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Managers, Moolah and the Birth of the Modern Rock Star

Michael Walker Book 'Limo' makes the case that 1973 was a turning point for the music biz

I’ve about given up reading rock ’n’ roll books. Always poorly written, they never tell you what you want to hear and they leave out the essence, the myth and how it came to be.

Many younger people believe the concept of rock star was born with MTV. Oldsters will pooh-pooh that and say it’s all about the ’60s, baby. In his new book “What You Want Is in the Limo,” Michael Walker points to the ’70s, more specifically 1973, as the year when the screw turned, when Zeppelin, the Who and Alice Cooper went onstage.

I don’t agree with his exact premise. “Led Zeppelin IV” was much more important than “Houses of the Holy,” and “Physical Graffiti” was a return to form, but the point is that once upon a time, it was about peace and love, then it turned out to be about world domination and money. Yup, everybody from Lady Gaga to the living room wannabe is living out the paradigm that these acts established exactly 40 years ago, when there was so much money in music, you lived in a bubble and could do whatever you wanted.

This was back before bankers were loaded. Back before the tech revolution.

Oh, there was always a music business. But the lion’s share of the cash went to the promoters and the intermediaries. The acts were along for the ride. But not when Peter Grant got involved.

Grant came from the Irving Azoff school of music management. He didn’t get involved in the music itself, but he paved the way for Jimmy Page to do exactly what he wanted. He was his adorer and protector. High on coke, sometimes a teddy bear and sometimes a tyrant, Grant invented the modern music business. He was the one who changed the deals so that the acts got all the money — after all, all you had to do was put the tickets on sale and they were instantly gone!

If you lived through this era, you remember. Scalpers were not prevalent. You lined up overnight to get tickets. And you were thrilled just to be inside; no one complained about sitting in the last row because you were part of the shenanigans.

Woodstock illustrated there was an audience. Grant, Gordon and Peter Rudge capitalized on it.

Yes, Shep Gordon, who comes to L.A. with bupkes and fakes his way into managing Alice Cooper, leaving behind his days as a dope dealer at the Landmark Hotel.

Peter Grant got leverage by paying for Zeppelin’s first record with his and Jimmy Page’s money. They ended up with artistic control. Remember that when you’re looking for a handout.

Furthermore, Zeppelin got terrible reviews. Yup, this was the first time in the rock ’n’ roll era that reviews no longer mattered — the public was in charge. The Zeppelin you revere today? Abhorred by the cognoscenti back then. But it made no difference, just like reviews are meaningless today.

You might know all this. But did you know promoter Jack Boyle used to fi ll his ice cream tubs with plaster of Paris, only putting the frozen dessert a half inch down? He charged $75 for a five-gallon tub; he told then-ICM booking agent Chip Rachlin he put his kids through college on the profits.

Yes, the promoters were trying to screw the artists. It was the job of the manager to make sure they didn’t. The entire modern rock ’n’ roll business was created way back then. We’ve just been living on fumes ever since.

And the reason you read this book is for the tiny touches, the little stuff you did not know. And I was stunned how much in the book was new to me. Yup, after all these years, you can still teach an old dog new tricks.

By reading this book you’ll understand how it once was, when we weren’t enthralled by tech but music. When these musicians were never laughing stocks but heroes. When they had more power than anybody on the planet and lived like it.

Read more Bob Lefsetz columns at Lefsetz.com.

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