The Creation Records Story: My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry for the Prize

By David Cavanagh

(Virgin Books)

Creation Records began as a modest venture and ballooned into one of the most prosperous rock ‘n’ roll labels in the British Isles. In the late 80s and 90s its roster read like a who’s who of British rock: commercial powerhouses like the Boo Radleys, Primal Scream, and Oasis; critical darlings like Teenage Fanclub, My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and the Super Furry Animals; and countless other cult bands like House of Love, Swervedriver, and Slowdive. It’s hard to imagine how British guitar rock could have hit its stride without Creation Records.

Most of that talent was painstakingly pursued not by some massive A and R department but by CEO Alan McGee. When McGee founded Creation in 1983 there were two distinct approaches to releasing and promoting music in the UK–through independent labels like Factory, Mute, and 4AD, and through corporate channels like EMI and WEA. No one would have mistaken the production of an indie record for one funded with major-label money. But by the time Creation went under in late 1999 the line had blurred. Independent labels that penetrated the mainstream market found themselves thinking the same as the corporate heavy-hitters, making records with commercial appeal as well as an indie rock sensibility. David Cavanagh’s new book, The Creation Records Story, tells the label’s story within the larger framework of the British music scene, as the term indie faded from a business methodology into a guitar-driven style of music.

Born into a working-class family of five in Glasgow, McGee wasn’t the most likely record mogul. His parents didn’t think much of his early obsession with punk rock and, as McGee admits, considered him a bit of a “waster.” Once his band the Laughing Apple failed to make a go of it, his father instructed him to take an apprenticeship with a local electrician, and McGee was rescued only by his reputation at the headquarters of Rough Trade Records, where he would go to check up on his band’s EP. Simon Edwards, who worked in distribution, quickly recognized McGee as a man who could “make things happen.” His ambition and fiery attitude set him apart. “When he spoke, he spoke really fast,” remembers John Robb of the Membranes, “and he used to spit out of his mouth because he was so excited. But one of the things he said was that he was going to become a millionaire out of the music business.”

At the time Creation Records was getting nowhere fast with releases from the Pastels and the Jasmine Minks. (McGee had named the label after the British band the Creation, whose 1967 single “Making Time,” independently produced by Shel Talmy, featured guitarist Eddie Phillips sawing out 16th notes on his howling Gibson.) McGee’s dedication was feverish: in addition to running the label, he put out a respected fanzine, Communication Blur, and started a nightclub called the Living Room. His work ethic and personal intensity seemed to grow with the label. In 1984 the Smiths, who were signed to Rough Trade, cracked the top 20 and appeared on Top of the Pops. Other underground bands soon followed, and before long major labels were looking for pallid Brits with guitars. WEA expressed interest in starting an imprint called Blanco y Negro with Geoff Travis, the head of Rough Trade and, to many, the godfather of independent music. The gold rush had begun.

According to Cavanagh, this benefited Creation as much as McGee’s talent-spotting abilities and business acumen, but McGee was the man who grew Creation into a multimillion-dollar operation over 18 years while other independent labels folded or enjoyed far more limited success. McGee wasn’t afraid to duel with the corporate titans to keep Creation going. Whenever the label seemed on the brink of insolvency, McGee would hop a plane to the States and collect up-front payments for overseas distribution rights to his records. When A&M Records licensed Swervedriver, the agreement provided the label with a $250,000 payoff. A similar deal was brokered with Geffen Records for the American rights to Teenage Fanclub’s releases. At the height of Oasis mania, McGee drained 14.5 million pounds from Sony’s pockets without giving up a controlling stake in Creation.

The Creation Records Story is at its best when providing an inside look at Creation’s eccentric artists in the studio, on the road, and in their business dealings with McGee. Kevin Shields, the reclusive guitarist behind My Bloody Valentine, changed studios 19 times during the making of the group’s landmark album Loveless, forcing McGee to borrow money from his father to keep the label afloat. Cavanagh treats us to the early, destructive performances of the Jesus and Mary Chain, whose reckless reputation McGee skillfully marketed to the record-buying public (eventually they signed to Blanco y Negro). He provides a glimpse of the squabbles and communication breakdowns that derailed House of Love’s promising career and highlights McGee’s few misguided signings: Heavy Stereo, an Oasis clone gone awry, and Kevin Rowland, who chose to promote his album by cross-dressing (both acts depleted the company bank account). With careful attention to these individual stories, Cavanagh succeeds in presenting a balanced portrait of Creation, capturing the paradox at the label’s core: it had the mind of an independent, but the body of a corporate giant.

Cavanagh is equally successful in his profile of McGee, an elusive, complicated character whose greatest asset was also his principal failing. As Creation’s records won acclaim in the press and were accepted by the mainstream, the pressure mounted and McGee’s monomania became more extreme. Traveling back and forth to America, plagued by bickering in and among the bands on the roster, McGee started to show signs of fatigue. He indulged in a wide array of drugs, “taking cocaine and slimming pills for energy and drinking Night Nurse to ward off insomnia.” The situation came to a head in early 1994, when McGee suffered a panic attack on a flight to Los Angeles. Barely conscious, he hallucinated for eight hours. Once on the ground, he was diagnosed with nervous exhaustion but downed a bottle of Jack Daniels and a handful of diet pills later that evening. Only after a visit to Cedars-Sinai, where he was prescribed Valium, did he fully comprehend the scope of his problem. His diagnosis was revised from nervous exhaustion to a nervous breakdown, and he was sidelined from day-to-day business affairs for nearly a year.

Not surprisingly, McGee has been a vocal critic of The Creation Records Story. The Web site of his new label, Poptones, posted a scathing review in which McGee claimed his copy was “on the kitchen floor having found a useful role as a doorstop,” attributed the book’s glowing blurbs to Cavanagh’s drinking buddies, and recommended Paolo Hewitt’s Alan McGee & the Story of Creation Records. I haven’t read Hewitt’s book and can’t weigh in, but McGee is on target when he snaps, “Cavanagh would have been more honest calling this book ‘the accountant’s tale.'” A whopping 754 pages, the book often bogs down in sales figures and corporate dealings. This focus on finance detracts particularly from the book’s final third, which charts the company’s collapse and all but abandons the creative life of the label. Cavanagh pays scant attention to the ingenious albums recorded in Creation’s final years, including Swervedriver’s Ejector Seat Reservation, Super Furry Animals’ Radiator, and Primal Scream’s Vanishing Point.

Still, The Creation Records Story is highly ambitious, exploring a range of factors that influenced the dramatic rise of Creation–timely shifts in popular taste, the emergence of indie rock as a genre, and of course McGee’s spirit and skill. By 1997 indie rock had given way to pop superstars like the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys–just the sort of acts that McGee had spent his career fighting against. By framing the event in a larger cultural context, Cavanagh demonstrates that Creation’s demise was not just the end of a label, but of an ethic, and an era.