The Independent (10.3.02)
OBITUARY: NILS STEVENSON;
PUNK MAESTRO WITH THE SEX PISTOLS AND SIOUXSIE AND THE BANSHEES
Stevenson: I look back with a shudder' Ray Stevenson
WHILE NOT as well known as the infamous Sex Pistols svengali Malcolm McLaren, Nils Stevenson helped mastermind the launch of the most influential British punk rock group of the Seventies. He went on to manage the Goth pioneers Siouxsie and the Banshees and later worked with McLaren on a succession of wide-ranging projects.
Three years ago, Nils and his older brother, the photographer Ray Stevenson, published Vacant: a diary of the punk years, 1976-79 (1999). In the book, Nils Stevenson argued that without punk there would have been no Oasis, Manic Street Preachers or Prodigy:
There would be no Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin in the art world had it not been for punk. In literature, no Irvine Welsh or Will Self. In fashion, there would be no Alexander McQueen or John Galliano. We live in punk's afterglow.
Born in London in 1953, Stevenson was attracted to youth styles and popular culture as a toddler. He later reflected,
I vividly remember being drawn to a Teddy Boy, the only colourful-looking character in a sea of grey in east London's Petticoat Lane Market. It was as if I instinctively knew that he would provide the only way out of a dull, staid existence.
Brought up in Dalston, the youngster had been a teenage mod but soon followed his older brother into London's folk and hippie clubs as Ray snapped Jimi Hendrix, Marc Bolan and David Bowie in the late Sixties. In 1971, Nils dropped out of Barnet Art College and began working for Richard Buckle, the ballet critic and exhibition designer. Three years later, Stevenson travelled to the United States and, on his return, opened a clothes stall in the King's Road only a few steps from Malcolm McLaren and the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood's sex shop which sold "rubberwear, glamourwear and stagewear".
John Lydon had already walked into these premises and emerged as Johnny Rotten, and Stevenson was drawn to the Sex Pistols circle after seeing the group support Eddie and the Hot Rods at the Marquee in early 1976. Soon, Ray came on board too, taking pictures while Nils designed situationist handbills to advertise the Sex Pistols' gigs. "Money was tight. I shared the rat-infested rehearsal studio with the Pistols' guitarist, Steve Jones. We lived on stolen food, baked beans and more baked beans," he recalled.
While McLaren was trying to scam a record deal for the band, Stevenson did the donkey work, driving the Sex Pistols around the UK in a battered van on a minute budget. In August 1976, he helped organise the legendary Screen on the Green gig in Islington, which featured Buzzcocks and the Clash with the Sex Pistols headlining. By the time the Sex Pistols signed to EMI Records in October 1976, Stevenson was beginning to criticise McLaren's tactics and the restrictive management contract the group had with the svengali's Glitterbest company:
I could see how heavily in favour of Malcolm it was. I'd always been led to believe that I'd get some percentage of the management. I looked for my name and it wasn't there. He offered me pounds 300 for the year's work. I took it. I was broke.
He hadn't exactly helped his case by sneaking Siouxsie and the Banshees into the Sex Pistols' rehearsal studio while they were away on the troubled "Anarchy" tour in December 1976.
Stevenson spent the first half of 1977 helping out the Heartbreakers, whose members included the guitarist Johnny Thunders and the drummer Jerry Nolan, who had relocated to London after leaving the US proto-punk group the New York Dolls. Stevenson fell for their junkie life style but, despite his hedonistic behaviour, he took his new role as manager of Siouxsie and the Banshees seriously.
The band had evolved from a one-off performance at the 100 Club in London in September 1976, which had featured the future Sex Pistol Sid Vicious on drums and the guitarist Marco Pirroni (later of Adam and the Ants) around the nucleus of Siouxsie Sioux on vocals and the bassist Steve Severin. "Nils more than anyone took a real interest in Siouxsie and me when we were fresh out of the suburbs, trailing the Sex Pistols from gig to gig," says Severin:
He was completely instrumental in pulling the first Banshees' performance together. As soon as we came off stage after our demolition of "The Lord's Prayer", he said: "I can play guitar but I'd much rather be the manager - that's the real art."
Siouxsie Sioux (nee Susan Ballion) had been a member of the Bromley contingent of Sex Pistols followers, and had famously appeared with Rotten and co on Bill Grundy's television show. Now comprising the drummer Kenny Morris and the guitarist John McKay alongside Sioux and Severin, the Banshees struggled to get noticed despite the valiant efforts of Stevenson, who booked them college gigs and support slots with the Heartbreakers and the Slits. "He was hyping us up something rotten," recalls Severin:
He was making great play of the "greatest unsigned band" tag. He started a graffiti campaign, spraying "Sign the Banshees. Do It Now" on all the record company headquarters. Nils was our interface with the indolent, out-of-touch music industry. We spent many long nights at his mother's house in Finchley plotting world domination. We'd talk about Marcel Duchamp, Terry Riley, Sixties happenings, T. Rex and how the Banshees would pull all these influences together and still appear on Magpie.
John Peel championed the group and even tried to convince the BBC to issue their sessions for his Radio 1 show as a commercial release but, having learned a few tricks from McLaren, Stevenson was holding out to get the best deal he could from a major label. "It nearly didn't happen," admits Severin. "We had two years of being ignored by terrified A&R men." Finally, in June 1978, the Banshees signed to Polydor Records and released their debut single, "Hong Kong Garden", which made the Top Ten.
Over the next three tumultuous years, Stevenson concentrated most of his energies on Siouxsie and the Banshees. The band survived Morris and McKay's absconding in Aberdeen on the eve of a British tour to promote the group's second album, Join Hands (1979). The Banshees soldiered on successfully with their swirling post-punk sound, using the Cure's Robert Smith on guitar, as well as the guitarist John McGeoch from Magazine, and were joined permanently by the drummer Pete Clark (a.k.a. "Budgie").
They eventually tired of their manager's behaviour, however: by 1982, Stevenson was no longer running their affairs. "Drugs were the dark side. I got hooked on heroin, lost my flat, my car," he subsequently admitted. "A lot of people died. I got clean thanks to Steve Jones dragging me to Narcotics Anonymous."
Perhaps surprisingly, Stevenson resumed his working relationship with Malcolm McLaren, helping him create his hybrid of world music and hip- hop on the Duck Rock album which included "Buffalo Gals" and "Double Dutch", both hit singles in 1983. He later managed the World's Famous Supreme Team, a rap group who had featured on McLaren's recordings, and also promoted the careers of Neneh Cherry and the dance outfit Electribe 101.
More recently, Stevenson had started his own Superstonic label and helped the film-maker and Clash associate Don Letts assemble the excellent Dread Meets Punk Rockers Uptown (2002) reggae collection. He also compiled an album, Punk, which was launched last year together with a book of the same title by Stephen Colegrave and Chris Sullivan.
Reflecting on the 25th anniversary of punk last year, Stevenson remained philosophical. "Punk was the best of times but also the worst of times. I look back with mixed feelings and often a shudder."
Nils Stevenson, rock manager: born London 23 February 1953; died London 20 September 2002.
Contributed by Jerry Burch.