Let's Make Lots of Money: My Life as the Biggest Man in Pop by Tom Watkins

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Let's Make Lots of Money: My Life as the Biggest Man in Pop by Tom Watkins

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Category: Entertainment
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: As one of the major pop managers of the 1980s, Tom Watkins has a good story to tell – success and failure, excess and giant egos (not just his own). He lays bare the often superficial, ephemeral elements of a mad and sometimes surreal business, and has come out the other side. For all the superficiality and artifice, this is a very entertaining and sometimes very funny read which encapsulates much of the best and worst of the era.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: July 2017
Publisher: Virgin
ISBN: 978-0753541975

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Who on earth would be a manager in the larger than life, here today gone tomorrow world of pop? Anybody with an ego, a ruthless streak, an opportunity to embrace the chances and accept that it's not going to last, evidently. Tom Watkins is just one of several to have walked the fine line, and for part of the time, quite successfully. As his memoirs suggest, part of the time was achievement enough.

'I've acted like a fool most of my life, and outsmarted most of them,' he admits in the first chapter. It doesn't take us long to establish that he has self-confidence in spades, doesn't take himself too seriously, and recognises an opening when he sees one – or thinks he does. His efforts to become the next Brian Epstein or Kit Lambert do not pay off immediately. Realising that there are more career opportunities (make that more financial returns) in pop management than in trying to become a performer himself, he becomes involved with several groups who come close to making the big time, like Ice Cream, Giggles (admit it – would you have gone into a record shop in the 1970s and asked to buy a single with groups named thus, honestly?) and Grand Hotel. All these groups made the odd two or three singles just as the glam rock era was in its death throes and giving way to a new pop phenomenon. It takes one to know one, they say, and Tom could see that rival entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren was masterminding the career of that famous nihilistic boy band the Sex Pistols very cleverly. In retrospect he was glad he didn't jump on that particular bandwagon.

To read this book is to be reminded of how short-lived some of the movers and shakers in the pop world really were. Adam and the Ants, Wham!, Frankie Goes To Hollywood all burned brightly for a while, and burnt out – though their front men did return for solo careers with varying success. Tom finally hit his stride as the man behind the XL Design agency, The Pet Shop Boys, Bros and later East 17. At this point the story becomes sometimes mad, sometimes sad, and sometimes uproariously funny. Nothing succeeds like excess, they say, and I had to laugh when reading about the lack of financial savvy of Luke and Matt Goss, the twins in Bros, whose spending once they had tasted stardom was on a par with that of the Roman Emperors. On being told by his accountant that they would have to cut back on their financial largesse a little, one of them was so upset that he bought himself a Porsche on his way home to cheer himself up. Talk about how the other half lives…

Was it the best of times, the worst of times? Maybe. Tom has captured the artifice, the egos, the backstabbing, and yes the humour, the surreal nature of pop management in these pages. Unlike Epstein and Lambert, he has outlived the era of which he was a part, and seems to have few if any regrets about it all. The whole music biz culture of today is a very, very different beast from how it was in the 1960s and 1970s, and in the last chapter he laments that today's world of downloads and music streams sounds terribly lifeless in comparison with the era of fold-out sleeves and picture discs. I agree with him. As for 'The X Factor', he calls it a Nuremberg rally on pink drugs. There again, I can't argue.

At the same time there is something a little sad about this book. I closed it after the last chapter, thinking there was something very shallow about the industry. Yet having lived a life in which pop and rock music was and to some extent is still very special to me, I felt that was rather a superficial judgment. We have long since realised that there is something very contrived about the whole charade, but we would find it hard to imagine a world without popular music. Tom has had the good sense to enjoy it – and exploit the opportunities, of course – while still coming out of all the craziness with his sanity more or less intact. His story is a cheesy one, but it's funny, self-deprecating, and quite enlightening. If you want to be reminded of the whole nine-day-wonder excess of the eighties, you will find a goodly chunk of it in these 300 pages.

For more insights into the eighties music scene, we can also recommend The Eighties: One Day, One Decade by Dylan Jones, focused to a certain extent on Live Aid 1985, and Totally Wired: Post-punk Interviews and Overviews by Simon Reynolds. Teenage Revolution: Growing Up in the 80s by Alan Davies has some personal if less far-reaching views on the subject, while another of the major pop managers tells his story as well as giving abroad overview of pop and rock from the 1960s onwards in Black Vinyl, White Powder by Simon Napier-Bell. We can also recommend Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs by John Lydon.

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Buy Let's Make Lots of Money: My Life as the Biggest Man in Pop by Tom Watkins at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Let's Make Lots of Money: My Life as the Biggest Man in Pop by Tom Watkins at Amazon.com.


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