50 bucks. He soon realised that he had no future in jazz: being a musician meant practising a lot and earning little. So in 1959 he took to the road. “I hitch-hiked in America and wondered what I should do with my life. Sometimes while I was standing by the roadside, I thought about it so much it made my head ache. I had to find something which would earn me a living and would fit in with my completely unmotivated personality. Eventually, I hit on it. I would be a writer. But since no one would be interested in what a 20-year-old wrote, I would have to do something else for about 10 years first. And so I decided on the easiest way forward I could—follow my dick. Where it pointed, I followed. And finally it led me to the music business. And it was perfect because the people who wanted me to manage them had the motivation I was lacking, but lacked the quick thinking in which I was abundant.”
He worked as a film editor on Burt Bacharach’s music for What’s New, Pussycat?—a 1960s comedy scripted by Woody Allen and starring Peter Sellers. Simon completely re-edited the title track, which was sung by Tom Jones, an intervention which wasn’t appreciated by Bacharach. But it was nominated for an Academy Award as the best original movie song and although Simon got no credit for it, he was soon asked to co-write lyrics for Dusty Springfield. It resulted in the No 1 hit You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, an evergreen classic which was later covered by Elvis Presley. A good measure of its popularity is that after 50 years, its royalties still keep coming in, as regular as clockwork.
THAT HIT SONG was quickly written after a boozy dinner, before heading to the Ad Lib disco, a 1960s swinging London hotspot frequented by The Beatles, the Stones and everybody who was anybody. Some wannabe musicians he encountered at Ad Lib became his first management clients— an interracial duo, which was a novelty in Britain though their success was short- lived. After that, he was asked to manage The Yardbirds and ended up producing some of their records, too. Members of this bluesy group included three of the world’s greatest rock guitarists: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Simon tells me how Beck and Page (Clapton had left by then) would both play solo guitar standing on separate sides of the stage, creating a never-before-heard stereo effect. Subsequently, Page developed The Yardbirds into Led Zeppelin.
I co-wrote lyrics for Dusty Springfield. It resulted in You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, later covered by Elvis Presley. After 50 years, its royalties still come in
By then, Simon had discovered Marc Bolan—which is another remarkable story. In the mid-60s, Bolan, who styled himself after Bob Dylan (replacing his surname, Feld, with a combination of his hero’s first and last names) had released a not-so- successful single, while Simon was at the top of the game. Essentially, there were four big managers in Britain at that time: Brian Epstein (who managed The Beatles), Andrew Oldham (Rolling Stones), Kit Lambert (The Who), and Simon who had The Yardbirds. One night, Bolan came calling. “He just knocked on the door, with his guitar over his shoulder, and asked could he sing for me. He wasn’t anything really, just a young kid with a guitar and a big ego. I don’t like people just knocking on my door, so I told him, ‘You got five minutes.’ He’s very small and he climbed into this huge armchair I had, and sat cross-legged in it and started playing.”
Simon was transfixed to such a degree by the strange voice and even stranger lyrics that he immediately phoned up a studio and put Bolan in a taxi. That night they recorded everything the singer had ever written. “But I knew we had some more work to do to actually make him famous.”
No music company was interested in signing Bolan; he sounded too strange to them. So Simon made him sing with another group he managed—John’s Children, nowadays regarded as a classic cult band. For them, Bolan wrote the song Desdemona, which was released in 1967 and banned by the BBC because of its sexy lyrics. But the timing was good since John’s Children were about to embark on a tour of Germany together with The Who.
The Who were known to smash their instruments, so with Simon’s active support, John’s Children hatched a plan to upstage them by having Bolan whip his guitar with an iron chain and the other band members toss bagfuls of feathers in the air. Their show ended in a riot and Simon had to quickly pack the band into his Bentley and drive like mad across the border with a posse of police cars in hot pursuit. They ended up in Luxembourg, dead tired after driving all night, where it so happened that Ravi Shankar was playing at the opera house right across from their hotel.
He managed The Yardbirds. Its members included three of the best rock guitarists: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page
Simon procured front-row tickets to cheer up his somewhat depressed artists and the concert changed Bolan’s career: he wanted to do what Shankar was doing. He bought incense sticks and looked around for a tabla player but ended up with a bongo drummer, with whom he formed Tyrannosaurus Rex, a folksy rock duo that soon released the pop gem Deborah in 1968. The band eventually expanded and went electric and the name was shortened to T. Rex, and was to be ‘the primary force in glam rock’ according to a rock encyclopaedia, ‘sparking a period of T. Rextacy.’ T. Rex influenced kids all over the world, whether in Europe or India or America, and blazed a trail for the likes of David Bowie and the New York Dolls.
Simon also managed bands like Japan, Ultravox, Boney M, and produced many records by others. Did his job give him an outlet for his own creativity? “Obviously the artist doesn’t like to feel that you are being creative. Of course, I never managed any artist with whom I didn’t discuss everything, their songs, their clothing… But many of them didn’t even notice it, it had to be done by stealth.” He also tells me, “The one thing I look for in anyone who comes to me for management is that they are overwhelmingly motivated. It’s their energy that will move the thing forward, not mine. I think I can usually spot a great idea, but the ability to spot it and getting the timing right are two different things. I signed Japan and it took me five years to get them even a sniff of success. I could see at once what the rest of the world took five years to see.”
