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Will Self: Slurping bubble tea is like performing a sex act on an android

Will Self’s Real Meals. 

You’ll find it a little weird to begin with,” said the man in the bubble tea kiosk, “but you’ll soon get used to it.” This turned out to be a grotesque understatement, coupled with a patent untruth, the instant my first slurp of bubble tea shot up the special wide-bore straw and filled my mouth with globules. The kiosk man had already told me these were made out of tapioca flour, which was just as well, because without this pappy foreknowledge I would have spat them straight out. Drinking bubble tea didn’t feel “a little weird”. It felt as I’d imagine performing cunnilingus on an android equipped with latex genitals might feel like: the tiny clitorises slipped between my lips and oozed between the gaps in my teeth while my tongue swam in sweetly mucosal gloop.

I’ve been seeing these bubble tea joints opening up around London over the past couple of years – then I spotted one in Manchester. I daresay Little Muckling-in-the-Marsh will have an outlet before long and Nigel Farage will stop by when he’s campaigning in next year’s election and make a rousing speech saying that bubble tea entrepreneurs have nothing to fear from a Ukip government. If only they did.

Actually, bubble tea and Farage have several things in common. They’re both strange mutations of quintessentially English institutions; respectively, a nice cup of tea and a saloon bar bore. Yes, yes, I know that bubble tea originates in Taiwan, that “bubble” is derived from boba, which means “large” in Chinese, but the fact of the matter is that my gloop of non-dairy creamer, Assam tea and sugar did taste like a particularly sickly cup of tea, although admittedly one full of latex clitorises. As for Farage, do you really need me to elaborate?

The bubble tea kiosk also offered a range of other beverages made with things such as coconut water and açaí berries; indeed, the whole phenomenon seems part and parcel of a general thirst for macerated and churned-up beverages – slushies, slurpies and slurries (all right, I made the last one up) – that has afflicted our nation. The bubble tea shops are usually brightly coloured, their windows tangled with coils of plastic tubing through which garish fluids pulse; the overall impression is of an alternative future imagined circa 1985, which makes sense because bubble tea did indeed originate during that decade of inspired innovation, Duran Duran and pie-crust collar blouses. Really, then, bubble tea isn’t a steaming drink but a steam punk one.

I walked towards the station taking gentle pulls on the wide-bore straw but it didn’t matter how gentle they were: up came the beastly boba tapioca balls. I didn’t know what to do with the things – suck, chew or swallow them straight down – and it was this indecisiveness that upset me most of all. The last thing you want from a cup of tea is to pause for thought. Or, rather, let me qualify that: the last thing you want from a cup of tea is to have cause to think about it. A cup of tea should be replete with itself alone, it should be a single and undifferentiated quale of “cup-of-tea-ness” entirely divorced from any of its component parts. When I have a cup of tea, I don’t want to think about tea bags, or milk, or sugar. I just want to sip the thing judiciously and ponder why it is that perfectly decent English people can imagine for one second that it would be a good idea to elect a man who looks like a large, shiny ball of tapioca flour (or possibly a large, shiny clitoris) to parliament.

This brings me, logically enough, to the vexed issue of the tea bag being left in. You know what I’m talking about: back in the day, if you bought a cup of tea to take away, the bag was put in first, the boiling water was poured on to it, the bag was removed after a while and milk and sugar was then added to taste (“’Ow many sugars, love?”). Some time in that innovative decade, or possibly during the still more creative one that followed, this sacred order of things was irrevocably altered. Writing The Zürau Aphorisms, Kafka foreshadowed this development, as he did other great disasters for humankind: “Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers . . . Finally it can be calculated in advance and it becomes part of the ceremony.”

The new tea-making ceremony involves the bag going in first, followed by the milk; next the hot water is added; then the server offers you the choice that’s no real choice at all: “Shall I leave the bag in, love?” At this point, his world torn to shreds before his very eyes, the tea drinker splutters: “B-but you put the m-milk in first. Don’t you appreciate that tea is an infusion and it’s necessary for the water to be just off the boil when it meets the leaves? If you put the milk in first, it lowers the temperature so the tea can never brew properly. It doesn’t matter if you leave the bag in after that. It won’t make any appreciable difference!” Whereupon the server, being of the Cockney persuasion, says, “You ’aving a bubble, mate?” 

Next week: Madness of Crowds

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

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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