Return of the outlaw

Profile: Alan McGee
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There are those who maintain that the British music business is in a state of spiralling decline; but if that really is the case, no one has bothered to tell Alan McGee.

There are those who maintain that the British music business is in a state of spiralling decline; but if that really is the case, no one has bothered to tell Alan McGee.

In 1994, he had left the music business. His aspirations to be an old-style record mogul had died: after a drug-induced breakdown, he had returned to his native Glasgow, and moved in with his father. According to his own account, his only ambition was to convalesce to the point where he could consider getting a place of his own. "I was so depressed in 1994," he has said, "there were two or three times I thought about taking my own life."

Six years later, McGee is - to use the drug vernacular - "clean". He lives with his wife in a plush corner of West London, and is in an enviable financial position. On Tuesday this week, his new company Poptones was floated on the Alternative Investment Market, and valued at £17m; McGee's 39 per cent stake was thus estimated to be worth £6.8m.

Poptones rose from the wreckage of Creation Records, the company McGee wound up late last year. It is a compact operation, with a staff of around 10. Its impact, however, is intended to be revolutionary. It is the first UK record company to be founded on the notion of what's known as 'digital distribution' - the direct downloading of music via the internet. The company's mission statement claims that it "intends to steal a march on larger and more ungainly competitors [who] appear to have largely ignored digital technologies".

McGee is blazing a visionary trail - though in the short term, Poptones will have to cope with the public's persistent fondness for such stone-age totems as compact discs and record shops. McGee is waging war on the record industry's propensity for over-pricing: all Poptones CDs will retail for no more than £9.99. To rein in costs, the label's artists will use the in-house sleeve designer, and McGee wants to avoid making videos. It's one of the quirks of the music industry that perfectly viable acts are rendered unprofitable simply by dint of sky-high budgeting; McGee aims to orient his business around an unprecedented frugality.

McGee's accent on technology might conjure up the image of a tech-nerd scuttling around the offices of venture capitalists delivering sermons about the gleaming digital future. Far from it: McGee, by his own admission, is a lousy public speaker, and his rhetoric is more rooted in the mid-to late-1970s than the 21st century. His new venture has a distinct back-to-the-roots flavour, and other aspects of his life fit the picture. The days when he would sprint from the boardroom of the Sony Corporation - which half-owned Creation - to a meeting of the Government's Creative Industries Task Force are gone; he burnt his bridges with New Labour by backing Malcolm McLaren's London mayoral candidacy and writing a scathing article for this newspaper headlined "Complacency and dishonesty have made the Labour Party a joke". McGee, in keeping with his insurrectionary instincts, is an outlaw again.

McGee was born and raised in Cathcart, a respectable working-class enclave of Glasgow, a lone son with two sisters. His father was a panel-beater, his mother a housewife (she died of cancer in 1989). He left school at 16 with one O-level, and joined British Rail as a junior clerk. Competent enough to be quickly promoted, he transferred to Liverpool Street in London in 1980. In the meantime, his devotion to the rock'n'roll life had been forged in the revolutionary fire of punk. He had formed a band, the Laughing Apple, with schoolfriend Andrew Innes - later a founding member of Primal Scream - who relocated to the capital with him.

Between his shifts at BR, McGee tried desperately to secure a record deal, but to no avail. It is this period, his friends say, that explains his fierce antipathy to the mainstream music business. Overflowing with bile, he went so far as to found a short-lived "hatezine" dedicated to his nihilistic rantings.

In time, however, his energy was channelled into a more constructive enterprise - the founding of Creation Records. Its first release came in 1984, and the label's profile quickly skyrocketed, helped on its way by its obviously charismatic MD. But for all its apparent success, the label was constantly on the verge of liquidation. "But every time it looked as if we were going down, I'd do a deal and get another £200,000. If there's one thing I'm good at, it's getting money out of people."

The pressure that came with hand-to-mouth finance, however, took its toll, and McGee plunged into a decade of heavy drug use. "I was just living on my nerves," he has said. "I was self-medicating, but instead of taking tranquillisers, I was using speed and ecstasy."

Creation, meanwhile, received a huge boost with the success of Primal Scream's album Screamadelica, which was released in September 1991 and awarded the prestigious Mercury Music Prize the following year. The label's reputation was at an all-time high, and McGee was able to ease its financial difficulties by selling 49 per cent of the company to Sony for £3.5m. In doing so, he became an integral part of the corporate music industry that he still quietly despised.

As a result, his drug use escalated ("I went from using one gram a day to using seven"), not only because of his newly bulging bank account, but the life he now had to lead: according to one ex-Creation musician, he justified his heavy cocaine use on account of the fact that it made him "good in meetings". Outside office hours, his drug use reputedly manifested itself in very strange behaviour indeed. The same musician tells the story of McGee telephoning him in the wee hours and playing an entire side of an album by the American singer Tom Petty down the line.

