‘Earth Vs. The Wildhearts’ The Wildhearts by Ian Hunter

The early 90’s were a turbulent time. Just a few years after grunge turned the music scene on its head, so the sudden death of Kurt Cobain caused another seismic upheaval. With rock’s biggest bands still readjusting to this brave new world, and grunge’s superstars dazed and in mourning, rock badly needed an adrenaline shot.

Into the vacuum poured a new breed of bands and none more talented volatile, or unhinged, as The Wildhearts. Offering a noisy alternative to the mainstream ‘Brit-rock’ these disparate-sounding newcomers flawed both audiences and the music press with their first almighty sucker-punch.

The bands auburn haired front man/guitarist, known to all as Ginger, for reasons too obvious to explain, had been promising to make his presence felt for a number of years. Latterly the hard living guitarist with UK Rod and the Faces, sound-alike’s, The Quireboys, Ginger’s lifestyle and belligerent personality had seen him fall out with the band’s new management,  Sharon Osborne. Cast adrift, just as the Quireboys were about to break into the mainstream, and tour the world as support act for The Rolling Stones, it’s fair to say that the volatile man with the flame hair decided to view the situation as a call to arms, rather than the knife between the shoulder blades that it undoubtedly was.

For months, the rumour mill turned with whispers of Gingers new band. Names were mentioned, line-ups confirmed, and still nothing happened. Then, just as the music press was about to consign all the speculation to the bin, rock radio came alive with the sound of Turning American, by The Wildhearts, and no one had expected it to sound as it did.

To say that Turning American was a thinly veiled attack on Ginger’s previous band would be doing it an injustice. There was nothing veiled about it. ‘The smell of easy money and you’d follow it to death – I can smell the shit upon your breath.’

As alluded to earlier, Ginger Wildheart had always found himself to be a Vegemite personality. People either loved him or hated him; and it is something that continues to this day. A belligerent, aggressive, and hugely unpredictable character, with a yo-yo penchant for some of the darker indulgences of life, made being in a band with Ginger Wildheart as exciting as it was dangerous. However, right from day one of The Wildhearts, it was obvious that Ginger had a talent that the majority of his contemporaries could only weep into their Jack Daniels about.

After testing the waters with the EP’s, ‘Mondo Akimbo a Go-Go’, and ‘Don’t Be Happy, Just Worry’, the band’s line up finally stabilized with the release of Earth Vs. The Wildhearts. Even the album’s title betrayed Ginger’s worldview that he was always the outsider and fully prepared to fight his corner.

Earth Vs. The Wildhearts hit the record stores on August 17th 1993, and it had jaws hitting the pavement from the get-go. From the opening of ‘Greetings from Shitsville’, to the fade out of, ‘Love U til I don’t’, eleven songs later, it left the listener in no doubt that there was never any chance of a compromise. We can all think of albums we own that slowly welcome you into their world. As the more radio friendly and melodic tracks become that bit over familiar, you discover the layers and intricacies of the hidden gems. They invite you to enjoy your own journey of discovery, at your own pace and in your own way, but Earth Vs. The Wildhearts was an album with very different ideas about your listening pleasure. Like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, you felt as if you had been strapped to a gurney with your eyes and ears pinned back, and then psychologically assaulted by the kind of chorus melodies and hooks we generally consider to be the preserve of Lennon and McCartney, or the best of the mid sixties Motown stock writers.

The UK’s New Musical Express (NME) reviewed it with the words; “Earth Vs. The Wildhearts is akin to being jumped by a gang of hells angels on your way home from the pub, and receiving the worst beating anyone would wish never to have; yet through the blood and exhaustion, you crawl away feeling utterly exhilarated and wanting it to happen again.”

So what made this album what it was? Of course it has to start with the songs. In the twenty plus years since its release, Ginger Wildheart has continued to fuel the opinion that, somewhere in the Cayman Islands he has an offshore safety deposit box, full of killer chorus melodies and crunching guitar riffs that he can dip into whenever the mood takes him. Another defining factor is what a hybrid it is; a true Frankenstein of an album. Diamond pop melodies, guitar riffs that bands like Metallica and Slipknot would cut off an arm to have composed, and all delivered in musical arrangements and time changes that have more in common with some early seventies prog-rock album. They are musical elements that, on the surface, are like oil and water; they seem to have no earthly business being in the same recording studio at the same time, yet the fusion is absolute, and without there ever being a musical moment where you can separate any of them.

What comes across is that Dr Gingerstein was never going to give a **** what you, me, or anyone else thought. In the song, ‘Miles Away Girl’, he sings, “You never seem to have any money, because the decent people never get paid.” The line is just one of the dozens of allegories within the lyrics, and a typical Ginger Wildheart statement that he really doesn’t care who you are, or how great your life has turned out; his world view is seated in the person, and not what you have.

