31.1.14

MOONIE & THE TV SET

It’s November 20, 1971, and we’re in Charlotte, North Carolina, the opening night of the Who US tour that I wrote about in an earlier post, the one where I nursed Pete through a nose bleed on the plane and where Keith and I were almost chucked out of the arena for backstage tomfoolery.
         Back at the Holiday Inn where The Who are staying we’re all in the bar, aside from Roger who, as ever, has retired early with a ‘temporary overnight female companion’. Before long Pete and John retire as well and when the bar shuts a bunch of us, some Who crew, a local fan or two who’d discovered our whereabouts, maybe the odd intrepid girl, wind up in Keith’s suite where the mini-bar is soon exhausted. Over at one end of the suite some gather around to watch a movie on a TV mounted on the wall, but not Keith who’s telling jokes and laughing at them himself, pretty loudly.
         “Did you hear about the one about the three nuns and the goat?”
          Keith is talking too loudly for those by the TV, one of whom asks him to make less noise. “We’re trying to watch a movie.”
         This is big mistake. As calm as you like, our host strides over to the TV set and without even bothering to unplug it, wrenches it from its mounting, carries it to the closed window and lobs it through the glass. We are about eight floors up. There is a tremendous crash. “As I was saying…,” continues Keith to a now speechless audience, “... there were these three nuns…”
         It takes about three minutes before the night porter knocks on Keith’s door, but he’s ready for him, and before he can even open his mouth Keith hits his stride. “I don’t know how I can possibly apologise for the terrible accident that has just occurred,” he begins in his best Oxbridge accent. “It’s just too unbelievable, and I can’t tell you how sorry I am dear boy. I was trying to move the television closer to the window so that more of my guests might watch it from the bed when it slipped from my grasp and, heaven forbid, fell through the window… just the most awful thing to happen, and really a dreadful accident... I just hope no-one was beneath it. Where did it fall? In the car park? Oh dear, what a terrible thing to have happened. How much will it cost? I can pay you now…”
         And it so it goes on, with Keith never allowing the porter to get a word in edgeways until, finally, compensation having been agreed, the porter is about to leave and return with some material with which to effect a temporary repair on the window, which Keith has requested. Meanwhile all of us have somehow managed to suppress our laughter, so – as a crowning gesture - Keith delivers the killer blow: “Er... if you’re coming back would you be so kind as to bring two more bottles of chilled champagne and,” Keith hesitates for just the right number of seconds, “another TV?”

The following morning I had my breakfast in the dining room, arriving just as Roger was polishing off the American equivalent of a full English. I was surprised to see him there. “Bird was still asleep,” he said by way of explanation. “A bit tired. Didn’t ‘ave the ‘eart to wake her.” He polished off a cup of coffee and stood up from the table. “I will now though. Nothing like a blow job after eggs and bacon.”



30.1.14

ROCK & ROLL HALL OF FAME

Talking of awards nights, this week I received my invitation to the 29th Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at the Barclays Center in New York on April 10. Because I vote for the nominees, I get an invite every year but as you might expect it is not a cheap night out, which is why I have never gone. Top whack for a ‘Chairman’s Sponsor’ table is an eye-watering $100,000 which gets you and nine pals into rehearsals, a party with the nominees, real bells and whistles treatment, while the cheapest ticket is $3,000 per person. I know it’s for charity but that’s one way to make sure the hoi polloi don’t spoil things by vomiting on the red carpet or propositioning someone’s trophy wife.
              When I posted something about this on fb last year it inspired a lively debate about the meaning of ‘Rock & Roll’ in this context, so those who joined in the debate might be interested to learn that this year’s six inductees are Peter Gabriel, Hall & Oates, Kiss, Nirvana, Linda Rondstadt and Cat Stevens. Entitled to select five from a list of 16 nominees, I plumped for four of these (Gabriel, Nirvana, Ronstadt and Stevens) but the other one I voted for, Deep Purple, didn’t make it. Neither did the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Chic, LL Cool J, The Meters, NWA, The Replacements, Link Wray, Yes and The Zombies. Some of those, though not necessarily all, will be nominated again next year.
              I’m surprised that Kiss and Cat Stevens are being inducted, Kiss because their brand of pantomime rock isn’t the kind of thing HoF voters seem to like (and I agree with them) and Stevens because he’s simply not rock’n’roll and, having converted to Islam, is about as far removed from the music biz establishment as it’s possible to be. I had a passing acquaintance with him in the ‘70s, wrote a now very rare book on him in the early ‘80s and have bumped into him from time to time since, all of which I’ll compile into a post sooner or later.
              The Chairman of the Board of Directors of the R&RHoF is Jann Wenner, founder, publisher and editor of Rolling Stone which once it had shed its anarchic beginnings has cosied up to the record industry big time. This is why you never ever read a bad review of a record by a big act in RS, and why almost all the albums reviewed get the sort of tepid three-out-of-five star review that will offend no one but says very little. In truth, RS’s political reporting is nowadays far more robust than their bland music coverage.

              I’ll keep voting, though, if for no other reason than I can keep complaining to the famously anonymous nomination committee that Richard Thompson has never been selected, nor Slade for that matter. Once upon a time they sent voters cassette tapes with songs by the nominees, usually their greatest hit, which was great for the car. These were then superseded by CDs, of which I still have about half a dozen. Now it’s downloads which are not nearly as useful. 

