Nine Songs: Alan McGee
Nearly fifty years since buying his first 7” single, Alan McGee remains fascinated with music, with its endless possibilities and why a song can change your life.
But McGee isn’t your typical music fanatic. Hearing T.Rex’s “Get It On” at the age of ten led him on a singular musical path, where thirteen years later he would form Creation Records with Dick Green and Joe Foster, and over the course of nearly two decades the records he released would shape the course of modern musical history.
With Creation McGee learned how to run a record label by combining a music fans’ passion with streetwise smarts. For all his reputation as a talent-spotter and maverick businessperson - who infamously conducted a ferociously contested major label bidding war for The House of Love that secured a deal for a figure just shy of half a million pounds and took a punt on an unknown Manchester band that featured Inspiral Carpet’s drum tech as its songwriter - McGee is still the unashamed music lover that bought “Get It On.”
When we meet via Zoom, he’s in great spirits, speaking from his home in Wales, wearing a Real Madrid away shirt and in the midst of promotion for Creation Stories, a biopic based on his autobiography of the same name. Written by Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh and Dean Cavanagh, and starring Ewen Bremner and Leo Flanagan as the adult and teenage versions of McGee, Creation Stories is as much a rite of passage story about being defined by music as it is the rise of an independent record label. Now the film is done and dusted, McGee explains he’s keen to move on to his next adventure, which of course, involves music. “The film’s out and it seems to be a hit for what it’s worth, but I still do music. I still manage bands and I put records out. I’m just getting on with it.”
McGee has worked in the music industry for over forty years, yet still retains an infectious enthusiasm for music. Creation began releasing records in August 1983 with the single “'73 in '83" by The Legend! and ended with Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR as the 21st Century started. Along the way the label was a home to fellow mavericks, from Lawrence of Felt to My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, who like McGee, refused to compromise when it came to music.
Creation’s commercial peak came with the unstoppable rise of Oasis, a band who also shared McGee’s uncompromising streak, but who arguably wouldn’t have had the halo of credibility to reach such heights if they’d signed to a major label rather than Creation. Perhaps McGee learned a lesson from The House of Love, where according to David Cavanagh’s tome on Creation, My Magpie Eyes are Hungry for the Prize, instead of selling millions of records as Oasis did, they frittered a chunk of their advance on taxis and endlessly switching recording studios.
Since Creation ended, McGee has watched the infrastructure of the music industry and what it means to be a music fan mutate into completely different experience. “The game’s changed, the world has changed, people have changed. It’s a million miles away from a council estate in Glasgow. The music experience, especially in Covid, has drifted into such a strange place.” He cites the example of passing music onto his nephew, who’s about to move to Manchester and asked his uncle if he had any spare CDs. “I’ve got a room downstairs with thousands of CDs. I was giving him the CDs and that used to be an experience didn’t it? You’d take it out and put it on, but now you just click it. We all do that, I do that, but the way that we all consume music now is a different experience. I love Spotify - I don’t love its business model - but I love the accessibility.”
When it came to his Nine Songs choices, McGee initially considered drawing on Creation’s back pages, but instead went further back and mined songs from growing up in Glasgow in the ‘70s. “When you said ‘choose Nine Songs’ I thought ‘Let’s go glam and punk’, I could talk about that stuff all day long. It was the music I grew up with. It’s not cool anymore or anything like that, but it’s music I have warmth for.”
His selections are as much about the songs themselves as they are about the friendships he made growing up. Some of the characters from Creation Stories appear here - Television Personalities’ Dan Treacy, who’s currently in a care home and whom McGee speaks to regularly via Zoom, The Skids’ Richard Jobson, who plays McGee’s father in the film and Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie, who McGee caught up with the previous evening. “I don’t talk to Bob that much, but when we talk, we talk for a couple of hours. He sent me a clip of him being impersonated on Coronation Street and I said “You finally fucking made it!”
As we talk about the songs he’s chosen McGee’s self-confessed music geekism leads us to theories about music culture, the lineage of the great modern guitar bands and what it means to be a music fan today. At one point he asks which band got me into music and when I tell him it was The Smiths he good-naturedly ribs me for being a teenage miserabilist and fellow music geek. So when I bat back that “Get It On", the first of his picks, features a riff that must have provided the inspiration for Oasis's “Cigarettes and Alcohol”, he laughs and says, “With the riff, I think Noel Gallagher would put his hands up and say ‘Call it.’ I don’t think he would ever deny it.”
