On Beacon Hill 9 – Ed Bicknell, manager of Dire Straits

ED BICKNELLManager of Dire Straits December 1977 to August 2000

Ed Bicknell was born in 1948 and educated at Yorkshire’s Tadcaster Grammar School. From 1966-69 he attended Hull University graduating with a degree in Social Studies. At Hull University Ed became Chairman of the Entertainments Committee, a position he held for two years. He also became Chairman of the University Rag Committee in 1969, President of the University Jazz Club, 1968 and 1969, and Vice-President of his University Hall of Residence over the same period. It was in fulfilling these roles that he was provided with his baptism into the field of popular music. During his time at university Ed booked a number of bands that have since become household names: bands such as John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Moody Blues and Led Zeppelin. “I had one rule,” says Ed, “I only booked the bands I liked. I put my first act on for £100 – it was Pink Floyd.” Among those who found themselves sleeping on the floor in Ed’s flat were Ralph McTell and the late, great Alexis Korner.

After graduating in 1969 Ed moved to London to pursue his career in the music business. Between 1970 and 1977 he established himself an agent representing and arranging gigs for a wide variety of artists including Elton John, Black Sabbath, Steely Dan, José Feliciano, The Ramones, Deep Purple, Yes, Ike and Tina Turner, War and Talking Heads. By the late-1970s Ed had entered the field of artist management. The first artist he represented as a manager was Gerry Rafferty. Rafferty enjoyed enormous commercial success from 1978 to1980, particularly in the U.S., with his albums City to City (which featured the worldwide number one hit Baker Street) and Night Owl. Among the list of artists Ed has managed at some time or other are Paul Brady, Scott Walker and Bryan Ferry. He is currently “helping out” The Blue Nile with a view to possibly establishing a formal management arrangement and Australian singer Sally Boyden. Ed says modestly, “I would estimate that the artists I have represented in a management capacity have sold a combined total of over 120 million albums.”

Mark Knopfler, legendary guitarist and singer with Dire Straits

Towards the end of 1977 Ed was working at the NEMS agency when he got a call from Phonogram A&R man John Stainze who had just signed a new band called Dire Straits to the Vertigo label. He wanted Ed to fix them up with some gigs. Ed was invited round to Phonogram’s offices in December where he heard the now famous Charlie Gillett demo tape. After “the cheapest Greek meal I’ve ever had in my life” Ed was taken to Dingwalls Club in North London to check out and meet Dire Straits. The date was the 13th of December, 1977, and as he walked into the club they were playing Down To The Waterline. Ed recalls, “The first thing I noticed was that it wasn’t necessary to stand at the back of the room; they were very quiet. I’d just done The Ramones, who were deafening……The second thing I noticed was that Mark was playing a red Stratocaster, which immediately made me think of Hank Marvin, who I had idolised in the sixties.” After hearing two or three numbers Ed had made up his mind that he didn’t just want to act as an agent for Dire Straits, he wanted to manage them. He just happened to be in the process of organising a tour for Talking Heads and was able to put his new band on the bill as the support act. Dire Straits were paid £50 per night for the Talking Heads tour; a ten-fold increase from their fee at Dingwalls. The rest – as is often said – is history. By the mid-1980s Dire Straits had released one of the best selling albums of all time and been tagged ‘the biggest band in the world’. To date, Mark Knopfler/Dire Straits have sold millions of singles and have just passed the magical 100 million album sales!