29.1.14

LYNYRD SKYNYRD 1977, Part 2

Unfortunately all the graft – and, believe me, Skynyrd grafted – came to nought as a result of the events of October 20. I was actually due to fly to Baton Rouge in Louisiana the following morning, pick up the Street Survivors tour which was three days old and co-ordinate various interviews I'd set up for them along the way, mostly at Texas radio stations, and I was looking forward to it as I’d never been to Texas before and a visit to the Lone Star State with Lynyrd Skynrd for company was likely to be an interesting experience. I would, of course, have travelled on the same private plane as the group and had the crash occurred 24 hours later I might not have been here to tell this tale.
My first intimation that anything was amiss came at around 8pm when a girl I knew in St Louis rang me at my flat in New York. She told me she'd just heard on the local news that a private aircraft had come down in Mississippi and that it was 'believed' that the rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd was aboard. Did I know? Of course I didn't. I then called UPI who confirmed that a small plane had indeed come down near a town called McComb. I then tried to call Rudge at home. His wife Frankie answered. Peter had just heard too. He was on his way to the office. I grabbed a cab and went straight there. I was the first to arrive and the phones – all five or six lines – were all ringing at once. It was pointless to try and answer them. I called UPI back and explained who I was and how I would be prepared to help them with regard to accurate information on Lynyrd Skynyrd if they could keep me up to date with developments from McComb. We agreed to help each other and stayed in touch all night.
Then Rudge arrived. He'd been to pick up a carton of cigarettes because he figured it would be a long night. I told him everything I knew and what I'd done. He looked distraught and opened a bottle of red wine but he somehow maintained his composure until, eventually, around 1 am, we heard that Ronnie was dead. Then he went alone into the office kitchen and wept. In the meantime all the office staff had arrived. The girls who worked at Sir manned the phones all night, crying as they did.
The various wives and girlfriends of the guys in the band and the road crew, almost all of whom lived in and around Jacksonville, were on the lines permanently, wanting to know the latest news from McComb. Eventually they all gathered at the home of Ronnie's wife Judy and what dreadful scenes of hysteria and grief that house would have witnessed that night I can barely imagine. It was, after all, full of frantic young women desperately uncertain about the fate of their loved ones. We relayed the news, almost all of it bad, as best we could to the girls in that house, every one of them unsure whether their men were dead or alive. The job of telling Judy that Ronnie was dead fell to Rudge. Radio stations were calling, wanting statements from me; reporters were calling. I believe my choked-up voice was heard on over 30 stations across the USA that night. Friends of Rudge and the band called offering help; private planes were put at our disposal. It went on all night and I got home dazed at around 9 or 10 am the next day. A night like that is not something you forget easily.
Six people died – Ronnie, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister Cassie (who sang back up), their tour manager Dean Kilpatrick, and both pilots. All the band sustained bad injuries, as did some of the roadies and lighting crew. Those at the front of the plane came off worst, those at the back were less badly injured. Inevitably the group and those closest to them were at the front, with the part-timers at the back. The word was that Ronnnie was asleep, lying in the aisle, when the plane went down. No one could move him to a seat, let alone strap him in. He and the rest of the band had been drinking all day in a hotel in Greenville, South Carolina, waiting while the plane was ready. Someone said something about the pilots having been drinking too.
All sorts of stories came out at the inquest: how the band, and Ronnie in particular, had complained to Rudge that the plane was dodgy and he’d complained to Ron Eckermann, their tour manager and told him to get it fixed. Someone said they saw flames coming from the engine on their flight from Miami to South Carolina the previous day. Eckerman was due to get the plane serviced in Baton Rouge. In the event, it seemed that the plane had ran out of fuel – there being no fire when it crashed – but it was obviously burning up fuel faster than it should have done.
Nothing was ever the same again at Sir Productions. The whole company seemed to go into a kind of stupor. All the plans we’d had for Skynyrd and the other bands were dashed. In two weeks’ time they would have headlined Madison Square Garden for the first time. It really did look like they were about to be elevated to the top bracket of touring rock bands, though how they would have dealt with it God only knows as they were such a wild bunch. Skynyrd were bringing in plenty of money and without them the funds dried up, so it was obvious Sir wouldn’t last. Rudge told me I’d have to go just before Christmas, 1977, and gave me a cheque for $2,000 which he didn’t have to do.
Later, after the funeral, the grief turned to anger, and there were terrible recriminations: lawsuits, bad vibes, deep shit. Some of the road crew never really recovered and neither did guitarist Allen Collins who died from pneumonia several years later. In the meantime he’d crashed a car in which his girlfriend was killed. Peter Rudge himself went into a terrible tailspin. When I walked out of Sir Productions I didn’t see him again for 22 years, but now he’s remarried, and healthy after a cancer scare (he’s even given up cigarettes and he was once a 60-a-day man) and happy. His son Joe, whom I remember as a baby, went on to work for MTV. At one time Peter was on the brink of controlling the fortunes of two of the three biggest British rock bands in the world. Ironically, the remains of the third – Led Zeppelin – became partly controlled by Bill Curbishley, who took over The Who from Peter.
 Lynyrd Skynyrd ultimately reformed as a kind of tribute act to themselves with Ronnie’s youngest brother Johnnie on vocals. ‘Freebird’, forever associated with Van Zant, was played as a closing instrumental while a single spotlight picked out Ronnie’s old black cowboy hat sitting atop a central mike stand. ‘If I leave here tomorrow, will you still remember me?’ went the words. I do, anyway.

There is postscript to this. In November 2012 I was asked by Classic Rock magazine to present their ‘Comeback’ award to Lynyrd Skynyrd at their annual awards bash at London’s Roundhouse. I took my son Sam, a big Skynyrd fan, and introduced him to the band who were sat at an adjoining table to us. Of the group I knew, only Gary Rossington remained. Later I had to make a speech, some of it adlibbed, some prepared. It went something like this:

The Roundhouse. The first time I came here was December 1970. Pete, Roger, John and Keith were playing and before they launched into ‘Tommy’ Pete dedicated the evening’s performance to the support act, a piano player who wore glasses and began his set with a song that went ‘It’s a little bit funny….’ 
         That’s Classic Rock for you. 
         But I’m not here to talk about the Who and Elton. I’m here to talk about Lynyrd Skynyrd. 
         In 1977 I was working in New York for a company called Sir Productions which managed Lynyrd Skynyrd, the original band fronted by Ronnie Van Zant. 
         On June 11 I saw 100,000 fans rise to them at the JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. Madison Square Garden was booked for later in the year. All of us in the office knew they were heading for the top of the Premier League. All of us who worked in that office were smiling. 
         I went to bed early on October 20. I had an early flight next morning to link up with the band in Baton Rouge. I was asleep when the phone rang. A girl I knew in St Louis told me there’d been a plane crash in McCombe, Mississippi. I made my way to the office and every phone line was blinking. We weren’t smiling any more. It was hard to hold back the tears. I stayed up all night manning the phones and never made that morning flight. 
         I’m here tonight to present Lynyrd Skynyrd with the Comeback Award. For just about every other band Comeback means they’ve reformed after splitting up and doing solo albums or simply taking it easy. For Skynyrd it means coming back from one the worst tragedies in the history of rock. Coming back from a situation no other band had ever faced. 
         It’s a different band now, but they’ve stayed true to the principles laid down by their forbears. They're still out there playing to thousands of fans all over the world. That’s some fucking comeback. 
         No band has ever deserved this award more.
         Ladies & gents... Lynyrd Skynyrd.


Later that night the newly constituted Lynyrd Skynyrd took the stage to play ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and ‘Freebird’. It was the highlight of the night, just as it had been for me in Philadelphia all those years ago. 

