12.4.18

MELODY MAKERS, SHOULD’VE BEEN THERE


To London’s Regent Street Cinema for a showing of Melody Makers, Should’ve Been There, a documentary about the music paper where I sowed the seeds that nourished me thereafter. The film was followed by a Q&A session in which I took part and for which I prepared myself by spending a pleasant two hours in the morning leafing through a dozen or so old copies of MM that I bought from a trader in old newspapers many years ago. I don’t often do this but whenever I do it becomes very moreish and I don’t want to stop because when that period of my life, from 1970 to 1977, comes back into focus, I wish I could turn back the clock, if only for a day.
The film has that effect too. It started life as a celebration of the work of our chief contributing photographer Barrie Wentzell who now lives in Toronto, the home town of its director Leslie Ann Coles. Somehow the two met and Leslie was shown Barrie’s archive, without doubt one of the richest rock photo archives in the world, at least for the period when he worked principally for MM, which was 1965 to 1975. Leslie proposed making a film based around Barrie’s photographs and Barrie suggested expanding the project to tell the story of the rise and fall of MM, which the film attempts to do. This, of course, is a big story in itself, Melody Maker having first appeared on newsstands in January 1926 and lasting until December 1999. Although its demise and, to a lesser extent, its beginnings are discussed by the movie’s interviewees, this premise is actually secondary to an analysis of Melody Maker’s importance during what many of us consider to be its golden years, roughly the period of Barrie’s involvement, especially in the early seventies when its circulation soared to around 200,000 a week, the highest it ever reached.

(The author and Barrie, at the Lincoln Festival, May 1972, photo by Jill Furmanovsky)

For one hour and 37 minutes the film flips back and forth between Barrie’s pictures and about 20 talking heads, among them former MM staff, musicians and industry figures, discoursing on MM’s role in the scheme of things, the way the music business has changed and how rock’n’roll journalism ain’t what it used to be. In this respect the film’s ambition is a bit too lofty to occupy its time span and some interviewees stray off the subject of MM and, inopportunely, into the counterculture in general, especially those with an agenda of their own to promote, but by and large it’s an entertaining movie about an entertaining era with many entertaining, occasionally funny, moments.
Barrie is unquestionably the star of the show. Without doubt, his pictures gave Melody Maker a look that all the other music mags must have envied. Before he joined MM’s editorial team all the music papers, MM included, used photographs of stars supplied by record labels or PR companies, so the same shots appeared everywhere and were used over and over again. Barrie, then working in design but with ambitions to express himself with a camera, somehow obtained access to a Diana Ross press event at the BBC, photographed her (superbly) and brought the results to MM’s then editor Jack Hutton who used the picture on the front page of the issue dated October 16, 1965.

(Barrie with his photo of Diana Ross, his first MM cover)

Thereafter Barrie’s pictures of every rock star of note graced MM’s front page most weeks for the next 10 years, and hundreds of these photographs, almost all of them in sharply contrasting monochrome, flash across the screen throughout the movie, a visual feast that applauds Barrie’s uncanny ability to capture the moment with his black Pentax. Both on stage and, often, in the homes of the stars, Barrie’s pictures stray into the realm of art, homages to his hero Henri Cartier-Bresson; like the shot of three cats and a bowl of fruit on a table while Roger Waters looks wistfully on, or the quizzical expression on Dylan’s face as gazes into the lens in a pub over pints of beer, or Bowie grinning with fans, wearing a jacket with lapels that seem to reach way beyond his skinny shoulders. 
Barrie, it seems, has kept every single one his negatives and the point is made that had he been working today, in the digital era, he would have discarded hundreds of photos just like we all do when we use our mobile phones to take snaps and delete all but the one that is worth keeping. A poignant moment in the movie sees him at work in his darkroom, recreating the working methods he used back in the day, watching Jimi Hendrix, a favourite subject, emerge on printing paper in his developing tray.
Those of us interviewed for the film who worked on the paper, Chris Welch, Richard Williams, Alan Lewis, Allan Jones, Barrie and myself, talk about what it was like to be in music journalism in an era when we could often circumvent PRs; when the music industry was less controlled, less formalised, than it is now. Barrie, whose congenial personality not only put his subjects at ease but enabled him untold access to stars that today’s rock photographers can only dream about, bristles with indignation when, towards the end of the film, he recalls being informed by a Stones’ minion that he and others can photograph the group only during the first number of a show at Wembley Arena. It was, he feels, a key turning point, the beginning of the end, and not long afterwards he hung up those black Pentaxes, which he still has, and went to work in his brother’s greengrocers on the Isle of Wight. I couldn’t help but feel that the Stones were the losers here, especially after having just admired Barrie’s outstanding portraits of Jagger. I mean, didn’t these guys want great pictures of themselves in the papers?
After the movie Leslie Ann Coles, Chris Welch and myself answered questions put to us by Steve Chibnall, Professor of British Cinema and Director of Cinema and Television History Research Centre at Du Montfort University, Leicester, where the film is being shown on April 14. I always feel a bit like the junior partner at these affairs when I’m alongside my namesake Welchy for he joined MM in 1964, six years before me, and lingered on for a good few years after I left, so he took the mike for the most part, closing his remarks by stating that were he to win the Euro Millions lottery tomorrow hed spend the cash relaunching MM for the 21st century. How could I not join him in such a splendid enterprise? Here we all are, photographed by my daughter Olivia who chided me afterwards for expressing a pessimistic outlook for the future of music journalism. “It might not be in print but it will flourish on line dad,” she said. I hope she’s right.



8.3.18

RIP NME AND THE END OF A CULTURE



It is heartening to get so many Facebook likes for observing the last rites of NME, heartening because it reflects the affection with which the UK’s weekly press, be it New Musical Express or Melody Maker or any of the rest, are still held by those who used to read them. Then again, maybe it’s not that surprising really because – staggering as it seems today – in their heyday, when MM was top of the heap selling 200,000 copies a week, NME wasn’t that far behind, on 180,000 I think, Sounds third with 100,000 and the two also-rans, Disc & Music Echo and Record Mirror, on 50,000 each. That’s 580,000 music papers sold every week in this little island of ours, over 30 million a year, and you can be sure that they were read by many more than that as they were passed around in colleges, offices, clubs, pubs, maybe even doctors’ waiting rooms. There were so many readers that it stands to reason that many of them will this week mourn not just NME but the weekly music press culture that was unique to the UK. 

