Monday, April 30, 2018

A tale from the world of pop

 Legendary rock manager and author Simon Napier Bell (he's half Australian) writes a story about his involvement with a promising Aussie band WA WA NEE and the death this week of the singer of the group, Paul Gray (second left in the photo below).

In April 1987 I got a call from Dennis Handlin at CBS in Australia telling me I ought to manage a band he’d signed - “Come to the CBS conference next month and hear them play. They’re bloody marvellous. They’re called Wa Wa Nee.”
Meanwhile he booked me a first-class ticket.
A month later on a Thursday, I was due to leave home for a 9pm flight
when I got a sudden lurch in my stomach. I’d clean forgotten that since I’d last been to Australia they’d introduced visas for UK citizens. And I didn’t have one.
A bit panicked because I had to leave for the airport in half-an-hour, I called the airline and asked if exceptions were ever made. “Absolutely never!” they said. “Not even for the bloody Prime Minister”
Which didn’t sound promising.
With some help from my very well-connected squash coach, I managed to get the home number of the Australian ambassador. By which time there was only a few minutes left to get things sorted out.
I told him who I was, that I’d managed Wham! and had taken them to China. But it turned out he wasn’t a pop fan and didn’t know who Wham! was. “What d’you want exactly?” he asked bluntly. He sounded put out to have been called at home by someone he didn’t know.
I said I’d been invited at very short notice to go to Sydney to sign an Australian pop group who, if I signed them for management, would undoubtedly become a substantial earner of foreign currency for Australia. But I needed a visa.
“No way,” he said. “You’ll have to go to the visa office tomorrow morning. It will take at least 48 hours, and we’re closed over the weekend. So that means Monday.”
I could tell he wanted to hang up but before he could I politely repeated the whole story again.. “They’re called Wa Wa Nee,” I said. And by a piece of good fortune he repeated the name out loud.
Immediately, from the other end of the phone came a cacophony of screams .
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“My two daughters.”
Two hours later I was on the plane with a handwritten visa. Thirty-six hours later I’d become the manager of Wa Wa Nee. They were a four-piece band who wrote their own songs. The singer was Paul Gray, blond and starry, and the musicians who played with him were Steve, Chris, and Mark.
I must say it went rather well. With unusual speed, I extracted a substantial budget from CBS and flew the group to London where we made a video of their latest single, Sugar Free. I then persuaded Epic in New York to give them the full monty promotion-wise.
In September Sugar Free went into the Billboard Hot 100 and by the time we arrived in New York to do promotion it had climbed to 35. I had discussions with the Epic marketing department re its onward progress. They planned to put it into the Top Twenty the following week, the Top Ten the week after, and if things still looked good the week after that, they’d go for a Number One.
In New York the group played a gig that went exceptionally well and we moved on to LA. After an equally good show at the Whiskey, I had to tell Paul he’d be having dinner with the wives of a couple of CBS executives. “They’ve rather taken a fancy to you,” I explained.
He didn’t like the idea at all. “I’m not a piece of meat,” he said. “I’m an artist.”
“It’s only a dinner. Be nice for a couple of hours, then you can go home to Australia knowing your record will be in the Top Ten.”
It’s what everyone wants to say but in the end doesn't. But Paul did. And he refused to go to dinner.
By the following week Wa Wa Nee’s record had disappeared from the Billboard chart and the group’s career in America was over. You couldn’t really fault Paul. He was principled and stuck with what he believed in. His life was about music, not PR. He was a charming fellow, wrote amazingly good music, and sung brilliantly.
For me - for the rest of the band - for Paul too - it was just one more rock experience. Sometimes that’s how things work out.
Last week Paul died and everyone is very sad. Me too. For the musicians who were in Wa Wa Nee, he was for a while the focal point of their lives. He was funny, witty, and delightfully self-deprecatory. When Steve, the guitarist, learned he had cancer a couple of months back, Paul said, “Don’t worry. It’s nothing. Just a little setback. I’ll soon be over it.”
But unfortunately he wasn’t.
 The funeral is on Thursday. RIP Paul. You’re much missed.