28.1.14

LYNYRD SKYNYRD 1977, Part 1

Lynyrd Skynyrd was managed by my friend Peter Rudge from late 1973. Rudge’s main pre-occupation at this time was The Who, for whom he’d worked in a quasi-managerial capacity since 1969. As Who managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp shirked their responsibilities and fell out of favour, Rudge became The Who’s day-to-day manager in 1971, then set up in business in New York to look after their US affairs. His company was called Sir Productions and their offices were located on 57th Street, not far from Carnegie Hall. In November, 1973 Lynyrd Skynyrd supported The Who on their US Quadrophenia tour and Rudge took over their management around this time. In due course he would also manage .38 Special, whose singer Donnie Van Zant was the younger brother of Ronnie, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s charismatic singer and principal songwriter, and two other bands – The Dingoes, from Australia, and LeBlanc & Carr, from Muscle Shoals.
         Peter Rudge was a smart, fast-talking, street-wise Cambridge University graduate who loved sport and could handle himself well if things became physical. At Cambridge he’d booked bands for college events and on June 11, 1968, booked The Who for a college ball. According to his account, he’d received a telegram from The Who’s management 24 hours before the gig cancelling but instead of accepting the situation he’d caught a train to London and marched uninvited into Kit Lambert’s offices at Track Records in Old Compton Street demanding the group perform and threatening to sue them if they didn’t. Lambert was impressed by this show of bravado and offered him a job on the spot.
         In the event Rudge graduated first, then turned up at Track where he was given the onerous task of ‘looking after’ The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown. It was only a matter of time before his business acumen led to him ‘looking after’ Track’s main attraction, The Who. His speciality was organising US tours and he became so good at it that Pete Townshend recommended him to Mick Jagger in 1971 when The Rolling Stones were looking for someone to run their international tours after the death of Brian Jones. Rudge’s ultimate ambition was to build up a stable of successful acts and Sir Productions was the umbrella under which this goal was to be achieved. It had eight employees, including a girl on the west coast, an accountant and a travel agent.
I worked for Sir from March 1977 until the end of that year, at which point Rudge drastically reduced the size of the company, a decision brought about as a direct result of the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash. The reason I worked there in the first place was because of my long-standing friendship with Peter which came about through my fondness for The Who. During my years on Melody Maker Rudge had told me that if I ever felt like leaving MM, he’d give me a job, and he was as good as his word. At Sir I worked on promoting his bands and getting them publicity, but I also went out on the road with both The Dingoes and LeBlanc & Carr as their tour manager, dealing with day to day events on the road, collecting and disbursing cash, making sure the rest of the crew did what they were supposed to do and everyone got from place to place and to the gigs on time. I remember firing a useless roadie in Milwaukee, sorting out a bass player's clap problem in Chicago and running on stage to drag off an over-excited punter in Memphis. 
By the time I got to Sir, Rudge’s relationship with The Who was fast deteriorating, largely because he’d been devoting a disproportionate amount of time to The Rolling Stones, and The Who felt he’d somehow betrayed them by shifting his loyalty. Also Bill Curbishley, strongly supported by Roger Daltrey, had emerged as a formidable rival for The Who’s management. In the meantime, though, Lynyrd Skynyrd were coming up fast. 
During 1977 I saw Skynyrd perform about half a dozen times, arranged various press and radio interviews for them and helped produce the press kit that accompanied the ill-fated Street Survivors album. By this time they were at a peak of popularity, their previous (double live) album One More From The Road having sold over a million copies. Much of their popularity could be put down to Rudge’s hard work ethic – they played something like 200 gigs a year under his management, and just got better and better at it. Now the top prize of a headlining show at Madison Square Garden was within their grasp.
The seven individual members of Lynyrd Skynyrd all drank like fishes, took all known illegal drugs, fucked anything female on two legs and liked nothing better than to fight with their fists, either against others or amongst themselves. Singer Ronnie Van Zant, who sang barefoot because, he said, he liked to feel the stage burn beneath his feet, was the toughest of the lot and he could more or less silence any of the others with the threat of a beating. Before their shows Skynyrd liked to psyche themselves up in their dressing room, winding themselves up by breathing deeply together like US football players, passing the Jack Daniels around in a ritual drink, willing each other on to perform as if their lives depended on it. Rudge, a sports fanatic, encouraged this. It worked, too.
Group meetings in Rudge’s big office were all day and night affairs at which bottle after bottle of Jack Daniels was consumed, piles of coke snorted, and carton after carton of cigarettes smoked. Voices were often raised and the language was as bad as you could hear anywhere. Anyone who’d crossed them was dead meat. MCA Records threw a party for them that summer at a bar near Nathan’s Restaurant which almost got out of hand when someone made a loose remark to one of Skynyrd’s women. Keith Moon, then living in LA, turned up in a loud pinstripe suit, drunk as a lord, and Rudge told me to keep Moon away from him as he’d probably beg for money. It was my first intimation that Moon, of all people, was broke – and sick with booze too. He was very podgy, glassy eyed and mournful. It was the last time I ever spoke to Keith.
I took particular pleasure that same summer when Skynyrd appeared as the penultimate act on an all-day show at Philadelphia's JFK Stadium and half the audience of 100,000+ walked out during Peter Frampton's very limp closing set. They’d played an hour’s set – short for them – and restricted themselves to their best known songs, performed back-to-back with a minimum of fuss and maximum of swagger. The closing ’Freebird’, their best known song, brought that huge crowd to their feet and as I watched from the side of the stage, just behind their amplifiers, it seemed to me that all 100,000 of them were stomping and cheering as the band played faster and fasting, running away down the tracks to the song’s stupendous finale. Perfect. Philly conquered. Rudge and the band were laughing all the way to the Garden, or so we all thought. 


27.1.14

BRIAN WILSON, London Royal Festival Hall, January 29, 2002

Brian was having a massage when we arrived. Unmistakably Brian, big, gaunt, with a helmet of thick grey hair, he was sat at the bottom of the stairs that led to the stage, eyes focused on a point immediately ahead of him, mute, having his shoulders rubbed. We tried not to stare as we walked past towards the artists’ bar. He was still there, still being massaged, still staring straight ahead, when we passed by again on our way to our seats twenty minutes later.
         It was an extraordinary evening, and not just for the music. Brian Wilson, genius pop composer and legendary mental casualty, led his 10-piece band of multi-instrumentalists through just about everything and anything anyone wanted to hear from the Beach Boys’ repertoire, including the entire Pet Sounds album performed sequentially. They displayed a deftness of touch that made all past and present versions of the group sound second rate, not least because nine of them, plus Brian, sang. All those intricate harmonies and arrangements were replicated not only with superb technical skill but also with verve and an element of good-natured humour. Wilson’s iconic status was reverently acknowledged when he walked on stage but, sensibly, he’d evidently decided to nip this sort of thing in the bud by opening the proceedings with ‘Brian Wilson’, the Barnaked Ladies tribute song to his transcendental self. Perfect.
         But there was something else happening up there. Throughout, Wilson, sat before his large electric keyboard which he may or may not have played, exuded a strange, childlike demeanour that manifested itself in clipped announcements and weird hand gestures, as if he was gripping the steering wheel of a car. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one willing him on, hoping something wouldn’t go horribly wrong, but at the same time morbidly fascinated at seeing Brian Wilson in the flesh. He said things like, ‘Here’s a nice little song’, or ‘Thanks for coming down to the show tonight’, or – introducing ‘California Girls’ – ‘This was a big hit for the Beach Boys in the sixties’ (really!), in a voice that suggested he was reading the lines from an autocue, on remote control, pre-programmed. But he sang well, though it was often difficult to tell exactly who was singing what amid this great choir, and it all sounded wonderful and was fabulous value as they played two sets and upwards of 30 songs, maybe more. I lost count but I knew every single one of them. When the first half was over Brian stood up and marched, robot-like, off stage without so much as a second glance. He did much the same at the end of the second half until, after a slew of encores, he returned and proffered a bow. But if he smiled I never saw it.
         Fifteen minutes later Brian was in a room on the fifth floor doing a ‘meet and greet’ attended by the lucky winners of a competition in Mojo magazine. There he was again, wearing the same shirt in which he’d performed, sat at a table, signing autographs, not speaking, not looking too happy, his eyes still focused somewhere only he knew. I was told he was tired. I joined a queue of men – nearly all men – holding vinyl copies of Pet Sounds for Brian sign but all I had was my concert ticket which I proffered when my turn came. “A pleasure to meet you Mr Wilson sir,” I said, as politely as I could while he signed, using a thick black marker pen. “I was hoping you’d have played ‘Don’t Worry Baby’,” I added, smiling, hoping for a reaction. Brian looked at me quizzically and from the expression on his face I knew that I might just as well have asked him to comment on the deteriorating relationship between David Beckham and Alex Ferguson and whether this might impact adversely on Manchester United’s bid to retain the Premiership title for the 2001/2 season. He didn’t reply. “The concert was wonderful,” I said. Still he didn’t reply. Nor did he smile. I guess he was used to compliments. “May I shake your hand?” Brian held up his hand very briefly and touched mine. It was time to move on, as the lady sat next to him indicated by her concerned expression and dismissive hand gesture. As I wandered off it occurred to me that Brian hadn’t been programmed to answer questions like my ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ inquiry, only to accept compliments, and that this kind of spontaneous query was unwelcome.

