Mickey Modern | Mickey Modern
The mouth behind Nik Kershaw opens to Mike Hrano
There's this peculiar theory that, by some bizarre, unexplained trick of nature, dog owners end up looking like their pooches. Crazy stuff, indeed.
Well, my own personal belief is that such weirdness extends deep into the world of Pop - at least in the case of Mickey Modern. Admittedly, he couldn't be mistaken for an Alsatian, or even a poodle, but he does bear an uncanny, blink once and look again resemblance to his charge, Nik Kershaw.
They're both small and, though the colour is different, share a similar hairstyle. The eyebrows are identical.
"If you're not bald and smoking a cigar, nobody thinks you're the manager," says Modern. "Unless you're wearing a camel hair coat and a public school tie, then you can't really have the sense to do anything.
"That view is embedded in everybody, in their sub-conscious. So if they walk into a room and see me... I mean. I've had people come up to me and say 'Nik's brother, right?"
For sure. Modern's appearance and approach to management defy pigeonholing in categories of convenience. But the methods of this fast-talking, extremely friendly East Ender certainly seem to work, even if his techniques are frequently off the wail.
Like his first, cocky foray into management with an outfit called Stan's Blues Band. It had been just another dull, normal day for Mickey, striding as he was down the Old Kent Road in 1979, after his youngest daughter, Kate, had bullied him into taking her to the fair.
Passing the Thomas A Beckett boozer, he was surprised to spot a posse of mopeds outside and a small army of parkas strolling by. A heavy brew of R'n'B blast came wafting through the closed pub doors.
The scene touched a youthful heartstring in plain Michael Turner, and he recalled his days as a mod in the swinging '60s - when his allegiance to the cult had earned him the monicker Modern.
A lightning visit to the fair later, and having safely deposited his satisfied offspring back home. Modern returned to the pub to investigate further.
"The band totally blew me away," he remembers, "I couldn't believe it. I thought 'This is it - I'll have this lot.'
"So I waited until they stopped and asked somebody who the leader of the band was. Then I went over to him and said 'My name's Mickey Modern, I think you're brilliant and I'd like to manage the band. There's a few things I think I could do to put it right - and the name's got to go.' It was as simple as that - and they agreed!"
Goodbye Stan, hello Nine Below Zero.
"We were one of the first bands to go out and buy our own PA and van," says Modern. "We were self-sufficient, we just worked and worked and worked. The money came in, went into a pile, was divided up as wages - and away we went again. We overtook so many bands in a year, purely on hard work and idealism.
"We wanted to be the biggest band in the world, no matter what, and nobody was going to stop us. There was no planning, no shrewd manager saying 'This is what you do boys', just me telling 'em 'Get your heads down and work. Let someone else worry about chart placings, what your profile is in America and how you're selling in Europe. Let's just get on with it - they'll come to us.' That's the way Nik's thing is run, too."
Come 1982, and Nine Below Zero had gone well and truly under, splitting after line-up changes and because of an inability to write their own songs and stop covering everybody else's.
Modern retreated briefly into the background before pulling off another unlikely stunt. "Manager wanted!" pleaded the advert and, as you would, Modern dropped a line in response, possibly imagining "Never know, could be on to a winner here." And he was, because the young musician so urgently seeking guidance turned out to be none other than Mr Kershaw.
"It happened during the death throes of Nine Below Zero," Modern explains. "I was looking around the talent and, of course, when you're looking, you tend to look everywhere - at least I do, I don't care. Anyway, this ad appealed to me, I don't know why, so I wrote back. I'd never done anything like it before."
As a result, Nik sent back some details and pictures - and a demo tape, that boasted nearly all of the material that was later to become his hugely successful debut album. Modern was beside himself with enthusiasm and, following several phone calls of praise, the pair met.
"It must have finally clicked home with him that I actually knew what I was talking about, I suppose," says Modern blankly. "We met in the offices of Rondor Music, because I didn't have a place of me own. Then we just walked up and down the King's Road in the rain, talking.
"My first question to Nik was 'Why do you need a manager?' and he said 'To kick me up the arse!' I thought, great, that's it - that's all you need from an artist, you don't want pretention. And that's the way it's carried on; I've been kicking him and he's been doing it. But I don't have to kick him as often as I used to, because now he knows what he wants."
Just brief months after he'd signed the unknown Kershaw, a typical piece of Modern curiosity and cheek found him landing another - as yet unheard of - talent.
"Before Nik took off, I met this geezer at MCA Records," Modern explains. "He'd come all the way down from Barnsley and was waiting in reception to see an A&R man who'd forgotten all about the appointment.
"I went over and said 'What's wrong, who are you?' He told me he was a songwriter and I felt sorry for him, I really did. And I got this sort of sixth sense, it sounds weird to say that, I know. But I took his tape home and thought, 'Gor, blimey! This is brilliant!' So I rung him up and said your songs are great - and I love the girl singer.
"He said 'That's not a girl - it's me.' That sealed it for me good and proper.
Anyway, his name's Kevin Keys - his real name's Kevin Kitchen, but we couldn't call him that because it sounds made up. We had to make up a name for him so it sounded real."
Kevin releases his debut album, produced by Jolley and Swain, no less, early next year and it'll be the first project out on China Records - which former A&M boss Derek Green formed after 15 years with the label when he split recently.
Such stories of opportunism from Modern may give the impression that he's some crafty cockney wide boy, better suited to dealing in used cars than management. But it's an impression wildly wrong.
"I know some managements who take 30 percent of everything their artists earn - everything," he says.
