Paradise recalled

Once, rock inhabited Eden. Man, Can and Beefheart were its fruit. Then the snakes in suits took over and music biz creatives like Andrew Lauder took to the hills. Max Bell meets a man with a vision undimmed

It's rush hour in Knowstone, Devon. A herd of Jersey cows meanders down the lane that leads to Andrew Lauder's bucolic operation, his Evangeline/Acadia record label. A sheep dog snaps at the bovine stragglers but nothing's happening in a hurry. It is the hottest day of the year.

Lauder's office, a former village hall, is rented from Pete Thomas, Elvis Costello's drummer, but voices have been raised and old songs sung here since the 16th century. The old long barn once doubled as the village skittle alley, and beer and skittles seem to be the order of the day. Locally born teenage blues sensation Joss Stone did her work experience here two years ago. "We listened to her demos a lot," Lauder smiles. "She's pretty bohemian but I don't think she quite expected this... not your average music business set-up. If there's something good on the telly, or if the weather's fine, we're likely to close the office and go to the pub." He looks at his watch.

Miraculously, all those ingredients just synchronised. Our man Flintoff is flaying the West Indian attack at Edgbaston, it's 90 degrees in the shade and, dash it all, The Stone Mason's Arms is a 30-second stroll across the lane. This hostelry is a second home to Lauder and his longtime partner Judith Riley - their actual residence is another short hike away. "We're fortunate we landed here," Lauder tells me, nursing a glass of something cold, white, wet and French.

If truth be told, Andrew Lauder has always approached the music business as a kind of utopian cottage industry. If it isn't fun, what's the bloody point? Even so this modest mogul's personal history still stands as the most perfect example of what pop's peculiar world can offer. His activities remind one of an age of innocence, that Sixties/Seventies cusp when the rules were being made up in this crazy game. That was when there was experimentation afoot, before money, greed and balance sheets dictated that the beat-happy baby be thrown out with the increasingly stagnant bath water, by people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

A former Wellingborough student, yet no great academic, Lauder was determined to follow the example of fellow pupil Andrew Loog Oldham, who had shown it was possible to become the Beatles' press officer and then manage the Rolling Stones, armed only with total self-belief and a great deal of cheek. "I arrived the term after Oldham left," says Lauder, "but I recall he came back when he was successful, in a chauffeur-driven car, just to rub it in."

Even as a kid in Hartlepool Lauder was a British blues boom fan, cataloguing charts for his own amusement, and buying the hippest singles from Newcastle's JG Windows of the Arcade, wherein he saw his first Fender Stratocaster. He worked without distinction in the family's timberyard. Nearby was the South Durham & North Yorkshire Steel and Iron Works. But London provided more precious metal so Lauder swapped the 'Pool for the Smoke in 1965, just as Rubber Soul hit the streets. "I had £33 in savings and an elder brother already in situ, so if it went tits up my parents knew I'd get a square meal. In fact, I had several baffling strokes of luck."

Leaving his YMCA digs on day one, he wandered onto Denmark Street by accident. "Tin Pan Alley, of course! Though I had no idea. I saw a sheet music shop with all these bands I knew from Ready Steady Go! - the Pretty Things and the Artwoods. It emphasised everything I was looking for. Half an hour later I decided, 'Hmm, let's get a job on a music paper'. The sergeant-major on the door at Melody Maker gave me short shrift; I got into the Record Mirror where there was nothing available, then I ended up back in Denmark Street at the NME's office. Except there was a sign on the door saying, 'We've moved to Long Acre'. Where the bloody hell was that? I had no Plan B so I crossed the road and found myself outside Southern Music, next to the Giaconda coffee bar. I walked in, said I'm looking for a job and they said, 'How did you know we've got one?' I started that minute on £7.10 shillings a week, plus luncheon vouchers."