Ultimately, the songs here aren’t simply about what it means to be a music geek - despite how noble such a pursuit is. They’re also a story of how music can, and did, change someone’s life.
“It was the first record I ever bought. It was on Fly and I think it was July ’71. I would have been 10 and I’d just gotten a paper job - that’s true in the film by the way, I got a job selling newspapers and I was stealing two hundred of them and keeping the cash.
"So at 10 I was making about twenty quid a week and that’s how I got a record collection. I had a brilliant record collection from day one because I was making cash, and the first record that I ever bought with my ill-gotten gains was “Get It On”, a brilliant record.
“I was going to gigs when I was ten. I saw T.Rex, Bowie, Roxy Music and lots of other mad shit. I talked to Bobby about it last night, it was stuff like Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance, Golden Earring, stuff you wouldn’t think I would have went to, but we’d go to anything. I was young and I could get away with it, because my parents never told me not to go. By the time punk came around in ’77 - because it never came to Glasgow in ’76 - I’d already been going to concerts for four or five years and I was still only sixteen.
“With Bolan, that was the first time that Rock and Roll really turned me on. I could remember The Beatles, as everybody could, when I was seven or eight with “Penny Lane” and things like that. It was a great tune, but the first thing that made me connect right into pop music was Marc Bolan and T. Rex, it was fucking amazing.”
“I’m going for significant songs and this was the song that made me buy into Bowie. I’d have been about eleven, I was in the second years’ school common room in September ’72 and somebody brought in Ziggy Stardust. They put on the first side and it was “Five Years”; it was immediate, the minute I heard it I was like ‘Fuck, what is that?’ I listened to the whole of the first side of the record and then I had to go into class, but it blew me away. I went and bought the record and then that was it, my journey was David Bowie.
“When I heard “Five Years” for the first time, I just connected into it. I don’t know why I got it because I was pretty clueless. The first record I ever bought was “Get It On”, but the second record I bought was “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” by Middle of the Road. I wasn’t trying to be cool, I was just buying shit. Luckily, the charts were cool when I started buying records, so for every shit record like that I was buying good records.
“I lived on the edge of an area in Glasgow that was rough, but it wasn’t that rough where I lived. My Mum and Dad were ordinary working class people who worked in a shop and a garage and there were a lot worse places than were I grew up, but if you were in any way different - which obviously I was - it was dangerous. When I was at school I underplayed the fact that I was a fucking freak, because it was a lot safer to be invisible and that’s basically what I was.
“When punk happened, I was wearing make up in the beginning because I was into Bowie, but it was dangerous to be like that in Glasgow. I remember me and Gillespie were on a bus and some people got on at Govanhill and they looked like they were going to slash us, because we looked like freaks. Bobby looked like he was in the Banshees and I looked like I was in the Buzzcocks or Devo, we were lucky not to get stabbed. It was dangerous to be different.
“The problem is now is that there’s no defining culture for the music is there? In the ‘70s and the ‘80s it was a different thing; you could identify each other by walking about with a David Bowie album. Now I probably look like a football thug because I’ve got a Real Madrid strip on, but we don’t walk about with album sleeves anymore, we walk around with our phones. You could look at you or look at me and people wouldn’t know what the fuck we were into, even though we’re probably into the same thing.
“Me and Bobby grew up with each other, went to school with each other and we got into music together, but the truth is I’m not the guy in the film, the swaggering Svengali, and he’s not the swaggering rock star. We’re both fucking geeks, that’s really the truth. I don’t know you, but you’re probably geek if you’re a writer. Whatever I get portrayed as in the media and whatever Bobby gets portrayed as in the media, well, we’re still fucking geeks.”
“Nobody, even now, likes Lynsey de Paul. It’s probably me, Gillespie and maybe Lawrence, that’s about it, but “Sugar Me” is a pop classic, it’s such a great song. Being honest, I was twelve or thirteen and I probably fancied her. I thought ‘She’s great and she’s got a good tune.’ I don’t think it was that complicated.
“She wrote songs for other people, but this was her big song, her own thing. It’s a clever song, it’s lazy but it’s really clever, if that makes any sense. It’s a bit like “Waterloo Sunset”, that’s a really clever, lazy song as well, it's a better song than “Sugar Me” but for a throwaway pop song this is an incredible song. It is what it is, what you see is what you get, but it’s a great tune. It'll come on Spotify and I’ll be ‘I love that song’, but nobody’s ever heard it!”
