Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Remembering a bastard

The grim reaper has obviously been building up his Rolodex as of late, as there has been an abundance of well-known personalities who have passed on, seemingly just in the past few weeks.

Over the holiday weekend, we marked the passing of a well-known behind-the-scenes figure, one who's impact was felt throughout the 1960s. Respected by some, he was loathed by many. In short, the guy was an absolute, destructive bastard.

No, I'm not talking about Robert McNamara.

Many gallons of ink and electrons will be spilled over the next few days about McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson who is cited by many to be the architect of America's involvement in the Vietnam War. Since many other scribes will do a better job of chronicling the controversial legacy of McNamara, I have chosen another dead controversial figure to analyze. A bastard by another name, Allen Klein.

The name may be familiar to some. But the impact of Klein, who passed away on July 4 after battling Alzheimer's disease, on the world of popular music was huge. Klein's intimidating, overbearing tactics were loved by some, detested by many, and both loved and detested by perhaps even more. Pete Townsend of The Who once called him "the awesome rock-leech Godfather." In essence, he was a predator, or as John Lennon once described him, "the shark that kept the other sharks away". He was the music industry's equivalent to nasty Wall Street predators like Kirk Kerkorian and Carl Icahn.

Klein was an accountant who muscled his way into the music business by presenting himself to artists as someone who could keep record companies from ripping them off, while eventually ripping them off himself. In the early days, he was heralded as an expert at dissecting the ledger books of artists in search of unaccounted-for money. And he was a vicious, nasty character known for wearing down his opponents through clever manipulation, vulgar language and a Jimmy Hoffa-like negotiating demeanor. Bobby Darin, his first major client, was impressed when Klein got him an extra $100,000 by picking apart the books and shaking down the record label. The guy could squeeze blood from a rock.

Klein's tenacious, hard-ass reputation grew quickly among recording artists. He soon became Sam Cooke's business manager, and was able to negotiate then-unprecedented terms, such as his own record label, Tracey Records, and an impressive royalty rate. After Cooke's tragic 1964 death, his widow sold the label to Klein, marking his entry into copyright ownership.

Klein parlayed his growing clout and holdings into a sizable empire. He soon acquired struggling Cameo Records, and with it the rights to all their master recordings. He also began managing several popular British Invasion bands, such as the Animals, Herman's Hermits and the Dave Clark Five. But like a great white shark, he wanted more. Much more. He could smell the blood.

By 1966, Klein noticed that Andrew Loog Oldham, manager of the Rolling Stones, was vulnerable. Oldham was young, inexperienced, inefficient and heavy into drugs. Klein moved in and purchased Oldham's management stake in the band. Lead singer Mick Jagger was initially impressed with Klein's business skills, but later grew skeptical of his methods. Bassist Bill Wyman claimed in his autobiography that eventually, the Stones were almost flat broke, that few royalties were coming in from their massive sales and even worse, much of the revenue was diverted to Klein and his various shell companies. They were getting robbed blind! At one point, Jagger allegedly chased Klein down a hotel hallway screaming "where's my fucking money?!?" The Stones soon got rid of Klein in a messy changing of the guard as they set up their own management and label structure. Both parties spent years in court, and Klein's vicious litigation eventually got him complete rights to the Stones' publishing and recording catalogs through 1971. Naturally, the Stones were incensed.

While Klein held a firm grasp on the Stones, he sought even juicier prey. The Beatles, following the death of manager Brian Epstein and the establishment of their own Apple Corps., were very vulnerable. Apple was hemorrhaging money, as the band had no idea how to run an efficient business. John Lennon even admitted in the press that the band would soon be flat broke. That's when Klein pounced. He did his homework, and even listened to Lennon's music intensely enough to be able to recite lyrics. More importantly, he found Lennon's weak spot - his wife Yoko Ono, who was respected by very few in the Beatles' inner circle. By appeasing Yoko, he would win over Lennon. Lennon was impressed with Klein's pitch, and recommended him to his bandmates. George Harrison and Ringo Starr were willing to put him in charge of Apple. But Paul McCartney didn't trust Klein (likely, his good friend Jagger told him what Klein did to the Stones). Besides, he wanted his new father-in-law, successful entertainment lawyer Lee Eastman, and his son John, to manage the band. When the band signed a deal with Klein, McCartney was the only one who refused to put his name on the contract.

Klein's success with the Beatles was mixed. His most notable achievement was in renegotiating the band's EMI contract, granting them then-record royalty rates. He also engineered some successful releases, such as the massive single "Something"/"Come Together", at a time when they could use the money. And he enlisted producer Phil Spector to make something out of the abandoned Get Back project (which became the controversial Let It Be). At the same time, he turned Apple Corps. upside-down. His brash management style clashed with the "western communism" aesthetic of the company. He fired many long-time Beatles loyalists, as well as useless hangers-on. The label lost many of their biggest talents, including A&R head and producer Peter Asher, a longtime McCartney friend who also took one of Apple's most promising new signings, James Taylor, with him to another label. Amidst all the management squabbling with McCartney's own representatives, the Eastmans, the Beatles were unable to save their publishing arm, Northern Songs, from a buyout by ATV; hence they lost control of many of their song copyrights.

