A riotous life in the music business
As a teenager I learned the gig going ropes in London. The Hammersmith Odeon, Rainbow Theatre Finsbury and Wembley Empire Pool (as was) became regular haunts, as well as occasional visits elsewhere. It was the 70’s, the halcyon days of gig going. Prices were affordable, tours frequent, tickets fairly easy to get. I never went to the Brixton Academy for several reasons, but was well aware of its reputation. When I heard about the book I thought it might be worth a read as it cross- referenced bands, and an era, with which I was well familiar. However it was only as I read it, that I realised what a little gem it is.
The author, and proprietor of the Academy is Simon Parkes. A posh kid, a rich kid, a privileged kid, but not a pretentious kid. He rubbed shoulders with Prince Andrew, but the family fortune was in catching, gutting and packaging fish, the middle of which he undertook as a family rite of passage. He was also born with a malformed arm as a consequence of the Thalidomide tragedy, a handicap which seems to have driven him rather than held him back. Wisely, his time growing up is dealt with briefly and concisely, it’s the music we are really interested in, nonetheless it is a fascinating sequence , but it the music that this book will be read for and little time is lost in reaching the meat of the story.
As soon as he arrives in Brixton, the narrative shifts up a gear and never relents, with drama, anecdote and a rich social history commentary of time, place and participants. If he had not been a music impresario Parkes could have been a diplomat, so consummate is his skill in negotiating the bear-traps of the detail of his story. On the one hand he declares that he had no truck with drug dealing, on the other, he was arranging for others to supply key players, from road managers, through band members to foreign music executives. He bemoans the reputation of Brixton for gangs and violence, but spends much of the book telling the stories of the drug, gang, violence heavy world that is its milieu. He pulls every trick in the book, yet is generous to his key rivals Harvey Goldsmith and Vince Power, and never name checks his opposite numbers at the Hammersmith Odeon whose business he took south of the river.
Most of his close contacts are referred to by first names and nicknames only, there are no contemporary photos, family detail and where he lives are discussed in the broadest possible terms, all suggesting that his rise to the top did not come without a cost.
What makes this book work is his obvious enthusiasm for the music. As a contemporary of his I empathised with his excitement at attending those early seventies gigs, and was jealous that he lived the dream, whilst I and many others simply dreamed the dream. Of course his family background helped him to raise £130,000 to take on the dream in a way that most other people could not. But his work ethic and enthusiasm for the business is what delivered and converted the dream into reality.
The murky underworld of a cash rich, gangland predator, environment is compelling. He spells out what the scams were, distances himself from them, but is a little coy on how much legitimate cash he was making. How he chances upon what amounts to the toughest security outfit in London is a little bit blurred, as is his ability to retain them, for a job description which makes minding Columbian Cocaine Barons seem relatively easy. But with sawn off shot gun toting heavies by his side, and guard dogs on a short leash, he triumphs, and we share his triumphs with him.
There are anecdotes aplenty, suspicious reggae bands make eleventh hour show stopping demands, police outriders in numbers normally associated with the Queen race to recover Keith Richards in return for free tickets, and a mean and moody rapper demands for his rider nothing more than KFC.
J S Rafaeli has done a tremendous job co-writing this, as have publishers serpentstail in editing it. Suggs Macpherson has a biography out about a similar period in London. In it he boasts eschewing the services of professional writers in favour of his own hand, with unsatisfactory results. Here the writing his witty, brisk and unpretentious, a fabulous, exciting and rewarding read.