“One of my best friends is a guy called Mike Chapman, who wrote “Blockbuster.” Do you remember Chinn and Chapman? They wrote all the ‘70s hits for these bubblegum bands. Sweet were a band that could really play, but Mike wrote all the songs. Eventually Sweet kicked off and they would do the B-Sides, but Mike wrote the hits. He also wrote the Suzi Quatro hits, the Mud hits, the Racey hits, the Smokie hits, and in later years the Toni Basil and the Tina Turner hits. That’s who Mike Chapman is, he’s a fucking dude.
“Chinn was the manager that got fifty percent from what I can gather, but Chapman wrote it all and he was the genius in the whole equation. Mike Chapman was called the songwriter, but he was the one that was doing the business.
“Blockbuster” is genius. “Blockbuster” is “The Jean Genie” before “The Jean Genie”, it fucking is! It’s the same riff. I said to Mike,‘Did Bowie rip that off?’ And he goes ‘All I know is that we were both on RCA, and our record came out two weeks before. We had the Number One record and then Bowie released “The Jean Genie” two or three weeks later with the same riff, so I don’t know.’ Mike’s cool about it, he was friends with Bowie, but you’ve got to think that “Blockbuster” influenced “The Jean Genie.”
"I had a radio show on Boogaloo for two or three years, but then Covid happened. I said to Bobby ‘I’m playing loads of ‘70s things, I’m playing Lynsey De Paul, I want some other good ‘70s things to play. Give me some ideas of things I’ve forgot.’ He said ‘Kiki Dee’ and I said, ‘What one?’ and he went “I've Got the Music in Me.”
“I put it on, I played it on the radio a couple of days later and I was ‘Fuck, he’s right, it’s such a tune.' This song is genius. I loved it at the time, it was a hit, but I’d forgotten about it if I’m honest.
"And then I thought ‘Oh, I know why he likes it...’ That’s a big part of what he does. You listen to it and its Primal Scream isn’t it? It fucking is!”
“I’m friends with Richard. I’ve known him for a long time, but I’ve only become close with him in the last few years. I fucking love him, there’s an amazing energy to that guy. The Skids were such a great band and I love “The Saints Are Coming.” Me and Bob used to go and see The Skids and Jobson must have been seventeen or eighteen, because I was about that age. He’s a little bit younger than me and he was headlining The Apollo in Glasgow to 2,000 people, how incredible was that?
“They had brilliant pop hits and they had Stuart Adamson too, who was incredible. Big Country were so underrated as well, they were like a Scottish Pogues without the alcohol, they were a totally unique band. I love Stuart, I didn’t really know him, I met him a couple of times, but he was a brilliant guitar player.
“In the film, my Dad was going to be played by Peter Mullan but then he couldn’t do it. Then all the Scottish actors over 50 got asked to do it and it didn’t quite happen. Ewen Bremner piped up and said ‘What about Jobson?’ I said, ‘100% that would work’, because the experience in Scotland in the ‘70s, whether your Dad was Catholic like Richard’s Dad was, or your Dad was protestant like my Dad was, they were kind of the same Dad. They had different religions and beliefs but at the end of the day it was the same Dad. So he was plugging into his own Dad playing my Dad and he could play that character, because we all had the same Dads.
“He’s still good looking and he has the best fucking stories. He shared a flat with Steve Jones from The Pistols for fucks sake!”
“I can remember when I first properly, really bought into punk. It was in a record shop at the end of ’76 and there was a video on the Tony Wilson show So It Goes of The Pistols doing “Anarchy in the UK." That’s how me and Gillespie got into it.
“I chose "Hanging Around" because a pivotal moment for me happened in May ’77. Radio Clyde, which is a horrible, shit station, it’s like the Capital Radio of Scotland, but suddenly, about midday, they played “God Save The Queen”, “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” by Ramones and then “Hanging Around”. You’d think that I’m making this up, but it fucking happened. I was sixteen and it blew my mind. By the end of “Hanging Around” I went into town and bought them all as 7” singles, and I think I bought The Stranglers album as well. The next day “God Save The Queen” was banned on Scottish radio.
“It seems inconceivable now that a mainstream radio station would actually play The Pistols, Ramones and The Stranglers. It was our music, and the only other time it’s been that exciting was when Acid House happened. When punk was really kicking off I was sixteen and Bob was fifteen, so we couldn’t really be involved in it, not in a real way. When Acid House happened, I was twenty-seven, I was releasing the records, I was living the life, and arguably, I was making some of it happen. They were the two things that have blown me away, Punk and Acid House, and being involved in it was so much fun.
