Allen Klein: Rock's Greatest Money Man...Or Greatest Cheat?

Allen Klein with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in New York at a dinner for songwriters, 1972.EXPAND
Allen Klein with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in New York at a dinner for songwriters, 1972.
ABKCO Archives

Allen Klein: The Man Who Bailed Out the Beatles, Made the Stones, and Transformed Rock & Roll
By Fred Goodman
Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
320 pp., $27

“Don’t talk to me about ethics. Every man makes his own. It’s like a war. You choose your side early on and from then on, you’re being shot at. The man you beat is likely to call you unethical. So what?”

— Allen Klein, Playboy interview, 1971

If you’ve read even a casual history of the Beatles or Rolling Stones, the name Allen Klein will surely be mentioned — and usually not in a complimentary way. As the business manager for two of the biggest groups in rock, he’s often portrayed as a loud, blunt, tenacious, pug-nosed, portly and pompadoured New York Jew. Which he was.

But depending on who is telling the story, Klein alternately both greatly aided and greatly cheated the bank-account balances of those English bands' members, who would all subsequently fire or disown him. In the end, his seeming legacy is as sort of a bête noire figure in the music biz.

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But in this thoroughly researched biography, Goodman (a former Rolling Stone editor an author of The Mansion on the Hill) gives a much more complete, balanced look at the man whose then-maverick but musician-friendly business outlook – like favoring artists' rights in negotiations with record companies, royalty restructuring and ownership of masters – are commonplace today.

Goodman traces Klein’s insane level of drive and determination to the fact that he grew up poor. And when his mother died unexpectedly at age 9, he was sent with his sister to live in an orphanage, only coming out five years later when his father remarried.

A love for money, figures, accounting detail and show business led Klein to the service of artists like Bobby Vinton and Sam Cooke. The latter also became a personal friend, forever grateful when Klein was able to pry monies due to him out of shifty record-company contracts and balance sheets.

Tasked by Rolling Stones then-manager Andrew Loog Oldham with help breaking the band in the U.S. (and creating contracts more favorable financially than their UK counterparts), Klein won the band’s loyalty when he more than delivered, even though lead singer Mick Jagger and bassist Bill Wyman remained suspicious.

Eventually — through his own sharp but sometimes shady dealings — Klein’s company ABKCO would administer the rights to most of the Stones’ ‘60s output, greatly enriching both the band and himself. Klein would also do work for Donovan, the Kinks and Pete Townshend.

But if Klein was something of a music-industry Ahab, his White Whale was the Beatles. Charmed by Klein’s street-tough image and approach, John Lennon brought him into the fold to help unravel the financial mess that was Apple Records, as well as their own publishing and songwriting interests. But Klein had no clue that the band was engaged in its own bitter Beatle battle, and close to dissolving.

When Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison voted to have Klein take care of financial matters for the group, they outvoted Paul McCartney, who wanted his in-laws, the Eastmans, to do so. It drove a bitter wedge between the members that became a big factor in their breakup.

Later, when Klein, along with producer Phil Spector, added an unauthorized and overblown orchestral arrangement to McCartney’s “The Long and Winding Road” (and thus on the version that everybody knows), Paul called it “the shittiest thing that anyone’s done to me.”

Clearly no fan of the Cute Beatle in Goodman's version, Klein refused to take a phone call from the man who was ostensibly his boss during an Apple meeting, leaving McCartney to fume on the other end of the line and be embarrassed in front of the staff. The Stones — miffed at the attention Klein was giving their friendly rivals — soon dumped Klein. And not too long after the Fabs’ breakup, they did as well.

But as Goodman shows, Klein was also merciless in enriching himself and looking out for his own interests, even if there was a conflict with the job he was hired to do. When the owners of the ‘60s girl group song “He’s So Fine” sued George Harrison, claiming that his massive hit “My Sweet Lord” was guilty of copyright infringement, the case dragged on for years. Klein quietly bought the rights to “He’s So Fine,” and thus ended up in court battling his own client.

Klein could also stick it to his charges in other ways, like clauses in his agreements and withholding the very royalties to them he’d fought to increase. And once wronged or snubbed, he was unlikely to ever forget.

Goodman’s book can sometimes appear like a business manual with so much legal minutiae, but it makes for compelling reading. He was able to write it with unprecedented access to Klein’s business records and documents provided by ABKCO and Klein's son – though the author is quick to point out that they held no sway or say over how he used that information, what he wrote, or how Allen Klein would eventually look in print. Goodman also interview members of Klein’s family and business associates, some of whom had not spoken publicly about him before.

Ultimately, Allen Klein is a lot of things. Yes, a “rogue and a rascal” who didn’t always put his clients’ financial interests above his own, and man who would look for legal fights, throwing himself full into a fray that didn’t always have to be escalated to that level. But he was also was one of the first managers/accountant to really take record companies to task for their often restrictive and unfair contracts with artists. Who, after all, would have no product to sell if the music wasn't created in the first place.

Klein, who died in 2009, also helped put the companies on notice for paying out unfair and cheap royalty rates. In 1965, the Beatles UK contract gave the band a single penny in royalties for each record sold – a penny that then had to be split four ways! He also had the foresight to think that an artist’s music could continue to make money for all involved long after any breakup or death.

In Allen Klein, Fred Goodman takes the story of a man who has mostly been viewed as a cartoon villain, and fleshes out his portrait with more nuance and brush strokes than even before.

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