Rock and roll is meant to be the music of freedom and liberation. That’s ironic, given that some of its most legendary figures were rabid control freaks.
Pretty much everyone has heard of The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson, but you may not know that the chief reason for Wilson’s much-publicized mental problems was his manipulative ogre of a dad, Murry, who managed the band in their early days. While Brian was under huge amounts of pressure trying to deliver hits, his father was manipulating him into giving up his 50-percent share of the income from his songs. He called Brain nightly at the studio, telling him, “I’m entitled. I’ve been your father all your life. I’m not doing anything that’s unfair.” Brian eventually gave in.
A recording of Murry interrupting studio sessions of “Help Me Rhonda” is a master class in emotional blackmail. He issues rapid-fire criticism, casts anyone who might undermine his influence as “the people that have tried to hurt you,” responds to the anger he’s provoking with sarcasm, and then—hilariously—tells the band they need to “loosen up.” After the band fired Murry as their manager, he told Brian, “You’ve gotten where you are only because of my hard work. Both of us know I’m the writer in the family. The real talent. You’ll always be second best.” Mike Love, a cousin of the Wilsons’ and one of the most famously unpleasant in people in music history, had this to say: “Murry was a pr—. He was awful. I’m so glad he wasn’t my father.”
The chief architect of Guns N’ Roses’ devolution from big band to bad joke, William Bruce Rose is well known among fans as the kind of guy who would, for example, show up on stage an hour late, throw a tantrum, walk off after three songs, return an hour later under the threat of litigation, and then play the rest of the set to a largely emptied arena.
Rose became an impossible headache as soon as the band hit it big. His antics included forcing the release of “One In a Million” (causing the whole band to take flak for his bigoted lyrics), challenging other musicians to fights via the press, announcing the band’s drug problems from the stage in LA (a move Duff McKagan said dissolved the band’s camaraderie instantly and permanently), hiring backup musicians without telling anyone, and stopping shows to bore the audience for minutes on end with tedious rants about contractual disputes.
Furious at his bandmates’ failure to jump to his defense every time he did something ridiculous, he finally moved to take sole ownership of the band’s name by refusing to take the stage one night until documents were signed. Desperate to prevent Rose from inciting yet another riot, the band signed. Within three years, he succeeded in alienating his entire band and replaced them with session musicians. He got the full control he wanted and only had to turn Guns N’ Roses into a soulless revival act to do it.
8Colonel Tom Parker
Elvis Presley’s manager used a form of tyranny much more subtle than others, relying less on intimidation and more on his client’s lazy preference for the familiar.
In his desire for control, he acted against Elvis’s interests. For example, Parker (who was secretly Dutch) feared being barred reentry to the States if he traveled abroad, but he was scared of losing influence if Presley traveled without him. The result was that Elvis never played a single show outside the US in his entire career except for three Canadian dates in 1957, which was before the Canada-US border closed.
Of course, that didn’t really matter because, for most of the ’60s, Elvis didn’t perform live at all. The Colonel implored him to focus on his film career over live performance. The man regarded as the most electrifying live performer of his age wasted his talent in a parade of terrible films because they made more money.
When Presley tried to initiate a film project himself with Barbara Streisand in the ’70s—which could have finally been his chance to appear in something decent—Parker sabotaged it by asking for too much money. As one associate put it, “If Elvis can make that kind of meeting and Colonel didn’t stop it—Colonel’s out of a job.”
The incredibly tight power of James Brown’s backing band didn’t come out of thin air. Brown played the disciplinarian in most aspects of his musicians’ lives by fining them for everything from tardiness to bum notes. Saxophonist Maceo Parker recalled, “You gotta be on time, you gotta have your uniforms—you gotta have the bow tie, you can’t come without the cummerbund, your shoes gotta be greased—you just gotta have this stuff.”
