Pages 40 & 41
X Factor’s karaoke acts are destroying REAL music
– by the Chrysalis Music boss who gave the world Blondie… and Anna Ford, the £5-a-gig folk singer
by Chris Wright
FOUNDER OF CHRYSALIS RECORDS
YOU don’t normally pay transfer fees to sign acts from other labels. But that’s what we did at Chrysalis Music with Blondie – and it was one of the best business decisions we’ve ever made.
Back in the Seventies, Debbie Harry and her band had been signed to a pop label called Private Stock. It was the wrong label for them. My former business partner Terry Ellis was in New York when he called me to say he wanted to buy Blondie out of their contract. I think we paid £370,000.
It took a while for them to break into America. First came Holland and Australia, then they flew over to Britain and played at the Hammersmith Palais. The music was great, the songs were fantastic and the record sales enormous.
The band had a string of huge No 1 hits, their album Parallel Lines was a massive success and their songs still generate a gigantic income today.
Last month, I sold Chrysalis Music, the independent music company I founded more than four decades ago. Chrysalis, a music publishing business these days, has been bought by BMG Rights, a joint venture between German publisher Bertelsmann and American buyout group KKR.
It is not the end of Chrysalis – I am staying as non-executive chairman, the staff are still here and there is continuity – but it is the end of an era.
I have been reflecting how very different the music industry is now from the business I first got involved in as a politics and modern history student in Manchester.
I had no background in rock or pop. I was the son of a Lincolnshire farmer who simply got caught up in the heady excitement of a burgeoning music scene.
After getting my degree, I turned down the opportunity to study at the University of Chicago under Milton Friedman, the economist whose theories underpinned Thatcherism. I was enjoying Manchester too much.
As an undergraduate I had been the university’s social secretary, a prestigious role that involved booking the entertainment for Saturday nights. One of my early acts was newsreader Anna Ford, then an attractive Joan Baez-style folk singer. We used to pay her £5 a gig.
By 1965, I’d book the likes of The Moody Blues, The Who, Jimi Hendrix – acts who later became massive and whose names still resonate today.
I gradually drifted into working for a booking agent and then managing acts. I joined forces with Terry Ellis, who had been ploughing a similar furrow in the South and we formed the Ellis Wright Agency, working out of his flat in West London. I moved down and we sent out fliers to all the universities offering our services.
Soon after my arrival, Terry took off on a three-week holiday to Morocco. When he returned home he was greeted by the two secretaries I had had to hire, sitting at the two desks I’d had to buy.
‘Chris, what the hell have you done to my flat?’
‘Terry,’ I said, ‘you have no idea. Business has gone berserk.’
And that was the start of it. In the early years we built the company on the back of two bands: Ten Years After, a rock-blues outfit, and Jethro Tull, an unusual group in that the frontman, Ian Anderson, played the flute standing on one leg. They were both great acts but we often had to do some fairly creative accounting to keep things ticking over.
In 1968, I took Ten Years After to America. We raised the money for our fares by making a deal with a music publisher. But when the travel company provided our flight tickets before they actually billed us, Terry used that cash to put Jethro Tull in a studio to record an album. So then we had the travel company on our backs.
Fortunately, I collapsed in America with appendicitis and needed surgery. The health insurance company paid out before the hospital billed me. So we used that money to pay the travel agent. Then the hospital was on our case. And so on.
However, a Jethro Tull performance at the Windsor Jazz Festival went down a storm, everyone wanted to sign them and we were able to make serious money. We changed our name to Chrysalis (Chris and Ellis), using a butterfly as our symbol.
Over the years we had some terrific acts. I loved Procol Harum, the band best known for A Whiter Shade Of Pale. I once saw them play in Detroit when the power failed during the encore, inevitably A Whiter Shade. The crowd chanted the lyrics, word for word all the way through, for 20 minutes until the juice was restored.
Everyone who is famous is at least slightly hard work. That’s just a fact of life. But some are harder work than others.
