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The network of gay men at the heart of Britain’s pop culture revolution

Brian Epstein pictured inside The Saville Theatre, Shaftsbury Avenue, London - Credit: Getty Images

BILL BORROWS on a new book about the men at the centre of the Swinging Sixties.

There was a knock at the door of 24 Chapel Street, Belgravia, an elegant four-storey Georgian house a few hundred yards from Buckingham Palace and, less than three months earlier, the venue for the launch of The Beatles’ eighth studio album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was the Sunday of the 1967 August bank holiday and inside was barely controlled chaos, frantic phone calls were being taken and made to influential people all over London as evidence of illicit drug-taking was hastily cleared away.

In North Wales with rest of the band and Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, John Lennon’s first thought upon hearing the news was “We’ve f**king had it.” Brian Epstein, their 32-year-old manager, was dead, discovered in a single bed in his locked bedroom by his doctor and butler. And somebody had leaked the story to the press. It was a journalist from the Daily Sketch at the door and the rest were not far behind.

“That’s how I’d open the film of my book,” says Darryl W. Bullock, author of The Velvet Mafia: The Gay Men Who Ran The Swinging Sixties, when pressed. “It would be the scene outside Brian’s house, the news crews gathering after they had heard that he had died, then I’d go back to Brian meeting Larry in Liverpool and go forward from there.”

Larry in this instance is Larry Maurice Parnes, the self-styled ‘beat svengali’ who first managed Tommy Steele to success and then a roster of other musicians who would become synonymous with the late 1950s including Marty Wilde, Billy Fury and Georgie Fame. In May 1959, Epstein, then a young businessman with a burgeoning record store business in Liverpool, sought out Parnes for advice when he visited the city. “Not only was Parnes the biggest artist manager of the day,” Bullock writes, “Both men were Jewish, both had backgrounds in retail and both were homosexual.” The future ‘Fifth Beatle’ made a favourable impression.

With the advent of both rock n roll and the teenager, the popular music industry was the new frontier. There were no rules, no ‘How to’ books, no outstanding individuals in the field to emulate and accordingly Parnes – soon to earn the nickname Parnes, Shillings and Pence due to his deal-making prowess (“Publicly he disdained it but he absolutely loved the idea that he was referred to like that”) – leaned into his chosen profession carrying something of the old school impresario about him.

He was, however, a true outlier in the sense that Malcolm Gladwell would later delineate and so were the young gay men that followed him, as exemplified by Epstein, and to a lesser degree troubled genius Joe Meek who wrote and produced Telstar (the first record by a British group to go to the top of the US Hot 100), but also Simon Napier Bell (manager of the Yardbirds, Marc Bolan and, much later, Wham!), Kit Lambert (The Who), Robert Stigwood (Bee Gees and Cream) and songwriter Lionel Bart (who created Oliver! the musical).

Through luck, talent, hard work and/or sheer chutzpah these men found themselves ideally placed to understand and deliver what this new teenage market wanted. Homophobia and, as a number of them were Jewish, anti-Semitism would not be allowed to get in their way. “They knew and worked with each other, helped one another out,” explains Bullock. “‘There was this kind of string that ran through the music industry of the 1950s and 60s in Britain.”

Parnes, for example, who turned down managing the Beatles twice, was friends with Epstein who yearned after Napier-Bell and would employ Meek as a producer on various projects who was also working with Stigwood who was friends with Lambert while Lionel Bart met them all at parties, frequently held at his own house which he bought with the proceeds of songs he wrote for Parnes’ artists.

Parnes and Meek, once at “the very heart of independent record production in the UK”’, were soon to be eclipsed by Epstein and the others who, collectively, were also part of a much bigger picture that included the East End gay set of gangster Ronnie Kray and the artist Francis Bacon, the literary world of Joe Orton and the entertainment industry as represented by Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Williams and Danny La Rue.

David Jacobs, the suave and arrogant showbiz lawyer whose clients included The Beatles, Marlene Dietrich, Liberace and Judy Garland and who introduced Epstein to the gay scene in the capital was also a key player. Bullock calls it a “support network for the entertainment industry”. They needed it. While success brought money, attention and a certain freedom from the mores of contemporary society, it also caused problems.

Until the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 legalised homosexual acts between consenting adults over the age of 21, gay men had been confined to a crepuscular demi-monde and were confronted with a rise in prosecutions and several ‘sensational’ court cases well into the 1960s that had served to keep them in the closet rather than face misguided public opprobrium, the attention of the police and, frequently, blackmail.

The business uniform of single-breasted sharp suit and thin tie might have still ruled the roost but as the 1960s started to get underway, the author points out, “We really see people starting to come out of their shells and being a bit more flamboyant and less guarded in what they’re doing. People are kind of realising that within entertainment, and particularly rock and pop, you can probably get away with a little bit more”.

In other words, there was lots of sex and drugs to go with the rock n roll for successful gay men in the business and that necessarily meant existing within a network of people you could trust. “Certainly, there were parties at Brian Epstein’s house where he would just invite anyone around who he thought would be interesting and fun and just let them carry on while he would pick out who he fancied and take them off to another room,” says Bullock. “There was a certain amount of you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours in business terms but there was also a feeling that it was also much easier to play in that way, to host parties for this kind of network and for the people this network knew in a place where you were not likely to be arrested, not going to get busted or have the press hammering at your door.

“David Jacobs was always being asked to come and get people out of sticky situations,” explains Bullock. “Brian was blackmailed several times, often by the same ex-boyfriend… including on one occasion when this guy made off with some of the takings from the Beatles’ Candlestick Park gig in San Francisco and some pills, private papers and photographs before demanding $10,000 for their safe return. Blackmail was going on so often, they got used to having to pay-off people to shut them up but when you have so much money lying around I guess it’s not that much of an issue and certainly paying off the occasional blackmailer has got to be better than going to a club and being caught out and having your name splashed all over the newspapers.”

There were other issues. Money that was not buying desirable places in the country away from prying eyes or being lost in casinos or going to blackmailers often found its way into the back pockets of drug dealers. A mainstay of the scene at the time, frequent and excessive drug use also required a degree of trust and support from close friends, even when it was too late – Jacobs, who had assisted so many of his friends and their clients in the past, was at Chapel Street to help clear up after Epstein’s barbiturate overdose/ suicide before the police were called.

Addiction and drug and alcohol dependency almost came with the territory but a question must be asked about the pressure mainstream society placed on these men that so many of them led troubled lives or died before their time: Jacobs, like Epstein, a huge fan of amphetamines, was found hanged at home in December 1968 aged 56 while Joe Meek, overcome by his mental health issues and drug intake, shot his landlady and took his own life at just 37, five months before Epstein died and and four before homosexuality was finally legalised.

If any group of men needed a Velvet Mafia it was this group of brilliant, high-achieving gay movers and shakers and not just to get to the top but to thrive and survive when they got there. Or perhaps at that level in the showbiz stratosphere of the 1950s and 60s even a support network was just not enough for some of them.

The Velvet Mafia: The Gay Men Who Ran The Swinging Sixties is published by Omnibus Press

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