Fines for wrong notes, whether real or imagined, would actually take place during performances. Brown incorporated hand signals into his dance routines that would tell someone they had screwed up and how much was coming out of their wages. “I’d see a hand go up, 5, 10, 15, 20, that’s a $20 fine, and I didn’t know what I was doing wrong,” said drummer Clyde Stubblefield. This came out of his $200 wages, which also had to cover his hotel bill, laundry, and food while on the road.
Singer Vicki Anderson remembers being fined $75 for missing a show to attend her sister-in-law’s funeral. She refused to pay, creating a stalemate that was only broken when Brown’s manager paid the fine for her.
If you want to know the story of Pink Floyd, look at their writing credits. Dark Side of the Moon has a nice variety of different names attached to the tracks. The credits of The Wall, on the other hand, list song after song penned by Waters alone, only occasionally throwing a “Gilmour” into the mix.
At their best, Floyd was a blend of Roger’s lyrics and the band’s musical vision. However, as the most prolific member, he came to view himself as solely responsible for the band’s success, and his domination degraded the band’s sound from lush and full to icy sparsity.
By the recording of The Wall, he was using his greater output to hold the band hostage. He only used a few pieces of Dave Gilmour’s music under protest, including what would become one of their best-loved songs, “Comfortably Numb.” He also made badges reading “NOPE” (“No Points Ezrin”) to taunt producer Bob Ezrin about his reduced royalty rate. Ezrin said that making the album reminded him of being bullied at school, and he dreaded going in each day.
After an argument with keyboardist Rick Wright, Waters threatened that if Wright wasn’t fired, he would release The Wall as a solo album, claiming that “it’s my record, and I’ve let the rest of you play on it.” The band was on the verge of bankruptcy at the time, so nobody called his bluff. Wright was fired, and the follow-up LP The Final Cut was the sound of pure Waters—eloquent, acidic, and tuneless.
5Mark E. Smith
The vocalist of The Fall has been the leader, hirer, and firer of the band for over 30 years. He has a bare-bones vision of rock and roll and tends to view his band members as untrustworthy egotists who would ruin his vision with endless solos and cheap frills without his intervention. “I don’t like musicians,” he once said. “They elevate themselves.”
Smith’s ideal is a group that is on their toes at all times, with no clear idea of whether they are doing well. Members report being praised after terrible shows and chewed out after amazing ones. “Mark doesn’t like being told he’s got a good group, and he really doesn’t like the group being told they’re good,” according to guitarist Ben Pritchard.
Smith resorts to a variety of tactics to trip his bandmates up, including wrecking their amp settings mid-song or turning them off altogether, pulling them off stage mid-show to accuse them of “playing like a f—in’ pub band,” fining them for playing impromptu solos, or giving the wrong directions to the studio so that they would arrive angry and supposedly play better. He regards no one as irreplaceable, saying, “Anyone gets stroppy with me, I’ve always got subs. It’s like a platoon sort of thing. If the first three get shot, you have another three behind them.”
As a producer and songwriter, Phil Spector was massively influential, the architect of one of the key sounds of early-1960s pop. However, the predictably messy combination of drugs and power sent his behavior far south of sanity by the late ’60s, a descent from which he never really recovered.
According to one engineer, “Somebody might sing at the wrong pitch and it would just unnerve him . . . All of a sudden, he’d be screaming at somebody. He’d wrest the guitar out of a guy’s hands and say ‘This is what I told you to play!’ ” He famously kept John Lennon waiting for hours while he fiddled endlessly with tracks, eventually snapping in frustration and firing a gun into the studio ceiling.
By the time he recorded The Ramones in 1979, he had come seriously unraveled. First, he held the band hostage in his home for six hours. Later, he became obsessed with the opening chord of “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” forcing Johnny Ramone to play them over and over for hours. Ramone said of the ordeal, “I hit the chord and he paces around the room for about three hours, cursing.”
