MBW’s Key Songs In The Life Of… is a series in which we ask influential music industry figures about the tracks that have – so far – defined their journey and their existence. This time, it’s the turn of Stuart Camp, manager of Ed Sheeran since before the UK singer-songwriter/global superstar had a record deal. The Key Songs In The Life Of… series is supported by Sony Music Publishing.
In a previous interview with MBW, Stuart Camp, when asked to describe Ed Sheeran in three words, went for Talented, Energetic and Focused. Asked to describe their relationship, he chose Unorthodox, Close and Productive.
All, undoubtedly, are supremely apt and accurate. But, just as certainly, he would have been sorely tempted by six alternatives, far from the wheelhouse of professionalism and mutual respect.
Because this particular manager/artist relationship is defined, like a great many truly deep friendships, particularly male friendships, by a burning, constant, almost pathological need to take the piss out of each other.
There will occasionally be hugs, there will inevitably be tears, and there will always be loyalty and love. But, mostly, there’ll be wind-ups, insults and nicknames – all borne out of a never-ending (and never to be underestimated) quest to make each other laugh. Or, failing that, to make whoever’s listening laugh at the other one.
So, when Camp is asked if he was tempted to leave his main man out of this list of records that changed his life, the answer is obvious, and the answer is: ‘Obviously!’
He didn’t, though, and Sheeran’s debut single, The A Team, is the most recent stopping-off point in Camp’s Key Songs story, which starts, just like his star client did, in a small town in rural England…
1. Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Relax (1983)
This was the first record I ever bought; it was actually a joint purchase with my sister, we both put in 50p or whatever it would have been at that time.
We got it from Woolworths in Bishop Stortford, Hertfordshire, and I’d have been nine years old. We played it on a shared record player that would only work with a two-pence piece Sellotaped to the arm.
I honestly don’t remember why we chose this particular single, or where we’d have heard it, because it certainly wasn’t being played on Wonderful Radio 1 [the single was banned by the UK pop station’s breakfast DJ of the era, Mike Read, who found the lyrics offensive].
There were stories about Relax in the press, and we were sort of aware of the furor, but I obviously had no idea what the lyrics were about or why people were getting so worked up about it.
I actually only realized that they were a bit naughty when [second single] Two Tribes came out and my mum let me stay up until midnight to watch the video on Channel 4.
“It was the first time I properly fell for a band, my first passion project – and the first time you wait three years for a second album [Liverpool] that turns out to be quite underwhelming.”
With Relax, I didn’t know it was risqué; it was just exciting.
The other bands we liked were people like Wham, Spandau Ballet or Duran Duran, who were fine, but you could tell straight away, there was more energy here.
It was the first time I properly fell for a band, my first passion project – and the first time you wait three years for a second album [Liverpool] that turns out to be quite underwhelming.
2. Sonic Youth, Teen Age Riot (1988)
Quite a big leap, isn’t it? I moved to Suffolk when I was 11, and the school I went to was slap bang in the middle of two US airbases, so there were lots of American kids in our classes.
That meant that from about the age of 13 I was being introduced to bands like Black Flag, Hüsker Dü and The Dead Kennedys by the older kids – really getting an education in that US alternative scene.
And then hearing Sonic Youth was the watershed moment. I was buying records constantly by then. I was getting dinner money, but not spending any of it on food – which is bizarre when you look at me now.
I’d just save it all and buy a new record every Monday, without hearing it. That was the case with Sonic Youth, certainly. I think maybe I’d read an interview with U2 in Rolling Stone who had said that Daydream Nation [the album from which Teen Age Riot was taken] was the best record of the year.
“It was so different, so discordant; I listened to it over and over and over again.”
When I got it home, I really did think the record player had finally broken. It was so different, so discordant; I listened to it over and over and over again. For a while I think I probably only listened to U2, REM and this.
Push comes to shove, REM are probably my favorite band of all time, and they’d have been the other band closest to getting on this list, but I just couldn’t pick one particular track. That period, with records like Document, Green and Automatic For The People, they were untouchable.
I still listen to Daydream Nation now and I still love it. I only really get to listen to music in isolation now when I fly, and this is one that I’ll still always go for on a long flight.
3. Ash, A Life Less Ordinary (1997)
This is the very first record I worked on professionally, when I joined Infectious/Mushroom in 1997. I joined in August and I think we started on this in September.
I was the office junior, so a lot of my earliest time in the business was spent putting promo stickers on this single. Ah, the glamour.
It’s from the film of the same name, Danny Boyle’s first film after Trainspotting, which was supposed to be the transition to Hollywood, an out-and-out blockbuster. It didn’t really turn out that way, but, film aside, this is a bloody good record. And it never appeared on any album, much to the annoyance of [Infectious/Mushroom founder] Korda Marshall and Pat Carr, who ran Infectious.
