Stoned: A Memoir of London in the 1960s

By Andrew Loog Oldham

(St. Martin’s Press)

In the annals of rock history, artist managers are rarely recognized for their creative vision. Their behind-the-scenes manipulations may be well documented, but we prefer to think of them as scheming, greedy, and shallow (and preferably old and fat). That way we can do the deep reading on Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, and the Sex Pistols without having to think about them counting their cash. Colonel Tom Parker is the perfect example: slimy and controlling, crassly commercial, he’s easily digestible as a stock character, the carnival barker exploiting the sensitive country boy. So it’s surprising to discover a pop memoir that treats a manager as an artist in his own right, someone who made the culture move.

Stoned: A Memoir of London in the 1960s is a sometimes dark but more often giddy chorus of voices led by Andrew Loog Oldham, best known as the brash young manager of the Rolling Stones from 1963 to 1968. Oldham got his start in the music business as a publicist, handling the Beatles’ press in London, and by the end of the decade he’d produced records by Marianne Faithfull and Gene Pitney and founded the independent label Immediate Records, home to Nico, the Small Faces, Rod Stewart, Humble Pie, and Fleetwood Mac. Though highly imaginative, Oldham has been largely forgotten by pop history, especially compared to his dapper upper-crust mentor, Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Oldham might be nothing more than an excellent propagandist, insinuating himself back into rock history. Or he might be a more manic, charismatic, and dimensional Svengali than we know what to do with.

An independent publicist at age 19, Oldham worked the streets of Soho like Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success (his favorite Hollywood film), drinking in jazz, fashion, popular music, and avant-garde theater. “He was desperately looking for a vehicle, having seen what was happening with the Beatles,” recalls John Douglas, a friend of Oldham’s. An insider at a music rag tipped Oldham to the Rolling Stones, and he instantly took to the band’s animalistic amplification of the sexual element in blues. While Epstein expended considerable energy toning down the Beatles’ sexuality, Oldham saw the Stones’ as the key. “Before the pill, when sex was still a delicacy, teenagers had it artificially inseminated through vinyl and live gigs,” he remembers. “The audience at the Station Hotel Crawdaddy Club, getting off on the Stones, were as flushed and happy as if they’d had the real thing.”

Yet many witnesses in Stoned recall the young musicians as charmless and patently unsexy art-school jazzbos. Oldham consistently argues that he did little to shape them (“They were all bad boys when I found them. I just brought out the worst in them”), a claim that’s contradicted by Douglas: “Andrew developed the driving sex and anti-Establishment thing–it was like falling off a bus for him.” In any case, Oldham probably had to look hard to see the Dionysian devils the Stones would become.

After snagging the Stones from blues documentarian Giorgio Gomelsky and engineer Glyn Johns, Oldham set out to make the band an extension of himself and to convince England that “the Rolling Stones are not just another group, they’re a way of life.” He demoted piano player Ian Stewart to sideman status and turned Mick Jagger and Keith Richards into a disciplined and productive songwriting team, effectively pushing the frail and bratty Brian Jones (the only real bad boy in the group, with several illegitimate children) out of the picture. He shot publicity photos of the Stones in their street clothes standing by the river’s edge so they would look nasty and real, and he fed newspapers canned stories like the one headlined “Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?” The clarity of his vision required him to not only manage the band but also live with them and produce their records, shaking up the rigid studio pecking order by recording them himself and licensing the tapes to the record company.

Rock musicians will always be considered cool and music-biz hustlers incredibly uncool. But Oldham may be more troubling to our sensibilities now, in the age of brokered authenticity, than he was in the 60s, when manufactured groups were the norm. He was acutely aware that managing a pop group was a sort of performance art, and his liberated, technicolor philosophy inspired the Stones’ lives as much as their music at a time when pop music was becoming a lifestyle. Could it be that the Svengalis, the Oldhams and Epsteins, were the ones who created the 60s, by bringing their best products to the marketplace? Mick and Keith may not realize it as they lumber through “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” for the thousandth time, but they may only be playing out a story line dreamed up many years ago by a young man in dark glasses.