Guns N’ Roses Former Manager Alan Niven Tells All!
Slash, Alan Niven & his wife Heather
EXCLUSIVE: GUNS N’ ROSES’ FORMER MANAGER ALAN NIVEN TELLS ALL
By Gerry Gittelson
Metal Sludge contributor
PHOENIX — Behind every great success in Rock is a great manager, a behind-the-scenes maestro who never gets to enjoy all the applause and adulation but whose dealings and ability to traverse through back-door politics is secretly as important as any shit-hot guitarist or mesmerizing lead singer.
The Beatles had Brian Epstein. Led Zeppelin had Peter Grant. The Eagles had Irving Azoff. Ozzy had Sharon Osbourne (cough, cough).
And Guns N’ Roses had Alan Niven, who signed on in 1986 when hardly anyone in the world knew who Guns N’ Roses were, then five years later the Los Angeles rock band was the biggest in the world before Niven was shockingly fired just days before the release of “Use Your Illusion I” and “Use Your Illusion II.”
Niven, who says it took years to recover (physically, mentally and spiritually) after parting ways with the mega-successful band he helped build from scratch, has rarely uttered a word in the press about Guns N’ Roses over the past 20 years. But with Axl Rose, Slash, Duff McKagan and Co. set to be inducted into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame this coming April, Metal Sludge caught up with Alan Niven, and he was willing to totally open his heart in this utterly compelling interview.
If you’re a Guns N’ Roses fan, or a rock fan at all, this stuff is mesmerizing. So much so that Metal Sludge is dividing the Niven exclusive into three parts – it gets better and better and better – so ready, set, go.
METAL SLUDGE: OK, take us back. How did you first become involved with Guns N’ Roses?
I had met the band through Tom Zutaut at Geffen, who had originally signed them. I had been managing Great White at the time, and my wife was Zutaut’s assistant. Tom asked me to take at look at Guns N’ Roses, and at the time I didn’t want to do it. I had just got Great White signed despite the band’s abysmal relationships with a lot people in Los Angeles, particularly at Capitol Records, and I thought by managing Guns N’ Roses, it would divert attention from what I was doing with Great White.
METAL SLUDGE: So this was in 1986, after Guns N’ Roses was signed but before they had done anything, right?
Yeah, no one wanted to manage Guns N’ Roses at the time, and Zutaut was getting desperate. A lot of managers had turned them down. They looked at Cliff Burnstein, they looked at Peter Mensch, they looked Tim Collins, who was Aerosmith’s manager. They looked at a guy who was managing Rod Stewart at the time, I think. I think they guy who was managing Rod Stewart was managing them but had let them go.
Tom came to me and said they just could not find a manager, and he kept asking me.
By then, I had done some research on Guns N’ Roses, and no surprise, they were a disaster. I knew what I was getting into: Half the band were smack addicts, and they had already gone through $75,000 in cash with no releasable master recordings. They should have had money but they were dead broke. Eddie Rosenblatt, the president of Geffen at the time, was going to drop the band.
Tom asked me a second time, and I said no. Then a third time. Tom said: “Look, as a friend, Alan, I am going to have egg on my face. This will end my career at Geffen. I’m desperate for help.” So at this point, as a friend, I said OK, I would take a look.
I remember Rod Stewart’s management, at the time, couldn’t wait to get rid of Guns N’ Roses. The band had rented a house up in the Hollywood hills, and they had devastated that place.
METAL SLUDGE: Do you remember your first meeting with the band?
Yes. I went up to this house. I don’t quite remember which street it was on, not Coldwater or Laurel but a little more east. The first thing I saw when I was coming up, a well-known stripper was just leaving. She passed right by me, and as I approached the front door, there was a broken toilet, a shitter, right by the front door. It was all in pieces.
Notes: A Sludge Insider says the following about that house:
"The house mentioned was on the top of Normandie in a nice area of Los Feliz, and they made the place unlivable within 2 months. There were a couple management companies that handled them between Vicki Hamilton and Niven."
METAL SLUDGE: Backing up for a second, how successful were you at this point? Were you a millionaire?
