POP / The long journey from Hull to heaven: In the third of his occasional series on the men who manage, Simon Napier-Bell, who used to handle Wham], profiles Ed Bicknell, Mr Dire Straits

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The Independent Online
I first got to know Ed Bicknell in Los Angeles in 1986: a charming, dapper man, bubbling with fun. All of us at the table were rock managers and his stories kept us in fits. The one that stuck in my mind was about the then current Dire Straits tour.

'Mark Knopfler said: 'What's the good of days off? Suppose we're in Auckland; what are we supposed to do? Watch New Zealand television? Go ahead and fill up the schedule.' '

It was a manager's dream. Most groups start complaining after just four consecutive nights. But Bicknell got completely carried away and booked a straight 18 dates to start off the tour. He knew he'd overdone it, and sure enough a few days later the group summoned him to a meeting.

On the way over Bicknell worked out where he could insert a couple of days off. But before he could speak, Knopfler said: 'When I said 'fill it up', I meant fill it up. What's this day-off on Day 19? Can't you get us a gig?'

That was the Brothers in Arms tour. Bicknell booked them 248 shows in 12 months, including 13 consecutive nights at Wembley Arena and 20 at Sydney Entertainment Centre. Tours like that gross around dollars 25m and Bicknell takes 15 per cent. But, sitting in his plush London offices, he admits: 'I worry about money all the time. I own a beautiful country house, but when I'm walking round the grounds I'm always afraid the caretaker is going to turn me out.'

As a student at Hull University, Bicknell was social secretary and booked shows by the Moody Blues, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull. Later, after a spell trying to make it as a drummer, he talked his way into a job as a booking agent at NEMS on pounds 50 per week.

Just as punk was breaking, Bicknell booked a European tour for two unknown American bands: the Ramones and Talking Heads. On paper, it should have flopped, but in the wake of the fuss made about the Sex Pistols, the tour sold out. Bicknell got another lucky break at the airport shortly afterwards, bumping into a friend who was doing promotion for Gerry Rafferty. Bicknell was offered a lift back to town and on the way Rafferty decided he should become his manager. 'Two weeks later I was in America being feted at receptions with ice-sculpted saxophones. 'Baker Street' was a world-wide hit and Gerry's album had knocked 'Saturday Night Fever' off the No 1 spot. I knew at once this was what I'd been waiting for, but it fizzled out almost as soon as it started. Gerry and I just sort of gave each other up.'

Phonogram called and asked if Bicknell would book a new band called Dire Straits. He said he didn't think so, the name was too awful. 'But I agreed to see a gig at Dingwalls and I arrived to find the whole music business trying to sign them. I pushed my way into the dressing-room and knocked over Mark's Stratocaster. It wasn't a good start but I persuaded them to come and see me at NEMS.'

After his experience with Gerry Rafferty, Bicknell was no longer content with booking groups. He wanted to be a manager. At NEMS he shared his office with another agent whom he persuaded to move out for the afternoon, desk and all. Bicknell replaced it with a chaise longue, hung the gold records from reception in his own office, and told the receptionist - 'Keep calling me - make out I'm busy.'

'Dire Straits sat studying the gold records while I shouted fake million-dollar deals down the phone. After a while I told the receptionist: 'Stop my calls, I've got important people here.' Then I told the group: 'I want to manage you and I can get you on the Talking Heads tour.' They said OK.'

Ed guaranteed them pounds 50 a night and the deal was done. Then he organised their first recording.

'The single was to be 'Sultans of Swing' but Phonogram kept delaying it. Eventually the managing director himself called us into the office and told us the finished single wasn't as good as the original demo. 'Listen]' he explained. 'It doesn't have the same feel, the same tempo]' He played a bit of the single, then went back to the original demo. But the demo he was playing was a completely different song. That was the first and last time the group gave the record company any credibility.'

They approached Jerry Wexler to produce the second album. 'He agreed, but he wanted to record it in the Bahamas. None of us had any money and I was still working for almost nothing at NEMS, but suddenly we were living in incredible style in a Carribean villa with swimming-pools and servants and a nightly banquet with Jerry Wexler at the head of the table.'

Bicknell left his job at NEMS and went on tour with Dire Straits in the States. 'It was like a dream. The day we played New York the album went gold; the day we played Los Angeles, it went platinum. And to tell the truth, it's been a bit of a dream ever since.'

Things don't really glide along as smoothly as Bicknell apologetically makes out. He has the reputation of being the most diligent and caring of managers. Lately he has played a key part in setting up the International Managers Forum, which he sees as an excellent training ground for young managers. But everything he has told me suggests that rock management is not learned at seminars. I ask: 'Aren't these seminars just a way to reassure yourself that being a rock- manager is a proper job?'

Ed denies it and starts rambling on about 'understanding new technologies in an evolving industry'. Then suddenly he stops and laughs outrageously. 'Oh, hell] Maybe you're right. I guess everyone knows the truth. Managing a rock group is just a matter of knowing how to bullshit.'

(Photograph omitted)