All Part of the Plan?

In many ways, the just-completed transfer window was a sort of Greatest Hits complication of Manchester United’s mistakes from previous ones. So Greatest Misses, then?

For instance, there was the long, drawn-out and ultimately fruitless pursuit of a Barcelona midfielder who didn’t seem interested in leaving the Camp Nou.

There was the decision not to spend a reasonable amount of money to buy a player from the manager’s previous team, only to then get desperate, come back late in the transfer window and be forced to pay a premium.

There was the panic purchase of a top-class player who has won big trophies and could yet come good at United but probably isn’t a fit for their style of play.

And, of course, there was a transfer bid that seemed more like a late April Fools prank than a genuine deal.

The only thing that was missing was a group of shady intermediaries turning up at a team’s doorstep claiming to represent United only to be disavowed by the team. But then again, this window had a player’s mom scupper a move over wage demands, so there’s that.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot to like about what United ended up doing in the transfer window — costs be damned.

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Career Killers: “Girl You Know It’s True” by Milli Vanilli

Imagine a world in the multiverse where MTV had produced a show in the late 80s/early 90s called “All or Nothing.” Introducing actors Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan, the show follows two best friends from Europe as they form a band called “Milli Vanilli” and try to land a recording contract while navigating the strange land known as Hollywood, California. Along the way, they meet the women of their dreams and frantically try to track to them down because the girls forgot their numbers (even after they advised them “baby don’t“). And they have to convince a producer to give them a second chance after they missed an audition and blamed it on the rain. Girl, you know it’s true!

Maybe then we would have accepted Morvan and Pilatus lip syncing to songs other people sang and recorded. After all, famous actors like Natalie Wood, Audrey Hepburn and Christopher Plummer didn’t actually sing in West Side Story, My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music, respectively. Decades later, Rami Malek would win an Oscar for lip-syncing to Freddie Mercury’s vocals in Bohemian Rhapsody. Additionally, TV shows like The Monkees, The Partridge Family and The Heights often used studio musicians and singers on the recordings that were utilized on the show.

Instead, we got an industry-changing scandal that ruined the lives and careers of the two men who made up Milli Vanilli and helped kill off the popularity of producer-driven R&B/pop dance bands in the 90s.

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Career Killers: “Talk Show” by The Go-Go’s

I’m not the biggest Billy Corgan fan, but there are times where he can be very insightful and thoughtful. For instance, in a 2017 interview with Joe Rogan, Corgan talked about how the original Smashing Pumpkins imploded and why a lot of it stemmed from the fact that he, as the main songwriter, made a lot more money than his bandmates.

According to him, one day, early in the band’s history, some record label folks took Corgan to breakfast and explained to him some of the realities of the music business. “They said: ‘Songwriters in bands make a lot more money, so our suggestion is you should share your songs with your bandmates to keep a democratic stasis.’ I was like ‘Hell no, I’m not giving them my work.'” he said. “Fast forward four years later, I’m making a lot more money than them, and that sews discontent.”

According to Corgan, being the main songwriter had another effect besides the financial — he was now seen as the genius auteur and his bandmates were seen as nothing more than his backup. “We’d get into a room with journalists and they would just talk to me. Then we would get out of the interview and the band members would yell at me for them not being asked questions,” he said. “It’s like an erosion factor. You don’t appreciate it from within, there’s a lot of compression and money and stuff going on, then one day it hollows out. And then it’s too late and you can’t just sit down and have a meeting because the wounds are too deep.”

Perhaps if he had taken a page from R.E.M.’s book, things would have gone better. When R.E.M. first started out, Peter Buck insisted on splitting the songwriting royalties equally. According to Band Together: Internal Dynamics in U2, R.E.M. Radiohead and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, by Mirit Eliraz, Buck didn’t want the band to end up like Creedence Clearwater Revival and others and recognized that this was the best way to ensure no one got the short end of the stick. Plus, in his mind, the band’s songs were just that — even though members composed songs individually, they would work together to improve them and make sure they met the band’s high standards. Other groups have taken a similar approach, including U2 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (who write songs that arise out of group jam sessions), and Radiohead and Coldplay, where one person dominates the creative process but willingly shares credit to keep the peace.

Instead, the original Pumpkins joined a long list of bands that have split up because of songwriting royalty disputes. CCR famously imploded after the other three members got fed up with John Fogerty writing all of the songs and wanted some of that credit (and publishing money) for themselves. Levon Helm went to his grave believing Robbie Robertson had cheated him and the others in The Band out of songwriting royalties. Jane’s Addiction almost broke up before its debut album was released because of a royalty dispute. Spandau Ballet spent most of the 90s in court after three members of the band claimed they had an agreement with guitarist and main songwriter Gary Kemp to split the royalties, something Kemp, obviously, denied.