No, I wasn’t a millionaire. Let’s bare in mind, a lot of times success is a figment of an envious mind. To some people, I guess I was doing quite well. I had basically taken Great White, which had been dropped from EMI, and I had financed and promoted and put out a new record all by myself, the band was in heavy rotation on KLOS and KMET, which was something that was not common for a band like that, and Hollywood noticed. They noticed how I had managed to get that done. If you have quality, quality always works. I’m referring to music and performance.
I had had a certain amount of success. I handled Motley Crue for a company called Greenworld, and we put the first record out as an indy.
METAL SLUDGE: Oh my god, I love that first record.
It’s a delightful trainwreck.
METAL SLUDGE: Are you kidding? Every song is good.
Well, I will say this: The one song, “Piece of Your Action,” that was enough for me to commit. Everyone thought they were the biggest joke in town, but I thought Motley Crue was a rather nifty rock and roll band.
I had signed and managed Berlin, with their first record, then I managed Great White. I had learned with all three that’s a good idea to do an indy release prior to major-label release, to set up a platform.
METAL SLUDGE: OK, so you’re walking through the front door to meet Guns N’ Roses for the first time. Take it from there, Alan.
It was actually a really nice house, but it wasn’t being treated well. But first of all, for my first meeting, I had scheduled a meeting with the whole band, and all of two of them were there.
METAL SLUDGE: Which two? Was Axl there?
No, Izzy and Slash. Izzy proceeded to nod out, and Slash spent the afternoon trying to entertain me by feeding little white rabbits to this big snake. I think he sensed I have a pathological fear of snakes. Slash was fucking with me.
METAL SLUDGE: So you really are scared of snakes?
I am. Anyway, we all ended up spending a little time together right away because they were in the studio working on demos, so I went over there and ended up helping them mix them. These were the tracks for the “Live Like a Suicide” record. They were signed to Geffen, but it hadn’t come out yet.
METAL SLUDGE: So how did all the success eventually start. What was the course you took?
Well, obviously we were doing preproduction on the material for “Appetite For Destruction”. But you’ve got remember, doing an indy release first, that creates a platform for the major-label release. Once the band got signed, they could have just made an LP, but that way, the label has to spend time trying to market you from a standing start. I always liked to do as much as possible before relying on the good graces of a major label, so hence the strategy of “Live Like a Suicide.”
I sold the entire pressing of that record. I took the check, it was $42,000, and went back to Geffen Records, and I put the check in the hand of Eddie Rosenblatt. I said: “Here, I’m giving you this check. Let’s use every penny to go to the UK.
I wanted to start generating a relationship with the press and an audience in England.
METAL SLUDGE: No commission?
I didn’t see my first commission check for a year and a half. Everything went into the band and the strategy. In those days, the English press was very influential. They had free weeklies like Melody Maker, Sounds and New Music Express, and magazines like Kerrang were very influential. I wanted to connect with the English press and the English audiences to raise the band’s profile as quick as possible. That’s a start a lot of bands had. When I was growing up in England, I saw Jimi Hendrix, J.J. Cale, all of them got their career started in Europe. So that was my conviction with Guns N’ Roses, and we definitely got a response in Europe. I proved to be right on that one.
METAL SLUDGE: What were your thoughts. How good did you think Guns N’ Roses was going to be?
My initial impression of the band was they were very powerful, a very impressive underground rock and roll band. I had doubts about radio airplay because they were so powerful and raw. You’ve got to remember, things like Bad Company, that was on the airwaves. I mean, Great White in those days looked edgy. So with Guns N’ Roses, to make this work we needed to do so through touring and press. I didn’t think we’d get much help from radio, and again, that proved accurate.
METAL SLUDGE: What about the band’s personalities?
I think their personalities are well known and evident. The only comment I can make on that is that money and success magnify your personal traits. Axl was always Axl. The only one whose personality changed was Duff. When I first got to know him, he was very much a fan of punk, but he is actually very soft once you know him. But Duff was one of those guys, if I ever got into trouble with a guy at a bar, I would want him at my shoulder.
GUNS N’ ROSES SPECIAL Guns N’ Roses & Niven, make it big – read PART TWO
Gerry Gittelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org