Billy Idol was basically a nice lad from Kent who believed his own publicity and ended up assuming a larger-than-life rock’n’roll personality.
After-show interviews would have to wait for half an hour while Billy availed himself of whatever female company was queuing outside his door. We got an apartment in Mayfair for him to live in and he completely trashed it.
On one occasion he was meant to be doing a popular Radio 1 show called Round Table, in which celebrities reviewed new releases. The show went out at 6.30pm and I got a call from one of my employees at 6.45pm.
‘Sorry boss, we’ve got a huge problem. Billy’s been thrown off Round Table.’
‘Well, five “f****s”., two “b******s” and a “s***”.’
Sinead O’Connor, another of our artists, needed careful management. She was supposed to be playing a big outdoor gig in America in 1990 but said she wasn’t going to go on if the national anthem was played before her act. They always play the national anthem at those sorts of venues in America so she didn’t go on. But dealing with problems was part of what made the job fun. When I started in this game, the business was run by people who loved music… and gangsters.
If you didn’t pay your bills, you would have to deal with a visit from a very large gentleman with a broken nose and a knuckleduster. Now the business is run by accountants and lawyers and marketing men. I am not entirely certain that that is an improvement.
It means that a singer-songwriter like Bob Dylan probably wouldn’t make it today. The marketing men aren’t looking for a great artist, they are looking for a ‘package’: team up a particular boy band with a certain producer and a certain writer and you will come up with something that will ‘really connect with the kids’. It’s the difference between letting an act grow organically and naturally, and manufacturing one. At one time, you were willing to give a band two or three albums to find their feet. Now, that’s too expensive to even consider. There need to be instant returns.
And there is another factor to consider – The X Factor.
I am one of the 17 million people who watch the show, though few in the music industry do. Most people I know in the business dislike it because it has created an incredible logjam in terms of breaking other artists. The charts are dominated by acts from previous seasons of The X Factor.
The acts on the show are basically karaoke singers. Good karaoke singers, some of them. I picked out Rebecca Ferguson, Matt Cardle and Mary Byrne during the auditions. They all have reasonable voices and if they wrote their own songs they would have a shot at a career. Unfortunately, they don’t write their own songs.
All the great groups from recent years – think U2, Oasis, Coldplay – honed their craft by performing live in pubs and clubs, and they wrote their own material. The difference between them and X Factor is like the difference between Van Gogh and someone who can do a passable vase of sunflowers using a painting-by-numbers kit.
However, these days, it is safer to invest in a passable act than a Van Gogh. I doubt anyone now could follow the career path I trod. It simply no longer exists.
And although I’m still looking forward to the next chapter in my life, I doubt I will ever again feel as excited as I used to when I booked a new blues act, or when the phone used to ring at all hours and someone on the end of the line would say: ‘Boss, we’ve got a problem.’
FREE Blondie’s Parallel Lines CD
IT WAS a classic album and it turned Blondie – with singer Debbie Harry – into international stars. Parallel Lines, released in 1978, featured massive hits such as Heart Of Glass and Sunday Girl, and today there’s a FREE copy of the original recording with your Mail on Sunday. The 12 tracks are:
HANGING ON THE TELEPHONE:
The viciously brilliant single reached No5 in the UK charts and inspired a number of cover versions.
ONE WAY OR ANOTHER: A whip-crack rock’n’roll track written by Debbie Harry in 1978, it reached No24 in the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States.
PICTURE THIS: The first collaboration with producer Mike Chapman, the single peaked at No12 in the UK charts.
FADE AWAY (AND RADIATE):
The B-side for Picture This, it features Robert Fripp on guitar.
PRETTY BABY: Debbie Harry sounds as sweet as honey on this track.
I KNOW BUT I DON’T KNOW:
A lesser-known Blondie track but it still features great guitar-playing
11.59: Three minutes of pop perfection from the band’s keyboard player Jimmy Destri.
WILL ANYTHING HAPPEN: This track was the B-side for Hanging On The Telephone and was written by Jack Lee.
SUNDAY GIRL: Topped the charts for three weeks in May 1979. A french version was also recorded.
