Andrew Loog Oldham lives in Colombia, far from the capital in which he made his name. He was born in Paddington, London and became at the age of 19 the manager and producer of The Rolling Stones, a relationship that lasted from 1963 to 1967. On discovering the young London R'n'B band, Oldham recognised the band's enormous potential, positioning them as anti-establishment rogues, and as music lore has it, eventually forcing Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to begin writing original material. In doing so, he made their fortune.
I suggest that no band has ever come near the Stones for the package of musicianship and lyricism. 'I agree,' he says, 'no band managed to be such a seamless thread: the singles, the albums, the attitude, the concerts. Other bands made singles as compromises, then took to the stage to show who they really were. But the public smells the fake. The Stones were always at one with everything. There were no passengers, and nothing was sloppy.'
A self-proclaimed hustler, Oldham's interest in 1960s pop culture initially found him working as an assistant to the then-emerging fashion designer Mary Quant. 'I was lucky enough to have my first jobs around the likes of Mary Quant, Lionel Bart, David Bailey and Vidal Sassoon. They were all hustlers, with different weapons: scissors, cameras, a great dress or haircut. I write about them all in Stone Free. I studied the masters. Diaghilev, Mike Todd, Albert Grossman, even the fictitious masters that were Sidney Falco from Sweet Smell of Success, and Johnny Jackson, the character from Wolf Mankowitz's Expresso Bongo.'
So is writing his main pastime now? 'It's one of them. I have been a DJ for the past five years for Steven Van Zandt's [below, left] Underground Garage on the American satellite network SiriusXM. I'm on every day. It's almost my first burst of regular employment since I started work with Mary Quant. My mother would have been proud. She'd think I'd finally settled down.'
Does he still feel like a Londoner, like his friend Terence Stamp? 'No, I do not have the privilege that Terence or his brother Chris have. My father was born in Louisiana and raised in Texas. My mother's family came from Lithuania and Poland via Australia. I was born in England and left in 1969. I was a tax exile. Since I first got to the US in 1964, and South America in 1975, life's been more real for me. I was just passing through England, I think.'
Oldham appears to be one of those men whose passage through life has been fated. 'It's a small world,' he says. 'I met Terence Stamp recently in Ojai [California]. We worked out that when my mum took me aged 13 to see Paul Scofield at the Saville Theatre in Expresso Bongo, Terence was backstage as Scofield's dresser. I sat in the stalls and knew then what I wanted to do in life, and Stamp was backstage already doing it, waiting for his moment to step into the light. Mankowitz's writing gave my life wings. I didn't feel alone to be having the dreams and ambitions I was having. He let me know it was all possible.'
Oldham became one of several Svengali figures in the music business in London in the 1960s. Fellow successful hustlers included Brian Epstein, Chris Stamp, Kit Lambert and Peter Meaden, who Oldham describes as the 'the ace face, the Mod hustler, the spiked-up guru'.
Would he get back into the business for one more shot? 'Well, I've just finished The Andrew Oldham Orchestra & Friends Play The Rolling Stones Songbook Volume 2. You may recall that Volume 1 (1966) was quite controversial and profitable for some when Richard Ashcroft and The Verve took my musical version of The Last Time and made that wonderful record Bitter Sweet Symphony.
'This time I've done an interesting version of Bitter Sweet Symphony with Vashti Bunyan. It'll be out next year.'
In the mid-80s, Oldham made Colombia his primary residence and there became a mentor for local bands before the budgets ran dry, but has he maintained contact with the Stones and how were they as men? 'Does Bill Wyman count? I do hope so. I have a permanent lifeline with Keith [Richards], but that's about it. I'm glad you called them men, because that's what they were, and are. The boys fall by the wayside.'
Oldham produced all The Rolling Stones' recordings between 1963 and 1967. In 1965, he set up Immediate Records, which was among the first independent labels in the UK and guided the careers of The Small Faces and Eric Clapton, to name but two. He agrees that the cash-machine that the Stones have become was an inevitability, but says that on any night the Stones are performing well, this is not an issue.
Something about the Stones made him think the band had the talent he could work with. 'It was like this. I had a thought, and they would put it into words and music. That could sound pompous, but it is a simple explanation that I have only just realised, speaking with you today. I inhaled, and they exhaled on behalf of us all.'
The modern music scene is a flimsy affair when compared to the era of the Stones. 'Yes,' he says, 'but once you remove the bullshit and the topsoil, the music business is still about attractive people singing attractive songs, competing in a subjective world. And remember, all the great acts had great managers. There were no accidents.'
He's quick to correct me when I say that the likes of Simon Cowell have helped leech the music industry of talent. 'I don't think Simon Cowell is part of the problem. He is a machine feeder. What he does has always been there and serves a purpose. Not everybody wants to change the world. A lot of folks get home from work and want to turn the world off, so they turn Simon Cowell on.'
Perhaps his entrepreneurial years have turned him into a political animal? 'No. I have never voted. If you have got yourself in a position to be elected you already have some luggage somewhere.' A royalist then? 'I admire the royal family from a distance. I don't have any royalist views one way or the other. They are a great business; that's why they get on so well with other great businesses and give paltry honours to those who are deemed to have climbed the ladder and are acceptable in their company. But I am against all honours because the honour, the reward is supposed to be in the doing of the job. I'm nervous that awards might dim the fire, douse the passion that got you honoured in the first place, but maybe that's what they are supposed to do by design.'
With Stone Free, Oldham says he is benefiting from the advantages of being published by an independent. 'Being with Escargot Books is like being on an independent record label again. I'm with friends with a common purpose. Old fighters, albeit these days the bullets are Zen!
'The book trade these days is OK by me. I'm an avid reader. Right now, I'm reading I'm Your Man, the book on Leonard Cohen by Silvie Simmons and How Music Works by David Byrne. Also, Something Like An Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa is masterful. Books and writers are healthy, it's just the machine that feeds them that is going through changing pains, not unlike the music business.'
Oldham wears his success with an cool assuredness, his future always something for him to hustle into existence. So when I ask him of the secret of making it in the music business, the million-dollar question makes him smile. 'You have to be in the right place, have the right idea, right song and right team, and when you get fucked in the first round, you get up, dust yourself off, get back into the ring without bitterness, and hit the fucker again. You make your own luck. Good luck is someone else needing you.'
Portrait photograph of ALO and ALO with Steven Van Zandt by Betina La Plante.
Follow Betina on Twitter @BetinaLaPLante
Photograph of ALO with Mick Jagger in 1964 courtesy of The Daily Telegraph
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