Ed’s reputation in the music industry is legendary. He is the Managing Director of Damage Management Limited and Musicworks Limited, both artist management companies in the field of popular music. In recent years he has become increasingly involved in the industry side of the music business and has frequently appeared on radio and TV to discuss music industry matters. He has conducted many interviews at music industry conferences. Among those interviewed have been Walter Yetnikoff of Sony/Velvel, Clive Davis of Arista, Freddy DeMann of Maverick – formally the long-term manager of Madonna, Gary Gersh of Capitol Records, Sir George Martin, Atlantic Records founder Jerry Wexler, music industry lawyer Allan Grubman, Jonathan King, Alice Cooper, Malcolm McLaren, Wolfman Jack, Miles Copeland, manager of The Police and Sting, Led Zeppelin manager, Peter Grant, and the Kinks‘ Ray Davies. In 1992 Ed argued that CDs were too expensive when he appeared before the House of Commons Select Committee on National Heritage during hearings on the pricing of compact discs. He was also asked to appear before the Mergers and Monopolies Commission during it’s enquiry into price-fixing in the record industry. Ed served on the Princes Trust Committee from 1983 until 1987 and in 1997 was a member of Sir George Martin’s Music For Montserrat Committee. He is a founder-member and former Vice-Chairman of the International Managers Forum (IMF) which exists to deal with industry-wide matters where they affect artists and their management. The IMF currently has a membership of over 500 managers representing some 4000 musicians. In September 1998 Ed was presented with theprestigious Peter Grant Lifetime Achievement Award at the IMF’s annual British Music Roll of Honour.

Ed Bicknell is upper right in this gold record pose with Dire Straits, mid 1980s

A rare pic of ed in 1957Not only does Ed work with his peers and fellow managers but he also takes time out of his ever busy schedule to use his vast experience to encourage young people who want to learn the business side of the music industry. He gives around 30 to 40 ‘question and answer’ sessions each year and has spoken at the Royal Academy of Music, the Musicians Union, Eton College, the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, The Guitar Institute, the Global Entertainment group, London University and the University of Miami. He has lectured at numerous schools, colleges and professional bodies, involved in the training and education of music industry students and has also become involved in the Chet Atkins Musician Days held in Nashville, USA. Ed is additionally a Director of Ronnie Scott’s Events, a company set up in 1999 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Ronnie Scott’s Club in London with the intention of raising funds for Music Therapy and an educational bursary in Ronnie Scott’s memory.

Ed Bicknell ranks high in the premier league of popular music managers, but he is also a musician in his own right. As any Notting Hillbillies fan will tell you, Ed is a whiz on the drums! He began playing drums as a teenager in Tadcaster where he studied from the Buddy Rich Drum Tutor under the close supervision of his teacher, Alick Sidebottom. While still at school he formed a band called The Spartans and is remembered as having brought the junior boys’ playground to a halt when all the boys crowded round the window of music room 2 listening to the band’s rendition of The Shadows’ FBI. The session was brought to an abrupt end by the school’s headmaster – Ed’s dad! In the 1970s Ed played drums with a number of bands, including the “embryonic” Average White Band, and even did a stint on the Variety-club circuit with Jess Conrad. Despite being featured in the line-up of The Acetones for Mark Knopfler’s Local Hero soundtrack in 1983, the management deal with Dire Straits more or less put an end to Ed’s career as a drummer. Then, in 1988, Mark began work on what was to become the platinum selling Notting Hillbillies album, Missing….Presumed Having A Good Time with long-time pals Steve Phillips and Brendan Croker. During a meal in a Notting Hill wine bar, Mark sat next to Ed and said “OK, Ed; we’ve formed a band, and you’re the drummer!” They planned a tour to promote the Missing…. album and began six weeks of punishing rehearsals. Ed remembers that “everything ached; legs, ankles, wrists.” Just before the first concert Mark said “right – now forget everything you’ve learned and just have a good time…” He did, he still does.

Ed is a great one for stories – his anecdotes are infamous. He will muse about how he once nearly managed Van Morrison or the Spice Girls and he will worry about an on-coming recession until recalling that he need not be too concerned as he has managed to put a little spare cash in the bank. He once told me a story about when he was young, dreaming about becoming the next Buddy Rich. He remembers watching the master play, wide-eyed and totally awe struck. He went home and almost gave up.

Ed Bicknell – the ‘Silver Fox’ as Brendan Croker calls him – managed Mark Knopfler/Dire Straits from December 1977 until the end of August 2000. During those 22 plus years he reached the pinnacle of success but he has never forgotten his roots or what it is to be a fan. He is a warm and generous man, who always finds time for fans no matter how busy he is – thanks Ed.

With thanks to Terry Kilburn who wrote the original article in 2000.