David Cavanagh – My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For The Prize: The Creation Records Story (2000, new edition 2023)
“But the original meaning of indie was something quite different. It described a culture of independence that was almost a form of protest: a means of recording and releasing music that had nothing to do with the major labels. The groups on indie labels didn’t play ethe same game as Phil Collins or Eurythmics, and nor did they sound anything like them.”
David Cavanagh’s My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For The Prize: The Creation Records Story was originally released in 2000, coinciding with Creation Records’ disbandment. The original book was commissioned at Creation’s commercial peak in 1997, and finished to coincide with the label’s decommissioning in 2000. The book was Cavanagh’s masterpiece, chronicling the rise and fall of Alan McGee’s legendary independent label, and through it the history of independent music in post-punk Britain. Cavanagh tragically died of suicide in 2018. His key work languished out of print for years, but Faber has brought it back into print for a new generation of music fans. The timing couldn’t be more auspicious. 23 years after Alan McGee dissolved Creation, shoegaze is having a moment and bands like Slowdive are more popular than ever.
This will not be an objective review. Creation Records released some of my all-time favourite music – Felt, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Teenage Fanclub. And they were also responsible for inflicting Oasis on the world, a cultural plague from which UK indie music has never recovered. So I want to, as much as feasibly possible, draw a distinction between my musical opinions and Cavanagh’s. In many ways, Cavanagh is the perfect person to tell the story of Creation. He is passionate about the music he’s talking about, but he’s also quick to point out when the music turns to dust, and is able to puncture the pomposity that artists are sometimes guilty of with a wry one-liner. And he’s done extensive research. Over the course of the book he talks to almost everyone involved in Creation, plus other independent labels and musicians around at the same time.
The book’s title comes from the lyrics of ‘Up The Hill And Down The Slope’ by the Loft, one of Creation’s early signings, a Television-esque jangle-pop band fronted by songwriter Pete Astor. I’ll quote the opening lines in full here:
My magpie eyes are hungry for the prize
Give me the money and I’ll take it right between the eyes
My greedy eyes, my beady eyes, so slow and they stare
They are the bright things I might just get them there
The song is about seeing the glamour and the squalor of a fair, knowing that the prize is invariably tarnished with sin and greed, and being excited to partake in it anyway. Written when the Loft were on the rise in the indie world, it’s a metaphor for seeing the grubbiness and greed of the music industry but wanting a part of it anyway. The song was the Loft’s final single; shortly after its release the band would acrimoniously split up in front of their biggest ever audience, with Pete Astor moving on to form the Weather Prophets who never quite recaptured the magic of the Loft at their best. It’s the perfect metaphor for Creation’s series of hubristic attempts to bring their indie music to the charts, culminating in Oasis’ runaway success at the price of the label’s integrity.
At the centre of the book is Alan McGee, a passionate working-class music fan from Glasgow who started Creation Records to release music by himself and his friends as a punk rock rebellion against the stale chart music of the 80s. Cavanagh follows McGee from his early days releasing music by his friend Bobby Gillespie’s band Primal Scream to a small number of hardcore indie fans, through his early success discovering and managing the Jesus and Mary Chain in 1985, to Creation’s artistic heyday in the late 80s and early 90s releasing key albums by pioneering guitar innovators like My Bloody Valentine, The House Of Love and Ride, and overseeing the merging of acid house and indie rock with Primal Scream’s epoch-making and surprising third act Screamadelica (1991), through to his signing of Oasis and the unprecedented success of Definitely Maybe (1994)and (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? (1995)turning Creation into one of the biggest record labels in the UK and making McGee a sought-after figure by the New Labour government hoping to secure young voters with its “Cool Brittania” initiative. Along the way, Cavanagh charts McGee’s rollercoaster of a life, through drug addiction, marriage breakups and nervous breakdowns, across the development of UK indie music, taking in along the way the stories of McGee’s inspirations, co-conspirators and rivals. These include Geoff Travis, the soft-spoken founder of Rough Trade Records and Rough Trade Distribution, Alan Horne, the intractable maverick who founded Postcard Records, Dan Treacy, singer-songwriter with the loveable but chaotic Television Personalities, and Mike Alway of Cherry Red records who founded the beautifully eccentric yet woefully uncommercial él Records.
So did Creation Records sell out? Cavanagh shows us the answer is far from simple. Partially because McGee, from the perspective of his current successful self, would no doubt claim that Creation had been intending to sell loads of records and make loads of money anyway, and it was simply a case of the market catching up with McGee’s taste. But more to the point, Cavanagh demonstrates how throughout the 80s and into the early 90s, the financial and intellectual independence that was so crucial to the indie labels’ sense of integrity and worth was slowly being eroded as the market situation evolved and all the players became more professional and less idealistic. Ultimately the Creation Records that signed Oasis was a very different organisation than the one that released The Jesus And Mary Chain’s debut single. Creation may have started out wilful and passionate, signing artists as talented and diverse as Felt, who produced glorious mystical pop songs by eccentric genius Lawrence accompanied by musical prodigies Maurice Deebank on guitar and keyboardist Martin Duffy, and fiercely intelligent literate songwriters like Momus, but as the decade wore on these brilliant eccentrics would be phased out in favour of more commercial artists. And whilst Oasis’ success would financially eclipse all of Creation’s other bands, their story throughout the 80s is one of increasing compromises made in order to court greater commercial success, frequently at the expense of the artists’ integrity and credibility.