When they eventually broke through, Japan became one of the most influential synth pop groups, ruling the early 1980s music scene—until the bassist found his girlfriend in bed with singer David Sylvian. The split was inevitable.
Around that time, Simon considered taking a break from the business when another manager suggested that they join hands to manage a pop band. For some reason, Wham! didn’t have a manager, but their singles Wham Rap and Young Guns had brought them attention— the latter made it to No 3 on UK charts in 1982. During their first dinner together, singer George Michael agreed to sign with Simon on the condition that he make them into the biggest pop act in the world within a year. Simon of course knew that was impossible, since going global meant being big in America first, and to break into America would take about five years according to his calculations (one had to graduate step by step to playing bigger venues and finally do a stadium tour). But they had been drinking a lot of wine by then and came up with a clever ruse: if Wham! was the first Western group to play in communist China, it was bound to make headlines in America. George Michael said, “Yeah, that’s good, let’s do that.”
It took longer than a year to secure all the necessary permissions and invitations. The process involved taking almost every single Chinese minister out to lunch at the Beijing Holiday Inn, the only business hotel in the city at that time, and convince them that a Wham! concert would be good PR for their country. Finally in 1985, Wham! played at the Worker’s Stadium which was packed with 15,000 young Chinese and upwards 200 foreign journalists were covering the event. Because Wham! was totally unknown in China, Simon had produced a special edition cassette which had Chinese singers doing versions of Wham! songs on the B-side—so that the kids could sing along (in Chinese). This sleight-of-hand gave Western journalists the impression that Wham! were big in Beijing and shortly afterwards they got to do their first stadium tour of the US. Furthermore, the cassette ended up selling hundreds of thousands of copies.
A year later, when Simon went to collect royalties for the Chinese Wham! cassette, he was informed it could only be paid out in kind. “I’ll have some silk carpets,” he told the Chinese. But it turned out he had to pick from a prescribed list which included bulldozers, weaponry and army bicycles. Simon reminisces, “What a palaver!” He picked the bicycles, shipped thousands of them to South America and eventually ended up with about 8 kg of fine caviar in return. Being a gourmet, it wasn’t such a bad deal for him. All this and more is told in detail in his hilarious book I’m Coming To Take You To Lunch: A Fantastic Tale Of Boys, Booze And How Wham! Were Sold to China.
Simon produced a cassette which had Chinese singers doing versions of Wham! songs on the B-side—so that the kids could sing along in Chinese
O NE OF SIMON’S current projects is the Las Vegas top show called Raiding the Rock Vault, a brainwave he got one wet night in Bengaluru on a business visit in 2008. He ended up spending a night at a pub called Purple Haze, putting away some 17 bottles of champagne. “I got up to go to the toilet and on the way I wanted to thank the DJ for all those wonderful rock songs I’d been listening to, but I saw that it was a cover band! It must have been an incredibly good band or incredibly good champagne which got me that drunk. As I sat down again, I thought that this is what the world needs: form the greatest rock supergroup ever and have it play a two-hour set of all the greatest rock songs of the last 50 years—better than they’d ever been played before, even including the originals. So you don’t have to go to a concert to wait for the two or three songs you like,” he explains. He hired an 11 piece all-star band to cut a demo album with 40-50 songs, featuring veteran rockers like the ex-drummer of Toto, a guitarist who’d played with Bruce Springsteen, and a bass player who had recorded with practically everybody from Rod Stewart to the Doors. Raiding the Rock Vault, which features a varying cast of musicians from Bad Company, Whitesnake, Quiet Riot, Bon Jovi and the like, is nowadays the top music show in Vegas. It has spawned a sister show with country music hits and next year Simon plans to put up a similar show featuring Latin music. Then he smiles and says, “So thank you, Bengaluru.”
Inventive business genius and daring schemes apart, what really makes Simon unique is the fact that he’s probably the most literate among all the pop managers in the world—he is an avid reader of poetry who keeps going back to Philip Larkin for inspiration. When we met he had just come across a beautiful love poem by Carol Ann Duffy. He also enjoys non-fiction and he even took home a few novels from India. He tells me, as we stroll in a park for a photo shoot, that he has toyed with the idea of writing fiction, but hasn’t produced anything worth publishing. But on the other hand, his bestselling books on the music industry are racy reads full of thrilling escapades. His debut book, You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, practically blew my head off for the startling insights it offered into the music scene. His subsequent books include Black Vinyl, White Powder which has been called ‘the greatest ever book written about English pop’ (Spectator), while his latest, Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay: The Dodgy Business of Popular Music, is a thoroughly researched history of the industry from its birth in 1710 to today’s digital era (and it is going to be made into an American TV series). His fans love the books primarily because he is one of the best storytellers in the pop world, a fact which became very evident during his speaking tour in India.
At his talk shows, he fielded questions with ease and when one retired gentleman suggested that Simon should listen to his demos, after having started off with the slightly embarrassing remark, “You’re clearly not a Simple Simon,” he took it in the stride. Although he is busy with four movie projects—two feature films he’s producing and two documentaries which he is directing, in which he collaborates with friends like Pete Townshend and Elton John—he wishes to return some day, to deliver talks at music schools and colleges that have music appreciation societies. This may not be the last that India has seen or heard of Simon Napier-Bell.