This mega-circulation era was around 1972, when MM was in its pomp, so much so that its publisher IPC Business Press was prepared to stump up for a staff member to live in New York (in an apartment paid for by them, inclusive of all utility and phone bills plus a living allowance exclusive of salary, same as foreign correspondents on the national press) and report back on what was happening in America, an expense that would cause bean-counters apoplexy today. Three of us got that wondrous gig, Roy Hollingworth, Michael Watts and myself, and I still believe it was the best job in the world in music journalism, better than any editorship, just absolute rock'n'roll nirvana regardless of the perks. MM’s success in the first half of the 1970s forged a bond between the staff that lasts to this day: Richard Williams, Chris Welch, Michael, Geoff Brown and myself meet for lunch about twice a year to relive old times, and most of us have been amongst the mourners at the funerals of those we have lost: Roy, our editor Ray Coleman, Carole Clerk and Rob Partridge. I liken it to having played together on a football team that long ago won the league title. 






By the time the US job ended, in 1977, MM’s crown had slipped and NME was top dog, deservedly so under the editorship of Nick Logan with Charlie Murray, Nick Kent, Ian MacDonald and the rest carrying the torch that I like to think we had lit earlier in the decade. Nevertheless the combined circulation of the music weeklies, now joined by Kerrang! (surviving still) was still around half a million a week. (Any rivalry was strictly corporate. We were on friendly terms with the writers from other papers and one NME writer and I were ‘an item’ for a while.) This culture of weekly music magazines was exclusive to the UK; no other country saw anything like it. There were no national music weeklies to cater to fans in the US, only Lisa Robinson’s breathless New York weekly Rock Scene, dry weekly music business publications like Billboard and Cashbox and biweekly Rolling Stone. Elsewhere in Europe some countries boasted a single weekly or monthly paper, and in Australia there was Go-Set which syndicated articles from MM, as did one in Sweden. Only the UK had such a thriving weekly music press, and the competition between the titles was what kept us lively and on our toes.
It was an era way before computers or even commercial radio. Televised pop consisted only of Top Of The Pops and The Old Grey Whistle Test. Acts had fan clubs that circulated newsletters but the only way to find out what your favourite act was up to, if they were going to release a new single or album or go out on tour, or if they were splitting up or changing personnel, was to read the music press. With those acts like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, who demurred from appearing on TV or using photographs of themselves on their album sleeves, the only way to found out what they actually looked like was to go and see them, not always an option, or look at the photographs of them in the music press. 
Even though I lost touch with the ups and downs of the fortunes of NME and MM during the eighties I continued to read them. I began to think that NME was becoming too political for its own good, losing its way amidst an editorial policy that promoted left-wing ideology over music. I agreed with the ideology – it was the Thatcher era after all – but felt music magazines should cover music and political magazines politics. Meanwhile, MM seemed desperate to outdo A&R men by finding the next big thing before they did, which was admirable enough but resulted in a few sub-par acts appearing on the front page and being hailed as saviours when they were anything but. Both papers tended to ignore the really popular acts, the ones that were selling out arenas, because they were insufficiently hip in the eyes of their staff, and this had a detrimental effect on their circulation, giving rise to monthly magazines that treated musicians on the wrong side of 30 with more respect, in some cases probably more than they deserved. All of this coincided with the CD era in which music became a soundtrack to a certain lifestyle in which the participants didn’t care that much about the musicians whose user-friendly little silver discs they played as background music to dinner parties or in their cars and as a result weren’t much interested in reading about them. Then came the internet. 
In the meantime I began to suspect, wrongly as it turned out, that the generation of young MM writers after my own might not welcome the company of those who’d gone before. I felt they might be envious of the largesse we’d enjoyed (that US job, the fairly outrageous record industry hospitality), that they might feel we had been too benign towards the acts compared to their more confrontational approach, and that they wouldn’t want to listen to any ‘in my day’ litanies so redolent of sports commentators who were once players themselves. Happily, this assumption was proved wrong after I commissioned a 90s-era MM writer to write a book for Omnibus Press and was invited to his wedding. Assuming that no one would be discourteous to me if I was accompanied by a 12-year-old girl I took my daughter Olivia along, but there I was, surrounded by the MM generation I thought might snub me, all of them eager to hear about the days when we sold 200,000 copies a week. 
Now, that golden era of the weekly music press is a distant memory. As for myself, back in 1977, after seven years on MM I knew my time was up. When I turned 30 I thought I was too old to continue – which sounds ridiculous now – but I got out because I felt I couldn’t sustain the required enthusiasm in my writing. I wanted to try something else in music, which I did. Many years passed until, three years ago, I launched this blog at the suggestion of that same daughter. A few years earlier, aged 19, she’d worn a rare Keith Moon t-shirt of mine to a party and was surrounded by boys her own age wanting to know where she got it. When she explained that her dad used to know him and that he had been associated with The Who professionally, she was pestered with questions about me to the point where she wished she’d never worn the damn t-shirt. When Olivia told me this I figured it was time to start a blog and when, with her encouragement, I did so I rediscovered that same enthusiasm for writing about music and musicians that I had in the early seventies, though I’m not sure how long it’ll last. 
But I digress. The loss of NME on top of all the rest is the final nail in the coffin of a culture that I mourn deeply because I was lucky enough to play a small role in it, and that makes me doubly sad.

25.1.18

MARK E. SMITH – A Couple of Encounters

As is well known, Mark E. Smith was a loveable yet cantankerous old rogue. I was never a Fall fan but I had two encounters with him over the years, the first in person, the second concerning legal issues that after the event seemed all too typical of the ramshackle way he conducted his business affairs.
In 1988 I commissioned a book on The Fall from an author called Brian Edge, a fan who lived in Wales. It was called Paintwork: A Portrait Of The Fall, and was in no way authorised by Smith or anyone else. It was only 96 pages long, illustrated throughout, and is long out of print, though ‘used’ copies can be bought on Amazon for about £20 now, with ‘new’ ones on sale for over £100, which probably reflects their rarity value.


