The rainmaker

Zac O?Yeah | Updated on January 12, 2018
Gentleman gourmet: Simon Napier-Bell’s bio states that he ‘eats and drinks well all over the world. Photo: Zac O’Yeah

Gentleman gourmet: Simon Napier-Bell’s bio states that he ‘eats and drinks well all over the world. Photo: Zac O’Yeah

Raconteur: Napier-Bell in conversation with Radha Thomas (centre) and Vasundhara Das (right). Photo: Zac O’Yeah

Raconteur: Napier-Bell in conversation with Radha Thomas (centre) and Vasundhara Das (right). Photo: Zac O’Yeah

Simon Napier-Bell, 77, is one of the legendary managers in pop music, a man who has wined and dined with the best in the business — and written funny books about it all

Meeting an author whose bio states that in between his talkshows he ‘eats and drinks well all over the world’, I thought it would be a sensible idea to go wining and dining with Simon Napier-Bell. Yet the prospect was somewhat intimidating.

At 77, he is one of the legendary managers in pop history. He has worked with bands such as The Yardbirds (which featured guitarists Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page), Marc Bolan (whose T.Rex gave birth to glam rock), Ultravox, Japan, and Wham! — and he lived to tell the tale. He has written four enormously entertaining insider books on music and recently he visited India to promote his latest, Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay: The Dodgy Business of Popular Music.

“Making this book a success and going round the world talking,” he tells me, “is a perfect way to spend five years: luxury travel, good eating, and new people.”

Apart from promoting his books, Napier-Bell gives talks on a range of topics — such as how to manage rock stars and ‘other misguided megalomaniacs’ — to which he brings his insights from having worked in the industry for more than 50 years. At the Bengaluru Poetry Festival, he tried to convince the workshop participants to look at poetry as a commercial art, rather than something that is isolated from the marketplace. “I’ve managed some of the richest poets in the world,” he quipped, obviously referring to pop composers Marc Bolan and George Michael, whose lyrics were the key to their musical successes.

All his books and talks contain outlandish anecdotes about him having dinner with celebrities that inevitably result — after one too many bottles of wine — in incredible escapades, such as when Michael challenged him to turn Wham! (his group with Andrew Ridgeley) the biggest pop act in the world. Napier-Bell pulled it off — as told in detail in his book I’m Coming To Take You To Lunch: A Fantastic Tale Of Boys, Booze And How Wham! Were Sold to China – and subsequently Wham! went on to sell 40 million records within a few years before they disbanded.

Incidentally, a documentary about Napier-Bell making Wham! the first western pop group to play in China was shot by the Bengaluru-born, Academy Award-winning director Lindsay Anderson. In Anderson’s diaries, archived at Stirling University, he noted that the first screening was applauded by all, but then, Michael, Ridgeley and Napier-Bell all had dinner some nights later. Alcohol was consumed. Michael expressed his disapproval of the film, or at least his feeling of its unfitness for the purpose. The only specific objection I heard is that the cutting of the numbers was insufficiently ‘modern’. The footage was re-cut into a concert video released as Foreign Skies. Anderson wrote, “I do think that between them the Whammies have destroyed, or suppressed, an enjoyable, informative, entertaining and even at times a beautiful film.”

So to cut a long story short, dinner and drinks seems like the best way to manage the manager. We go to Sunny’s, the classic Bengaluru dining destination in a bungalow in Lavelle Road. Perhaps it isn’t as hot as bars were in the London of the Swinging Sixties, where Napier-Bell once drunk himself under the table and bumped into John Lennon, who was crawling on the floor looking for his mind, as told in his over-the-top book You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me. But as soon as we have beers and cocktails on the table, he seems really happy to be in India.

“I’m hooked on travelling, I invent business that lets me do it rather than doing it to fulfil business needs. Most of all, I like eating meals with people,” says Napier-Bell who, in order to get Wham! into China, spent a year taking Chinese ministers out for expensive lunches. “It’s not the food, or even the drink. Just the ambience of restaurants and food and drink and talking. I guess my most basic work motto is — Always mix business with pleasure.”

The medley on the sound system switches to Daddy Cool, which was a big hit for the disco band Boney M whom Napier-Bell brought back to fame at a retro stage of their career. Once the group had been resuscitated, he gifted Boney M to his then boyfriend Donovan Nelson, who manages them to this day.