         Twenty minutes later, after another drink in the artists’ bar (where Ray Davies was talking to Richard Ashcroft if I remember rightly), we decided to split but the only way out from this backstage area now was via a freight elevator down one floor to the stage door. It was a huge elevator, big enough to accommodate a concert grand piano, and when it stopped at our floor who should be inside, waiting to descend, but Brian with a small entourage. Out of respect we made as if to wait for the lift to return, but were beckoned in. Again, I tried not to stare. Brian was being helped into his anorak, scarf and gloves by the same lady who’d sat next to him at the meet and greet. At the bottom he marched stiffly out and turned, head high, staring ahead, just as he’d left the stage. Outside there was a crowd surrounding his car, held back by security men, and they cheered him mightily, but from the look on his face it occurred to me that he didn’t even know why they were there or why they were making all this noise. He was in his room.


25.1.14

GILLIAN WELCH, Brighton Dome, November 12, 2011


I wrote this simply because I enjoyed the concert so much, and eventually posted it on the Rock's Back Pages blog which is no longer operating. Gillian Welch's albums are among the most played in our home and on my iPod. 

The aching melancholia of Gillian Welch’s songs about adversity is only partially balanced by the sprightly, lyrical playing of her immensely skilled guitarist and partner David Rawlings. In a concert that lasted well over two hours and included almost 30 songs, Welch and Rawlings – a bona fide duo in all but name - demonstrated levels of sincerity and soulfulness that puts to the sword the shallow nature of so much of what passes for popular music in the 21st century.
          There was no support. Welch and Rawlings played two sets, the first opening with the gorgeous ‘Orphan Girl’, the lead song on her debut album, which set the tone for an evening of delightful harmony singing, though the concert was dedicated primarily to showcasing songs from her most recent recording, the long awaited The Harrow & The Harvest. Of these ‘Scarlet Town’, ‘The Way It Goes’ and ‘Down Along The Dixie Line’ shone like jewels, while for ‘Six White Horses’ Welch abandoned her large Gibson Jumbo and slapped her thighs to emphasize the rhythm on a song that is unusually upbeat for the pair. She also executed a rather cute square dance, tapping the heels and soles of her cowboy boots on the stage and raising the hem of her floral dress barn-dance style, much to the audience’s delight. Meanwhile Rawlings played a small and elderly-looking f-hole guitar worn high on the chest like the old Merseybeat groups, executing sizzling runs, graceful arpeggios and bluegrass picking to rank with any ol’ boy from Tennessee. He uses a capo well up the fretboard to produce a high, ringing tone, a bit like a mandolin, that is as captivating as it is unusual. He and Welch both alternated between guitars and banjo on selected songs, while she occasionally blew a mournful harp from a rack around her neck, commenting at one point how ‘chicks’ don’t like to play harp because it smears their lipstick. “Not the kind I use,” she added drily, to the crowd’s amusement.
         There were highlights from their back catalogue too, most notably ‘Elvis Presley Blues’, ‘Look At Miss Ohio’ and ‘Revelator’ which featured a furious free form guitar coda from Rawlings. Their celebratory rendition of ‘I’ll Fly Away’, the Dillards’ song as yet unrecorded by them, lifted the Dome roof during the encores, its soaring harmonies causing this reviewer to momentarily reconsider his Humanist views on reincarnation.
          The roots of their material, a timeless hybrid of country, bluegrass and folk all wrapped up into the modern generalisation of Americana, stretch back through Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie to as far away as Stephen Foster, and are all the more remarkable for having been written, largely by Welch and Rawlings, in the past two decades. When Welch sings hauntingly of the hardships endured by migrants and orphans, and poor families who place their trust in God, you are taken back to the Great Depression, that time and place in the dustbowl of American history so graphically documented by John Steinbeck and now re-interpreted musically by this pale, self-effacing and enormously likeable girl whose superb performance brought Brighton Dome to its feet in repeated demands for encore after encore that climaxed, uncharacteristically, in a strident run through Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’.
I could happily have listened to them all night.

BRUCE - It Was 40 Years Ago Today


This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the first time I ever saw Bruce Springteen & The E Street Band; two shows in the US East Coast state of Virginia, the first at the Mosque in Richmond on January 25 and the second a night later at the Chrysler Theatre in Norfolk (where the picture elsewhere on the blog of Bruce, Columbia Records PR Mike Mahoney and myself was taken). They were small old-fashioned theatres and both are still operating today, though The Mosque is now called The Landmark. I don’t think they were sold out.
         I stayed in the same hotel as the band and remember chatting with Bruce in the coffee shop on the morning after the first show. He was eating a burger and fries washed down with coke, and wasn’t very talkative, shy almost, maybe a bit tongue-tied. He was thin then, with a whispery beard, and intense, like he had a lot on his mind. I didn’t press him, just told him how much I’d enjoyed the show the night before, and he was grateful for the compliment, humble, courteous, like I imagine the young Elvis would have been.
         The two concerts blur together a bit 40 years later so I can’t actually remember which one it was (and it might have been both) where Bruce and his band played ‘Pretty Flamingo’, Manfred Mann’s best ever song and a 1966 UK chart topper, but what I remember as clear as day was Bruce’s long, witty and gloriously uplifting monologue that prefaced it. As it was my introduction to Bruce live his monologues were quite new to me, surprising, captivating and unique.
         The ‘Pretty Flamingo’ story began with Bruce telling us how he once lived on a street in Jersey which a beautiful girl would walk down every day at five o’clock, so he and his buddies from the block would gather there at a quarter to five every day just to watch her stroll by. While the band ticked over in the background, idling like a car in neutral, Bruce conjured up in a few pithy sentences the image of a shapely heartbreaker that he and his buddies, and by inference they included some of the band, were too afraid to approach. They were desperate to know her name but too shy to ask, even some crazy guy in Bruce’s gang who often did really brave stuff because he was far too crazy to care about the consequences.  
         And so it went on, with the girl walking by for weeks, maybe months, Bruce and his buddies still watching her every day, and no-one knew what she was called. By this time we in the audience were all hopelessly in love with her, just as Bruce and his pals obviously were, and they’d coined a nickname for her. “And then… like I moved away,” said Bruce, disappointment clouding his face. “We never found out what her name was. We used to call her something. What was it that we called her Clarence? Can you remember? What did we call her Steve? I remember. Should I tell ‘em?”
         Then, louder, repeated, his right arm raised. “Should I tell ‘em?”
         “Yeah,” called Steve and Clarence in unison. “Tell ‘em Bruce.”
         “Should I tell ‘em?” He was screaming now.
         “Yeah!”
         Bruce brought his arm down. A chord.
         On our block all of the guys called her Flamingo.”
         Guitars and drums exploded. Perfect. Just fucking perfect. The incredible tension of the build-up was finally released and like a great tidal wave crashing through the theatre Bruce and his band launched deliriously into this great song. The crowd went nuts. But he wasn’t finished with us. Two, maybe three, minutes in, just after the first verse, after Flamingo had brightened up the neighbourhood like she just could, he brought the band down again, let them tick over again, and he had us captive again.
        “What can I do Clarence?” he asked, even more passionate than before. “I gotta find that girl. I’m gonna hire a detective, someone good, like Charlie Chan.”
He was laughing now, full of fun, and we were holding on to every word. “And when I get her I know what I’m gonna tell her. I know what I’m gonna tell her. I’m gonna tell her I’m in a band. I’m in a band!
         And off they went again, careering downhill like men possessed.
         Some sweet day, I’ll make her mine, Pretty Flamingo.”
         In a band. The best place in the world.
         I was hooked, and have been ever since. 

