Mick Houghton came of age as a pop music ‘obsessive’ in the 1960s. By the 1970s, he was a pop music industry insider. His previous books—biographies of Sandy Denny and Elektra’s Jac Holzman—were from a fan/journalist perspective. His new memoir, Fried & Justified, is from an insider perspective, based on his years as a publicist during the new wave/post-punk era in the UK (1978-98); it chronicles the “hits, myths, break-ups and breakdowns in the record business.” Among his promo clients were the mercurial Julian Cope, Jesus & Mary Chain, KLF, the Undertones, Ramones, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, the dB’s and, yes, Sun Ra. Houghton spoke with rock historian Richie Unterberger for PKM about all of these artists…and more.
Starting his career as a music journalist in the early 1970s for hip long-gone UK rock magazines like Let It Rock and ZigZag, Mick Houghton was within a few years an established writer for the likes of Sounds, Circus, and Time Out. He made his biggest mark on rock history, however, as a publicist for some of the most successful alternative rockers of the late 20th century. His recent memoir, thankfully, is far livelier than the usual press release.
Fried & Justified; Hits, Myths, Break-Ups and Breakdowns in the Record Business 1978-98 (Faber & Faber) is a look at the era’s inside action with a journalist’s eye for detail, mercurial personalities, and frustrating failures. Working for both the mainstream/major label and indie/underground sides of the new wave/post-punk scenes, Houghton had a bird’s-eye perspective that often goes missing from most accounts of the period.
Mick promoted Julian Cope, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Jesus & Mary Chain, the Undertones, KLF, the Wedding Present, and Felt. He also helped with British tours and press for Sire Records acts like the Ramones and Talking Heads, and American artists like Sonic Youth and Sun Ra. His clients included shorter-lived bands like the Rezillos; cult faves like the dB’s; and undergrounders that never quite got much global traction, like Birdland and Cud. Numerous others are discussed in the book and in our interview, from Gorky’s Zygmotic Mynci and the Triffids to That Petrol Emotion. It’s a long and almost absurdly eclectic resume, and while he wasn’t employed by superstars, he likely got at least as many interesting stories out of the deal than he would have by pushing mega-names.
Some of those stories are funny; some are depressing. Sometimes they’re both at once, as when it’s noted that WEA’s new marketing man “had come straight from Nabisco and knew as much about music as I did about Shredded Wheat.” Or when Jesus & Mary Chain’s William Reid ripped the answering machine out of Creation Records’ wall with the claim “that’s mine. I paid for that.” He thought so much of his new acquisition that Houghton later found it stuffed in the rubbish bin on the street.
But most of Mick’s memories illuminate the zany, capricious ways of the period’s music business and its stars, or semi-stars. Even his more successful charges sometimes seemed so ill-suited for the spotlight that it’s not so much a question of why they didn’t get bigger, but how they got as far as they did. People like Houghton probably have more to do with it than they get credit for, though he declines to take much in this humorously deadpan account. It couldn’t have been that easy, however, to keep an even keel when Julian Cope announced from the stage, “We can’t do an encore because we’re splitting up tonight.”
Since winding up his career as a publicist, Houghton’s turned back to writing, though now as a music historian rather than a journalist covering the current pop scene. His books include Becoming Elektra: The True Story of Jac Holzman’s Visionary Record Label and the excellent I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn: The Biography of Sandy Denny. I interviewed him about Fried & Justified in early March, Mick answering the questions with the thoughtfulness and thoroughness of a true fan-turned-scribe.
PKM: Your previous books were on music history. Why did you decide to write a memoir of your times as a publicist?
Mick Houghton: Both the Elektra and Sandy Denny books were very personal to me. Listening to John Peel’s Perfumed Garden show on Radio London had introduced me to so much that I’d never heard before. I was 16 at the time. It was the ‘60s and there’s no better decade to have grown up in if you were obsessed with pop music, which I had been since the start of the decade. Discovering Elektra and British folk music were the most significant discoveries though, more or less a coming of age musically. I was no longer being guided by what was in the charts. Hearing Love and Tim Buckley, the Doors and the Butterfield Band, and the first couple of Incredible String Band albums had such an impact on my taste and increased my awareness of music. It’s when I first realized that certain labels had a definite identity all their own. And it was through John Peel that I first heard Bert Jansch, who dispelled all my prejudices about folk music. I wouldn’t have thought this at the time, but Bert was cool unlike [Scottish folk duo] Robin Hall and Jimmy McGregor who represented the face of British folk music on television in the ’60s.
Hearing Fairport provided another bridge. I saw a lot of their early shows with the original lineup when they were perceived as an English Jefferson Airplane. They were more an English Byrds in the way they evolved musically as well as frequently changing lineups. I saw the Judy Dyble lineup quite a few times but never even knew that Sandy Denny had replaced her till I heard – almost inevitably – a John Peel session where the first song played was “Fotheringay.” Then I saw that lineup play soon after at the Royal Festival Hall. This was the music that sustained me going into the ‘70s, and still does. So writing about Elektra and Sandy Denny and British folk-rock was definitely really personal to me, and I was writing from a perceptive of having experienced it firsthand.
The starting point for Fried & Justified is effectively the mid-‘70s, and it’s no less about a book about “music history subjects,” except that I was now part of that particular period of history. This may sound obvious but it was only once I’d finished writing the book – which ends around the millennium – that I realized I’d been writing about a landscape that had by then almost vanished with the diminishing significance of the music press, and specifically, the print media, along with the gradual erosion of the live circuit in Britain.
