FRIED AND JUSTIFIED
The man described by many as The KLF’s unofficial biographer, MICK HOUGHTON handled the publicity for a string of the independent sector’s greatest groups between 1978 and 1998. After working at Sire Records for Seymour Stein with the Ramones, Talking Heads and The Undertones, Houghton set up as an independent with Brassneck Publicity. Alongside the likes of The Jesus And Mary Chain, Sonic Youth, The Wedding Present, Felt, Elastica and Spiritualized were a triumvirate of Liverpool acts: Echo & the Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes and The KLF. Houghton’s new volume, Fried And Justified: Hits, Myths, Break-Ups and Breakdowns in the Record Business 1978-98, charts an era marked by the dominance of the four weekly music papers, all of which are now (virtually) defunct.
With a foreword by Bill Drummond and jacket design by Jimmy Cauty, all the principal players of the Liverpool music scene of the period are featured. What was it that got Mick so involved in the Eric’s scene? “It all started with the Bunnymen,” Houghton recalls on the phone from his London home. “The reason I got to work with them was because I was working with Warner Bros. who were the parent label to [the Bunnymen’s imprint] Korova. In a way I was kind of lucky to work with them, ’cos I was there at the time they were signed. By then I’d been working with the Ramones, Talking Heads, The Undertones, so I was the obvious person to do the Bunnymen.”
“I’d already heard Crocodiles [the group’s 1980 LP] and I still think that’s one of the great debuts. They progressed so much – they weren’t a brilliant live band but almost overnight they became one. That’s what’s exciting if you’re involved with anything, it’s to see a group evolve. That continued certainly up to and including the Ocean Rain period, and it sort of fell apart a bit after that. There’s something about the dysfunctional nature of groups: after two or three years quite often you get factions developing and you suddenly find that the strength of relationships starts to dissipate a bit.
“The way I worked as a PR – and particularly with those Liverpool bands – was [that I was] so involved with them and [manager] Bill Drummond,” Houghton continues. “The line between publicist and a manager is blurred. If you work with people enough then you become part of the whole process, really.”
Having done press for one of the city’s biggest bands, Houghton found himself doing the same for their friends and creative competition, The Teardrop Explodes. “I left Warner Bros. and began working as an independent, and Bill Drummond asked if I would look after the Teardrops. I wasn’t really aware of the rivalry between them and the Bunnymen at that time. Because Crocodiles was so critically successful, and the Teardrops’ album [1980 debut Kilimanjaro] wasn’t out for another for another few months, I think that Julian felt the Bunnymen had got ahead of him. The Teardrops had had more singles out, they’d had more press, Julian was already being seen as a bit of a star. The Bunnymen always had this solidarity as group whereas the Teardrops became Julian Cope’s group, really.”
While the Teardrops’ principal player was singer, chief songwriter, shamanic guru and future highly respected author Julian Cope, the band’s membership travails were so tangled it was surprising that anyone could remember who was in the group week to week. Keyboard player (and future Blur label boss and Country House dweller) Dave Balfe was the antagonist foil to Cope, the friction between the two producing the band’s best work.
Distinguished by Cope’s ear for melody, the Teardrops’ post-punk informed psychedelia swiftly won them a sizeable audience. Gilt-edged singles Reward and Treason (It’s Just A Story) saw them crossover to a wider audience. Reward marked the first of four Top Of The Pops appearances for the band, with Cope becoming a bona fide pop star. “In a way it became a bit of curse for him,” Houghton says of the period. “Julian kind of envied what the Bunnymen had, this kind of critical mass and a real cult following. What kind of ate away at the Teardrops – and to some extent unhinged Julian – was when Reward was a Top 10 hit.”
“There was a point during 1981 when Julian was perceived as one of the biggest pop stars coming out of rock,” Houghton recalls. “Even though he’d only had a couple of hits, he was on the cover of Smash Hits and teen magazines like Jackie and Oh Boy. You would think the Teardrops would be as big as Duran Duran or Adam And the Ants, the amount of press they got. He didn’t really want that. On one level he did want to be successful, and on another he didn’t like the nature of the success the Teardrops were getting. Julian would far rather have been Jim Morrison or Tim Buckley, not a pop star. That was weird for me, personally, ’cos I wasn’t used to dealing with that kind of success.”
