The man who fired the Sex Pistols

Bob Mercer signed Kate Bush and The Sex Pistols and then fired the band. GARY STEEL spoke to the industry legend.


Note: It was 40 years ago – 1981 – when the former managing director of EMI turned up in Wellington. I had a chat with the industry mogul, who went on to create the best-selling compilation series, Now That’s What I Call Music. Mercer died in 2010, aged 65. If I could turn back time I’d ask him some real questions.


Bob Mercer

Bob Mercer was, until 18 months ago, managing director for EMI in Britain. He was the man who signed Kate Bush to the label, not to mention signing and unsigning The Sex Pistols.

Currently, he’s a musical director for EMI Films. I spoke to him while he was supervising some Little River Band recording at Wellington’s Marmalade Studios.

He took the thankless task of unsigning The Sex Pistols, an executive directive, because “everything had just got so out of hand that it was necessary to do so.” The fact that the band had to be sacked from the label was “more to do with the gutter press” who “took it and wrecked it”, he says, than the record company or the band itself.

The Pistols themselves, he says, were not real anarchists at all, and certainly nothing out of the ordinary as far as he was concerned.

For the last 18 months, Mercer has worked on films, handling musical direction and similar roles. His most recently completed project was The Jazz Singer starring Neil Diamond – a remake of the early “talkie”. He admits it “will not appeal to the rock scene”, and that “I would expect poor reviews. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but consider it “good entertainment.”

Mercer speaks very highly of star Neil Diamond, who he says tried very hard to do everything the director told him to. Whether this is a subtle put-down one can only speculate.

One thing that comes out strongly in conversation with Mercer is his dislike for the Press, especially papers like New Musical Express, which he seems to disregard altogether.

Neil Diamond in The Jazz Singer

His new project is the musical direction of Honky Tonk Freeway, and film which was shot between January and June of 1980 and will be released in the USA in May this year.

The film, he says, is about a small town in Florida (Tickcaw) which its residents are trying to build into a tourist resort. A highway gets blown up, diverting traffic through the town.

“The film follows a series of different people” who are unwittingly diverted to the town, including a “Tennessee nymphomaniac.” It’s directed by John Schlesinger.

Mercer with Kate Bush

Mercer chose LRB for the title track because he liked the band and thought the song suited them. He was here with the group to supervise vocals and overdubs at Mandrill and Marmalade studios, over backing tracks that had already been recorded in Los Angeles with George Martin producing. The film’s budget? A mere $25 million.


Read Mercer’s 2010 obituary here:

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