I’d actually wanted to write a memoir for a long time. It took the experience of writing the previous books to have the confidence because I knew I had to be pivotal to the story and not observing it from the outside. There’s an implied arrogance about doing that since most people outside the record industry – and plenty within it – don’t have a clue who I am.
I’m not drawn to people who put success ahead of artistry. …. a lot of the people I’ve worked with are perceived as underachievers. Not artistically, but they tend not to compromise in what matters to them.
PKM: There have been numerous books by rock publicists, and other figures associated with the business side of rock. What do you think most distinguishes Fried & Justified from those, in terms of both what you wrote and how you wrote it?
Mick Houghton: I really haven’t read many such books, or none I can say made any great impression on me aside from Derek Taylor’s As Time Goes By, which I liked because it was so understated even though he’s writing about working with the Beatles, the Byrds, and the Beach Boys. He was such a gentleman and very respectful. I don’t think consciously, but that was the approach I took. I hate that whole “warts and all” approach to rock writing; you know, “telling it like it is.” I think Fried & Justified does “tell it like it is,” but it’s no Hammer of the Gods or Up and Down with The Rolling Stones. My approach is more a Dickensian “What Larks.”
I always remember one particular interview with Charlie Watts. It was a while back because he was asked what it was like being on the road for 25 years? And he said it was mostly boring because he was either traveling or waiting around for at least 20 of them. It’s a job, after all. I did a fair amount of waiting around too. Les Pattinson from the Bunnymen says in the book that in the first seven years in the band he spent at least four months waiting around for Ian McCulloch.
So I didn’t want to sensationalize anything. And the publicist’s role comes late in the process. I always point out that my role doesn’t start till the record is finished. You read [producer] Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles and he quite rightly puts himself front and center throughout. [Elektra Records head] Jac Holzman’s Follow the Music is the same, although he’s more modest and generous to others about his achievements. I can’t not mention Andrew Oldham’s autobiographical trilogy, particularly the first of these Stoned. Working with Andrew and getting to know him was inspiring and like Derek Taylor he’s a true gent unless you got on the wrong side of him and were the recipient of his savage wit.
PKM: What do you think might most distinguish your career as a publicist from those of other rock publicists?
Mick Houghton: We’re all trying to do the same job, but we have different ways of going about it. My way reflects my passive personality. I’m no extrovert. And it reflects the nature of people I’m comfortable being around. Even those who appear to be extrovert, such as Cope or Bill Drummond, are masking a mass of insecurities. I’m not drawn to people who put success ahead of artistry. I’m not interested in anybody who craves success at all costs, which explains why a lot of the people I’ve worked with are perceived as underachievers. Not artistically, but they tend not to compromise in what matters to them. You can see that attitude in the Undertones, Echo & the Bunnymen and the Jesus & Mary Chain. Do it clean, you know what I mean.
So a lot of people they come up against in the business see them as difficult and stubborn for knowing their own mind and sticking to it. If the Undertones had toured more or if the Bunnymen had gone with U2’s regular producer Steve Lillywhite – as MD Rob Dickins wanted – it would have made no difference. The Bunnymen would always have taken part in an event like A Crystal Day [in which they launched their 1984 Ocean Rain album with “a day’s worth of happenings in Liverpool”], which made little impact internationally, rather than trudge round America for three months.
Echo and the Bunnymen perform at Liverpool’s A Crystal Day festival, May 4, 1984:
PKM: While a good number of publicists move to the field from journalism like you did, not too many establish a career that was as long and successful as yours. I think a couple keys to this were your realizations that, as you write early on, “it’s totally about connecting with people.” And also that although your personality was kind of the opposite of the PR stereotype of being confident and pushy, this actually worked in your favor. Can you elaborate on how your approach helped you? And why it isn’t adopted by more publicists?
Mick Houghton: I definitely didn’t fit the PR stereotype, but I didn’t set out to cultivate a methodology. I always believed that less is more, and you can’t measure success by column inches. There is very little to the job that isn’t common sense, and it is very much about connecting with people. The publicist is essentially a go between, so you need to know both the artist and the writer/editor/publication to the same degree because it’s the “right” press that counts. Placement and timing is key…the relationship between the publicist and the media is simply one of supply and demand. It’s a basic business model. The press needs the publicist as much as the publicist needs the press. Papers and magazines need content. You’re doing them a favor as much, if not more, than the other way round. Once you understand that, it’s simple. I always hated that some PRs and often people in record companies, or managers, would see the press as the enemy. You know, “fucking journalists are always out to get us.” They seem to forget that is was the press that brought them to their attention in the first place.
I’m not pushy by nature but as a journalist I know I always responded better to publicists who didn’t try and bully me into doing something or, for want of a better phrase, didn’t try and bullshit me. That implies that those kinds of publicists think you’re stupid. No amount of persuasion – or even tacit bribes – can make a journalist or an editor commit to something they don’t want to cover. But if you have a good relationship, they are more like[ly] to give it some time and think it over before they say “no.” I never stopped thinking like a journalist. Whether as a publicist or a journalist the stronger the pitch, the better thought out the angle, the more likely they’ll go for it.
Establishing trust is even more important dealing with artists. They have to be able to put their trust in you because you’re the one presenting them to the outside world…I can’t think of any artist who wasn’t wary or downright suspicious when I first met them, and that doesn’t matter what your reputation is or what your track record is. What matters most to them is – first and foremost – the music, and they need to know that you are into the music. It’s not enough to say “I really like your album”; they have to believe you. There are enough sycophants around telling them what they want to hear.
