Tom Watkins: the brash pop svengali who unleashed teen screams

Tom Watkins, who has died aged 70, took Bros and East 17 to superstardom with a combative managerial style

Tom Watkins was not a man given to hiding his light under a bushel. Behind its self-deprecating title, his 2017 autobiography Let’s Make Lots of Money: Secrets of a Fat, Rich, Gay Lucky Bastard is a hilariously self-aggrandising read. In its opening couple of pages alone, he describes himself as “a self-made, man-mad man”, “a living legend” and “one of the last pop moguls … a dying breed, the kind that did it in style”.

Certainly, he was a manager in a grand British pop tradition that stretched back to Larry Parnes and Brian Epstein. Like them, he was a gay man who felt he implicitly understood what pop’s primary market of teenage girls wanted: he explained his thinking behind 90s boyband East 17 with the words “we all like a bit of rough”. He was cultured – a trained designer with a fondness for the Bauhaus movement and a background working for Terence Conran, Watkins was rather more of an aesthete than his brash public image suggested – and nearly as well-known as the artists he ostensibly worked for. Indeed, Watkins was so enamoured of said tradition that he occasionally attempted to pass himself off as Jewish, one attribute he didn’t share with its founding fathers.

His earliest forays into management involved transforming two south London pub bands into would-be glam rock stars Ice Cream and Giggles. In the long run, their abject commercial failure turned out to be their selling-point – decades after their release, both Ice Cream’s solitary single Shout It Out and Giggles’ Glad to Be Alive and Just Another Saturday Night became hugely collectable examples of junk shop glam, a subgenre predicated on the bands’ initial obscurity. But while attempting to hustle them to the top, Watkins established his standard managerial style: ruthlessly dictatorial about everything from his artists’ sound to their appearance to their logos. By his own admission a frustrated pop star, Watkins saw himself as a svengali rather than a mere music industry deal-maker.

The cover to Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, designed by Watkins’ company XL Design
The cover to Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, designed by Watkins’ company XL Design Photograph: HANDOUT

The failure of Ice Cream and Giggles, as well as a soft rock/funk band called Grand Hotel, caused Watkins to return to design. When his company XL was employed to design sleeves and adverts for the new ZTT label, he noted with approval the degree of control the label’s in-house producer Trevor Horn and marketing and promotions guru Paul Morley exerted over their biggest act, Frankie Goes to Hollywood. That Frankie had become the UK’s biggest pop sensation of 1984 seemed to confirm that Watkins’ way of thinking yielded results, although his attempt to achieve something similar with a hopelessly limp, Stock, Aitken and Waterman-produced trio called Spelt Like This came to nothing.

Ironically, Watkins’ first success as a manager came with a band implacably resistant to his domineering style. He had initially met Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys when borrowing a Spider-Man costume for Giggles’ stage act from Marvel comics, then Tennant’s employer. Impressed by the songs Tennant had authored with Chris Lowe, he accepted their offer to manage them – the duo were impressed by his connections to Frankie Goes to Hollywood – but also noted that the pair were smarter than him. He secured them a deal with Parlophone but found his suggestions about their music and image went largely unheeded. They parted company at the height of the Pet Shop Boys’ success.

His next project, however, was more Watkins’ style. He gave Bros their name, designed their logo and radically overhauled their image, sending them to the era’s hippest London hair salon Cuts and dressing them in clothes you would have seen at an illegal warehouse party. He co-wrote every song on their debut album Push under a pseudonym, the Brothers, designed to fool audiences into thinking Matt and Luke Goss had done it themselves. Bros were a smash hit – Push sold 10m copies and spawned five Top 5 singles – but the great flaw in Watkins’ managerial process was swiftly revealed: even manufactured pop artists were disinclined to, as he put it, “put up, shut up and mime” once they had achieved vast success.

Bros in 1988.
More Watkins’ style ... Bros in 1988. Photograph: Brian Rasic/Brian Rasic/Rex/Shutterstock

The Goss twins demanded to write the songs for Push’s follow-up and balked at their punishing workload – they were particularly aggrieved at being required to appear on TV chat show Wogan hours after learning that their sister had been killed by a drunk driver. They were unhappy with the terms of Watkins’ contract, which, Luke Goss subsequently claimed, entitled him to 20% of their gross earnings: a 1988 UK tour which grossed £1.6m left the trio with earnings of £4,860 after expenses and Watkins’ commission. For his part, Watkins derided the Goss twins as ungrateful, spoilt brats, whose inability to control their own spending brought about their financial ruin. Either way, their star dimmed very quickly once they asserted their independence from him.

A brief attempt to manage post-acid house electronic band Electribe 101 left Watkins convinced he should stick to mainstream pop. He built a band around a young songwriter called Tony Mortimer. A “bad boy” counterpart to the more parent-friendly Take That, East 17 went onto become vastly successful: among their singles lurked a cover of the Pet Shop Boys’ West End Girls, suggested by Watkins primarily in an attempt to irritate his former charges. Their career abruptly came to a halt when the band’s loosest cannon, Brain Harvey, announced during a 1997 radio interview that he’d taken 12 ecstasy tablets in a night. A gleeful hedonist himself, Watkins thought that Harvey was exaggerating – “You can’t take 13 Es in a night,” he offered, “your cock would be dropping off” – and that the ensuing furore, which quickly spiralled to the point that the then-prime minister John Major became involved, was hypocritical. Perhaps that was why he seemed incapable of containing the damage: Harvey was fired, and East 17 collapsed shortly afterwards.

Their demise marked the end of Watkins’ reign in the music industry. Some of his subsequent ideas were intriguing and ahead of their time – an openly gay boyband called 2wo Third3, a pre-Gorillaz cartoon pop star called Kulkarni – but none of them stuck. He came closest with North and South, a boyband launched via a children’s BBC show (an idea subsequently reused to far greater effect by Spice Girls manager Simon Fuller with S Club 7), but was retired by the turn of the millennium, retreating to the south coast, where he designed and built an award-winning, Bauhaus-inspired home and opened a restaurant. He professed himself horrified by the impact of TV talent shows on pop, making the point that while his autocratic style had paved way for Simon Cowell, at least he’d chosen interesting or quirky figures to impose his will on.

You could spot his affection for a different era by the way his autobiography repeatedly used the kind of terms once common in the pages of Smash Hits, such as “down the dumper” and “the giddy carousel of pop”. The man who’d coined both of them, Neil Tennant, paid a kind of tribute to Watkins in the Pet Shop Boys’ musical Closer to Heaven: the character of Bob Saunders, a brazen loudmouth manager required to sing the words: “I have to admit, I’m an absolute shit”, bore a suspicious resemblance to him. It says something about Tom Watkins that he professed himself absolutely delighted: whatever you thought of his managerial approach and his influence on pop, you could never have accused him of taking himself too seriously.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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