Rock and Roll Book Club: Phill Savidge's 'Lunch with the Wild Frontiers' remembers the glory days of Britpop

Phill Savidge's 'Lunch with the Wild Frontiers.'
Phill Savidge's 'Lunch with the Wild Frontiers.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Well over a decade into his career as a music publicist, Phill Savidge decided to sell his townhouse. When the real estate agent arrived, he looked around at all the gold discs lining Savidge's walls. "Are you still performing?" asked the agent, understandably assuming Savidge was a musician.

"Yes," Savidge writes he thought about responding, "that's right. I am the lead singer of Suede, Pulp, Elastica, Kula Shaker, and Fat Les; I used to spank my arse with a microphone, my inter-song banter is as good as the songs themselves, I used to look like a boy but my ex-boyfriends are more famous than I am, I am handsome, pretentious, and privileged — but I shall never see me in concert — and I am the leader of an event-led anarcho-pop collective whose output has seen better days. I am all these things and more."

What he actually said was: "Yes, but not as often as I'd like to."

Savidge was a music publicist, an unsung role in the industry. Publicists have none of the power, but get all the blame. An album didn't sell? Blame the publicist. Magazine profile turned sour? Blame the publicist. Artist didn't show up for a big interview? Blame...yep, the publicist.

A publicist is a sort of matchmaker, trying to please both their clients — the artists — and the journalists, since if a publicist blows a relationship with a publication, he (in this case) can't do his job.

A typical day in a publicist's life is like the one where Savidge was representing Peter Gabriel for the launch of the Real World record label. Savidge brought one British journalist to the French press event, then had to wait for Gabriel to finish a long day of interviews with French journalists (who went through an entirely different publicist) before he could squeeze the U.K. writer into an airport cab with the former Genesis member.

"That was a great interview," said the enthusiastic journalist returning from the airport. "He answered every question."

"How could he not?" Savidge remembers thinking. "He couldn't get away!"

Savidge also, notably, represented Roy Orbison on his last U.K. publicity tour, shortly before the release of his album Mystery Girl and just a week before his unexpected death of a heart attack at age 52, in 1988. Every journalist who'd spoken with Orbison contacted Savidge asking if they'd been the last. Savidge said yes to every one, but here he finally reveals the truth: Roy Orbison's last U.K. interview was with a women's weekly called Bella.

Lunch with the Wild Frontiers, Savidge's new book, isn't mostly about Roy Orbison, though. Nor is it mostly about the eponymous band, the first group Savidge was assigned to work with during his brief stint at Virgin Records. (They've been nearly forgotten even by Google, and the author goes to pains to assure his readers that yes, the Wild Frontiers did actually exist.)

The book is mostly about the musicians who were first grouped together under the awkward moniker The Scene That Celebrates Itself. (Doesn't every scene?) They then became known as the Camden Scene, mostly — Savidge suspects — because every time one of them did an interview, it was in Camden. Why Camden? Because that's where Savage & Best, the publicity firm that handled all of them, was based. Eventually their music became collectively known as Britpop.

The center section of Lunch with the Wild Frontiers is a collage of Polaroids taken at the Savage & Best office. (The firm's name married a version of Savidge's surname to that of his partner John Best.) Many of the faces are instantly recognizable, with names scrawled below. Andrew "Tiny" Wood of Ultrasound. Fluffy, the trio. "Mr. Jarvis Cocker" of Pulp. Liam Gallagher of Oasis. Richard Ashcroft of the Verve. Damon Albarn of Blur. Crispin Hunt of Longpigs. Even Jon Savage, author of another recent Rock and Roll Book Club pick.

Savidge didn't represent all of those artists, but he knew them all and many more make at least cameos in Lunch with the Wild Frontiers, subtitled A History of Britpop and Excess in 13½ Chapters.

Britpop filtered to the U.S., and has filtered through the subsequent two decades, in pieces. We remember Oasis vs. Blur, we love "Bitter Sweet Symphony," we know Pulp and have followed Jarvis Cocker's subsequent adventures. In the U.K., though, Suede were massive, and of course they were with Savage & Best.

"Suede made it matter what you looked like and released fantastic singles," remembers Savidge, comparing them favorably to the "dowdy" British rockers who preceded them, "but they also portrayed a seemingly complicated but eminently fathomable sexuality that journalists felt extremely comfortable writing about."

Savage & Best made a deal with Suede's label: every time the band landed on a magazine cover, the publicists would get £500. When the group became instant sensations, Savidge suspects, the executives had mixed feelings every time they visited the newsstand and saw frontman Brett Anderson's face everywhere. Savidge had to climb in Anderson's bathroom window to wake the singer for his first cover shoot, an i-D session with a naked supermodel. Anderson, it turned out, didn't need to be woken up...he hadn't even slept.

The book is full of wild stories from behind the scenes of the Britpop scene, but few of them involve actual music: a publicist is there for interviews, not for gigs. The kind of ethical dilemmas Savidge faced included what to do when a hotel clerk accidentally gives you the key to the master suite of a band that may or may not have been Blur, and you discover a brick of cocaine waiting on a coffee table. (Savidge's response: you do some coke, take a bit for the road, and discreetly return the key.) Or, what if you close down a pub with Jarvis Cocker after Pulp play Glastonbury and decide to do a couple of lines literally on the pub steps? Do you offer any to the musician's bodyguard? (Savidge did; ever the professional, the bodyguard declined.)

Some of the scenarios Savidge describes will make any music fan's jaw drop. Here's something you probably didn't have on your bucket list: French-kissing the artist Damien Hirst while sitting on Damon Albarn's lap while David Bowie films the whole episode. Here's another one: hearing a 20-minute demo of "Bitter Sweet Symphony," and wondering whether it's really such a great idea to use that orchestral Rolling Stones sample (famously, it wasn't).

Other episodes will mystify non-Brits. For example, what do you know about Fat Les? Probably not too much, so Savidge helpfully identifies them as "the million-selling anarchic pop-art collective fronted by maverick actor/comedian Keith Allen." The chapter about Fat Les takes the reader down a wild and extremely British rabbit hole that starts with Savidge being contacted by Alex James of Blur (having noted what Savage & Best did for Suede), then being hired for £15,000 cash that Hirst had just made for selling a sketch.

(Given the tax implications and the fact that Hirst was far from sober, Savidge took some friendly advice and returned the bag of cash to Hirst, who threw it on top of two other identical sacks that each contained the same amount.)

Savidge worked with Fat Les to promote "Vindaloo," a song written to parody a soccer chant ("We all like vindaloo...we're going to score one more than you") that turned into an actual chant and a huge hit during the 1998 World Cup. Fat Les's other hits included "Who Invented Fish and Chips?"; the punchline is that England didn't invent fish or chips, but it had the bright idea to put the two together. A 2002 video for the song features Allen's kids: future Game of Thrones star Alfie Allen, and a teenage Lily Allen.

As the '90s ended, so did Savage & Best. Their lease ended, and rather than try to find a new space they could agree on, the duo just parted ways. What became of Savidge?

I was already planning my departure from the music business. This may have come as a shock to John and everyone else at Savage & Best, but it was something I'd been meaning to get around to for quite some time. About twelve years, to be exact. For the record, I'm still in it.

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