The life of Brian
ENVY’S a dangerous emotion, but the chance to walk in Brian Southall’s shoes for a week or two in the 1970s would have been glorious. During a career in the music business he worked with legends like Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Cliff Richard and Kate Bush. He met celebs such as Marc Bolan and a youthful Michael Jackson. There was a short but memorable encounter with the Sex Pistols. Now he’s busy finishing off a book with Simply Red founder Mick Hucknall and eyeing a likely trip to the South of France to meet Julian Lennon. John Lennon would have been 70 this year if he’d lived, and December will bring the 30th anniversary of his murder. His son has been collecting memorabilia and a high-quality art book is in the offing. Brian should be popping over to Nice to help make it happen. It’s a tough life, but someone’s got to do it . . .
Mind you, the years haven’t all been peaches and cream and glamour. Working in press, promotion and marketing for a music giant like EMI sometimes meant being shouted at by artists whose creative bent was matched by a delicate sensitivity, if not downright diva-ishness. “It was so easy to fall out with people,” Brian grins. Usually it was with those on the lower rungs of the business, acting as if they were closer to the top of the ladder.
“If artists wanted a limo, you’d do it. They thought they were getting one over on the record company; what they didn’t know is that you were charging it back to them!
“You did fall out: if the record failed, or they didn’t get what they wanted, or someone didn’t treat them with respect, or the journalist coming to interview them was half an hour late . . . then, somehow, it was my fault!”
One of the bigger names to be a bit uppity was Freddie Mercury. Brian says Pink Floyd are among his favourite groups, “but I have to say that Freddie Mercury and Queen are probably the greatest band I’ve ever seen – in terms of showmanship. The man was an absolute star. A pain in the a***, but an absolute star. Oh, he could be a nightmare. He was very diva-ish and had the memory of an elephant. He remembered everybody who’d crossed him and never, ever forgave.”
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Brian went to America with the group and remembers arranging a pass for a photographer to cover a concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Years earlier, this photographer had done a shoot with the group. Some kind of mix-up meant images were later used that hadn’t been approved by the band; it wasn’t the photographer’s fault, but Freddie obviously blamed him, recognised him in the pit during the show, and had him turfed out of the venue!
Brian, who lives at Chelmsford, also remembers a tricky moment on a plane. Freddie had been handed a copy of the NME: New Musical Express. It contained a tetchy interview by Tony Stewart that’s gone down in rock history, carrying a rather unflattering headline about the singer: Is This Man a Prat? “God, was he not a happy bunny,” half-shivers Brian, more than 30 years later. He got some of the blame for the NME’s approach. “Most of it, if you look back, was petty, frivolous and unimportant,” he says of such incidents and repercussions, “but you couldn’t laugh it off then, because at the time it was an issue.”
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He also recalls going for lunch with Freddie and an EMI colleague to a French restaurant close to the office. “Lovely summer’s day and Freddie walked back 50 yards around two sides of Manchester Square . . . and the limo had to go at the same pace, with the door open – in case he got tired or was spotted!”
Lest it appear that we’re sticking the boot into someone who can’t answer back – Mercury died in 1991 – we ought to include a more positive anecdote. Once, he was involved in a car accident in Oxfordshire and was taken into a small flat by a couple of students who had to scurry around to find 10p for the meter so they could make a cup of tea. After a while the singer was collected, “and two days later he sends them 800 quids’ worth of 10ps. So he was generous . . . but you trod on eggshells. You never quite knew what would trigger it off”.
So what was this about The Rolling Stones?
“I was on a shortlist of two, at one point, to go and manage their office. It was very poor pay; I was on more at EMI, bizarrely! I went down to meet Prince Rupert (Loewenstein, the group’s then financial adviser) at London Wall – a charming man, and with a man in tails and a wing collar to serve you coffee. ‘Do you have a preference?’ I’m going ‘White, no sugar.’ And he said ‘No, no; Colombian or Jamaican?’ I’m thinking ‘Just Nescafe will be fine . . . we don’t ‘do’ this!’
“Then about a week later I got a call at the office and a man said ‘Is that Brian Southall?’ Yes. ‘It’s Mick Jagger here.’ Y-e-a-h . . . I thought ‘It’s my brother . . .’ ‘It is Mick Jagger.’ Y-e-a-h . . . ‘You met with Rupert last week, didn’t you?’ Oh my goodness, it IS Mick Jagger.
“So we had a conversation and made an arrangement to meet later. Then I rang (wife) Pat and said ‘You won’t believe what happened. I had Mick Jagger on the phone and I thought it was my brother!’ And she said ‘Oh, he rang here – and I thought it was your brother as well!’”
Brian subsequently had an interview in Chelsea, meeting Jerry Hall, too, but he and the Stones couldn’t arrive at a financial agreement and the job didn’t come his way.
Nonetheless, he had an intriguing career in the music industry for which many of us would have given our eye-teeth.
