My Life in Vinyl: Alan McGee
The legendary Creation founder, who worked with My Bloody Valentine, Ride and Primal Scream before discovering Oasis and managing The Libertines, gives Ben Wardle the inside track on 12 albums that have shaped his career in music…
So much more than ‘the man who discovered Oasis’, Alan McGee is a record-business groundbreaker. He sits at the top table along with game-changing A&R legends such as Island’s Chris Blackwell, Interscope’s Jimmy Iovine, and the late Ahmet Ertegun who set up Atlantic Records in 1947. Like them, McGee combines visionary ability to spot talent with a streetwise, no-nonsense business sense.
From its humble beginnings with singles by McGee’s own band, Biff Bang Pow!, to orchestrating the fusion of rock and dance with Primal Scream, to seeing him shaking hands with the Prime Minister, McGee’s ‘bedroom’ label Creation Records’ rise, as well as his parallel career as a music manager, have been well documented in books and on film.
When we speak to him, McGee is in buoyant form – enjoying managing his current roster, which includes Black Grape, The Bluetones and Cast. Amazingly, he no longer owns any vinyl, preferring to stream all his music, but he was happy to sift through the virtual tower of records he’s been involved with in his four decades in the business, and pick out the ones which best tell his story.
Forever Breathes The Lonely Word
Creation September 1986
“I’ve rediscovered Felt this year. I stopped Creation Records 18-plus years ago and I hadn’t played any Felt since, but this Christmas in Wales I played some and my 17-year-old daughter, who has got great taste, said: ‘What’s this, dad? I like this one’. We put out four albums by Lawrence [Felt’s mononymous mainstay], but this is truly the best one. I’d been friends with Lawrence since 1984. I was 23 and he was 21, and he was a big star to me and Bobby Gillespie and people like that. In 1985, he left Cherry Red and said he wanted to be on Creation. We couldn’t believe it! We were a bedroom label and he’d been on an actual record company.
“It was the equivalent of being this little dude and getting a really elegant woman to go out with you! Cherry Red was probably what Creation was trying to be… I loved [Cherry Red A&R] Mike Alway… I wanted to be like them more than Rough Trade. The album was incredibly well received… If I was starting a label now and we put that out, it would still be heralded as a great record.”
Alan’s choice: All The People I Like Are Those That Are Dead
THE HOUSE OF LOVE
The House Of Love
Creation June 1988
“[First single] Shine On had got a little bit of traction, but nobody was interested in Real Animal. We nearly went bankrupt around the time. My wife had left me, I had around 12 grand left in the bank and I spent it all on mixing the House Of Love record with Pat Collier. We made a fucking amazing record: I thought it was going to do okay, but I didn’t see it really going. Then Christine came out and everybody went: ‘This is fucking amazing!’. Jeff Barrett did a great job on press and it blew up. It sold 100,000 copies. Then we did Destroy The Heart, and after that it was a major-label feeding frenzy. If Terry Bickers hadn’t left, I believe they might’ve got there and become an absolutely huge band: they were good enough. The fatal flaw was Guy Chadwick, because he was bonkers. He was a very grounded guy, a brilliant writer, but he shouldn’t have done drugs…”
Alan’s choice: Man To Child
Just For A Day
Creation September 1991
“What’s interesting about this band is that on the first album, they were untrendy; the second album, nobody gave a fuck and the third album, you couldn’t give it away. But 20 years later, in 2014, they come back and they’re headlining to 20,000 people at Primavera [huge Barcelona festival]. That’s the power of music!
“They were fans of House Of Love and Ride. We were breaking a lot of these kind of bands and they jumped on it. I showed up at a pub in Windsor and then we put out the first single. I think they were misjudged back in the day. Back then, it wasn’t cool to be middle-class, not like now where it’s really difficult to be working-class in music! And Slowdive were middle-class, nice kids. But they were a great band. I’m not sure I really got it, like the kids now really get it. Now they’re a career band – not a band who come back once a year and play The Garage; they’re on tour, all round the world, all year!”
Alan’s choice: Brighter
Creation October 1990
“I was in the East West office with Richard Norris from The Grid [Alan managed Norris] and the A&R guy, Cally, played Ride and it was phenomenal. He said he didn’t know if they were going to sign to East West, so we arranged a meeting with them. I don’t think they could understand anything I said at first! We signed them and made them famous, but they ended up signing to Sire for the rest of the world! Ride were like the way [the record business] should be: they record, the record’s out three months later, everyone makes a profit, they go back in the studio… It was really good. Nowhere sold 100,000 copies really fast, so that created a lot of income for the label.
