Amanda Meade’s Diary column in The
Australian’s
Media lift out last week, carried an item
head-lined “Horses for Courses” which read as follows:

“We’ve heard a lot about niche
publications, but two new magazines take the specialty concept even further.
Hitting the newsstands in November is Melbourne Cup Carnival Official Souvenir
Magazine, a magazine about a horse race, and 20/20 Australia New Zealand, a
magazine about sunglasses.”

Well our sports editor Patrick Fitzgerald
already has a copy of the Melbourne Cup magazine – and very nice it is
too! The high quality glossy 116 page
publication includes an article on racing in Hong Kong by someone called Ross
Stapleton. It’s already on sale and not
in November as stated above.

Given that Christian Kerr came out two
months ago as Hillary Bray and lived to tell the tale, maybe it’s the season for anonymous Crikey
contributors to come out. So, here goes. Truth be known, Ross Stapleton is our
Patrick in real life.

Stephen Mayne writes: It was time Ross stepped out of the shadows
for Crikey’s sake – and Patrick’s so he can deal more fully and openly with
those making the news. Now he can get on with the business of being himself
from this point forward. Ross was our
original sports business insider four years ago, and for the last three years
has been our straight shooting sports editor!

You can now email him direct at
sport @crikey.com.au.

When a sports business sage is not all he seems?

Ross is not your ordinary sports editor. In
another life he spent seven years working for Richard Branson’s Virgin Records
in the UK; as a publicist and later head of Artist Development, which included
day-to-day label supervision for such acts as The Human League, Simple Minds
and other prime 80’s Virgin artists.

It is therefore appropriate we should now
also disclose that Ross is our popular entertainment editor Max Factor! As we said at the top, no doubt for some of
Crikey’s readership it merely confirms what they already knew – he’s a punk and
a former Virgin to boot!

He was also around in 1984 when Richard
Branson told the world he was going to start up a cut price airline to the
consternation of many within Virgin, including fellow directors.

“It’s funny to think back now to how so
many of us at the time thought he was off his rocker starting up Virgin Atlantic,” Ross recalls.

“I had only recently returned to London
from Australia, and found myself once more weighing up an offer from Richard to
have my own boutique label within the Virgin Group. So here we were going over the finer points of how the deal would
work when I thought this was as good a time as any to ask Richard the question
on everyone’s lips? I tried the
diplomatic approach!

‘Richard what the hell do you know about
running an airline?’

“He laughed and then patiently explained
how he had done his homework by seeking advice from Sir Freddie Laker – who had
gone broke running his own cut price airline, but advised him to only lease his
planes, not buy them as Sir Freddie had gone and done. Also his worst case result would end up
being only one year’s zero profit from the Virgin group. Which reassured me he wasn’t going to send
Virgin broke following in the wake of Laker. That’s why he’s a billionaire and
I’m not!”

Ross now takes up the story to explain how
he became a protégé of Branson, and how by a most circuitous route it
ultimately led four years ago to Crikey.

Cadet journalist to the politics of punk

I started a brief cadetship on Melbourne’s Sun News Pictorial in 1970, then went
bush to join my home town paper where our local MP was Malcolm Fraser. Later I backpacked around Europe, returned
home and worked in the AAP and ABC Melbourne newsrooms before again heading to
London in ’77 to see what all this punk commotion was about?

I started writing for publications in the
UK and at home on the politically charged fall out from the rise of punk rock,
and out of this got to meet Branson, hit it off with Malcolm McLaren the
notorious manager of the Sex Pistols who ordinarily hated the UK media, but liked
me as a colonial interloper and agreeable critic of the English class
system.

Before long I was in cahoots with Branson
and Virgin, hatching a little Fleet Street tabloid manipulation, including
leaking the top secret controversial Never
Mind the Bollocks
album cover to The
Sun
prior to its release, when Virgin couldn’t even advertise the album.
All this insider activity gave me unprecedented access to the Pistols, and even
ending up becoming mates with John “Rotten” Lydon in future years.

