As 1989 moves back into journalists’ crosshairs and we’re treated to one more round of documentaries on the roots of British club culture – as the familiar who’s who zoo of Mike Pickering, Carl Cox, Danny Rampling, The Hartnolls, Mr C, Tony Coulston-Hayter, and so on all traipse across our screens to tell us again how “mental” it was at Shoom – James Palumbo, founder of Ministry of Sound, is one key figure of the period who won’t be grinning a mouthful of ground-down molars back at the world. In fact, you won’t see him at all.
His 18-year silence has served to swathe the Ministry of Sound’s founder in a cloak of mystery that’s curdled into a dimly lit public persona more feared than loved. “He knows where the bodies are buried” is the insider’s shudder that bubbles up from London’s pavements when we ask after him. The reputation that precedes him is of a reptilian calculator – a man in fierce control of his own impulses, who’s thrived as a result of his iron will and infinite patience. A self-confessed loner, he lives with his non-romantic best friend – a Thai girl called Pim – and has done for many years. In the mornings, he does his exercise. In the afternoons, he plays his beloved grand piano. In the evenings, he doesn’t go out (“I’m tired in the evenings”).
But now, finally, his cover’s been blown with the publication of his first novel, TOMAS (it stands for “There is Only Money and Sex”). Now, £130 million in his Natwest SuperSaver or not, he’s still obliged to punt it to the press. Hence how we find ourselves in the more opulent end of South Kensington one idle Wednesday afternoon, hovering in the author’s airlessly pristine apartment as he dispenses his views on the basic currency of the Great British dance floor. We glance over at the grand piano at the far side of the room. Isn’t there, we wonder, an argument that music is itself a way of entering an altered state – that you can’t logically profess to be a fan of one sort of altered state but dismiss another out-of-hand?
“It’s like if you asked me if I ever considered eating dogshit,” says James Palumbo, cocking his £130 million head slightly, affording us the full beam of his intense focus. “Well, I might have considered it, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, does it?”
Perhaps. But isn’t there a sense in which drugs are a window onto a new world of experience?
“Yes, but you can argue that it’s an experience to kill someone. That doesn’t make it right.” He qualifies: “I don’t have high-pitched moral views on drugs. I just think it’s a sign of weakness. You’re so fucking weak.”
So ten per cent of the population is just weak and venal? “Yes,” he grins. “Categorically yes.”
He pauses, reframes. “I suppose my weakness, to qualify it, is people who take cocaine in the city, because they can’t run a deal without being aggressive. They’re in the loos on the 33rd floor dosing up on Colombian courage, and they go in and do the deal, and sure enough three years down the line, the whole thing’s a disaster.”
So you sneered at the punters who were filling up your coffers?
“Yes, I sneered at them as they came in. They said, “Who’s that man over there sneering at me…” No. Not at all. What people choose to do is their own business. What I can’t turn a blind eye to is organized drug dealing. Because that’s connected to death.”
At the age of 28, the ex-city boy son of a baronet property tycoon ploughed £500,000 into a nightclub in deepest, darkest Elephant & Castle, which a) only opened at midnight, b) had no liquor license, and c) no loos, because it “seemed like a sound business proposition.” It wasn’t long before he came up against just how ironclad an opportunity it was for the sophisticated network of drug retailers happy to leach from his investment.
They infused £50,000 worth of gear through the veins of the MoS every weekend. Worse yet – the very door staff he’d hired to keep the dealers out were in on it. Like a bad B-movie, he found himself all alone having to go eyeball-to-eyeball with the enemy within, facing down the racketeers he’d employed, before they simply muscled him aside. “It was a joke… an absolute fucking joke. There are 2,000 people in the club, 18 doormen… and me. Spotters, lookouts, people with the drugs, people with the money, and me on the floor trying to fight the good fight. It’s like trying to hold back the tide.”
Occasionally, security would offer up a little fish to throw him off the scent of the massive syndicate that they were up to their tits in. He recalls one evening in the Ministry of Sound offices, being begged by a small-time thug not to call the fuzz. “I’ve already done time,” he pleaded, “I won’t go back to jail.” But Palumbo afforded him no mercy. The police arrived. The dealer kept his promise – three months later, he threw himself under a train.
