Heard the yarn about Fleetwood Mac?

By Graham Reid

Michael Chugg has promoted the who's who of the music industry. Photo / Dean Purcell
Michael Chugg has promoted the who's who of the music industry. Photo / Dean Purcell

Concert promoter Michael Chugg - the man behind forthcoming shows by Santana and the Doobie Brothers, plus the Laneway and Grassroots festivals among others - tells good stories. By the dozen.

It's the 1977 Fleetwood Mac tour and he's sitting alone at a medieval banquet table backstage, which is covered in whole cooked pigs, sides of beef, lamb, chickens and turkeys ... The band - nine months after the release of their 40 million-selling album Rumours - are on stage with cocaine in beer bottle caps laid out in neat rows on a card table.

"Yeah, the excess of the excess period," laughs the man who indulged along with everyone.

"An amazing tour. The night they played [in Auckland] we had the biggest cream pie and water fight I've ever been involved in."

That blunt honesty - coupled with casual profanity and often a notoriously aggressive persona - has been a hallmark of Chugg's career as much as the stories he tells and the famous names he has encountered.

His reputation for berating audiences has been evident in New Zealand, notably when someone threw a coin at Neil Young at a Supertop show in the early 90s.

Chugg abused the audience at length and had the offender brought backstage: "I got him. Neil read him the riot act. I don't imagine the guy imagined in a million years he was going to hit him in the head, but it was the most beautiful split," he laughs.

His most scary concert was Pearl Jam around the same period: "The crowd was out of control and the coppers were out of control and there were too many people in that tent. I went up and tried to calm it down and Eddie [Vedder of Pearl Jam] went nuclear, 'How dare you talk to our audience'."

He laughs that when Pearl Jam toured in 2009 and the crowd were getting over the top. "Eddie did a Chuggy. I said 'I see you've been taking lessons from me'."

Chugg - "Chuggy" as he's known - has been in promotion since he was a teenager in Tasmania in the early 60s where he put on a dance to raise money for his cycling club.

The show turned a modest profit and he began promoting local acts, then moved to Melbourne at 18 in 1965 where he teamed up with Michael Gudinski (later of Frontier Touring and Mushroom Records) and Michael Browning at the Consolidated Rock Agency which handled club bookings around the city.

The paths of Chugg and Gudinski would be woven together down the decades, although Gudinski did ask to see a manuscript copy of Chugg's recently published, characteristically blunt autobiography Hey, You in the Black T-Shirt which opens with that Fleetwood Mac story.

People were constantly asking when he was going to write a book, so with a promoter friend and a tape-recorder he went to Byron Bay, "got very stoned and laughed for a week, and recorded about 60 hours".

Journalist Iain Shedden of the Australian ("a drummer in the Saints, they tell me the worst drummer they ever had") pulled the book together in Chugg's distinctive voice.

"I gave him a list of people to talk to because obviously I can't remember everything. I'm quite open about it, there are two chapters I couldn't remember at all."

While his book settles a few old scores it also charts his rise and occasional misstep through rock'n'roll and its attendant diversions, to now running his own Chugg Enterprises: "Who would have thought Michael Chugg would have seven people in his accounts department?"

"But money was never why I did this stuff. I was and still am a great believer if you do something right the money comes."

He sailed close to bankruptcy twice and had a heart attack a decade ago, but the anecdotes flow: Auckland promoter Hugh Lynn brokering a deal between rival bikie gangs before the ZZ Top concert; touring the notoriously reclusive Bob Dylan ("Some tours he'll sit and talk, others he'll just grunt at me"); and catching up with Billy Joel in New York ("we go to one of the old Mafia restaurants for lunch").

He's trying to get Robert Plant to tour ("he always pulls out at the last moment") and is working on bringing Roger Waters' tour of The Wall to Australasia - but arena stages are too small and the wall may be too fragile for outdoors: "The effects are magnificent, but the wall itself is made out of nothing. Logistics will dictate whether that comes."

He's toured some hip-hop acts ("I was first to tour Snoop Dogg whom I'm still good friends with") but is "disenchanted" with them: "They do short sets and cause so many problems, the deals change, the posse gets bigger and some of them are quite resentful, they treat us like s***."

Chugg has been a good trendspotter: he picked New Wave in the late 70s while in Britain so he and Gudinski (who had signed the publishing of bands like the Clash, the Police and the Specials) formed Frontier Touring Company: "Our first two tours were Squeeze and the Police."

He's missed some money spinners however: "When I first went out on my own [in 2000] I made a lot of mistakes, two of the biggest were the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Santana. Chili Peppers had just done their biggest world tour ever with Californication, 150 shows, and I was the only promoter who lost money."

He also turned down Bon Jovi, Iron Maiden and Guns N' Roses which Paul Dainty picked up, and "in six months I gave him $6 million".

The forthcoming Laneway Festival in Auckland isn't selling as well as the first "but it's been interesting seeing the top albums charts [of 2010]. All those Laneways acts are in the top 20 albums, so I think people will get it and come."

He's enthusiastic about the Grassroots Festival, nominally for blues artists ("Eric Bibb is fantastic, people need to see Rodrigo y Gabriela because they don't make much sense on record") but laughs that he's slipped Elvis Costello in there.

Then he names another act yet to be announced. It is a striking, sometimes controversial woman who I say has probably never heard the word "blues" used about her.

"Yeah, outrageous. Isn't it?" And he laughs again at his sheer nerve.

CONCERT KING

Who: Australian promoter Michael Chugg.

What: Shows by Santana, Vector Arena, March 20; The Doobie Brothers, Civic Theatre, March 28; Laneway Festival, Aotea Square, Jan 31 with Deerhunter, Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, Beach House and others; Grassroots Festival, Puhinui Reserve, April 23 and 24 featuring BB King, Elvis Costello, Ben Harper, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Eric Bibb and more.

Trivia: Michael Chugg is a collector of Winston Churchill memorabilia which he keeps in the office of his getaway home in Phuket, Thailand.Fleetwood Mac (above) took to the stage in Auckland with cocaine in beer bottle caps back in 1980. Carlos Santana will entertain his New Zealand fans in March and April.

- NZ Herald

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