24.1.14

MARC BOLAN

When I drove to the Half Moon in Putney just after Christmas to watch Are You Experienced, John Campbell’s Jimi Hendrix tribute act, I passed over the bridge on the Heath where Marc Bolan came a cropper in 1977. I drew my son Sam’s attention to the shrine that fans had created by the tree that Bolan’s car smashed into, but Sam had never heard of Marc.
         As in the sixties, when the press tried to drum up a rivalry between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones (and in the nineties between Blur and Oasis), so it was that in the seventies there was a rivalry between T Rex and Slade. I was firmly in the Slade camp of course, and not just because I’d observed their rise from bar band to Earls Court and got to know them along the way. Both bands made great singles but the clincher was that T Rex was a lousy live act.
         Bolan was an indifferent lead guitarist, insufficiently skilled to carry the T Rex guitar load alone, and his back up men were run-of-the-mill sidemen, probably recruited because they settled for a wage. Formed hastily to take advantage of sudden success on the singles chart brought about by Bolan’s change of image and musical direction, they lacked experience performing live together and had no real power, none of the intuitive unity that comes with playing together for years, as Slade had done.
This didn’t matter so much during the T. Rextasy period in the UK, when the girls screamed so loud that the music was secondary, drowned out in the overall pandemonium, but it mattered a great deal when he ventured into unfamiliar territory, like the Weely Festival at Clacton in 1971 where I saw Bolan & T Rex face an uphill battle to get the crowd on side and was jeered for his trouble. It also mattered when they went to the States and were cruelly exposed playing to audiences that were actually there to listen. I saw them go down like a lead balloon in New York; thin and weedy, embarrassing really, with an increasingly desperate Bolan playing pat solos, shaking his feather boa and pulling those ‘look at me, aren’t I great’ poses than in the UK might have had the fans screaming but at the NY Palladium on 14th Street, before a more discriminating audience, just made him look like a prat. People were walking out mid-way, no doubt wondering what all the fuss was about. He desperately needed a lead guitarist to fill out the sound so he could concentrate on rhythm and vocals – everything needed beefing up really.
         His attitude didn’t help his US cause either. He gave interviews in which he boasted about his UK success, name-dropping acts like The Beatles and Stones as if to suggest he was their equal. He certainly set himself up for a fall. Having been around as long as he had he ought to have known better, but I suspect he was surrounded by sycophants and, between them and his coke habit, he developed an over-inflated opinion of himself. 
         I don’t mean to be uncharitable towards Marc Bolan. I’m just saying it like it is. Most of his hit singles were fantastic, real movers, great fun records. I met him once or twice and he was full of himself, very cocky, and there’s nothing wrong with this if you have the on-stage bottle to carry it off – like Rod Stewart, another for whom modesty was a foreign concept. It’s when you don’t that everything unravels. I think Marc desperately wanted to be up there with the greats and when it didn’t happen he was mortally wounded. The huge international success (critical and commercial) of his old friend and rival David Bowie must have been a blow, ditto Elton John. It was classic tortoise and hare really. All three arrived around the same time and Marc made the early running, but while Bowie and Elton graduated to big US arenas and were feted by the cognoscenti, Marc ended up playing to ever-decreasing crowds of screaming girls in UK seaside resorts, and that must have hurt. There’s nothing wrong with screaming girls – look at The Beatles – but somehow Marc couldn’t shake it off and acquire the respect of more mature audiences. I think that by the time of his death he was turning this corner, becoming more humble, and could have rebuilt a solid career in music, but unfortunately fate had other ideas.
         My daughter went to school at Sheen, not far from Putney Heath where I drove through with my son just after Christmas, so I’m pretty familiar with the tributes by that bridge. I love the way his fans have maintained that little shrine. Whatever his shortcomings, Marc was obviously much loved and what more can a rock star ask for? 

23.1.14

CREAM AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL, May 5, 2005

I wrote this for Tony Fletcher’s ijamming website the morning after the show.

I never saw Cream in their heyday. It wasn’t that I was too young but they never came anywhere near where I lived. In any case, I was into The Beatles, Stones, Who and Tamla/Stax in those days, and Cream’s brand of heavily improvised blues and psychedelic uproar needed a bit of getting used to. I was aware of them and I respected them, but they were on another plane, one that I’d reach eventually before deciding that this sort of music was a bit of an acquired taste. By this time, of course, Cream were long gone and the style of music they pioneered had started to parody itself and become boring, formulaic and clich├ęd.
         Cream were never boring, though, and I certainly wasn’t going to turn down the free ticket (floor, 7th row centre, as good as it gets – thanks to my sadly departed friend and Clapton freak Virginia Lohle) for last night’s show at the RAH, the third in a series of four that saw Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker re-united on stage for the first time in 38 years.
         Welcomed on stage by a great roar, they steamed into ‘I’m So Glad’ and kept up a remarkable pace through 18 further songs in an hour and three-quarters, barely stopping for a break apart from the gap before the predictable encore of ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’. And mighty good they were too, excellent even. I was especially impressed with Ginger, a skinny, sinewy, snappy little chap, fit as a fiddle, wide-awake and smacking those drums like the crack of a whip. He’s not ginger any longer, more off-white actually, bespectacled too, and looks a bit like old man Steptoe. Conversely Jack looks like someone who’s just got out of bed, staggering around with the gait of a rough sleeper who’s been plugged into a whiskey bottle for years. He’s skinny too, but in a sickly looking way, and pale of features. Someone said he was on his third liver, and from time to time he sat on a tall stool to play, but he can still handle a bass like a maestro, jiggling it up and down and playing fat chords or plucking upwards, always hard and inspired. Eric maintained his usual dignified presence, shortening his solos to 2005 standards and looking pleased to be back with his old chums. Indeed, all three habitually grinned at each other, a good sign. 
         What struck me most was how these three guys managed to sound like a much bigger band, with a really fat sound, probably a reflection of the drums as much as anything, though when Eric played chords there was a density that most quartets and even quintets lack. He played a Stratocaster throughout which gave him a crisp tone, even through a Lesley speaker; quite different from the sound he made in the Sixties when he played Gibsons that offered a much warmer tone. Jack played an old Gibson violin bass which he swapped for a sturdy looking fretless job half way through, and Ginger had twin bass drums, the first I’ve seen since Moonie in the 70s. In days of yore they’d have had a backline of speaker cabinets resembling a row of seaside chalets but today they use much smaller gear; looks better too.
         As for the highlights, I rather liked Ginger’s novelty song, ‘Pressed Rat And Warthog’, which he concluded with a droll announcement: “I’d like to inform you all that [a very long list of items of clothing] are available, all with the word Cream written on them.” He made it sound for all the world as if he was completely new to (and much delighted by) the concept of merchandising, a nice touch. In general stage announcements were minimal, most numbers segueing effortlessly into the next.
         I’ve always loved ‘Badge’, with its graceful descending arpeggios that bisect the verses, and tonight's version was peerless. ‘Politician’ truly growled and was particularly apt on polling day. Ginger kept time like a metronome during a quick ‘Rolling And Tumbling’, designed as a vehicle for Jack’s harmonica but the drums took gold for me, and Eric habitually dashed off solos that most guitarists would die for, particularly on ‘Stormy Monday’, his best solo of the night. He makes it look so easy too, as if he has all the time in the world for his nimble fingers to alight on exactly the right note time after time after time. It’s called fluency and it comes only after years of practice.
         I thought ‘Crossroads’ lacked the bite of older live versions by Cream, though, as the crackling little riff didn’t come through as it does on my old records. ‘White Room’ was lively and brought the house down, as did ‘Toad’, Ginger’s solo; the first drum solo I’ve heard in years which, contrary to expectations, I found myself enjoying. It was as if the coiled spring inside this wiry little fellow, which had kept the band on a fairly tight leash throughout the night, was finally allowed to unravel. They closed with a terrific ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’, featuring as its coda what sounded like the first and only genuinely improvised passage of the night.
         One final thing. Annoyingly, almost all the reviews I read of this and other 2005 Cream shows dwelt on the age and appearance of the audience (what do they expect: a bunch of teenagers?) which I considered to be very lazy journalism, pointless too, as if today’s reviewers were incapable of discussing – or ignorant about – the actual music. I suppose it was easier to describe the audience than the fans but they even got this wrong too. As it happened, I was staggered by how many I noticed around me who were obviously far too young to have seen Cream first time around, not teenagers I grant you, but folk in their late twenties and thirties, men and women, whose obvious appreciation of this trio knew no bounds.

