The Great Rock N' Roll Smuggle!
Mr.Nice and the Trans-Atlantic Speaker Scam
Howard Marks was the kind of man who was good at what he did… very good. What Howard Marks did so well was move and sell cannabis around the world.
The many faces of Howard Marks
Marks wasn’t some small time dealer selling dry chunks of hash to high school kids though. He was in fact the eternally stoned mind behind one of the most complex and profitable smuggling
operations in the world.
Howard Marks was a charming Welshman who faked his way into Oxford in the mid-1960s. While there, Marks rubbed elbows with England’s upper crust and got heavily into rock n’ roll
and smoking dope. He started out dealing small amounts of hash and marijuana to a select clientele of school friends but soon started to think bigger. With the help of a strange cast of characters, including IRA terrorists, Afghan princes, and Lebanese gangsters. Marks built up an international network that specialized in moving large volumes of drugs into the UK.
In the spring of 1973, Marks was searching for a new way to move his product and was trying to break into the lucrative US market. Marks had connections in California who could triple his investment, if he could get his product past the increasingly vigilant agents of US Customs that is. One of Howard’s business partners presented him with an interesting opportunity to get
their wares across the pond. This was the heyday of '70s heavy duty stadium rock, and big
time British rock bands were always heading back and forth to the States. At that time touring bands like The Who and Zeppelin competed not only for record sales and radio plays, but
also for decibels. In 1972, Deep Purple played a show measured at 117 dB; loud enough to render several audience members unconscious. The volume wars meant that bands had to schlep around their own sound gear from town to town in order to get the power they needed. Even a band like Emerson Lake and Palmer went on the road with 3 shipping containers full of
equipment, and Pink Floyd had a PA so powerful they rented it out to huge outdoor festivals when they weren’t on tour. All of those enormous guitar cabinets and speaker bins had plenty of
empty space inside perfect for stashing things.
Marks had a connection with a man named James Morris, who supplied custom built sound systems to some of the biggest bands in the UK. His company, Transatlantic Sounds, worked
with artists like Eric Clapton, Genesis, ELP, and Pink Floyd to make sure they were loud enough to rock out American stadiums. He agreed to help Marks by custom designing cabinets with hidden compartments and packing the loaded speakers with legitimate shipments of gear. Because a touring band’s sound equipment was only in the country temporarily, it wasn’t subject to the same level of inspection as other sorts of shipments. It was the perfect plan.
How much gear could one band really need?
In 1974 the Grateful Dead built this epic PA, called the Wall Of Sound.
It had over 600 speakers and around 28000 watts of power.
In the early days of the scheme, they were able to get large shipments out of Amsterdam and Paris and into the US without a problem. When they didn’t have a real tour they could piggyback on, they made up a phony band called “Laughing Grass”, complete with tour itineraries, show posters, and their name stenciled on the gear. During some of their early runs they actually hired friends to play the fake band members. They soon realized no one on the other end was checking the details and they began just making up band names for the paperwork. In the end it was an airline shipping mistake that did the whole thing in. In September 1973, Marks sent a huge shipment from Amsterdam to Las Vegas via New York City. Unfortunately, the airline mistakenly left one of the hash laden speakers at New York’s JFK Airport and moved it into a building with regular luggage. A US Customs inspector wandered by with a drug sniffing dog, and agents were already waiting at the airport in Las Vegas before the rest of the shipment hit the runway. At the
time, local police claimed credit for the bust and estimated the street value of the hash at around $5,000,000. Because of the size of the shipment, Marks had followed it to the US and had to
sneak back out of the country after the big bust.
Howard spent the next 13 years moving large quantities of cannabis around the globe and trying to stay one step ahead of the law. He retired from his smuggling business in 1986 and tried to settle down with his family in Majorca, Spain. Alas, there is no rest for the wicked and Howard was arrested and extradited to the US to face smuggling, narcotics, and racketeering charges. He spent 7 years in US federal prison and published his hilarious memoir, "Mr.Nice", after his release in 1995. Howard Marks would spend the rest of his years as a pop culture celebrity and passed away in 2016.