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Invisible subjects: the men who fuel the demand for prostitution

If prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, then punting is the oldest consumer activity. Yet it remains broadly unexamined, perhaps because the questions it raises are too uncomfortable.

In the UK, policing of prostitution targets sex workers far more often than punters. Photo: Christopher Churchill/Gallery Stock

 

It is 1am on a late summer’s night in Tower Hamlets in east London, and the Metropolitan Police vice squad is out on patrol. Police CCTV operators have alerted the team that a street walker has climbed into a man’s car. He had paid her but is stopped before any sexual acts can occur. The woman’s name is Jessica. She is 36. Her right eye socket is heavily bruised. Swigging vodka from an old plastic bottle, she tells me that she is a crack and heroin addict and has been a prostitute since running away from her children’s home in Paddington at the age of 12. “I’ve had every bad experience you can think of – gun to my head, raped, stabbed twice,” she says.

The would-be punter is in his late thirties. He is tanned and wears a peach polo shirt, blue shorts, white Havaianas flip-flops and a wedding ring. Sitting on the bonnet of his smart estate car, he is close to tears. “I’ve had the worst three weeks of my life and this was just a mistake, the cherry on the cake.” This married, middle-class man, who has taken to the streets in the twilight hours to pay for sex with a visibly ill woman, may or may not be a typical buyer of sex. As Jessica explains, there is no one type of man. “Society seems to think that: they’ve got this perception that all punters are dirty old men in raincoats. They ain’t, they’re from all walks of life. Black, white, thin, fat, young, old – all types.” She twirls her chestnut hair around a long, petrol-blue false fingernail. “Maybe they’ve had a bad relationship, or they’re going through a bad patch in their marriage, or they just get a full-on hit: it’s dangerous, there’s the thrill of getting caught.”

If prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, then punting is the oldest consumer activity. Yet it remains broadly unexamined, perhaps because the questions it raises – about male desire and power, about society – are too uncomfortable.

Instead, organisations that monitor prostitution, from the police to NGOs and feminist lobby groups, usually focus on the sex workers, whose situation is more easily categorisable. One view is that prostitutes are victims who need help to get off the streets. Others argue that many sex workers are empowered individuals exercising their autonomy and that they simply need greater legal rights. But to consider prostitution only from the perspective of the sex worker is to obscure the economic and social power dynamics that govern the prostitute’s position. Where demand exists, supply will emerge – and it is a fact that men’s demand for sex fuels prostitution. (There are, of course, male and transsexual prostitutes and also women who buy sex, but as they are in the minority and present a different range of problems, male punters are the focus of this article.) The motivations behind paying for sex are varied and various; the punting community is a wide one, as is that of the estimated 100,000 sex workers in the UK – most of whom work indoors rather than on the streets.

Who are the men who pay for sex with women in Britain? Research is thin. Eaves, a charity that supports women at risk of violence, is one of the few organisations that has conducted a study of punters. Men Who Buy Sex: Who They Buy and What They Know, published in 2009, was based on interviews with 103 men in London who had paid for sex with trafficked and non-trafficked prostitutes. The authors noted: “Many [punters] reported that they were aware of pimping, trafficking and other coercive control over those in massage parlour, brothel and escort prostitution. These men were frequently aware of the vulnerability and risk factors for entry into prostitution including childhood abuse, lack of alternative job choices, coercive control and homelessness.”

The demographics of the self-selecting participants – who replied to advertisements for the study – were nearly equally split between three age groups: 18-to-29-year-olds, 30-to-40-year-olds, and 41-to-70-year-olds. Almost half the participants were white, 20 per cent were Asian, 11 per cent were black, and the rest were of other ethnicities. Most were in a relationship; the report did not distinguish between short-term and long-term relationships, but this finding nonetheless supports other research showing that a man seldom decides to buy sex just because he lacks a partner.

As the marketing of the commercial sex industry has moved from classified adverts in the back of newspapers to online forums, it has become possible to garner a clearer view of punters’ attitudes. A wide range of these can be inferred from PunterNet, the “premier online community for Patrons and Providers of Adult Personal Services in the UK”. The web metrics site alexa.com profiles the most frequent PunterNet users as being men aged between 35 and 44, who are educated to graduate level and are more likely to have children than the average internet user. The posts on the PunterNet site range from obscenely violent and misogynistic descriptions of experiences with prostitutes to mundane notes on the easy availability of off-road parking.

In 2011 Jon Millward, a self-described “ideas detective” who analyses information relating to prostitution and pornography, data-crunched 5,000 reviews posted on PunterNet. He found that “nice”, “lovely” and “lady” were among the top five words the punters used to describe prostitutes; “breasts” was the only overtly sexual word in the top ten. Location was commonly discussed, with “clean” and “safe” among the most popular review terms. The banality of some of the most commonly recurring words cannot obscure the brutal behaviour frequently described by punters on the site.

A blog called the Invisible Men Project was set up last year to record some of the most extreme reviews from PunterNet, further illuminating the behaviour of the “invisible subjects of the sex industry”, as Eaves describes them. Most of the comments posted on the site are too lewd and disturbing to reproduce here, but the scornful tone is well captured by this contribution: “Yes she will endure hard penetration. I say endure because she does not engage with you on any level, to her it is just a matter of going through the motions . . . I was not successful in trying to animate her beyond her cold mechanical stupor.”