And so as the book progresses, we get the stories of many wonderful artists who flew too close to the sun, their dizzying rise and calamitous fall. House Of Love, a wonderful proto-shoegaze band that combined Guy Chadwick’s elliptical lyrics and passionate vocals with Terry Bickers’ gorgeous spacey guitar lines, have a particularly tragic arc, going from the promising next big things and reviving Creation’s reputation to signing an ill-advised contract with major label Fontana and having their sound scuppered before Bickers’ struggle with mental health led to a severe breakdown in his and Chadwick’s relationship, culminating in a messy split. Ride, one of Oxford’s most exciting guitar bands, similarly start off as the next big thing in indie music, pioneers picking up where My Bloody Valentine left off, before a series of increasingly embarrassing compromises scupper the band, they have their thunder stolen by the vastly inferior Oasis, and guitarist Andy Bell ends up fronting the woefully shit Hurricane No. 1 who infamously placed an ad for their album in loathed right wing tabloid rag The Sun. To add insult to injury, Bell would later wind up playing bass for Oasis. These stories of musical brilliance, hubristic ambition, and colossal failure are just as much the fabric of Creation’s story as their later financial success.
Writing about music is famously tricky, but Cavanagh digs down into what makes Creation’s biggest artistic successes so brilliant and enduring. He is incredibly insightful on My Bloody Valentine’s shoegaze classics Isn’t Anything (1988) and Loveless (1991), providing apt critical analysis whilst also going in depth into Loveless’s painful gestation, a process of excruciating perfectionism from MBV’s genius guitarist Kevin Shields that almost bankrupted the label. Similarly, his analysis of Primal Scream’s surprise acid house/indie mash up Screamadelica (1991) praises its musical innovations whilst exploring the various collaborations with artists outside the band that were absolutely necessary to its brilliance. This is balanced by his wry cataloguing of the sheer absolute drug-addled chaos that was everyday life at Creation Records. His descriptions of the notoriously antagonistic early Mary Chain gigs, with McGee in full Malcolm McLaren Svengali mode, are darkly hilarious, as are his tales of Primal Scream’s reckless indulgences and My Bloody Valentine’s sonic attacks against their audience. Cavanagh excels at portraying characters, and is able to make it feel to the reader like you really know all of Creation’s revolving cast of eccentrics as people. Even when they are being deeply unpleasant, you feel like you genuinely understand where they’re coming from.
The tone changes once Creation sign Oasis. Cavanagh almost certainly does not hold Oasis in the same contempt that I do, but he is quick to point out how their arrival split Creation into rival factions for and against the band, and how their rapid and unprecedented success completely changed the way things were run, with money and sales becoming far more important than artistic exploration. As the real money starts flowing in, the original ideals and passions of the label get swept away. Thus, a record as great as Teenage Fanclub’s power pop classic Grand Prix (1995), coming out the same year as the stratospherically commercially successful (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? Is not seen by its own label as an artistic triumph with respectable sales for a popular indie band but a commercial failure for not shifting similar units to Oasis. To make the point, Cavanagh’s focus shifts away from the music and starts following the finances, as Creation becomes a label driven by profit rather than by passion for music. This has the downside that latter Creation masterpieces such as Velvet Crush’s power pop Teenage Symphonies To God (1994), Super Furry Animals’ gloriously eccentric Fuzzy Logic (1996), or even Slowdive’s shoegaze classic Souvlaki (1993) don’t receive as much musical analysis as Creation’s earlier highpoints, but the book already clocks in at over 700 pages as it is.
Is Alan McGee a genius whose unique musical taste anticipated the future, or a chancer and master bullshitter who got lucky? In many ways, the great thing about McGee is that he is somehow both. While the way he ran Creation was frequently chaotic, he had a knack for turning up at the right place and the right time and picking up artists who were genuinely about to do something interesting. Creation’s retrofuturist outlook – McGee was always as fixated on the mythical 60s as the no-future buzz of punk – meant that while it was frequently less forward thinking than other 80s indies like Factory or 4AD, it was ideally situated to surf the contradictory cultural waves of the 90s. And it remains difficult not to be charmed by McGee’s contagious enthusiasm, a passion for music that served him through the label’s leaner financial years and led to him ultimately folding Creation at its commercial peak precisely because it had stopped being about the music. Cavanagh’s book is essential reading for anyone interested in independent music of the 80s and 90s, and how it changed and mutated to give birth to our current cultural climate. And as a catalogue of some of the most gloriously eccentric weirdos who nearly made it big, it’s indispensable.
David Cavanagh – My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For The Prize
‘The greatest book ever written on British independent music’ Guardian
‘One of the best British music books of the last ten years’ Mojo
Founded by Alan McGee in 1983, Creation Records achieved notoriety as the home of Primal Scream, the Jesus and Mary Chain and other anti-Establishment acts. During the Britpop boom of the mid-90s, the astonishing success of Oasis brought Creation fame on the world stage. In 1999, however, McGee announced his shock departure as his label’s influence over a generation of British music came to a confusing and disappointing end. Containing interviews with Creation musicians, employees, supporters and detractors, this is the inside story of Creation Records – and of British music since the 1980s.