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 he’d 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.