As the persecution of the band grew worse,
I built up an inside picture of how Virgin and the band were being victimized
by the authorities including having the number one single “God Save the Queen” stolen from under them. Later that year, Branson keen to give me
unrivalled access to his inner sanctum as he waged war with the so-called
establishment,

went too far one day. I got a call asking me to get in a cab and
come to his office immediately as he needed me for a vital meeting. On arriving without being given any inking,
his staff immediately ushered me into his office. The then NME
journalist’s presence at this meeting as I was directed by Richard to take a
seat, was explained as that of a label employee who had been working with him
on the promotion of the Sex Pistols.

In actuality I was Branson’s last minute
brain wave, planted to personally witness his official questioning by Scotland
Yard detectives taking testimony for the subsequent landmark Never Mind the Bollocks indecency
trial. My disquiet was not helped when
the detectives then asked for my name and address and job title as they
proceeded to write it down, which Richard hurriedly answered for me along the
lines of “he’s a marketing assistant”.
I tried to keep a poker face as Richard committed this perjury but was
incredulous as to what was unfolding before me.

In these situations I eventually learnt how
Richard never quite saw such economy with the truth as anything other than
there’s no real harm done. That’s fine
if you are a notoriously eccentric multi-millionaire who likes flying by the
seat of their jeans, and tends to think the law is often an ass! But I also admired his bollocks – as it
were!

Some months before the release of the
album, thanks to a brilliant Aussie Laurie Dunn, then heading up Virgin International who had originally
introduced me to Branson, I was exclusively invited to join the party when the
Pistols fled England in July of ’77 to play secret live dates starting in Denmark. In fact the band was virtually fleeing
England at a time when the whole country seemed in uproar after they had
sabotaged the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations, and at a point where no
English venue could then obtain a licence needed to allow them to play live.

You can read this article “On the run with
the Pistols” here.

Never mind the bollocks – here’s the court case!

The enormous brouhaha over the release and
naming of their debut album Never Mind
the Bollocks
became farcical when Virgin was unable to place advertising
because the media weren’t prepared to risk possible prosecution because of that
magic word – bollocks! It seems
impossible to believe now how much trouble and strife this album created on its
release in November ’77. It was even
being sold under the counter in brown paper bags in the high street, and
couldn’t be put on open display in stores – well non Virgin ones anyway! The Woolworth’s chain then the UK’s biggest
record retailer, refused to stock it at all despite it being the runaway
biggest selling album in the country.

So it was that in reporting the lead up to
and the actual Never Mind the Bollocks
indecency trial in Nottingham (which was why Branson inserted me into his
Scotland yard chat room), I was covering this history in the making for the NME
(some irony in that for Pistols fans).
I drove up with Johnny Rotten from London to Nottingham on the eve of
the case, whereupon ensconced in our hotel abuzz with the realization they had
as their guest – the most notorious Englishman then alive, we indulged in a
Heineken fuelled all-night debate until 6am as we tried to put the world to
rights. Not the kind of pre-trial
preparation you find in legal textbooks.

My NME
article on the court case, doesn’t survive as an online archive but I have
found entries about the case which are primarily lifted from that article which
was by far the most complete account of the trial at the time. Bollocks as a pejorative term passed into
the English language as legitimate after the trial acquitted the sacrificial
Nottingham Virgin store manager who dared display the album cover in his store
window.

So hard pressed had been the police to nail
Virgin/Branson and strike at the foul mouthed authority hating Sex Pistols, the
charges were actually bought under the 1899 Indecent Advertising Act (then
repealed after the case).

On Saturday November 5 1977 policewoman Julie Dawn
Storey looked into the window of the Virgin Record store in Nottingham
and saw the Never Mind The Bollocks display. She confiscated a couple
of albums, informed the shop manager Christopher Seale that the use of
the word ‘Bollocks’ contravened the 1899 Indecent Advertising Act, and
placed him under arrest.

Additional complaints about ‘Bollocks’ displays were made by bus
inspector Charles Whitbread two days later, and Virgin Records boss
Richard Branson was informed that he too would face charges.