Millward wrote: “I don’t think punters are lacking the emotional circuitry necessary for experiencing genuine love and affection. They have just decided to bypass the usual steps men must take to go from not knowing a woman to having sex with her.” While the posts betray the dehumanising view many punters take of the women they pay for sex, 71 per cent of the men in the Eaves study admitted experiencing some degree of guilt or negative feelings about paying for sex. Almost 80 per cent viewed their use of women involved in prostitution to be an addiction – that is, uncontrollable behaviour. But over half thought that prostitution decreases the incidence of rape, because prospective rapists can be satisfied by paying for sex. Looking for further insights into punting, I contacted several men through PunterNet about their personal prostitution habits: their motivation for participating in the British sex industry, and their views on the ethics and legality of it. From these conversations, a gamut of opinions emerged – from shame, through wilful blindness, to defiance – but few agreed with one common interpretation of prostitution: as a form of commercial sexual exploitation and violence against women.

Keith, a regular contributor to PunterNet, replies to my request for an interview with an alacrity that hints at the regularity with which he views the site. He is a retired professional in his late sixties. Reflective but unapologetic about buying sex, he says over the phone: “This sounds dreadful, but I suppose I like the variety. The excitement, too.” He refuses to countenance ethical issues around paying to have sex with women, justifying his actions by saying that he only visits brothels, rather than engaging in outdoor prostitution with street walkers. “I’ve never felt sorry for working girls, because I’ve never been with one who shows she’s in a bad state. I’ve never been with a girl who looks really ill, coughing. A street walker wouldn’t appeal to me at all.

“I want to feel I’m giving pleasure to the woman. That wouldn’t be the case with a girl on the street, someone who had been trafficked or had a heavy drug dependency.”

Keith, who lives in Manchester, has a wife and grown-up children. He defends cash for sex as “a positive for my marriage” – his once “adventurous” sex life with his wife faded after she had their first child and now he views prostitutes as an acceptable stand-in. “It means I’m not forever pestering my wife and feeling resentful about her not giving me sex . . .” He adds quietly: “She makes me feel like a pervert for asking.”

He can remember the exact date he last had sex with his wife; it was over a year ago. Using sports sessions and outings with friends as false alibis, he has attempted to keep his trips to the brothel a secret from her, although he is “paranoid” that she has suspicions. It is his “greatest fear”, he says, that she would find out for certain.

Like some other punters I contacted, Keith believes that men have both a biological imperative and a right to have sex. If a man is not getting it from his wife or girlfriend, or from casual hook-ups, it is “natural” that he should desire, and be able to pay for, sex. “I try to limit myself to once every two weeks and not spend more than £80 a go,” he says. Sanguine on the subject of punters in general, he adds: “I don’t go [to a brothel] in a local part of the city, so I’m quite happy chatting to the other men in the reception area. But we wouldn’t sit there talking about which girls we see.

“Most men have regulars, but occasionally see someone new for that bit of variety. I saw one girl for about a dozen visits. Most men advise against that because you can get obsessed. I was obsessed, in love, with this lady. I’m more sensible about it now.”

Another man I contact through PunterNet, Jim, points out that some men have difficulty finding a sexual partner. Now in his mid-thirties and working in law, he recalls, with a stammer, that he was 29 years old and desperate to lose his virginity when he first sought the services of a prostitute.

“I was very nervous the first time. It didn’t go very well because she clearly wasn’t into it, but I was so excited that that went over my head at the time,” he says. Without the easy confidence to walk into a bar or nightclub and try his luck, he justifies paying for sex and has developed a routine. He travels an hour away to visit the same working girl once every three weeks, paying £300 for a two-hour session. “She is very attractive, so I know what I’m getting, and she’s also very enthusiastic. I feel very nervous meeting a new working girl.”

The woman he visits is British, the mother of a one-year-old, and although her online profile says she is 25, she has told Jim that she is 30. He has paid her for sex for more than two years.

Despite working in the legal profession, Jim says he has no opinions on the legality of prostitution and will not be drawn on the merits and drawbacks of various legal models across the globe. He has observed, however, that in the flat his “regular” shares with other sex workers, “only one of them uses it at a time, in order to try and stay within the law”. In English law, any property used by more than one prostitute at a time counts as a brothel, which is illegal. He says they talk openly when he visits, but the “sex is the be all and end all for me”.

“I do feel guilty about doing it,” he says hesitantly. “I just feel it’s bad emotionally for women. She doesn’t seem depressed, but I don’t know. Maybe that’s an act. I sometimes think, though, it’s just one more person at the end of the day, and I do treat escorts better than a lot of other customers do.”

Right to desire: the International Union of Sex Workers joins a May Day march in Soho, London

The prevailing view of the punters I contacted for this article was that, in one way or another, a man always “pays” for sex. Many viewed marriage and relationships as intrinsically economic relationships, in which the man provided financial security in return for sex, among other rewards. Some justified their use of prostitutes as merely an equivalent transaction. One man notes: “The question shouldn’t be, ‘Why pay for sex?’ It should be: ‘Why not pay for sex?’ We pay for lots of things in life. Sex is just another commodity.”

Many prostitutes who view themselves as empowered rather than exploited might agree that sex work is a simple financial transaction for services rendered and assert their right to sell it. In her 1997 essay “Inventing Sex Work”, the prostitutes’ rights activist Carol Leigh argued from her own experience that it could be both interesting and good fun. She wrote: “Sex in my personal life became very exciting. Sex with clients annoyed me sometimes and interested me other times.”

Several of the men with whom I spoke reflected the view that the financial transaction was beneficial to women as well as to men. Some went further and appeared to endorse the old myth that prostituted women somehow manipulate men, with their “biological” or “intrinsic” need and desire for sex, for financial gain.

