In October 1999, Alan McGee was the most famous record label boss in Britain. Creation Records, the tiny indie he’d co-founded in 1983, had put out era-defining albums by Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine and Teenage Fanclub before the Scottish impresario even got around to stumbling across some band called Oasis. After Britpop made him a household name, McGee was recruited as an adviser by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who was trying to make ‘Cool Britannia’ happen. When Blair invited him for dinner at fancy country manor Chequers, McGee wasn’t sure what to expect – but it certainly wasn’t the gurning, cigar-wielding spectre of Jimmy Savile.
“He bowled in going: ‘Now then, now then’ and proceeded to run the whole fucking dinner,” remembers McGee, who at the time had no idea about Savile’s years of predatory sexual abuse. “I didn’t know he was a fucking paedophile or anything like that, but I was sat there thinking: ‘This guy hasn’t been famous for 15 years, what in the fuck is he doing here?’ His behaviour was letchy. He was a fucking horror, man.”
That bizarre glimpse inside the British establishment is just one moment from McGee’s rollercoaster ‘90s that makes it into Creation Stories, a new biopic directed by Nick Moran from a script by Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh. In the film, Savile’s sinister presence is used as evidence of the rot eating away at the heart of Blair and his ‘New Labour’ project. In truth, the real McGee’s feelings towards the former Prime Minister are more ambivalent. “Irvine put his own viewpoint into the film and Blair gets cunted off,” he says. “I didn’t change what Irvine was saying because it fit with his script, but I have zero problem with Tony Blair. I know him personally and I quite like him.”
It must be a surreal experience to sit and watch your own biopic. Not only are a lifetime’s worth of complexities sanded down to a smooth three-act narrative, but there’s a bunch of kids pretending to be you and your mates. McGee says he “always thought it would be totally cool” to have a film made about his life, but didn’t realise it might actually happen until Welsh read his 2014 memoir Creation Stories: Riots, Raves and Running a Label and set about turning it into a screenplay. McGee, a myth-maker by trade, knew full well that Welsh would likely take a few liberties with his story in the process.
Mostly the film sticks to the facts. Alan McGee was born on 29 September 1960 in the West End Road area of Glasgow. His dad, John, was 20 and had met his mum Barbara, 19, when she came in to do the books at the car mechanics where he worked as a panel-beater. McGee had a difficult relationship with his father. He cheerfully tells me the film’s big moment of emotional reconciliation is one occasion where Welsh’s script diverges from reality. “I suppose you’ve got to give it a happy ending. The joke is I haven’t actually spoken to my dad for 20 years, so there isn’t really a happy ending in that way,” he says, adding without missing a beat: “Although the ending for me is happy, because I’m quite alright about it, y’know what I mean?”
“In six weeks, Creation Records put out three fucking stone cold classics”
As a teenager at King’s Park Secondary School, McGee bonded over rock ’n’ roll with a lanky kid in the year below called Bobby Gillespie. McGee even took a 14 year-old Gillespie to see his first ever gig: Thin Lizzy at the Glasgow Apollo in 1976. Given that they shared so many formative experiences, how must it have felt, 16 years later, to be celebrating Gillespie’s band Primal Scream winning the first ever Mercury Prize for ‘Screamadelica’ with a pyramid of cocaine the size of a sandcastle? The boys, you imagine, very much back in town. “Listen, it was fantastic!” says McGee with a cackle. “For me that was probably the best part of the entire label: that I managed to break Primal Scream. I’d signed them in 1983 and I broke them in 1990. That’s probably the longest lead-in to success ever. It’s that long that Bobby kids on that he started in 1990! The ‘80s have been written out of history according to him!”
McGee spent much of the ‘80s managing The Jesus and Mary Chain and putting out jangly indie records by bands like The Loft and The Jasmine Minks. Towards the end of the decade he discovered ecstasy and then got really into acid house, as is so often the way. His passion for the music, and the pills, rubbed off on Primal Scream, and the influence of both is all over ‘Screamadelica’. It was released on September 23, 1991, the start of a remarkable run for Creation which that November also saw them put out My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Loveless’ and Teenage Fanclub’s ‘Bandwagonesque’. “In six weeks we put out three fucking stone cold classics,” says McGee. “The label never got any better than that!”
That didn’t mean they were making money. By 1992 the label had run up so much debt McGee had to sell 49 per cent of Creation to Sony, although as he reasonably points out they had a pretty good ride first. “What you’ve got to understand is we started with no money,” he says. “We weren’t an offshoot of a major record company. It was just me doing it. For us to get that big was pretty fucking incredible. We had three top five bands with no backing. We were just selling records and making it work. It was as DIY as you could ever be.”
You may already know this, but McGee did end up making a lot of money. The night he just happened to catch an unsigned Oasis playing to a near-empty King Tut’s in Glasgow has long been the stuff of rock ’n’ roll lore. As Creation Stories would have it, McGee is at the gig by chance because he’d missed his train. “That’s bollocks!” he snorts. “The real story was that I had a girl pal that I’d been involved with, Debbie Turner. We were great friends. She was playing her first ever show so I went up to kind of freak her out. She knew Noel and Liam because she shared a rehearsal room [at the Boardwalk in Manchester] with ‘em. Basically I was chasing her, that’s why I showed up.”
