I opted for Local Government and spent three years at the Rotherham Borough Council studying law. Seeing the Clash at Sheffield Top Rank in 1977 changed the course of my life. The Clash concert was transcendent. I came away thinking, “I want the chance to experience being around that excitement every day, not watching a clock count the hours in some office.” There was no better feeling in the world than when the band came out and went straight into “I Fought The Law” as beer flew in the air and soaked us all down in the pit (no pun intended).
My first boss at RBC was Reg Bramhall, an old school Civil Servant who adhered to the conventional principle that you studied hard to get on in life. He had scars on his left hand where his teacher used to hit him for writing left handed. He was naturally mystified when I told him I was resigning and relocating to London with nothing in place. At the age of 22 I had nothing of value to lose.
I walked around Record Companies literally asking if they had any jobs. I remember the imposing Sony building (or CBS, as it was then) on the northeast side of Soho Square, the smaller white mansion of A & M Records down Kings Road, and the exclusive offices of Polygram near Lancaster Gate, bordering Hyde Park.
In the back streets of Bayswater on a small residential street bordering Royal Oak, was Stiff Records. I walked in and said I was a huge fan of the label and asked if they had any jobs. An affable fellow sitting with his back to the door told me there were none right then, but I should call him the following week. I later interviewed fo the job of motorcycle messenger. I’d never ridden a bike before but that seemed unimportant if I could just get into the music business. I’m certain I was the only person interviewed. It was a 20-minute informal interview wherein we talked about what music I liked, the culture of Stiff Records (loose and fast), and the lengthy hours the employees worked. At the end of it I got the sense that the person interviewing me was thinking, “Well, you’re here, you like our kind of music and I’ve got no one else in mind, so maybe you can do it.”
I got the job on £40 a week, and on my third day, while driving down the Euston Road, I put myself and the bike under a lorry. When I returned to the office, the owner Dave Robinson called me in and asked how I was doing. Fully expecting the sack, Dave said to me in his this Irish brogue, “That’s what I like, people who are prepared to die for me.” He then ordered a Director of the Company to give me his car to use instead of a bike.
After a couple of months I began to take on a different range of duties. There was no job description per se, it was really whatever needed doing. Picking up Dave’s son from daycare, I’d be there. Driving Dave and Paul Conroy after work to Stoke on Trent (130 miles from London) to see the band Any Trouble, that would be me. Graham Parker posters needed sending to the Phonogram sales reps, me again. The unpredictable nature of the job and the mercurial behavior of Dave especially was disconcerting, but it gave me my first lesson in what it meant to be truly alternative and independent, operating with few borders.
The fellow who gave me the job and who subsequently gave me a room in his apartment was Nigel Dick, who’s since enjoyed a successful career as a film-maker/video director. I learned many lessons in the three years at Stiff. Mostly how not to treat people, but the sheer bravado, culture, and creative approach at Stiff still inspires me today.
Subsequently I worked at Pinnacle and Rough Trade Distribution before forming my own company Real Time in 1989 with two partners. In 1994 I moved to New York to start a Management Division of Real Time. In 1999, I sold my shares in RT to my partners and established my own company, Maine Road Management. The invaluable lesson of free thinking is more relevant today than ever, as the business drifts through what the Buddhists would call it’s Bardo state.
In the beginning, I had the idea that I only wanted to work with artists that uphold a strong aesthetic — artists who would reflect my own taste. The Company would be personal. I still retain that idea. It means that Maine Road is not a large company. Company progress takes longer, and I’m comfortable with that. I plan on being around for a long time.
DAVID WHITEHEAD, NEW YORK 2009