Some women view the work of a prostitute as no different from other forms of exploitation entailed by a rapacious capitalist system, which they claim is itself inherently demeaning. In her book The Sex Myth, Brooke Magnanti (who blogged as Belle de Jour about selling sex) argues that sex work is no different from, say, deep-sea fishing in the Atlantic; both are physically dangerous, high-risk jobs. So why, the argument goes, view prostitution as a special case?

Certainly many punters offer justifications akin to that of a sweatshop boss: they hold the economic and social power, and they believe the exploitation of that power – using it over another person – is legitimate. If a woman is poor and “wants” to sell her body, they see nothing wrong with purchasing it for sex. As one punter says: “Some of them on PunterNet talk about women like they’re a commodity, that’s true. I don’t think it makes any difference as long as you treat the lady well. At the end of the day, it is a business.”

In August the Economist, usually better known for its sobriety rather than salacious­ness, splashed “The sex business” on its cover. The magazine examined the ways in which technology is “liberating” the cash-for-sex industry and it noted, “For many, both male and female, sex work is just that: work.” It argued further that prostitution looks “more and more like a normal service industry”. Decrying the ban on the sale and purchase of sex as “illiberal”, the Economist called for the legalisation of prostitution.

A society must determine its moral stance on selling and buying sex and whether it respects the rights of those sex workers who exhibit choice rather than coercion, and agency rather than victimhood, to sell it. The crucial question is this: is the commoditisation of sex merely the logical – and permissible – conclusion of capitalism; or is there something special about sex and related acts which gives us a duty to hold them above the bounds of financial transactions?

Obtaining sex by purchasing it is easy, convenient and relatively cheap (some prostitutes in London charge as little as £15, according to a 2008 report by the Poppy Project, the advocacy and support group for trafficked women; this was corroborated by Jessica, the sex worker I met in Tower Hamlets). But beyond that, there appears to be an intrinsic value to paid-for sex for some men, who are sexually aroused by the danger, thrill and power dynamics of an encounter with a prostitute.

This is especially true of men who engage with outdoor prostitution. Out on the night patrol with the vice unit in Tower Hamlets, Sergeant David Deal says: “You can’t imagine how unwell some of these women are and you can’t understand how men still take advantage of them . . . I think they like risky sex. Doing it in a car. Quickly.” He describes the wide range of punters his team frequently sees. “Blokes in suits, scumbags, rough sleepers. Most are 50 or over.”

PC James Coxshall adds: “The majority are white.” He also debunks the myth that prostitution is most common around midnight. Most brothels close by 10pm, and outdoor prostitution is common in the morning. “At 5am, when it begins to get a bit clearer, the cars begin to circle and circle. Many men use prostitutes on their way to work,” he says.

Patrolling in an unmarked police car, we stop a man in a silver Transit van after CCTV records him picking up Amanda, a 49-year-old street walker known to the vice team. Paul is 60, a slightly built south Asian Brit with sad, rheumy brown eyes, close-cropped grey hair and a beard. “I don’t have sex with her ever,” he tells me, motioning towards Amanda and acknowledging that he knows her well. “I picked her up because I just wanted to talk.” They also shared a wrap of cocaine, payment in kind for Amanda’s time. Paul admits that he pays to have sex with another street walker. “I wouldn’t know how to describe that relationship. She’s a liar and a thief, a very difficult person to be associated with . . .

“One of the things I get out of these women is just kind of a weird friendship. But these women are really disturbed socially. It’s quite a difficult thing. I don’t know why I choose to associate with her; I suppose it’s just habit. She’s attractive sexually.”

Exchanging money for sex is not illegal in the UK, although many activities associated with it are. Causing or inciting prostitution and controlling it for personal gain are offences. Kerb-crawling is technically illegal, but it must be shown that the individual was causing persistent annoyance. This month, MPs debated an amendment to the Modern Slavery Bill that would have criminalised “the buying of sex acts”. The proposed law linked prostitution to slavery and was designed to “discourage demand” for trafficked people. But the amendment, which was brought forward by the Labour MP Fiona Mactaggart and gained cross-party support, was dropped following uproar from pressure groups. Women Against Rape and the Royal College of Nursing, among other organisations, argued that banning punters would drive prostitution underground and force sex workers to move to more dangerous, remote premises. Some women’s rights groups supported the proposed change in the law, however, including Women’s Aid and the End Violence Against Women coalition, and it is unlikely to be long until proposals to implement the so-called Nordic system, which bans the purchase rather than sale of sex, resurface.

The model was first implemented in Sweden in 1999. According to a study by the Swedish Institute, a state information agency that promotes Sweden abroad, the statistics for sex buyers decreased from 13.6 per cent of the active adult male population in 1996 to 7.9 per cent in 2008, suggesting it was an effective deterrent. The ban on paying for sex reportedly made it harder for customers to seek out prostitutes openly.

Norway and Iceland implemented the model in 2009, France made the first moves to copy it in 2013 and the Northern Ireland Assembly voted in favour of it last month. Yet critics argue that the Nordic system requires excessive police investigation time to secure arrests and, worse, can increase the danger to prostitutes, as punters are more likely to conceal their identity from them. Others claim that the Nordic model is inappropriate in the UK, which has a far larger vice problem than Sweden and Norway.

In Sweden the National Police Board estimated in 2009 that there were 1,000 sex workers, down from about 2,500 before the Nordic model was implemented. In Norway, which has a population of five million, there were about 2,200 sex workers in 2010, according to Pro Sentret, a Norwegian government-funded organisation that collates information about prostitution. By contrast, the Home Office put the number of women working in on-street prostitution in the UK at 80,000 in 2004, based on an earlier Europap-UK survey. NGOs estimate that today there are between 60,000 and 100,000 sex workers in Britain. Recent studies show that 80 per cent of sex workers are female, while 15 per cent identify as male and 5 per cent as transsexual. Alex Feis-Bryce, director of services at the UK Network of Sex Work Projects, says: “The reason figures are so difficult to predict is that much of sex work takes place underground due to legislation and the numbers of sex workers in the trade are fluid. Some may have one or two clients a week or month, while for others it may be full-time work.” Feis-Bryce explains that the indoor sex work sector is “far larger” than that on the street. “Escorts, who work independently, make up the largest proportion of off-street sex work.”