I always had age on my side. I was 28 when I joined WEA in the press office. I was eight to ten years older than the Undertones or the Bunnymen, twice the age of Gorky’s when I met them. There wasn’t much music I hadn’t heard or too many groups I’d not seen play live or even interviewed. It was never calculated; I didn’t just drop names for effect. Whether it was Gorky’s or Julian Cope or [Spiritualized’s] Jason Pierce – just about everybody I ever worked with – they lived and breathed music. So did I.
And it does cut both ways. When I met Jason Pierce, for example, we got talking about Elvis and the Elvis Country album, and I understood Spiritualized a lot better for that conversation than if we’d talked about the 13th Floor Elevators or the Stooges. Jason was passionate about music…I’d read interviews where he was portrayed really negatively, somebody permanently spaced out and inarticulate. That wasn’t the person I met.
“What distinguished Sire from the other labels was Seymour Stein and his shrewd combination of insight and opportunism.”
PKM: Early in your PR work, you worked with Sire artists. What do you think distinguished the vision of the label from others as new wave got off the ground, and what were the challenges of getting them known in the UK, particularly for American ones who might not have felt as comfortable operating in a different country?
Mick Houghton: What distinguished Sire from the other labels was Seymour Stein and his shrewd combination of insight and opportunism. He was snapping up bands like the Dead Boys and DMZ on his doorstep with a cheap deal that at least meant they were able to get a record out. Nobody else was going to sign them at the time. I came on board in summer ’78 and a lot of those bands, including Richard Hell and the Voidoids, had moved on by then, made their one album and split.
The Ramones were onto their fourth album in two-and-a-half years but at least I got to work on what was their last great album – Road to Ruin. Did they ever make another decent album? I’m not sure, but none that I heard. So under the circumstances it’s strange to me that Road To Ruin was being greeted by the press as one album too many where they adhered to the same formula. Yet they carried on for another 20 years doing more of the same with very little financial or critical rewards. And now, despite a further 20 years of diminishing returns, they are icons.
I didn’t have the challenge of getting either them or Talking Heads known in this country. That had already been done and as Danny Fields knew they would, they were an immediate success in Britain. The Ramones were manna from heaven for the press over here. Sadly they never truly cracked their home country.
What was fascinating for me was how quickly Talking Heads became Sire’s primary group within a few months of the release of More Songs About Buildings and Food, which was released the week I started out as a press officer. They also broke out from Britain and Europe but unlike the Ramones, Talking Heads were able to make the Billboard charts and get radio recognition back home. Both the Ramones and Talking Heads toured over here regularly in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. I got to know both groups as well as you can with only intermittent contact.
I think it was tough on the Ramones because they not only saw some of the other Bowery bands do well commercially and completely outstrip them, but so many British groups too. Groups like the Police or Dire Straits who were around when they first toured here were now massive globally. The Ramones’ influence in Britain was immense, but they missed out on all the spoils. People quote Eno for that line about the Velvet Underground and everybody who bought their debut album first time around formed a band; I think everybody who saw the Ramones at Dingwalls in July 1976 probably did too.
PKM: One of your early experiences in PR was with the Rezillos, and you make the interesting observation that though you were surprised they broke up quickly with acrimony, you were to learn this wasn’t so rare. In the Rezillos’ case, what were the particular factors working against their longevity, and how were these both typical and untypical in your experience?
Mick Houghton: What was so interesting crossing over from being a journalist to be part of the process within the record industry itself was the level of access you had and an immediate awareness of what is really going on. You see the artist in situations where their guard is down. I was really shocked when the Rezillos broke up since it was more or less only three months after their debut album was released. They were the first UK group I worked with, and I probably learnt everything I needed to know about the job from working with them and just being a fly on the wall around them.
The Rezillos on Top of the Pops, 1978:
I thought they must be crazy. They had all the trappings of success – a well-received album, a hit single, radio play, Peel sessions, appearing on Top of the Pops, and signed to the coolest label of the day. But that wasn’t enough. From the start I was aware of the two factions – the two singers, Faye and Eugene, vs. the rest of the group. I could see the animosity growing just as I was trying to get to know them. They were bickering among themselves, and the singers had a real dissatisfaction with Sire and WEA. It was an eye-opener which soon dispelled the naiveté of thinking having a record deal meant that everything in the garden must be rosy.
Dysfunction is inherent in every band I’ve ever worked with, but can be as much positive force as a negative one. However, over time the negativity tends to become the stronger force. Within a couple of years there were visible cracks appearing in the Undertones, Ramones, and Talking Heads. I’m hard pressed to think of any group that I ever worked that didn’t internally combust to one degree or another and at one time or another.
PKM: It’s interesting to read how the Undertones were in some ways not as career-minded as fans might think, unwilling to tour for long stretches because they missed home and family; unconcerned about chart positions; and seeming to feel inferior to their punk/new wave peers. Do you think they might have underachieved because of all this, and was it hard in some ways working with them because they weren’t as intent on taking over the world as many young bands are?
Mick Houghton: I don’t think the Undertones ever disguised the fact that they weren’t career-minded. They were always open in interviews about their lack of ambition, which journalists found disarming. In any group some members are going to be more driven than others.
With the Undertones – and this was true of the Bunnymen and the Jesus & Mary Chain – they were all perceived as negative and difficult by the record company because they only wanted to do things their way. Whether this was about how they look and behave, their attitude towards touring or a general refusal to let the record company meddle in the creative process. I don’t see that as being difficult or negative; it’s the artist’s right to control the creative process. If that means they are underachievers, then that’s exactly why I was drawn to them. You have to let artists be themselves.