Soon after its publication Smith contacted me at Omnibus, not to harangue me for publishing an unauthorised book, as might be expected, but to tell me he’d read it, quite liked it, and would be interested in buying copies at a wholesale price to sell at his gigs. This was unusual, a first in fact. Omnibus specialised in ‘unauthorised’ books. Most acts couldn’t care less, a few sent lawyers’ letters claiming breach of copyright that we swatted away like flies, but none offered to buy unauthorised books to resell to make a profit. 
‘Fine,’ I told Mark. ‘Why don’t you come by the office next time you’re in London? We’ll work something out.’
‘Great,’ he said in his croaky Mancunian accent. ‘Next Thursday. Three o’clock?’
‘OK. See you then.’
This was a mistake on my part. I should have scheduled the meeting for the morning, before the pubs opened. He arrived at our offices stinking of beer and cigarettes, no doubt having spent at least two hours in a pub. He had about him the air of a rough sleeper who’d spent the previous night dossed down on someone’s floor in the same clothes he was wearing for our meeting. His hair was uncombed. He wasn’t a vain man, I decided, certainly not your typical rock star. He was fairly drunk too, but not belligerent, though I was afraid his mood might change if the meeting didn’t go the way he hoped. I offered him a cup of tea.
‘You haven’t got any beer have you?’
Sorry. 
Mark wanted 100 books. I offered to sell them to him at half price, the same sort of discount that bookshops demand. He wanted a bigger discount. Since sales weren’t really my department I said I’d have to consult the sales manager before I could agree. He nodded and for a moment I thought he was going to fall asleep. 
‘It’s not a bad book,’ he said, waking up. ‘Let me know.’
Then he lurched off, probably back to the pub.
A day or two later I contacted his office – he’d given me a number – and told someone on the other end of the phone we would sell them to him at 55% discount. We never heard back.

* * *

In 2008 Omnibus published a far more substantial book on Mark and The Fall, written with his co-operation by Mick Middles, the well-known chronicler of Manchester’s music scene. I thought this would be the nearest thing to an autobiography and therefore a thoroughly worthwhile project. I think it was Mick that called me to say that Mark was up for it. I did a deal with Mick and I guess Mick did a deal with Mark, the details of which were none of my business, though I assumed that Mick would lob some of the advance Mark’s way in return for interviews. 
        The contract for the book contained the usual clause to the effect that the author warranted that the contents were his or her own copyright and, because the book would contain some lyrics, I made a point of confirming that Mark did in fact own the copyrights of the lyrics in the book. Via Mick Mark said he did, and the book contained a credit which read: All lyrics used by permission. © Mark E. Smith. Cog Sinister. All rights reserved. Another clause prohibited the authors from writing and/or causing to be published a similar book within five years. 
          



This book, titled simply The Fall and credited to Mark E. Smith and Mick Middles, was a more substantial affair than the previous book but is cheaper to buy on Amazon now, probably because it has remained in print until only very recently. It wasn’t quite the Mark E. Smith autobiography I was hoping for. I sensed that the time Mick spent with Mark didn’t really bring forth the material that Mick hoped. But it wasn’t a bad effort, and was certainly the nearest thing to an authorised Fall book thus far published. It’s done pretty well too, as evidenced by the fact that it remained in print for almost a decade. 
Of course, something was bound to go wrong. About a month after its publication a music publisher based in Manchester got in touch to say that he owned the copyright to Mark’s lyrics as printed in the book and wanted, I think, £5,000, or else he’d sue us for breach of copyright. In normal circumstances, ie had we cleared copyright before going to press, the use of the lyrics would have cost us about £500. The publisher knew this and so did I. 
‘But we have a warranty from Mark E. Smith saying he owns the copyrights,’ I said.
‘He sold them to me for [undisclosed cash sum] a few years ago. He was skint at the time.’
‘Well, you’d better sort this out with him.’
The conversation went no further and the issue was not resolved. I got the distinct impression that the transaction whereby this publisher acquired the rights to Mark E. Smith’s songs took place in a pub, was a cash deal and that some of the cash was spent over the bar that same night. This is conjecture on my part, of course. Clearly the publisher took the view that Omnibus Press and its parent company Music Sales were far more likely to have £5,000 in the bank than Mark E. Smith, and he was probably right. We got a lawyers’ letter a week or two later but we wriggled out of it because it transpired we had a print music deal with that self-same publisher and claimed we therefore had the right to print lyrics controlled by them. No you don’t, they said. Yes we do, we said. We never heard from them again.
But it wasn’t quite over. Early the following year Penguin published The Renegade: The Lives & Tales of Mark E. Smith, credited solely to Smith on the cover though in reality it was ghost-written by Austin Collings. This was the book that I had hoped to publish, a no-holes barred autobiography that, of course, Smith wasn’t supposed to write because of the agreement with Omnibus Press that Mick Middles had signed. Or so I thought. Of course I rang up Penguin and pointed this out. Whoever I spoke to in their editorial department laughed heartily. Their book had been in production for some considerable time, probably commissioned before ours, which meant that Smith wasn’t supposed to co-operate with Mick Middles on our book in the first place. Furthermore, I got the distinct impression that Penguin had experienced some peculiarities in their dealings with Mark as well, which might have explained why their book came out after ours. 
As I write, The Renegade sits at the top of Amazon’s Rock Book Chart. 
Loveable rogue indeed. RIP. 
             

22.1.18

DEEP PURPLE, November 1970


I am at present engaged in revising my 1983 biography of Deep Purple for publication in a different format later this year. Here's a story from the book that I decided to expand, all 100% true.
        It is late 1970 and Deep Purple are enjoying their first taste of genuine success. 