Proponents of the Nordic model point out that whatever the challenges to implementation, criminalising punters, rather than prostituted women, sends a strong message. The human rights group Equality Now argues: “The commercial sex industry perpetuates the notion that the purchase of women and girls’ bodies is acceptable so long as a buyer can pay for it. The Nordic model challenges this construct and tries to redress these inequalities by promoting women’s and girls’ right to safety, health and non-discrimination, and by challenging men’s perceived – but non-existent – ‘right’ to buy women’s bodies for sex.” As Jessica’s story illustrates, sex workers in the UK often discover they can expect few rights to safety, especially on the street. Talking about the physical harm, fear and threats to her life in 24 years of prostitution, she said: “It’s just part of the job, unfortunately; there are some horrible men out there.” 

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

Ason Mceachern
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He gave a total stranger $50,000 in cash: the strange, multi-million dollar empire of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Kate Mossman meets the man behind one of the world’s wealthiest rock bands.

He calls it “whacking”. It began near his property on 12th Street, Manhattan. He’d get his driver to circle Union Square while he identified a suitable beggar; then he’d jump out, shove a hundred-dollar bill into their hand, jump back in and drive off. Soon, he realised that many of the people he was giving to were schizophrenic and he was scaring them out of their wits. So he started passing the money to his daughter because, he reasoned, they were more likely to accept it from a three-year-old girl. He gradually increased the amount he gave – from a hundred to ten, twenty, fifty thousand dollars in a roll of notes. Paul O’Neill and his daughter would drive around the square and she’d say: “Let’s whack ’em, Dad, let’s whack ’em hard.”

****

One of the biggest bands on the planet ­remains unknown to much of the world. Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO) have spent much of the past decade on Billboard’s annual list of top music moneymakers; they now play to a million people a year and have grossed over $500m in concert revenues since they were founded 20 years ago. In 2014 they made almost $52m in 52 days. They tour for seven weeks only, from November to January. To maximise profits, they split into two halves – one band for the west coast of America and the other for the east – and play matinees as well as evening shows.

Their genre? Heavy metal Christmas music. TSO are a glittering chorus line of rock chicks and axe heroes in black tie and tails, suspended on wires or balancing high above the stage on hydraulic platforms playing rock’n’roll mash-ups of “Deck the Halls” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”. There are 18 people on stage, 240 staff and 40 trucks to transport them. The show, which looks like Pink Floyd-meets-Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, employs 18 lasers and 750 pyrotechnics. The band travels with two trailers of generators: they once blew out the electricity grid in Jackson, Mississippi.

TSO’s creator, O’Neill, divides his time between New York City and Florida, where the band began. I speak to someone at a UK rock magazine who once had a phone call with him. “Just don’t get him on to Chur­chill,” he says.

The Morrisound Recording studio in north Tampa was once the nerve centre of Florida’s legendary metal scene, playing host to many of the genre’s nastiest acts, including Sepultura, Cannibal Corpse and Napalm Death. Like most luxury recording spaces, it hit hard times in the past decade; then, in 2015, TSO bought it and turned it into their headquarters, Night Castle. It lies behind high gates and is staffed by polite young engineers with russet beards. Visitors are met with a large food centre stocked with six different kinds of mineral water and a pine-fresh smell not typical of the recording studios of the past.

O’Neill has taken on a slightly mythical status within TSO. The official photographer tells me that you rarely see him because he is “so protected”. When in Tampa, he is accompanied by a 6ft 4in driver-cum-security guard with the physique of a wrestler, whose name is Tracey.

O’Neill emerges grinning from a darkened doorway. He has the little, anthropoid legs of Jeff Beck or Mick Jagger (finished off with heavy biker boots) and the sprung stoop of one who has great nervous energy – a coiled way of moving along, like someone who is ready to help but equally ready to flee.

He sits down, throws one knee over the other and gestures at a large analogue mixing desk, saying, “You don’t see too many of these any more,” in the quick voice of a native New Yorker.

He was born in Flushing, Queens in 1956, one of ten children of second-generation Irish immigrants. His father, who had fought in France, worked for a telecoms company; he put himself through night school and qualified as a history teacher. O’Neill’s siblings are high achievers. He was “always the dumb one”. At seven, he still couldn’t read, so his mother kept him in the house for the summer and “forced phonics down my throat” until he could.

As an adolescent in the early 1970s, he performed at Manhattan folk clubs, though he is not nostalgic about it. He played guitar in productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair – “Well, illegal touring versions,” he qualifies. “Everyone was doing it at the time.” He entered Jimi Hendrix’s ­Electric Lady Studios at 52 West Eighth Street to produce a progressive rock band called Slowburn but failed to translate the baroque melodies in his head into playable music, so he gave up and went to work for the infamous management duo Leber and Krebs, who broke Aerosmith and AC/DC. These were tough times – Sharon Osbourne’s father, the manager Don Arden, would assert his power over rivals and clients by hanging them out of windows. O’Neill worked for Aerosmith as a tour manager and “settler” – meaning, he explains, that he would carry a fee of up to $50,000 in cash in a briefcase that, for security reasons, was handcuffed to his arm.