The trial was held on Thursday November 24 1977.

Proceedings:

David Ritchie
prosecuting.

John Mortimer
Q.C. defending.

Douglas Betts
chairman

Mr. Ritchie said
the display measured 9 ft. by 6 ft. with sleeves fitted around the posters with
the word bollocks displayed prominently. The display consisted of three large
posters and eleven sleeves. The word bollocks was in letters four inches high
and the whole display was featured prominently in the front window of the shop.
Sgt. Stone spoke to Seale again and asked him if he was responsible for the
display and Seale said he was. Sgt. Stone informed Seale it ”appeared to be a
breach of the law” and Seale was placed under arrest.

Mortimer then
said that he wished to call Professor James Kingsley to give evidence as to the
meaning of the word bollocks. Mr. Richie objected to the witness being called.
However, the chairman said ”let’s get it over with”, and Kingsley was called.
Kingsley told the court that he was the Reverend James Kingsley, professor of
English studies at Nottingham University. He said he was a former Anglican
priest and also a fellow of the Royal Academy.

Under
questioning from Mortimer he then went into discussing the derivation of the
word bollocks. He said it was used in records from the year 1000 and in Anglo
Saxon times it meant a small ball. The term was also used to describe an
orchid. He said that in the 1961 publication of Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of
Slang, he had not taken into account the use of the word bollocks in the Middle
Ages. He said it appears in Medieval bibles and veterinary books. In the bible
it was used to describe small things of an appropriate shape. For instance
bollocks could also be traced to a pulley-block at the head of a sailing
topmast, otherwise known as a bullock block.

He said that the
word also appears in place names without stirring any sensual desires in the
local communities. Mortimer said that this would be similar to a city being
called Maidenhead – that didn’t seem to cause the locals in the vicinity any
problems.

Mr. Kingsley
said that Partridge in his books wrote that bollocks remained in colloquial use
down through the centuries and was also used to denote a clergyman in the last
century. ”The word has been used as a nickname for clergymen. Clergymen are
known to talk a good deal of rubbish and so the word later developed the
meaning of nonsense,” he said. ”They became known for talking a great deal of
bollocks, just as old balls or baloney also come to mean testicles, so it has
twin uses in the dictionary”.

Mr. Ritchie
asked him if he was just an expert on the word bollocks to which Kingsley
replied that he was an expert on the English language who felt he could speak
with authority on the derivation of a word such as bollocks. Mr. Ritchie asked
Kingsley if the words fuck, cunt and shit also appeared in the Dictionary of
Slang from which he had quoted. Kingsley replied ”if the word fuck does not
appear in the dictionary it should.”

Mr. Mortimer in
summing up the case for the defense said:
“What sort of country are we living in if a politician comes to
Nottingham and speaks here to a group of people in the city centre and during
his speech a heckler replies ‘bollocks’.
Are we to expect this person to be incarcerated, or do we live in a
country where we are proud of our Anglo Saxon language? Do we wish our language
to be virile and strong or watered down and weak?

Upon returning
to the courtroom some 20 minutes later the chairman of the bench made this
finding:

“Much as my colleagues and I wholeheartedly
deplore the vulgar exploitation of the worst instincts of human nature for the
purchases of commercial profits by both you and your company, we must
reluctantly find you not guilty of each of the four charges.”

In late December despite an offer from
Branson to join him at Virgin, I decided I’d had enough of England and departed
for Australia again.

Part 2:
How a pop idol Svengali became Crikey Sports Editor

At the end of 1977 I departed London for
Melbourne, keen to see how the exploding UK music revolution might evolve back
home, but also at the back of my mind was the thought there was a fantastic
book that could be written, and more easily polished off in sunny
Australia.

Thanks to Virgin I had been privy to
witnessing a lot of momentous change in the record industry. It gave me a unique insight – in effect a
front row seat to a still unfolding revolution in the history of rock
music. But I never did get around to
the tell-all tome although it remains an itch I haven’t yet scratched!

