The story of rock’n’roll in the 60s has been told countless times by the stars who sang the songs, spun the solos or thrashed the drums. In the UK at the time, that most often meant straight white men, as it did in the US. But the people who shaped and advised those artists – the ones who managed the stars of the classic rock age – were, by an outsized margin, gay men.
That interwoven community included Brian Epstein (who brought the world the Beatles), Kit Lambert (who co-managed the Who), Simon Napier-Bell (the Yardbirds, and a young Marc Bolan), Robert Stigwood (Cream, the Bee Gees), Billy Gaff (Rod Stewart), Ken Pitt (David Bowie), Barry Krost (Cat Stevens), as well as Tony Stratton-Smith (who formed the visionary label Charisma for bands like Genesis). In fact, it was a gay man, Larry Parnes, who svengali-d Britain’s very first rockers, from Tommy Steele to Billy Fury to Marty Wilde.
Likewise, in the US, you had key LGBTQ music power players like Clive Davis at Columbia Records, Seymour Stein at Sire, David Geffen at Asylum, and Danny Fields, who discovered the proto-punk stars Iggy Pop and MC5 for Elektra.
A new book titled The Velvet Mafia: the Gay Men who Ran the Swinging Sixties aims to tell the British side of this story by focusing on several key players in the scene, including a few of the aforementioned names along with the innovative producer Joe Meek and the head of the UK’s most powerful label at the time, Sir Joseph Lockwood. Author Darryl W Bullock said he tackled the subject because he believes “it’s incredibly important for people to understand that LGBTQ people were not just a part of what created the rock culture we enjoy today, they were the driving force behind it. They were the people who pushed things forward,” he said, “the ones looking for the ‘next big thing’ to kickstart a cultural revolution.”
At the same time, these rich, powerful and influential men faced the considerable consequences of being gay at a time when homosexual acts were still outlawed in the UK. They were subject to arrest, blackmail and violence, along with general public vilification. “You could end up in prison if you held another man’s hand,” Bullock said. “We have a generation these days who have no experience with this kind of life.”
Small wonder the story Bullock has told contains as much tragedy as triumph. “These are real men living at a time when it was bloody hard to be LGBTQ,” Bullock said. “They could not be open.”
There were, in fact, a few powerful gay women in the British rock scene at the time as well, including Vicki Wickham, who booked the acts on the seminal TV show Ready Steady Go and who later managed Dusty Springfield and LaBelle. But Bullock said he focused on men because “that’s the way things were back then. It’s a time when women were supposed to stay home and bring up kids.”
The man at the start of it all, Larry Parnes, had a complicated relationship with the stars he discovered. On the one hand, he devoted great care to their creative and commercial nurturing. But he also exploited them financially and, at times, sexually. Parnes would often try to sleep with his stars even if they were underage. “Of course, guys like Larry [Parnes] and Brian [Epstein] and Robert Stigwood were trying it on,” Bullock said. “There absolutely was a dodgy aspect to them.”
At the same time, when stars like a teenage Georgie Fame or Vince Eager decisively rebuffed Parnes’ advances “that was the end of the story,” Bullock said. “It was never mentioned again.”
It helped that the primary focus for Parnes wasn’t sex but money. Towards that end, he took the lion’s share of the stars’ profits. “No matter how much Larry took from them [financially], they knew it was still worth it,” said Bullock. “He gave them lifelong careers.”
More, the best of the managers gave the young musicians a confidence and understanding they never would have had otherwise. Some even played crucial creative roles, like Kit Lambert who used his knowledge of the broader world of art and music to push Pete Townshend to create his historic rock opera Tommy.
The worshipful attitude the managers often had towards their stars formed a unique and compelling dynamic. “Why would you become a pop star in the first place unless you wanted to be idolized?” Bullock said. “These managers wanted to do the best for you so you could reach your highest potential. That they were also attracted to you must have had a little frisson. It also gave the stars some sense of control of the situation. It was almost like a sexual relationship without actually having sex.”
Bullock’s book doesn’t delve into the deeper cultural and psychological issues involved in the relationships between these gay and straight men. It focuses instead on the plot lines of the managers’ lives. Still, it’s clear to any student of the era that the edgy lives of gay men at the time fascinated the straight artists they worked with. The subcultural world they occupied represented a rebellious, “outsider” identity that far exceeded the transgressions expressed by the rockers. In fact, many of the managers had a second “outsider” identity. They weren’t just gay but also Jewish. “It must have been hard to deal with the issues surrounding your religious beliefs as well as your sexual identity,” Bullock said. “Brian [Epstein] for one struggled with the whole lot.”
To make matters worse, Epstein had a self-destructive streak, a trait chronicled in scores of earlier, Beatle-related books. Besides his increasing drug use, Epstein was sexually drawn to the kinds of men who were likely to do him the most harm. Much has been written in the past about the instances in which the men Epstein courted beat him up or tried to blackmail him. More, “Brian was less than circumspect about the kinds of people he would allow in his house,” Bullock said. “When you’re making money, and being feted by the media and courted by royalty, you probably feel invincible.”
In some ways, managers like Epstein and other others could insulate themselves from the everyday life of gay men at the time – throwing their own exclusive parties and circulating in elevated circles where they could do as they pleased. But they had to practice discretion in public. Ironically, after the law against homosexual acts changed in Britain in 1967 – decriminalizing them in certain circumstances and for those of a certain age – the harassment of LGBTQ people actually intensified. “It was felt beforehand that ‘queers’ weren’t in our faces as much,” Bullock said. “But post-67, and with the formation of the Gay Liberation Front in 1970 in Britain and with gay people becoming more outspoken, the raids and the pseudo-political attacks started to happen more.”
The consequences of that could be terrible. After Joe Meek was arrested for having sex with another man in a public toilet, the newspapers went to town with scandalous headlines which, Bullock believes, “set things in motion for him to commit suicide”.
The stories of several other men in this milieu also didn’t end well. Epstein died by an accidental drug overdose in 1967, and Lambert, who descended into alcoholism by the end of the 60s, died a decade later after being beaten by a drug dealer, leading to a fatal cerebral hemorrhage. At the same time, the men in this demimonde nurtured a sociological revolution that, in some ways, opened the entire culture to the more accepting view of sexuality we have today. “The vibrant scene they helped create was massively important in changing taboos,” said Bullock. “Yet their stories tend to get straight-washed. I want people to know their stories so they can be fully credited for what they did.”