Biochemistry’s loss was the international music industry’s gain. That’s the career story of Stuart Watson, a well-respected UK record industry veteran whose four decades long resume included stints at Harvest/EMI and as Managing Director of MCA UK, head of MCA International, and MD of top indie label Zomba /Jive.
In his recent FYI interview (a phoner to his home in Phuket, Thailand), Watson recalled that in 1972 “I was a trained biochemist ready to go to York Hospital pathology laboratory.” He never took up that post, as he had already been bitten by the rock ‘n roll bug. While studying at Royal Holloway College in London, he began booking some of the top UK bands of the day to play the campus, with great success.
“Nothing was happening there so I started putting on events. I remember a show by [folk-rockers] Matthews Southern Comfort. The student union wouldn’t finance it so I put up my own money. After hearing their version of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’ on the radio, I booked the band for 220 pounds [$400 Can). The night they played, the song was No. 1, and the support act was Curved Air, No 6 on album chart. We turned away 3000 people, and I made 3000 pounds profit and I kept half!
“I knew then this was my vocation in life. We grew the college into one of the major venues on the circuit. I got to know all the agents, then one of them got a job at EMI and asked me to join him. That was it.”
This is just one of many stories Watson has now collected into a fascinating and very readable memoir, Every Picture Has Its Story. He explains that “retirement freedom enabled me to write it. I started blogging, basically with Facebook. If you use it for a specific purpose, Facebook becomes a little addictive. I started doing posts about my life in music and I got some rather amazing feedback that added to the stories and made them better- I kept hard copies of all the posts and those contributions made them more interesting."
As I was running out of stories I thought 'I need to collect them.’ My neighbor here said ‘it’s easy. Just put them in a book, and if anyone is interested they’ll buy it. If not just keep it for your family and yourself. It was never a commercial exercise.”
Watson notes that “I loved writing it. It gave me such satisfaction and relieved any chance of boredom during retirement. I did not really know if it'd be of any interest but feedback has been so good. Some reviews have brought tears to my eyes. People get what I was trying to do, and it has been a very personal and rewarding project.”
Assisting in the creation of the book was the fact that Watson has, as he says, “always been a collector. As a kid it was bird’s eggs, now totally taboo, then stamps, then aeroplane registration numbers. I probably have one of the largest collections of music memorabilia in the world and I had done a separate book on that which took me four years.”
He is proud to be part of the documentation of such a creatively fertile period of music. “I think it is such a valuable era, one that will never be duplicated. I think to myself now- ‘name the acts of today that’ll be around in 20 years time. I can probably come up with three, but then there were literally hundreds. So few people bothered to put down their own personal experiences and that is such a shame as this is history. It needs to be kept, especially with so many people dying. It is irreplaceable.”
When asked to single out his favourite music era, Watson responds with “the music festivals of the late ‘60s. I started going to the National Jazz and Blues Festival and seeing packages with 20-30 top acts on same bill. I went to the The Isle of Wight Festival in 1969 with Bob Dylan as the headliner. The Who played it too.
“I somehow found myself backstage in the place where the helicopter landed and I got a set of autographs and I started chatting to the artists. At the end of that fest we stayed behind to help clear the rubbish as they paid a pound a bag. We were one of the last cars to leave the island. As we got to the ferry port near midnight, the ferry was leaving. I yelled out ‘come back' and it did. In the car behind was Richie Havens, and we hung out together on the boat. That era was undoubtedly the best. There was no bubble around the artist then.”
Over the course of his long career, Watson worked closely with and befriended stars ranging from Tom Petty, Freddie Mercury (he was the first person to hear "Bohemian Rhapsody" when Mercury played it to him, on piano, in his London apartment) and Glenn Frey to Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys.
In our wide-ranging chat, we learn that two of his all-time favourite artists are Canadian.
“Leonard Cohen tops the list for me, even more than Neil Young,” he says. “I went to university from 1969 to 1972 and Leonard’s first album never left my turntable. My friends used to call it music to commit suicide by, but I loved it. The first time I saw him was in 1970 at Leeds University, then at Royal Albert Hall in 1972. I then didn’t see him again until four years ago, when I paid $650 for a ticket to see him in London.”