He has the disconnected synapses suggestive of years of hard living and his soft voice flits between business, American sentimentality and early-20th-century warlords at alarming speed.

“I’ll tell you why Aerosmith don’t play the UK,” he says. “They can’t stand the plumbing. They can’t believe you don’t have the mixer taps. You know Churchill was a fan of American plumbing, too?”

His long chin gives his face a perpetual expression of mischief. When he is not wearing his sunglasses, he keeps his pale, grey eyes shut. He says things like, “The one rule of work is: don’t do anyone any favours, because then they’ve got nothing on you.”

In the mid-1980s he was booked to produce a band called Heaven but was ejected halfway through a project that could have been huge – a heavy metal version of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, five years before Guns N’ Roses did theirs. He’d also wanted to try out something else with the band – a mash-up of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “Carol of the Bells”, played on electric guitars.

Joan Jett to Jefferson: O’Neill with his treasure collection (large “Mr Livy” on the left)

It wasn’t your average business proposal: “six rock operas, a trilogy about Christmas and one or two regular albums”. O’Neill put it to the Atlantic Records mogul ­Ahmet Ertegun in the mid-1990s and claims to have been written a blank cheque. “Christmas is the holy grail,” he tells me. “Dickens wrote five books about Christmas. So I said, ‘Then it’s too big for one album, too.’”

On TSO’s first Christmas album, Christmas Eve and Other Stories, a young man wanders into a bar and learns the magic of Christmas from a mysterious old man; it has sold 3.4 million copies. Then there’s The Christmas Attic, in which a child explores an attic on Christmas Eve; The Lost Christmas Eve; and the DVD The Ghosts of Christmas Eve. Sleeve notes include short stories written by O’Neill. A few years ago, he even produced a 50-page novella called Merry Christmas Rabbi, which featured Nazis. Atlantic wouldn’t let him turn it into an album “because they were too freaked by it. Now it’s on Amazon for, like, a buck 99.”

His plan was to create a modern-day Nutcracker, something whole families would come to see, year after year. 
“I think we were in the right place at the right time,” he says. “Even Grandma has been to Woodstock. It made it a lot easier for us to jump the generational wall. That’s what I wanted to do with the Beethoven and Mozart, too. People treat the symphonies like they’re museum pieces but I think they scream out for electric guitars. The record industry acts as if people only like one kind of music. In truth, they like variation. Which is why we have hamburgers and chicken nuggets.”

Symphonic rock was not a new idea. Emerson, Lake and Palmer threw Bach, Mussorgsky and Grieg into their prog concoctions forty years ago. “I worship Greg Lake,” O’Neill says. “Greg is the Obi-Wan Kenobi – he is the Socrates of prog rock.” Both Lake and Jon Anderson of Yes have joined TSO on stage, as have the Who’s Roger Daltrey and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler.

I call Lake at his home in Guildford to find out what it was like. His version of the band’s inception is different from O’Neill’s. “They are the most peculiar operation,” he says. He is 68 and sounds a bit like Ray Winstone. “I heard they came up with the idea of doing a prog-rock Christmas show and took it to the promoters, who told them it was a dumb idea. They have a friend in Cleveland, a small-time promoter, and they basically bullied him into doing it. And they got away with it. The more I talk to them, the more I realise that they don’t really understand what the phenomenon is. On paper, it looks like a bad idea. A prog-rock Christmas show? Stop it. But it’s like a cult.”

Backstage at Long Island, before the TSO show, Lake’s new iPhone disappeared from his dressing room. He told a security guard, and ten minutes later the device turned up next to the urinals. O’Neill had gathered the entire crew and told them no one would receive their Christmas bonus if the phone was not surrendered. “That’s Paul for you,” Lake says. “He is like the Mafia.”

Back at the studio, O’Neill plays me a YouTube clip of one of his west coast singers, John Brink, doing a TSO showstopper called “Back to Reason”, a ballad about a father searching for his son. By the end of the song, Brink is crying.

I ask where he sourced the tenor.

“Les Mis!” he says brightly. “I always go to Broadway shows to steal!”

Though TSO might sound like a racket, they could be making even more money. Tickets are capped at about $75. “There is enough money for everybody,” O’Neill says. “You don’t have to gouge every last penny out of people.” With a $20m production, they have to sell out every night. When he started out, he could see Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden for $7.50, he says. “And here’s the sad thing – nowadays, the first 20 rows are empty because the only people who can afford them are corporations, and they’re in the bar the whole time, making business deals.”

He says that Florida was destined to be the birthplace of his group because it is the home of both heavy metal and Disney World. “I worship Walt Disney,” he says. “He decided he was going to build an amusement park so clean that if you lost your three-year-old, you wouldn’t worry. And you would just pay one price and all the rides were free. TSO is an ideal, too – charge the fans the lowest price and make them feel emotions they have never felt before.

“Aaaaanyway,” he says, spinning on his chair, “time for more swag. It’s all about the swag.”

He heaves the four-disc vinyl version of TSO’s 2009 concept album, Night Castle, on to his lap. While Yes had their in-house artist, Roger Dean, TSO have Greg Hildebrandt. “He did the most iconic painting of the 20th century,” O’Neill explains – “the original Star Wars poster.”

He opens a glossy tour programme. “I said to Greg, ‘I want multiple pictures of Beethoven.’ And then I said, ‘I need you to Churchill him up a bit.’” He shows me a sorrowful, white-haired Beethoven, thickset like a Disney character and bulldog-ish around the jaws, crouching over the body of a fallen woman. His index finger flies over the images. “Here’s the condemned banker who cooked the books. Here’s the carousel from Coney Island, all broken. And here’s my daughter, Ireland, on her unicorn. And here’s the castle – I’m gonna to build that, one of these days.” I ask him whether the fans know what all these symbols mean.

