David Bates – Biography
In a business of overnight sensations and an industry that makes heavyweight boxing and Italian politics look like safe, sensible careers. David Bates’ three decades in the mainline of the music game are evidence of an ear for music that you could sell as surveillance equipment. Rare determination and a passion untainted by a life lived in the thick of it.
Having engineered the success of artists as, seminal, diverse and successful as Def Leppard, Tears For Fears, The Teardrop Explodes, Robert Plant, Was Not Was, Wet Wet Wet, Oleta Adams, Scott Walker, James and Texas. He has seen more hits than the Internet; Bates is almost a brand in himself. Appropriately his latest venture is his own record label, borne out of 25 years as a hit- maker. Widely recognised as one of the most important and influential figures in British A & R history, this is the story of a fan that never lost faith in his love of music, a true tale of ‘high fidelity.’
As a teenager, Bates left his native London to become a successful BBC Radio Journalist, DJ and promoter in Sheffield. The success of his local shows encouraged him to return to London and the heart of the music industry. His grasp of the singles market saw him recruited by Richard Branson in an effort to steer the fledgling Virgin Empire away from just album sales and hippy shops. Branson also felt that he was the man to organise an in-store radio station for the Virgin shops. The idea never saw the light of day, but it did get Bates working with Chris Hughes, (Then a colleague at Virgin). The two became firm friends, bonded together by a mutual obsession with music. It was the start of a relationship that abides to this day with Chris as Davids’ partner at db. ” From that point on,” they admit, ” our careers are inextricably linked.” As Bates moved into to A & R, Hughes was given the opportunity to move into production.
Bates joined Phonogram as an A & R scout in 1976, at the height of the punk scene. His first signing was Dalek I, a band that contained future members of Siouxsie and the Banshees, OMD and The Teardrop Explodes. Two years later Bates’ vision came into it’s own when he persuaded Mercury to fly in the face of fashion and sign a gang of unkempt rockers he’d found back in his old stomping ground of Sheffield, known as Def Leppard.
Bates’ unlikely lads went on to sell over 40,000,000 albums, and David’s reputation as a man the music business could ill afford to ignore was assured.
Never one to miss an opportunity Bates made use of his record companies facilities to form and record a band called ‘The Blitz Brothers’ starring him and Chris Hughes. He sent the demo into Phonogram by post. When the label decided to sign them he was forced to admit his involvement. Two of the singles have appeared on many US ‘New Wave’ compilation CD’s.
Bates hit the USA for the first time in 1978. He had formed a relationship with Ork Records and was trying to do a deal that would enable him to sign Alex Chilton, The Cramps and Television. He needed to go to New York to close a few details. Assigned £1,000 for the whole trip he performed a minor economic miracle by staying for four months. In that time he saw bands that he both loved and championed including Devo and the B52’s. To their cost Phonogram failed to share in Bates enthusiasm and when the last dollar was finally spent he came home older, wiser and manifestly ahead of his time.
It was in Middlesborough,1979 that Bates instincts told him that he had found another star in Julian Cope and a seminal band called ‘ The Teardrop Explodes’. Under Bates auspices the band recorded two legendary LP’s and he continued to work with Julian Cope as a solo artist on Mercury.
The 1980’s and Bates’ next big score would come via a tape of songs offered to him by a publisher. Unimpressed by the idea of covering the songs, he inquired after the writers instead. They were two teenagers who had given themselves the name of ‘Tears For Fears’.After two failed singles Bates decided to go out on a limb, and recorded an album.
For the third single he switched the A side with the B side “Mad World’. It made No 3, and the LP sold 4 million copies. It was the start of a union that lasted until the early 90’s and has accounted for some 20,000,00 albums to date.
In the mid 80’s David’s instincts had acquired Phonogram what can be described as an embarrassment of riches. “Of the five of us on Phonograms A & R team we had nine of the top ten singles in one week. You suddenly think that you can do anything and that everything is possible”. Bates has always looked to hide behind, even back in the 70’s he had formed Back Door records, he released ‘I’m the Face’ by the Who’s first incarnation,’The High Numbers’. Another hit. Bates now decided to sift through world music for further inspiration and went onto form a label called The Mobile Suit corporation with David Claridge. As well as his established bands Bates also found one-off hits like Trio’s ‘ Da, Da, Da,’. Following a bet with a colleague Tracey Bennet, he had a top ten hit with Monsoons ‘Ever So Lonely’. David, it seemed could do no wrong.
Back home his long and intimate relationship with Julian Cope (Bates and Cope had shared a flat together, and in his autobiography Cope devotes a whole paragraph to Bates’ record collection.) was under strain. Cope’s conceptual excesses in the face of declining public interest, meant that they no longer saw eye to eye and one of Bates closet and most fruitful partnerships came to an end. “I wanted him to be Jim Morrison, he wanted to be Iggy Pop” says Bates. Although they still remain firm close friends today.
