PUBLICATIONS > Articles > 1970s > THE MAN WHO HIRED THE WORLD [CSNY at Wembley]
THE MAN WHO HIRED THE WORLD [CSNY at Wembley]
Author: Mick Gold
Journal/Book: Rock On The Road
A promoter is the middleman between a musician and an audience. A promoter hires a venue, books an act, organises the publicity, is responsible for seeing that everyone gets paid, and tries to emerge with a profit at the end. Mel Bush was the man who hired Wembley Stadium, booked the Band, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to perform and sold 72,000 tickets at £3.50 each: a quarter of a million pounds in box office takings. From this total the Exchequer deducted £20,160 in VAT; the hiring of the Stadium, building the stage, laying on electricity and a security force amounted to £65,000; hiring a Boeing 707 to fly 72,000 pounds of lighting and sound equipment cost £20,000; the final major expense was the paying of the performers, their air fares, and hotel bills – bills which included the 36 technicians who accompanied CSN&Y’s sound system.
To discover how one hires such exotic hardware, I tracked Mel Bush down back-stage at a Mud concert in Oxford – part of a tour he promoted immediately after his Wembley Stadium show. The atmosphere there felt far removed from the neo-Woodstock pomp of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Mud are primarily a singles-band and their audience spanned the age range from six to sixteen – half of them seemed to be accompanied by their parents. Mel Bush materialised at the concert after a successful fly-posting sortie- plastering Birmingham, Oxford, and Lewisham with Mud posters, single-handed. He had been stopped ten times by the police, so I asked him how he talked his way out of such situations.
“I just say: ‘Have you got any kids? Or do you know any young kids? Kids have got nothing to do in the evening and here I am, providing a show. They’d love to see this band. How am I going to let them know?’ I can talk my way out of it, and it keeps me in touch. After a show like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, you can go off on Cloud Nine. People think you must have made a fortune and are off to Barbados, they find it difficult to comprehend why I’m doing this Mud tour. They look down their noses and say: Why Mud ?’ Well – why not? A lot of kids enjoy their music. I can’t set myself up as God and decide who’s the ‘In’ group. That isn’t my job.
“A promoter’s got to be an efficient co-ordinator, and he’s also got to be a bit of a Public Relations expert. For example, you can get to the auditorium and the hall manager doesn’t want to let you in, and the road crew don’t want to do anything ’cause they’ve just toured the States, playing gigantic stadiums everywhere. So you’ve got fire against fire, and you’ve got to get in the middle and stop it. Same with artists – they can be hard to get on stage, so you’ve got to use little tricks, like putting your watch forward fifteen minutes. And when a band is down, you’ve got to know how to lift them. I don’t like to see a band down after a bad show, so I just phone up the hotel and tell them to get a meal ready. When the band gets back there, there’s steaks waiting for everyone and they’re up again. That’s what I call PR work.”
Organising an event as complex as CSN&Y at Wembley Stadium takes time – six months to be precise. Initially, Mel Bush was approached by Barry Dickens at MAM Enterprises, who had established the idea of a package show with Elliot Roberts, the man who managed the three featured acts. Wembley Stadium was selected as a suitable site because it was located in London and possessed all the necessary facilities: car park, toilets, seating capacity, crowd barriers, security facilities. “We didn’t
have the time to set up a festival,” as Mel put it.
Wembley Stadium was enthusiastic about the idea, and applied to the Greater London Council for the necessary license. After that, Mel’s job consisted of keeping both the artists and the authorities happy: convincing Elliot Roberts that his performers would receive the best treatment and stage presentation money could buy; and convincing the GLC that all 72,000 people would be properly fed, sheltered, sanitised, entertained, guarded, and cared for. Mel described a few of the headaches he encountered to me:
“It was difficult liaising with three major acts. Although they’re all managed by the same person, Elliot Roberts, they’ve all got individual managers and they’ve all got individual problems. It was an eye-stopping bill and it was a question of all three acts or none at all. So we had to have decisions from the Band and Joni Mitchell and CSN&Y, and they’re all laws unto themselves, they’re that big.
“When you’re in Elliot’s position … when you’re handling artists like he’s got, you’re bound to wonder: ‘Who’s Mel Bush? What sort of show is he putting on?’ It was the big one. It was the last concert in CSN&Y’s tour, it was Graham Nash’s homecoming. So Elliot’s got great concern, he’s bound to give you a bit of a hard time, keep you on your toes. And he sent his tour co-ordinator over two weeks before to check everything, and the lighting man came over ten days beforehand. They just arrive on a wing and a prayer – it was a day and night operation for the last two weeks. And I knew what was at stake, I knew that Led Zeppelin were coming in, I knew George Harrison would be there, the Who as well. I knew it had to work.
“As for the GLC – there were no objections but they laid down some pretty stiff security regulations. We had to have one security person there for every 80 fans, so we had about 900 security people. That was a pretty big bill as their rates ran from £8 to £15 per person per day. In all honesty, I thought there were far too many security people … as we proved. They just weren’t needed. We were also requested to have a safety fence all the way round the perimeter of the track. Their idea was to stop people overcrowding the arena, but right from the first mention of the fence I fought the idea. I knew what the repercussions would be: if you pay £3 50 for a ticket, you don’t want to sit and look through a wire fence. Rather than control, it would aggravate people, and that’s what happened. People pulled it down. It’s a very tame audience. One likes to think that fairly educated people go to see Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. If we hadn’t had the fence, we wouldn’t have had that little bit of friction.