Born in Kidderminster in 1947, Brian came to East Anglia when his father became sports editor of the Essex Weekly News in Chelmsford. Brian was only ever going to follow in his father’s footsteps. He joined the Essex Chronicle as a teenager and, with a colleague, started a pop column.
He remembers his first interview: The Who, after their show at Chelmsford Corn Exchange. They were using the ballroom as a changing area. There was some booze, and some attractive young ladies. “Then the manager came in with a suitcase which he opened up; and it was full of money. He was dolling out wages. I thought ‘Hang on . . . rock and roll, girls, drink, money . . . I can do this!”
The young journalist had a short spell at the Surrey Comet in the late 1960s before deciding to “come back home and get my washing done”. He joined the Braintree and Witham Times – as, apparently, the youngest, “and cheapest!”, sports editor in England.
But music was calling and, not long before getting married in the autumn of 1969, he landed a job on a new trade paper called Music Business Weekly. It launched in the week of his wedding. Brian and his bride had a three-day honeymoon in London, during which they saw Ray Charles at the Royal Festival Hall.
Music Business Weekly (printed, funnily enough, in Colchester) shared a corridor in Fleet Street with other IPC publications, such as Goal, Melody Maker, Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly and a farming magazine. “By the state of their hair and their dress, you could tell where people worked!”
When Music Business Weekly closed, Brian switched to Melody Maker, followed by Disc. Then he joined A&M Records. One of his duties as a press officer was to go on a six-month tour with The Carpenters. Backstage, he’d find Karen Carpenter, her mother and the manager’s wife doing needlepoint. “And that was rock and roll . . .!”
Brian admits he hated what they were about, and he didn’t take to Karen. “I thought she was an unpleasant, miserable person who didn’t enjoy any of her success. She was obviously not well.” (She suffered from anorexia nervosa and died just before her 33rd birthday from heart problems.)
When A&M moved from Mayfair to Chelsea, the travelling from his home in Essex threatened to prove a headache and so in the spring of 1974 he became press officer for Motown, which was licensed through EMI and had acts such as Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, The Commodores and The Jackson 5.
A couple of years or so later he became press officer for EMI’s group repertoire division, featuring artists such as Steve Harley, Pilot and Olivia Newton-John. Further down the line he worked with people like Pink Floyd, Queen, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. (John Lennon was the only ex-Beatle he never met.)
The press role, he says, was “Good fun. Better than most other jobs. You went to gigs, you got free records, you had a good time. People sometimes shouted at you because you were supposed to get people like you to come and interview punk rock bands or awful singers. My mum could have done ‘press’ for Paul McCartney; getting publicity for some of the other acts, like Mr Big or Giggles – which was managed by Tom Watkins, who went on to manage the Pet Shop Boys and Bros – was more difficult.
“EMI had a roster in the UK of 100-200 acts and you had to do your best for all of them. If a record was not a hit, that was often ‘your fault’. If it was a hit, it was down to them for making a good record!”
Then came a move to artist development, “which I never really understood!”, helping musicians with aspects of the business such as making videos and getting artwork done. He worked with artists such as Kate Bush and Tom Robinson. A spell in marketing followed, “which I understood even less about!”
A band like the Stones had a big promotional budget, for instance, but didn’t need it, as their reputation meant “you could put a new record in a brown paper bag, tell three people, and you’d have a hit”. Brian would have preferred to spend more on lesser-known artists who might make it with more oomph behind them.
He left the company in 1989, having become head of corporate affairs for EMI Music worldwide, and formed his own consultancy firm. Brian was engaged by Warner Music International, HMV Group and both the British Phonographic Industry and the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.
Today, life’s very much about books. He wrote a history of the Brit Awards for the BPI and co-authored Abbey Road: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Recording Studios. His canon also includes Northern Songs: The True Story of the Beatles’ Song Publishing Empire, Pop Goes To Court (about the music industry’s greatest legal battles), The A-Z of Record Labels, and Sex Pistols: 90 Days at EMI.
Last year came The Rise & Fall of EMI Records, billed as “the definitive account of a major international company’s travails” and “also an eye-opening expose of the speed at which the music industry has changed”.
Wife Pat takes care of the editing, says Brian, who’s got a daughter and a granddaughter. “Pat ‘does grammar’ – and I get the tenses terribly muddled,” he laughs, quipping that his good lady is a library assistant who listens to Radio 4 and has no great interest in the internal machinations of the music business.
Lately he’s been working with Mick Hucknall to update an earlier work, If You Don’t Know Me by Now: The Official Story of Simply Red. He’s also finishing a tome to celebrate the 50 years-plus career of the Bee Gees.
On the stocks, too, is a likely book on Jimi Hendrix. Brian missed the chance to see him at Chelmsford in 1967. He grins. “I was on holiday in Majorca with my mum!”
n Brian Southall will be talking about his life in music as part of the Essex Book Festival. The event is at 7.30pm, at Maldon Library, on March 31. Box office: 01206 573948. www.essexbookfestival.org.uk