Touring continued for the remainder of the year, with trips to France, Scandinavia and Germany slotted in between UK shows that included universities and seaside towns. The French trip, which I covered for Melody Maker, was hastily rearranged to exclude a club where fire had recently broken out with tragic results, and a prestigious show at the Paris Olympia on November 1 was followed by an impromptu performance at the Gibus Club whose enterprising owner had somewhat cheekily advertised an appearance by Deep Purple that hadn’t been agreed, let alone contracted. 
The club’s manager met with a furious John Coletta backstage at the Olympia but Purple’s manager, unwilling to disappoint scores of French fans, was backed into a corner. The group didn’t seem to mind, though, and free food and drink was provided for the whole Purple entourage in exchange for a short set that comprised old rock’n’roll 12-bar songs like ‘Tutti Frutti’ and ‘Lucille’ that were simple to play. Though the club was packed, it is doubtful whether the increased attendance compensated for the unlimited supply of beer, wine and champagne, not to mention fillet mignon, that was consumed by a party numbering a dozen or more. 
After the feast Ritchie and I left the Gibus to check out the Rock’n’Roll Circus, the Paris rock club that would become notorious as the place where Jim Morrison was last seen alive. We finally left the club in the early hours, by which time we had become attached to a couple of agreeable French girls but much to our frustration the night porter at L’Opera, the hotel where we were staying, refused to allow us to bring them up to our rooms. Livid, Ritchie stormed back outside, with me and the girls in pursuit, and together we hatched a plot to ensure that he, at least, would not spend the night alone. I agreed to abandon my girl, a bit reluctantly to be sure, and while he returned to the lobby and distracted the porter I was to sneak back inside with his girl and meet him on the first floor where he would reassume his courtship of her. 
I recall the tearful farewell to my girl on the steps of the hotel and my poor attempts to explain to her in French why we were not destined to spend the night in each other’s arms. ‘Un autre temps peut-etre,’ I said dismally as she went off to find a cab. 
The night’s fun and games were not over. As it happened the porter saw me and Ritchie’s mademoiselle sprinting through the lobby and, although I met Ritchie as planned on the first floor and ‘handed’ the girl over, a few minutes later the phone rang in my room. It was the night porter. In vain did I deny having a girl there but he came up to look for himself and when he couldn’t find her he demanded to know where she was. A confrontation ensued, not helped by my bad French.
‘Ou se trouve la fille?’ he yelled, looking under the bed and opening the wardrobe door.
‘Quelle fille?’ I responded, smirking.
‘La jeune fille qui arrive avec vous il ya quelques minutes,’ he replied, going into the bathroom. 
‘Il n’y a pas de fille ici,’ I said. ‘Recherche toi-meme. Il n’y a personne.’
He looked like he was staying put until she emerged from somewhere or other so as a last resort to get him out of my room I suggested he try Mr Coletta’s room down the corridor. Unlike him, I knew full well that Mr Coletta had taken a girlfriend, a Playboy Bunny as I recall, over to Paris for the weekend and had, of course, booked a double room for he and her.
        John wasn’t best pleased to be disturbed in the middle of the night by the night porter, or so I gathered in the morning. Ritchie, whose girl remained undiscovered, was highly amused by the whole business and for my sacrifice I earned his undying gratitude, or so I thought.


7.1.18

BOB DYLAN: I WAS THERE


I was commissioned to write this intro to a book entitled Bob Dylan: I Was There which will be published later this year. It's a much extended re-write of a previous post about Dylan.

I existed in a hermetically sealed world when I worked as Melody Maker’s American Editor, based in New York, between 1973 and 1977. I was going to gigs three or four nights a week, writing all hours of the day, mixing only with fellow music writers, musicians and industry types. I didn’t really know anyone outside the music industry apart from the neighbour I’d see collecting her mail or the man at the newsagents where I picked up yesterday’s British newspaper. In 1975 I didn’t think much about the fuel crisis, the Irish Troubles or even the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. World affairs didn’t concern me. I dwelt on where The Who were headed after the loss of momentum in 1974, or what David Bowie would look like the next time I saw him, or who was going to replace Mick Taylor in the Stones.
It came as something of a shock, therefore, when one day in early November the phone rang in my 78th Street apartment and the girl at the IPC office whose task it was to relay telex messages from London informed me that editor Ray Coleman wanted me to cover the ‘Bob Die Lon’ tour.
          “Who?” I asked. 
          “Bob Die Lon.”
          “Bob who?”
          “Die Lon.”
          “Never heard of him.”
          So immersed was I in the world of rock that it never occurred to me in my wildest dreams than an American not much younger than myself could be so unfamiliar with Bob Dylan as to be unable to pronounce his name correctly, as if it rhymed with ‘nylon’. To me this was like being unable to count to ten, or recite the alphabet. Never having heard Dylan’s name pronounced in this way before, I was genuinely mystified as to the identity of the artist whose tour Ray wanted me to cover.
          “Can you spell the name for me?” I asked.
          “D-Y-L-A-N.”
          “Oh, you mean Dylan,” I responded incredulously, pronouncing it correctly.
          “Oh, that’s how you say it,” she replied. “Who is he?”
          “Well,” I began, amazed that this young woman had never even heard of Bob Dylan, “he’s a singer and songwriter, probably the most famous popular musician to emerge in America since Elvis Presley. He’s written some of the greatest and most famous songs of the last ten years and influenced just about everyone from The Beatles onwards. His lyrics are legendary…”
          “Is he any good?” she interrupted.