22.1.14

MELODY MAKER, 1970 - Part 3

This is the final part of my memories of my first few weeks on Melody Maker, It was all written in 2000, not long after MM had closed down, a sad moment for many of us who’d worked on the paper, though we all agreed it was a pale shadow of what it once was and needed putting out of its misery.

The biggest assignment I covered during my first summer on MM was the Bath Festival at Shepton Mallet over the weekend of June 27 & 28. Compared to the National Jazz & Blues Festival at Plumpton that I’d attended the previous year, this was just huge; perhaps as many as 150,000 people stretching away up a hill almost as far as the eye could see. The reason was that Led Zeppelin was appearing, taking pride of place on Sunday, the final day. I arrived on the Saturday afternoon, having driven down from London, typewriter in the boot of my car, all set to report this major event like the trusty reporter I’d trained to be. I parked my car backstage and wandered around, eight weeks into this job and feeling unusually privileged to be inside the inner sanctum at a major festival. The weather was fine, though it wouldn’t stay that way, and for longer than seemed necessary I was entertained by a chap with a guitar called Joe Jammer, evidently someone’s roadie, who was filling in while Frank Zappa readied himself to face the crowd. Frank came and went and was followed, curiously, by Maynard Fergeson, an ageing (by Bath standards) big band leader who’d taken a left turn into jazz rock to appeal to a younger audience. The highlight of the evening, though, was Pink Floyd, whom I was seeing for the first time, premiering their new work, Atom Heart Mother, the album with the cow on the front. I listened to them in wonderment and awe then retired for the night, driving to Bath and a nice warm bed in a B&B, unlike everyone else who slept beneath the stars.
The next day I drove back to the site around midday and was astonished by the scenes in the village of Shepton Mallet. There was a phone box with a queue that stretched for over 100 yards. I calculated that if there were three people in the queue for each two yards, there were 150 people waiting, and that if each call lasted ten minutes, the last person in the line would wait for 25 hours before making their call. There were similar queues for toilets and food on the site; indeed, the contrast between the conditions endured by the fans and those enjoyed by the artists and their guests brought a sharp intake of breath. Backstage huge tepees had been erected to serve as private quarters for artists while a marquee served as a dining room in which waitresses dressed in traditional black dresses with white aprons served three course meals and a selection of fine wines.
In the adjoining bar I met Led Zeppelin for the first time, introduced by my new colleague Chris Welch. Jimmy Page was dressed as a yokel in an old coat and scarecrow’s hat, and John Paul Jones had arrived by helicopter. Robert Plant, affable as ever, autographed a pink backstage pass for me*, and later in the day I passed this memento on to a girl I knew who was in the crowd and whom I had arranged to meet later that night. I actually got DJ John Peel to make an announcement from the stage: “Would Lorraine meet Chris by the backstage gate in 15 minutes”.
         It was my introduction to Led Zeppelin. They played just as the sun was setting behind the stage, and mighty impressive they were too, even though my view was restricted by being too close to the high stage and having to crane my neck to see what was going on up there. But I could certainly hear them. Good grief! They opened their set with the hitherto unreleased ‘Immigrant Song’ which they attacked with all the ferocity of the marauding Vikings Robert was singing about. Drums and bass reverberated like cannon fire, and Page’s guitar cut through the twilight like a broadsword. Every other band on the bill sounded decidedly limp dick compared to this onslaught. The reception was phenomenal, and they returned to the stage for multiple encores. It was a coming of age for them, their first really huge British show, a triumph, and there I was lapping it all up. Serious competition for my beloved Who, I remember thinking.
         Aside from the mighty Zeppelin, Sunday’s stars were Donovan, Santana, Flock, Hot Tuna, Country Joe, Jefferson Airplane* (whose set was aborted amid pouring rain due to fear of electrocution), The Byrds, who played a truly delightful all-acoustic set and, closing the show, Dr. John. Sunday’s music at Bath that year started at midday and finished at about 6am on Monday morning. I saw it all and in the misty dawn light drove immediately back to London, parked my car behind Fleet Street, rode the elevator to the MM office and wrote my story.
It wouldn’t be the last night without sleep that I willingly endured in seven years service on Melody Maker.




* I hadn’t been on MM long enough yet to realise it was dreadfully uncool for rock writers to ask for an autograph. Now I wish I’d asked them all, all the hundreds I eventually met, for their autographs.
* I even interviewed Grace Slick, she of the Jefferson Airplane, when her group cut their set short and dashed from the stage in the pouring rain. I followed her into their tour bus and, much to her surprise, did a quick on-the-spot, off-the-cuff interview before the bus pulled away.

