ROCK / The backroom boy: Pianos, video games, pool tables . . . What the stars want, Graeme Dixon finds. Giles Smith talked to rock's Mr Fixit

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IT'S ORNATELY curved, and it's got intricate plaster mouldings around it, painted in pastel shades. It's Michael Jackson's dressing room mirror, and it's currently leaning against the wall in Graeme Dixon's office on an industrial estate in Richmond. 'I saw it at one of my prop suppliers,' says Dixon, 'and thought it would be perfect for him, because it had something in common with his album sleeve.' So Dixon hired it and put it in Jackson's dressing room, along with five state-of-the-art games machines, as requested.

Graeme Dixon is 32, looks a bit like Tony Slattery and spends a lot of time on the phone. He runs a company called GLD Productions, which decks out backstage areas and stars' rest rooms at concerts. The spaces underneath and behind rock arenas are not intrinsically pleasant; generally, they combine the atmosphere of a cloth factory with the ambience of a bus park. Which is where Dixon comes in, normally clutching a swathe of drapes, some hand-painted backdrops and bits of his demountable dressing room system, or 'big boy's Meccano set'.

'It's all about making sure that when the artist comes in, he or she doesn't walk into a stinking Portacabin with a rancid carpet and springs coming through the furniture.' In fact, it's probably more precise than that. Intriguingly, both Pavarotti and Nina Simone require a dressing area which involves negotiating no stairs. And in 10 years of working uncomplainingly to those sorts of demands, Dixon has pretty well carved a niche for himself. He is rock's Mr Fixit.

It must be emphasised, though, that he is a fixer in a particularly 1990s style. When rock was a little younger and a tad more carefree, a fixer might have been someone who knew a discreet local Madame and had a couple of anonymous contacts in Colombia. These days, it's about suppliers of a different nature: people who know where you can score some attractive modular furniture, hire some portable gym apparatus, secure some giant pine pot-plants (useful, apparently, for disguising the smell of recently applied disinfectant) and, perhaps most importantly, rent some pool tables.

'With Simply Red, the pool table is the most vital piece of equipment on the tour. It doesn't matter if there's nothing in the dressing rooms, but that pool table has got to be set up and it's got to be level. Mind you, the Rolling Stones brought in a full-sized snooker table, which was costing about pounds 3,500 a time, because it takes four guys about four hours to set it up. But that's what they wanted, so that's what they got. And I think if I was a pop star, I'd come up with the most outrageous things: I'd find out what the venue was like, and if it was three flights of stairs and no lift, like at Wembley, I'd say, yes, I'll have a snooker table up there.'

At the top end of the market (and Dixon doesn't really operate anywhere else), dressing rooms and backstage hospitality areas seem blithely recession- proof. In a summer season where the punter was spoilt for choice, Dixon was spoilt for work. Estimated turn-over this year: pounds 600,000. For Guns N'Roses and Neil Diamond and Bryan Adams and Diana Ross and Genesis, he's decorated dressing rooms and organised flashy hospitality areas, where the record companies nurse their favoured ones. And on his days off, he's acted as an all-purpose troubleshooter.

Take the case of Dire Straits and the out-size furnishings. Rather than expose themselves to the plastic bucket seats and trashed sofas that venues tend to provide as standard, Dire Straits are currently travelling the world with their own selection of furniture on board, thus guaranteeing themselves a reassuringly familiar pre-show environment. Alas, when the tour reached Gateshead in June, the backstage area was too small for the furnishings. Short of taking a saw to it, the only option was to call Dixon, who knew where to get, in a matter of hours, some bits of furniture which would fit and not look any different.

Or take the case of Prince and the piano. When Prince came to London in June, he booked a suite at the Conrad Hotel in Chelsea Harbour where the service lift was big enough to handle the stereo system Prince insists on, but not the baby grand piano. 'About 11.00 in the morning, I got the phone call. I said, 'Can we get a crane and stick it through the window?' So, about 12.20, the crane rolled up and we did it. In true terms, it wasn't an expensive operation: the crane hire was pounds 200 in and pounds 200 out.'

Evidently, the knack is discretion. 'You don't have to hang around like an American waiter, saying, 'Is everything all right sir?' ' Accordingly, Dixon's personal acquaintance with the Rolling Stones boils down to approximately 20 seconds with two of them in a lift. On the other hand, Bono did approach him after U2's Earl's Court show to congratulate him on 'capturing the concept of Zoo TV completely'. Dixon had provided the band with a mock fireplace, inside which a TV was screening a video of a fire, and claims he still isn't quite sure what Bono meant.

Before he became what would probably be referred to in America as an inner sanctum design consultant, Dixon was responsible for those tethered blimps you see hanging over fairs and DIY megastores. This was where he gained what he casually refers to as his 'grounding in gases'. He probably hadn't imagined his knowledge would have much application in the music business, until the concert promoter Barry Marshall called him in to tip a few hundred kiddies' balloons on top of the audience at a Linx show. 'And I was looking around and thinking, well these people actually enjoy what they do for a living.'

Not long after, Dixon secured his first big job in rock. In 1982, beginning in Rotterdam, he joined the Rolling Stones. Jagger was on vocals, Richards on guitar and Graeme Dixon was on balloons. 'There were something like 25,000 of them, coming out of 80-feet-tall bins on either side of the stage. It took me and a crew of five people, plus local kids pulled in on the day to blow up the balloons and tie knots in them. We started off on the usual wages for balloon people, which is about 20 quid a day. Most of the touring staff were getting that an hour.

'And then, Prince's Sign O the Times tour, I did all the liquid nitrogen on. I was able to find what was, at the time, the sole source of liquid nitrogen in the right containers for them to be able to fire their system. Unfortunately that was in Germany, so between each tour date, we would have to go back to Germany and pick some more up. We were doing about 2,000 miles a week, driving round the clock with six canisters of liquid nitrogen, which were continually venting nitrogen in the back of the truck. On stage it forms these quickly dispersing clouds. By the time we had bought the stuff and trucked it around, that single 30-second effect was costing Prince about pounds 900 a show.'

But he didn't really get into backstage areas until the promoter Tim Parsons asked him to do U2 in Cardiff in the mid- 1980s. 'He wanted the backstage area themed. We turned it into a fishing village complete with lobsters hanging from the ceiling and wooden floors, so you thought you were on a deck. The band loved it, he loved it and from there I was asked to do Madonna, which was for Harvey Goldsmith and then I got to do Michael Jackson in '88, where the backstage was a vital part of the whole show. And now Jackson's back again, it's the same story - it's got to look right.'

'After years you build up a good contact book: suppliers who, when called up at the last minute, don't throw their hands in the air. It really annoys me when I'm trying to do something, and there is a budget there, and you meet a company who says, 'Sorry, we don't work on a Saturday.' And you say, 'Can't you hear the buying signals? I want to spend money.' So you build up a network of the people who are genuinely prepared to jump when the call comes through, however silly the request.'

'When people ask me what I do,' he says, 'I tell them I'm a piano-player in a whorehouse, because if my mother found out what I really did, she would be appalled.'

(Photographs omitted)

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