So, after what he alleges was an inside job armed robbery by his own door staff, in 1993 he began working with undercover police within the Ministry of Sound – rigging the club with cameras and microphones, using marked banknotes to pin down deals and dealers. In one swoop they made a dozen arrests. Simultaneously, Palumbo sacked his entire floor crew. Then, he returned to work the door himself in a bulletproof vest, tooled up with spray gas and a stun device, awaiting the street justice he knew must come.
“All of which is completely true. Whenever people say, ‘Oh, he’s a rich guy,’ well, I have been through stuff – I put it on the line. I have felt fear more than anyone you’ve ever fucking interviewed. In those days, it was a big fucking deal – I don’t think reading about it can give you a sense of just what a big business it was – how many ecstasy tablets were sold back then. And remember that they were all sold at £15 a pop. If you’d try and do anything about it, they’d kill you. So, for the wonderful readers of Vice magazine, and the marvelous culture it espouses, I’m not a hundred-year-old grandma wagging my finger. I have been around. But death is a bad look. And that part of drug culture which infected my business is something I can’t tolerate.”
He’s strict but fair, baby. That’s just his way. Palumbo’s a curious combo of ascetic discipline and free-thinking radicalism. His sentences are sharply set, punctiliously worded, but he’s prone to flights of fancy, to subverting the conversation down surreal little avenues. Even at Eton, he chose a paradoxical life. To some, he was lauded as a canny rebel – starting a campaign that successfully abolished fagging (a crazy school policy of slavery for younger boys. Think warming up a toilet seat and being a prefect’s sofa) while still a junior, and adding a whole slew of reforms to a wish list that got him right in the grill of the traditionalists. But he was by no means one of the lads, or particularly popular. When he was made head boy – a year earlier than was the custom – he busted five fellow students for smoking weed. They were expelled. Tough shit.
“‘Busted’ is not a word I’d use,” he proffers, layering extra languor onto his words. “I… helped show them a different way… an alternative way. The point about Eton was that the rules were the rules. At Ministry of Sound, we say you have to be in work at 9 PM – not five past nine, not quarter past nine – and we agree. And if collectively we agree, then we’re all happy. But Eton was a scary place because the boys did what they wanted. More so in those days, because when I went there, there was still a lot of old-fashioned rubbish.”
And you, apparently, single-handedly abolished a pillar of that – fagging? “Uh… how much should I claim the credit? I did a lot more than that. When I went to school, there were fifteen things that I thought were absurd immediately. I do physically remember thinking, I’ve got to change this while I have the chance, I’m only here once.”
It’s this internal death clock that he credits as the voice in his head that drives his heel. “You’re only here once,” he asserts, is the parable at the heart of TOMAS that most reviewers have missed in its cornucoprophilia of profane satire. Reading his book, it’s easy to see how they were blinded from morals by the torrent of sore-toothed surrealism that pours from its pages. As Britain’s 406th richest man, Palumbo occupies a suitably lofty perch from which to dig into the gauche excesses of the super rich. And dig in he does. TOMAS invokes Voltaire, Easton Ellis, Pynchon, Ballard’s Cocaine Nights, and a lifelong devotion to Kurt Vonnegut, to conduct its own black pageant of grotesqueries. It ingests the cardinal sins of contemporary culture – cynical TV, the obscene wealth and vulgarity of oligarchs and bankers, ideological WAG-ism, and ratchets their excesses into borderline obscene satire. He passes his rogue’s gallery through a hall of mirrors, revealing a homicidal protagonist whose job it is to be filmed shitting at solemn events for the world’s most important TV channel, restaurants so exclusive that the waiters blow their own brains out when a customer’s butter melts, and “It” girls who stagger about the lobbies of exclusive hotels with their impossibly outsized silicon boobies borne before them on trolleys.
“Bankers – yes I have met them, but I haven’t really; I mean the arseholes are the sub-prime people, I suppose. I have no problem with people just making money – that’s fine – but what I do have a problem with is how people live their lives. And it’s not just bankers – that’s just an easy one to grab onto. It’s a lot of people. People who, venally, think about impressing girls, about driving through Cannes in a Humvee, all of that.”
