Monday, July 2, 2012

#572: Just an avg guy....


I don't really give a hoot about Richard Branson, 1 of the richest guys in the world. Couldn't care less about his airline, or his adventures crossing the oceans in a balloon, or his travels in2 space.
But I grabbed THE INSIDE STORY 2 learn more about the early days of Virgin Records -- the early-'70s days when oddballs like Mike Oldfield, Tangerine Dream, Gong, Hatfield and the North, Henry Cow & David Bedford were all in the house. & there's about 4 chapters of details about those early days included here. But I want 2 know more.
1 thing this authorized biography shows is that Branson -- despite his posh background & private-school upbringing -- was very much an average guy, not the financial genius whiz-kid he was sometimes described as. He was VERY lucky with $$$, but not because he was some kind of monetary wizard -- in fact, his early Xpansion of the Virgin record-store chain in England wasn't some 1st step in a carefully-planned program of eventual world domination. The Xpansion was done in a panic, as an attempt 2 outrun his mounting debts. Diversification thru panic. & it worked. But it took awhile....
Branson is depicted by Brown (who keeps this book lite & funny & involving & clever) as rather awkward & clumsy with people, not at peak form in a social setting, but an absolute whiz at deal-making over the telephone. & Branson hired people with talent & then let them run the show while he mostly stayed in the background working on the next deal.
Branson's distant cousin Simon Draper actually handled the music/artists end of Virgin Records & signed-up all those oddballs -- & Branson trusted Draper's musical taste. Branson also hired people like ace recording engineer Tom Newman, PR guy Al Clark, assistant John Varnom & others, then let them run things the best way they knew how.
Branson wanted Virgin Records 2 B more like a family, & it was -- with some people working 4 lower-than-avg $$$ just 2 B part of the atmosphere. & when some of them complained & wanted more $$$, this often confused Branson -- he thot working 4 "fun" & 2 B part of the atmosphere was enuf.
Branson was a likeable, informal, scruffy hippie-businessman, not always in touch with how reality worked 4 his staffers -- at 1 point in the book it's clear he has no idea how much a lunch, a loaf of bread or a taxi ride costs. & he hardly ever carried cash, himself. Speaking of informality -- Branson's 1st wife ran off with oddball singer/songwriter Kevin Ayers, but they all stayed friends, & Branson later bought Ayers' houseboat & lived on it 4 sevral years.
There R just enuf stories about the early days 2 make this book worth reading if you're in2 the musical acts or the time period, & Brown keeps the pace moving. There's lotsa detail about Mike Oldfield, who helped Branson make his 1st million $$$ thru recording & releasing TUBULAR BELLS, Virgin's 1st album, recorded at Virgin's out-in-the-country Manor Studios, another of Branson's brainstorm idea/purchases.
Virgin's family approach worked OK in2 the mid-'70s, but by then the label was losing $$$ -- none of their other acts paid-off & Oldfield's follow-up albums didn't sell phenomenally. Most of the label's early weirdies were dropped late in '76 when their contracts came up 4 renewal -- & when the Sex Pistols came along in '77, Branson looked at them as a clear way 2 renew the label's approach & reputation.
By the time Boy George came along in the early '80s, Virgin had changed in2 basically Just Another Record Label, & Branson was off having other adventures.
Tho they take up about 1/3rd of the book, I wish there were more stories about Virgin's early days. Tho Gong is included in a set of photos, the only time they're mentioned in the text is when the hippie commune/group is escorted out of Virgin's Vernon Yard headquarters. Hatfield and the North Rn't mentioned at all, tho they released both their albums on Virgin. Henry Cow is mentioned only briefly. Tangerine Dream is mentioned only when Brown tracks the British success of their 1st Virgin album, PHAEDRA. The only time Dave Bedford is mentioned is when he "mistakenly" mixes-up letters sent 2 Branson & Oldfield after being dropped from Virgin -- the letter 2 Branson thanking Virgin 4 the opportunity & saying what a gentleman Branson was, & the letter 2 Oldfield (which Branson received) saying what an idiot the Virgin head was & how glad Bedford was 2 B rid of him....
I still think there's a whole book that could B written about Virgin's 1st 5 years or so -- hard 2 believe all those oddballs (& others: Robert Wyatt, Kevin Coyne, Captain Beefheart, Poly Styrene & X-Ray Spex, etc.) could B hanging around the same company & not have more wild stuff happen. Perhaps Draper, Clark, Newman & Varnom could team-up 2 write that book -- maybe they already have & I just can't find it. But that book is definitely NOT the 1 Branson, Draper, Terry Southern & Ken Barry teamed-up 2 write a couple decades back, VIRGIN: A PICTORIAL HISTORY OF VIRGIN RECORDS, which is a coffee-table photo book that closes with Branson signing the Rolling Stones 2 Virgin after he'd bn persuing them 4 years. Lotsa nice photos in that book, but not enuf history.
Overall: Worth it if you're in2 the musical acts or the time period. & Brown keeps it entertaining.

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