What might have seemed boring to some - accounts clerking - was nirvana to 17-year-old Lauder. Jimmy Page and the Ivy League were hanging around doing in-house sessions in the basement studio. Andrew Oldham popped in with the sheet music for the Stones' "The Last Time". Lauder's desk was next to the door. He was constantly shifting his seat so Keef Hartley or Jon Lord could stagger through with their Hammond organs. "Jeff Beck was knocking about. So were Donovan, Gypsy Dave and a bloke called Mox, who had the longest bright orange hair ever. Longer even than Viv Prince's in The Pretty Things."

Forty years on Lauder is back in the moment. He walks out of Southern Music: "It's a short walk to the Marquee. The Flamingo is on the doorstep. The Riot Squad's Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding are practically living in the Giaconda. The Stones are in Regent Sound or Central Sound. This is all on one street. I've gone from Hartlepool to this!"

WC2 became the crucible for all of Lauder's future alchemy. Next stop was the Charing Cross Road record store Francis Day & Hunter, a serious hippy hang-out. Here he bumped into Reg Dwight, acquired the makings of a world-class record collection, and passed the time of day with Davey Jones and the Lower Third, lurking in the doorway of Mills Music management company: "I was never a fan of David (Jones) Bowie's but I was mates with his guitarists, Teacup and Steve Howe." 1966: has there ever been a greater year in British history?

Lauder might just have been another groovy office boy if fate hadn't intervened. In 1967 a mutual acquaintance introduced him to Bob Reisdorf, millionaire record company executive and Anglophile, on a mission to open up the UK arm of Liberty Records. Lauder begged him for a job and landed the post of label manager, ostensibly to oversee the then novel practices of reissuing catalogue items by Fats Domino, Slim Whitman and Eddie Cochran. While Reisdorf was out playing golf one day, Lauder promoted himself to something called an A&R (Artists and Repertoire) man and within two weeks he'd signed Jeff Lynne's Idle Race and Leicester group The Family - The Beatles came to their signing bash - and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (the Beatles came to listen to their Gorilla record). He signed British blues guv'nors the Groundhogs for 52 quid and co-produced their first album.

The aptly named Liberty suddenly became the most important outpost for the new hippy underground with the emphasis on "album bands" who could tour, rather than pop single acts who couldn't. By now Lauder was "doing what the hell I liked, whenever I liked. If that meant putting out stuff by Hapshash and the Coloured Coat on red vinyl, I did. It was a fantastic 'what drugs are you on, man?' period. We got rid of the desks because they were 'too record company, man!' I had my offices totally covered in West Coast psychedelic posters and we had this bloke from San Francisco who sat round the office reading star signs all day. We had to hire industrial smoke extractors to get rid of the dope fumes. We also had an in-house doctor for more, er... personal matters. We got away with murder but we also put out some great records, including Blue Thumb albums by Canned Heat, Captain Beefheart and Ike and Tina Turner. Then we licensed a band on Fantasy called Creedence Clearwater Revival and had a huge hit with "Proud Mary". Rollin'."

In 1969 Lauder was headhunted by new Chrysalis boss Terry Ellis. "It was all 'double salary and how do you want your office decorated?'" United Artists - who now owned Liberty via the TransAmerica Corporation - saw the offer and matched it. Now he could sign the new progressive acts like Hawkwind, Brinsley Schwarz and Welsh trippers Man, the indie-rock groups of their day. Lauder was a major player in London but got short shrift when he went to visit UA's Los Angeles HQ in 1970.

"I took over our Hawkwind stuff and some new British music by Black Sabbath, and so on, and they took them off the turntable after 30 seconds and told me they were shit."

Still, California was Lauder's spiritual home. He dressed then, and still does, like a US marshall, all cowboy boots and boot- lace ties. His heroes were outlaw hippy acid merchants - the Charlatans, the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Back on Albemarle Street, his room looked like a Wyoming cat house; he installed Western saloon swing doors and turned the company into a virtual simulacrum of a day-glo world that zapped the eyeballs with walls full of American super-freak poster designers Rick Griffin and Stanley Mouse.