Watson never got to meet Cohen, but a mutual friend gave Watson three limited edition Cohen pastel prints for his 40th birthday. “They’re just beautiful, and some of my most treasured possessions,” says Watson.
Neil Young was/is another favourite. “I loved everything he’d done, and I saw him play in England prior to Tonight’s The Night coming out. Everyone was waiting for the Harvest stuff and the early material, but instead Neil played every song from Tonight’s The Night, even though everyone screamed for the classics.
For the encore, he came back and said ‘ OK, here’s one you’ll know,’ and he plays 'Tonight’s the Night’ again!”
“Much later I saw Neil at Rock in Rio. I was there with Britney Spears, who was with Justin Timberlake at the time. Neil’s agent Barry Dickins introduced me to him and I told Neil about that encore choice. He laughed his head off!”
Another Canadian icon Watson enjoyed working with was Joni Mitchell. “She was an absolute darling, so gentle, kind, lovely and talented . At that stage  she was doing what she wanted until David Geffen and Elliot Roberts at Elektra/Asylum were pressuring her to put out the single 'You Turn Me On (I’m A Radio).' She wasn’t enamoured of it, and didn’t think it fit her record. The song was a hit, but I don’t think she ever wanted to be a commercial entity.
“I recall the two of us having dinner at the Mayfair Tandoori in London, just having a normal conversation, but she was quite bitter about being forced into that.”
At the time, Elektra/Asylum was licensed to EMI in the UK, which meant Watson also worked extensively with The Eagles early on. “I was doing promotion at the time and I couldn’t get anyone at radio to play them. The Eagles came to England ‘cos they recorded with Glyn Johns in Barnes, close to where I lived.
“The first real date was at the Festival Hall in London. Very ambitious but it was targeted at Americans living in London and they were 90 per cent of the audience. They got standing ovations. I hung out with the band all day. My hair then was as long as Glenn Frey’s. The two of us went off and got hammered after the show. We stayed friendly and six months later they returned to UK and toured with Neil Young. They blew him off the stage because Neil only did his new songs.”
“I later saw Glenn again in LA as he signed a solo deal with MCA. We stayed friends forever, until the sad news of his death in January.”
Over the decades, Watson frequently came into contact with Canadian artists and industry notables. His unique expertise in the Asian market was put to good use by CIRPA and Canadian Music Week for their activities, as Evelyn Cream, President, Athena Music International, tells FYI.
“As Project Manager, I worked with Stuart Watson while organizing CIRPA’s Mission To Japan in 2008, CMW’s Spotlight on China (2009) and Spotlight on South East Asia (2011). His amazing connections with the top decision makers in all the respective countries ensured the Canadian delegates had direct access to the people who could, and did, help to increase their international revenues. He did everything he could to ensure the Canadians not only met the appropriate people but he also help to bridge any business culture gap.
“No matter what country, what sector, I could tell that the Asian companies had enormous respect for Stuart. I loved working with him, a straight-shooter, with a great eye of detail, who always delivered a high quality of work in a professional manner. He genuinely cared that all of the projects would become a huge success.”
Watson tells us that the CMW-related work came about as “Neill Dixon and I go back a long way, doing some work together. After my years at Zomba International Record Group, 1999-2002, I went back to my own consulting company in Asia, SWAT. There were so few independent labels left that I started doing work in Asia for government bodies, from the UK, Spain, America and Japan.
“Neil was one of the first to contact me to say ‘look we’ve got some sponsorship here and we want to do a spotlight on Asia at CMW over three years, looking at different markets and ending up with China.’
“I said ‘we’ve just gone into China now and that’ll be great timing. We can bring some of the top guys over.’ So we embarked on a three year project. We did missions from Canada to China and Japan, and then from China, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines, to Toronto.”
Watson's last visit to CMW, in 2009, just prior to his 60th birthday, was actually his final business trip prior to settling into enjoyable retirement in Thailand.
To order Every Picture Has Its Story go here