21.1.14

MELODY MAKER, 1970 - Part 2

When I arrived Melody Maker was in a state of flux. The previous editor, Jack Hutton, had left to launch Sounds, a rival rock weekly, and taken with him a good proportion of the old MM staff. Ray Coleman had arrived from editing Disc & Music Echo and was busy recruiting new staff with backgrounds similar to his own, young journalists from provincial newspapers like myself. In the coming weeks many other newcomers would arrive, among them Michael Watts, Roy Hollingworth and Mark Plummer, and in the meantime I kept my head down, still a little unsure about having pitched myself into the heart of the rock industry.
At first I felt like a bit of a fraud at MM. After all, although my collection of about 50 albums was expanding rapidly by most standards – it would soon increase at a hitherto unimaginable rate as promo records rained down on me from every label under the sun, of course – my sum total of concert experiences wasn’t that great in my opinion, largely because until now I’d never lived in a big city where rock concerts took place regularly. It consisted of Cliff & The Shadows (Blackpool, 1959, as a 12-year-old!), The Beatles and various Merseyside groups who supported them on a package tour in 1963 (a life changing experience, that), a chance encounter with Rod Stewart in Steampacket at a pub in Ilkley, a few bands I’d seen at Bradford Tech and Leeds University (including Marmalade, The Move, Joe Cocker and The Hollies), various acts at last year’s Plumpton National Jazz & Blues Festival, and, of course, my favourites The Who on three occasions by now*; plus dozens of semi-pro bands, two of which included myself. But it didn’t seem to matter because the new intake of MM writers had similar backgrounds and experience to my own and before long we were all going along to rock shows together, learning from each other, simply revelling in the heaven-sent pleasure of it all.
The first concert I was sent to review for MM was an appearance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall by a somewhat mystical quartet called Third Ear Band, who were much respected in hippie circles for their uncompromising sound which was about as far removed from the rock music I liked as I now was from Slough Magistrates’ Court. With instrumentation comprising violin, cello, oboe and assorted hand-held percussion, they played hypnotic, mainly improvised music with a strong oriental flavour which to my ears sounded like an endless and somewhat tuneless drone, this largely because they seemed to have abandoned traditional western tunings. The effect might have been soothing were it not for the disturbing lack of pitch control – clearly an effect they sought and which impressed their many followers. Not wishing to appear naive, I gave them a positive appraisal on MM’s Caught In The Act page. But I never went to see them again.
The first album I was given to review was Soft Machine’s Third which presented similar problems as Soft Machine was an avant-garde ensemble of varying personnel whose free-form jazz improvisation and unusual song structures were so far removed from what constituted my record collection as to baffle me completely. I gave the album to a more enlightened friend who wrote his opinions down for me and which I subsequently reproduced virtually word for word in the following week’s Melody Maker. Richard Williams, in charge of doling out albums to review, never again gave me a Soft Machine album.
There can be no question that life on Melody Maker in the early Seventies was as good as it gets for a young journalist whose first love was rock music. The record industry was about to enter a boom period which was reflected in the largesse it doled out to us. There were endless supplies of free records and free concert tickets, access to the best nightclubs, the opportunity to forge friendships, or at last acquaintanceships, with the stars of the day (which offered ample opportunities for name-dropping), parties thrown by record companies with free booze by the bucketload, and plenty of beautiful, free-spirited girls who weren’t averse to stepping out on the arm of a Melody Maker writer even if they did see this as the next rung on the ladder to a night of passion with a rock god. It was a lifestyle far removed from the daily grind of everyday folk and in this respect it set the tone of my life for the next decade and some time beyond. The pay on MM wasn’t munificent but it would get better and the perks were endless and expenses not bad either. Soon I would travel abroad in pursuit of rock stars, eventually as far as California. Plane travel, posh hotel suites and backstage passes to concerts became commonplace.
During the early months on Melody Maker everybody was finding their place and mine turned out to be News Editor. Ray Coleman evidently decided that of the new crop of MM writers he recruited in the summer of 1970, I was best suited to the more disciplined task of filling the first few pages with news stories than writing meandering features. This was probably a good call as I’d spent five years nosing out news stories in the real world, but I can still recall my delight when I was promoted after just three months, and for the next three years I held down the News Editor’s job. Thereafter I was destined to become MM’s longest serving American Editor, based first in Los Angeles and then, for almost four years, in New York, but that was way into an as yet unimagined future.
This was an era in Melody Maker’s history when more emphasis was placed on news than at any other time. The reason for this was the intense competition between ourselves and New Musical Express and the newcomer Sounds, and the consequent need to attract readers with bold scoops. The front page of MM was always dominated by a brash, headline-grabbing news story, often relating to the demise of a group, hitherto unforeseen personnel changes or an impending tour by a big name act, either British or American.      
This was the immediate post-Beatles era, of course, and stories about the activities of the group, collectively or individually, always made front-page news. The most popular Beatles-related story was always a variation on the ‘Beatles To Reform?’ line, usually prompted by activity in a recording studio that involved a combination of two or more former Beatles working together, or a rash comment from one of them which hinted vaguely that a reunion could not entirely be ruled out. I was responsible for several ‘Beatles To Reform?’ stories, both before and after Paul McCartney wrote his famous letter to Mailbag, MM’s letters page, debunking the idea once and for all.
I also prematurely split Led Zeppelin, ELP, Deep Purple and The Faces and implied that several big US stars, including Elvis, were on their way to Britain for shows that never happened. Indeed, barring ‘Beatles To Reform’, ‘Elvis To Visit Britain At Last?’ was the best of all news stories that never happened. In this regard, all a promoter needed to do was to tell us he’d sent off a telegram to Elvis’ manager Colonel Tom Parker offering him half a million quid for an Elvis tour and it was front-page news, regardless of the fact that Parker probably hadn’t even bothered to reply. Most of these speculative news stories resulted from intense pressure to come up with something dramatic when nothing dramatic was happening. Because of Melody Maker’s increasing status as the most widely read UK music magazine, those PRs who represented the top acts were anxious that their clients’ tours should be front-page news and would barter ‘exclusives’ with me. “If you can assure me of the front page, we won’t tell NME,” they would state. And of course I accepted the deal, even if sometimes their clients didn’t make the front page.
Stories that generated ‘-mania’ were also popular with editor Ray Coleman. We’d watch the progress of singers and groups very carefully and if it seemed to us that a certain act was about to be promoted to Division One - the ‘toppermost of the poppermost’, as John Lennon famously described it – we’d splash them on the front page alongside a story that said very little other than that they were becoming very popular indeed. Thus did I invent ‘Freemania’ (when ‘All Right Now’ topped the charts) and ‘Purplemania’ (when a Glasgow concert by Deep Purple turned into a riot). My friend Michael Watts coined a neat variation in ‘T.Rextasy’.
Another area made for headlines was the vexed question of bootlegging, then just coming into its own. By a curious coincidence it turned out that one of the biggest bootleg dealers in London ran a record shop in Chancery Lane, just around the corner from our offices. I became a regular customer and wrote about the availability of The Beatles Live At Shea Stadium, Got Live If You Want It by The Rolling Stones, Wooden Nickel, a live album by CSN&Y and H-Bomb, live Deep Purple. When I wrote a front page story about the imminent release of Live On Blueberry Hill, a Led Zeppelin live double recorded in California, the wrath of Zep’s brutal management descended on that little shop in Chancery Lane. Someone later told me an axe was involved.




* I still think my fondness for The Who might have clinched my appointment to MM, as editor Coleman shared my high opinion of them which I expressed during my interview. 

