You look at The Bee Gees now and – setting aside the tragedy that only Barry is left – you’re looking at a stellar career that started 55 years ago. In retrospect, it all looks golden.
You certainly don’t hear anyone complaining that Robert Stigwood did a shit job of managing them.
But there’s a lot of hindsight and second-guessing when it comes to Brian Epstein and The Beatles.
When The Bee Gees started out, there were five of them. In addition to Barry and the twins, Maurice and Robin, there were Vince Melouney on guitar and Colin Petersen on drums.
Colin Petersen had an extraordinary career until he met me.
After that it all seems to have gone pear-shaped.
In 1973, shortly after I joined CBS Records, Colin turned up to work alongside me in the a&r department. No-one told me he was coming, but I knew who he was.
He was instantly recognisable as the kid who had played Smiley in the hugely popular 1956 film alongside Ralph Richardson. It had always been slightly disconcerting to see that famous face behind the drums on New York Mining Disaster and To Love Somebody.
So, after a career like that, what the hell was he doing working for peanuts at a record company?
I say peanuts – CBS had doubled my Music Week salary and given me a car. I was a pig in shit.
But surely that wasn’t comparable to being a film actor, or a pop star?
Some say Brian Epstein was a poor manager of the Beatles. Here’s what I think: anyone who, in hindsight, says they could have done better is a fantasist or a liar.
And in support of this view, I give you Robert Stigwood.
Fully five years after Epstein signed the Beatles to EMI, Stigwood negotiated a deal every bit as bad – or indeed good – for the Bee Gees at Polydor. The previous year, 1966, he had negotiated a similarly good/bad deal for Cream, the first ‘supergroup’, with Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker.
Now, I don’t know this for a fact, but Colin Petersen told me that both the Bee Gees and Cream started on a royalty rate of 1.5% – that’s 0.3% for each of the five Bee Gees, 0.5% for each of the ‘superstars’ who made up Cream.
At the time I had no reason to doubt it. I still don’t. Ten years later I was offered a starting royalty of 3% for myself and Pete Zorn as Tax Loss. I turned it down and walked away. It was another year before I finally signed a deal for Driver 67/Tax Loss at a rate of 8%.
The penny a record that EMI paid the Beatles (one farthing each) in their early career was absolutely par for the course. Every deal Brian Epstein constructed – whether it was for record sales, concerts, television or merchandise – was either par for the course, or trailblazing.
It’s easy to look back now and say that the 90% he gave away on Beatles merchandise was stupid, but – pre-Beatles – where was the business model? The fact that five years later managers like Stigwood were still following or, perhaps, slightly improving on the Beatles model puts Epstein in a better context than looking back 25 or 50 years later and second-guessing him.
When I met Colin Petersen, he had accepted £10,000 to buy him out of his contract with Robert Stigwood and to relinquish all rights to anything Bee Gees for ever more.
Now, if you want to be a clever dick, you can look back 45 years later and say, “Wow, that was stupid”. But consider this: only two years after they had their first hit, the Bee Gees consisted of Barry, Maurice and Colin.
Vince Melouney had already left, and Robin had huffed off complaining that Robert Stigwood was favouring Barry as the front man. Stigwood was also trying to get rid of Colin.
A year is a very long time when you’re young, and a year in pop was even longer back in the 60s. Even the Beatles didn’t expect to last more than two years.
As for an afterlife of Golden Oldies, 24-hour a day pop radio and royalties in perpetuity – these were way off in the future, unforeseen by all but the most prescient. You certainly wouldn’t want to bet your livelihood on it. It really did seem to be all over for the Bee Gees.
So who among you would like to have been the one to advise Colin Petersen not to take the £10,000 on offer in 1970?
And who among you would now like to present the case for the prosecution against Brian Epstein?
And remember – no hindsight, no second-guessing.
You have to imagine yourself managing the family record store in Liverpool, mad about the boys, being turned down by every record company you approach.
And then you find yourself in charge of a phenomenon, the like of which has never been seen before. (Don’t use Elvis as a prosecution exhibit. He never left America, and Col Tom Parker, his manager, was no role model for anyone but sharks and charlatans).
All of which leaves me no time to construct a clever link to this week’s song, Slip Away, except to say that that seems to have been what Colin Petersen did, slipped away. Looking around the internet, what little information there is about his life more recently suggests a man who bitterly regrets his decisions.
The only YouTube clip for a Colin Petersen is here, but it’s a different guy, talking about religion and his local Church.
Slip Away, on the other hand, is about getting drunk and ending up with the wrong person – nothing to do with God, nothing to do with Colin Petersen. Get over it.
And here’s a clip of The Bee Gees in happier times, as an intact five-piece. That’s Colin Petersen on drums, Vince Melouney – looking for all the world like he also could have been a Gibb brother – in the white trousers, on guitar.