Simon Napier-Bell is a dick. No, let me take that back. He might have changed. But the man that inhabits the pages of the 196-page second edition of You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me [since reissued and expanded to 256 pages (or 320, as Amazon UK has it listed), presumably by some combination of additional anecdotes and a larger typeface] is a wanker of Olympian dimension.
You might well be asking yourself who this Napier-Bell fellow is and why he inspires such rancor. Fair play; he’s best known as the manager of the Yardbirds and Marc Bolan, as well as being the co-composer of the Dusty Springfield hit that gave the book its title.
It might well have been that the Swinging Sixties in Swinging London were as positively swinging as swinging Napier-Bell claims that they were. I wasn’t there. But through the lens of history, his Austin-Powers-yeah-baby-anecdotes come across pretty much like the romanticized reminiscences of a slacker who accidentally snagged a seat on the gravy train and was desperate to keep his place. As he says himself in the foreword to the second edition, written from the comfortable remove of Paris and a couple of decades:
"Most of [the record business’] money gets divided up and given out in the correct manner. But anywhere you find big money, you also find big crooks. Thieves, thugs, con-men, swindlers, embezzlers and even murderers. But most of all, in the music business you find large numbers of happy-go-lucky hustlers, hopeful of making an easy living. For despite all the changes since the sixties, the music business is still the ‘go-to-bed-late, get-up-late, don’t-give-a-fuck, do-as-you-please-and-still-make-a-fortune’ business."
This particular “happy-go-lucky hustler,” over the course of the book (actually more a vaguely chronological string of loosely-connected incidents), cheats musicians and promoters and record companies out of a massive amount of money, incites a riot or two (fortunately without significant injury or loss of life), lies to anyone within the sound of his voice, and gleefully shifts blame whenever things go — as they inevitably do, considering his haphazard conduct — from sugar to shit. And that’s just the stuff he admits to having done.
It’s a fine line between being a raconteur, a rake, and a rip-off artist, and Napier-Bell wants to have it all three ways. No doubt, as a dinner guest, he would be highly entertaining, though you’d best check the silver and the medicine cabinet as he’s leaving. As a business partner, he would have been an absolute disaster.
Occasionally, he lets it slip that the music might have meant a little more to him that a three-Michelin-star meal ticket. When he describes his attempt to sign on Burt Bacharach to a theater show that would have featured Gene Pitney and Dusty Springfield taking turns at the magnificent Bacharach/David catalogue, only to have the concept blown apart by a petulant Marlene Dietrich (to whom Bacharach’s musical services were engaged at the time), he seems to have had a palpable sense of regret. And then it’s back to the free-wheeling, cock-swinging, alcohol-swilling pursuit of snatching money from whatever fist is holding it.
In the spirit of full disclosure, three items. First, I have to interject that the book was lent to me — quite enthusiastically — by Al Stewart, who presumably is acquainted with Napier-Bell, and possibly even regards him as a friend (I didn’t ask). And Al has certainly had his share of encounters with “happy-go-lucky hustlers” in the course of his career, even if Napier-Bell wasn’t one of them (at least professionally). Al’s been resolutely philosophical over the years about what he calls “the din of inequity” that is the music business, and that’s one of his many agreeable traits.
Second, I worked in the music business for many years, and came across my own rogue’s gallery of such characters, and because I was generally working for a record company, I found them to be rather less charming than Napier-Bell paints himself.
Finally, one of the folks with whom I worked in the record biz, the producer Joe Boyd, often inhabited some of the same spaces as Napier-Bell: he was, on occasion, a little creative with his accounting, he never met a deadline that he couldn’t break, and he could spin a yarn the way Rapunzel let down her hair if it meant getting someone else to loosen the purse strings. The big difference between the likes of a Joe Boyd and a Simon Napier-Bell, IMHO, is the “value added” proposition. No one of Joe’s acquaintance ever doubted his commitment to the music and the musicians who made it. And that’s why this book, while entertaining on the surface, left me feeling a bit slimed and a bit angry.
Maybe some of that Sixties ethic (albeit a later part of the Sixties, and from a different continent) stuck with me: the music matters. People matter. Being honest matters. Of course we all shade the truth, and we can’t always deliver on our promises, despite our best intentions. But there’s a difference between at least having those good intentions and looking at the world as a bunch of marks, waiting to be separated from their money by someone who styles himself as a “happy-go-lucky hustler,” but who is just, in fact, a dick.