My second day at Melody Maker, a Tuesday, was something of an anti-climax. When I arrived at the office at the appointed time of 10am no-one else was there apart from Jeff Starrs, a young lad with long curly hair who compiled the charts and filed away press cuttings, and a man of sombre yet benign disposition who arrived just as I did but was absent the previous day.
His name was Chris Hayes and he seemed to me to be much older than his 54 years, resembling nothing less than a relic from an earlier age. He was very tall and unusually slim, his thinning black hair styled in what today would be called a combover, and dressed formally in dark grey, a double-breasted jacket and matching trousers, perhaps his demob suit, a cream shirt and dark tie. With the bleak countenance of someone who’d just returned from the funeral of a dearly-loved relative, Chris was a man of lugubrious, melancholy, detached temperament, with levity reserved only for special occasions that seldom occurred. In 2003, in a Guardian obituary, Richard Williams would describe him as ‘a remote figure, resembling an insurance salesman from an early Graham Greene novel’. I thought he might be distantly related to the Addams Family.
I subsequently learned that Chris, who had worked for MM since 1934, was, like Laurie Henshaw, another throwback to the era of big bands, MM’s staple until Elvis changed everything. He commuted to London once a week from Salt Dean, a coastal village east of Brighton, and was employed now on a part-time basis solely to produce the Any Questions column, to which readers would write to inquire about which brands of equipment were favoured by the stars. As befitting a reporter of so much experience, he was unusually fastidious in this mission, meticulously chronicling who preferred Fenders to Gibsons, Gretsches to Rickenbackers, Voxes to Marshalls, Watkins Copicats to Binson echo boxes.
After arranging his papers on the vacant desk behind me, Chris picked up the phone to get his answers. With absolutely nothing else to do I sat and listened to his end of the conversation.
“Tell me Eric old boy [Chris 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 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 all that Tommy business.”
And so it went on, with Chris 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 solicit from Chris a detailed account of all illnesses, aches, 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.
At one point in the day I thought it appropriate to introduce myself. He scrutinised me closely, peering down at me from a great height, and there may have been a glimmer of a smile, a slight movement of the lips. “Hello old boy, another Chris what? Welcome to Melody Maker old boy.”
I hardly ever spoke to him again.
For me this was verging on the surreal. For almost three hours the office was occupied solely by Chris Hayes, me and the office lad who was busy cutting up copies of MM and filing them away. Since there was no one there to tell me what to do I did absolutely nothing but listen to Chris on the phone and look at back issues of the paper that I’d read before anyway. The phone on my desk never rang, so I just sat there, feeling a bit self-conscious, redundant, completely ignorant of what, if anything, was expected of me.
Eventually, around lunchtime, Max Jones rolled up. “Couldn’t park my bloody car anywhere,” he said to no one in particular. “What are you doing here?”
“I started work here yesterday.”
“Yes, I know, but no one comes in on Tuesdays.”
“No one told me that.”
Before heading off to El Vino’s Max explained that Tuesday was press day. Editor Ray Coleman, chief sub-editor Allan Lewis and Laurie Henshaw all spent Tuesdays at QB Press, a print works in Colchester where MM was printed. Sometimes Richard Williams might join them but first thing in the morning on Tuesdays he was on the phone from his home dictating his review of whoever had opened up for the week at Ronnie Scott’s Club the night before and also, possibly, the 100 Club. The rest of the staff stayed at home ‘doing research’, which meant listening to records or reviewing them, or simply catching up on sleep.
I went out for lunch, on my own, to the Golden Egg next door, then returned to the office where, for want of anything better to do, I asked Jeff Starrs to let me look at MM’s Who cuttings file and spent a pleasant hour rummaging through their past. I think I headed off to Waterloo around 4pm feeling a bit guilty about how idle I’d been.