"No more than an imposing folly": James Fenton at Mentmore

20 May 1977.

James Fenton’s portfolio is extensive. As critic, columnist, political reporter and theatre reviewer he has written both variously and extensively. His earliest years were at the New Statesman, where he was a political correspondent.

Fenton made the decision to become a journalist after graduating from Oxford University. It was there that he became friends with Christopher Hitchens, who also joined the New Statesman both as a writer and foreign editor. As political correspondent, Fenton showcased the kind of witty and masterful writing for which he has become known. He is first and foremost a poet.

Even before graduating, Fenton won the Newdigate Prize for best poem by an Oxford undergraduate, and later won an Eric Gregory Award when he published his first full poetry collection, Terminal Moraine, in 1972. Since then, Fenton has gone on to become, as the Observer put it, “the most talented poet of his generation”.

The following article exemplifies the kind of wit and flair with which Fenton writes about every kind of topic. Mentmore Towers is a stately home in Buckinghamshire, named for the village in which it sits. Fenton writes about the controversy surrounding the sale of the house’s contents after the death of the Sixth Earl of Roseberry in 1973. The Labour government refused to accept the contents of the house and after three years of discussion, the executers of the estate decided to sell it all by public auction. Fenton laments their lack of clarity.

Introduction by Sarah Howell.

Final View: Mentmore

I went last week to a charity open day at Mentmore, an occasion I would not have missed for the world. It was like being in at the kill. It had a splendour and a cruelty, a finality that was horribly fascinating. It was true that every attempt had been made to depersonalise the occasion. In the whole house there was practically no item which indicated that the place had recently been inhabited by human beings. There were no personal effects, no paperbacks or Tauchnitzes, no toothbrushes or letters, no pens except a box of swan quills. There was very little bedding. The feather mattresses had for the most part been burned. There was one rubber hot water bottle hanging on its peg.

And the crowd, for the most part, was searching for precisely such evidences. On the ground floor, in the vast hall, we were respectful and impressed. In the bedrooms we felt more at ease. In the servants' quarters, among the junk furniture, we were completely at home. "Well," said one lady, settling into an arm chair, "if I'd been in charge, I can only say that the place would have been a great deal cleaner." This was just the attitude one expected to find behind the green baize door. We felt immeasurably superior to the Roseberies. Another lady said airily: "I do hate to see beautiful furniture left in the sun, so that the veneer is allowed to crack." In her house, we were supposed to understand, such things would never have happened. Cowed in the presence of superior wealth, we fell back on superior discernment, taste or practicality.

There was not much, we told ourselves, that we would actually, personally, have wanted. Quite frankly, these Boulle armoires were not what we went in for. And yet had the collection been presented not as a series of numbered lots, but as a museum, our reactions would have been quite different. What a superb museum it was. There was a political, a historical character to the collection - it constantly evoked images of blood and the tumbrils. Here was the furniture and the frippery of the ancien régime. Here too were reminders of what had happened to the ancien régime. And here finally were reminders of what had happened to those who overthrew the ancien régime. How appropriate that, among all the ormulu and gilt, one should come across the thin-lipped sneer of Voltaire, Zoffany's painting of the crowd ransacking the wine cellars of the Tuileries palace, and a tiny, grey, menacing Fragonard depicting a tribunal. There was a series of revolutionary portraits, some of them purporting to show the leaders at the height of their power and at the moment of their eclipse — "Couthon au tribunal, Couthon sur la charrette", the pride of the orator, the humiliation of the tumbril.

No doubt the owners of Mentmore gained great satisfaction from contemplating such contrasts. But for us there was little satisfaction in observing the disintegration of a collection we could have owned. Mentmore was a museum. What can it possibly become when stripped of its collection? No more than an imposing folly. The philistinism of Peter Shore and the spinelessness of Shirley Williams have combined to throw away what could have been so easily preserved. Such thoughtless destruction makes one shudder. To save Mentmore was a mere matter of good book-keeping. To replace it will be impossible. Why does the Government think that by adding vandalism to its other vices it will repair its popularity? Are they hoping to appeal to the punk element in the electorate?

The 7th Earl of Rosebery at the Mentmore auction. Photo: Getty Images.

James Fenton is a poet, journalist and literary critic who wrote regularly for the New Statesman in the 70s and 80s.

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The biggest bastard in pop: how Allen Klein changed the game for music revenue

Fred Goodman's new biography shows the man who made the Rolling Stones and wrenched open the door for today's superstars.

A reputation for toughness goes a long way in the music business. Allen Klein’s Christmas card came with the inscription: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, ’cause I’m the biggest bastard in the valley.” Seven years after his death at the age of 77 and fifty since he came to prominence as the business manager of first the Stones and then the Beatles, his reputation reverberates. Even the Stones’ first manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, who sold his stake in the band to Klein in the late Sixties when he thought they were past their peak, still refers to him as “Allen Crime”, and Oldham was on good enough terms to turn up to Klein’s memorial service in 2009.