Ignorance of Bob Dylan was not a crime in itself in those days though it would certainly have counted against me when that same Ray Coleman had interviewed me for a job at the start of 1970. In the event Ray was telexing me – this was long before the fax, let alone e-mails – to ensure that I covered Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review, then about to begin up in New England, though unbeknownst to him I’d already made plans to head there with my pal Bob Gruen, New York’s most streetwise rock photographer. (My recollections of one of the opening shows – at Springfield, Massachusetts on November 6 – can be found elsewhere in this book, as can my report of a Dylan show with The Band at New York’s Madison Square Garden on January 30, 1974.)
          Dylan was a favourite of all of us at Melody Maker. On my first day at the paper, in the first week of May, 1970, I sat at a desk in full sight of where Richard Williams, the assistant editor, had written out some Dylan lyrics and stuck them to the walls. Opposite me was a sign that read: ‘You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows’ and to my right were the words, ‘Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters’. I well remember how when Richard received an advance copy of George Harrison’s triple Concert For Bangla Desh LP in December of the following year the first thing he did was put on side five, very loud. When George announced, “I’d like to bring on a friend of us all, Mister Bob Dylan,” all of us stopped what we were doing and gathered around the office record player. The delirious, earsplitting ovation that preceded ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ was a glorious, unqualified vindication of how we all felt about the direction our lives had taken.
More than the songs of any of his contemporaries, those of Bob Dylan – and the way he conducted his career – reflected the increasing maturity that popular music had discovered in the sixties, that sense of endless possibility in which worldly insight, societal influence and creative expression combined to elevate it way above the ‘Moon in June’ approach of the past. With the musicians who played on Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde and, later, the members of The Band, Dylan had discovered musical foils that framed his work in a perfect synthesis of poetry and rock’n’roll, but it was much more than mere instrumental virtuosity that we recognized, more a journey into deeper realms of art, literacy and culture that gave momentum to our mission to let the rest of the world know about it. Perhaps we were a bit idealistic or even naïve, but I like to think that all of us on the paper in those days felt we were part of something bigger than simply ‘show biz’ or ‘entertainment’, and that Dylan – along with Lennon, Townshend and Bowie – represented the best of the new world to which we were committed.
          Unfortunately it was the old world that greeted Bob Dylan when he made an early appearance at Melody Maker’s offices in 1962. In November of that year, by an odd coincidence the same month that ‘Love Me Do’, The Beatles’ first single, inched its way up to number 17 the charts, 21-year-old Bob paid a visit to London, his first trip outside of the US, to appear in a radio play for the BBC. The play, the recording of which has long since been wiped, and the visit itself remain a footnote in Dylan’s career but while in London he visited and sang at various folk clubs, hung out at Dobells, the specialist record shop in Charing Cross Road, smoked plenty of dope and got drunk in Soho’s pubs. He stayed for almost six weeks, initially at the posh Mayfair Hotel in Berkeley Square, where his smoking habits upset the management, subsequently moving to the more accommodating Cumberland near Marble Arch. He befriended Martin Carthy, who encouraged his wayward, untutored genius, and may even have checked out Peter Cook’s Establishment Club on Greek Street, the cradle of the UK’s satire movement that was lurking, ready to pounce on Harold Macmillan’s complacent Tory government. 
          He also visited Melody Maker’s offices, probably on the recommendation of US jazz critic Nat Hentoff who wrote the sleeve notes for Dylan’s second LP, Freewheelin’, and was an MM stringer. Hentoff was a pal of Max Jones, MM’s revered jazz writer, and it was Jones that Dylan sought out when he arrived at the offices at 161 Fleet Street. The doorman, concluding the scruffy-looking Dylan to be up to no good, denied him entry at first and it wasn’t until Max was summoned that the issue was resolved. Max proceeded to interview the young Dylan, thus securing his first ever press coverage in the UK.
          So, in closing, it gives me great pleasure to report that not only is Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan a genius of enormous distinction in his chosen field but that he never forgets a kindness, as I discovered for myself backstage at a Rolling Stones concert at Madison Square Garden in June of 1975. What I remember most about this concert is not Charlie’s drumming, which as usual was exemplary, nor even the giant inflatable cock that appeared on stage and fomented so much distress in the God-fearing states down south, but being introduced to Bob, my only close encounter with the great man.
          My friend Peter Rudge, then tour managing the Stones, had given me a couple of backstage passes and among those lingering in the corridor that led to the dressing rooms was Dylan himself, carrying a large pitcher of red wine from which he was drinking copiously. It was one of those big round flagons with a ring on the neck through which you could insert a finger to raise it to your mouth, perfect for situations when glasses are unavailable. He looked much the same as he did on stage at the Rolling Thunder Review shows later that same year, without the white face make-up of course, his hair a mess of unkempt curls, in jeans and a black leather jacket, someone perhaps slightly dangerous to know. Most doormen, like the one in Fleet Street in 1962, would have thought twice about admitting him to whatever premises they were safeguarding. 
Moments after clocking Bob I spotted Peter Rudge. 
“Is that Bob Dylan?” I asked, unnecessarily.
“Yes.”
“Can you introduce me?”
Peter, whose staff I would join in 1977, gave me a wry look, then grinned.   “OK.”
We walked over to where Bob was standing and Peter tapped him on the shoulder, interrupting a conversation he was having with a pretty, dark-haired girl in a scarlet dress.
          “Bob,” said Peter, “this is Chris Charlesworth from Melody Maker.”
          Bob looked at me and squinted. He did not offer a hand to shake. I was pretty sure he was drunk.
          Melody Maker,” he slurred. “How’s Max Jones?”
          “Max is fine,” I replied. “I’ll tell him you asked after him.”
          “You do that,” said Dylan. Then he turned away and resumed the conversation he was having before I intruded.
          Come to think of it I’d have preferred to talk to the pretty girl in the scarlet dress too.