“But I go back to my theme, which no one has ever picked up on, because I was too obsessed by big breasts. If everyone took a drug once a year that made you feel that you were going to die then 99 per cent of shit goes away, your petty fears, your beneath-you ambitions, and you grow some balls. I’m not sure whether that’s right or commendable but you’re only here once, and you’ve got to go for it.”
While his contemporaries doodled in the Thai sand on their gap years, at 18, Palumbo took his be-here-now-isms, went to LA, and started his own business with nothing but his school uniform as capital. The Eton Butler Service specialised in cleaning and party catering for rich Hollywood types who’d happily pay someone English and debonair to fop about doing the chores in a top hat and tails $10-an-hour rather than pay Mexican immigrants a buck an hour. They cleaned up – Palumbo pimping out more and more of his old school chums as they arrived. “It was all completely illegal. We were ‘joke, joke, joke rookies.’ No green cards, all in cash, nothing. So we got raided at five in the morning and taken to holding cells with a bunch of Mexican wetbacks.”
“Then I hired this lawyer – this fat, typically-tart lawyer called Randolph Fields, with whom I later became best friends. And he got us off, claiming we weren’t actually selling a service. It was all total bullshit argument, but in America you can argue anything.”
Incredibly, rather than scamp off home with their tails between their legs, they then set about recycling their experiences into a film treatment, selling an option on it to TriStar Pictures and another to Universal for $80, 000. “I came from a very rich family, but I fell out with them. I was very, very insecure about money. I had a visceral horror of poverty. By then I felt that I was on the road to making myself secure. I went out to California on a dime. I came back to the UK at the age of 18 with fuckloads of money. I was rocking.”
Back in England, Palumbo checked himself into Oxford (”a waste of time”), while he simultaneously went to work full-time for Fields, inventing Virgin Atlantic. “It was called British Atlantic Airlines. I paid for Randolph to come to the UK. He was a guy who was obsessed with the idea that he could fly from Denver to LA to London for $300. Randolph started it, and I was Randolph’s partner, his wingman. To get a license and to rent your first craft is a very complicated, and to comply with all the different regulations is a big, big deal. It took the better part of three years. And of course it’s impossible to get funds, but eventually, Randolph managed to get Branson to put up the last few millions to get the aircraft airborne. So the airline, tentatively named, became Virgin. Typically, Branson gets you in, and sure enough, the thing needs to be recapitalized, and he presents you with the option to either let the thing go under, or he buys you out. And he bought Randolph out – crushed him.”
Branson is evidently not his favorite person. “There’s a complete disconnect between the actuality and the perception of Branson. I mean, his businesses are just shit, aren’t they? They’re dirty old trains that don’t make money, or they’re companies that have gone bust, or businesses that float well, then six months later the share price is nothing at all. It’s not Apple; it’s not Disney. Those are great businesses that are perpetuative and beautiful and stand for doing one thing well. Branson? It’s just gluing on shit.”
These days, Palumbo is a hands-off proprietor, having climbed out of the driving seat of the MoS shortly before starting his book (“I’m 46. The new MD is 38. It’s a better look.”). So he denies all responsibility for Basshunter (“I’ve always had people to do the music for me. Though I do claim credit for Fischerspooner – they were fabulous. We didn’t mind losing money on that. We did it for the art.”) He fills in his time with property deals, writing, stepping down a gear.
“You have to move on. I’m entering a new phase. I mean, these days I go to bed before the club even opens. Here I am, shoeless and playing with Japanese babies in the middle of the afternoon. You never know – you might meet up with me two years from now and my opinion on drugs will have completely altered.”
Before I leave, Palumbo points out a gold-framed enamel box on a side table. It previously belonged to Yves Saint Laurent; his art dealer bought it knockdown at the fashion grand dame’s estate sale. Yves apparently used it to keep his drugs in, though there is no alien holding a doobie embossed into its lid to verify this. What, we wonder, was Yves into? “Well,” he lies, “Christie’s were very particular that I maintain the authenticity of the box by preserving its original intent. So I’ve inherited his entire stash too.”