"Now that's suicidal because as soon as the artist comes of age he's going to turn around and say 'Now listen. I've got no money - and my manager's stinking rich.'
"If they're in it for the money, great. But I'm not. I know it's important, very important, because I've got a family to keep, but I'm in it because I love it and I belong in it. That's different, I think, and if I keep that attitude then I'm bound to do well.
"Everybody in this business is an amateur. There's no GCE in music management or record company know-how."
"When I meet Nik, I can look him straight in the eye and we can have a laugh. We get on with the business; it's the same with Kevin. It's all straight, down the line and we all know exactly where we stand. The minute or second I cease to become useful, or they don't any longer see me as a friend, then, alright, that's fair enough - we'll part friends."
At 40, Modern looks barely more than half his age - but his Peter Pan looks bely his years of experience in the business. He's done the lot, from singing in bands and having his own recording deal, to producing material for himself and others. Outside of the industry; he's done everything from running his own newsagents shop with his wife Jean - he has three children - to sweeping up floors for a photographer and being a porter in Covent Garden.
"There's too much to chronicle, there really is," he admits ruefully. "I've been on tour with XTC as a support band.
I've been spat at by a load of Punks. In the mid-70's, I was on the road with a Rock'n' Roll band in Germany - dressed as Johnny Kidd! I've been part of the swinging '60's... so there's a real depth of experience there, even if I do say so myself, to advise.
"I've actually learned that you've got to make your rules right at the beginning of a career. When I met Nik for the first time, I told him exactly how much I wanted, what percentage, how long for - on the very first day! I said 'This is what we do - now go.'
"You hear stories about the manager pushing his act into doing this, forcing him to do that. It's totally wrong. I'd hate to be a Colonel Tom Parker - doing what he did to Elvis Presley, and what he did to himself, really. But who am I to tell him after he made multi, multi, billions and millions of dollars. Even so, believe you me. I've got a family and I'm really happy - and that's worth all that bloody money.
"And, just to set the record straight, there's a lot of people out there who think that management is just out to take all their money - that's a false image. But a lot of the intelligent people know that they need some champion. You need a champion to go out there and do it for you, to fight for your colour.
"A lot of work management does go unpraised - and I'm not talking about making decisions up front. It's the backroom stuff; tours, gigs - making sure they're advertised well and sold out - television, what to do and what not to do. I mean, I wouldn't put Nik on the Des O'Connor Show, and I wouldn't have Des compering on Nik's tour. I couldn't afford him anyway!
"You have to know what magazines to put your artist in, choose staff; road crew, sound engineers, lighting designers - it's all crucial. These are the things that people don't realise go on and how a manager really earns his money."
With such endless business to take care of, it's inevitable that a line has to be drawn somewhere.
"The first thing you realise when you become a 'successful manager' is the amount of times you have to say no," Modern confesses.
"Because every minute of the day you're being asked question; can Nik do this, will he do that. You very rarely say 'Yes!', and you have to master the art of saying yes even when you really know that eventually you're going to have to say no.
"That's how managers get a reputation as hard bastards. You hear it about Miles Copeland: 'Ooh, he's a hard bastard,' I've met Miles and he's a nice bloke, he's great - but he has to say no lots of times a day and people actually think he's nasty because of it.
"I know some people think I am, in certain areas, but you learn to be economic in your decision; 'NO!' and I've got people around me who say no before things even get to me. So it's just one big chain of nos, and it's very rarely that there's one yes. Amazing, it is!"
In common with any manager worth his salt - or, more to the point, his successful artist, Modern agrees that the passport to results is belief in what you do.
"Attitude is 90 per cent of it," he agreed. "After that, you need to be sharp at the beginning of negotiations, you need to be wise - and that's why it takes a few years.
"You need to go right through the whole bit to become my kind of manager. I'm not a lawyer. I'm not an accountant - which most bands end up being managed by at the end of the day, but that's up to them. By that time, as far as I'm concerned, I'm going to end up saying goodbye 'cos the excitement has gone and there no need for me to be around, propping up the bar and watching what's going on.
"You need belief, you need fire in your belly and you need to know that you're right. This is not my saying, it's Derek Green's, but everybody in this business is an amateur - everybody. We're all as good as each other, all as good as the next hit record - all amateurs. Because there's no GCE in music management or record company know-how.
You learn as you go along - and if you don't learn fast, you don't last. There are loads of tales about getting eaten up by this and swallowed by that in this business, and if you're frightened by them then forget it. It's not for you."
Clearly, Modern is keeping up with the times very nicely indeed, thank you very much, and though his company, Artic Music, is flourishing, his ultimate aim is a record company of his own.
For the moment, he's content to hatch business plots from the spacious Dulwich house that doubles up as an office and home for Modern.
"I'm not moving into the bloody West End - have you seen the prices? Sod that," he laughs.
Right now, he's up to his ears in hopeful demo tapes "they're a joy to listen to - you never know what you're going to turn up" and toying with the idea of making a, wait for it, Bilko Rap!
"I'm a big fan of his," he says. "I'll produce the track and get someone to front it. It's just a bit of fun.
Mickey Modern's a winner, you only need to listen to a minute of his patter to learn that: "If Nik had met me when I was 20-odd, he'd have thought - what a yobbo! But I had to learn to fight to survive.
"I mean, I'm fighting a couple of law suits at the moment," he casually announces. "I can't tell you what they're about, but I'll hang on in there until the bitter end. Because I know I'm right. The people who are trying to sue me have got the wrong ideas - they don't know how this business operates, they really don't.
"But I've come back from the dead so many times, and I'll do it again and again and again - until I drop. It'll never get me down."
You know something? I believe the little blighter.