When I got through to Alan McGee, it sounded like he was having his flat trashed by Dr Who monsters, possibly in the process of drowning him in a bubble bath. Either that or it was just another day of me dealing with poor mobile phone reception.
The first thing I could make out was his rather worrying, “I’ll go to the window, man.” Don’t jump, Alan. Not on my account. But things improved a little from there, at least sporadically. Not as if I’d have had enough time to hear half of his stories if I was on for four hours and the reception was perfect from his base in the capital, not so far from Tower Bridge.
How best to describe this 58-year-old East Kilbride-born maverick? The press release accompanying his An Evening with Alan McGee shows suggests ‘Scottish businessman, music industry executive, record label owner, musician, manager, and The Guardian music blogger’. But I guess he’s best known for co-founding independent label Creation Records (which he ran from 1983 to 1999) and as the man who discovered and signed Oasis.
There’s so much more to his story than that though, as those popping along this Friday night to Warrington’s Pyramid Arts Centre or anywhere else on his current talking tour will hear. Top entertainment guaranteed, I reckon.
Maybe he’ll touch on how in 1997, Tony Blair’s revitalised Labour Party took note of his track record with Creation and got him to spearhead a pre-General Election media campaign to reach out to Britain’s youth. Consequently, he was largely responsible for changing Government legislation regarding musicians being given three years to develop their craft – state-funded – instead of having to take other jobs to survive. That ranks as one of his proudest achievements.
He’ll also likely be discussing his career, his inside and outside take on the music industry and his relationship with bands such as Oasis and Primal Scream (he met their frontman, Bobby Gillespie at school). And his days with Creation provided big moments for so many bands, also including The Boo Radleys, My Bloody Valentine, Teenage Fanclub, Saint Etienne, Super Furry Animals, The Jesus and Mary Chain (putting out their first single in 1994), The House of Love, Ride, Bernard Butler, Bob Mould, Echobelly, The Cramps, Felt, The Pastels, The Loft, The Weather Prophets … the list goes on.
He’s also managed Happy Mondays, Black Grape, Shaun Ryder, Cast, Glasvegas, and The Bluetones, and has many a gruesome tale to tell about rock luminaries like The Libertines. In fact, days after our chat he told BBC 5 Live’s Danny Baker (on what would perhaps turn out to be his last show on the station, but not because of Alan) a particularly horrendous yarn about Pete Doherty’s bandmate, Carl Barât, involving a headbutt, a sink, an eyeball, a handkerchief, and a trip to A&E. Not for the squeamish.
And if the right anecdotes don’t come up for you when you see him, you can always ask a question yourself. What’s more, he told me, ‘They’ve got me DJ-ing after the show’.
I kicked off by suggesting I wasn’t sure where to start, as he has one of the most impressive, heaviest CVs I’ve trawled through over the years.
“Oh aye, it’s because I’m old and I’ve been around a bit, y’know!”
So how would he describe yourself?
“I’m just a music fan.”
I would suggest that shows in more or less everything he’s set out to achieve.
“I think so.”
There have been good decisions and not so good decisions, but that’s all part and parcel of it, surely.
“To be fair though, compared to most, I’ve probably got it right more times than I ever got it wrong. But I agree, you learn more from failure. And I was never an overnight success. People might think I was, but I was doing Creation for 10 years before Oasis, y’know.”
For many in indie circles, Alan first emerged as lead singer and guitarist of the band Biff Bang Pow! (1983-91) But he’d been in London for a while by then, previously seeing service with Glasgow punk band The Drains, then co-forming The Laughing Apple on reaching the capital.
“Yeah man, I headed down in 1980. I was 19.”
With a suitcase or a backpack and not much else?
“It was actually nothing. I had five quid in my pocket, and I was effectively, technically homeless. But I managed to squat. These were the days when you didn’t need to be homeless, back in the ’80s – you could squat.”
That whole squatting scene in London was so important for many musicians and other creatives coming through, perhaps with Joe Strummer the most high-profile musician, back in his 101’ers days.
“Yeah, Portobello Road, Elgin Avenue and all that. I was in Clapham, squatting in St Alphonsus Road, Clapham Common.”
“I was there for about six months, then got a little bedsit. If I couldn’t have done that, I couldn’t have made it in London. I look back now and wonder how the fuck I done it really. I came with no money but actually made it work. Unbelievable really. I’m not saying I’m really talented. I have got talent. I’m not denying that, but the truth is that even if you’re the most talented person in the world, the odds would still not be fantastic. I really did it because of the tenacity, I suppose … that tenacity I got from Glasgow.”
After quitting a job with Royal Mail (something else we have in common), he started Creation Records with Dick Green and Joe Foster, their label a nod to cult ’60s outfit The Creation and also Paul Weller via The Jam’s All Mod Cons. Did Alan have confidence from day one?
“I don’t think I did from day one, but I had that tenacity that I didn’t know how to lose. I could lose battles but could never lose wars. I just kept going, and because I kept going – dealing with everything, even when everybody’s saying you’re defeated – I still kept going.”
I love the fact that Creation wasn’t just about those names that became so big. You were also championing favourites of mine like Teenage Fanclub, and others who weren’t obviously going to be huge-draw rock’n’roll stars.
“I did that because I loved the music. I never worried about sales and whether something’s going to sell or not. I just put it out.”