“That is one of the things we need to do,” he says. “I need to explain this to the fans!”

****

Cut to a café in Tufnell Park, north London, on a cold February day. Anna Phoebe lives nearby with her children and husband, the BBC presenter Gavin Esler. She studied social policy and government at the London School of Economics. She was also a member of TSO for six years, from 2004 to 2010, eventually becoming the lead violinist.

Phoebe had played violin at university. On graduating, she went to New York for an audition where a woman in dark glasses said, “There’s someone I want you to meet.” She was 22 years old when she joined TSO and suddenly found herself performing to 20,000 people a day, executing knee slides while cranking out rock versions of “Ode to Joy”. “You’re playing the same size stages as Springsteen or Bon Jovi and you’re paid as a rock star, too,” she says.

The fee for the three-month TSO ­season covered her living costs for the rest of the year; it bought her a flat in Berlin and ­financed two solo albums. “We’d be given $5,000-worth of Bloomingdale’s vouchers at the start of every tour. Paul would say, ‘If you’re gonna be a rock star, kitten, you’ve gotta look like a rock star.’”

She explains that part of the business model was signing merchandise and meeting fans: between 700 and 1,000 people each night, after every show, and double that on matinee days. She mentioned in a blog that she liked banana bread; at a gig soon after, a fan turned up with several slices of the cake strapped to his torso (“I’ve been trying to get this into the venue for, like, three days,” he said). She received other gifts from followers: an ice sculpture carved in her image and CDs of TSO fans reading the Bible.

Middle America is the band’s heartland; they don’t often play college towns. In 2004 an electrical engineer from Mason, Ohio, programmed 16,000 Christmas lights on his house and had them flashing to TSO’s song “Wizards in Winter”; when a video of this was put online, it became an internet sensation. Two years ago, 16 households in Yucaipa, California, synchronised an entire neighbourhood to the song, filming it from above with a flying drone.

“I learned more about America in that signing line than anywhere else,” Phoebe says. “The people we were playing to, they were Sarah Palin voters at the time. The poorer the state, the bigger the audience and the more men in military uniforms. This was the height of the Iraq War. They’re saying, ‘Can you draw a star for my son? He’s 17 years old and he’s passed away in Iraq.’”

She says that O’Neill is “kind of insane, smart, extremely kind – and in a very privileged position to be like that and be able to follow it through”. There are musical directors, Al Pitrelli and Bob Kinkel, to make his unplayable melodies a reality, and a business manager, Adam Lind, “to take his 20 ideas and home in on the one that is going to make money – or not lose money”.

Once, in the studio garden, she saw what she thought was a crumpled bag of rubbish and realised it was a bundle of hundred-dollar bills that O’Neill had dropped by accident. At Christmas, the whole band would be given money in an envelope and were told to give it away within 24 hours to  a member of the public. “It’s quite an addictive feeling. It makes you feel like Mother Teresa,” Phoebe says.
“He has created a world, and whether he sees an idealised version of himself, or what the world should be, or what the people around him should be, I don’t think anyone really knows exactly what is going on in his head.”

****

When O’Neill and I finish going through Hildebrandt’s artwork, it is dinner time. We move out to the car park, surrounded by staff, and he heads over to a BMW i8, which can go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 4.4 seconds and retails for $150,000. It resembles the Batmobile. Its doors peel upwards and O’Neill, as bendy and black as the machine itself, deposits himself in it, then changes his mind and joins me and Tracey in an armoured SUV.

“Have you got the baby?”
he says.

“Don’t worry, I’ve got the baby,” Tracey says. The baby is a large, black briefcase. It is too full to close and weighs at least 45lb. He tells me it contains the only copy of a forthcoming TSO project, Running in the Passions of the Fairy Tale Moon – the music and the full libretto.

“I still handwrite everything,” he says. “I can barely master email. I learned to text two months ago.”

Our car is overtaken by the Batmobile, driven by one of the young engineers. O’Neill will follow us back in it. “I know how to get home from the studio but not from the restaurant,” he explains. “I’m sorry. You’re thinking, ‘I’ve come to America to interview a retard.’”

We arrive at our destination and he takes the baby from the car. Its huge weight makes him lean to one side, like a thin tree in the wind. We enter a dark, nondescript restaurant in the basement of a hotel. He whispers something to the hostess that ends with: “It’s non-negotiable.” He ­orders a large steak that remains pretty much untouched and asks for an extra salt cellar, which he lines up next to the other one. He does not remove his sunglasses. He listens to everyone else talk and asks me how my bacon cheeseburger is, adding shyly, “I have bacon flavour toothpaste and bacon floss.”

He is less than comfortable. I cannot believe that he fears being recognised when few know what he looks like. I wonder whether the baby causes his anxiety – whether carrying the next multimillion-pound project in his hand at all times sends him back four decades to the briefcase handcuffed to his arm. He hesitates, grinning, then leans over and takes my wrist, plunging it into the left-hand side of his leather jacket and pressing my fingers around the thick, bobbly grip of a Glock semi-automatic pistol.

****

It was summer 1986 in Los Angeles. O’Neill’s friend Ray Gillen was standing in for Glenn Hughes as the lead singer of Black Sabbath, after Hughes had injured his throat in a fistfight. It was early morning and the Rainbow Bar had chucked out, so O’Neill got his Ferrari and the two of them went to the 24-hour Tower Records store on Sunset Strip. They bought a tape of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, which had just opened in London, and drove around until 6am listening to “The Music of the Night”, saying: “He’s God, we suck, he’s God, we suck.”