On 31 May 1993, McGee made the discovery that would propel him from record-company MD to pop-culture guru. The story has long since become a cliché: McGee was back home in Glasgow, trying to sort out an on-off relationship, when his sister Susan hinted that another available female would be with her at a music venue called King Tut's Wah Wah Hut. McGee ambled in, little knowing that a gang of Mancunian toughs had threatened their way into playing a 15-minute set at the bottom of the bill.

When McGee clapped eyes on Oasis (pictured left), he was transfixed. Inside two songs, he had resolved to sign them. Soon after, he hooked up with the band's leader, Noel Gallagher, at an Indian restaurant near Euston station, opening their meeting by ordering a triple Jack Daniels and Coke. The deal was done, and Oasis worked towards a full-on launch in 1994.

McGee, unfortunately, was not around to witness their rise. In February 1994, he boarded a plane from London to Los Angeles, after a night spent taking cocaine. Four hours into the flight, he had an enormous panic attack but, after arriving in LA, he carried on partying. The next morning he woke feeling "like I had a metal pole in the back of my neck", and called a doctor. His blood pressure was 170 (110 is normal); the paramedics were afraid he would have a stroke. "I suddenly thought, 'What's this all about? If this is rock'n'roll, who gives a fuck?' "

McGee put his work at Creation on hold and went into rehab. During this period, wild rumours about his whereabouts would hurtle around the music business. He was, in fact, convalescing in Glasgow, looking for a way out of the mire. On one occasion, he even took the decidedly un-rock'n'roll decision to go to church.

He returned to the fray in 1996, drug-free and teetotal. He had lost weight, and he was with the woman he would marry in January 1998, Kate Holmes, one-time member of the acclaimed art-pop band Frazier Chorus.

Oasis, meanwhile, were at the peak of their commercial potency. Noel Gallagher was given to loud public statements of support for Tony Blair - and was duly invited to perform at a youth event at that year's Labour Party Conference. Gallagher was otherwise engaged, but McGee suggested that he could attend himself and ceremonially endorse the Blair project on Oasis's behalf by giving Blair a platinum disc. This photo-opportunity was the equivalent of Bill Clinton's sax-playing appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show: the rock-generation politician publicly laying claim to a trendiness that was singularly lacking in his opponents.

Indeed, McGee still claims that the Oasis link was crucial to Blair's wooing of the youth vote. He went on to donate over £100,000 to the Labour Party and escort Noel Gallagher to a fabled Downing Street reception. (According to McGee, Alastair Campbell was terrified that Gallagher would misbehave.) He advised the new government on arts policy via two task forces focused on Blair's beloved "Creative Industries" and the music business. The New Deal For Musicians, an arrangement whereby aspirant troubadours can avoid being conscripted into workaday jobs, was McGee's initiative.

In 1998, he was invited for dinner at Chequers: he and Kate arrived to find themselves in the company of Dame Judi Dench, the author and aspirant Labour MP John O'Farrell and - for some reason - Sir Jimmy Savile. "Psychedelic" is McGee's chosen word to describe the evening: he ended the soirée with an hour-long conversation with Blair about drugs policy, before picking his way past gun-toting Special Branch officers and driving, goggle-eyed, back to London.

Had McGee not broken rank, it is fair to assume he would have been offered an honour; his fellow Task Forcers, after all, included the recently-ennobled Richard Branson, Waheed Alli, David Puttnam and Richard Branson. Besides, McGee seems perfect New Labour material: dapper, fond of visits to the gym, partial to mint tea and San Pellegrino spring water, and keen on football (like so many of the in-crowd, he supports Chelsea).

Cynics suggested that his split from the Blairites was the product of a naive failure to come to terms with New Labour realpolitik. But McGee's expectations were hardly lofty - and anyway, his work on the New Deal boosted his enthusiasm for the Blair project. What finally put paid to his support was the way that Millbank reacted to his involvement in Malcolm McLaren's prankish mayoral candidacy. As McLaren pulled out before the nominations, McGee broke no Labour Party rules. But a Millbank insider responded by hinting to journalists that his bankrolling of the short-lived campaign had its roots in mental imbalance. McGee was furious; despite attempts to attract him back, he will have nothing to do with the New Labour hierarchy and refuses to take phone calls from the party's general secretary, Margaret McDonagh.

As far as the Blairites are concerned, however, McGee may have lost the clout that once made him such a treasured ally. He announced the end of Creation in December 1999, and thereby severed his official links with Oasis. The label, he said, had grown too large and impersonal and was signing acts for their commercial potential rather than out of faith. In retrospect, he had been losing interest for a long time. The label's last acclaimed discovery, the Welsh band Super Furry Animals, signed in 1996; thereafter, signings grew increasingly ill-advised (though the investors in Poptones evidently do not hold it against him).

Creation's last release was an album of saccharine cover versions by the ex-Dexy's Midnight Runners singer Kevin Rowland, who insisted on doing all promotional work in stockings, suspenders and make-up. In its first week of release, the record sold a pitiful 729 copies.

Six months after Creation's closure, McGee is, according to his friends, more "vibed-up" than he has been for years, unencumbered by either corporate pressure or the need to affect the respectable airs of a government insider. His first child is expected next month. To use the words of his Mancunian protégés, he must be feeling supersonic.