“There’s worse things than being known as the guy who had the biggest band since Led Zeppelin,” laughs Alan McGee, reflecting on his tumultuous life in the record business. “There‘s worse things you could put on your gravestone, you know?”
Indeed there are. Though largely unknown in the States, McGee has been a ubiquitous (and somewhat notorious) figure on the British music scene since 1983, when he launched Creation Records out of his London apartment. Originally home to such charmingly idiosyncratic acts as the Weather Prophets and the Jasmine Minks, Creation soon became one of the most important and influential independent labels in Britain. The Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Swervedriver and the Boo Radleys were all McGee discoveries, as was Oasis, a.k.a. “the biggest band since Led Zeppelin.”
Never one to modestly downplay the achievements of his label or the talents of his artists, McGee quickly developed a reputation as a hard-partying antagonist who would do anything to get into the pages of New Musical Express and up the noses of Britain’s musical establishment. One step ahead of critics and creditors, McGee giddily tiptoed the tightrope between brilliance and bankruptcy until 1994, when a drug-related nervous breakdown put him on the sidelines at virtually the same moment that Oasis‘ worldwide success finally put Creation in the black.
Unfortunately, Oasis’ sudden ascendance also ushered in a drab new era for McGee‘s label. Having sold 49 percent of Creation to Sony in 1992, McGee now had to stand back and watch as corporate culture infiltrated the company. “After Oasis sold two and a half million records, Sony took over,” he remembers. “I’d just come out of a bad drug problem, so I probably wasn‘t strong enough mentally to ’fight them on the beaches.‘ And they were sending me incredibly large checks at the time, so I just shut up and put them in the bank, really.” Increasingly frustrated by Sony’s creative chokehold, McGee walked away for good in July 2000. He‘s since re-emerged with a new label, Poptones, whose diverse roster of acts (including Cosmic Rough Riders, Captain Soul, Oranger, Outrageous Cherry and the Montgolfier Brothers) seems to indicate a full-circle return to the anarchic spirit of Creation’s early days.
“Basically, Creation from ‘84 to ’94 was inhabited by weirdoes,” McGee explains. “After that, it was a corporate rock label. And in the last six months, the weirdoes have been let back into the building. So it‘s all gotten very weird again, and weird is beautiful!”
Rather than launch Poptones with a worldwide media blitz, McGee has opted for a more grassroots approach, marketing the label over the Internet to old Creation fans. In addition, McGee promotes the label through his monthly Radio 4 club in London, which has now expanded to Tokyo, Oslo, Helsinki, Toronto, Detroit, New York and Los Angeles. Typically, McGee sees his mission as being about far more than just shifting units for Poptones.
“Creation sold eight million Oasis records in America, but I don’t think culturally we ever affected it,” he says. “But I think with this club, we can actually culturally affect America. Because one minute we‘re playing the Cult, the next minute we’re playing Lee Perry, then ACDC, then Mirwais, then Grandmaster Flash, then Black Sabbath. It goes right in between all the genres, but they‘re all great records, and they make people dance, you know? You can be 21 and dig it, or you can be 48 and dig it.”
Despite a well-received performance by headliners Beachwood Sparks, Radio 4’s L.A. debut, which took place in early April at the Knitting Factory, frankly came as a bit of a letdown. Many in attendance were visibly disappointed when the evening‘s “special guests” turned out to be not the rumored Primal Scream but obscure British rockers Gay Dad. Various obligations kept McGee from taking the wheels of steel until after 12:30 a.m., leaving Charlatans U.K. front man Tim Burgess to run the gamut from the Rolling Stones to the Black Crowes, with the occasional Faces track thrown in for variety. The evening was fun and the vibes were agreeable, but the rumblings of a cultural revolution were noticeably absent.
Then again, it may just take a while for McGee to connect with L.A.’s terminally jaded club contingent. Certainly he seems up for the challenge. “We‘re going to come out and do another two weeks in America in May,” he says. “Then, in July, we’ll come to America for a month, and I‘m going to do Toronto every Wednesday night, four in a row. I’m going to do four Friday nights in New York, and I‘m going to do four Saturday nights in L.A. By the end of that, I think people should understand what Poptones and Radio 4 are actually about.”
Alan McGee deejays at Radio 4 at the Knitting Factory, Sunday, May 27.