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Babylon By Bus

Entry 1580 posted in: 1. General Mish Mash

I don’t read a lot of books anymore like I used to. An iPod in the ear and a game driven smartphone has replaced the pile of printed letters that some people refer to as a book.

On top of that my right eye, the good one, is slowly dying on me. At the local hospital they stuck a needle through the lens and injected some oily substance. For a minute or so it made me the centre of a highly personal Mike Leonard’s light workshop but that is all the fun there was as for the next couple of days my eye hurt as if it had been hit by Muhammad Ali. And don’t you believe the crap either that sticking a needle in one’s eye is completely painless.

I now have the choice to do absolutely nothing and to literally watch my right eye slowly fadeout or to go regularly to the butcher, spend thousands of Euros for injections and get blind anyway, although much slower and beaucoup more painful. I’ve always been the optimist, anyone can see that. And also I am a bit more receptive now for the saying that wanking makes you go blind.

But enough about my personal besognes, on my weekly hunt at the local record- and bookshop I was intrigued by a paperback written by Imogen Edwards-Jones, its title was Pop Babylon and the blurb went like this: sniffing out the secrets of the world of pop. Now I am a sucker for rock books but I had never read a novel about pop stars before. Mostly that is because rock’n roll non-fiction is so incredibly weird that no fiction can compete with that.

Take a story about a boy and a girl who are deeply in love. They marry. One day they have a drunken fight on their yacht and she throws her wedding ring in the water. A while later, the guy, high on dope, dives in the water to get the ring and his marriage back, but he doesn’t surface anymore… Would you read such crap? I wouldn’t. But this is what happened (more or less) to Dennis Wilson though…

Once there was a time when one bloke met another bloke on the train, carrying some blues records under the arm, and, with the help of some other unemployed friends a successful rock band was born, although rock was often the last thing on their mind. "I hope they don’t think we’re a rock’n roll outfit", said Mick Jagger when he announced the very first Marquee outing of his little rhytm and blues band in Jazz News. If you would like to know, it was on Thursday, July 12, 1962 and the lineup was: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Elmo Lewis, Dick Taylor, Ian ‘Stu’ Stewart and Mike Avery.  

Boy meets boy, it’s the story of many Sixties groups and even the proto-Floyd used to have blues afternoon sessions at Syd Barrett’s place in Cambridge (his mother furnished the lemonade and cookies).

Nowadays it’s different in the music industry. If a manager wants to make a quick buck, he doesn’t wait anymore for a band to knock on his door, but he creates the band himself. It's much easier that way and the victims are ready to sign whatever that is presented to them (see also X-Faxtor and Pop Idol).

This is what the protagonist of the book does (if he has got a name I have already forgotten it) to keep on leading the good life he has had up till now. The popular indie band he manages gives him the sack – once famous all other managing bureaus and record companies are drooling over them - and the other artists he owns all fail to get their songs in the charts.

A friend from the music industry advises him to invest in a boys band. Boys bands are big business and give less hassle than girls bands who are ‘twice the trouble and half the cash’. A while later Band Of Five is born. The band consist of two good-looking boys who can sing and 3 ‘passengers’ whose only task it is to dance a bit and to mime in front of disconnected microphones (although they are not aware of that). We are learned that there is safety in numbers for a boysband and that the perfect number is five. 'Because if one member leaves you’re still on the safe side.'

To turn the downtown thugs into popstars The One Agency hires different specialists who teach the lads to dance and sing, writers are needed to pen some songs, an engineer is hired to record the demos, others will (re)mix the album and finally a promotor has to organise a tour. There will be a first small tour in and around schools (and some gay night clubs) to make the brand name known and then a full UK tour to cash in on their first number one hit.

And here is where Imogen Edwards-Jones and her anonymous co-author(s) kick in. Whenever the band or their managers meet a personality from the music industry that person will first spit a few pages with real saucy anecdotes from the music business before the story goes on. A lot of these anecdotes sound familiar like the alternative way in which Stevie Nicks used to snort cocaine. Others were new to me; I didn’t know that Axl Rose used to have a roadie to blow-dry his testicles (luckily, this was done backstage). And although Mötley Crüe is mentioned once it is not for Nikki Sixx’s egg burrito pastime. Perhaps that anecdote was a bit too unsavoury for the Babylon series.

Sex and drugs are omnipresent in the novel, and it absolutely shows that the industry, nor the agents, really care for their product. Powdering my nose has an entirely different meaning in music business and during an after-gig party some band members can be seen walking around with their ‘nostrils frosted white like a margarita glass’. When the manager does a feeble attempt to stop this self-destructing behaviour he gets the reply to ‘leave us kids alone’. That one Band Of Five member is legally underage is apparently no problem either; to make the boys look more manly there is a stack of socks to pop down the front of their trousers to give them ‘great big cocks’. The endless gigging, partying, snorting and shagging demand their toll as well, at a certain moment they all have to line up, pants down, to get a pinprick that’ll keep them going for the show.

Music business is swimming with sharks, says one agent to the other, the thing about it is that it's controlled by a bunch of middle-aged men who enjoy a lunch and a bottle of wine and have the flocking instinct of lemmings. It all turns around percentages and at the end ten pence worth of disc is selling for £10, which is a mark-up of ten thousand percent. In 1972 not all were aware of that. Clare Torry, who did the vocals on Pink Floyd’s Great Gig In the Sky, a track on (The) Dark Side Of The Moon that apparently sold over 35 million copies, received 30£ for her input (and rumours go this was a double fee as the recording took place on a Sunday). Even Alan Parsons, who engineered the album, worked for a flat fee and was still angry about that years later in a Dutch Playboy interview. (It took over 30 years for Torry, EMI and Pink Floyd to come to a settlement. In 2005 they all agreed and the song is now co-credited to her.)

Just when Band Of Five is starting to go strong the band breaks up due to the Yoko effect; the partner of the lead singer finds that one fifth of the band’s income is not enough and reveals to the 3 passengers that they are just cute faces without any (singing) talent. The breakup takes place at about the worst moment, although the band has existed for about a year they haven’t seen a single penny yet. Royalties will only roll in after the record company has made the financial balance and if there is any money left the managers will have to deduct their investments first, plus of course a 20% management fee. The future of the boys, if there is a future at all, will lie in occasional television appearances such as Dancing On Ice where ex-celebrities can cash in on previous successes.

Boy bands are over decides The One Agency, the future is female singer-songwriters from now on… and perhaps it is time to have Pop Babylon 2, the sequel then…

But is the novel well written? Well..., it is written and sometimes not even too bad. Edwards-Jones can punch nice one-liners around but doesn’t do it enough in my opinion. The story is a bit bleak and the several encounters between the band and the record people have only been inserted as a vehicle for the many anecdotes, but that is what the Babylon series is all about. The revealing secrets behind the music industry are not that shocking (not if you have been reading Q and Mojo for the past 20 years) and overall the novel has the impact of a fart in a wind tunnel (to quote one of the better ones). Or are you shocked to find out that Madonna wants 50% of the writing credits of a song before she agrees to put it on an album? I am not.

Easy to read. Easy to forget. Just like boy bands basically. And if you would try to start one yourself you don't even have to read the complete book, just consult The golden rules of Pop Babylon where most of the secrets are out in the open...

P.S. Mike Avery (see above) was a pseudonym for Brian Jones that didn't stick for long.

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