Most of the organisational time was spent trying to comply with the GLC’s regulations. I welcome security, I acknowledge you’ve got to have good toilet facilities. But Wembley Stadium is equipped for 100,000 people, we had a crowd of 72,000 people, and we had to put more toilets in. How do you rationalise that? Just because it was a rock concert.”
The day before CSN&Y’s concert at Wembley, I was wandering around the Stadium taking photographs, and also asking where Mel Bush was, so that I could arrange an interview. I expected to find him ensconced behind a huge desk, surrounded by seventeen telephones ringing simultaneously. I finally discovered Mel heaving away at a roll of coconut matting, helping the road crew to protect Wembley’s famous turf against the 10,000 fans who were going to sit on it the next day. For the rest of the day Mel Bush was hurtling up and down the scaffolding, helping to unload lorries, and generally behaving like an unusually powerful roadie.
I discovered that the entire Mel Bush Organisation consisted of Mel Bush, his sister whom he described as his “assistant and right arm”, and three secretaries to take care of the paper work. Naturally, I was curious about why he worked with such a tiny organisation.
In my opinion, one of the ways to be successful is to keep your overheads down, and keep things small. Whatever you want, when you need it – you can hire it, so that the whole thing is only costed in relation to the show you’re running. I have my own little wheel and I’m the hub. Whatever I want – I stick my hand out and get it. If I want a good PA system, if I want good lighting, if I want good publicity, I just put my hand out. As good as you can get people to work for you, they still haven’t got that little bit extra that you’ve got. You’ve got the incentive because you’ve got the responsibilities. I run my life on simple philosophies, like a small gold mine is worth a lot more than a big empire. I can make more money for myself with four people, than if I had a great big company, with big overheads, which on a piece of paper was worth two million pounds, but I couldn’t put my hands on any cash.
“Probably one reason for doing everything is to still feel in control. Even at Wembley Stadium, I felt in control, although it was massive and I was relying on hundreds of individuals working with me. I dealt with each person in charge of each separate section – the security people, the catering people, the scaffolding people. I enjoyed being able to talk to a lot of different people on a lot of different levels. The American ambassador’s daughters came along asking for autographs, the director general of the GLC turned up, and the next guy to come along would be a roadie who was worried because his mate wasn’t pulling his weight.
“The money side of the show is talked about more than any other side, but I can honestly say I didn’t spend 10 seconds thinking about the money on the day. When all’s said and done, the richest man in the world can only sleep in one bed each night, can only eat one meal in the evening. How much money do you need to live? What is money in relation to happiness? I’ve never wanted more money than I’ve got. I can’t comprehend people who are leaving the country for tax reasons. That’s like saying your objective in life is more money.”
Like many managers, entrepreneurs, and others involved in rock promotion, Mel Bush began by playing in a group at the age of fifteen. The group was called the Four Specs, and their repertoire was almost exclusively Buddy Holly numbers.
“That was our gimmick – we all wore glasses … well, one bloke didn’t so we had to give him some plain glass specs. Then they sacked me ‘cos they said I was no good. They said I could talk better than I could play the drums, so I managed the group … and then the old common-sense thing comes back. I thought I could manage more than one group. I was getting ten per cent and I was managing eight or nine groups. Then, when I couldn’t get them bookings, I thought we’ll have to hire the halls for ourselves. From village halls to town halls to city halls, the thing builds. As I promoted more, the groups became a nuisance because they weren’t making the money I was making from promotions. So I axed the management business and got on with promoting.”
When I questioned Mel about the factors that contributed to the success of a group, it wasn’t surprising that he picked on skillful management as the most important one:
“One thing that you do notice in this business is that great bands have got great managers. Slade have got Chas Chandler, Led Zeppelin have got Peter Grant, the Floyd have got Steve O’Rourke. I suppose you’ve got the classic example with Colonel Parker and Elvis Presley. Good managers don’t rush, they don’t panic when things are going badly. They sit back and they’re confident about their act. When you talk to them, there’s only one important act and that’s their act.”
The only question that lingered in my mind was how much Mel Bush actually enjoyed the music he presented. Did his tastes influence the show he presented?
“No, not really. If you’re a promoter your job is entertaining people. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young are one of my favourite groups, along with the Beatles and Santana, but like I said, my job isn’t to tell people what to like.”
So, did he actually enjoy watching CSN&Y live at Wembley?
“It was a really strange feeling. All I wanted to do was to get to ten o’clock, which was the time we had to finish. I was enjoying it but I was always thinking about the problems … Iike what happens if Crosby or Stills or Young trips over and breaks his leg? You’re always thinking about the unexpected, you’d like to relax but you can’t because it’s your responsibility. I was just waiting for the end of the day, even though it was good music and I thought it was working well.”
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