Music guru, author and all-round bon viveur Simon Napier-Bell talks about his extraordinary career and how he has adapted to life in Thailand
Fascinated by the jazz clubs of Soho in the early 50s, Simon Napier-Bell’s earliest ambition was to be a professional musician. Displaying a taste for adventure that would serve him well, he sold his record collection at the age of 18 and travelled to Canada, where he picked up work as a trumpeter on the Montreal bar scene. Eventually deciding the jazz world was far too straight for his own tastes, Simon packed his bags and headed back to London in 1960, intending to pursue a career in writing.
The writing would have to wait though, as Simon fell into a job as an assistant film editor, going on to work as music editor on several notable films, including the 1965 comedy What’s New Pussycat?
He left the film business to go into music management, a career that has, to a greater or lesser extent, stuck with to this day. In 1966, he also doubled as a producer for one of his first bands, The Yardbirds, on their debut studio album.
Also in that year, he teamed up with Vicki Wickham, producer of the hit TV show Ready Steady Go, to write You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me for British singer Dusty Springfield. The song became a huge commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic and also supplied the title for Simon’s first book about the music business, released in 1983.
Simon went on to manage many other acts, including Marc Bolan, art-rockers Japan and 80s pop sensation Wham!. With two more books under his belt – Black Vinyl White Powder in 2001, and I’m Coming To Take You To Lunch in 2006 – he now lives in Pattaya with his Thai partner of 17 years.
I understand you recently built a house in Pattaya. What is it about living in Thailand that appeals to you?
It’s a strange thing about Thailand: I am a natural traveler and I like to be moving around the world. For 40 years I’ve been someone who is happiest when my work involves me having to get on and off planes and check in and out of hotels.
When I first started coming to Thailand, 35 years ago, I found it was the first place I’d ever been which I never had the urge to leave. Usually after a couple of weeks anywhere, the urge to be somewhere else takes over, but in Thailand that never happened. Whether it’s the people, the culture, the sound or the smell of the place… one way or another it gave me an ability to relax which I hadn’t found before.
How do you fell you fit in with the Thai way of life?
I’m a very non-judgmental person. I’m always amazed by the way foreigners who live here complain. It seems to me, when you’re not in your own country, it’s impossible to complain. You see letters in the Bangkok Post complaining about this and that – the quality of the cable television service, the amount of money someone’s business is losing because of an inefficient internet connection – and I just don’t understand it. You take the country as a whole: good, bad and indifferent.
In fact, the greatest pleasure of living in someone else’s country is that you absolve yourself from the responsibility of having to complain. It’s one of the great relaxing qualities about being an alien. In Britain, if things go wrong, I’m meant to complain, and vote, and help put things right. Here I’m being let off that responsibility. Things are as they are. I’m just here to observe and be interested, which seems quite close to the Thai attitude to things – very non-judgmental, very easy-going.
You’ve worked with some of the biggest names in pop music. Are those days over now, or are you still involved in the music biz?
Definitely still involved. But I’m not prepared to manage artists anymore, not in the personal management sense. It’s too time-consuming. Too much time is wasted one silly day-to-day aggravations.
What I frequently do now is work as a consultant, devising an overall marketing and promotion strategy while another day-to-day manager works with the artist. At this stage of my career, I find I have so much experience and so many contacts that it seems silly to waste time on listening to the artist’s personal problems or dealing with his morning-afters. Better to be looking at the overall big plan.
Currently I’m advising some people who are making an Asian-wide search for exciting new talent – from India to Japan and everything in between. They’re starting here in Thailand with a search of all Southeast Asia. Hopefully this will finally dig up what everyone has been waiting for – a real worldwide superstar from Asia.
At the same time I’ve also been working with a singer who is half Thai and half Vietnamese, though brought up totally in England, John Dang. He’s living in Bangkok and about to release some material through Sony. Between him and the Asia-wide search, I’m confident that in a couple of years Asia will have its first worldwide singing star. And hopefully I’ll have something to do with them.
What do you make of the current music scene, both in Thailand and internationally - any particular favourites?
I like Thai music enormously, everything from luk thung to the most poppy Grammy output. The local scene is both healthy and fun, though record companies wouldn’t necessarily agree. But then, when record companies talk about it they’re not really talking about music as such but about units sold and profit made.
For quite some time my favourite aritist out of Thailand has been Futon, a group that epitomises the eclectic international feel of modern Bangok. But to be honest, they’re just one of several new acts. And the established greats of Thai music – like Bird, or Sek Loso – still have the ability to produce current and relevant music.
My current international music favourites are quite predictable, much what everyone else’s are: Any Winehouse, Lilly Allen and so on. But you should also look out for Aqualung, Stephen Marley – son of Bob – and a new British group called Chauffeur Driven Aviator.
What work are you most proud of?
I’ve never thought in those terms, ever. For me, pride, and working in the music business don’t seem to go together. After spending several post-school years wondering what I would ever do with myself I fell into the business quite by chance. I’ve never thought of anything I’ve done in it as something to be proud of. Certainly I’ve learned the art of management, of organization, of getting the best out of people, that sort of thing. But to apply what I’ve learned to creating egomaniacs out of teenagers doesn’t seem to be something particular pride-worthy.
If anything is to be proud of it would have to be the creative things I’ve done – so, three books and a few songs. You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me came out too easily to engender a feeling of pride, though retrospectively it looks like a good set of lyrics, and sure, yes, it came from me. But it wasn’t done with great attention or thought in expressing myself in a useful or worthwhile way.
My three books were hard work. I don’t find writing easy or straightforward. I have to force myself to sit down and do it.
Perhaps to have been completely without a way of seeing what I should do with my life, and then to have found ways to get through it without creating any major disaster for myself or anyone else is sufficient to engender some sort of quiet satisfaction.
Bangkok Post, July 2007