After another 18 months spent writing for
local publications, hosting a three-hour Saturday morning breakfast show on
3RRR, and casual shifts for the ABC as a real job, Richard Branson rang me out
of the blue and this time wasn’t taking no for an answer. He wanted me in his London press office
yesterday, but in fact the required work permit took a few months to organize
on the basis of me being appointed Virgin’s International Media Coordinator –
of which there was no such job!

When I did lob in the Virgin UK press office
it was a rewarding education under a very shrewd operator and foreign travel agent Al
Clarke! Today the droll, one-time
Branson spinmeister is a well regarded film producer in Australia with the
likes of Priscilla – Queen of the Desert
and The Hard Word under his
belt. But while I once said if I could
be a publicist or media whore for anyone, I couldn’t think of a better place to
be than Virgin at that time, long experience with record companies taught me
that my real ambition lay in A&R, to help identify talent, get them signed,
and develop them as recording artists.
A kind of “Dicko” – only with original talent rather than the
manufactured variety that clogs our charts now, and I don’t think there was
honestly a single act at Virgin I worked on that didn’t write their own
material.

Eventually I managed to became a department
of one as Head of Artist Development, where I continued to oversee media for
the likes of The Human League and Simple Minds, while also liaising on their
overall creative development, and being the key link to their management.
Consequently you also get to sort out most of the complaints from both
ends! In the League’s case who were
particularly demanding and antithetical to the label when I arrived in ’79, it
meant I had to work doubly hard when the band split in two (Heaven 17), as
there were only a couple of us they cared to talk to. So the management became a vital link – and their manager like
his band didn’t rate Virgin much
either, which meant it became necessary for me to become a
co-conspirator to work around certain deficiencies which he had every right to
be wary of – like earlier lack of TV and airplay.

But among the upside was getting to sign
the genius behind the best live band I ever saw – Tom Verlaine of Television whose Marquee Moon remains one of the greatest albums in the rock
firmament (that ought to be good for a couple of emails!).

I was actually twice employed by Virgin
between 1979-1988, that book ended a short time spent as a partner with leading
local independent label Regular,
before I spat the dummy and resigned.
But not before seeing a comedian on a Don Lane Show tape doing a comedy
monologue which included a clever play on words routine I later came to know as
Australiana. I promptly signed one Austen Tayshus to a
record deal after quickly reaching agreement with his then manager Billy
Birmingham (12th Man). The
single subsequently released after my departure became the biggest selling
single to that point in Australian record industry history, and spent 13 weeks
at number one.

I pretty well sulked for a year before
returning to the UK and the once more welcoming embrace of Branson to finally
operate my own sub label within another Virgin label. But the company was now much changed and far more corporate and
very political. When I first walked
into Virgin in ’77, and then subsequently from ’79, I worked at the Vernon Yard
“hip” factory. As Virgin had grown it
had become a hodgepodge of ramshackle buildings adjoining a small lane or
cloister, just off the Portobello Road in Notting Hill. It was an amazingly vibrant and inspiring
place to work, although that cozy camaraderie began to evaporate even before I
left for the first time in ’82. By then
staff had even got to the point of famously holding a stop work meeting to
consider whether employees should join a union for better wages and conditions
which had Branson practically in tears when he invited himself to speak at the
meeting.

It’s been the subject of lot of retelling
over the years including by Branson himself, but to this day the full story
which involved my own intervention at a couple of critical points, both before
and during the meeting has never been told!
What isn’t in doubt was Richard more or less threatened that if the
meeting voted in favor of the staff becoming unionized, he would rather sell
the company than continue. It did tend
to throw a damper on the more bolshie staff who felt Virgin was exploiting them
by industry standards – that is expected to work for longer hours and less pay
than those at other record companies.

On my return to London in ’84 the main
label was now in an imposing huge former mansion a couple of suburbs away from
Notting Hill, but was also split up into sub labels scattered around different
parts of London. It was also now the
sixth biggest record company in the world.
In my absence it had gone gangbusters and a couple of my own key bands
were helping drive it along with Culture Club!
It’s much larger size meant it was far more corporate and was already
looking to become a public company.