After the Beatles broke up and McCartney discovered that Klein was attempting to illegally siphon royalties off his debut solo album, he took Klein and his former bandmates to court, to officially disband the Beatles. McCartney took a ton of criticism for the move, but he saw it as the only way to remove Klein's tentacles from Apple Corps.

Following the breakup, Lennon and Harrison continued to let Klein manage their affairs, though they soon would grow weary of his methods. When Harrison organized the Concert For Bangladesh benefit at Madison Square Garden, Klein didn't even bother to make prior arrangements with benefactor UNICEF. This created a mess, lots of litigation, an IRS investigation and very little money actually making it to its intended destination. Even worse, Klein was skimming profits off the sale of promotional copies of the tie-in album, while not reporting the sales to tax authorities, a big no-no which later landed Klein two months of jail time.

But that wasn't the end. Harrison was in court for much of the 1970s for another reason. Bright Tunes, the publishers of the Chiffon's hit "He's So Fine", sued him for plagiarism, as they felt Harrison's hit "My Sweet Lord" was too similar to their song. Klein originally worked on Harrison's behalf, but eventually got the opportunity to secretly buy Bright Tunes. Lo and behold, he continued the company's lawsuit against Harrison. A judge later ruled that Klein had unfairly switched sides in the lawsuit, and after paying half a million dollars, Harrison wound up as the copyright owner of "He's So Fine" and ending the long-running matter.

Klein first alienated Lennon when he sided with Harrison in his request to let Lennon, but not Yoko, sing at the Bangladesh concert. Lennon had also persuaded Klein to bankroll two films by Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky, who he admired. Klein bought the rights to El Topo and financed The Holy Mountain. After Jodorowsky refused Klein's next request, to direct a hardcore porno film in the vein of the then-popular Deep Throat, a vindictive Klein withdrew all prints of the two Jodorowsky films he owned, and kept them off the market for three decades. Eventually, Lennon turned on Klein, and even wrote and recorded the scathing "Steel And Glass", a blatant assault on the manager featured on his 1974 Walls And Bridges album.

When the three Beatles finally tired of Klein's antics, they took him to court to get rid of him. They eventually made him disappear for the sum of £3.5 million. In the end, Klein screwed the Beatles, while the Eastmans made McCartney insanely rich and successful.

Following the whole Beatles debacle and his own legal problems, Klein's management days were essentially over. Nobody wanted anything to do with him. So Klein focused on managing his extensive ABKCO music and film holdings and even acquired new ones, including the rights to the Phil Spector catalog. Klein made a great deal of money off his music and publishing rights.

He made headlines again in 1997. A British rock group, the Verve, negotiated a licensing agreement with ABKCO to use a sample of an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones' "The Last Time" (ABKCO owned the master to the orchestral version). The resulting song, "Bittersweet Symphony", was an international smash. Klein obviously saw an opportunity to cash in, and sued the band for full control of the copyright, claiming they used more than the agreed-upon sample. Klein's hardball litigation was a success, and the Verve wound up turning over all royalties of the song to ABKCO. From there, Klein sought to milk the song as much as he could, offering to commission a new recording of the song for a Nike ad. The Verve beat him to the punch, offering the original song to Nike and turning over their share to charity. In addition, ABKCO later licensed the song to Vauxhall, a British subsidiary of General Motors. As it turns out, the Verve never made a dime off "Bittersweet Symphony", while Klein raked in a fortune. And when it was nominated for a Grammy, the song's composers, Mick Jagger and Keith Richard, rather than lyrics composer Richard Ashcroft, were named as the sole nominees.

In recent years, ABKCO has been successful with their packaging of the Rolling Stones' early recorded output. The year 1996 finally saw the release of the film and recording of the Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus, which never saw the light of day during the three decades since it took place. And the current ABKCO Stones catalog has recently been reissued, in both American and British configurations, with phenomenal sound quality. Much of this is due to the painstaking work of Klein's son Jody, who has seemingly spent many years trying to clean up his father's sordid reputation. It was Jody Klein who smoothed out relations with Jodorowsky and other alienated clients.

During his lifetime, Klein never seemed to show any remorse for his tactics. He was once quoted as saying, " Artists fuck groupies, I fuck the artists." And on his desk was a sign paraphrasing the 23rd psalm: ‘Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of evil, I have no fear, as I am the biggest bastard in the valley.”

Much ado is often made, especially on the internet, about being respectful to the recently deceased. We've been witnessing this during the past couple weeks since Michael Jackson died. It's become a frequent silly game, with some anal-retentive pundits even exploiting reaction as if to prove some sort of asinine point for indulgent ego gratification. But in a case like this, I imagine a guy like Allen Klein would welcome stinging reflections of his life. In fact, I imagine he'd be quite proud.


Cat Chew said...

That filled in quite a few blanks for me. Much appreciated.

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