The Undertones – Get Over You (Live) [Live at the Lyceum ’78]
That goes for everything required of them, including having to do interviews and photo sessions. There’s nothing to prepare you for that, and you can’t tutor somebody in how to handle doing interviews. All you can do is to allow them time to find the best way for them to deal with them. If you read early Teardrop Explodes interviews, Julian [Cope] is trying desperately to be serious and to make meaningful points. Hard to believe, but the pieces are dull. It was only after [Teardrop Explodes guitarist] Alan Gill turned him on to dope that he developed an outlandish copy-ready wit and such wild, engaging enthusiasm.
The corollary to this is the number of groups who didn’t have the strength to resist record company pressure. They’d enjoy short-term success at best – that solitary hit record maybe – but they soon lost their true audience and the resolve they had to form the group in the first place. Don’t get me started on how record companies manipulated groups just to get their mitts on the lead singer or the chief writers at the expense of the others. It usually starts with the drummer of course.
PKM: One of the juiciest bits in the book was that Tina Weymouth had to audition for the group again when they got their Sire deal. Weymouth and Chris Frantz have since talked about their differences with Byrne, and I guess we’ll hear a lot more about them in Frantz’s forthcoming memoir (Remain in Love, scheduled for publication in May 2020). When you knew them, did you have any notion of the tensions between them and Byrne?
Mick Houghton: I’d seen that story elsewhere, otherwise I’d have been loath to use it. I still remember that conversation with Chris and Tina in the hotel because it was so unexpected. Of all the groups I worked with when I was starting out, Talking Heads were the most enjoyable to be around. They were all smart, that’s no revelation, but they were also hedonistic. It was always fun to join them on tour. They were always personable to the writers I’d bring along and they liked the comforts of good hotels, and dining in good restaurants. There were no cheap hotels and after-show curry houses with Talking Heads.
“Of all the groups I worked with when I was starting out, Talking Heads were the most enjoyable to be around.”
They were quite open about the tensions with David, which the others often brought up in interviews. Towards the end of the campaign around Fear of Music, David was doing his interviews separately.,,I was usually around them in a promo capacity or hanging out at gigs, so it may have been more heated away from that glare. I think they dealt with their differences in a way that allowed them to continue functioning and maintain a long career. The downside was that they were purely a recording outfit by the mid-‘80s, which was tragic. They were such a great live band.
PKM: You got to know the Ramones fairly well, and although they’re icons of the early punk period, as you note they never really made it to the stardom they wanted. Can you speculate on whether this might have been due to the relatively modest evolution of their music (compared to, say, Talking Heads)?
Mick Houghton: You’ve put it very discreetly to compare their “modest evolution” to that of Talking Heads. Seymour loved the Ramones and appreciated that they were Sire’s flagship band in that phase of Sire Records that saw them at the forefront of new wave. People forget, or possibly don’t know, that Sire’s pre-1976 forte had been prog and hard rock groups such as Focus, Renaissance, Barclay James Harvest, and the Climax Blues Band. It took the Ramones to re-set the compass.
I think the relative failure of End of the Century, of putting them together with Phil Spector, sealed their fate. They enjoyed relative short-term success in the charts, but the album was a major disappointment. It was a great idea on paper, but the group and Phil Spector canceled each other out. In Britain, where the Ramones meant something, it was a Top Twenty album and “Baby I Love You” went Top Ten. There was something cool about the Ramones doing Top of the Pops. There was a sense of “who’d have thought it?”
The Ramones on Top of the Pops, “Don’t Come Close”:
The impression I got was that in the U.S., the Ramones were almost a novelty act outside of their hardcore fan base. The Spector album attracted little more than curiosity.
Pleasant Dreams was a disaster. If I remember rightly, the group wanted to work with Steve Lillywhite, but Sire brought in Graham Gouldman in search of that breakthrough hit. There was simply no connection there, not even on paper. It was a real shame because they had a really good set of new songs, far better than for the Spector album, but all the life was sucked out of them by the production.
By the time Subterranean Jungle came out, my arrangement with Sire was coming to an end.
PKM: You note that record companies soon gave up if an artist didn’t make the Top 40, and “There never was a plan B.” How did this work against bands like the Ramones that might have been more geared toward building a cult fan base over time than selling lots of records within two or three years? Or that never would build the kind of cult base as the Ramones or Julian Cope, but were worth supporting on the basis of their musical quality, like the Raybeats?
Mick Houghton: The hit record is such a thorny subject and I can only really reflect on this in terms of the evils it gave rise to in the UK. Robert Forster writes about this very astutely in Grant And I: Inside and Outside the Go-Betweens.
The hit record wasn’t quite the Holy Grail when I started out in PR. The Bunnymen weren’t under any great pressure for several years. After Heaven Up Here they’d become the biggest cult group in Britain (maybe second to the Jam). Their albums sold well and they were a successful touring band. They were a real press band too, and ranked high in all the end-of-year polls.
Funnily enough, they found themselves under greater pressure once they’d had their first Top Twenty hit with “The Back of Love.” It was as if the record company suddenly realized what they had in the Bunnymen and wanted more.
For the Undertones, having had a run of hit singles right from the get-go was definitely cramping their style. They had become indelibly stamped as a perfect pop group. This, combined with a rather cheesy image, was definitely holding them back. Positive Touch was a wonderful album and should have enabled them to make the transition, and I speak about this a lot in the book. They wanted to be Dexys or the Teardrops; they wanted to be allowed to grow up. Ultimately, it signaled the beginning of the end for the group.