Fred Goodman’s biography was written with the co-operation but not the approval of Klein’s family and his company ABKCO. Although the book neither glosses over his run-ins with the law – one of which led to Klein spending two months inside in 1979 for failing to report income from selling promotional records – nor averts its eyes from the many cases where his sleight of hand was a bit too sleight for the artists he was supposed to be representing, it also recognises the services he performed for them, which were significant.

Klein didn’t know anything about music but as a bookkeeper he was familiar with the smell of cooking. He had the forensic skills to detect where record companies were short-changing their detail-dyslexic artists; he supplemented these skills with the kind of heavy manners that made firms’ lives uncomfortable unless they paid up. For Klein, a contract was merely a starting point, a royalty statement just an opening offer. He drilled down to the detail, demanding sight of invoices, delivery notes, lists of breakages, all the little tricks that the companies used to chisel performers out of pieces of their already small slice of the pie.

One of his early clients was Sam Cooke, for whom he won a very lucrative record deal. Less than a year later, in 1964, Cooke was dead and Klein was unexpectedly in control of copyright in the likes of “Twistin’ the Night Away” and “Wonderful World”, which ultimately proved a licence to print money. When Klein saw a rough cut of the Harrison Ford movie Witness in 1984 and realised the barn dance sequence would have to be reshot if the producers couldn’t get “Wonderful World”, he demanded and got $200,000 for the use of that one song, thereby triggering the sync-rights gold rush that rages to this day. He was, as Goodman puts it, “the first hardball player in a slow-pitch league”.

Hired by the Rolling Stones in the mid-Sixties, he secured sums for them which the more successful Beatles, managed by the painfully naive Brian Epstein, could only dream about. Because this was the era of 90 per cent taxation on royalty income in the UK, he invested the Stones’ money in US companies so that they could reduce their tax liability by drawing income over a longer period of time.

The bands did not fully grasp that these companies were in fact controlled by Klein, an oversight they rued for the next fifty years. “Don’t take 20 per cent of an artist’s income,” he told an associate. “Give them 80 per cent of yours.”

The Stones ceased to be represented by Klein in 1970 but ABKCO controls their Sixties material to this day. This has turned out to be the bit worth having. When the Verve made the mistake of sampling a violin part from an orchestral cover of a Stones song on their 1997 hit “Bitter Sweet Symphony”, they had to settle with Klein. The deal was that the band’s frontman and songwriter, Richard Ashcroft, sign over all his rights in the song for a mere thousand dollars. ABKCO took the rest of the revenue away. “I was very bad today,” Klein said blushingly to a friend, after the deed was done.

Klein represented only three of the four Beatles. This was the great sadness of his career. It was Paul McCartney’s refusal to have any truck with him that made the band’s split so bitter. When Klein took over, after Epstein’s death, he couldn’t believe how little money they had made. He’d hoped they would remain together. “He had a contract to manage the affairs of the Beatles. Unfortunately, there were no longer any Beatles to manage,” Goodman writes. Nonetheless they prospered as solo artists and in 1971 George Harrison’s single “My Sweet Lord” became a worldwide hit. After a court decided that the song had been plagiarised from an old Chiffons tune, “He’s So Fine”, Harrison had to pay damages in the region of $2m to the publisher, Bright Tunes. Where there’s a hit, there’s a writ, as people in the business never tire of saying. But the Harrison case had a further twist. By the time of this settlement, in 1981, the three Beatles had ditched their manager and Bright Tunes had a new owner: Allen Klein, always more far-sighted than the acts he managed.

Klein went to school in Newark, New Jersey, with Philip Roth – and through Goodman’s book you can imagine him as a character in one of Roth’s novels, returning to its mean streets in limos with his illustrious clients, still driven by having been rejected by his father as a boy, winning in business by dint of an extraordinary capacity for hard work, prevailing on the tennis court simply by refusing to be beaten, and delighting in walking out of the most expensive restaurants without paying. (His driver would come in to settle the bill.)

Goodman has worked this ground before, in his book The Mansion on the Hill, which describes how the ragged-trousered troubadours of folk rock became rich beyond dreams of avarice during the CD boom. Unlike most people who write about the music business, he is not naive when it comes to the numbers. It’s difficult to know who are the winners and the losers in music. Artists are either poorer than you’d think, or richer than you could possibly imagine. Klein may not quite have shaped rock’n’roll as the book’s subtitle boasts, but he raised the expectations of the tiny handful of performers lucky enough to get to the very top. Every time a star uses a moment in the sun to move on to a better deal than anybody else – from Sam Cooke to Taylor Swift, it’s all the same – they get there through a door first wrenched open by Klein, the biggest bastard in the valley.

David Hepworth’s “1971: Never a Dull Moment” will be published in April by Bantam Press

Allen Klein: the Man Who Bailed Out the Beatles, Made the Stones, and Transformed Rock and Roll by Fred Goodman is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (302pp, $27)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war