And then there’s The Go-Go’s. The band was barely hanging on by a thread by the time of its 1984 album Talk Show. A songwriting dispute proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

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Career Killers: The MTV Video Music Awards

The MTV Video Music Awards are this weekend. The only reason why I know that is because I’ve been wanting to write this column and looked up when the awards ceremony would be this year so I could post it beforehand.

That’s the extent of my knowledge of MTV and today’s music scene. I can’t remember the last time I actually tuned in to watch.

It’s easy to understand how someone like me could be so apathetic. MTV hasn’t played videos in years and doesn’t even stand for “Music Television” anymore, it’s fair to ask whether the Video Music Awards have outlived their usefulness.

It’s also a reminder of what the show used to mean. Edgier and hipper than the Grammys, the VMAs used to be mandatory viewing for anyone who liked music. Additionally, so many great, memorable and controversial moments happened on the show that you felt like you missed out if you didn’t experience it as it aired. Madonna writhing around on stage in a wedding dress. Prince giving us “Under the Full Moon” the sequel to Under the Cherry Moon that we didn’t know existed. Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth burying the hatchet — in each other. Kanye being Kanye. The list goes on and on.

And, of course, there have been plenty of less-than-stellar moments. Some have even managed to kill off an artist’s or band’s careers. Here are some of the biggest ones:

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It’s Good To Be Bad

My latest feature examines sleazy, incompetent, and ethically-challenged lawyers in pop culture and how they are shaped by, and affect, public perception of the legal profession. This one was a lot of fun to write and report. I had a blast speaking to some of the creative minds behind Liar Liar, L.A. Law and Presumed Innocent.

Plus, we got some good timing, since the issue went to press the same month that Better Call Saul wrapped up its run on AMC. As such, it was a no-brainer to feature Saul Goodman on the cover and throughout the spread. With quotes like “If you’re committed enough, you can make any story work. I once convinced a woman I was Kevin Costner, and it worked, because I believed it!” and scenes like this one where he effortlessly explains money laundering in a way that could be used in law enforcement training videos, he really is the perfect cover-boy for a story about bad lawyers.

Unless you count this guy. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to fit my favorite bad lawyer into the story (it wasn’t for lack of trying, though). Maybe next time…

Career Killers: “Twelve Months, Eleven Days” by Gary Barlow

You’d think that being the primary frontman of a boyband would be an excellent platform for solo superstardom. After all, it’s your voice on all those hit singles and your face getting the most screen-time in music videos. Indeed, Jackson Five frontman Michael Jackson and NSYNC co-lead singer Justin Timberlake were able to parlay their group dominance into individual success. If you consider Wham! to be a boy band (I’m not sure, to be honest), then George Michael is another example.

But others weren’t able to find much success outside of their groups. Ralph Tresvant sang lead on most of New Edition’s hit singles, but only managed two hits on his own. That was one better than either Jordan Knight of New Kids on the Block or Nick Lachey of 98 Degrees managed outside of their popular groups. And, of course, we’ve covered NSYNC co-leader J.C. Chasez’s solo debut album, which flopped so badly it ended his bid for stardom before it really began.

Then there’s the curious case of Gary Barlow. The Take That frontman was a fantastic singer who sang lead on almost all of his band’s songs. And whereas most boybands relied on outside songwriters, Barlow wrote or co-wrote nine Top 10 UK hits, including five #1 singles, during the band’s initial run from 1991 to 1996. When he went solo in 1996, the British media immediately anointed him as the next George Michael. Success was not only expected, it was preordained.

As such, that only made what eventually happened all the more shocking. In 2000, barely four years after Take That’s breakup, Barlow suffered the ignominy of being dropped by his label, all but ending his solo career. Worse, he had to watch as bandmate-turned-nemesis Robbie Williams wrote songs attacking him and making fun of his misfortune en route to becoming one of the best-selling artists in the world.

Where did it all go wrong? It started with his second album, Twelve Months, Eleven Days.

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Career Killers: “Take My Breath Away,” by Berlin

With Top Gun: Maverick flying up to the top of the box office charts, I figured it was worth looking at the first movie — specifically, the iconic song that everyone associates with it (besides “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” and “Danger Zone” of course).

As we’ve established, sometimes blockbuster hits can tear a band apart. For instance, a smash album featuring several massive singles wasn’t enough to keep the The Police from succumbing to years of public and private in-fighting. The Verve imploded right after releasing its best and most popular album, 1997’s Urban Hymns. “Mr. Roboto” gave Styx one of its biggest hit singles, but the song (and resulting concept album) tore the band apart to the point that when members reunited years later (sans the guy who wrote the song and most of the album in question), they refused to play it in concert for years.