“We never used to put bands on the cover of our records – because I’d been a musician, I liked obscure thought processes…”
Alan’s choice: Seagull
Creation September 1991
“Before Primal Scream got to Loaded, they were on their arse. Nobody wanted to know them. Nobody gave a fuck. You couldn’t get them arrested – and we tried! But within a year of putting Loaded out, they became arguably one of the biggest groups in Britain. I met Andy Weatherall [producer of lead single Loaded and arguably the catalyst who made Primal Scream successful] with Bobby and Jeff Barrett at a Boy’s Own do in Brighton in summer 1989. He was wearing a Factory Records T-shirt with ‘Touched By The Hand Of God’ on it. The album was put together like a jigsaw, which is probably why it’s such a great record – every session was a thing in itself. We’d had the hit with Loaded, so we went in to do Come Together, but the Farley Mix was wrong and the Weatherall Mix with Jesse Jackson on it was great, but Bobby wasn’t singing on it again. So Bobby left the band! I had to keep the band together, so I phoned up Farley and said: ‘Put Bobby back in the fuckin’ mix!’… When we put out the album, there was no reason to see [success] coming. But in the first three days, we went silver – we ran out of records! If we’d made enough, we’d’ve had a No. 1! I gave Paul Cannell [the late artist who designed all of Primal Scream’s cover art] the upstairs of our Hackney office to do his painting – that says a lot about the times! I remember the original Screamadelica artwork was for a club flyer, but in blue. We didn’t have a sleeve and Bobby wanted it to be like the MC5. I remember thinking, ‘that’s him reverting back to the 1960s again’. So we put that and the flyer and some other ideas around it… Bobby chose the flyer, but he said: ‘I want it in red’.”
Alan’s choice: Higher Than The Sun
MY BLOODY VALENTINE
Creation November 1991
“It came out six weeks after Screamadelica and two weeks before [Teenage Fanclub’s] Bandwagonesque. We were going bankrupt – we needed to put records out!
“I was obsessed about MBV. One of the great things about Creation in that period in 1989 and 1990 was that I was so obsessed with the Valentines that I started signing all the bands who sounded like them! So I signed Slowdive, Ride, Moonshake and Adorable, who were all really into the Valentines! As I’ve got older, I realise I’ve got a really obsessive nature; luckily, I was obsessed with the right band!
“[Getting it made] was a bittersweet thing, a nightmare, really… It cost £270K, which was a lot back in the day. But it was brilliant when we got the record; it was a really great album, but I couldn’t really enjoy it at the time. It did pretty well for an album that noisy.
“Kevin Shields was really fucking with the listener at the point: he sent me To Here Knows When and it sounded like [does a pretty good rendition of a swirling ocean], so I said to him: ‘I think you’ve sent me a bad cassette copy’. And he was like: ‘You don’t get it!’.
Alan’s choice: To Here Knows When
Creation September 1992
“Bob Mould had put out two solo albums on Virgin, which hadn’t sold, but I was a fan of Hüsker Dü. Loveless had happened and he loved that album, so he came to my office. Because he’d been on Virgin, he’d been getting big advances, but I offered him 10K. We argued about it for months and eventually, he realised I wasn’t going to move… I’m so glad we did it, but why we got the deal was because I didn’t really care whether we got it or not! We were killing it at the time with the Fanclub, Ride, Boo Radleys… When we put Copper Blue out, it went in at No. 9. It’s a fantastic record, but that was a shocker; I don’t think Bob had ever been in the British charts. Andy Saunders [press officer] played a blinder, he was getting front covers everywhere. Bob was due a bit of a roll because Kurt Cobain was really influenced by Hüsker Dü.”
Alan’s choice: Hoover Dam
(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?
Creation October 1995
“They were a monumental band. It all fucking collided at one moment; it was their destiny, it was my destiny. Was I particularly amazing at doing it? No, but shit fucking went down; I was there, they were there. Caroline Elleray [head of A&R, Universal Music Publishing] just told me this – no one knows this story! In the 90s, she used to work at a rehearsal studio in Manchester and she did an A&R showcase with Oasis that loads of A&R went to, including Jonathan Dickins [then A&R at Warners, now Adele’s manager] and they all passed!
“The only person who knew what was going on was Noel because he was writing the songs. I never thought we’d do seven or eight million Definitely Maybes; never saw it. And when I first heard Wonderwall and Don’t Look Back In Anger in April ’95, I did think they were great, but I never thought we’d sell 23 million! [The press] didn’t have a clue. Oasis were the antithesis of what the kind of studenty people who wrote for the music papers back then were into: Oasis were stoners from Burnage and these guys were happier with the Manic Street Preachers talking about the politics of politics…
“It helped break Oasis when Damon decided to move the [Country House single] release date. Blur were so much bigger than Oasis – they’d sold two million Parklifes and we’d done just half a million Definitely Maybes. It was unbelievable to be on the national news.”
