- 20 Dec 18
Sometimes, it is the art of compromise that makes all the difference. That’s what Paul Charles learned when he had a chance to promote The Rolling Stones – who played one of the gigs of the year in Croke Park – in Ireland back at the start of the 1980s. Here, one of the leading agents in the music business reflects on one that got away – and how!
Following in the footsteps of the truly inspiring Rory Gallagher, at the Macroom Mountain Dew festival June ’76 – which I believe was the first major outdoor Irish rock festival – we promoted what we called the Dublin Festival 1980. Our one day event on July 27 of that year took place at Leixlip Castle. The owner, Desmond Guinness, was an excellent host, a very reasonable man and couldn’t do enough to help us. The bill we finalised was: The Police; Q Tips; Squeeze; Moondogs, John Ottway and, the show-stealers on the day, a young U2. The event was phenomenally successful, and The Police regretted taking a higher flat fee rather than a more reasonable fee against a %age. Equally, it has to be admitted that the fee they received was their career best up to that point.
A couple of years after Rory took one small step for all musicians and a giant leap for the Irish music business, we started to work with Van Morrison as his agents for live work. Van’s manager at that time was a gentleman by the name of Bill Graham. The San Francisco-based Graham was a genuine 24-carat gold, rock ‘n’ roll legend. I enjoyed my numerous meetings with him, when he would walk me around the corridors of his offices to talk me through his memorabilia, and entertain me for hours with tales of his Fillmore West and Fillmore East adventures.
I was working very closely with BGP (Bill Graham Presents) in general, and Mick Brigden (as BGP’s appointed project manager for Van) in particular. As an office BGP, in addition to managing Van Morrison and Santana, amongst others, also presented national and international tours. Mick was aware of the success of our Dublin Festival 1980. Putting these facts together resulted in a call from him asking me if we (Asgard) would be interested in presenting an outdoor show in Dublin with an act they were just getting ready to tour.
I was not immediately in love with the idea, While Dublin Festival 1980 was undoubtedly a success, I’d always preferred music being created on stage in smaller indoor venues. To that end some of the best music I’d ever heard has been at the 2,080 capacity National Stadium – a boxing hall on Dublin’s South Circular Road, where I’d really enjoyed Dire Straits, Ry Cooder, JJ Cale, Loudon Wainwright III, Gerry Rafferty, BB King, Van Morrison, John Prine, Eric Clapton, and Kate and Anna McGarrigle, amongst many others. On some occasions, it was a challenge to persuade the musicians and their crews that the blood still splattered around the dressing room was purely as a result of legit boxing matches, rather than fights breaking out backstage between the promoter and the artist at the previous night’s concert.
At the same time, the music coming from the stage made the effort all the more worthwhile for both the artist and the audience. It’s funny, but not funny ha ha, and unexplainable how some venues can have a reputation for having a brilliant audience, even though the actual composition of the audience differs drastically from night to night. Examples which prove this point would have to be the Barrowland in Glasgow; the Royal Albert Hall in London; the Olympia in Paris; the Carre in Amsterdam; and the Opera House – or Ulster Hall – in Belfast. In an attempt to try and explain the above phenomenon the one, and only, common factor all these venues share is how physically and spiritually close the audience and the artist are to each other.
During the course of conversations, it turned out that Mick Bridgen was referring to a worldwide tour they were about to do with the Rolling Stones. This tour was scheduled for the summer months of 1982. We talked around the idea for ages, and I went off to investigate suitable venues. I had to rule out Leixlip, great and all as it had been as a venue for Dublin Festival 1980, not to mention how cooperative Desmond Guinness had been. But it was just too small for the Stones.
On paper, the place that attracted me the most was the Phoenix Park; we ruled that out due the cost of putting a plant on site and securing a perimeter. I also tried Dalymount Stadium. The venue representative I spoke to went by the name of George Harrison, which I took to be a great omen. I could also see a brilliant top line for the adverts and posters: “Asgard by arrangement with George Harrison, presents The Rolling Stones.” Can you imagine Mick, Charlie, Keith and the boys arriving and seeing that banner? Sadly, Dalymount was also too small. In the end all roads led to Slane, or Slane Castle to be exact.
Mick Bridgen flew over and we visited the castle, where we were treated to an excellent lunch by Lord Henry Mountcharles. The potato soup we were served is still, to this day, the best potato soup I’ve ever tasted. Our gastronomical preference was all well and good, but the big question of the day was: did Lord Mountcharles want to rent out his castle for a rock and roll show? Does Paul McCartney love publicity or, as Christy Moore would say, does a bear poo in the woods? The short answer was: Lord Mountcharles was there with bells on!
Negotiation stumbled on. BGP send us over their promoter’s bible – a point by point, minute by minute guide as to how to promote an outdoor event. I imagine some of the promoters found a good use for the tome: certainly, if they wanted to increase their stature from five foot eleven to elevate themselves over the six foot mark, they now had the perfect device. Or perhaps they may have considered using the book for toilet paper. In fact, toilet paper was one of the hundreds of points listed in said manual. My memory of the deal was not how much the band cost.
ARE YOU A BEATLES OR A STONES MAN?
The promoter was to be paid for promoting the show. On the positive side, this meant the promoter was not really going to be at risk. Mind you, having said that, I do remember ringing EMI in Dublin to check how many copies the Stones’ previous record, Tattoo You, had sold. I was shocked to discover it had sold a measly 741 copies in total. Those were the kind of numbers The Undertones were then currently selling (and before breakfast time) each and every day! We on the other hand were looking at selling 70,000 tickets! But the Rolling Stones were… well… they were the Rolling Stones, and regardless of what the record company were managing to do, we’d certainly be able to sell more than 741 tickets.