HEART OF GLASS: The song that kick-started Blondie’s three-year run as one of the biggest groups in the world. It topped the charts in Britain and the United States, and Rolling Stone magazine ranked the song among the greatest 500 of all time.
I’M GONNA LOVE YOU TOO: This song was originally recorded by Buddy Holly in 1958.
JUST GO AWAY: Released as the B-side of I’m Gonna Love You Too.
And listen to three new Blondie songs – two are on the CD as bonus tracks and the third is downloadable from www.blondie.net.
WHAT I HEARD: Written by Blondie keyboard player Matt Katz-Bohen and his wife Laurel.
GIRLIE GIRLIE: The band’s take on a reggae classic.
MOTHER: Dedicated to those who frequented Jackie 60, one of the best clubs in New York during the Nineties.
And if that wasn’t enough, you can also purchased any of these five fantastic Blondie albums for just £5 each plus p&p.
BLONDIE: Recorded in 1976, the self-titled debut was part of the New York City crowd’s initial salvo of punk/new wave, radically different from anything in the American mainstream at the time.
The sly lyrics, Debbie Harry’s knowing delivery and Jimmy Destri’s gloriously cheesy organ riffs make it apparent that revivalism was never Blondie’s intention; the band simply used the past to hijack the punk present and lay claim to a new-wave future.
PLASTIC LETTERS: Considered by many to be Blondie’s best, their second album catches the group poised on the brink of global superstardom. The album’s first single, Denis, a gender-switched cover of the Sixties pop hit Denise by Randy and the Rainbows, was a massive British hit which went far towards dispelling the band’s second-tier status on the New York punk scene.
AUTOAMERICAN: A fine collection of diverse, slickly produced pop songs, featuring the all-pervasive Rapture. It’s difficult to explain just how popular this song was on the radio in 1981 or how enormous its cultural impact was.
Before Rapture, rap was little known outside of New York City’s outer boroughs, but Debbie Harry’s rap, name-checking the likes of Fab 5 Freddy and Grandmaster Flash, brought the style to worldwide attention.
EAT TO THE BEAT: Following the enormous success of Parallel Lines, 1979’s Eat To The Beat cemented Blondie’s status as by far the most commercially viable of the first wave of New York punk bands.
BEAUTIFUL: This 1995 compilation album features 12 remixes of classic hits such as Rapture, Heart Of Glass and Atomic.
For more information on the band, visit www.blondie.net
No dumb Blondie
WORDS BY LOUISE GANNON
PORTRAIT BY BRIAN ARIS
Debbie Harry became the poster girl of pop when Blondie’s iconic album, Parallel Lines, hit the UK in 1978. The former waitress from New Jersey made an instant impact with her cool ice-blonde looks on the album, which is free inside today’s Mail On Sunday. ‘It was a huge record for us because it really cemented our position in Britain,’ she says. ‘The album sounds amazing today – and I think we play it better now.’ Blondie have a new album out next year, Panic Of Girls. Now 65, Harry remains one of the few rock’n’roll women to have worked consistently throughout every decade, in movies, television and on Broadway.
It’s not about looks – it’s about how you use them.
I hated the way I looked growing up. I had this blonde hair, pale-blue eyes and these jutting cheekbones. I didn’t look like any other kids I grew up with and I felt very uncomfortable about my face. I hated looking in mirrors and I definitely didn’t think I was pretty. That attitude sort of worked for me in rock’n’roll. I got into bands and I started getting attention for my looks but I’d never valued them. I didn’t act like the traditional girl in the boys’ band – I was one of the band. And I wore leather trousers; I didn’t do the cute pretty thing. It was weird for me when my looks started to get such attention but I never got sidetracked by that. For me it was all about being rated as a musician.