Alan’s choice: Wonderwall
SUPER FURRY ANIMALS
Creation May 1996
“It was Mark Bowen’s signing [Creation A&R man, who went on to set up Wichita] – he spotted it. He was on it from Day One, and really in with them. On the night they played, I had a hot date with somebody and I had to blow it out to go to the fucking Camden Falcon with Mark to see them. And I had to stand and watch Pearl Lowe’s band Powder… Then SFA played and they had great tunes. Mark took me backstage and they were all sitting there with spliffs hanging out of their mouths. We demo’d Something For The Weekend and it sounded like a Blur song to me, so we signed them off the back of that. They were a great signing, because nobody expected Creation to sign a bunch of opinionated Welsh anarchists. It was good! I was responsible for The Man Don’t Give A Fuck being their big song because that was going to be a B-side. Mark and Dick [Green, Alan’s partner in Creation] put it on a 12″ as an extra track. They didn’t see it for what it was, but I heard it and six weeks before release date, said: ‘Fuck off! That’s the single, put that out!’. And it went Top 20, and it’s still their biggest song!”
Alan’s choice: Something For The Weekend
Your New Favourite Band
Poptones October 2001
“We did put out some good stuff on Poptones [Alan’s label founded in 1999 after Creation’s dissolution], like The Hives, The BellRays, Cosmic Rough Riders – but nobody wants to remember it! I saw The Hives on TV in Germany when I was doing promo for Poptones. We licensed the first two albums and we chose the best songs and came up with Your New Favourite Band. We’d done that for Cosmic Rough Riders, which sold 100,000 albums. This did even better.”
Alan’s choice: Supply And Demand
Rough Trade August 2004
“The previous manager resigned in 2003. Don’t blame her! So James Endeacott [Rough Trade A&R man] decided that I was the only person who could mend Pete and Carl’s relationship, because Pete had burgled Carl’s house. So I went down to see Pete at his sister’s in Catford. We went to the pub and he says to me: ‘Who’s your favourite band?’, and I told him The Beatles, so he says: ‘Go and put five records on’. So I put on Hello, Goodbye, you know. Then I asked him who his favourite band was and he said: ‘Chas & Dave’, and he put five of their records on. He’d missed three probation periods, so I said: ‘You’re going to go down’, and he said: ‘No, I’m not’. I went away thinking he was a nice guy, but not thinking very much about it. And then he went to prison.
“After that, I went to America for a couple of months and while I was in New York, I get a phone call from Endeacott, who says: ‘He’s out! We’re doing a comeback!’. I was totally indignant that he’d phoned me up to try to get me to come back to the UK! But a week or so later, I was back and they appointed me as manager. They were already cult-big but we got them bigger; we didn’t break them with records, we broke them with gigs. We put three Forums on sale and we sold them. Then the next day, we put three Brixtons on sale. And they sold, too. That was April 2004.
“After that, we put out Can’t Stand Me Now and it exploded. We sold a million records. While they were making the record, my role as manager was the same as it was at a record company – Pete didn’t want to give us the best songs… I think he was already thinking of Babyshambles… But we got The Man Who Would Be King, Music When The Lights Go Out and Can’t Stand Me Now. The only one we never got on the album was Hooligans On E.
“The irony was there was so much heroin going on during the record, but Rough Trade said the band were eating too much food! I know! The band were racking up £200-a-day food bills while they were mixing at Island Studios. Rough Trade complained they wanted a discount on what we were eating! Never mind all the heroin and crack being done in the toilet!”
Alan’s choice: Can’t Stand Me Now
UMC July 2017
“I genuinely think that Shaun has been the best lyricist in Britain for the last 25 years. He’s a poet [at this point, McGee recites from memory the opening verses from Kinky Afro]. Tony Wilson had it right – he’s an unrecognised genius lyricist, just like Mark E Smith was.
“Johnny Chandler at Universal is a genius dude and he just offered us a deal for Black Grape out of the blue. So I sent Shaun with [producer] Youth off to Spain and literally 10 days later, they came back with 10 songs! I’ll be honest with you, I was worried we were going to get it in the Top 40.
“I was fronting it out to Shaun that it was going to be okay, but I was worried. But Universal phoned me and said, you’re not going to believe this and I thought, ‘Uh-oh, we’re going to be No. 72…’ but they told us the midweek was No. 1 – we couldn’t believe it. It was a weak chart, so we were No. 1 on 4,000 sales, but still…
“On the first track from the album, Everything You Know Is Wrong, we had to get an actor in to be Donald Trump, because Donald Trump’s so mental he’d probably sue us for a million dollars!”
Alan’s choice: Nine Lives
As the conversation begins to wind down, we ask McGee if he’s got plans for anything beyond management.
“It’s never been more difficult for new music to take… And I don’t think it’s because I’m old, I think it’s really, really tough now for new bands. You used to be able to go to the NME to find out what was going on. Now, the hardest thing is that there is nowhere to go to work out what the fuck’s going on… Mind you, I might come back with a 7″ label…” Watch this space.