The basis of the deal was that the promoter would pay for all the costs of producing and presenting the show in advance, and then on the day of the show at the “settlement”, all these costs – plus the promoter’s fee – would be deducted from the pot (the box-office take), and the balance would be paid over to the artist. There might also have been some kind of deposit to be paid to the artist in advance, if only to show willing, and the fact that the promoter had access to some funds.
However when it got down to it, as I remember it, we had three major stumbling blocks with BGP.
1. They (BGP & The Rolling Stones) wanted to run the show on a Sunday. Slane is a very small village and I didn’t feel it was fair to be inconveniencing the locals on their way to their places of worship.
2. They wanted to charge a uniform – across the tour – ticket price. It was a price I felt was too high for Ireland.
3. They wanted to have one support act on the bill, the J Geils Band. I felt it was vitally important to have some local acts on the bill.
The BGP team, including Mick Brigden, had decamped to London and I was summoned to a meeting at 9am on April 25 that year to finalise the deal.
BGP wouldn’t budge on any of the three main stumbling points. Their team had previously explained to me that they learnt in these instances to use Bill Graham as a figurehead. They equated Mr Graham to a bear in a cage. So sometimes when promoters were misbehaving, they’d bring the said promoter to see Bill. They’d rattle the cage and threaten to let him out if the promoter didn’t do as bid.
None of the above distracted me from my main reservations. Quite simply, I didn’t feel comfortable with the deal on the table, so I walked away from the project.
When I thought about this later, I realised exactly what had happened. As a promoter and as an agent, one of the biggest factors in your success is your ability to negotiate. Or, put another way, your ability to compromise. In this instance what I neglected to do – in truth what I didn’t want to do – was to negotiate. I mean, I liked Mick Bridgen and Bill Graham, but I had no personal attachment or investment in their act. You see I grew up at a time when you were either a Beatles fan, or you were a Stones fan. Me, well I was a 100% committed Beatles fan.
Yes, I enjoyed a few of the Stones singles and some of their album tracks like ‘You Got The Silver’ and ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, but apart from that, I didn’t really care about them. Consequently, I had no desire to want to make it work outside of my personal comfort zone.
If I had, then I would have clicked in with: “Look, in most of the other places you are going to, there will be taxes coming off your tickets sales, but in Ireland (as was true at that time) there will be no deductions from your ticket price, which means even if we drop the ticket price to a more reasonable level, you’ll still net more than you will in the UK.”
I could have followed that up with: “Look, the J Geils Band are great and of course they should be on the bill, but as it’s going to be a big audience and it’s going to take a long time for the audience to get on the site, why don’t we open the doors early and put on someone like Clannad or Scullion, or even both, which means by the time the Stones hit the stage, everyone will be in a great mood.”
Then I could have hit them with my ace card: “And as I’ve compromised with you on those first two points, you can surely compromise with me and move the show to a different day of the week. It’ll work to your advantage, in that you’ll be respecting the locals – on top of which, you’ll sell a lot more tickets on a Saturday.” But I didn’t. I just couldn’t do the deal with them, their deal. Maybe if they’d wanted to play somewhere like the boxing stadium, I would have reacted differently.
As it turned out, the Rolling Stones did appear at Slane in 1982. In the end, they did invite a local act, The Chieftains, who Mick Jagger had a personal relationship with. They also added George Thorogood to the bill. The show was ably promoted by Gentleman Jim Aiken, the sun shone and everyone lived happily ever after. I didn’t even go to the show. Both Jim Aiken and Mick Bridgen invited me. I’d seen the Stones live in Hyde Park in July 1969, two days after Brian Jones died. There were an estimated half-a-million people in the park for the free show. The other thing I remember most about the gig – apart from Mick’s white dress and the Stones letting off lots of white butterflies – was the fact that King Crimson, doing an afternoon spot, blew the audience away.
When I said everyone lived happily ever after, that wasn’t strictly true. The next major world tour BGP put together a few years later was with Bob Dylan who I’ve always been a major fan of. I waited for Mick Brigden to call me about the Dublin show. But the call never came, perfectly demonstrating the downside of ignoring the art of compromise. Jim Aiken got the call. And why wouldn’t he? Sure, hadn’t he done his usual impeccable job with the Stones at Slane Castle?
I went to see the Dylan show at Slane on July 8, 1984, and got to meet the great man at his caravan and shake his hand (but gently). How did that come about? Well, Paul Brady and myself went as Mick Brigden’s guests, and when we got there, we were told that Dylan was very keen to meet Paul, and would like to do so before the show. We were taken backstage and introduced to the great man at the door to his caravan. Dylan was keen for Brady to teach him the chords to his interpretation of ‘The Lakes Of Pontchartrain’. Brady and Dylan retired to the depths of Dylan’s caravan for said lesson.
Now you see that there, right there – that was a performance I would have done anything to witness. I would have loved to have seen and heard Bob Dylan and Paul Brady performing ‘The Lakes Of Pontchartrain’, in a wee caravan backstage at Slane Castle. The only single factor that could possibly have made it any better would have been for Lord Mountcharles to have served all of us up another bowl of his special potato soup.
Now that, as a package, would have been well worth a compromise.