18.12.17

JOOLS HOLLAND'S R&B ORCHESTRA – Brighton Centre, December 16, 2017



A chance encounter in September with my old friend Harvey Goldsmith, the concert promoter, took Lisa and I to Brighton on Saturday night where twice we were on the receiving end of ‘Hit The Road Jack’, the first delivered by the 20-strong Brighton Swing Choir as they strolled around the always lively area behind the Pavilion, singing loudly as they went, the second a duet by Jose Feliciano and Ruby Turner, featured guest stars with Jools Holland’s R&B Orchestra for whose show at the Brighton Centre Harvey had kindly proffered us tickets.
Concerts in Brighton are a preferred option to London from where we now live, the pleasant drive to the coast followed by a pizza, then the show and a fairly breezy drive home; so much less effort than struggling with the traffic and parking (and prices) in London. I gathered from my fellow concert-goers, a fairly mature lot, that Jools makes an annual trip to Brighton at this time of the year but never having seen Squeeze in their early days this was the first time I’d seen him in the flesh. Nevertheless I was pretty sure what I was in for and I was 100% right: a solid diet of hard core, enthusiastic and hugely danceable boogie-woogie interspersed with a sprinkling of ska, all delivered with the same charm that characterises the smooth-mannered, slightly unctuous patter that he’s perfected for his role as host on TV’s Later…, for which the one-time groovy fucker is rapidly ascending to the status of National Treasure.
On stage Jools dresses pretty much as he does on Later, his double-breasted black suit with pin-stripes, braces holding up easy-fit pants and a dark blue open-necked shirt suggesting the pasta-loving Joe Pesci character in Goodfellas, certainly someone to whom it would be inadvisable to advance a tenner. The rest of his 15-strong band, too, look a bit of a rabble, all of them a bit like the blokes that played in bands led by Ian Dury, once memorably photographed standing in a line at a bus stop, which in its way is a compliment since Dury’s bands put the sound they made before what they looked like, as do Jools’ men and women. Jeans are the trouser of choice, but not exclusively, and there’s little effort to co-ordinate a look, the odd hat suggesting lack of hair beneath, a beard or two, shirts of varying styles and colour. Only the female saxophonist in green sheen and the two girl singers make an effort, albeit a tad half-heartedly, their tight black pants and vaguely glittery tops functional rather than glamorous. Mind you, both girls move like trained dancers, especially when called to the front to relieve Jools of the vocal duties and belt out impressive solo vocals. 
Whatever their sartorial deficiencies, the Jools Holland R&B Orchestra make a terrific racket and swing like there’s no tomorrow, and Jools is as fine a boogie-woogie piano player you’ll find this side of New Orleans. He’s superbly confident, too, effortless stroking the keys on a black Yamaha baby grand, that pumping left hand a tireless reminder of heroes like the Fatses – Waller and Domino – to whom tribute was respectfully paid as the evening drew on. He’s also a generous leader, giving everyone on stage bar his bassist an opportunity to solo, and with four saxophones, three trombones and three trumpets, not to mention long serving drummer Gilson Lavis and guitarist Mark Flanagan, that’s an awful lot of solos. But they’re rigidly controlled, the individual sparks always short, sharp, enjoyable blasts with a notable absence of noodling. No matter its instrumentation, this isn’t a jazz band, it’s an R&B band, whose style is pitched somewhere between the fifties and sixties and even a nod to earlier decades. 
Jools arrived on stage shortly after eight and plunged straight into the boogie-woogie, ‘Double O Boogie’, I think, followed by ‘Young Man’s Game’, though the titles that follow are in some cases best guesses as many weren’t introduced. At stage left Mark Flanagan reminded me a bit of Keith Richards, his Gibson 330 worn low, slipping smoothly from chord to chord and only occasionally venturing into a solo, very understated in a coolly professional sort of way, and next to him at the back on a smallish organ was Chris Holland, Jules’ younger brother, and alongside him tall bassist Dave Swift on a stand-up, later exchanged for a six-string bass guitar. The 18th century French song ‘Plaisir Du Amour’, played with hint of blue beat, offered a break from the relentless boogie, as did Lavis’ economical drum solo which sliced a stride instrumental in half. Lavis has been with Jools since the very beginning, when the orchestra was just the two of them, as we learned from Jules’ between song chatter. Meanwhile, the rather low-tech backdrop featured close-ups of the musicians and, at one point, footage of a wonderfully quaint model town-cum-railway similar to the intro graphics on Later, which somehow added to the feeling of being taken back in time to when much of this music was first recorded.

The show went up a gear with the arrival of Jose Feliciano, with whom Jules has recorded a recently released album. Blind since birth, Jose was led on by his minder who sat him down on a stool stage centre, handed him a nylon stringed guitar and let him get on with it. His first song was the Mamas & Papas’ ‘California Dreaming’ but from where I was sat he struggled to be heard against the might of the brass section. Two songs of his own, ‘Let’s Find Each Other Tonight’ and ‘As You See Me Now’ were followed by his Christmas hit ‘Feliz Navidad’ and, inevitably, ‘Light My Fire’, and in them all Jose took spikey, flamenco-style solos, his lightning quick runs still a feature of his guitar style. There were also a few well-rehearsed cracks about declining to drive after drinking too much and needing a lyric sheet in case he forgot the words.
The show reached boiling point with the arrival of Jamaican soul diva Ruby Turner, a lady of generous proportions and now a feature of all Jools’ shows, both live and on TV. Ruby shook the venue’s foundations with ‘Let The Good Times Roll’ and, more especially, the gospel fervour of ‘Peace In The Valley’ in which Satan stood no chance whatsoever of surviving Ruby’s emotive onslaught. There followed a five-song encore that included Jools’ good time evocation ‘Enjoy Yourself’, the return of Jose to duet with Ruby on ‘Hit The Road Jack’ and an audience participation rave-up on ‘What’d I Say’ that featured the entire ensemble. By this time the back drop was reflecting the time of the year, specifically Jools’ New Year’s Eve hootenannies, and at the close everyone went home very happy indeed. 
There have been times when Jools’ ingratiating patter on Later has left me cold, not least when many years ago he had Ginger Baker as his guest plugging his autobiography, a book I turned down at Omnibus because it was self-serving drivel and riddled with mistakes (that weren’t corrected by its eventual publisher). ‘Brilliant book,’ said Jools who plainly hadn’t read a word of it. That said, his patter works far better on stage and there were times during this show when the delight on his face was a joy to behold, a man in his element. The music of the JH R&B Orchestra won’t win any awards for originality, and it probably doesn’t impose too much on the skills of the men and women who play it, but if an uncomplicated fun night out is all you’re seeking, go no further.

