The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club: A fascinating Allen Klein biography


David Safar
David Safar (Jay Gabler/MPR)

At The Current, we love music and we also love books about music. In partnership with MPR's The Thread, we've started a series called The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club. Each month, we pick a book about the music we love, and one of our staff members shares a hot take on the book. We hope you'll read along with us, and share your thoughts both in the comment section and via social media: #RockandRollBookClub.

This month, David Safar writes about Fred Goodman's new book Allen Klein: The Man Who Bailed Out the Beatles, Made the Stones, and Transformed Rock & Roll.

One of the most cliche questions debated among music fans is whether the Beatles or the Rolling Stones are the greatest rock band of all time. In 1967 (or earlier, according to Goodman's account), Allen Klein's answer was: both. One of the most notorious figures in the history of rock music, Klein is given a new look in Fred Goodman's biography, Allen Klein: The Man Who Bailed Out the Beatles, Made the Stones, and Transformed Rock & Roll.

The business of creating rock and roll stars is usually left to fiction and Hollywood biopics. It is usually laced with high drama, taboos, and tales of mischief. Rarely does a book capture the real lives of the people who architected the careers behind the names that make up rock and roll legends like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. As in his previous book Mansion on the Hill, Goodman brings rock history to life; in this case, through the stories behind the career of the man who managed two of the biggest names in rock history.

Goodman humanizes Klein (1931-2009) by telling the story of a young boy from New Jersey who spent part of his childhood in an orphanage and then went on to join the military and graduate from college. This sets the tone for a story that is as much about the American dream as it is about the music business. In some ways, the art isn't in the music but in the deals that led to the individual success of Klein and the artists he managed.

Characterizing Klein as a man out for himself with a genuine interest in helping artists make a living is contrasted with his later career move to become the system he worked to change. From his early work with Sam Cooke, Klein changed the rules in the music business by recognizing that the rules were mostly unwritten. His true talent lay in outmaneuvering an unsuspecting system of record labels and publishing companies. Klein's first vocation, as an accountant auditing publishing companies, was merely an entry point to access to the careers of talented artists who could be wooed by his promises of financial success.

Klein's early work auditing record companies to get more money for his clients led to his becoming the manager of the Rolling Stones in America. Goodman portrays Klein as a gambler: a guy who might have been in over his head when he promised artists he could help them get rich off exploiting existing record deals. The trust his clients gave him enabled Klein to move from auditing record companies to bullying them into renegotiating more favorable terms for his artists.

The early deals he made for Sam Cooke established his reputation and gave him access to artists like the Stones and, eventually, the Beatles. Goodman treats Klein's role with the Beatles as a career obsession. That obsession wasn't just Klein's desire to see the Beatles make the money he thought they were worth, it was partly to capitalize on band's success to his own benefit. He picked up the Beatles at a time when the band was reaching the sun-setting phase of their lifecycle and he helped to solidify their financial future. It's hard to give Klein much credit for the Beatles' status in music history, but it's a compelling story that makes you question where the band would have been without him.

Goodman reveals Klein's true ambition not only to be wealthy, but to be considered an equal with the stars he represented. Klein's prowess as a businessman and person interested in getting rich in the music business eventually led him to become part of the system he once criticized. The young entrepreneur who helped turn the tables on record companies eventually started his own, ABKCO, which later put Klein at odds with the same artists he once sought to help become rich.

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