When the Teardrops had a major hit with “Reward,” that threw them – or Julian – into a total maelstrom. Despite the hit record, Julian felt he was losing the race with the Bunnymen for the first time. He wanted what the Bunnymen had in terms of critical respect, especially for their live shows. The Bunnymen weren’t at all jealous of Julian’s pop success. The Teardrops were perpetually in complete disarray as a group whereas, for all the disparities in their individual personalities, the Bunnymen had definite core strength. The Teardrops had become all about Julian and, Julian being Julian, was hell-bent on self-destructing.
With the kind of groups I worked with, essentially cult artists, hit singles always tended to fuck them up. If it wasn’t the pressures they were put under to have a hit record in the first place, it was how to deal with the consequences.
As far as my comment about there being no Plan B – this became more and more of a factor from the mid-‘80s onwards. Certain groups I worked with – That Petrol Emotion and the Triffids, for example – both fell afoul of the tension caused by the demands of their respective record companies, Virgin and Island Records.
The Petrols had become more willing victims of the process after four years of being tipped as “the next band most likely to…” Virgin brought in Scott Litt – fresh from helping break REM – for their second album for the label. They released single after single, remix after remix to try and break the band. None of their five Virgin singles made it beyond No. 49.
I think it took the Triffids more by surprise. They trusted that signing to Island Records –given its track record and good reputation – meant that they could build on the cult success and acclaim of Born Sandy Devotional, their final release by Australian indie Hot Records. Instead, Island’s first action was to try and sack drummer Alsy McDonald, one of the group of friends who had founded the group. Alsy stayed, but they then spent six months and underwent three changes in producer before coming up with their Island debut, the overproduced Calenture. Judged on chart success, the Triffids’ legacy is one No. 73 placed single.
PKM: There’s a lot of dry wit in the book, as when you write, “My turning somebody down was usually like handing them a passport to worldwide success. If you wanted to be doomed to cult success and credibility, then I was your man.” What were some of the most colorful and notable circumstances in which you turned down future successes, and do you have any regrets over any of those rejections?
Mick Houghton: I don’t know how they were perceived in the US, but over here Tears For Fears were never a press-friendly band, so I was dodging a bullet and knew it. I really didn’t care for their music at all, though.
As for the Stone Roses, I genuinely found the tape [of the band he’d been sent of their debut LP by the record label] dull, but this was tempered by the fact that it did sound an awful lot like Primal Scream’s poorly received Elevation album Sonic Flower Groove. And as a full paid-up underachiever myself, I definitely breathed a sigh of relief that I didn’t work with Stone Roses given their spectacular success and the hoopla surrounding them. It was the last thing I wanted.
“as Danny Fields knew they would, they were an immediate success in Britain. The Ramones were manna from heaven for the press over here.”
PKM: Even getting used to weathering mercurial artists, it must have been frustrating when they seemed to willfully sabotage their prospects, like Julian Cope announcing he couldn’t do an encore because the group was splitting. What were some of the most exasperating such instances, whether you want to elaborate on Cope and/or others?
Mick Houghton: This isn’t a cop-out but Julian’s desire and capacity to undermine his own career is such a recurring theme throughout the book that it’s impossible to pick out one or two examples here. I’d refer people to Repossessed [the second volume of Cope’s memoirs].
After a few years off for bad behavior, working with Julian again during the ‘90s was one of the most satisfying experiences in my PR career. Ironically, since Julian was very intolerant of what his old manager was doing, as a career peak for me, it ranks alongside working with [KLF’s] Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty at exactly the same time. Julian once told me I couldn’t work with him and Bill, and I had to choose. I kept my head down and carried on handling them both.
My mission was always to try and reverse the idea that Julian was some kind of rock eccentric. I desperately wanted Julian to be taken seriously. I grew tired of people asking “is he bonkers?” I found comments like that insulting. When The Modern Antiquarian [Cope’s highly regarded guide to British megalithic sites] was published in 1998, I was so proud and thought “well this should shut them up at last.”
I was also very pleased that I didn’t apply that overused term genius to anybody in the book. Julian is the only one who just might qualify, however much he conspired to undermine this at times. And of course, with typical self-mockery, he released a series of compilations under the title Floored Genius.
PKML Echo & the Bunnymen were among the artists whose music you liked the most and with whom you most closely worked. One passage I found particularly interesting is their manager saying they should stop making records and just tour like the Grateful Dead, and Will Sergeant countering that making records was the only thing he liked. They had a pretty successful and long career considering some of their tensions, but was it hard balancing these in your PR work, where they sometimes had some pretty different ideas and goals?
Mick Houghton: This was Bill’s retirement speech after he decided to cease managing the Bunnymen. It’s a shame they didn’t go with the idea, at least for a couple of years. I remember laughing out loud when he said it, but then thinking he had a point. At their peak – and it was a three or four-year peak – the Bunnymen were the best live group I worked with. If there was a better live band during those years, I never saw them.
Those inner tensions were what made the Bunnymen so good. I was close to them – especially from 1981 to ’85. They were four very different personalities. Every one of them was vital to the creative mix in the group, however much [bassist] Les [Pattinson]’s role might appear lesser. Not long after Bill ceased managing them [drummer] Pete [de Freitas] went off on his “lost weekend,” and his shameful return to the band (i.e. the shameful way he was treated) prefaced a long drawn-out demise. They were never as good again. It took almost four years, but it was clear from that point onwards that the group was running on empty.
For me, balancing the various personalities was never difficult until those final years, and it was sad to see their friendships fracture. They were always finely balanced, but the Bunnymen were united by a goal – or a mission – which peaked around Ocean Rain. What came after was hard to be around. It had been such a special time. They had a unique camaraderie; it was a coming together of four individuals who were able to overcome their differences and make them work to the good. It was a bumpy ride at times, but often strange and genuinely quite magical to be around them on the way up. I’m glad I got out – or was ousted – before the end.