“I signed oasis because I was chasing a girl”
The barely-attended King Tut’s show where McGee first saw Oasis and offered them a deal was in May 1993. Just three years, two months and 10 days later the Gallagher brothers played to 250,000 people over two nights at Knebworth, the biggest rock gigs Britain has ever seen. By then ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?’ had already broken records by selling 347,000 copies in a single week – this in the days when an album cost £15 a pop! Oasis’ supersonic success made McGee seriously rich, the sort of rich politicians just can’t ignore. In the ‘90s he was one of the Labour party’s biggest donors – to the tune of at least £100,000 – and he remains proud of changes he helped influence like the ‘New Deal for Musicians’, which gave financial support to unemployed performers and helped bands like The Zutons.
“People go on and slag Labour off for the late ’90s and early ’00s, but look where we’re at now.” says McGee. “Blair and Brown made Britain money, and you could be a musician on the New Deal. I changed the law on that! Now if you’re on benefits the government just wants to take you out. They don’t want musicians on the books.”
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone more qualified to write about achieving rollercoaster success in the Britpop era than Irvine Welsh. The film of his cult novel Trainspotting came out in 1996, the same year Oasis played Knebworth, and similarly cemented itself into the zeitgeist. That film’s director Danny Boyle is an executive producer of Creation Stories, so it was perhaps inevitable they’d look to it for casting inspiration.
“They proposed Ewan McGregor to me,” reveals McGee. “I went: ‘I don’t look like that!’ I’m not a good looking chap! I’m just a wee guy from Glasgow. Then they went: ‘What about Spud?’ I was like: ‘Fucking right!’ He’s such a great actor, Ewen Bremner. He gets me. He so gets me.”
“Alan lived like a rock star”
– Ewen Bremner
Back in the glorious summer of 2019, when none of us knew how good we had it, NME went to the Black Truffle cafe in London’s Belsize Park to see how Bremner was getting on with “getting” McGee. He was there shooting a scene for Creation Stories in which he’s interviewed by a journalist played by Suki Waterhouse. She asks him whether it’s true Bill Clinton stayed at his house in Wales. Bremner-as-McGee smiles and confirms the rumour before calling Clinton a “tight cunt”.
Afterwards, over the road at The Washington pub, I ask Bremner why McGee is so convinced he gets him. What has playing the man taught him about how he became Britpop’s great svengali? “I think it’s a complex collision of different factors,” says Bremner. “His childhood forged in him a determination to not back down. He came out on top, despite all the madness.”
That determination, reasons Bremner, was what enabled McGee to achieve such success even though many of his bands could start a fight in an empty room. “Most of the bands he’s famous for are really contentious groups: brothers that are tearing each other’s throats out or bands constantly on the brink of implosion,” he points out. “These are the kind of personnel most people would stay away from, but he had an appetite for it. He really maximised the experience as much as he could in terms of drink and drugs and pushing the boat out. He was living like a rock star even though he was supposed to be the guy holding the reins.”
Out of this chaos, McGee consistently produced gold. Creation Stories suggests this could be down to the fact that McGee is an actual alchemist, having closely studied the works of the occultist Aleister Crowley. “There’s a theme in this film that I really enjoy about the idea of magick and alchemy, which is something that McGee really got into,” says Bremner. “It’s almost like there’s a cabal of different kinds of sorcerers or alchemist figures through pop culture in the age. You’ve got Malcolm McLaren, Tony Blair and Jimmy Savile: all these different kinds of people that wielded this dark power. In public they were one thing and in private they were another, but they had this strange pull on society. They could shape-shift. Alan McGee is plugged in with those guys.”
“If you want a cheesy biopic, don’t come near our fucking film”
–Nick Moran, director
Outside the pub, Nick Moran is waiting to usher Bremner back to set. Although he’s now an accomplished director, you’ll probably remember him best from his leading role as Eddie the card shark in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. He’s lost none of that swagger. “I am fucking bored with vanilla, predictable, ‘McCool’ rock ‘n’ roll biopics that don’t show any sex, any drugs and only a little bit of sanitised, middle of the road, boring fucking rock ‘n’ roll,” he tells me when I ask him what it’s like making Creation Stories in the wake of big-budget musical romps like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman. “If you want to see a slightly cheesy biopic about a talented musician with some troubles who ends up playing a stadium, then watch that! But don’t come anywhere near our fucking film because we’re gonna have something completely different.”
That’s a billing McGee clearly approves of. For the most part, the man himself seems pretty happy about having his life and times memorialised as a rip-roaring rock star yarn about a man chasing an impossible dream and catching it. He does have one minor quibble, however. He was never all that serious about the alchemy stuff. “Nobody studied the occult and conjured up Oasis,” he says. “It just fucking happened, man.”
‘Creation Stories’ will be available on Sky Cinema from March 20