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The Secret History Of The Corrs
The Corrs Talk On Corners was the biggest-selling album of 1998 in the UK. So far it s shifted 6 million copies worldwide and rising. And now the band are set to embark on their American campaign, with who knows what ultimate destination at journey s end. So they ve had it easy, eh? It s all a big marketing scam, masterminded by the moguls in the American record company that signed them? We thought you d like to know so we put these and other accusations to someone who should know, their manager of nine years, john hughes. And got some interesting answers too. Interview: niall stokes.
Niall Stokes, 03 Mar 1999
THE CORRS are on stage, dishing out a svelte version of Forgiven Not Forgotten . The 6,500-strong audience packed into The Point are lapping it up, as if the family foursome can do no wrong. There s at least one individual, however, who s looking at things from a different perspective.
You can see him hunched up half way down the auditorium with a look of pained concentration on his face. He paces up and down, his fist bunched up in front of his mouth. Now and then his face lights up into a broad smile of recognition as the band launch into another hit, and the crowd go ballistic. And then it s back to listening intently and pacing back and forth, working hard at spotting the lapses and the flaws in the band s bright sheen.
John Hughes is The Corrs biggest fan. He s also their most valued critic. He also happens to be their manager and a fifth member of the group in a way that s often suggested about rock n roll managers but is seldom as accurate as it is in this instance.
Hughes is a musician first, a music biz operator only by extension. Having learned his chops with the Dublin band Ned Spoon, he emerged into national prominence during the 80s with the highly-rated Minor Detail, an electronic duo comprising John and his brother Willie, doing a majestic kind of pop that captured the imagination of A&R scouts at Polygram s New York headquarters.
Minor Detail s debut album went top 75 in the US and it looked as though we might have another global phenomenon on our hands. But the project got bogged down in the familiar mire of record company politics. Despite a positive early showing, the project ran aground, and the Hughes brothers were washed back up on the none-too-promising coastline of the Irish music biz with nothing but a broken dream to show for their labours.
Not the first and not the last to experience that kind of rejection but it was tough all the same . . .
John Hughes wasn t ready to quit. He formed a band called The Hughes Version and among the musicians he recruited was a certain Jim Corr from Dundalk. Around the same time he was asked to put together a band to star in the movie The Commitments, which was being cast at the time by Hubbard Casting. Jim told him about his sisters Andrea, Caroline and Sharon and asked could they audition.
That was the first time I met them, Hughes recalls. They came and auditioned for a part. They did Knock On Wood and a Quincy Jones number I have no idea what it was. And they were hilarious. Lovely but hilarious! But when they were finished Ros Hubbard, who was the casting director, barged into the room and said I m going to say something in front of John Hughes that he s not going to like but I m going to say it anyway . And she said, You ve got to manage them . And then she turned to them and said, He ll do it right. He s honest, he s straight, he ll look after you, you ve got to let him . Which was highly embarrassing. Because I hadn t even made my mind up to be a manager yet.
Hughes took a weekend to mull it over. It was 1991 and he d been through the mill. Ros Hubbard insisted that The Corrs were stars and he trusted her judgement. But they were also young and musically naive. It was obvious that this would be a long haul.
He met them after the weekend and asked them again did they want him to take up the reins. They said yeah. And I said, OK, I ll have a go. I ve got a ten year vision , he recalls. Which might seem like a crazy thing to say then but it wasn t. After we d agreed, I had to go to Dundalk to say hello to the parents and to figure out what we were going to do. So I went up and Jim said we ll go and get Andrea and Caroline , and I said fine.
We went to a school and two girls with schoolbags, green uniforms, shirts, ties, blazers the whole bit appeared and suddenly I realised that they were children. It wasn t what I expected, having seen the girls on stage.
Andrea was in 5th year she had two years to go. And Caroline had all of 6th year to do. But it was too late to think was this madness or what. I was involved. And so we just took it from there.
And so a ten-year vision it was, with superstardom or as close as they could get to it projected for sometime in the year 2001.
Or that s the impression you might get reading some of the stuff that s been written about the band since they began to make an international impact over the past couple of years.
I never plan, Hughes reflects. I hate plans. I hate the tyranny of the plan. Planning is, as I read somewhere recently, based on the false assumption that you can predict the future. You can t. But can have vision. And that s what we tried to construct. I hoped at the outset that within a 10-year period we could have a No. 1 album in the world. It seemed like an eternity and they wanted to cut it back to seven years. But I said allow ten. And to put that in perspective, we re going into year nine now.
The first couple of years were spent working hard at nights and weekends, just getting a sound together. They began doing a kind of synthesised pop rock, and gradually the other elements were introduced. Harmonies were a vital breakthrough the voices melded in a way that only family voices do. They hooked up with Bill Whelan who d produced Minor Detail s album and made some progress but he wasn t sure what way to shade it.
They were out of fashion, no doubt about that, Hughes recounts. But the talent was blatantly obvious, or to me it was. So we were in a position of having to try to second-guess where the industry was going or just following our own instincts.
Second-guessing is folly. Never second-guess. And so we had to do what we were good at, despite the fact that it was not in vogue.
In fact The Corrs were so out of vogue that effectively no one wanted to know, not even the kind of local labels that might have been expected to see them as the new Sheeba.
I tried to get a record deal in Ireland and failed miserably, John Hughes relates. I tried to get a deal in England and failed just as miserably. My failures were tremendous and they were consistent the rejection letters just kept on coming ! And so I went to America to get a deal.