15.12.17

ROCK & ROLL HALL OF FAME – 2018 Inductees

Earlier this week it was announced that the inductees for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for 2018 are Bon Jovi, The Cars, Dire Straits, The Moody Blues and Nina Simone. Since I voted for only one of these, Dire Straits, I have thus maintained my proud tradition of picking mostly losers, my other four choices having been J. Geils Band, Eurythmics, Radiohead and – by popular demand through soliciting suggestions on Facebook and this blog – The Zombies.
Although I am familiar with their music I don’t own a single record by Bon Jovi, The Cars or The Moody Blues and never have done. (I think I may have received a complimentary Moodies album back when receiving complimentary albums was a daily occurrence but it flew in and out of my life quite rapidly.) I do have a Nina Simone compilation but, truth to tell, it hasn’t been played in years. I do, of course, own and play records by all those I voted for. 
        I’m surprised that J. Geils didn’t make it as their brand of rockin’ R&B and their long and fairly distinguished history places them among the kind of acts that the R&RHoF seems to favour. There is good reason to believe that Jann Wenner, the editor and publisher of Rolling Stone, is foreman of the jury that decides who’s in and who’s out, and the usually critical Albums Guide published by his mag is pretty generous to them. Also, I’d have thought that the death of guitarist John Geils in April of this year would have accorded a sympathy vote and enhanced their chances.
The Moody Blues, on the other hand, slot into the category that R&RHoF generally ignores, UK soft or prog rockers of their ilk being generally relegated to the naughty corner. That same Albums Guide is hilariously dismissive of them, awarding most of their albums one and a half or two stars out of five, with adjectives like ‘nonsense’, ‘truly crass’ and even ‘offensive’ finding their way into the critique of their work. Only Queen, Journey and John Denver fare worse in the whole book.
I’m largely ignorant of The Cars and imagine they deserve their induction through long service, and I suppose Bon Jovi earned their induction on the strength of their popularity. Nevertheless, I always thought BJ and his men were Bruce Springsteen clones wherein clichés, carefully coiffured tresses and pin-up looks substituted for Bruce’s showmanship, intelligence and stamina. And though it’s doubtless wrong to hold it against them, I couldn’t help but shudder when that awful Heather Mills woman to whom Macca foolishly pledged his troth told the press she preferred BJ to The Beatles. 
Nina Simone deserves her place and I ought to have voted for her. So do Dire Straits whom I did vote for and what’s interesting here is that the band members inducted include Mark Knopfler’s brother David and drummer Pick Withers, both of whom were in the original line up but haven’t turned out in the DS strip for donkey’s years. As well as Mark and long serving bassist John Illsley, DS revolving keyboard players Alan Clark and Guy Fletcher will join them on the podium.
As for the others for whom I cast my votes, Eurythmics and Radiohead will almost certainly get another chance though I fear it may be curtains for The Zombies if for no other reason than that those older voters like me who actually remember them are falling by wayside while younger voters won’t know the time of the season from a hole in the ground, to misquote Randy Newman.

11.12.17

MAX CLIFFORD RIP

The world of bonking, of three-in-a-bed romps, of love rats and all the rest of the sleazy scandals that down-market red-top tabloids feed upon like vultures is the poorer this morning with the news that the man who ruled this world, the PR Max Clifford, has left us. As the obituary in today’s Guardian points out, rarely in the human experience does the truism that those who live by the sword die by it find a more perfect conduit than Max’s rise and fall, from a £3 million house in Surrey to a prison cell, from the very top to the very bottom. 
I had a brief acquaintance with Max in the first few weeks after I joined Melody Maker in 1970. Before he became the middle man between the tabloid press and those who sought to benefit by selling them their sordid tales of deceit between the sheets, Max was involved in music PR, first as an assistant in the EMI press office, where he encountered The Beatles*, and then working for Les Perrin, PR to many rock musicians, not least Beatles John, George and Ringo and The Rolling Stones. Max looked after the lesser names on Les’ client list, among them Status Quo, then undergoing a major image change from modish psychedelic pin-ups to denim-clad purveyors of the no-nonsense boogie that would sustain them thereafter.
Quite how I have no idea but Max had somehow discovered that at that time, before I found a flat-share in Bayswater, I lived near Egham in Surrey. Status Quo were playing a gig at a college in nearby Staines and Max invited to go along and see them. I wasn’t particularly keen on the idea and when I demurred he said, and I kid you not: “I’ll bring a bird for you.”
I was momentarily speechless. Perhaps he thought I imagined that Status Quo would stump up for a chicken dinner after the show. More likely he realised I was new to the job and a bit wet behind the ears. So he clarified his offer.
“I’ll bring a girl for you for the night.”
I was indeed pretty green in those days, my first few weeks on MM, certainly inexperienced in the ways by which dodgy PRs might snare the likes of me. I really wasn’t sure how to react. I didn’t actually know whether or not this was the norm in the world of pop into which I had so recklessly thrown myself. 
“Er, that’s not necessary,” I stammered. “I’ll come anyway.”
My name had been left on the door at the college in Staines and, mindful that I’d have compromised myself had I accepted his offer, I turned up with a (male) pal just in case the “bird” was waiting for me anyway. She wasn’t but Max was surprised that I’d turned up with my pal. Indeed he seemed more than surprised. He looked at me like I was mad, or maybe gay. Why on earth, he reasoned, would anyone turn down a “bird” – it was left unsaid what the provision of a girl would lead to, but it doesn’t take much to figure it out – in exchange for something as simple as a favourable MM review for Status Quo?
I can’t remember what I wrote about Status Quo but even though this clearly wasn’t their doing it put me off them for life. Happily, I had no further dealings with Max Clifford. Not long after this he set up his own company and switched from pop to kiss-and-tell, ultimately rising to the top in this field, the king of manipulative wheelers and dealers, the champion of women seduced and then abandoned by randy footballers, politicians and other men in the public eye. This wasn’t Melody Maker’s turf, of course, but I watched with mild interest from the sidelines as the man who once offered me a “bird” rose from strength to strength, acting as a broker between the wronged women and The Sun and its ilk, negotiating deals whereby the papers paid considerable sums for the saucy revelations, and taking a cut of the money, usually 20%. Heaven only knows how much he charged for keeping stories out of the newspapers. 
This made him very rich, of course, bought him a fancy house and flash cars, but along the way he made many enemies who would no doubt have gloated when Max found himself sentenced to eight years for sexually assaulting young girls and women. He even wrote an autobiography in which he bragged about his sexual adventures, and the book was leapt upon by the prosecution during his trial. Hoisted by his own petard indeed.
Max had threatened to write another book in which he would reveal those secrets about his clients that he’d managed to keep out of the press but now it seems the book is unlikely to see the light of day. No doubt those former clients will sleep more soundly in their beds now that the King of Sleaze is no more. My condolences to his family. 