The labels that now made up the Virgin
Group not only boasted different post codes, but often competed against each
other as if they belonged to another company altogether – although you could
put this down I suppose, to a more robust competitive environment. But I much preferred the old Virgin to the
one now confidently thrusting forward with all guns blazing. The Virgin Group as such had become so
diverse that I used to be constantly bemused at meetings with our MD Simon
Draper (bless him), that he would be forever complaining about the diabolical
treatment our own product received from the Virgin Records chain. By then getting your product prioritized by
this very independently run retailing division was coveted by all record
companies. Simon believed we were being
maltreated because of what he saw as some personal hostility within retail to
the record company, but it wasn’t hard to also discern we actually did better with
the rival HMV chain than our own.

What Crikey readers will perhaps appreciate
is that clearly Branson knew and understood that for the sake of his own chain
and being less emotionally attached to the label than his cousin Simon, it must
not only be seen to not favor the
Virgin label over the other major labels for its business credibility, but if
anything the powers that be at retail overdid the actual “independence”. The irony given Draper’s continual
frustration at this running sore within the Virgin empire which must have made
Virgin board meetings very entertaining, was that he himself before Virgin went
public owned around 17% of the company.
Yet here he was finding the tail wagging the dog at retail! Then again historians could always argue that
without Branson’s original mail order record retailing – there could never be a
label to release Tubular Bells as its
first record!

But now it was these kinds of instances of
other Virgin enterprises very independently operating their own divisions that
felt no particular loyalty to the record company that really sheeted home just
how big the Virgin Group had become. It
mattered not to them that virtually all of them were essentially fed from the
success of the Virgin labels and Music Publishing cash cows – if not now then
certainly in the past. It was therefore
hardly surprising that professional jealousies abounded not only across Virgin
divisions, but within the labels themselves.
As I saw it, by the time the company was taken public; a lot of what I
had loved about Virgin originally was no longer evident. We really were pretty much like any other
record company – we just had different bands and a maverick chairman still
helping steer the ship, but increasingly bored by its day-to-day operations and
much more interested in fresh frontiers to conquer – like the aviation
industry.

So I should hardly have been surprised when
four years later, it was my turn for the high jump from a previously non-Virgin
person (pre-Vernon Yard would be my cut-off) – who had himself earlier cut his
teeth in the corporate jungle of running two U.S. owned multi-national
labels. Yet I strangely saw this as
somehow reasonable after watching so many others going the same way with the
passing of time! By now I also had more
than my fill of record company politics and wheeling and dealing, and fancied
something different without really knowing what?

Never mind the music – here’s the sports pages

The long and the short of it is that after
a time back in Australia, I began to think seriously about getting involved in
my other life passion – sport. It led
me to eventually becoming a sports writer and then subsequently Contributing
Editor for Inside Sport for several years from its very early days. Which led me into sports management where I
saw a growing correlation between marketing professional sports people, and how
the music business operated?

From 1993 onwards I had struck up a rapport
and been very impressed by the man who is now the AFL’s best known player agent
Ricky Nixon. So later in ’94 I began
sharing Ricky’s office in South Melbourne as his fledgling company Flying Start
was already more than starting to make its presence felt in wanting to
transform player management commercially.
Given where he wanted to go, this would inevitably mean going head to
head legally with the AFL at some future point. So I made sure he got himself a top music business lawyer because
as an industry it had already been so practiced in everybody screwing everybody
contractually, it already knew all the tricks of the trade which I didn’t think
the AFL would understand if it came to a shit fight.

The last thing we should be doing was
arguing the toss on the kind of traditional old fashioned intellectual property
rights grounds I knew the AFL would be counting on. What better proven laboratory on issues of copyright and
protecting player’s image and valuing their reputation as a verifiable asset,
as opposed to them being claimed by the AFL?
Try telling Tony “Plugger” Lockett his reputation was actually the asset
of the AFL than himself? But for too
long the AFL thought the league was the only intellectual asset and players
were mere chattels.