20.1.14

MELODY MAKER, 1970 - Part 1

Aged 22, I joined the staff of Melody Maker on the first Monday in May, 1970, and during the course of the day spoke on the telephone to Ginger Baker, who told me about his new group Airforce. To have spoken to a man widely regarded as the most skilled drummer in rock on my first day there seemed like a good start.
The Melody Maker’s offices at that time were on the second floor of a large, institutional, six-storey building on the north side of Fleet Street whose doors, back and front, were manned by overweight security men in uniforms and peaked caps. Many other magazines published by IPC Business Press occupied the same premises, among them several football and farming magazines, as well as such fascinating titles as Laundry & Dry Cleaning News, Naval Architecture Monthly and Cage Birds Weekly, whose bow-tie wearing editor we affectionately referred to as ‘Joey’. Next to Melody Maker was Cycling Monthly* and two doors along was Disc & Music Echo.
Considering that Melody Maker was about to enter its golden age, when the circulation would rise to over 200,000 a week, the offices were decidedly underwhelming; dimly lit with a scuffed parquet floor, dented bottle-green filing cabinets, old wooden desks, rickety chairs and black manual typewriters of questionable vintage. The phones were also black and made from heavy bacolyte and the walls were covered in a random assortment of torn and faded posters. Richard Williams, the assistant editor, had written out some Dylan lyrics and stuck them to the walls. I sat opposite 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’. Behind Richard’s chair were pictures of Italian footballers.
I soon discovered that Richard had been hired by MM editor Ray Coleman the previous year in preference to myself as we were both among those who answered the same job advert in the classified ads at the back of the paper. When another opening arose about six months later Ray decided not to advertise again and had called me in March to see if I was still interested. I certainly was, and I still feel quite flattered that I was evidently only second on the shortlist behind Richard.
The vacant desk that I assumed was next to that occupied by Chris Welch, a cheerful, curly-haired fellow whose Melody Maker features and singles reviews I had been reading for years. Next to him was the urbane, middle-aged Laurie Henshaw, the news editor and reputedly something of a ladies man, and in the corner opposite Laurie sat Max Jones, the much respected jazz critic who wore a dark blue skullcap and spent much of his day at El Vino’s, the Fleet Street wine bar opposite the building. Max was forever complaining about something or other, usually a problem with his expenses or the lack of parking facilities or how a ped (his word for pedestrian) had somehow inconvenienced him on his drive to work. Although jazz was his speciality he liked rock music too, at least some of it, and could discuss it intelligently. For this reason he was the first member of my parents’ generation that I met – and one of the very few from that generation that I would ever meet – that I could relate to as if he was a member of my own generation.
That first Monday at Melody Maker was very busy, it being news day – the day when the magazine’s news pages were filled. Under the supervision of Laurie Henshaw I was assigned to write various short news stories, some of them re-written from press hand-outs, others from information garnered on the telephone. Chris Welch was busy putting together the Raver column, MM’s gossip page, which often featured the adventures and opinions of Jiving K. Boots, a fictitious rock star from his home territory of Catford.
At various times during the day I felt like pinching myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Here I was, on the staff of Melody Maker, Britain’s most distinguished rock and pop paper, the magazine that I’d rushed out and bought every Wednesday for years. I’m not quite sure how I expected the offices of MM to be, but it certainly wasn’t like this. This was too ordinary, the offices too drab, the staff too matter-of-fact, the situation too mundane. At the end of the day I was wondering if I’d wake up the next morning and be back at Slough Magistrates Court, once again reporting on the justice meted out to those who drove carelessly on the M4.
My first Tuesday at Melody Maker was equally eye-opening insofar as when I arrived at the offices at the appointed time of 10am no-one else was there, apart from the office boy and an elderly chap called Chris Hayes who wasn’t there the previous day and for whom the term lugubrious had probably been invented. Very tall and unusually slim with thinning black hair, dressed somberly in what looked like a demob suit, and with the demeanour of someone who has just attended the funeral of a dearly-loved relative, Chris Hayes had at one time been a full-time staff member but was now employed solely to produce the Any Questions column, to which readers would write to inquire about what equipment was favoured by the stars. He was on the phone and I sat and listened to his end of the conversation.
        “Tell me Eric old boy [Hayes always, but always, called everybody ‘old boy’], there’s a reader from Leicester here... writes in and wants to know what sort of guitar you use these days?”
        I was not so much bemused by the fact that Chris Hayes was evidently talking to Eric Clapton (at 10.30 in the morning!), as much as the casual manner in which he addressed him.
“Fender Stratocaster, old boy? How do you spell that? S... T... R... A ...T... O... C... A... S... T... E... R. Thanks. And what sort of amp do you use these days?”
Marshall? Does that have two Ls?”
Another call. “Pete, old boy, there’s a reader from Brighton wants to know what sort of wah-wah you use.” (This to Pete Townshend.)
“What, you don’t use a wah-wah?”
“But how do you spell wah-wah anyway? W… A… H W… A… H. Sounds bloody silly to me old boy. Best of luck with that Tommy business.”
And so it went on, with Chris Hayes talking on the phone to the great and not so great. He became quite exasperated when a PR person refused to immediately connect him with the rock star to whom he wished to speak – “Well, can’t you wake him up?” – though the depth of his telephone book largely precluded the need for PRs anyway. Occasionally his conversations would stray off the point and I came to realise that he was a chronic hypochondriac, and that an innocent ‘How are you?’ could bring forth from Chris a detailed account of all illnesses, aches and pains and minor accidents he’d suffered during the previous 12 months or, if you were really unlucky, a deeply pessimistic forecast of his health prospects for the foreseeable future. For me this was even more surreal than the previous day. For almost two hours the office was occupied solely by he and I, and me with absolutely nothing whatsoever to do but listen to him on the phone and read back issues of the paper.
Eventually Max Jones rolled up. “Couldn’t park my bloody car anywhere,” he muttered. “What are you doing here?”
“I started work here yesterday.”
“Well, no-one comes in on Tuesdays.”
I soon learned that Tuesday was press day. Editor Ray Coleman, chief sub-editor Allan Lewis, his assistant and Laurie Henshaw all spent Tuesdays in Colchester where MM was printed. The rest of the staff stayed at home ‘doing research’, which meant listening to records or reviewing them, or simply catching up on sleep. The staff actually reconvened on Wednesdays at noon when we gathered for the weekly editorial conference, chaired by Ray. For an hour those present, which included the magazine’s chief photographer, the denim-clad, rake-thin and rather impish Barrie Wentzell, discussed what to include in the following week’s issue. Welch, as ever, was assigned the singles reviews, someone was delegated to do ‘Blind Date’ during which a musician was played singles ‘blind’ and had to guess who’d recorded it and comment, concert tickets were dispensed and potential interviews discussed. The meeting concluded, we dispersed to the nearest pub, the Red Lion in Red Lion Alley, which was run by a huge gay man called Wally who was always dressed in a black Russian tunic, and where lunches were long and liquid, unless they were taken upstairs in a small Chinese restaurant. My new acquaintance Barrie invariably ordered a ’glass of dry white wine and a small piece of cheese’.



* The staff of Cycling Monthly once complained that we in the MM office made too much noise. Our Editor, Ray Coleman, informed them that we needed to listen to music for research, reviews and inspiration. He added: “We won’t complain if you lot cycle up and down the corridors testing new bikes!”