* Before it was taken down after his conviction, the website of Max Clifford Associates claimed that in 1963 he worked for The Beatles and, by inference, played some role in their rise to fame. On Wikipedia it stated that he had been given the job of promoting “an unknown group called The Beatles early in their career, including their first tour of the United States”.
I always thought this was a dubious claim and to confirm my suspicions spoke with my friend Mark Lewisohn, the world’s most reliable Beatle archivist. According to Mark, Clifford was a junior assistant in the EMI press office in 1963. “The Beatles didn’t have a great deal to do with that office because Brian Epstein hired independent PRs, first Andrew Oldham and then Tony Barrow,” said Mark. “When they did have cause to fraternise with EMI, they mostly worked with press officer Syd Gillingham and his senior assistant Brian Mulligan. Clifford may have mailed out press releases. While he was certainly present at one Beatles photo session, this was only because it happened to take place right by his office at 20 Manchester Square. Otherwise, he wasn’t involved. He certainly never toured with them, or helped set up any tours. They’d no need of him.”
So that’s cleared that up.

4.12.17

THE STARSHIP

The more famous rock stars become the less inclined they are to fly on commercial airlines unless, of course, it’s a long-haul flight in planes with a restricted first-class cabin where they can avoid contact with the public. Nowadays the top acts of the day lease small private jets with less than a dozen seats to whisk them from city to city but back in the 1970s such planes weren’t as widespread as they are today and, in any case, this was an era when extravagance was rampant. A brash display of opulence was the measure of one’s stature in the hierarchy in the rock world, and the ultimate in grandeur in private planes was the Starship, the celebrated customised Boeing 720 that many rock bands – most notably Led Zeppelin – leased during the first half of the 1970s. 
The Starship, the first Boeing 720 ever built, was delivered to United Airlines in October 1960, then purchased for $750,000 in 1973 by Contemporary Entertainment, a company owned by teen-idol singer Bobby Sherman and his manager Ward Sylvester who spent $200,000 customising it in ways they thought might appeal to luxury-seeking rock bands. This involved reducing the seating capacity to 42, installing a fully-stocked bar in the main cabin as well as armchairs, swivel seats and tables, and a 30-foot couch that, facing aft, ran along the right-hand side opposite the bar, on the end of which was an electric organ. Wall-mounted TV sets showed an endless supply of videos, some of them pornographic. Towards the rear of the plane was what today would be called a chill-out room, with pillows on which to recline, and behind that a bedroom with a double bed and shower. A couple of attractive stewardesses were thrown in for good measure and to appeal to the vanity of its passengers the owners took to painting their name on the side of the fuselage. 
Led Zeppelin became the Starship’s first customers, the upshot of an uncomfortable flight between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 1973 when to their horror turbulence tossed their small private jet around in the sky. Manager Peter Grant decided to hire the far more sturdy Starship instead, and did so for the group’s 10-week 1975 US tour as well. One advantage of the Starship – or any private plane – was that it enabled the group to base themselves in one large US city from which they could fly out to shows within a 300-mile area and return the same night, thus avoiding the need to check in and out of a different hotel every day. Another was that they could bring along whoever they liked without having to obtain tickets for them, so Led Zeppelin’s friends – many of them from the fairer sex – could hop on board and off at their whim.
“The Starship was only $14,000 more [than the small private jet],” said Peter Grant, “because Boeing wanted the publicity and that kind of thing – and we thought, ‘Well why not? We’ll have a 720!’ The first day, in Chicago, they parked it next to Hugh Hefner’s plane. All the press were there, and somebody said to me. ‘Well how to you think it compares to Mr Hefner’s plane’. I said, ‘It makes his look a Dinkey toy.’”
Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant has gone on record as saying that his favourite memory of the plane was ‘oral sex during turbulence’ and Zeppelin PR Danny Goldberg recalls that Grant would disappear into the bedroom with girls and not reappear until the plane was coming into land. 
Another less well-known benefit was that the pilots were happy to allow passengers to sit alongside them in the cockpit and even demonstrate the workings of the controls. “Bonzo [John Bonham] once flew us all the way from New York to Los Angeles,” Peter Grant told me during Led Zeppelin’s 1975 tour when I flew with the group aboard the Starship from Chicago to Los Angeles, and on to Greensboro two days later, then back to New York on it the same night. Zeppelin’s road manager Richard Cole called the Starship a ‘flying gin palace’, and he wasn’t wrong: drink flowed, sumptuous food was served and at once point on my trip we all gathered around the organ while John Paul Jones played a selection of the English Music Hall songs favoured by Grant.
Led Zeppelin were famously photographed by Bob Gruen standing alongside the plane at a private airfield near New York but they were by no means the Starship’s only clients. My first trip on it was with the Alice Cooper Band whose tour manager Dave Libert handed out a plastic bag of vitamins to the passengers each morning. I was also on board in 1974 with Elton John for a trip around the Midwest and recall that Elton rejected the haute cuisine on offer and requested instead that the stewardesses pick up a plentiful supply of Kentucky Fried Chicken, several buckets worth in fact. The more sophisticated Elton of today no doubt cringes at the memory. 
Other Starship clients included Deep Purple, Bob Dylan & The Band, The Allman Brothers, Frank Sinatra and Peter Frampton who, in 1976, was the last rock act to charter it. “It was definitely a show of where you were in your career,” said Frampton. “It was a statement of how well you were doing. ‘Whoopee! We must be big – we’ve got the Starship’. It was pretty much a party plane.”
In the end the Starship was a victim of the fuel shortage that gripped America in the mid-seventies, its four greedy engines bringing the Starship era to a close after only four years. “The fact that there was a fuel shortage and we were flying this plane, we thought was a cool thing. It fit in with Alice’s extravagant image,” says Dave Libert. 
“It was headed for the scrap heap,” adds Frampton. 
The Starship went through several changes in ownership between 1977 and 1979, eventually ending its life in storage at Luton Airport, a rather prosaic ending for the career of this most iconic of rock chariots. It was broken up for parts in 1982 and today lingers on only in the memory of the few – probably not much more than 200 of us – passengers fortunate enough to have experienced its dubious charms.