Ah so this is when it got easy, eh? John Hughes walked in the door of the first record company he visited, stuck a Celtic-sounding demo on the desk, produced a couple of pictures of the girls gorgeous! and voila. It becomes obvious, pretty quickly, that that kind of assumption bugs John Hughes something rotten.
Nothing could be further from the truth, he says. We couldn t get a record deal. We couldn t get signed anywhere. The point is that it s a war of attrition out there, and as manager my job was to try to figure out: now, what do we do?
I could write a thesis on that assumption: pretty face, a bit of Irish fiddle and you re home and dry. That is absolute nonsense. LA is full of beautiful people who can play anything you like but who don t get signed. And as for the idea that it was an advantage to be Oirish, as they say: that is diametrically opposite to the truth.
We spent two years explaining to everybody what a bodhran was, and a whistle. No one had ever seen them in the pop world. Nor did they want them. But we followed our instincts and it was a struggle and it wasn t welcome. It made it far harder to get a deal, not easier.
The way John tells it they were into the last few days of an American trip and effectively little or nothing was doing. We d done all of LA. We d done all of New York and no response, Hughes recalls. It was pretty Irish girls, we love you, you re wonderful, go home. The whole trip was beginning to wear a bit thin, so there was no knowing how the collective might have responded if they d gone home empty-handed.
Jason Flom, head of A&R at Atlantic Records, was the exception. He took an interest in the group and decided that he d try to hook the band up with David Foster the most successful white record producer in history who was recording with Michael Jackson in New York at the time.
So I rang Jason three times a day and said when are we meeting David Foster? And he said, I can t get to him . What happens is that when he s not with Michael Jackson he switches the phones off. So on the second last day I said Will you tell me where he is? And he said, I ll tell you but don t tell anyone I told you .
The band were doing an acoustic showcase at BMG Records at lunchtime that day. Just the four of them standing there doing the songs, Hughes says. No big deal. And I asked someone there where this particular studio was. And the guy there said just around the corner, why? And I said David Foster was there and I was bringing the band around, and he said I d never get in. But we had nothing to lose so I said to the band we re going around the corner and they said right .
And so they trooped around the corner, instruments in hand and knocked on the door.
The security was very heavy as it always is around Michael Jackson and I said I m here to see David Foster. I have a kind of appointment. It s not confirmed but he ll know who we are . Basically I was bluffing. But we made a huge effort to look great and I have to admit that we got in because they looked the way they did. And so we sat in the lobby.
We asked the receptionist which door he d come out and we sat facing that door. He came out with his wife and kids and I just went straight up to him and said My name is John Hughes. I have this band The Corrs and we have a kind of appointment to meet you through Jason Flom . And he said, I don t know anything about this but I ll listen to your music . And he did.
When he d listened to the tape, Jim Corr had the good sense to say Can we play? Because we had the instruments with us, and there was a grand piano there. And he said, Sure . So they sat around the piano and played and you could see he was thinking They re actually playing it and singing it, and they look like this!
So I said What do you think? And he said, 12 out of 10, A+, they re fantastic .
When Hughes phoned Jason Flom the next day the A&R man began to apologise he wasn t going to be able to set up the Foster appointment.
It s OK, I said, We did it ourselves yesterday. He said you were to ring him wherever he was. We went on packing our cases, getting ready to fly home and a little while later the phone rang.
It was Jason again, and he said when you get home, darlin , go out and spend a fortune on a big meal on behalf of the record company because you ve got yourselves a record deal. You re signed. And I put the phone down and turned to Jim and said we ve just got a record deal . And he said, OK , and continued packing. Are you sure?
And I rang the girls and said we ve got a record deal . But it didn t seem to sink in. And then I had six months of gruelling negotiations.
It s one of the most gruesomely stressful aspects of the entertainment business contract negotiations! You ve been through the mill and under the grill, you know what it s all about. But if you haven t . . . well let s just ask: were there times during the negotiations that John Hughes thought that the deal was going to fall apart?
Moments? Every second moment, he says, close to a convulsion. Because we were poles apart. Bones Howe is one of the great producers he did the 5th Dimension, he defined harmony and he d heard a tape from Bill Whelan, and had fallen in love with them, and we d met and a friendship developed, so I rang him and I said, Bones, they re beating me up something terrible here. Should I be with this record company or not? . And he said, John, you ve got two choices. You can stick around and it ll get worse or you can get the fuck out of there, fast and you ll get the deal . So I was out of there on the next flight. And he was right. It went on for months but he was right. They had me cornered, so I had to get out. And in the end I think the Chinese proverb applied: it was a win-win situation. And because of the nature of the business, it s the more you sell, you renegotiate your position. And we ve been able to do that.
David Foster liked the band and the songs and the harmonies. But the fiddles, the bodhran and the whistle were another story.
I remember playing Toss The Feathers for him and he said, That s great but you re not putting that on the record, sure you re not? He didn t want us to. And I said it s great fun, they like doing it why would you stop bands playing something they like. But it was a struggle to get it accepted. This was before Riverdance or Titanic.
In the context, John Hughes treats the notion which has been widely touted that The Corrs music was planned and packaged by record company moguls with more than a pinch of salt. This was a group playing music that they liked, independently of anybody and actually having to fight to get it on the record, he says. So I don t understand these journalists who say that we re pandering to a taste or a fashion. In the first place there s an assumption that people are stupid and that you can just pander to them the French, the Spanish, the Japanese, the Americans and that they ll buy it just because it s got fiddles on it. The other thing is that if you could manufacture it, I d do it every month. I d do it again and again. But it can t be done.