Rock promoter Dave McLean once had to talk an early business partner out of killing a rival with a gun hidden in a golf bag. Another time, he got his mum to cater for Iron Maiden’s entire road crew at a career-saving gig, and then blew all his profits on roulette. And then there’s the story of how, as a penniless hustler in the late ‘80s, he tried to book a stadium gig for Bruce Springsteen by fax from a King’s Cross kebab shop.
“I was living in one of these places in Argyll Street [in London], a little hotel,” says the Dundee chancer who scrapped and scrambled his way into a legendary industry career, promoting the likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, “and my wife at the time said ‘you should try to book a big band’. I said ‘who?’ She said ‘Bruce Springsteen’. So I got the Music Week address book and got his manager’s fax. I wanted to put it on at Ibrox Stadium [in Glasgow] but I had no money – not a bean – I don’t know what I was thinking about. He phoned the hotel and Maria the Sicilian receptionist said: ‘You had a phone call from New York, a guy called John Landau, he wants you to call him back’. I thought: ‘That’s gonna cost about 10 pence, so scrap that.’”
Half an hour on Zoom with McLean from his home of Bangkok is a tropical storm of anecdotes. It’s no wonder he’s turned his early days of trying to launch a promoting career among the gangsters and dealers of the ‘70s Dundee punk scene – complete with his own gambling problem – into a movie called Schemers, out in cinemas this week. “A film is a lot easier than a book,” he laughs. Here are some of the real-life stories behind the new rock biopic.
When his mum catered an entire Iron Maiden gig at short notice
Schemers follows McLean’s stuttering start in the business, risking his kneecaps in deals with the local venue mobsters. From putting on club shows by The Rezillos and XTC to impress a student nurse to that fateful 2,400 capacity Maiden gig, his first taste of the big time for which he was woefully unprepared. “It came to the band turning up,” he says. “Rod Smallwood, who is still their manager, says, ‘Where’s the catering?’ I said, ‘How d’you mean?’ ‘Catering, breakfast, lunch, dinner.’ I say, ‘That’s coming soon, I’ll go sort it out.’ So I go to the phone box, phone my mum and say ‘I need you urgently to come and make breakfast for 25 or 30 people. And lunch. And dinner.’”
The time his promoter pal nearly shot one of their rivals
McLean particularly recalls a four-date Thin Lizzy tour from the period, when the “heavy duty” promoter he was working for pulled numerous fast ones, from conning the venue out of thousands of pounds of ticket money to exaggerating overheads in order to rob Dave and his partner of their profits. “My mate John, he goes, ‘Where’s he staying? I’m going to see him.’ So we drop by John’s house and he comes back with a golf bag. I went, ‘You going to play golf, this time of night? It’s getting on, you’ll not get 18 holes in.’ He had a gun in his bag. I went, ‘What you gonna do?’ He said: ‘I’m gonna fuckin’ kill the bastard.’ I says ‘Calm down, you’re over-reacting, I know you’re in a mood, but 20 years of jail…’ Dave, thankfully, succeeded in talking him out of it.
Meeting Kurt Cobain and his ABBA obsession
As McLean inched towards a legitimate career in music, one of his first big breaks was working with Nirvana. “People always say Dave Grohl, nicest guy in rock, which he is, but only equal and surpassed at times by Krist and Kurt,” he says. “The three of them were absolutely brilliant, lovely people. We had so many laughs with them, especially Kurt with his ABBA fixation. You’d go on the bus and it’d be ‘Dancing queen/You’re only 17’. When he used to arrive at the gig early he’d say, ‘I’m just gonna sort out the guest list.’ He’d see a 100 people in sleeping bags that’d been queueing all night and he’d say: ‘There’s the guest list, you gotta look after the fans.’”
Partying with David Bowie on his birthday
Realising that management was where the money was, Dave began representing Placebo alongside his business partner Alex Weston. One major early breakthrough came with the patronage of the ever-clued-up Thin White Duke.
“Morrissey was meant to be going on tour with David Bowie,” McLean recalls. “As Morrissey often does, he cancelled his whole tour. We’d just signed to Hut Recordings, I don’t even think we had a record out then but John Giddings, the agent for David Bowie, said, ‘Why don’t you give this young band a crack?’ Bowie listened to the tape which had ‘Nancy Boy’, ’36 Degrees’, ‘Teenage Angst’ and ‘Bruise Pristine’ on it – six really good tracks. He decided to give them 13 shows opening for him in arenas. He’d wait for them offstage and watch them from side of stage and give them advice.
“A couple of years later, he had his 50th birthday party at Madison Square Garden and he invited Placebo. He paid for all the flights, first class, hotels. The bill was David Bowie, ‘special guest: Placebo’, then under that it was something like Foo Fighters, Lou Reed, Pixies and Smashing Pumpkins or something. Then he guested with Placebo onstage at Irving Plaza [venue in New York]. The first time I got introduced to him, we were sitting in the dressing room at the Irving Plaza. He looked about 30. I said, ‘Has anyone ever told you you look like David Beckham?’ He says, ‘I’m getting that a lot these days!’”
Flying high with the A-list
Dave’s starriest night, perhaps, came at the 1999 Brit Awards. “David Bowie is our special guest. You go backstage and Muhammad Ali is there and everybody’s going, ‘Champ, champ, champ!’ Then Stevie Wonder comes in asking, ‘Do you know where Cher is?’ I say, ‘I think she’s a couple of dressing rooms up there.’ Then Bjorn from ABBA arrives, or Benny, one of the two. So you’ve got Cher, Stevie Wonder, ABBA, David Bowie and Muhammad Ali, it’s not every night that happens.”
Betting it all on Oasis turning up
The gambler in Dave never quite disappeared though. When organising an Oasis show in Bangkok with the likes of Franz Ferdinand, Snow Patrol, Placebo and Ian Brown also on the bill, he found himself putting his financial life on the line once more when the sponsorship funding fell through. “The promoter said, ‘How do I know Oasis will go on stage?’ I said, ‘Because Oasis are a real band’. He said, ‘I booked Britney Spears a year ago, paid a million dollars and she didn’t go on stage… I’m not gonna pay the half million dollars unless you personally guarantee it.’ So I personally guaranteed the money. In the interim, he said, ‘I want to cut some costs, is it absolutely necessary that we have Mr Franz and Mr Ferdinand?’
“The gig happens, the crowd turns up, it’s a big success,” adds McLean. “I kept going backstage to see if everything’s okay because at that time they were a bit frosty, anything could happen. So when they went on stage I jumped up and punched the air singing ‘you gotta roll with it!’ My partner said: ‘I never thought you liked Oasis that much!’ She never knew that I’d guaranteed £500,000 of my own money. I actually call it the Oasis diet because I lost 12 kilos in six weeks while I was promoting them.”