Pop: The real wild men of rock

Why use lawyers when a spot of GBH will do? Marion `Suge' Knight was not the first music biz manager to use direct methods, nor will he be the last.

It's a common complaint by musicians that their management or record company are trying to screw them. Without such incidents would we have ever heard such classics as Black Sabbath's "The Writ", with its plaintive whine, "too many big folk are fighting me... Are you Satan, are you man?" But if rumours reported in a recently published history of the notorious gangsta rap label Death Row have any substance, then such accusations can be taken literally. Ronin Ro's Have Gun Will Travel is a heroic attempt to relate the story of how street gangs infiltrated corporate America, creating an enormously lucrative business without compromising their methods.

Certainly Death Row, founded by the 300-lb ex-gridiron footballer Marion "Suge" Knight, showed few scruples, surrounding himself with South-central LA gang members. Beatings of staff and rivals were part of the daily routine for Knight. As Ro points out, "why pay an arm and a leg in legal costs when situations could be handled directly in minutes?" Workers at Death Row learnt to keep their heads down as the storeroom door was locked, and shut their ears to the screams from within.

He was following an old tradition. Don Arden, hard man of the Sixties scene (and Ozzy Osborne's father-in-law) once dangled his rival Robert Stigwood from a fourth-floor window, having heard a rumour that he was interested in representing his charges, the Small Faces. Stigwood survived to bring us the movies Saturday Night Fever and Grease. (Suge - short for "Sugar Baby", apparently - would do exactly the same to Vanilla Ice 25 years later.) Arden did nothing to discourage absurd rumours that he had Mafia ties, revelling in the nickname "The Al Capone of Pop". Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin's manager and once Robert Morley's film double, had wrestled professionally and enjoyed enhancing his tough guy reputation. During the Seventies, Zep left a trail of mayhem across the world, regularly scrapping with security, promoters and law enforcement agencies.

Still, Grant never forced an unfortunate promotions man to drink urine. Such thuggery extended to Suge's artistes. Producer Sam Sneed was beaten up by the entire Death Row "family", apparently, for not plugging the label often enough on his records. Knight's image was such that artists linked with him found it difficult to get deals with other labels, even when contractually free.

But many of his scams were straight out of the history books. Knight realised where the money was, owning every Death Row master tape, the largest part of the publishing rights and - why not? - acting as manager to his artists, taking another 20 per cent, a practice even the hard-nosed David Geffen, successful first as manager and then label boss, felt should be illegal.

It was all in the grand tradition of men such as Leonard Chess of Chess records and Morris Levy of Roulette, credited with co-writing "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?", not that he could remember doing so under oath. Brunswick's Nat Tarnopol, who managed and recorded the unfortunate Jackie Wilson, once assigned a writing credit for one of his client's hits to his son, unborn at the time. Back in the Fifties a Cadillac was usually enough to fob off a disgruntled artist. Only the models had changed by the time Knight started "giving" his artists new Lexuses (or is that Lexi?) in lieu of properly accounted royalties.

The ability to, er, "lose" money in the complicated accounts used to avoid declaring correct income has always appealed to artists and companies. Allen Klein, immortalised by John Belushi as Ron Decline in The Rutles ("his right hand didn't know who his left hand was doing"), made his name through an unerring ability to discover legitimate sums owed to the talent, who would then entrust their affairs to him. Klein famously tied up the affairs of The Beatles and the Stones for years, as they (or their expensive legal teams) tried to figure just what assets he had placed where. Eventually he was to receive a two-month prison sentence in 1979 for the impressively petty crime of avoiding tax on illegal sales of George Harrison's Bangladesh charity record.

It's not just money that floats about. The complicated routes of touring acts provide a perfect cover for wrongdoing. One well known British band of the Nineties included career criminals among their road crew who spent more time breaking and entering than bed and breakfasting. Years before, Howard Marks moved huge quantities of both kinds of gear used by rock stars, one hidden inside the other.

Drugs have long been associated with young men with too much time on their hands, from the Happy Mondays lighting up Madchester (and the media) with ecstasy, to Death Row's Snoop Doggy Dogg selling crack on the streets. Further up the chain, Bon Jovi's manager Doc McGhee was convicted in a coke-smuggling ring in the late Eighties. Oddly, his sentence consisted of making his charges play charity concerts. Larry Williams, composer of classics such as "Bony Moronie" and "Slow Down" was jailed for dealing as early as 1960, dying in suspicious circumstances 20 years later after years as a serious player, but not on his piano.

Apparently the start-up money for Death Row came from one Michael "Harry- O" Harris, a celebrity drug baron looking to invest his ill-gotten gains legitimately. Ro's book mentions a rumour that Death Row East, a proposed New York offshoot, was to be no more than a front for Knight's seriously heavy friends in the MOB Piru Blood gang to expand their narcotic operations to the East Coast.

It never came to anything, but there are precedents. Morris Levy's Roulette records was suspected by the FBI of involvement in heroin distribution. Levy's relationship with the Genovese Mafia family of New York went back decades, the extent of their involvement in the US industry finally becoming apparent after his death, when a web of radio pluggers and counterfeiters was unravelled. No one important was indicted.

Criminals and musicians have long held a mutual fascination. Frank Sinatra consorted with mobsters, none of whom took him very seriously; and more recently the likes of Fun Lovin' Criminals (obviously) and Tricky have showed their respects to various inactive wiseguys. Suge Knight went as far as buying the house Scorsese used as Ace's home in Casino and cited DePalma's frenetic Scarface as his favourite movie, doing his best to live it for real.

But ultimately Knight's business squabbles may have ultimately led to the murders of Tupac Shakur, who fell into gangbanger habits after signing to Death Row, and Notorious BIG, an easier target than most. Both cases remain unsolved.

Only the extraordinary squabbles within the peculiar and arcane Norwegian Black Metal scene can compare, when one Count Grishnackh killed his label boss Euronymous, through sheer hatred, it seems. The unfortunate Euronymous (not his real name) owed the Count money, but we can safely assume it wasn't millions. The Count, who was also partial to a spot of church burning, languishes in prison. As does Suge Knight, currently on a nine-year stretch. No one has yet covered a Police tune in his honour.

`Have Gun Will Travel' is published by Quartet, price pounds 12

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