So Ricky Nixon changed all that although
there were times when even his steely nerve had to hold fast when it would have
been that much easier to cave in against a league determined to make life as
difficult as possible when he challenged their eminent domain. To this day all AFL players owe him a debt
even if he was ultimately making himself a packet, as he proceeded to turn the
promotion and marketing of AFL players on its ear; and nearly always butting
heads with the recalcitrant AFL every step of the way.

It basically hit the fan when he dreamt up
the then revolutionary Club 10 concept, which was cleverly “borrowed” in its
collective concept of marketing all the big names in football regardless of
personal management, based on the Quarterback Club in America’s NFL. Consider names like Carey, Ablett, Dunstall,
Lockett, Modra, Voss, Hird, Williams, Lyon, Wanganeen, Lloyd, Jakovich,
Koutifides and Richardson, and being able to assemble this kind of firepower
for sponsors and events? Foxtel for one
certainly came to appreciate the connection when they were in the AFL
wilderness.

Originally the AFL did all it could to
scuttle Club 10 after Nixon refused to let them not only become a partner which
was fine by him, but expected to then own it themselves after only the first
year of its operation. He would then
thereafter be paid a retainer for its management for a period of five years
with an option, but they might have then been able to chop him out of the
equation altogether if it so suited them?
Nixon was far too smart to see his own love child sold down the river
for some illusory minority partnership with the AFL. But it’s instructive to understand the AFL mentality at the time
where they thought in their own arrogance, they were even doing him a favour by getting behind it in the
first place!

When Nixon rejected the AFL offer as to how
to divvy up the Club 10 pie, typically the AFL threatened and blustered and it
only backed off in the resulting legal dogfight over the intellectual property
dispute, when it absolutely had to. It
was a legal issue the league could never win, yet they maintained their
opposition to the bitter end as Nixon called their bluff, only withdrawing on
the very morning of the case proceeding, and cutting a deal. It might help explain why I still don’t rate
legal advice the league receives as optimal which has come back to haunt them
yet again on their delinquent TV rights deal.

The Club 10 victory came as a cultural
shock to a league far more used to holding all the aces, as all monopolies do
when they show a combination of greed and hubris and behave as a law unto
itself. It explains why the league saw
its original offer to Nixon as generous, but then on being rejected didn’t
hesitate to shamelessly start up its own lame version of Club 10 in direct
competition. From where we sat it was
more to do with trying to sabotage his creation than any belief they couldn’t
afford leave to him alone or actually thought they could make money from their
decidedly second rate collective.

By the time I
quit in ’99 as Flying Start head of marketing and business development to edit a
sports industry magazine, Nixon’s company dominated the AFL player agency
market. He had had also spread his wings into other
enterprises such as being part owner of a multi-million dollar nightclub
precinct at Melbourne’s still to be completed Docklands stadium with music mogul
Michael Gudinski, which is a story all by itself!

By 2001 and
coming out of the wrong end of the dot com boom I was at least fortified by my
years as both sporting hack and industry executive. I had absorbed so much in understanding
what made Australian sport tick, and believing the complex corporate forces
usually at work wasn’t easily understood and was mostly slipping below the media
radar; it deserved better coverage as a mass entertainment medium.

I admired the
way Crikey was striking out with an independent voice via a media platform still
in search of its feet, so met with Stephen Mayne to discus such coverage. He could also see the value in writing
about the underbelly and fundamentals that drove the business of sport. And then later to a far less ambitious
scale or frequency as Max Factor, to deal with a more generalised
“entertainment” industry landscape as issues or interesting topics
arise.

Today I also
contribute articles to other publications including the prestigious
UK global
sports business bible, SportBusiness International, but have always spoken with
a completely independent voice at Crikey.
I would hope as anyone who knows me should – I continue to call them as I
see them! It doesn’t always make me
right – but at least now I’m an open book!

CRIKEY: Congratulations on coming
out Ross, and thanks for all your fine contributions over the past four
years. Now who will be next? Terry
Television, Lisa Liberal, Wendy Wedge, Delia Delegate. So many anonymous contributors; so many
outings to be had!