Tom Watkins – Pop manager, designer, art collector
Born September 21, 1949; died February 24, 2020
Tom Watkins, who has died aged 70, was a pop music manager who moulded himself as a larger than life impresario with a personality as big as the acts he steered to glory. He had a hat-trick of successes with Pet Shop Boys, Bros and East 17, with his attitude summed up by the sentiments of When Will I Be Famous?, the song he co-wrote with producer Nicky Graham for Bros, whose stadium-sized pop briefly caused a global frenzy.
Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys once called Watkins ‘a big man with a loud voice,’ a sentiment seemingly confirmed by the original title of Watkins’ autobiography. Let’s Make Lots of Money: Secrets of a Rich, Fat, Gay, Lucky Bastard, was published in 2016, though the paperback edition had the more temperate if double-edged sub-title, My Life as the Biggest Man in Pop.
As Watkins declared in an episode of Channel 4 series Mr Rock and Roll, about what was described as ‘the most outrageous and astute managers in the history of Rock and Roll, pop music was “all about money. And sex,” with music only “sometimes” of any importance.
Behind the brashness, Watkins was an artist and aesthete. The designs for record covers by the likes of Wham!, Kim Wilde, Duran Duran and Frankie Goes to Hollywood by his company XL Design became visual totems of their era. Watkins even designed the interior of ZTT Records producer Trevor Horn’s working base at Sarn Studios in Notting Hill. Watkins’ art-laden Bauhaus-inspired home was later featured on TV show, Grand Designs. Such an accolade was a badge of honour Watkins revelled in just as much as he enjoyed the largesse of pop fame by proxy.
Thomas Frederick Watkins was born in Greenwich, London to Frederick Watkins, a lighterman turned coalman, and Patricia Diett, whose ‘magnetic’ personality Watkins claimed to have inherited. The family lived in Blackheath, and Watkins early education came at Invicta Road School, Sherrington Road School and Raine’s Foundation School in Tower Hamlets.
His first show of entrepreneurial spirit and interest in visual imagery came through buying up copies of Health and Strength magazine, then selling off individual images of muscle-bound himbos to classmates who he thought might be as interested in them as he was. He later attended Sir John Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design before going on to study art and design at London College of Furniture.
Watkins’ first job was designing pub interiors with Allied Breweries. He then worked with Terence Conran and Rodney Fitch, and was one of the team that designed Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 3 and the London Stock Exchange. He began to dabble with music in the early 1970s, when, under his guidance, a band formed at his sister Sally’s youth club became little known glam rock combo, Ice Cream. Other bands he managed during his apprentice years included the similarly unsung Giggles, Grand Hotel and Spelt Like This.
In 1981, Watkins co-founded XL Design with Royston Edwards, initially designing graphics and over-seeing marketing campaigns for bands before moving into record sleeve design. An early success came in 1982 with the cover for Wham!’s debut single, the deceptively subversive Wham Rap. XL’s aesthetic was perfect for the conceptually inclined ZTT record label, founded by producer Trevor Horn, his businesswoman wife Jill Sinclair and music journalist Paul Morley. XL designed the covers of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s first four singles, including Relax and Two Tribes, as well as their Welcome to the Pleasuredome album.
It was the sleeve for the original release of Pet Shop Boys debut single, West End Girls, however, that took Watkins to the next level. After the record failed to chart, the duo of Tennant and Chris Lowe were dropped by their record label. Taking them on as the first clients of his newly formed Massive Management in 1984, Watkins guided Pet Shop Boys to four platinum-selling albums and four number one singles, including the re-released West End Girls before they parted company.
In 1986, Watkins took on a more compliant Bros, who became teen sensations, as did Walthamstow boy-band East 17 later on. Watkins’ management style was an extension of his design skills, with his acts raw material he shaped to create an image-based package he could sell to the kids. It didn’t always work. His tenures with Electribe 101, girl-band Faith, Hope and Charity, featuring a teenage Dani Behr, gay boy-band 2wo Third3 and manufactured Eurovision wannabes, Deuce, were all short-lived.
On leaving the pop business, Watkins concentrated on buying ostentatious objets d’art, filling his home on the Sussex coast with Eames chairs, Memphis furniture and Murano glass, as well as prints and woodcuts by twentieth century English artist Eric Ravilious, who he’d written his art college thesis about. Such trappings of success were emblematic of the acquisitional pop cultural era he was in the thick of, with his acts an expression of his own attention-seeking behaviour.
“I never wanted to be the faceless manager, pulling the strings from behind the scenes,” he wrote in Let’s Make Lots of Money. “I wanted to be an impresario as famous or infamous as my charges, maybe even more so.”
Watkins is survived by his partner, Marc Evans.
The Herald, April 7th 2020