Engineer Ed Stasium said that Spector was once so unhappy with a take that he played it back around 160 times. “He would stop the tape, and he would stomp his feet on the floor and go ‘S—t! Piss! F—k! S—t! F—k! F—k!’” Johnny Ramone went on to say that he “treated everybody horrible,” which is saying something, considering that—as we’re about to see—he had his own issues.
Johnny Ramone was a right-wing conservative and the product of military school. He found himself sharing a band with a flaky singer with obsessive-compulsive disorder, a drug-addicted bipolar bass player, and—at some points—an alcoholic drummer. Of all the people on this list, Johnny Ramone could be given a pass, since most people agree that it was only his strict approach that kept the band together.
That, however, doesn’t make him a nice guy. He was petty, lashing out if people didn’t stick to assigned seats on the tour bus or were friendly to his nemesis, Joey Ramone. In 1980, Joey’s girlfriend, Linda, left him for Johnny, and while it wasn’t an act of idle cruelty on Johnny’s part—he married her, after all—he never uttered a word of apology, wounding Joey to the point that the two barely spoke for the remaining 14 years of the band’s existence.
The band’s image—a tight gang in identical uniforms—was insisted upon by Johnny in the face of increasing objections, particularly from Dee Dee Ramone. “I was sick and tired of the motorcycle jacket and the bowl cut . . . that’s the way I used to dress when I thought I was a worthless piece of s—t,” he said. One of Dee Dee’s last acts of rebellion before leaving the band was dressing for Ramones shows as his rap alter ego Dee Dee King, complete with cropped hair, cheesy bling, and bright clothes.
The self-described “Al Capone of Pop” saw the music business of the ’60s as populated by “drama queens and wannabe gangsters.” With his strong-arming, intimidation, and worrying cadre of hired goons, he clearly saw himself as no wannabe.
He once took those goons to dangle Robert Stigwood from a fourth-story window for trying to steal one of his acts. John Hawken from The Nashville Teens got the same treatment after asking where the band’s money had gone. Arden first tried to strangle him, then dragged him to the window, shouting “You’re going over John, you’re going over.”
Many of his ’60s successes were the result of paying chart-fixers to buy his records. Demonstrating an ability to bend morality to his whim, he dismissed claims that he was a cheat as “absolute rubbish,” reasoning that the records would have failed if they weren’t any good, regardless of bribery.
Arden would go on to be sued by many of he acts he managed. The Small Faces had a string of five hit songs with Arden but never saw a penny from record sales or airplay. When the group members’ parents tried to intervene, Arden derailed the meeting by telling them their children were drug addicts. Drummer Kenney Jones said that dealing with Arden turned singer Steve Marriott from a “trusting soul” into a “miserable bastard.” Lynsey De Paul’s own lawsuit with Arden in 1976 left her distraught. “I’ll never forgive him,” she later said. “If ever I was near [suicide], it was then.”
Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, was one of a kind, marshaling a deconstruction of rock and roll that was essentially the sound of a band falling down the stairs, to a script. As hugely influential as he was, he was also massively paranoid, permanently convinced that there were various plots afoot within the group to overthrow his leadership. In response, he created a cult-like atmosphere that included singling out band members for psychological and physical abuse. In an interview, drummer John French recalled “everyone in the band hitting me in the face at the same time.” Other abuses French endured included waking up after a bender shivering under ice, followed by “an interrogation as to how I could possibly embarrass the band in this way.”
During the making of Trout Mask Replica, Beefheart would communicate his ideas to the band entirely by humming, whistling, or playing harmonica, but would “get ridiculously upset, screaming ‘that’s not it, man, what the f—k are you doing?’ ” when the band tried to interpret them. They were shut away in a remote house, rehearsing the record for 14 hours a day with barely any food. This isolation, coupled with the musicians’ tender ages and worship of Beefheart, led the band’s perspective to become so warped that they believed the abuse to be their own fault. French went on to describe lasting trauma from these experiences, saying they “made us all dysfunctional in society, in different ways.”