“Deep down, Bowie was a punk, wasn’t he? I mean, “Rebel Rebel”? Bowie couldn’t get cancelled by the punks because they didn’t want to cancel Bowie. People like me were obsessed with Bowie, all the kids that were buying punk records were giving David Bowie a pass, no one would try and take Bowie out of it.
“I sold my Bob Dylan records when punk happened, it’s embarrassing to admit it but I did, and then I bought them all again in the early ‘80s, every one of them. I had Desire, Blood on the Tracks, Blonde on Blonde, I had all the records, because I’d always have jobs. After I did the job selling papers on the corner of Victoria Road, I worked in a bakery when I was fourteen. I always had cash, so I could buy shit loads of records, which was my vice. When punk happened, I took it too seriously and I got rid of the Dylan records, but you’d never get rid of the Bowie records!”
“Me and Bob met Paul Weller when went to see The Jam on the All Mod Cons tour in early ’79. We ended up chatting after the gig because The Jam used to come down and hang out with the fans. Most of the people were a bit embarrassed to talk to them, but of course, me and Bobby Gillespie were not embarrassed.
“It wasn’t in the days of camera phones, but when me and Gillespie were talking last night he sent me this incredible picture of that night. Let me get my phone and show it to you. He didn’t know if it was him in the picture or not, and I looked at it and said, ‘It’s you, how did you get that?’ He found it on some Glasgow punk band website. Bobby’s got a book coming out and I said, ‘You’ve got to put that in the book.’
“There’s a lineage in British rock and roll, and it goes The Jam, The Smiths, The Roses, Oasis and, arguably, Arctic Monkeys. All of those bands are similar. I don’t mean they sound alike, but it’s the same idea - all of those bands united British youth. Listen to you going on about ‘The Smiths were my band, I could identify with the long coats and the miserabilism’, which we all kind of did, that’s why we liked Moz wasn’t it? We all identified with Weller because he was just like us, you could see yourself in Paul.
“There’s not that much difference between Paul Weller, Johnny Marr and Noel Gallagher, it’s the same person really. They’re brilliant musicians and they’re all honest people, you talk to any of them and they’re all good guys. I’m friends with Paul now, not a big friend, but I’m pals with him, and he’s a good guy, a genuine guy. Johnny Marr is a diamond guy, Noel Gallagher’s a diamond, they’re all good people.
“The Jam were a great band; they were so brilliant. I know Bruce Foxton and I think he’d love to do, not a reunion tour, but a one-off gig, but Paul is one of them that can’t go back. It’s a pity, but that’s just the way it is.”
“OK, I’m just going to say it - Television Personalities were the best band out of punk rock. They changed my life. They were the most important band, as important as The Pistols or Bowie were. I probably like “I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives” or “Three Wishes” more, but “Part Time Punks” is their anthem, so that’s why I chose it.
“The scene in the film is just Irvine Welsh riffing, but the real story of that is in 1981 I went to The Venue in Victoria and they were playing their first or second ever gig. They’d sold thousands of copies of “Part Time Punks”, but they’d never played a show. They started getting offers to do gigs, but they’d never intended it to be a career.
“I rocked up at The Venue utterly by chance, which held 2,000 people and 200 people were in there. The headline band was The Nightingales, who I went to see because I loved The Nightingales, Television Personalities were in the middle and I think Essential Logic were the bottom of the bill. It was a Rough Trade Agency thing and I got free tickets off of Rough Trade, because I was putting out 7” singles and learning my craft with my own band, The Laughing Apple.
“Television Personalities had invited all their art school pals, and there was about twenty people onstage taking the piss. I thought ‘Fuck, this band’s pretty big, they’ve sold thousands of records and they’re not playing by anybody’s rules.’ Of course, me being me, I got backstage, said hello to Dan, got his number, became his friend, watched what he did and went ‘I’m going to do that.’
“What Television Personalities really explained to me was that I could actually do it myself, that I could have record company, because Dan Treacy had a record company. I don’t think I’m particularly ‘business’, but Dan was seriously not business, he was just a genius songwriter that had a record company.
“I thought, ‘I love this guy, but you know what? I’m not being rude, but if he can do it, I’ve got to think I might be able to.’ He was probably the biggest reason that Creation went ‘Fuck it, we’re just doing to do it.’ It was, ‘I don’t know anything about running a record company, I don’t know anything about producing records, I don’t know anything about managing bands, but I’m going to try and do it’, and I kind of did it.”