I don’t regret participating in the 1987 comeback either. They made a decent album and the one great single – “Nothing Lasts Forever” – helped paper over its weaker moments. These days just about every group has reformed, but it was the Bunnymen came up with the blueprint long before it became a trend. If only for a few months, they recaptured something I didn’t think was possible.
“The Teardrops had become all about Julian and, Julian being Julian, was hell-bent on self-destructing.”
PKM: Jesus & Mary Chain were among the most enigmatic groups of all during the time as far as their personalities and image – not just on your roster of clients, but anyone’s. How do you think they managed to achieve as much as they did despite seeming to have been as temperamentally disinclined to work within the usual music business boundaries as anyone?
Mick Houghton: They were monumentally influential, and not just in the UK and on the independent scene here. Do they get the credit they deserve? Definitely not. You have to admire that the Mary Chain never wavered in the belief that the way they operated was not only the right way, but the only way. They used the fact that they were temperamentally disinclined to work within the usual music business boundaries’ to their advantage.
For my part, that was always going to appeal to the press. It made my job very straightforward. People might assume they were difficult to work with – anything but. It was tough for them coming to terms with the sudden exposure and attention they had almost from day one after signing to Creation. They never became comfortable with the promo process. They hated doing interviews, which was key to my job. But they knew how important the music press was, and that I was never going to ask them to do anything that wasn’t appropriate.
Looking back I should have pushed them a little more. The press and their image did become too samey. Quite rightly they were wary of people and by nature they were withdrawn, if not exactly shy. They didn’t want to give too much away about themselves and found it hard to explain their music, especially lyrics. They got on with it though, and were very professional. They were always on time, and there were never any “no shows.” I wish I could say that about one or two others.
I didn’t get to know them as well as I’d have liked. It was hard to praise what they did without thinking I was coming across as insincere. I was as much a fuck-up as they were in that sense. Their notion of what the business was about had largely been too idealistic, so inevitably their dreams were shattered.
PKM: Do you see some of the role of PRs and managers as perhaps minimizing business hassles so artists like them can concentrate on writing and recording?
Mick Houghton: The PR’s role is never as limited as just trying to get maximum press coverage. Publicists tend to get more access to artists than others, certainly more so than most record company employees. So the publicist often becomes something of a buffer between the artist and the record company. Most PRs find themselves on the side of the artist. I assume so anyway. I’d often find myself in record company meetings trying to defend them, or at least trying to explain what they were like and why they wouldn’t do certain things that everybody else in the room thought would be advantageous.
PKM: You wrote of Lawrence of Felt: “Lawrence wanted to be a star, but at the same time was ill-suited to stardom in both his outlook and demeanor. He was the classic reluctant artist, driven by an unattainable musical idealism and an irrational fixation with image, and was dogged by bad timing.” This could be said to different degrees of other artists you worked with, but what might have made Lawrence exceptionally ill-fitting toward wider recognition, personally and musically?
Mick Houghton: Lawrence’s idealism and his refusal to back down on certain issues, usually ones that are irrationally important to him, was simply off the scale compared to anybody else I worked with. He lives totally in his own world, and his manner and demeanor is such that however unreasonable or absurd his demands or reservations might be, you always found yourself giving in. As absurd as he could be, I always felt for Lawrence. He was always so appreciative of what little press I was ever able to get for him that I lived in a permanent state of feeling I’d let him down.
Felt – Primitive Painters
PKM: You wrote that peers thought you were mad to take Wedding Present on, though that seemed to be a reasonable investment of your time. What did you see in them that others in the business didn’t?
Mick Houghton: People thinking I was mad to take them on was something of a red rag to a bull. It made me all the more determined to work with them. It was a similar case with Birdland or Cud, but there were plenty of journalists – not the ones I dealt with the most – who loved them. They were certainly refreshingly different to anybody else I worked with at the time.
Seeing the Wedding Present play live clinched it, especially the rapport they had with their audience. The fans liked that they were a no-frills band, and they liked David Gedge’s everyman lyrical approach. I didn’t care that a lot of journalists didn’t rate them, or thought all the songs sounded the same. I saw something in them, and they definitely proved their detractors were wrong.
I didn’t often think this way, but with the Wedding Present I knew I could do a good job with them and, as it turned out, did better than I expected. There’s a certain snobbery towards the Wedding Present and they don’t get their due, but there’s so much to admire about them, and so much they have achieved and continue to do so. They’ve actually taken the path Bill Drummond suggested for the Bunnymen after Ocean Rain; they’ve become an indie Grateful Dead, focusing on live shows, recycling archive tapes and CDs, and coming up with ingenious merchandising. I say they, but the Wedding Present is David Gedge, and he knows exactly what fans of the group want.
PKM: With Sonic Youth, you had a harder time than usual connecting with them as people. What do you put that down to, and did that matter as far as helping them find an audience?
Mick Houghton: I actually looked after their press for almost ten years and, yes, I did have trouble connecting with them, but I think that said more about me. That’s something in the book that I didn’t get right. I may well have misread the signs and judged them harshly. It didn’t help that SY increasingly toured so little over here and there were so few opportunities to hang out with them outside of promo trips.
When I started working with SY they were signed to Blast First although, aside from The Whitey Album, they’d left BF for Geffen. Blast First was fiercely independent and given their roster (SY, Buttholes, [Glenn] Branca, Big Black, Rapeman), their focus for press was largely the music weeklies and fanzines. This was no less true of SY. Even the music press focus was largely in Sounds and NME and there were probably only two or three discerning writers among their staff and contributors who ever wrote about SY. [Blast First’s] Paul Smith brought me in to broaden that press base and initially, specifically for SY.