I know there were many more outfits given a leg up too at key stages, not least in your Poptones days (the label he set up in 2000, as Sony Music took control of Creation, and was in charge of until 2007), for instance putting out Undertones guitarist Damian O’Neill’s A Quiet Revolution album in 2001. Then there are those you’ve put your hand in your pocket for in the arts around music, like Matteo Sedazzari with his online fanzine, Zani and his own print publications (with a link to a past interview with Alan by Matteo here). And it’s that ‘out of the headlines’ work that appeals to me.
“Yeah, but the truth is – and you’ll know this as someone’s who’s written a book about The Clash – we come from the underground, and why I’m strange is that I’ve absolutely had blue-chip success. That’s why the underground still love me, because ultimately even the underground needs a few success stories. I suppose that’s why my story is very interesting. I don’t really know you, but I don’t really sound that much different to you, talking to you for five minutes.”
So how’s it going to work with these talk dates of yours?
“Well, I did one for the British Music Experience (he actually said ‘Liverpool Music Explosion’, which I quite like too), and had no intention of doing a tour … but this is the story of my fucking life! It sold out and they put it on the internet, and from that I got two dates in Scotland. “And because they sold out, I got an agent, who said, ‘I can book you 50 of these’. I think the guy’s a bit fucking mad, but I’m always up for a bit of graft, and so far the guy’s booked 37 shows.”
I remember seeing Noddy Holder doing a similar show with Mark Radcliffe, and that worked well as Mark pulled him back in line when he went off topic, as was the case when Johnny Vegas was chaperoned live by fellow comic Steve Royle. Is that how it works with you and your host, author and broadcaster Rob Fiddaman?
“Not really. Rob got pissed in Scotland so I had to kick him off the tour. Ha ha! I’ll just find a local journalist. Who knows.”
When we spoke, Alan was between media interviews for the tour before that Friday’s gig in Chesterfield and the same weekend’s DJ-ing commitments in Japan. Some life, eh.
“Yeah, it’s no’ bad!”
Famously, you walked away from the beast that Creation became …
“I’ve still got Creation, but it’s a 7” label now. Creation 23 (started in August 2018). And I manage the (Happy) Mondays and Glasvegas and Cast, and the Bluetones … I still take music pretty seriously, but I couldn’t work for the Sony version of Creation.”
“If you really want the truth, I really got them to piss off Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine) and put them at No.1! Because I knew I could do it. I love Kevin, but at the time I’d fallen out with him, and thought that if I could sign the Boo Radleys and put them to No.1 it would really piss him off! Ha ha!”
That’s fantastic, and who was the easiest act to deal with on the label, and who was the most difficult?
“Oasis were pretty easy, to be honest, as a band. And now I’ve calmed down, but when I was doing the My Bloody Valentine records I was out of my mind. so I was probably a bigger problem than Kevin, because of my own seedy behaviour, y’know what I mean?”
How about your spell working with Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ supremo Kevin Rowland, putting out 1999’s My Beauty? You obviously did that as a fan.
“Yeah, I did. And it was a great record. It’s just a pity the world couldn’t deal with him dressed as a woman (on the cover). But there you go. It happened.”
I’m guessing you were a big Dexy’s fan.
“Massive, yeah. In fact, I DJ’d last night and played ‘There There, My Dear’.”
When you initially stepped away from the Sony-owned version of Creation, you said you would be concentrating on being a proper Dad. How’s your daughter doing now?
“Oh, she’s great, man. Dead cool. She’s 18 now, and brilliant.”
“No, she’s really into music but I think she’s going to art school, insisting she’s gonna be an artist … a little Bohemian on the go, y’know!”
And I gather Danny Boyle and Irvine Welsh are now set to work together on the cinematic version of your life story.
“Yeah,man. Can’t wait. I’ll have nothing to do with it. I’ll just check it at the end of the film, make sure everything’s okay and it’s reasonably representative of what happened.”
Are you envisaging something along the lines of Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Michael Winterbottom’s splendid Steve Coogan-fronted 24 Hour Party People film?
“Yeah, I didn’t know we’d get Danny until we did, but the truth is it could really blow up now … and maybe it will. I didn’t think before it would be a hit. Everybody said, ‘This could be big, McGee!’ And I said, ‘It won’t be big, it’ll be in and out of the cinemas in fucking two days!’ But with Danny and Irvine together, it’s got the chemistry that could work, know what I mean? I’m looking forward to it.”
The next An Evening With Alan McGee date is this Friday, 10th May at Pyramid Arts Centre, Warrington (8pm, tickets £15 plus booking & restoration levy online or via 01925 442345, with support from The K’s).
That will be followed (at time of going to press) by: 11th May – The Mansefield, Rugeley; 25th May – Square Chapel, Halifax; 31st May – The Thunderbolt, Bristol; 6th June – Corran Halls, Oban; 7th June – Queens Hall, Dunoon; 11th June – Phoenix, Exeter; 21st June – St Paul’s, Worthing; 22nd June – Guildhall, Cambridge; 28th June – Old Dr Bell’s Baths, Edinburgh; 29th June – Café Drummond, Aberdeen; 23rd August – The Venue, Derby.
Then in November, Alan has Glee Club shows booked at: 3rd November – Cardiff; 4th November – Birmingham; 5th November – Nottingham; and 7th November – Glasgow. For more details head to each venue’s website.