I went on to work quite a bit with Ash and they were really great guys, even if it did take quite a while to understand the accent. We still see them around.
Korda was a great mentor. He was always amazingly calm. He has this passion and integrity and he really cares – and of course he has this tremendous A&R sense. He’s also really good with staff. He can manage to forget everyone’s name constantly, and yet still make a company feel like a real family unit.
“We got merged with a major [Warner] a little later, and that was such a culture shock: wait, what, you don’t even do your own post?!”
Working at Infectious then was so exciting, just brilliant – and the very best place to learn about the business. I think that’s true of a lot of independent labels, because you have to do everything.
You work all the hours in the world, you get involved in every aspect of every record, you get paid bugger all and you love every second of it.
You were just thrown in at the deep end. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I found out that if you pretended you knew what you were doing for long enough, then sooner or later, without realising it, you would actually know what you’re doing.
We obviously got merged with a major [Warner] a little later, and that was such a culture shock: wait, what, you don’t even do your own post?!
4. James Blunt, Goodbye My Lover (2005)
I ended up as the marketing guy for the rock bands at EastWest (UK), before it was rebranded as Atlantic. I was looking after Muse, Garbage, Funeral For A Friend.
But then there was this guy called James Blunt. He’d been signed in the US, and they didn’t know what to do with him.
Me and the radio plugger, Jasper Burnham, were at a wedding in Wales one weekend, and he played me the demo in his car. No one was in a hurry to release it, trust me, but the two of us thought there was something there.
And I thought, in particular, that this track would be the one to change everything, the one to catapult James Blunt into a new universe. You’re Beautiful? Nah, not so much; this is the one. And I still think it’s the most moving song on the album.
Monday after the wedding, I go into the office, stick my hand up and ask if I can work the record.
James had a lot going against him, and we certainly didn’t expect the level of success he got. He was military, and that wasn’t seen as a good thing then, it was a strike against you.
“the whole team, would have taken a bullet for James, we just so wanted him to succeed. Which he did, and then some.”
And he was very posh – again, not a good thing. The label was reluctant to put him on TV because of how that would all come across, even though we were saying, Honestly, he is the funniest guy, he can handle any criticism thrown at him, turn it round and make people like him.
Max [Lousada] was heading up Atlantic at that point, and he, like all of us, the whole team, would have taken a bullet for James, we just so wanted him to succeed. Which he did, and then some. He’s great fun to work with and to hang out with; there’s never a dull moment, let’s just say that.
Of course the whole thing segued into the next stage of my career and the next record, because it was James’s managers, Todd Interland and Frank Pressland, who asked me to join them at Twenty First Artists.
5. Ed Sheeran, The A Team (2011)
It was tempting to not include one, of course it was! And then, when he asks, just say, It’s not about my career, Ed, it’s about the records I actually like [laughs].
But I do love this. It was the first Ed record I ever heard. Just Jack sent me it as a demo. He was looking for someone to support him on tour, sent me this CD and said, You have to hear this guy.
I heard it, loved it, went up to Leeds to see him live, loved that as well, met him afterwards and we got on straight away.
I don’t think I’d be able to say whether it’s my favorite song of Ed’s or not, but it’s the one I’ve chosen because of the context of hearing it – the first one I heard and the one that went on to become the first single [No. 3 in the UK charts].
“You could tell from one listen what he was capable of and where he was going as a songwriter.”
I remember thinking that the level of maturity in that song is just staggering – and then you learn he was 16/17 when he wrote it and it becomes mind-blowing. You could tell from one listen what he was capable of and where he was going as a songwriter.
I’m not going to claim some crystal ball level of genius and say that I could see the level of success coming, no one could have, but you knew he was going to be a brilliant artist and a great writer.
He still plays it live, it comes early in the set – song three, I think. And even now, playing it to 60,000 people in a stadium in America, there are still goosebumps.
And it doesn’t feel old. Sometimes, if someone who’s gone on to sell 50 million + albums says they’re going to drop in something from the first record – since before the first record in fact – it can be a bit jarring; might be time to go and get a drink. But this still sounds as brilliant as it did way back then.
Key Songs In The Life Of… is supported by Sony Music Publishing. SMP represents classic catalogs including The Beatles, Queen, Motown, Carole King, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, AC/DC, Leiber & Stoller, Leonard Cohen, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and The Rolling Stones, as well as beloved contemporary songwriters such as Ed Sheeran, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Olivia Rodrigo, Calvin Harris, Daddy Yankee, Gabby Barrett, Jay-Z, Ye, Luke Bryan, Maluma, Marc Anthony, Miranda Lambert, Pharrell Williams, Rihanna, Sara Bareilles, Sean “Love” Combs, Travis Scott and many more.Music Business Worldwide