Caught by the River

Happy Trails

Cally Callomon | 25th April 2023

‘Happy Trails: Andrew Lauder’s Charmed Life & High Times in the Record Business’ is published this week by White Rabbit Books. Cally Callomon reviews.

I’ve often read about the ‘men in suits’ that seemed to have riddled the music business with their ‘waving chequebooks’ but in all my forty years within that business the only suits seem to be worn by jazz musicians and I was never given a cheque book, not even to wave about. 

Certainly one may have found some berk in a Mad Men skinny petrol blue suit with pointy brown shoes but they never lasted, the lure of higher pay in computer games and the film industry being too great. When EMI went down the tubes and was put up for sale it had been ransacked by a man who previously sold digestive biscuits; a man who fancied playing with musicians for a bit.

Just about everyone I ever encountered in the music business was a fan of the music. There were only a few exceptions: the Island Records accountant whose talents stretched to hiding overseas income away from his masters for fear of a weak quarter ahead with which he could plug holes in the books. In fact he used to sit in meetings and if he approved of any demo played by the A & R man: serious consideration was given to dropping the act, a talent of which the accountant proudly boasted, and which probably saved the company even more money.

Care is a quality rarely found in the world of business. Lauder, however, is a careful man. Caring about his colleagues, caring about cricket and, most of all, caring about the music he aligned himself with well beyond caring about his reputation. On one of my visits to his house I noticed his Wisden Almanacs carefully shelved in much the same way as his many Loudon Wainwright albums (and there were lots of those, all filed in release date order).

The Lauder Order was a symbol of love and care for his art. Though the origin of the word ‘meticulous’ stems from a fear of failure, much like Electra’s Jak Holzman, Lauder seemed to be devoid of any such fear yet was still meticulous about his choices. Many of the choices may be seen as also-rans or even failures but almost all of them spawned successes in different guises for the future.

Liberty, later United Artists was a label as cherished as many of the independents such as Island, A&M, Elektra, Chrysalis — but then so were major corporations like CBS with their astonishing roster, as well as Warner Brothers to a lesser extent. The Indie Wars happened many years after United Artist’s golden years and some of the chief warriors such as Stiff and Chiswick also owed a debt to Lauder and his era at U.A.

We read: Yet Andrew Lauder is blessed with an unfair share of luck and foresight’  — and so Houghton and others cite Lauder’s career as being lucky, but through the pages I often felt the need to challenge this conclusion. Good fortune can come from a lucky chance but few of these ever just occur. Houghton suggests that it’s not what one knows but who you know, but I suggest it is HOW you know people that bears fruit. I’ve met executives with expansive address books full of colleagues, all of whom do everything they can to avoid that person. ‘Andrew’s unassuming affable personality ensured he was readily able to build and maintain good relationships… renowned for being friendly, helpful and generous with his time and expertise’.

At one point Lauder experienced the benevolent dictatorship that ran Island Records. If Island’s Chris Blackwell didn’t get it then you were lost unless one did all one could to change his opinion and this rarely happened (even though he was happy enough to let sheer enthusiasm proceed as he did with his misgivings about U2). Lauder needed the support and lack of interference from colleagues in order for him to make mistakes and, therefore, spring surprises and when considering The Groundhogs and Hawkwind, both of which the media cognoscenti chose to revile or ignore, the book shows just how bounteous the fruit was and still is. Blackwell benefitted from hiring the right staff, and Lauder benefited from the hands-off management of Bob Reisdorff whose name, accordingly,  is not recognised in the same way as Island’s grand master.

The DNA for most successful acts usually resides in their forebears. Signing Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned were not brave decisions, they were acts made obvious by two years of Dr. Feelgood success (let’s not forget Television and Patti Smith here) — and recognising the early appeal of Dr. Feelgood could only come about after ploughing the barren furrows that was their Pub Rock fathers. 

The Stranglers, who did sign to UA, must have been the least fashionable yet biggest selling of the entire ‘punk’ crop, and Lauder saw in post-Devoto Buzzcocks what so few of his contemporaries did.

Likewise the current moan of the media is about a lack of Artist Development, that was found in the olden days, as Houghton points out. Pye Record’s John Schroeder when talking about the 1960s heyday of pop: “We didn’t retain an artist for longer than three singles without a hit” — but if one was as trusted and respected as Andrew Lauder (and not wanting to have a dog and bark yourself) and if the numbers didn’t stack up too badly, then it would only make sense to give an act you believed in enough time to deliver. Such were the benefits of nurturing Nick Lowe through United Artists in much the same way as happened to U2, and Supertramp. The most significant and valuable lesson to be found here is that if a record company knows everything about selling music but has lost sight of what it is like to buy music, (that is buy with money, not by subscription or blagged) then that company will be consigned to the glossy cruise ship that is talent TV shows and a pointless hapless conveyor belt dependent on hits, and radio play, and doomed by misses, companies where reputation counts for nothing and everything depends on statistics, data and tomorrow. Music as sport no less.

There can be no nostalgia in this book. These were not the good old days, this was not any particular golden era for music. One only has to note the benefits found today in Domino, Ninja Tune, Trunk, Ghostbox, Wichita, Bella Union and (ahem) Heavenly to recognise the common sense, the talents and the struggles always to be found by going it alone.

As a youthful music fanatic, devoted to the releases of a small amount of labels, I discovered that if I wrote nice letters to them, they sent me stuff in the post. Family was my band and I realised that United Artists published their songs and so in came various sheet music copies from a ‘Judith’ at UA (soon to become Mrs. Lauder) and when I plucked up enough courage to actually visit their offices to meet said Judith I sat in reception and through the entrance strode a man all dressed in white (those suits again) and beside him one Andrew who introduced me, a total upstart, to Marvin Gaye who was living down the road and whose label, the mighty Tamla Motown, was about to be distributed by United Artists. Gaye strode up and shook my hand, friends testify that I am yet to wash it.

Years later I designed various sleeves for Andrew who, later on, worked out of his enclave in Devon where he and Judith produced enormous amounts of work, far more than when stuck in an office in London. This was yet another spur for me to leave my happy ten years at Island and set up at home some twenty years before Prime Minister Johnson (I still find those three words difficult to combine) told us we were all going to have to.  

Most of Lauder’s work, by then, stemmed from America, a land far off in miles and hours if one was in London or Devon, and though he had always signed American catalogues and artists, it all seemed to get so easy. I questioned why anyone would accept the overheads of a massive office in a capital city.

This book is a strange account told in the first person, but knowing, as I do, the soft tones of Andrew’s voice it is a voice one can hear in the words. It’s an odd account, yes, but benefits greatly from the co-author Mick Houghton (no stranger to the times pitfalls and rewards himself — see Fried and Justified: Hits, Myths, Break-Ups and Breakdowns in the Record Business 1978 – 98) stepping aside, becoming invisible in the writing as so many good record producers manage when recording. Though there are countless books on Blackwell and Branson, I suggest that this welcome account, a joy to read, takes one deeper into the cogs and internecine geographical connections found within the machine itself over a long period of time. Plus: it all started in Hartlepool.


‘Happy Trails’ is published this Thursday. Order your copy here (£22).