Like many great albums, Earth Vs. The Wildhearts didn’t fulfil its potential until the band had imploded in a spectacular mess of booze, bar fights, and hallucinogenic fungi. No sooner was it claiming its plaudits, and starting to dent the music charts, the party was over; at least for a while. Just like Dr Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s book, Ginger Wildheart succumbed to the monster of his own making; famously carving his initials into the boardroom table of Mushroom Records with a flick knife, when signing the band’s deal with them. As the band’s lead guitarist once said to me, “Ginger is never happy; if he found a bar of gold in the street, he’d complain it was the wrong shape.”

Earth Vs. The Wildhearts was a true monster rock album. It broke so much new ground whilst raising its hat in respect to so much that had come before it. Nirvana had become the Khmer Rouge of rock music. They had drawn a line in the sand and stamped year zero on guitar music with a battered Converse. Just as punk rock had blazed a scorched earth policy over the self-indulgence of seventies progressive rock, you could argue that music needed Nirvana in much the same way. However, they heralded a period where rock music became insular and sometimes dark. Kurt Cobain, Layne Stayley, Andrew Wood; the Jim Morrison’s of Grunge, dead before their time, and buried in a t-shirt that says ‘Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead.’ The Wildhearts debut album was the first clarion call in returning rock music to what it had once been, and should always be. It said rock music should be fun again; it should be about having a great time with your mates, and not sitting in your room contemplating your navel over a big joint of weed. It was an album that gave the finger to those who refused to acknowledge the past; Nirvana B.C, and wore its influences boldly on its sleeve. It was Metallica covering the early Beatles, or Nirvana covering Lynard Skynard, and produced by Phil Spector with a gun.

Earth Vs. The Wildhearts is a lost gem, and its legacy is rooted in that very fact. I once heard it described, as like owning a piece of banned or subversive art. Only a select group are aware of it and understand its weight and significance. Occasionally its owners might trust it to new ears, having warned them of the consequences. As Morpheus says to Neo in The Matrix, ‘Red pill or blue pill?’ There really is no turning back because you can never unhear it.

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The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. Earth Vs. The Wildhearts is written by Ian Hunter who is a music industry A&R, artist manager, occasional novelist, magazine writer, mischief maker and general trouble causer. Ian is now based in Sydney, lectures at the Australian Institute of Music and is part of a globally successful artist management team. (Follow Ian Hunter on Twitter @IanHunterwriter )

Managing The Talent

I am not certain if the above title is misleading as it’s often disputed that you can’t actually manage talent. For approximately 30 years I have been involved in the management of talent, also defined as artist management, in one form or another. I have often been asked, “What do you actually do”? Good question. Ideally the management of talent should be career development planning. This can range from: sourcing new talent, developing material and pitching to record companies, publishers and booking agents. It can be likened to a good coach working with either a sporting team or an athlete. However, in the music business, this career development can often turn into fire fighting and damage limitation. Ex CBS head, Walter Yetnikoff, described the role of artist manager in his 2005 book Howling At The Moon as “A manager is a cross between a Rabbi, Priest, guru, banker, financial adviser, friend, psychotherapist, marriage guidance counsellor, sex counsellor and business partner”. In essence, there is no solid job description with a list of selection criteria for the role of artist manager. It is the number of skills that the manager has at their disposal and can be deployed at various stages of an artist’s career that hopefully, gets the right results and the job done. The hours are long; the work is hard, its underpaid and nobody ever says thank you.

Burning Tree outside the front door of my old company 'Tim Dalton Productions' in Hull, UK.
Burning Tree outside the front door of my old company ‘Tim Dalton Productions’ in Hull, UK.

The music industry is a volatile, dynamic and a rapidly changing area of business, that’s why we work in it right? As such the music business is not exempted from the repercussions of unplanned, uncalculated and unstructured activities. Therefore, as it is with every modern business, each manager needs to know her/his role and what is required to play that role. The role of the talent manager is now more than pitching to labels or simply supervising other elements that contribute to the artists’ success. What it is about is creating visibility and value (building equity and mind share) and developing revenue streams. Artist managers are now evolving into creative business development managers. Not quite the men in beige offices sat behind their spreadsheets, Venn diagrams and BCG quadrant charts but definitely getting there. This is a far cry from the trailblazers like Peter Grant (Led Zeppelin), Andrew Loog Oldham (Rolling Stones), Malcolm McLaren (Sex Pistols) Brian Epstein (The Beatles) or my personal role model Bernie Rhodes of The Clash.

