Once upon a time, we built the largest independent record company in the world and that is the reason I believe I have been honoured with a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Running a record company can be a lot of fun and yes it did involve sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll! Here are a few stories I shared as I accepted my Star on behalf of the Virgin family.
Our first signing was a 17-year-old called Mike Oldfield who’d created a beautiful album called Tubular Bells. I was 18-years-old. On the way to his first concert he panicked and told me he couldn’t go ahead with it. Well, we had the BBC filming it and Stevie Winwood and Mike Taylor from the Rolling Stones performing. It just had to go ahead. I stopped my car, pulled out the keys to it and dangled them in front of him. “If you can get over your panic attack, the car is yours!” He somehow snapped out of it – the concert was a magnificent success – and on the back of it, Tubular Bells went on to sell 15 million albums.
The Sex Pistols were our next big signing. Thanks to them being dropped by EMI the day before for swearing on TV and A&M the very next day for throwing up all over their office! We called the album ‘Never Mind The Bollocks – Here’s the Sex Pistols’.
The police promptly arrested us and took us to court for the word Bollocks, believing it was a nickname for Balls. Our chief witness was the local universities linguistics expert. He told the court that the word Bollocks was actually a nickname given to priests in the 18th Century. So it either meant ‘Never Mind the Priests - Here’s the Sex Pistols’.
Or,he said, because priests were apt to talk a load of rubbish in those days ‘Never Mind the Rubbish – Here’s the Sex Pistols’. The linguistics expert just happened by good fortune to be a priest himself and asked me if I’d like him to wear his priest collar to court. You can guess my answer. Thanks to him – and his dog collar (as we call it in England) - we were acquitted!
A month later we were on the River Thames for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee with the Sex Pistols singing their alternative version of ‘God Save The Queen’. The police raided the boat and arrested the manager. 25 years later, on her Golden Anniversary, I found myself kneeling down before her at Buckingham Palace to receive my knighthood. As she raised the sword I was praying that she’d forgotten THAT incident and that my head would be in place when the sword came down! Fortunately just a gentle tap on the shoulder and a friendly ‘Arise Sir Richard’
I went to extraordinary lengths to sign artists I admired. When Janet Jackson mentioned she’d like to make her new first album, I took her up in my hot air balloon over the English countryside – and threatened to use her as ballast - unless she signed. She signed.
Peter Tosh was Bob Marley’s co-writer, guitarist and powerhouse behind the band. I went to Jamaica to sign him. For three days I sat outside his house waiting for him to let me talk to him. Finally he let me in. He then put me through his initiation test. He rolled joints a foot long and within an hour I was lying prostrate on the floor. I’d passed his initiation test. He signed with us and his first album was called – surprise, surprise – ‘Legalise It!’ It has become the anthem for the legalise movement ever since.
Boy George of Culture Club, another Virgin artist, became a heroin addict. He lost two friends from overdoses in his home and was finally ready for help. I took him and a four foot tall female doctor to my home in Oxford to help wean him off heroin. Within three days the press were outside the front door running editorials demanding the police arrest him. To escape, George and I crawled through the long grass to the nearest church to make out getaway. The tiny doctor didn’t need to crawl – she walked alongside us, her head way below the long grass!
44 years ago I fell in love with a girl who worked in a bric-a-brac shop called Dodo’s in Notting Hill. I lived on a houseboat then. The owner of the shop insisted I buy something every time I went in to see her. My houseboat was soon full of ‘Dive in Here for Tea’ signs or ‘Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained’ posters. One day I bought a Danish Bacon poster with the pig licking his lips looking at a chicken on a nest saying ‘Now That’s What I Call Music’. A week later we were looking for a name for a new album series we were planning to launch and glanced up at the poster. ‘Now! That’s What I Call Music’ has become the biggest selling album series in history. And as for that lady? She is now the mother of our two lovely children and was with me at the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She’s put up with me for all these years! So the crowd gave her a huge round of applause.
Strangely I was also in part responsible for the biggest selling single in history. I had been close to Princess Diana and when she died I decided to raise as much money as possible for her charities by putting out an album in her memory. I rang Elton John and asked him if he and his writer Bernie Taupin could alter the lyrics to ‘Candle in the Wind’. He agreed. I then tried to get permission for him to play it at her service. Initially the Royal Court were against it but with the help of Tony Blair and The Archbishop we persuaded them - and the rest, as they say, is history.
I’ve had a lifetime of people pitching me with music tapes and CDs in all sorts of strange places. I was once in a black cab in London and the taxi driver wanted to play me his tape. I said fine. He then responded by saying “I’ll spare you that but my Mum loves you. Can we go to her house for tea instead?” I apologised and said that I had to be on a live TV show. When I got out to pay, the taxi driver took off his hat and winked at me. He was Phil Collins.
Phil Collins, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Genesis, Roy Orbison, Lenny Kravitz, Paul Abdul, The Smashing Pumpkins, Janet Jackson, Katy Perry, Daft Punk, Bastille Captain Beefheart, The Human League, Ben Harper, Emeli Sande and of course The Spice Girls. I remember well the day after signing The Spice Girls travelling to the Virgin Megastore in Italy with the five fun girls with their infectious laughs. It was easy to see they’d go on to great things. Virgin has signed some wonderful people over the years. I even had the privilege of putting on Queen’s first ever concert in Hyde Park.
But my lifetime’s ambition was to sign the best rock ‘n’ roll band of all time. As a teenager I’d interviewed Mick Jagger for my magazine. Soon Keith Richards was hanging out in our country recording studios The Manor. It was in fact he who taught me how to roll my first joint.
One night there was a loud knocking at the heavy front door of the 16th Century house. I opened it to find a very large man with a gun in his hand basically telling me he’d come to kill Keith Richards because he believed he was in the house with his wife! I tried to calm him down. It was only when I saw a very naked Keith Richards plus the very naked wife running away from the house across the lawn that I invited him in to search the house, assuring him that Keith would do NO such thing! A little while later the Rolling Stones finally signed to Virgin. That night I’m told we had a party that none of us can remember!
Being given the Star outside the offices of the Guinness World Records is also something of an honour. I have a few of these records but the unofficial world record I believe I hold is to have been pulled out of the sea on five separate occasions by helicopter! Within a handful of weeks our space company Virgin Galactic will add to these world records by being the first commercial spaceship company in to space with astronauts on-board. Watch This Space for that one!
This Star is for all the Virgin family – the people who have worked for us, the artists who created for us and of course the people who bought, played and loved our music. Thank you.