The idea of a rock band as a stage musical may be a desperately unromantic proposition but it has taken root among a generation of rock stars trying to ensure that people play their music way beyond its creators’ natural lifespan. O’Neill whispers that Queen came to see TSO shortly before they launched their West End musical We Will Rock You in 2002. Then came Rock of Ages, in which young musicians acted out the glory days of the Sunset Strip in a plot based on the narrative of the Journey song “Don’t Stop Believin’”, which in turn has enjoyed a second life through the TV show Glee.

Journey now tour not with their original singer, who had hip problems, but with a Filipino fan they found on YouTube. Yes recruited a younger Canadian vocalist, Benoît David, to take the place of Anderson, another singer known for reaching notes that others cannot reach. Singers are always the first to go, says O’Neill, who has little attachment to individual rock stars. “The human voice is just these thin Kleenex tissue muscles; they’re not designed to scream on top of amps five nights a week. It’s not a matter of if you are going to destroy these guys’ instrument but when. That’s why we have multiple lead singers – to allow the vocalists to rest. TSO can go into their eighties.”

There’s an old-school heavy metal band scattered among the TSO chorus line, whose story is a litany of all that can go wrong in rock’n’roll.

Two brothers, Jon and Criss Oliva, had grown up playing Kiss and Alice Cooper covers in the car parks around Clearwater, north of Tampa. Jon had a voice that could do Robert Plant one minute and Freddie Mercury the next: “I call it the Mel Blanc gift,” says O’Neill. “You know, the guy who does all the sounds in Looney Tunes?”

They called themselves Savatage and, with O’Neill as producer, they conquered MTV in 1987 with a video filmed in an underground cavern featuring a dwarf (“Hall of the Mountain King”). But demons crushed the band. Jon wrote most of their second album in rehab. In October 1993, Criss was killed by a drunk driver on the way to a Livestock Festival in Zephyrhills, Florida, and Savatage went into a state of suspended animation.

“I knew we needed something to justify a band with no original members left,” says O’Neill, with no sense at all of how strange that sounds. “I didn’t want to see all those albums disappear. It’s not about getting caught up in the person or the individual.”

In 1996 Savatage’s “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” – O’Neill’s longed-for mashup of Christmas carols – was picked up by a New York radio station and metal band morphed into TSO. Their name comes from an unfinished rock opera about the Romanovs – just one of fifty Broadway musicals O’Neill claims to have conceived.

“Look, this band doesn’t make sense on paper,” he concludes. “When I started out with Savatage, I thought it would be like the Eagles. I thought I’d be living off the royalties by now. I did not foresee the collapse of the record industry. I had to find a way to make it work. I worry about the next Steven Tyler or Janis Joplin – where are they going to go? What a thousand generations took to build, a single generation can lose. I’m sure Washington and Alexander Hamilton worried about the future, too.”

Last July, TSO played the Wacken Open Air festival in Germany – a heartland for them, because of all the Beethoven. After dark, the site was hit by a storm, knocking down the sound system. While the stage was being repaired, O’Neill wandered around the camp, talking to punters, possibly in a cloak, like Henry V before Agincourt. He found two young men of 19 who turned out to be Sunni Muslims from Iraq. About 90 feet away, he talked to two men from Iran who were Shia Muslims.

“During those three days of that festival,” he says, “I can’t imagine those four young men didn’t bump into each other. And God forbid, two years from now, they end up in two different militias and they recognise each other, I’d bet everything I have that not only would they not pull the trigger; they would un-chamber their weapons and say, ‘Hey, weren’t we together at a TSO ­concert?’ It’s hard to hate – let alone kill – somebody that you went to a concert with.”

****

The next day, O’Neill is jumpy. We’re travelling to one of his properties to look at his treasure collection. He shows me CCTV footage filmed from the main entrance of the band’s former studio in Tampa. On the noiseless laptop screen, in broad daylight, the stockinged head of a robber slides into the frame; he gets to work on the studio doors with a pair of bolt-cutters. “Three pairs of lady’s pantyhose,” says O’Neill in horror, pointing at the robber’s disguise. “We were inside the whole time – I had my Glock and I didn’t want to use it but I would have.” When the burglar realises that the band is home, he beats a speedy retreat.

O’Neill has had problems with aggressive fans, too, which he passes over with a shudder. “I hate evil,” he says, more than once. TSO’s product manager Thomas Ayad, of Universal Music Group, was killed in the Bataclan terror attack last year. Today, as if to mirror O’Neill’s increased anxiety, there is not one overstuffed briefcase but three.

Sitting next to me in the back of the car, he tosses a small box from hand to hand. He opens it to reveal a Fabergé egg containing a microfilm edition of 50 pages of the original King James Bible that was sent up in the Apollo 14 space mission. He says that he lets kids hold it, so they can feel history in their hands. It’s not clear which kids he means.

We enter his property. I hear sighing and turn to find O’Neill splayed against a wall, throwing the five-point handle of a vault’s combination lock from left to right as if wrestling with the wheel of a mighty ship. In the close confines of a walk-in safe, he pulls items from the shelves: first editions of proceedings from the trial of Thomas Paine from 1793, and Churchill’s two-volume biography of his father, signed. He shows me signed first editions of Dickens’s Christmas Books and two original anonymous prints of The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde, after whom O’Neill’s daughter, Ireland Wilde, is named. (Wilde means as much to him as Churchill.) Then he gets out a picture book that Joan Jett gave him. A note says: “Dear Paul. I hope you enjoy this reflection into the past and thanks for being a big part of mine.”