Lauder returned to New York with Brinsley Schwarz for a trip that remains legendary among rock 'n' roll fiascos. Accompanied by a plane-load of press on an uber-jolly, he discovered the band didn't have US work permits and were stuck in Montreal. Their hired Cessna nearly crashed. The junket arrived in an appalling blizzard. The whole shebang reeked of trouble. The gig at the Fillmore East went ahead but most of the journalists didn't bother to go, and those who turned up didn't have tickets. The American PR threatened, Spinal Tap-style, to throw himself out of a hotel window and then Lauder found himself lumbered with a bill for transport back to the airport and no funds to pay the threatening Italo-American fellow who ran the limo company. Hey, this was 1970. We didn't have credit cards yet!

As the title of All Good Clean Fun, a just-released three-CD compilation of Lauder's tenure with Liberty Records - 1967 to 1975 - shows, such mishaps were taken in stride. The notes describe Liberty as "the home of forward-thinking, intelligent underground European music", and since he also signed the ground-breaking Cologne band Can, Ash Ra Temple and Amon Duul, as well as rougher types like Motorhead, the assertion that Liberty was a "champion of the diverse, the unusual and the unique" cannot be disputed.

If the corollary of all good clean fun is that all good things must come to an end, well, Lauder didn't let that serve as his swansong. He turned down the big vice-presidency at Arista in favour of starting Radar in 1977, his only lament being that he missed nurturing UA signings the Buzzcocks and Stranglers. In fact, the blurred line between pub-rock champs Brinsley Schwarz and DIY punk rock didn't faze him at all since he was instrumental in helping Elvis Costello and the Attractions aim their sights between both camps. "We were offered the Sex Pistols at 5pm on the night they played the 100 Club. It was a bit too late. But we did tape them using the Pye Mobile truck..."

That period couldn't happen again, could it? Lauder doesn't laugh. "Unlikely. There are too many accountants and lawyers running the business now. We didn't think we were innocents but we weren't as scientific as record companies are now. We put records out very fast with little press build-up. The Brinsleys made six albums without troubling the charts but they cost very little because they financed themselves on tour. Our bands knew each other and that whole hippy kinship thing seemed natural. I was given a huge amount of rope - if I wanted Victorian chandeliers, I had them. We functioned like a mini-major; a stand-alone operation who didn't rely on American finance like Columbia and Warners do. It was about a quality of life, rather than billion dollar deals."

By now we've moved down the lane to Lauder's cottage with views over Exmoor and a garden the size of a football pitch. Inside, his personal archive is arranged in a room that's a Midas cave for rock and pop fanatics. Whole runs of classic singles and albums line the walls; there are complete years' worth of Sixties NMEs and Seventies Rolling Stones, their paper and print as crisp and fresh as the day they were sold outside Holborn Tube. This collection, probably priceless (and said to surpass Paul McCartney's formidable archive), is almost impossible to take in. I feel sick with lust when I tremble down its Ozymandian shelves: look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair.

"I really should write all this down for myself," Lauder ponders later as milking machines whirr next door and distant wind chimes clang an approximation of The Brothers Johnson's "Strawberry Letter #23". Given his involvement with the Stone Roses, John Lee Hooker, Merseybeat, Dr Feelgood and Loudon Wainwright III, right up to contemporary affiliations with Govt. Mule, Steepwater, Hoodoo Gurus, Hamil On Trial and The Tubes, this is no idle boast. A book written by Andrew Lauder would be well worth reading.

Any regrets then?

"Nothing I've ever lost sleep over."

Not even Joss Stone?

"Not really. It's great to see Devonian folk doing well. Besides, she's had a deal since she was 14. Did you know she changed her name? Fancy another beer?"

'All Good Clean Fun' is out now on Liberty Records

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