Meet the man who got fired for signing Radiohead
I don’t often take recording equipment with me on holidays. I mean, I’m not a creep. But when I booked a room in a Hanalei Bay guesthouse on Kauai’s north shore, a cursory look at the about the owner section of the website made me pack a portable mic.
Simon Potts may not be a name you recognise, but he’s had hand in so much of the music we know and love.
Beginning as a promotions guy pitching the Joy Division record to John Peel, he’d sign some of the biggest bands of the ‘80s and rise to be global head of Artist and Repertoire at Capitol/EMI.
His stamp on music is immense; he’s worked with everyone from The Beat to The Thompson Twins, Patti Smith to The Cure, Aretha Franklin to the Butthole Surfers.
His story is of a boy who grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne, was raised in a boarding school in India, got a job behind the Virgin Records counter in Manchester, and from there everything changed.
Throughout his life at the highest of highs in the US and UK music industry, he’d take breaks on this small island in Hawaii.
“There was a telex, so I could work from here”, he told me as soon as we met on his front porch, in mid December. When he realised the music industry was bad for his health, he retired at age 40. He then moved permanently to Kauai to build a house with his own two hands and begin a new life.
That part of his life may be behind him, but the remnants of it can be seen everywhere.
Platinum records lined the bathroom of my “Elvis Room” in the guesthouse, music biographies and records filled the shelves.
On a balmy Hawaiian winter’s night, with a light rain falling outside, I asked him to Take 5 with the songs that changed his life. He could have picked a hundred. As soon as we sat down, I was so happy I’d brought that mic.
On missing The Specials, but signing The Beat
I'd seen a band around London called The Specials. I told my Managing Director [at Arista Records] about it, a guy called Charles Levison, and said 'We should sign this group'. He said 'Oh get back in your corner, son. You don't know what you're talking about'. As it happened that record went to number one, it was called ‘Gangsters’.
A month or so after that happened, Charles asked me if I wanted to move into A&R.
Very excitedly I went to Radio One and ran into John Peel. He said, 'I saw a band the other night called The Beat'. So I went up to see the band, I thought they were great and the audience was fantastic - they really responded to them - and eventually I worked my way backstage.
I met the manager Mick Hancock, met the band and talked to them about life in general, that I worked for Arista Records and that I'd like to sign them to the record label. I didn't know what that entailed at the time...
But I knew that persistence would pay off. I was at every gig from there on in. I find out wherever they would play around the north of England and I'd be there. I was the persistent one. There were other A&R men who came and went, we had competition.
'Mirror In The Bathroom' was the song that, when I saw them live, I thought would be the crossover, if there was to be such a thing. The crossover single. That's the song that has stood the test of time.
On Duran Duran's great comeback
I've got to say, Duran Duran were one of the nicest bands I've ever worked with.
They had been through some lean years. They hadn't had a hit in a number of albums, and in the UK, which is fashion conscious, they weren't very confident.
I was now head of Capitol Records A&R department in Hollywood, so I was summoned to the UK, into a little terrace house in Fulham, where they were recording an album.
I didn't have the greatest of expectations. I sat in the living room - I think they were using the kitchen to record, and part of the living room was being used as a vocal booth - they had the backing track down for ‘Ordinary World’ and Simon was going to do the vocals that night.
So I sat there and watched Simon do the vocals for Ordinary World that night. I was like 'Oh my god, this is an absolute smash! Is this really happening?' Because I had no expectations.
The funniest thing about that was that Simon Le Bon didn't like his vocals so he ended up taking off his pants and recorded the vocal that you hear with his underpants on. It wasn't a pretty sight.
On signing Radiohead, and getting fired
Radiohead were signed to EMI UK, to Parlophone, by a guy called Nick Gatfield. They were signed on an two EP deal and the second one had ‘Creep’ on it. I think it got to 163 on the charts in the UK. They were having to pick up an option, obviously they'd sold nothing.
Nick Gatfield asked me to come and see Radiohead with him, I remember driving down to Brighton University to see them.
There was just something about them. Obviously Thom's voice was really special, but I've gotta tell you, I didn't know they were going to become the new Pink Floyd. But there was something about them. So I said, 'Yeah, we'll part-finance this'. So we ended up picking up the option for the first album, Pablo Honey.
I thought 'Creep' would be an American alternative hit, I thought alternative radio would go for it. But I didn't see pop radio going for it.
I always used to think of a hit record in terms of the milkman. Does the milkman walk down the garden path singing the song? And I just couldn't see the milkman singing 'I'm a creep' or 'You're so fucking special'. But I was proven wrong, it became a hit.
Unfortunately I wasn't at Capitol Records to enjoy the success of that group, I had left at the age of 40, a new guy had come into town and I didn't suit his vision, so I was booted out.
But I'd saved half my money, so I came to Hawaii, bought some land here and went to work on it, physically. I was heartbroken about losing that job. But I now tell everybody I got fired for signing Radiohead.