In 1991, I solo managed my first band, Opik, a group of art students back in my hometown of Hull, UK. I met them the first week of starting a documentary film making degree in the university’s refectory when I shot my mouth off to them about my previous 14 years worth of exploits in the music industry. Within weeks we had inked a deal with major record company BMG’s imprint DeConstruction Records and became Kylie Minogue’s label mates. We bought two very cheap rundown Victorian houses and installed a recording studio across the attics with our advance. We lived, worked and breathed music and had our very own alternative bohemian lifestyle for the next few years; it was a total breeze, it didn’t feel like a job. There was a sense of community and collaboration, well we did live together. Due to our creative output and hard work we became one of the few bands on the label’s roster to actually recoup our advance and make a profit. We also made some serious kick ass music too.

On tour with Primus in Europe. We stopped at the top of the San Bernardino Pass enroute to Italy for a snowball fight.
On tour with Primus in Europe. We stopped at the top of the San Bernardino Pass enroute to Italy for a snowball fight.

At the opposite end of the spectrum I managed Finley Quaye, which consisted of some very hard work, lots of upset, sleepless nights, pain, suffering and where every single penny was well and truly earned. The metaphor I often employed at the time when speaking to record company colleagues was that it was like dragging a three legged elephant up Mount Everest in a blizzard with a broken piece of string, with no pants on while juggling.

I have this unproven theory that the greater the talent the more difficult it becomes to manage. Finley proves this theory. A man of immeasurable creative talent, good looks, a songwriter, performer, actor, painter, the list goes on, he was the complete artist. I once had a very serious ‘career development’ meeting with Finley about his disruptive behavior and his ability to completely destroy any pre-made plans. The result was lots of tears (him not me), lots of hugging and promises of behavior modification from that point forward. The next day at Air Studios in London he turned up on time and sober ready for the recording session (a first) and asked if he could leave his backpack under the mixing console for safekeeping. Thirty minutes later everyone in the studio was laughing uncontrollably, feeling very heady and slightly sick. It didn’t take to long to work out why. Finley’s backpack contained a canister of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) which he’d opened and effectively gassed the studio. Session cancelled, at great cost, lots of technicians and musicians with laughing gas hangovers and a very irate angry record company. This behavior was too much for me to handle, time to move to a safer and easier gig. This lack of respect for his own career development has led to Finley being homeless for the past 8 years and in dire health, if you believe the Internet.

Sadly these types of stories are all too common in the modern music industry. Artists start to believe their own publicity, indulging in unprofessional behavior and then blame someone else when the shit hits the fan. Ian Hunter’s 2014 book The Great Ones Are Always The Cracked Ones elucidates the nightmare of managing former Kooks front man and songwriter Max Rafferty. Hunter’s story is a sad one of lies, betrayal and ultimate failure. But this is a two way street, in the past it was always the shylock managers that were the villains; those archetypal managers with the huge cigars and Rolls Royce’s out shilling the rubes. This is an old American term for planting an accomplice in the crowd to drum up enthusiasm for a dodgy product. The etymology of the terms comes from ‘shilling’ meaning conning and ‘rube’ was a name for a country bumpkin and was heavily used by circus folk known as ‘carnies’. A classic example of how not to manage a band would be Bill Collins and Badfinger. Despite being signed to The Beatles’ Apple label and selling millions of records, the band never saw any of the money. Partly as a result of miss-management, Peter Ham and Tom Evans both committed suicide. Artists and creatives in general are vulnerable human beings and require a high level of compassion (a DKHQ key word). In the music business, version 2.0, compassion and duty of care are both important concepts.

Outside Tokyo airport with De La Soul.
Outside Tokyo airport with De La Soul.

Ironically the music business is improving in direct contradiction to the decrease in music sales. The Association of Artist Managers (AAM) has recently published its Code of Conduct for Managing Artists. It’s all common sense stuff, which good managers should be adhering too rigidly. I like to think that at DKHQ we always run ahead of the pack, being at the cutting edge of current thinking. To this end I would like to see all students studying music/entertainment management get free membership to AAM as part of their education. The Code of Conduct is influencing and positively driving improvement in music business. To ensure that this code is understood and adopted in succession planning by the music industry, it has entered the curriculum at various higher education institutions teaching music and entertainment industry management. As a music industry veteran, I regularly speak to early career music industry managers via master classes and guest lectures. I think engagement at this level is very important as it fosters good practice and establishes some of the basic ground rules.

A career in the music industry, and in particular artist and talent management, is never going to be a mainstream career choice. It’s unlikely that you will ever see a national newspaper advert for an artist manager but it’s a great rewarding profession and the jobs are definitely out there for clever creative managers. In the often repeated words of Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s manager “I’m Elvis’ manager because he says I am and, because I say I am”.