It was tough going and remained so even once they signed to Geffen. Their music was extreme and too hardcore for most journalists (far too used to jangly UK indie pop). I was trying to introduce them to a wider pool of writers who were very resistant. The Whitey Album certainly only enhanced the notion that they were – as one writer put it – “pretentious New York art wank.” That writer wasn’t alone. I took a lot of journalists to live shows and most of them fled because it was too noisy and too loud for them. I loved their live shows and loved Daydream Nation, Evol, and Sister once I finally got to hear them. I didn’t know those records before working with them, by the way, and then wondered “why on earth not?”
SY didn’t help themselves. They could be pretty obnoxious in interviews, very rarely answered a straight question, and could be very challenging. They were far more receptive and accommodating to fanzine writers who they thought were more genuinely into the band. I was trying to expand that pool of writers but, because they’d not been supportive of the group from the start, [they] were given short shrift. I don’t think SY ever gave away too much about themselves – and why should they? – so they mostly talked about music (often too obscure for the writers) and related cultural topics.
So it wasn’t easy with SY – and Goo was only ever going to appeal mostly to existing fans. The switch to Geffen certainly didn’t affect people’s attitude towards them – either pro or con. Nirvana changed everything of course, and for a few years the UK music press went crazy for grunge before slipping back into parochialism again when Britpop took hold.
I always admired that SY didn’t milk the Nirvana connection. What SY did with Nirvana (and with a number of bands such as Mudhoney and Pavement) in the UK was to bring them over on tour with them. They were very supportive and always talked up other groups in their circle. I didn’t exploit the connection either and never tried to fuel the “godfathers of grunge” angle. They were never comfortable with that.
Dirty was most certainly their most commercial sounding record (it went as far in that direction as they would take it). It was a Top Ten album here, and “100%” and “Sugar Kane” were Top Forty hits. This obviously allowed me to expand the amount of press, but it was still essentially confined to the music press. We’d just get bigger pieces, with greater regularity and often cover stories. Monthlies such as Q and Mojo rarely mentioned them beyond reviews, nor did the broadsheets. We did cross over into more specialist magazines, notably The Wire, and more “fanzine”-type mags such as Select and Lime Lizard.
I couldn’t but admire that they followed Dirty with Experimental Jet Set that harped back to their Blast First days. It wasn’t until A Thousand Leaves that I ever felt I’d been able to cross them over into broadsheets and more general lifestyle outlets. By then, they were opening up more. Kim [Gordon] had certainly become more of an iconic figure and she was keen to get press that went beyond music. But that proved to be the last album I looked after. They are one of the few groups that sacked me; or at least hired a different PR after that album.
One thing I’ll add here. I wrote about them in a chapter where I cover “outsiders.” Most of my groups were outsiders, but there was a connection there between SY and Sun Ra of course. Why I really enjoyed working with Sun Ra, [Ken] Kesey, Andrew Oldham – and Bert Jansch fits in here – was that I love new challenges and anything that enabled me to break into other areas of the media. SY had been a challenge and perhaps one I never rose to as I’d have liked.
Sun Ra, Oldham etc. were always exciting to work with because they were outside my particular working pattern. So they were fascinating to me and, of course, fascinating to others, and allowed me to spread my wings beyond music titles…I like to think I was an outsider myself.
PKM: Bill Drummond’s projects, of course, had some heavily built-in promotional/publicity features – not just more so than your usual artist, but more than almost any artists. Looking back, do you feel that some of his stunts might have overshadowed his music, both at the time and from a historical perspective?
Mick Houghton: First of all, although I had a long relationship with Bill, all the JAMs/KLF and related projects were jointly conceived and executed by Bill and Jimmy Cauty. They had a remarkable, symbiotic relationship.
I don’t see anything they did as a stunt or a prank, and they certainly never thought of their actions purely as publicity stunts. At least that was never the prime motive, and I tried to put out the flames as often as I fanned them.
“Justified and Ancient”-KLF and, yes, that’s Tammy Wynette in the official video:
In the five years they were actively pursuing music from 1987 to 1992, I don’t think their deeds overshadowed the music. However, looking back now from a historical perspective, their activities since 1993 – the various art-related projects, the Turner Prize/K Foundation Award, and not least the money burning [of one million pounds] — have eclipsed the music they created together. This was, at least in part, their intention. As well as I know both Bill and Jimmy, I’ve never completely understood why they wanted to eradicate their past as the JAMs and the KLF. Their refusal to even discuss that period in their lives is as determinedly inflexible as ever.
PKM: Sometimes it seems like your role with Drummond might have been reality checks or damage control, like when you leaked KLF’s plans to throw buckets of sheep’s blood over the audience at an industry awards show to tabloids (to help ensure that they didn’t do it). Do you see that as a valuable role in your association with him, given that he had a knack for publicity on his own that most artists wouldn’t have had?
Mick Houghton: I did take it on myself to exercise a certain amount of damage limitation, and it’s something they accepted whether they felt I was right to do it or not. They put a lot of trust in me too, knowing that I would often be the one tasked with trying to explain some of their actions or ideas, whether I agreed with them or condoned them or not.
K foundation burn a million quid
PKM: Sometimes your duties involved work that many would feel was outside of a publicist’s job description, like taking Sun Ra shopping in London. What were your most enjoyable and least enjoyable detours along these lines?