In addition to records that followed a conventional path to the top there were those that succeeded in defiance of logic. Having tried to sign Altered Images some years previously David had maintained a Caledonian connection that was about to come good. He brought Hipsway to the label; they sold 2,000 albums a week for 70 weeks.
By way of consolation Hipsway fractured into two, the other part being Texas. “They gave me a demo tape of three songs, one of which was ‘I don’t want a lover’. It was a no brainer”. North of the border Dave also discovered Wet Wet Wet in 1985.
But when chart sensibilities began to triumph over their instinctive sound, David’s musical instincts told him to step back from cold commercial triumph. The fan still ruled the A & R man. ” He found them and signed them, based on the fact that he thought that they were interesting, they had soul, and Marti Pellow was like a Tim Buckley” says Chris Hughes, ” When they mutated into a pop band he lost interest.”
Back in the United States Bates knew ‘Was Not Was’ as a fan and a friend. When the band fell out with the their label. The label owner, David Geffen telephoned David to ask him if he would like to take the contract over. Bates moved in and signed them. “A bizarre outfit in itself,” says David, ” an arty jazz band who wanted to have hits. Don and Dave were no spring chickens, and the singers, who were actual pimps, were 50. Nowadays Don is recognised as one of the most successful producers in the world, however with Bates input, ‘Spy In The House Of Love’ and ‘Walk The Dinosaur’ became world wide hits. The unlikeliest of acts now sold millions. On the strength of that David finally got some payback from his ’78’ US adventure and signed Tom Verlaine, Green On Red and Pere Ubu, even securing the latter an appearance on the children’s Roland Rat TV show, ” one of the most perverse and subversive things I ever did.”
Phonogram meanwhile was anxious to retain the services of their one-man hit factory. In return for signing the contract Bates asked for and was given complete control of the dormant Fontana label. Finally it seemed, he could do what he wanted. The experience was to prove a useful prototype for db.
During their 1985 USA TOUR, ‘Tears For Fears’ rang Bates from Kansas at 3am saying that they’d found a singer in a hotel bar. True to form, twelve hours later Bates was in America watching Oleta Adams sing covers in the hotel bar. Impressed but unconvinced he returned to England. Years later when a singer was needed for a part on the ‘Sowing The Seeds’ album, Roland suggested that they fly Oleta to England. “Given an opportunity, she was stunning”.
Her debut album with, ‘Rhythm Of Life’, was one of William Orbit’s first productions. Bates then dreamed up a scam that the single, ‘Get Here’, was the anthem for the US troops in the Gulf. Truth embraced fiction and it settles at No 2 in the charts and went on to sell over 1 million copies worldwide. That done Bates signed ‘Lilac Time, James and House Of Love’ to Fontana, ” It was a real mixed bag,” states Bates of his label, “close to what I wanted to do as a label.” I wanted it to be successful and still have interesting things going on.”
Bates also oversaw the public rehabilitation of post-Live Aid Bob Geldof, with two LP’s that re-established him as a performer and songwriter in the wake of his inadvertent deification.By now Bates’ own reputation was approaching that of his artists, with tales of his antics reaching his all time hero Robert Plant. Unannounced, Plant descended on Bates’ office and declared that for the first time in his career he waned to work with an A & R man.While touring the Fontana LP ‘Fate Of Nations’, Plant resumed contact with his exiled colleague Jimmy Page. Bates would oversee the fruit of their reunion, the ‘Unledded LP and tour. As well as making true rock ‘n’ roll history, the ‘Unledded’ tour would gross $33,000,00 in its first 40 shows.
The enigmatic legend Scott Walker beat a path to Bates’ door, who in 1995 released the acclaimed ‘Tilt’ LP, his first in over a decade. As the decade rolled on Bates worked with the James front man, Tim Booth and the composer Angelo Badalamenti (of Twin Peaks fame) and Fontana was a haven for bands for bands as diverse and remarkable as The Manchester duo Lamb, and welsh psychedelic collective, Gorki’s Zygotic Mynci. The 90’s also saw Bates return to his old trade as a DJ on London’s alternative XFM.
After 22 years at Phonogram including 12 as head of A & R (a record in the UK music industry) Bates decided it was time for a change. After a period of reassessment he was persuaded that the right course of action was to form his own label. Accompanied by his colleagues Tom Friend, (whose youthful persistence, instinct and passion for music impressed Bates) and long time friend and collaborator Chris Hughes, db records was born. With labels like Island, Elektra, Interscope, Asylum and Motown as its paradigms, Bates and db are looking for artists that can help fulfil their vision.Already successful worldwide with artist Tom McRae, and young hopefuls Soft Parade, Bates and db are poised to apply their collective experience and talents to the most interesting artists the millennium has to offer. It’s hard to think of anyone better qualified to do it…
A&R Manager for