Monday, 7 June 2010

Heroes & Villains No. 2: Allen Klein

"Mr Klein does not give interviews", I was told politely and repeatedly when I attempted to contact the person who was - alongside Yoko Ono - the most controversial figure in the entire Beatles story. I'd assumed that he simply didn't wish to revisit a period of his life that had been financially lucrative, but had (indirectly) led him to a US prison cell, and to public denigration by virtually every commentator. No doubt that was true, but when Klein died last summer, another more pressing reason for his silence became apparent. For years, he had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

What made Klein so controversial? The simple fact that his appointment as manager of "the Apple group of companies" - and therefore, by extension, the Beatles - marked the parting of the financial ways between (on the one hand) Paul McCartney, and (on the other) the rest of the Beatles. The full story is in my book; suffice to say here that McCartney wished to be managed by his father-in-law, Lee Eastman, while Lennon, Harrison and Starkey all feared that Eastman would inevitably be biased towards Paul and against them. Lennon met Klein in January 1969, and within the week he'd been put in charge (initially alongside Eastman) of the Beatles' tangled financial affairs. Several months later, the three-man Beatle alliance signed a management contract with Klein, but McCartney refused to add his signature, and from that moment on, there was no hope that the Beatles could survive as a viable business entity.

All this is common knowledge. And it's equally accepted that Klein was a villain, a charlatan, a con-merchant - you can add your own insults. Two things puzzled me, however. If Klein was such a bad egg, how come Lennon, Harrison and Starkey didn't sack him as their manager until 1973? They not only led his appointment stand at the end of each year of his initial three-year contract, but actually retained his services in 1972, when it would have been just as easy to let him go. Also, if Klein was really as unpleasant a character as all previous Beatles biographers have claimed, how did they fall for his charms in the first place?

The deeper I delved into his reign at Apple, the more admiration I had for his business brain, and for his sheer panache. Klein threw himself at the Beatles' affairs with the same reckless enthusiasm and unfailing eye for a dollar that he had already displayed as a financial adviser to Bobby Darin, Sam Cooke, Donovan, the Rolling Stones and many more. He uncovered plenty of money that was owed to the Beatles, but would never have found its way into their coffers if he hadn't known which rocks to turn over. He won them the most lucrative recording deal ever agreed up to that point - though it was slightly unfortunate that by the time the deal was on the table, the Beatles could no longer stand to be in the same room as each other. And he turned the money-burning hippie utopia of Apple into a fully functioning, profit-making record company, even if he had to sacrifice all of its original ideals along the way.

Against all this, you have to balance the fact that he also blinded the Beatles with financial wizardry so slick that they, and their other advisers, completely failed to notice that he was claiming much more commission on their earnings than he was entitled to. "So what?", Klein would probably have said. "They're still much richer than they would have been if I hadn't helped them out." And he'd have been right. He skirted along the edges of the law, though, and his cavalier method of selling off copies of Apple albums that had been written off as promotional items (and therefore didn't generate any royalties for artists or songwriters) eventually led him to a New York courtroom on charges of tax evasion, and a two-month jail sentence in 1980.

Ultimately, Klein was hardly the first pop manager to cream a little extra for himself off the top of his clients' pot; and hardly the worst offender, either (hello Colonel Parker). But he was (a) an American, (b) not a gentleman in the Brian Epstein tradition, (c) not from Liverpool, (d) intimidating, (e) brash and (f) a show-off. Several of those qualities endeared him to John Lennon, but they all counted against him as far as Paul McCartney was concerned. Not that McCartney absolutely rejected everything that Klein did, as my book reveals . . .

When the UK edition was published last year, somebody asked me why I was so biased towards Klein in my narrative. I didn't, and don't, think I was, so the question surprised me. Then I realised that I was just about the first person to write about the Beatles who didn't start from the premise that Klein was 100% evil. Other Beatles biographers have been very unkind to him; I hope I've tilted the balance back a little in his favour, without seeking to disguise any of the mistakes he made.

One thing is certain. Allen Klein's cardinal sin was that he wasn't the right person to keep the Beatles together in 1969. Only one man could have done that - Brian Epstein. And sadly he had died two years earlier.

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