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52 Books #29: Black Vinyl, White Powder

July 28, 2011

A slight cheat this week, as I’m only two thirds of the way through Simon Napier-Bell’s Black Vinyl, White Powder (Ebury). From the days before rock n’ roll arrived in Britain, up until the end of boy- and girl-bands’ domination of the charts, Napier-Bell traces a history of musical movements over five decades. He has two emphases: as the title suggests, his thesis is that the music industry and the drugs trade are interwoven inextricably, and he gleefully relates tales of excess and depravity which would turn some readers’ hair white. For every familiar anecdote (the police’s 1967 raid on Keith Richards’ house after a tip-off from the New of the World — nothing much changes) there is something eye-opening (Roger Waters’s unpleasant gift to an enraptured fan at a Pink Floyd gig).

To tell his history, Napier-Bell calls in quotes from innumerable artists, producers, writers and even someone who is styled a “rock n’ roll psychiatrist” which conjures up an intriguing mental image, as well as the feeling that almost every performer who merits mention in this scabrous history could have done with the ministrations of such.

His other unifying strand is his concentration (very useful for me, doing research on a piece which is in some ways similarly themed) on the behind-the-scenes machinations of the record industry. From Dave Clark deciding in the 1960s to undertake his own management — and by doing so earn twenty times more money from each record he sold than did, say, any of the Beatles — to various other musical trends chiefly engendered by record-company execs: punk being a signal example, as Malcolm McLaren sought to artifically change the music business and, by doing so, profit from that change, BVWP is as much a depiction of the changing role of managers and producers as of the stars. Not surprising, then, to read that singers were originally seen very much as the poor relations of the people actually ‘making’ songs — very far from stars, a singer was a disposable and replaceable commodity, at least until the rise of performance-based TV shows focused attention away from ‘songs’ (which could be, and were, recorded by four different acts, each on a different record label, and performed by any number more), towards the people who sang them.

Napier-Bell becomes a music manager himself, and manages the Yardbirds for a time; among his other achievements — which are somewhat downplayed in this book, perhaps because he has two other books available — is to have co-written the English-language lyrics to Dusty Springfield’s ‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’. He was also, according to some other texts, unwittingly instrumental in Beatles manager Brian Epstein’s suicide, though he draws over this a veil which may be sensitive or may simply mean he’s written more elaborately about the events elsewhere. He’s open enough to describe spending a year abroad for tax-evasion purposes, and while I’ve no doubt that this book is in part a record-straightening exercise, he doesn’t overtly try to play up his own influence.

One letdown that is outwith his control is that the book, published in 2001, could use a tenth-anniversary update which expands and comments on his prognostications in the final chapter for the coming years. But there is still a record business — or a music industry, to be more accurate — which there might not have been, and it’s fairly obvious that its business model still relies to a great extent on the money-making strategies (greatest hits albums and compilations) it devised some time ago. Meanwhile, Napier-Bell and his interviewees make cagey bets about the emphasis shifting back onto songs rather than performers — a very different retread of the 1950s scenario where people just liked (say) ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ without really caring which of the many acts happened to be performing it. The song, rather than the single or the album, is the default unit now, and I’d be intrigued to read Napier-Bell’s comments on that transition — plus there’s the fact that the text doesn’t cover Napster, MP3s, iTunes/iPods or, of course, Radiohead’s experimental ‘pay what you want’ selling of In Rainbows. (Not, I suspect, that anyone — even a commentator as Napier-Bell — can fully assess, even four years on, what effect that has had on the industry.)

Napier-Bell’s prose is workmanlike, unshowy and clear. He isn’t well-served by his publishers, sadly; commas, for instance, could do with being sprinkled over the pages like the cocaine on Noel Gallagher’s cornflakes. Neither, sadly, is the text 100% accurate: much though Napier-Bell bemoans the fact that Sade was far better-known overseas than in her home country, I for one am fully aware that she never released a single entitled ‘The Greatest Taboo’; and if you’re going to namecheck the vastest media conglomerate in the world, it might have been an idea to google whether it’s spelled Bertlesmann or Bertelsmann. This raises the possibility that a lot more is misremembered, poorly fact-checked or just plain wrong than just a song title here or there, and detracts from an otherwise engaging, always entertaining survey.

*

Other reading in Week #29:

Tony Judt Ill Fares the Land (Penguin)

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