In a similar vein, “Take My Breath Away” was a smash hit, topping the singles charts in the U.S., U.K., Netherlands, Ireland and Belgium and winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1986 (beating other iconic songs like “Somewhere Out There” and “Glory of Love“). And it led to the breakup of the band credited with recording it: Berlin.

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#Pogbye

In 2016, when Paul Pogba returned to Manchester United in a then-world record deal, they coined the hashtag “#Pogback”to mark the occasion. United, Pogba’s social media team and sponsor Adidas even worked together on a slick promo video featuring UK rapper Stormzy that was designed to get tons of views and likes.

It was a rollout fit for a king — and appropriate, given how important social media has become in the marketing world (to say nothing of how much elite athletes like Pogba have come to rely on it).

It also underscored just big a statement of intent this was from United. That summer, the team also brought in goal machine Zlatan Ibrahimovic, defensive stalwart Eric Bailly, exciting winger Henrikh Mkhitaryan and hired serial winner Jose Mourinho. Together, this quintet helped deliver the League Cup and the Europa League during their first year together. Surely, more trophies, to say nothing of the league title, would be coming, right?

It’s been five trophyless seasons since then, and on Wednesday, United cut ties with one of the last remaining members of that trio (Bailly is the only one left, and he could be leaving this summer, too). This time, they went the complete opposite route, releasing a written statement announcing Pogba’s impending departure that was devoid of any hashtags.

In other words, United #Pogbade him farewell without resorting to cheap social media tactics. Maybe an anti-climatic statement was appropriate, given how long his departure had been a fait accompli. Pogba had never really settled back in and he and his late agent, Mino Raiola, had constantly #Pogbatted their eyelashes at other teams, especially Barcelona, Real Madrid, PSG and, most unforgivably, Man City. When Ole Gunnar Solskjær took over, Pogba seemed happy with his expanded role and even expressed interest in re-signing in 2020. However, the board chose not to engage at the time, and when they finally did offer him a new contract, he #Pogbalked. The club’s current situation made his departure a no-#Pogbrainer.

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Joining the 500 Club

Woohoo! Happy to report that Nixon in New York has hit 500 libraries (501, actually) throughout the world! (I took a screenshot for posterity). Some of the highlights:

  • All of three of my alma maters have the book in their libraries (in the interests of full disclosure, I requested it at two of the three schools).
  • I’m in seven out of eight Ivy League schools. (Come on, Dartmouth! What are you waiting for?)
  • I’m in two out of the three “Little Three” schools. (Thanks for nothing, Wesleyan!)
  • Other than the U.S, I’m in libraries in Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Curaçao, Cyprus, Ecuador, Germany, Greece, Iraq, Italy, Jamaica, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Namibia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Oman, South Africa, Spain, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom.
  • I’m in community colleges, theological/biblical seminaries, military academies, historical societies, public and private universities and law schools.

Anyway, it’s nice to see — especially since I was at 125 a couple of months ago. Here’s to the next 500!

Farewell Fletch

“Martin’s the songwriter, Alan [Wilder]’s the good musician, Dave’s the vocalist and I bum around,” Andy Fletcher on his role in the band, taken from the Depeche Mode concert film 101.

“Depeche Mode’s unique division of labor has been long established, with each of the three remaining members having a distinct role: Martin Gore writes the songs, Dave Gahan sings them and Andy Fletcher shows up for photo shoots and cashes the checks,” Gavin Edwards, wrote in Rolling Stone in 2005. 

That wasn’t entirely true.

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To Tell The Truth

Ralf Rangnick’s spell as interim manager was a failure.

His tenure in the Manchester United dugout finally came to an end on Sunday after yet another listless effort — this time, losing at Crystal Palace 1-0 in a stadium where they had never lost a Premier League match. A season that began with so much promise and genuine excitement, had turned into such a nightmare that most people just wanted it to end, consequences be damned. That United managed to back into a Europa League place thanks to West Ham losing summed things up pretty well.

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Winning Time

I was very honored to win the following awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE):

I was especially proud to see my section (Business of Law) win a National Bronze and Regional Silver award for Best Regular Print Department. I’m very grateful to my colleagues and reporters for helping make that happen.

Other Awards:

Plus, we won honorable mention for Magazine of the Year (11 or Fewer Issues). Woohoo!

Farewell To The Special Juan

Monday’s 3-0 victory over Brentford at Old Trafford was all about saying farewell. A farewell to this nightmare of a season. And, specifically, a farewell to outgoing players Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic, Edinson Cavani, and Phil Jones, each of whom received a warm ovation from the fans. They’ll be joined at the exit ramp by at least three players who didn’t play: Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, and most likely Eric Bailly.

It will be a long overdue housecleaning for United, which has lacked a coherent, consistent identity on the pitch and in the transfer market over the last eight years — a period that began when Mata helicoptered into Carrington looking like a cross between James Bond and a guy who sells bonds.

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