Black Vinyl, White Powder by Simon Napier-Bell

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Black Vinyl, White Powder by Simon Napier-Bell

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Category: Entertainment
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A history by Simon Napier-Bell, former manager of the Yardbirds and Wham!, of the British music industry from the 1950s to the dawn of the 21st century. It covers not only musical trends and the major acts involved, but also much of the business background and, as the sub-title suggests, something of the prevalent drug culture involved.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: January 2002
Publisher: Ebury
ISBN: 978-0091880927

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Simon Napier-Bell is probably as qualified as anyone to write what is in effect a history of the British pop and rock industry over the last half-century. In the 1960s he managed the Yardbirds and co-wrote Dusty Springfield's only No. 1 hit, in the 1970s he looked after punk band London, and in the 1980s did the same for art-electro group Japan and Wham! In the process he's travelled most of the world and talked to many of the major players, and seems to know almost everything there is about drugs despite having touched remarkably few of them.

So where did it all begin? On this side of the Atlantic, from the homegrown rock'n'rollers like Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard, and manager Larry Parnes, the development of skiffle from trad jazz, EMI Records realizing there was money to be made from grooming and signing English stars instead of letting the Americans have it all. It went up into top gear with the Beatles, the Stones and everyone else who made the 60s so memorable, and continued through the 70s switchback that was glam rock, disco, punk, to the new romantic, electropop, Live Aid, the hit factory of Stock Aitken and Waterman, Boy George's public decline and renaissance and beyond. If it happened, it's here somewhere.

So what is the difference between pop and rock, you wouldn't be the first to ask. Napier-Bell provides the answer. The Beatles were pop, he says, because Brian Epstein's personal style of management 'held them back'. (What about the later years, though?) The Rolling Stones were rock, because they were the ones who played guitar-based rock that could be exported to American stadiums, rejected their record company's authority, and generally behaved like 'rock emperors'. Not sure it's quite as clear-cut as that, but it's an interesting thesis.

It ends with a sober review of how the music scene stood at the start of the 21st century and the internet age, including assessments from record company executives and Sir George Martin, the Beatles' producer, on how they see the whole business reshaping itself in the next few years. As Joe Strummer once sang, turning rebellion into money – but it makes you think again what proportion of it was rebellion and how much was created by the proverbial smart men with cigars in the first place.

There are a few factual slip-ups which suggest it could have benefited from someone more knowledgeable in the proofreading department. For example, I don't recall Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich having more No. 1s than anyone else in 1966 (their only single to do so was in 1968), and Brian Epstein could have hardly been resentful at the Bee Gees topping the chart on the back of Beatles-generated fortunes, as he had already been dead for several weeks by the time it happened. And granted he had more than a personal interest in the venture, but the detailed account of Wham!'s Chinese jaunt could have been curtailed a little.

But it is never dull. Winding a meandering path through the music and the excessive indulgences and rip-offs that went hand in hand with it, this taught me a good deal, and gave me a few chuckles. John Lennon inadvertently ruining his Greek holiday by leaving his drugs behind, for example, and moaning What good's the bloody Parthenon without LSD? Or nicely-mannered Johnny Rotten's inability to obey his manager's instructions when meeting an interviewer not to say 'please', 'thank you', or 'sorry'. Above all, three cheers for one of the very few volumes which looks at the subject from a British perspective, rather than an American one. Sometimes the author is pretty opinionated – but then it's a subject in which commentators generally come across as either opinionated or incorrigibly bland.

If you enjoyed this, why not also try Tony Visconti: the Autobiography: Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy by Tony Visconti, In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea by Danny Goldberg or Hang the DJ: An Alternative Book of Music Lists by Angus Cargill (Editor).

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