Friday, May 2, 2008

The Sugarcubes - Pt. 1

Thor, Einar, Björk
23rd St, NYC, 1988

The Kras stepped into my office and said “I want you to go to England and see Wet Wet Wet. They’re playing the Hammersmith Odeon tomorrow ‘first’, if you have to”. I had a deal with Rough Trade, a record store in London. Every week, they’d send me the new entries to the UK top 50 singles chart so I already knew what they sounded like, but what Bob Krasnow wants, Bob Krasnow gets, so I asked my assistant, Valerie, to book me a flight. A few hours later I was sitting in Elektra’s London office reading the music papers. Sounds had picked 'Birthday' by The Sugarcubes - a band from Iceland - as their Single Of The Week and their review was so...well...rave-y, I just had to hear it. Like, now! I thought about getting a cab over to Rough Trade but as chance would have it, the 45 was sitting right there at the front of a pile of singles on the floor, leaning against a&r manager Dave Field’s desk. I placed it on the turntable and must have played it 5 or 6 times, in complete awe of its sheer beauty and unique, fresh sound. Whoa! Moments like this happen only a handful of times in a talent scouting career. Most of the stuff you hear is mediocre at best, and a large part of the job is saying “sorry, not quite right for us” to musicians hoping for a recording career. Out of the blue, here was a 100% bona fide, instant ‘hell, YEAH’. I was thoroughly blown away by this record and now wanted to see the band in concert, as soon as possible. I kept playing the record as I finished reading the paper and could scarcely believe my eyes when I read there was a Sugarcubes show, that night, at a pub near Great Portland Street tube station. I called the venue (I thought it was called the Portland Arms but there's something called the Green Man there now) and learned they were due to play at 11pm. Dave was out of the office at meetings and had another band to see that night, but he told me on the phone that he would try and catch the Wets last 2 songs and meet me in the Odeon’s lobby at the end of the show. The band played a perfectly professional set and seemed to satisfy their audience of (mainly) teenage girls. However, they didn’t strike me, particularly, as a band that would sit comfortably on Elektra’s roster, or sell particularly well in the US. I found Dave and he offered to drive me back to my hotel. I asked if he could drive me to Great Portland Street and invited him in to watch the Sugarcubes with me but he begged off saying he had to pack, as we were both flying to America in the morning to attend one of our 6 monthly, company-wide a&r meetings. We made plans to meet at the airport and I made my way into the venue. Inside, I was dismayed to see practically every a&r person I knew in the UK packed into this very smoky pub room, obviously trying to coax the band away from One Little Indian, the tiny independent label that had released the single. By this point I was exhausted and had been awake for nearly 40 hours. I staked my claim on a small flight of stairs so I could see the stage better and waited for the band to start. And waited. And waited. Midnight rolled around and I was feeling a bad mood coming on. There was no room to move, it was difficult to breathe with all the smoke, I couldn’t get a drink (or I’d lose my vantage point), I was tired and my feet were killing me. When the band finally decided to hit the stage at about 12.30am I was seething, and when the ugliest, most cacophonous, unrelenting, grating noise burst out of the speakers, I was totally shocked. It couldn’t have been more opposite to what I’d heard earlier that day and I wondered whether if this was the 'right' Sugarcubes. After about 8 more minutes of this, I thought, “screw this” and made my way back to my hotel. A couple of month later, I’m reading one of the music papers in my Manhattan office and I see the Sugarcubes’ second single, 'Cold Sweat', is picked as their ‘Single Of The Week’ again. I phoned Dave and asked him to have it couriered over. Once the 45 showed up, it was obvious they were a truly fantastic band - on record – and quite unlike any other I’ve ever heard, a factor high on my list of criteria needed for me to want to work with someone. I walked down the corridor to Bob Krasnow’s office and asked if I could play him a couple of tunes. He agreed, and once ‘Birthday’ faded out, he told me to call Derek and “make it happen”. I loved working for Bob. There was never any doubt, and you knew where you stood. Dave Field had been following the Sugarcubes’ progress in the UK and gave me the number of their record company and the name of the fellow in charge. I called Derek Birkett who’s in the middle of co-producing the album (with Ray Shulman) and he agrees to send over some rough mixes of what he’s done so far and to talk to Gary Casson in our business affairs department. I do not mention the show I’d seen. A deal is worked out so now it’s time to meet the band. I fly to London and take them all out to dinner at the Rasa Sayang, a Malaysian restaurant in London’s Soho district. Finally, I meet Derek, who brings some of his staff and Siggi, Bragi, Thor, Einar Melax, Einar Örn and, of course, Björk. We eat, talk, and the drinks flow. All of them struck me as smart, vital, creative, highly likeable people and I learned they weren’t above having a little fun with folks they found stuffy, or ridiculous. Planeloads of Brits had to fly to Iceland to meet with them and I’m reasonably sure the band had no intention of ever leaving Derek or OLI. Indeed, over 20 years later, Björk is still with Derek, and One Little Indian continues to release her brilliant albums. Towards the end of dinner, I was feeling very good about our new relationship, when Einar Örn (co-vocalist/trumpet), who was sitting next to me, told me how much he was looking forward to me seeing the band play live, as I was probably the only person (by then) who hadn’t. I looked him in the eye and said, "well, actually Einar, I’ve already seen you in concert."
He looked genuinely surprised and asked "Where did you see us?"

"I think it was a place called The Portland Arms...near Great Portland Street tube"

He narrowed his eyes and looked at me quizzically... "oh yeah? (pause) What did you think?"

"Well, to be honest, I thought it was terrible and left after about 10 minutes."

He leans back, a smile coming slowly to his lips. "Correct! That was our "punk" gig. We wanted to play a really obnoxious show that would confuse the record industry people who were bothering us!"

Phew! I could have easily said I thought they were "great". It certainly wasn’t easy to tell my new pal that the show I’d seen was, uh, crappy, but I’ve always thought honesty’s the best policy and – although it’s got me into trouble before – this time, it marked the beginning of a long and satisfying relationship.

Joey Ramone, Einar, Thor & Siggi
The World, NYC, '88

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