Mick Houghton: It’s all part and parcel of the job. I loved hanging out with almost everybody I ever worked with. I can’t really answer this. It would be like a parent saying he didn’t like one of his children or preferred one over another. There were plenty of trips I didn’t enjoy for one reason or another, nor sitting round trying to placate irate journalists while waiting for Mac or Jason or Justine [Frischmann of Elastica] to turn up an hour late, or for Julian not to turn up at all.
PKM: Being a Bert Jansch fan, I was amused to hear he’d never heard of the Monkees (at least so he claimed), if less surprised that he didn’t know Sonic Youth. Did you find that of other musicians too – that contrary to many fans’ expectations that they must be as ravenous followers of the music scene as they are, some of them were ignorant of trends and other acts, sometimes apparently willfully so?
Mick Houghton: Working with Bert and a lot of others that fall outside of the brief of the book – mostly folk musicians like Bert, John Renbourn, Shirley Collins, even Marty and Alan in Suicide – I found they were often surprised that people still remembered them, let alone found them inspirational. Bert more than anybody lived completely in his own bubble and was never comfortable among strangers. I remember sitting with him at a Mojo Awards bash where he won something like an Inspiration award. Because of his age his table was right at the front by the stage and a parade of people kept stopping by to say hello or sat with him and chatted. Whether it was Brian May, Elton John, Jeff Beck, or Jarvis [Cocker], he didn’t have a clue but he’d be polite, and slightly embarrassed by the attention. Afterwards he’d turn to me or his wife Loren and ask, “Who was that?”
PKM: You were able to work with numerous artists who were part of labels (Sire, Creation, Zoo) and regional scenes (Liverpool, New York) that had some kind of distinct vision. How did you find that an advantage in your PR work, and while I know you’ve been out of publicity a long time, do you think that’s something that’s changed or weakened today?
Mick Houghton: It goes without saying that such things were an advantage. When I started out that fact that I was looking after Sire and working with the Ramones and Talking Heads made my job so easy. I’m not being modest by saying anybody could have looked after Talking Heads when More Songs… came out. They were already a critic’s band, but overnight they became the critic’s band. The Ramones I was clued in enough to realize that Road To Ruin was going to mark the start of a backlash against them, but the papers still wanted to write about them even if they no longer commanded front covers. The Rezillos had plenty of fans in the press already and everybody took to the Undertones straight away. When people ask what is it that makes somebody a good publicist, the answer’s simple: you need the luck or the judgment to work with great people and, at the same time, don’t take on anything that’s shit, even if it pays well.
That particular maxim hasn’t changed but labels like Sire, Creation and Zoo and the kind of scenes you had in Liverpool and the Bowery in the ‘70s don’t seem to exist anymore. Or maybe they do, but I’m now completely out of touch. I always vowed to try and keep up with whatever new was happening, but I stopped making the effort to keep up about 15 years ago. Around the same time I stopped religiously buying records by people I’d been invested in for years such as Dylan, Neil Young, and McCartney. I was buying every album for the sake of it. I’d play them once but didn’t hear anything to make me want to listen again. I never wanted to become somebody who only listens to music from the past but, sadly, that’s where I’m at these days.
PKM: Do you have any thoughts on how the kind of work you were doing might be different or even impossible today?
Mick Houghton: One of the reasons the book ends around 2000 is that the landscape I spoke about earlier was beginning to change rapidly. The work I’d been doing had always been very straightforward and had become second nature. If there was a new album by one of your artists you didn’t have to think twice about giving the first interview to the NME, and setting up one of the monthly magazines in advance, then going to a broadsheet on release and maybe one of the other weeklies. By 2000, only Melody Maker and NME were left, and Melody Maker soon became virtually irrelevant when it changed to a glossy, magazine format. Within five years it had closed down while the NME was no longer a game changer. NME.Com had surpassed the print version. In one sense there were almost too many outlets with the amount of broadsheet press that was now in play. And then there was online press.
I was too old a dog to learn new tricks. I tried for a while, but I just didn’t know what was worth targeting. Specialist online companies were springing up and seemed to operate by sending out a thousand email pitches by the click of the keyboard. It was far too random for an old dog used to relying on his judgment and experience. I could no longer make a half a dozen phone calls and think “job done.”
PKM: To hear you tell it, you might think a publicist’s job was more to stay out of the way and let the clients have their way than to push their product hard. But I suspect you did more grunt work than you let on. People like you might have more to do with whatever success your clients had than they get credit for, though you decline to take much in your book. Would you agree/disagree/have any thoughts on this?
Mick Houghton: There was always a lot grunt work as you call it, especially if you took on something new. I’m aware that I broke very few new artists. I tended to get hired when they were a third of the way up the ladder, and I’d be tasked to get them to the top.
The thing is that people don’t really know what a publicist does. Less so these days, because there are high profile PRs that are almost as well-known as the people they represent. In the period the book covers, the popular assumption was that anything that appeared in the press was down to the journalist discovering something new off his or her own back, or they chased down interviews themselves without the aid of a mediator.
Publicists are basically there to serve, part of a faceless army of little helpers. It was something a publicist just accepted. You’re meant to be invisible and that was galling at times if you’d worked hard to set up an interview and facilitated a major feature or a cover story. And if it went well, people would say what a great piece it was and they’d praise the writer. The publicist’s part in the process was overlooked.
The publicist never gets a byline. You have to settle for the satisfaction of having done your job well and a check at the end of the month.
PKM: Are you working on other books now?
Mick Houghton: I’ve just finished a book proposal that combines music with my other great passion, which is film. So I’m rather foolishly attempting to write about the evolution of the film score and the film soundtrack since the silent age when, of course, there was musical accompaniment whether it was repertory music or an original score.