Interview with John Sutton.
John what do you do?
I work mostly with three creative people Charlie O’Neill – copywriter and my co-owner in Persuasion Republic, Roddy Doyle – creative writer and Jole Bortoli – visual artist, Art to Heart’s Director and my wife. I provide management and business advice and have been working with these people for over twenty years.
How did you start working with writers and artists?
When I was a student in UCD (University College Dublin) in 1979 /80 I got a job in the Students Union managing their Saturday nights’ concerts. Somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 students came every Saturday night. My main problem was when I got the job I had never been to a concert let alone managed one so it was quite nerve wrecking! It was also the year that punk became huge in Dublin and we had to deal with a gang called the ‘Black Catholics’ who terrorized us every Saturday but that’s another story.
That same year a friend, Paul Mercier, the playwright, asked me to help him produce his plays in UCD. I agreed but the problem was the plays were in Irish and I didn’t speak a word of it. I was probably the first ever theatre producer who literally didn’t understand the plays he produced.
In 1980 when I graduated with my degree in economics and geography and diploma in teaching I was an unemployed. Someone I met while I was doing the students’ concerts offered me a job running a stall in the Dandelion market selling his t-shirts of rock bands and later asked to work for him organising concerts in the city, which I did. That was Dennis Desmond of MCD – I was MCD’s first ever employee.
John cooling down the crowd at a U2 concert, Phoenix Park, 1982.
Where did you organize the concerts?
Initially in a place called the Cabra Grand Cinema which was owned by Gael Linn and famous for bingo. We only held four concerts there and had to give up because of crowd trouble in the area – not at the concerts but after. Local teenagers decided it was good fun to attack concert-goers on their way home. One unfortunate man was stabbed. After that we were desperately looking for any hall that could hold rock concerts. Unlike today back in the early 80s there literally were no venues in Dublin. By pure luck I found the Saint Frances Xavier Hall which had an amazing stage. The RTE Symphony orchestra rehearsed and performed there but they moved in early 1981 to their new home in Earlsfort Terrace. By 1982 I had control of the hall and renamed it the SFX Centre.
Tell us a bit about the SFX years, the music and the theatre.
I worked there from 1982 to 1987 as the manager. I had a contract with the Jesuits, the owners, and I rented it to MCD to run their concerts and other groups. With my friend, Paul Mercier we formed the Passion Machine theatre company and we produced our plays there. In a good year we would put on events, shows, plays for about 150 nights, some of which were great. It was all a bit hectic and mad. Of course we had no money.
What was it like working with rock bands?
I wouldn’t have had much contact with them other than on the day they played when we would interact a little bit. Obviously I very much liked some of the bands that played. The others for me just came and went. But if you think of the Clash, Madness, U2, Simple Minds, they were great concerts, so I would have great memories of those. Most of my work on the day of the concerts was with the crowd, the security, making sure that things ran smoothly, it was a busy time, busy work.
You once told me a story about police motorbikes being set on fire – what was that?
It was the maddest of all the nights. The College of Marketing and Design in Cathal Brugha street held a Saint Patrick Day multi-media event in 1985 maybe. It was fancy dress, there was everything on the programme, screening movies, rock bands, theatre pieces, poetry readings – over 20 acts. The day before they had sold only 50 tickets. This was a venue that held 1,500 people; it was going to be a disaster (financially) so we took some steps to save on costs. We reduced the amount of security form 30 to 6. On the night however 1,400 people turned up. We were completely overwhelmed by the crowd. Two-third of them in fancy dress including a group of 10 in full Nazi uniform, one man painted completely black and white, great outfits. But there was bedlam at the door. People were quite frustrated because we were slow getting them in off the street, so there wasn’t what you would call an orderly queue. Two passing guards on motorbikes saw what was going on, got off and waded into the crowd to try and restore order. Just as they got to the front door someone set fire to one of their bikes which blew up, than the second one blew up and fell against a car that went on fire. Luckily it belonged to my father who was working for me on the night. There were still about 500 people trying to get in and with the bikes on fire in a matter of 5 minutes we had 40 policemen around the SFX. Order was restored in minutes. After the event ended at 2.30am we set about cleaning the street. Our goal was to make sure that the first mass goers at 7am would see nothing amiss. We succeeded in that and although the
Jesuits had heard the music all right they had no sense of the fire and the drama so we got away with that one. My job was saved.
Do you consider yourself a creative?
Maybe a little. I work hard and if there is a problem I have some negotiation skills that can help solve it. Roddy has always said the most creative thing abut The Commitments was the projected income and expenditure budget that secured the bank loan to pay for the printing.
Sometimes I see myself as simply helping creative people I like to work with be successful in their work. I’m not sure that this automatically makes me creative. I provide those artists with an opportunity to manage their affairs in the way they want. One thing you can say is that all three artists I work with have great control over their work.
Any advice you would give to artists starting out, if any?
Don’t give up the day job! (Laughing)
They say artists can’t manage themselves.
Tell that to Picasso – he was an astute businessman as well as an artist. Many artists today are excellent at business. People who have a passion for something generally find a way to do it, don’t they? You find channels and ways to get a living. I suppose one of the things about the artists is that if you look to make a living as well as hold to your passion you have to be prepared to work really hard. You got to be flexible and have a strategy around that, but go for it and see what happens.
Do you feel that working with artists have somehow influenced your life?
Hugely, I’ve had a great time working with them and really enjoyed the experiences. And today there is more challenge and variety to the work than ever before. It’s tough in the recession and at my age you could just stop and ‘retire’ but I want to continue to push and grow. I don’t feel I’ve reached any destination – I’m still on the train. And I know that all three people I work with feel the same.
Have you always wanted to work in the cultural sector?
A running joke in Persuasion Republic is the number of jobs I’ve had – I think it’s over 20. Unlike someone that has always known what they want to be and decides to pursue it with a passion, I actually fell into my work by chance. I took my first job in the cultural sector (concert manager) not for the experience but because as a student I was in desperate need of the money. I wasn’t looking to pursue a career in the cultural sector, in fact I don’t think I’ve ever thought of myself as having a career. I regularly joke about being an unemployed schoolteacher and I don’t think I’m ambitious. Maybe I’ve lacked ambition. I am not ambitious for myself in the way I see other people be ambitious for themselves. But maybe I’m becoming more ambitious now!
Last question: what is your passion?
Four things – Chelsea football, good fish cooking, most things Italian and work.