I based my image on movie stars like Marilyn but I gave them a punk twist. I was very into movies, very into art. I loved all those strong blonde actresses who lit up the screen. I took that very cinematic feel to Blondie, this cool blonde. But it was definitely with a twist. I wasn’t a victim; I was strong, I was a bit remote. I wanted to make people feel they were watching me on a screen. There wasn’t anything like that in music before me. Janis Joplin was a strong woman but all her lyrics were about lost love and being a victim. I wanted to seem more untouchable. I was very happy when people loved my looks and I enjoyed the flattery.
Andy Warhol was one of my greatest mentors. He did a painting of me [see right]. Andy was a great guy. He was an amazing listener. Sometimes people want to talk too much but you get more if you listen. He was incredibly casual about everything. I think the best thing he taught me was always to be open to new things, new music, new style, new bands, new technology and just go with it. Never get mired in the past and always accept new things whatever age you are.
I could have been a housewife or a gardener but I chose to be a rock’n’roll singer. The only thing I wanted to be as a teenager was a beatnik. I loved that whole ideal of artists, musicians, writers. It was a choice, a life choice, and it hasn’t always been easy.
There aren’t many people in bands at my age. I never feel I have sacrificed anything to do what I do; I’ve just made choices. It’s about working hard and committing to doing this job.
I had a narrow escape from the serial killer Ted Bundy. It was the early Seventies and I was trying to get across town at two or three o’clock in the morning. This little car kept coming around and offering me a ride. I kept saying no but finally I took the ride because I couldn’t get a cab. I got in the car and the windows were all rolled up, except for a tiny crack. This driver had an incredibly bad smell to him. I looked down and there were no door handles. The inside of the car was stripped. The hairs on the back of my neck just stood up. I wiggled my arm out of the window and pulled the door handle from the outside. I don’t know how I did it, but I got out. He tried to stop me by spinning the car but it sort of helped me fling myself out. Afterward I saw him on the news. Ted Bundy.
If I could give my younger self any advice it would be to keep an eye on the business side of things. In Blondie we were very bad at the business side and we lost a lot of money. At the height of our fame the thing that caused us the most stress was the business – we knew we didn’t have a handle on it and we knew a lot of cash was flying away. When you get into a band you think it’s all about music. It’s all you know about and it’s all you want to know about. The reality is that most young musicians could do with a crash course in accounting. It’s a weird situation to be really famous, really busy and yet to have this feeling all the time that you’re not being properly looked after.
I always admire people with longevity. It’s the most valuable asset of any of the arts. The dust that collects around you is what you are. For us it’s the songs. We wrote a lot of songs, from Heart Of Glass to Sunday Girl to Hanging On The Telephone. We still perform those song. That’s something. People tell us they still sound fresh and they stand up. On top of that we bring in something new. I think we play better, sing better, perform better than we ever did. Artists have to grow.
I’m glad we came from the era we did. Fame today is very different. Back then we felt like pioneers. It was amazing being a woman in a band and there were others, from Patti Smith to Siouxsie Sioux, who were changing the way women in bands were seen. Now music has become showbiz; it’s all one big celebrity blob. There is so much pressure on kids today. I don’t know how well I would have fared under such an intense microscope.
Some people thought I was a man. It was one of the rumours that went around and never went away. You have to learn to live with a lot of rumours like that. I know they say that about Lady Gaga now. She’s strong, she’s ambitious and so she gets handed the same line. That girl is terrific and we should be proud of her. Never believe everything you read.
Lily Allen is the sweetest girl and a friend. I was devastated when I heard about her losing her baby. Lily is special and incredibly talented. We became friends when we worked together on a duet of Heart Of Glass. She has such spirit and such intelligence, and she’s one of those girls who respects the women who went before her. I felt I was passing a torch on to her.
I am happier today than I was 40 years ago. I know who I am and I’m more in control. I love what I do and I love how I live. I mix with amazing people, I get to play music on tour, I perform at festivals and my life is never boring. Getting older is hard on your looks, but on stage people sometimes see you as you were, which is nice.
I have a rule – I always work in New Year’s Eve. I don’t care where I do it, whether it’s a club or a bar or a big stage, it’s doesn’t matter. I just have to work because I always feel it’s symbolic for me for the next year.