Another band on Houghton’s roster that wouldn’t have been a natural fit for the teen press, meanwhile, were indie iconoclasts The Jesus And Mary Chain. Landing on the cover of Smash Hits in 1986 (under the tag line ‘Loud, Spotty and Weird!’) led to regular mag fixtures Duran Duran being sufficiently displeased to ask why they weren’t featured in that week’s issue, something the Reid Brothers found hilarious.
Moving into the second half of the 1980s, Houghton began doing press for The KLF, continuing a working relationship with key Liverpool player Bill Drummond. “We were lucky to be around in that era. The music press was so dominant you could become successful through the music press and have fun with it,” Houghton states. “That’s what The KLF did. Actions speak louder than words and by their actions people wanted to write about them ’cos there was nothing else like it, there never has been. What other group at the height of their success says, ‘We’re splitting up, we’re deleting all of our records’, then burns a million pounds?”
“In 1991 they were the biggest-selling singles artists in the country – [but] it wasn’t what they wanted. I think they genuinely felt ‘we can do anything now’ and the press would lap it up. It really did become too much for them. KLF Communications was about six people: there was them, their partners, I did the press, Scott Piering did the TV and radio and that was it. I think they were both having breakdowns, which explains what they did at the Brit Awards [spraying the audience with blank machine gun bullets and dumping a dead sheep at the afterparty]. It was fun to be part of, but a bit scary in some ways.”
All of which leads to the most (in)famous chapter in The KLF’s history, The K Foundation Burn A Million Quid. “I wasn’t there, but I never, ever doubted that they did it,” Houghton says of the notorious event that took place on 23rd August 1994 in a farmhouse on a remote Scottish island. “They could shape the story because they didn’t make anything of it, they allowed people to find out for themselves. The journalist they had with them wrote a story for the Observer Magazine – that was all there was. But most people at that point actually didn’t believe them, because they had this reputation of being – and I hate this – ‘pranksters’, or they were involved in these scams. Which is completely wrong because everything they were alleged to have done, they did. When the story first came out I sat in my office thinking that the phone wasn’t gonna stop ringing all day. Most people’s reaction was they couldn’t believe they did it and then ‘how dare they, who in their right minds would burn a million quid?’ And when they did there was outrage.
“When they were at the signing in Liverpool at News From Nowhere in 2017, for a long time people still doubted they’d done it,” Houghton continues, bringing the story back up to the present day. “It would’ve been very easy to fake the photographs and everything, but what’s interesting when we did the thing two years ago, I don’t think anyone nowadays doubts they burnt it, it’s just been accepted. It’s kind of overshadowed everything else they’ve ever done to some extent, which on one level is quite possibly deliberate on their part, ’cos I think they wanted to move on and do something else. You can’t buy the records and there aren’t greatest hits albums coming out every six months, so the music has kind of faded into the background a little.”
In a vastly changed landscape when waiting a week for a music story to break through the press seems incredibly quaint, the era of drip-feeding news and slowly building up bands is very different. “Some groups do far too much press,” Houghton says. “I always thought it was a ‘less-is-more’ thing. If you don’t need to do press, don’t do it. Justine Frischmann from Elastica thanked me for keeping them out of the press!” Indeed, despite scooping NME’s Album of the Year for Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space in 1997, Spiritualized main man Jason Pierce was seldom interviewed.
“Part of the reason I kinda gave up doing press by the end of the 90s was that I was never gonna repeat that experience. I was never gonna work with anyone like Bill and Jimmy again, or Julian, or the Bunnymen, or Spiritualized, or the Mary Chain. I think, for me, music was going into this incredibly dull phase post-millennium. Partially because the music press had been diminished so much.”
Fried And Justified is released on 4th July via Faber & Faber. Pre-order your copy of the book now.