One anecdote follows another, as we nibble on crispy calamari, fragrant crab cakes and Vietnamese-style rice paper spring rolls. The stuff he writes about is mostly drawn from experience — for example, the title of his first book comes from the #1 hit You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me that he co-wrote for Dusty Springfield. He tells me how some time later, while visiting the RCA office in New York, he noticed they were about to release a new Elvis Presley single: You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me. “Oh, what is this?” Napier-Bell said, and they replied, “Didn’t you know? He just recorded it.” Next week he was in Las Vegas where the song was performed for the first time. He got invited backstage and knowing that a Presley single was going to sell millions of copies, Napier-Bell asked whether he too could get a gold record. Presley turned to his manager Colonel Parker and said, “Give the kid a gold record.” When the record arrived at Napier-Bell’s office in London, he also received an invoice for $224! Apparently anyone who asked for a gold record was given one — and the Colonel made money from the sales.

Another time when Napier-Bell was having dinner with Colonel Parker, they talked about going through bad spots, and Parker told him, “Son, there’s only one way of staying in business, and that is by not going out of business.”

Food and drink makes Napier-Bell jolly and chatty. After a day’s work, he loves to uncork a bottle of something in the kitchen, and shows me photos on his iPhone in which he wields a huge frying pan. He uses fresh ingredients that he picks up from the local market near his current home in Thailand. While we order mains, he interrogates the waiter about the food — he’s not interested in salmon from Norway and considers trying the local river fish, but when he hears that the filet mignon is not imported, he picks that instead.

We move on to wine and decide on a white. Napier-Bell samples the Big Banyan Sauvignon Blanc after he learns it is grown and bottled right outside Bengaluru. Seriously good, he pronounces, due to the fact that it doesn’t taste at all like European wines, but has its own peculiar Indian hint of spiciness.

After we’ve paired our mains with wine, he discusses what a tricky balancing act music management is. “You’re dealing with an artiste on the one side, who gets a bloated ego if he’s successful, if he earns a lot of money he becomes a megalomaniac, and on the other side you’re dealing with record companies who are rampantly capitalist. So you have to bring these two sides together, while you suffer from both sides and then you don’t get much credit from either side. But you make a lot of money as a manager.”

So he must be getting a creative release through his books?

“The answer is that I enjoy “having written”. I don’t enjoy writing, I enjoy editing. I was brought up by a film director father and I write like films are made. I gather all the material I can, higgledy-piggledy. That’s fine. Then put it into some sort of order. And structure. A first rough cut. Then slowly progress to a final cut.”

Talking about his literary influences, he says, “I love the form and construction of Somerset Maugham’s or Graham Greene’s short stories. Just like I admire pop more than rock. Pop is crisp, short storytelling, with form and structure. My first book, You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, was deliberately written as short stories. It was a way to lessen the daunting thought of writing a whole book.”

One of his pet projects has been to write the definitive history of London restaurants: how, a hundred years ago, there were a handful and today there are tens of thousands. Out of the many Indian restaurants in London, he feels that surprisingly few are really good — which is why he is happy to spend a week talking in India as it gives him an opportunity to sample a lot of curries. So now that he’s here, what are his thoughts on his food?

“I had no bad experiences except when for one night in Kolkata I didn’t eat Indian and had a rack of lamb in a Lebanese restaurant, and despite the lamb itself being of the highest quality, it was disastrously overcooked. The food in Chennai seems interestingly different from food in the north. The seafood is wonderful, so delicious when done the Indian way. Altogether, it has been a gourmet trip.”

We’re reaching the end of the meal and instead of dessert we order more beverages — Napier-Bell has single malt, I do a submarine of vodka and beer. In his books, he often seems to be getting great ideas while hanging out in bars. How important is drinking for a pop manager?

“Well, first of all it’s very important never to underestimate the importance of not drinking too little alcohol. Another thing: the music business is very much a ‘who-you-know’ business, so getting out and about is important. But I don’t much like the ‘in’ side of the business. I always preferred to sneak off to a sleazy gay bar, rather than hang around with celebrities in the place to be.”

Among Indian celebrities, he is particularly besotted with Vasundhara Das, the world music singer who became famous for her lead role in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding. “Vasundhara said when she was at school the Presley version of You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me was one of the influences on her deciding to become a professional singer. She is indeed a world-class artiste. I’d love to work with her.”

So maybe Das will be the next superstar that Simon manages? But that’s a question perhaps best left for the future.

Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist based in Bengaluru

Published on January 06, 2017

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