“Here’s Louis XV borrowing a tonne of money in 1732,” he says, presenting me with a piece of parchment, “and Benjamin Franklin building some forts.” There’s a letter from Nelson from before the Battle of Trafalgar (“I wrote a rock opera about him”) and a handwritten fragment of a speech by Reagan (“I love Ronald Reagan”). There are dozens of letters from Thomas Edison to his engineer, detailing every stage of the invention of the phonograph. He has the whole set, apart from one he gave to Steven Tyler.

He shifts a painting out of the way – a colourful scene of some rabbits, painted by Jon Anderson for his daughter – and pulls out the pièce de résistance: a gorgeous first edition of Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, signed “To Lord Kitchener of Khartoum” by Queen Victoria. “Can you get any more historic?” he asks. “Kitchener went to Khartoum two days too late and saw Chinese Gordon’s head on a spear.”

Finally, with embarrassment, he shows me a letter from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, dated 1779. It has been badly crumpled in storage. “Maybe one of these big heavy books will help?” He reaches for a giant edition of Livy and flattens the letter under it. “Mister Livy, can you please help out poor George?”

He drifts out of the room. “There’s other stuff I want but I’ve got to stop because I’m losing track of it,” he says. “My daughter says, ‘Dad, don’t die and leave me with all this stuff. It’s like King Tut’s tomb.’”

He wanders out on to the patio, where the sun beats down so strongly that he must be melting in his leathers. He pulls himself up to perch on a little stucco balcony, legs swinging, and for a moment he epitomises the contradiction at the heart of rock’n’roll wealth: the baby boomers who bought the lifestyles of the landed aristocracy but insist on looking like pickled versions of the boys they were when they first picked up a guitar.

I ask him whether he’s glad that his days with Aerosmith are over. His liver shut down in the 1970s; he broke one of his vertebrae wrestling with bouncers. On the one hand, these stories are badges of honour; on the other, there is relief in his voice.

“Cocaine is Russian roulette,” he says. “One person can walk away from it and another can’t. I never thought I would live this long. My mother told me I wouldn’t live past 30. I was always falling through roofs. I still feel like I’m 19. I’m 60. How did this happen?”

I ask him if he is happy. He says, “Solon said to Croesus, ‘Don’t judge your life a success or a failure until the very end.’”


****

Despite O’Neill’s obsession with the British empire (“Churchill understood India better than Gandhi did”), his band is cagey about plans to play in the UK. TSO first performed in London at the Hammersmith Apollo in 2011, to an audience of about 2,000, with just six trucks of gear. The boiler was broken, the auditorium was freezing and everyone kept their coat on. Ask O’Neill if he is coming back any time soon and he gives a small sigh.

“I think he’d settle for nothing smaller than the O2 Arena,” says Anna Phoebe, “but, for a start, they’d have to get rid of all the narration in the show because British people do not like being told what to think.”

O’Neill’s characters are simplified figures – Tiny Tims or Little Match Girls, or the ­brazier-hugging idiots savants of 1980s Christmas movies. At the age of 16, working as a busboy in Hell’s Kitchen, he received a hundred-dollar bill as a tip from a stranger and never looked back.

“They’re selling the American dream and yet ‘the American dream’ no longer exists,” says Phoebe. “Even Barack Obama said it – what your father earns is more of an indicator of your future wealth than anything else. TSO sell the romanticised version – you can be poor, you can work hard, you can get yourself out of where you came from – and we don’t relate to that. But he enjoys a challenge. His brain will probably work overtime to overcome this problem.”

“I don’t necessarily think it will work over here,” Greg Lake says. “I don’t necessarily think they’d be doing themselves any favours. What is it, the money? They’re not going to sell 100,000 tickets!”

I ask Lake whether he can see a future in which young stage-school kids play the hits of long-dead bands, giving them eternal life.

“I’ve seen a Japanese ‘version’ of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, believe it or not,” he says. “I felt quite ill. Fact is, who is going to interpret the classical music of today – which is rock music – when the original players are gone?

“It’s hard to imagine what sort of currency rock music will have in a hundred years’ time. I’ve played some biblical shows – 600,000 people in one go – and that era won’t be easily forgotten. I’ve never seen that many people in one place. You wouldn’t. Other than in a war.”

Two days after we spoke, Lake’s bandmate Keith Emerson committed suicide after a period of depression connected with a degenerative disease that was affecting his playing. Before he hung up, Lake had told me about the last time he saw O’Neill: he presented Lake with a gift, one volume of the multi-volume memoirs of Winston Churchill, and told him he had put a bookmark in it.

“I opened it up and it’s a thousand-dollar bill,” Lake said. “Tell him he can ‘whack’ me whenever he wants.”

****

The sun goes down on Tampa as we barrel along Interstate 4. O’Neill takes his shades off in the evening light. He says he wears them because he is afraid of going blind. His father has lost his sight and blindness has affected nine members of his family. He is tired, and when he is tired, he speaks in military history.

Is the age of the rock’n’roll hero over?

“It’s all about the idea and real heroes grasp that. Washington didn’t want to be king. He had an idea, which was America.”

Who will he hand his project on to?

“Some kid who hasn’t been born yet. Abraham Lincoln came out of nowhere. He had ten days of schooling in his whole life. I had the ultimate gift in life, which was low expectations. I just feel lucky that it’s happened and I just hope that no one catches on that I’m getting away with murder.”

He is fed up with talking about the band but is too polite to say so. “Thank God for Britain,” he says instead. Congress is a mess. Obamacare? Please. Trump is a moron.

He sings a couple of bars of “Rule, Britannia!” soft and high.

“Seriously, it’s like the last days of Rome here,” he says. “But I think it will pull together. I believe in happy endings.”

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue