27.12.20

McCARTNEY III


Reduced like everyone else to living under lockdown rules and regulations during 2020, Paul McCartney hunkered down at Hog Hill Mill, his private studio in the village of Icklesham, near his Peasmarsh farm in East Sussex, to record a third solo album in the strict sense of the term. Aside from the front cover design and photographs by his daughter Mary, he does everything on McCartney III; writes, plays and produces, and like the two previous albums that bore his name alone, it’s a varied assortment that’s been creeping up on me since I found it beneath the tree on Christmas morning.

        My relationship with post-Beatle Paul is by no means all-embracing. I gave up somewhere along the line, probably around the time of ‘Mull Of Kintyre’, and it’s been patchy ever since. In 1971 I was given Ram to review on Melody Maker and was a bit sniffy, writing: “I expected his solo albums to be better than those of his three former colleagues. Unfortunately, this is not the case. His first solo effort, with the exception of one track (‘Maybe I’m Amazed’) completely lacked the McCartney magic and now his second, called simply Ram, although much better than the first, fails, in my opinion, to match up to those of Harrison and Lennon.”

        Paul didn’t take offence and I was invited to interview him and Linda while they were recording the follow up, Wild Life, another bitty affair. Only later did I conclude that ‘Dear Friend’ from that LP was as lovely as anything he’d ever written, and the same now goes for ‘Uncle Albert’/‘Admiral Halsey’, a ‘Playful Paul segue that has become my favourite track from Ram. Many such post-Beatle McCartney songs have a tendency to hide away like sleeper agents before belatedly announcing hidden virtues that were somehow lost on early hearings. Of course, the same cannot be said of the imperious Band On The Run, which I played to death, but thereafter, disappointed, I began to lose interest. More recently I chanced my arm with Flaming Pie, Chaos And Creation In The Backyard and New with mixed results, only the odd song standing out. If the true test of an album is how often it is played after the first few weeks of ownership, then none of those three really made the grade. 

        Meanwhile Paul had reclaimed The Beatles as his own, performing concerts in vast stadiums where his crack band reproduce that magnificent catalogue of songs in all their glory, every guitar lick in place, every vocal inflection and background harmony as near perfect as you would expect from this consummate professional. Audiences loved it, and though the odd new song was occasionally introduced into his repertoire, like so many genuine legends of his vintage he found himself embarking on two separate careers, one as a composer of new songs and the other as a performer of old ones. 

        So, what to make of McCartney III? The omens are good. The opener, the largely instrumental ‘Long Tailed Winter Bird’ has a Celtic flavour, with crisp descending acoustic guitar lines winding down into a rhythmic stew where a bodhrán and even a hint of Africa might be lurking. It’s a bold, un-McCartney-esque start. ‘Find My Way’, which follows, is a return to more familiar territory, a pleasing pop melody that, while not a single as such, has been illustrated by a split-screen video that shows the master at his craft, on various keyboards, including – I think – a harpsichord, acoustic guitar, two electric guitars, drums, vocals, tape ops and, of course, that familiar Hofner bass. 

‘Pretty Boys’, the first of four acoustic ballads herein, might be a comment on the vacuity of boy bands recruited solely on the strength of their looks – ‘They can talk but they never say much’ – but McCartney has never been one to throw daggers in that direction, so I’ll sit back and enjoy its simple, effective melody. The mood drops for ‘Women And Wives’, a sombre piano led piece that I suspect will grow on me, but shifts into the absurd for ‘Lavatory Lil’, a lapse in taste that’s probably a joke, a sort of ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road’ sequel about a shameless gold-digger, set to a monotonous blues beat shuffle. Indistinguished springs to mind. 

All is redeemed, however, on ‘Deep Deep Feeling’, the album’s centrepiece, a complex, eight-and-a-half minute exploration of McCartney’s gift for imaginative musical adventure. A meditation on the inexplicable nature of romantic love, it meanders through instrumental passages, tempo shifts and vocals that range from bass(ish) to falsetto, with an acoustic guitar coda as lovely as anything on the album.

Listening to McCartney in the 21st Century, there is sometimes a temptation to think, what would John have thought? Well, he’d have approved of ‘Slidin’’, a bluesy rocker with a touch of ‘I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier’ from Imagine about it. The guitar riff sounds like something from the White Album sessions, and Paul offers up a truly great guitar solo to launch the final verse. 

‘The Kiss Of Venus’ is another pretty acoustic ballad, the kind of song McCartney seems to be able to knock off his sleep, while ‘Seize The Day’, which opens with a variation on Ray Charles’ ‘What’d I Say’ piano riff, is yet another example of pop perfection, its chorus the nearest thing to a sing-along on the album. ‘It’s still alright to be nice,’ sings Paul, in affirmation of the character trait he’s defended for so long.  

No McCartney album in the autumn of his years would be complete without a stab at experimentation and it arrives late in the day on ‘Deep Down’, a slow, synth-led, musical probe that’s more interesting musically than it is lyrically. Vocal lines intermingle over five minutes of electronic musing, and while Paul intones his need to party down it’s not what I'd call party music.

The album closes where it began, the guitar riff from ‘Long Tailed Winter Bird’ leading onto ‘When Winter Comes’, another gorgeous acoustic ballad, this one more gorgeous than ever in fact. Paul sings about the changing seasons from the point of a view of the farmer he’s become on his land at Peasmarsh, the view from the studio where McCartney III was recorded.

In 2020 Paul McCartney was to have headlined at Glastonbury, no doubt finishing his set with ‘Hey Jude’ or ‘Let It Be’ while 100,000 fans of all ages sang along with him and few million more watched it on TV. My clever daughter and a few of her friends somehow obtained tickets, and she’s hung on to them in the hope there’ll be a Glastonbury 2021. I hope she’s there at the end of June to hear Paul air some songs from McCartney III.  


19.12.20

THE BEE GEES, New York, December 1976.



A couple of nights ago I watched The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, a two-hour documentary on Sky Atlantic that explores their fascinating, three-act, career. Act 1 takes place in London where, newly arrived from Australia, they became pop stars in 1968; Act 2 switches to New York where they became seventies disco stars – they’d prefer R&B, of course; and Act 3 sees them in Miami, plying their trade as songwriters while simultaneously recording and touring as a group. 

In between times there were ups and downs galore that all feature in the documentary. It reminded me that I interviewed them twice for Melody Maker, once in London and again in New York, and bumped into them occasionally at industry events. I never knew Andy but Maurice was the friendliest, Robin the quirkiest and Barry the most practical. It saddens me that Barry is the last brother standing, a circumstance brought home in the documentary as he gazes sadly across the Miami shoreline and declares that he'd swop all the hits to have his three brothers back with him. 

    The MM story below was published during Act 2, and includes the interview I did in a New York hotel room. 

A casual visitor to New York this month could be excused for thinking that The Bee Gees are currently running for elected office. The faces of the Brothers Gibb, serious and studied in their patriotic poses as World War Two flying aces, peer down from posters that are firmly fixed to the rear of each and every blue bus that traverses the streets and avenues of Manhattan.

        Some two weeks ago, in a flurry of publicity, the threesome was photographed with New York’s mayor, the diminutive Abe Beame, on the occasion of a luncheon at his official residence, Gracie Mansion. The city’s daily press carried the photographs, accompanied by a story that revealed the proceeds from the group’s concert at Madison Square Garden in December would be donated to the Police Athletic League, a charitable organisation that provides sports facilities for under-privileged children.

        Almost simultaneously the group opened a shop on 57th Street which is known as their “international headquarters”, where Bee Gees albums, tickets, posters and other artefacts are available in exchange for a few dollars.

        At the opening celebrations the three brothers stepped through a huge replica of a record album, arriving in the busy street where harassed policemen fought with a crowd of mainly teenage girls.

        To complement all this, The Bee Gees have spent most of the past month in a suite at the Sheraton Hotel on Seventh Avenue dispensing interviews to a constant stream of reporters, who arrive and depart on the hour like the trains at Grand Central Station.

        It has been a campaign worthy of a Presidential candidate, the purpose of which is to trumpet to the nation the news that after a very shaky period at the beginning of this decade, The Bee Gees are currently bigger and more popular than at any time during their career.

        In America, this is certainly true: they are selling albums in vast quantities, and the upcoming US tour takes them into the very largest arenas for the first time ever.

        A graph of The Bee Gees’ fortunes would form a sweeping curve in the shape of a large “U.” With the uppermost point on the left representing their early life as an Australian/British pop group following in the footsteps of The Beatles and the corresponding point on the right depicting their current status as tremendously popular exponents of light, catchy rhythm and blues.

        The low spot in the middle represents a murky period that was sparked off by their internal squabbling which lasted until their meeting with top producer Arif Mardin. It includes an embarrassing year when they were obliged to cancel a British tour because tickets didn’t sell, and a stint at Batley Variety Club which still gives Robin Gibb periodic nightmares.

        But all this is forgotten in the present period of Bee Gees renaissance. This week their Children Of The World album is at number 13 in the Cashbox chart, with a single, ‘Love So Right’, at number five, following a pattern of soul-oriented hits that began with ‘Jive Talking’ and included the marvellously melodic ‘Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)’ and the funkier ‘You Should Be Dancing’.

        It’s not surprising that the Gibb brothers are exuding a confidence these days that hasn’t been apparent since their initial breakthrough.

        Barry Gibb, the best-looking of the three, with his coiffured hair and neatly trimmed beard, is a natural leader, holding down most of the conversation.

        Maurice, now balding slightly, is perhaps more open and honest but is held down by Barry. Robin, of the buck teeth, fly-away hair and intense falsetto voice, limits himself to rather cynical quips, most of which include rather fruity language. Even so, they all tend to talk at once, frequently contradicting each other and indulging in arguments over small details.

        None of them, especially Robin, like to back down which may explain those curious episodes in their early career when the he split from the others and, according to legend, locked himself in a flat, took the phone off the hook and refused to communicate with the outside world for several weeks.

        What’s the reason for the current intense promotion? “The fact that the music is succeeding and our record company wants to promote us,” replied Barry.

        “Publicity is a key factor,” said Robin. “People say that if the music is there, you don’t need publicity, but tasteful publicity, well-done, isn’t harmful. People in America love this kind of thing. They like to have things put smack bang in their faces. They like to be told who and what to see.”

        “We’re enjoying it,” said Barry, always the more serious brother. “We’re enjoying the resurgence we’ve had in the last couple of years and we want to continue it. Our record company just wants to make sure it stays that way.”

        “We’re becoming bigger now than we ever were before,” said Robin. “In fact, we are bigger now than we ever were before. No-one would ever have thought that it would happen.”

        “In fact,” added Barry, “we’ve just been voted number one group in America.” But no sooner had he begun qualifying this remark (the result of a poll in Record World magazine) than Maurice, speaking for the first time, pointed out that this wasn’t to be released yet.

        I suggested that the real reason behind their comeback was their collaboration with legendary producer Arif Mardin, whose track record in the R&B field is second to none.

        “Yes,” agreed Barry. “He pointed us in the right direction and although we love that direction, it mustn’t be the be-all and end-all. We’re going to continue in that direction, but if we keep doing it for another five years, we’ll be back in the wilderness again.

        “This album (Children Of The World) doesn’t just have disco and R&B on it. It has different kinds of songs, even though everyone pointed out the R&B.

        “To us, there are other tracks on the album and on Main Course that could be hits as well. For The Bee Gees it’s not right to put those tracks out as singles yet. We just want to develop as much as we: can in every field and that’s something that we stopped doing a while back.”

        A while back, I said, referred to their low period then?

        “Yes, and that was when we started listening to black music,” said Barry.

        “We’ve always allowed people to influence us. The Beatles influenced us in the early days and before that Neil Sedaka influenced us. Now we let Stevie Wonder influence us. Two years ago we stopped listening to outside influences, people like Arif and others. We started writing songs that went in instead of out.”


11.12.20

ONE TWO THREE FOUR – THE BEATLES IN THEIR TIME by Craig Brown



If you share the belief that The Beatles were responsible for a collective madness that settled on the western world in the 1960s and which, in diminished form, lingers to this day, then this is the Beatles book for you. 

        Craig Brown is a comic author best known for his spoof diaries of celebrities in Private Eye magazine. His last book, Ma’am Darling; 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret, established a non-linear style of biography comprising snapshots from the life of its subject, in this instance a litany of largely unflattering facts and occurrences. He’s done much the same with this award-winning book on The Beatles, except it’s not unflattering, with a kind of ‘believe it or not this really happened’ air about it as he examines the Beatles phenomenon in great and often amusing detail. It’s also a clever idea, a cunning collage. 

        Brown is clearly a fan of The Beatles but he has done little, if any, original research for his book. In a lengthy bibliography at the back he lists his sources, which is just about every Beatle book of note to have been published in the last 50 years, plus scores of other books that refer to the group in passing. So, what he’s done is to read them all, extract the more bizarre manifestations of Beatlemania and relay them in his comic style, usually dryly and without comment. Taken together they offer an ‘alternative’ history of The Beatles or what Brown terms a ‘kaleidoscopic’ view of his subject. 

        Though the book won’t tell committed Beatlemaniacs anything they don’t already know, Brown has fun with his theme and it’s fun to read. Its 640 pages are divided into 150 chapters, almost all of them quite short, with plenty of lists, and things like fan letters and arcane trivia derived from seldom travelled tributaries of Beatle folklore. It’s the kind of book you can dip into and set aside without losing the plot; or read from back to front, which is apt because Chapter One, Brian Epstein’s first sighting, is repeated verbatim at the end of Chapter 150. 

        In investigating various incidents that occurred during the Beatles’ collective life that have become semi-legendary, Brown occasionally scrutinises accounts of individual episodes from several different books, comparing widely differing reports from separate eye-witnesses, the conclusion being that no two people recall things the same and we will never know what really happened (though Mark Lewisohn, of course, will beg to differ). For example, he dwells on John’s scrap with Cavern DJ Bob Wooler at Paul’s 21st birthday party in 1963, comparing no fewer than eight accounts that vary wildly in regard to the nature of the assault and extent of Wooler’s injuries. I was hoping he’d do the same for the 1966 incident in the Philippines where The Beatles inadvertently snubbed Imelda Marcos but he doesn’t, perhaps because all the accounts are the same. 

        Brown also digs deep into crevices that are mere footnotes in other Beatle books, like the fate of Jimmie Nichol, who briefly deputised for Ringo in 1964, and the feelings of the off-duty policeman at the wheel of the car that killed Julia Lennon. Only later did the driver discover the identity of his victim and the realisation that it was John Lennon’s mother has haunted him ever since.  

        Looming large towards the end of the book is Yoko, about whom Brown is circumspect in a rather droll fashion. Also featured at length is Norman Pilcher, the drugs squad police sergeant who made it his mission in life to bust rock stars, the more famous the better. However, Brown is wrong to state, on page 499, that in 1967 Pilcher “led the raid on Keith Richards’ house, Redlands, in West Wittering”. In fact, it was led by Chief Inspector Gordon Dineley from the West Sussex Police HQ in Chichester. Pilcher had nothing whatsoever do with the notorious Redlands bust, though it’s a pound to a penny that it inspired his pursuit of John, George, Brian Jones and sundry others.

        Brown’s reportage on Beatle tours of Liverpool is wryly amusing, as is his account of attending the annual International Beatleweek in Liverpool during August, presumably in 2019, which contains his most profound observation in the entire book. He’s watching a tribute band, one in an endless parade of similar acts, and, drawing a parallel with the 1970s TV show The Good Old Days, is reminded of lines from A E Houseman’s poem A Shropshire Lad: ‘The happy highways where I went, And cannot come again’.

        “But when they started to play ‘She Loves You’, and they sounded just like The Beatles and, to my fading eyes, looked just like them too – Paul arching his eyebrows and rolling his eyes to the ceiling, George slightly dreamy and distant, Ringo rocking his head from side to side, John with his legs apart, as through astride a donkey. I was witnessing something closer to a wonderful conjuring trick. One half of your brain recognises that these are not the Beatles: how could they be? But the other half is happy to believe that they are. It is like watching a play: yes, of course you know that the couple on stage are actors, but on some level you think they are Othello and Desdemona. The drama lies in the interplay of knowledge and imagination. And with the Fab Four, there is another illusion at work, equally convincing, equally transient: for as long as they play, we are all fifty years younger, gazing in wonder at the Beatles in their prime.”

        I liked that a lot and if, like me, you are convinced that The Beatles will forever tower above everyone else, One Two Three Four – The Beatles In Their Time substantiates that conviction in spades. 


9.12.20

In 2017 my old pal Glen Colson asked me to edit his memoirs. It was an onerous task. Glen has a wilful disregard for the correct use of language, his spelling is atrocious and his grasp of reality can sometimes be suspect. This meant I had to try and retain the author’s singular character while rendering it readable to those for whom English is their preferred means of communication. I hope I succeeded.

I am pleased to inform all those who know Glen that his book has now been published, privately by him. As well as dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, Glen asked me to write an introduction to his book. Here it is. 


Avid readers of Melody Maker’s Raver column in the early seventies became familiar with the name Glen Colson, often referred to on the page as ‘boy publicist Glen Colson (12)’. Some might have assumed that like Jiving K. Boots he was a fictitious character invented by Chris Welch who wrote MM’s gossip column each week. They would have been wrong. Glen was real. He was the publicist for Charisma Records and, even though he was long past the age of 12, his boyish charms endeared him to the staff of the paper to the extent that he got far more mentions in the column than the acts he represented.  

This was because Glen Colson was unquestionably our favourite publicist, and the reason for this was that, almost alone among the breed, he didn’t bullshit us. Charged with promoting Charisma’s acts and, later, elsewhere, he was unafraid to mention that he didn’t particularly like some of them. Other publicists wouldn’t dream of uttering a disparaging word about their clients but Glen didn’t seem to care one way or another. If he thought they were a bit dodgy he said so, and woe betide the consequences. Similarly, after he left Charisma, he declined to work for any act he didn’t much like regardless of how successful they were or how much they offered to pay him. He’d prefer to work for a complete unknown than say, The Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd, both of whom sought his services but were turned away because they were not to his taste, at least not when they approached him.

Another trait that endeared Glen to us on MM was his affable nature. He was eminently ‘pubbable’ – he was raised in a pub – as the saying goes, very funny in an oblique, droll kind of way, very down to earth, utterly self-effacing and lacking pretensions of any kind whatsoever. Height aside, there was something of the Rodney Trotter about Glen’s downtrodden status, his willingness to muck in and his thirst for arcane knowledge unattainable through formal education. 

Glen’s unique modus operandi had a sort of reverse impact on those he sought to influence. If he mentioned that he did like an act then it was a pound to a penny they were pretty good and worth checking out. A drummer by trade, he knew his music well, so his word carried an authority that the utterances of rival PRs didn’t. And the proof is in the pudding – virtually all the acts that Glen helped promote, whether on Charisma or elsewhere, are nowadays revered as either superstars or lost legends. 

I first encountered Glen in 1970 at La Chasse on Wardour Street. A private members club catering to the music industry, La Chasse became a sort of after-hours office for Charisma’s staff and acts. Holding court at the bar would be Glen’s boss Tony Stratton Smith, the worldly head of Charisma, surrounded by his workforce and his bands. Chief among them would be Gail Colson, Glen’s sister, Strat’s indispensable PA and consigliere, and scattered elsewhere were members of Genesis, Lindisfarne and Van Der Graaf Generator, their road crews and staffers like Paul Conroy and Chris Briggs, both of whom, like Gail, would go on to have illustrious careers in the music business. Glen, impishly small and looking very fresh-faced – hence the (12) – would be holding forth about the woes of Arsenal or telling one and all that whatever band was topping the LP charts that week was a ‘load of old rubbish’. He was prone to wild exaggeration in both directions. The opposite of ‘load of old rubbish’ was ‘the greatest thing I’ve ever seen or heard in my whole life’. The middle ground didn’t exist for Glen. 

We became good friends. Then again Glen befriended all the music writers in those days, but somehow the staff of Melody Maker seemed more congenial to him that those on NME and Sounds. We went to gigs together. One night we set off the fire alarm backstage at some gig at a college in North London. Can’t remember who the band was but there was hell to play. He was a member of the MM darts team that played the occasional fixture in a Soho pub against a team of good time girls who dressed as schoolgirls. We drank in The Nellie Dean, The Ship and the Marquee Club bar. Later, like all of us, he was often to be found slumped up against the bar in the Speakeasy. 

I became MM’s man in America in 1973 and in 1976 was still there, the paper’s US editor living in New York. Glen called me one day to announce that he was coming over to promote a show at the Beacon Theater by Van Der Graaf Generator and would need a place to stay when he was kicked out of whatever hotel Charisma was paying for. The quid pro quo was that in the meantime he’d buy me dinner there as often as I wanted. 

A few weeks on my couch became a few months but I didn’t care. I was glad of the company apart from when it interfered with my sex life, talking of which I was much bemused by a technique Glen had in this area that I’d never encountered before. While every other man on the planet was inclined to brag about his sexual prowess, Glen did the exact opposite, humbly claiming to be a virgin or ‘not much good at it’. Invariably the girl whose favours he was seeking felt a bit sorry for him and offered herself as a guinea pig on which he could experiment to improve his skills.

The following year Glen and I ended up working together at rock manager Peter Rudge’s Sir Productions, by which time he’d got his own flat somewhere downtown. Rudge looked after The Who’s American affairs, supervised the Stones’ tours and managed Lynyrd Skynyrd and three other groups but this sort of thing wasn’t really to Glen’s liking. Then he disgraced himself by getting caught taking a few rolls of Rudge’s loo paper home with him, so he quit and went back to London to work for Jake and Robbo at Stiff. 

A couple of years later, down on my luck, I was back in London, sleeping on Glen’s couch, so our roles were reversed. He introduced me to Elvis & The Attractions and threw out my flares. Back on my feet, I moved into a flat around the corner from him in Hammersmith and we became neighbours for the next ten years or more, friends for life, the kind of friendship where insults can be traded and laughed off because so much water has flown under the bridge. As the years passed I married and moved away and so, eventually, did Glen, but we still saw one another from time to time, still laughed at the same old stories of nights out in the early seventies, like the time that fire alarm went off or when we were on the lash in New York. 

It came as no surprise when Glen told me he’d written a book about his life and wanted me to ‘edit’ it. He’s widely read but can’t spell for toffee and his punctuation has a tempo all of its own, just like Scott Fitzgerald before Maxwell Perkins knocked his prose into shape. Still, he has a way with a story and has lived a life that many will envy, chock full of seat-of-the-pants adventures in the demi-monde of rock and roll involving a roll call of famous friends and many more who deserve to be. 

    Enjoy.

The book can be obtained by visiting this website: https://glencolson.com/

8.12.20

JOHN LENNON 1940-1980

To mark the 40th anniversary of the death of John Lennon I am posting on Just Backdated today the obituary of John that appeared in the book The Encyclopedia of Rock Obituaries by Nick Talevski, published by Omnibus Press in 1999. I make no apology for this because, in reality, the entry was written by Johnny Rogan and myself. Johnny and I jointly edited this 490-page book and decided along the way that certain entries for rock’s most major figures, among them Lennon, needed a fresh approach. As a result, Elvis, Keith Moon and a handful of others were re-written from scratch by us without objection from the author. 

This version has been slightly re-edited and/or corrected to take into account information that has come to light since the book was first published. Also, in accordance with current day thinking on the issue, the name of John’s killer is not mentioned. 


Picture by Bob Gruen

No rock death has caused such worldwide grief as that of John Lennon, senselessly gunned down outside his New York home by a deranged Beatle fan. From that day forward, all around the world, the image, legend and devotion surrounding The Beatles was never quite the same. 

As the pivotal member of The Beatles, Lennon was a towering figure in rock, universally respected for his achievements not just as a musician, singer and songwriter but as a spokesman for his generation, a peace campaigner and a romantic philosopher. At the time of his death he was re-emerging after a self-imposed five-year exile from music, feeling his way once again into the public consciousness. 

John Winston Lennon was born in Liverpool, England, a year after the start of World War II. His parents, Fred and Julia Lennon, split up when he was two. Julia Lennon gave up custody of young John to her sister Mary (Mimi) who raised him in a middle-class area of Liverpool. His seafaring father all but abandoned him, and his wayward mother, who lived close, visited her son on a regular basis until she was killed in a traffic accident when John was 17. 

By this time Julia had given John an inexpensive guitar and taught home some banjo chords. An impressionable teenager, he was eager to be a part of the British skiffle craze and in 1957 formed The Quarrymen with his friend Peter Shotton on washboard. He met Paul McCartney the same year at a church fete where The Quarrymen were performing. Impressing Lennon with his ability to tune a guitar, McCartney was brought on board and with the addition of a young guitarist, George Harrison, the group evolved into Johnny & The Moondogs.

Heavily influenced by American musicians, they swapped skiffle for R&B and rockabilly hits, but at the same time Lennon and McCartney began writing their own material together and occasionally performing these original songs. 

In 1959 Lennon attended Liverpool Art College where he befriended Stuart Sutcliffe, a talented painter, who the following year became the group’s bass player, and as The Silver Beatles they toured Scotland behind pop star Johnny Gentle. During this period Lennon was also mastering harmonica and tentatively learning piano.

In search of regular club work, in August of 1960 the group fled Liverpool with new recruit, drummer Pete Best, for the first of five spells performing in the red-light district of Hamburg, Germany. There, Lennon and the group would hone their musical skills in gruelling, several-hour-a-night performances. Returning to Liverpool much improved, The Beatles made the first of almost 300 appearances at the Cavern Club. Sutcliffe elected to stay in Hamburg and in October 1961, Brian Epstein first saw the group and became their manager. 

After failing an audition with Decca Records in January 1962, The Beatles were signed by George Martin to EMI’s Parlophone subsidiary. In August, Pete Best was replaced by Ringo Starr, another Liverpudlian who had befriended The Beatles in both Hamburg and their home city, and sat in with them when Best was unavailable. Lennon married his pregnant girlfriend Cynthia Powell in August, 1962. His first son Julian was born the following April.

The Beatles’ début British hit was the modest chart entry ‘Love Me Do’ (October 1962), followed by the chart-topping ‘Please Please Me’ (January 1963). Thereafter they could do no wrong in their home country, and the fan-driven chaos that followed in their wake was dubbed Beatlemania. They enjoyed a string of number one hits in Britain, all of them penned by Lennon & McCartney, and in so doing changed the face of pop music forever, establishing the self-contained ‘group’ as its dominant force, simultaneously wresting power from the music publishers and investing it in the artists and writers themselves.

In 1964 The Beatles conquered America, topping the US charts early in the year with ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’. On February 9, 1964, The Beatles captured the heart of America with the first of three appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. Rivalling only the early Elvis Presley in their domination of the charts, The Beatles transformed pop music during this period with hits like ‘From Me To You’, ‘She Loves You’, ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, the title track from their first film A Hard Day’s Night, and ‘I Feel Fine’. In April 1964, the group occupied the first five places in the Billboard Hot 100, a feat never repeated. By this time – a mere 18 months after ‘Love Me Do’ – The Beatles were the biggest pop group in the world, their fame on a par with anyone in the field of entertainment and even royalty. 

Lennon was already acclaimed as a powerhouse vocalist, most notably on the Beatles’ cover of the Isley Brothers’ ‘Twist And Shout’, which appeared on their début LP. He was also known for his word-play and clever song titles. His engaging Liverpool wit and love of puns were evident in two self-illustrated books of prose published during this period, In His Own Write (1964) and A Spaniard In The Works (1965). 

The Beatles’ success story continued throughout 1965, a year when they received MBE awards from the Queen and enjoyed chart-topping hits with ‘Ticket To Ride’ and the film theme ‘Help’, one of the first Beatles songs to expose Lennon’s insecurity at the height of his fame. In America McCartney enjoyed additional success with ‘Yesterday’, effectively a solo performance. The year ended with the double-sided number one ‘We Can Work It Out’/‘Day Tripper’ and the highly influential album, Rubber Soul, which featured several Lennon classics, among them the sarcastic, punning, Dylan-inspired ‘Norwegian Wood’, the titillating ‘Girl’ and the starkly autobiographical ‘In My Life’. 

In March 1966 Lennon created a furore by telling a British journalist that The Beatles “are bigger than Jesus”, a quote widely circulated but taken out of context by US teen magazines. The Beatles’ subsequent American tour was beset with problems, including public burnings of Beatles merchandise and death threats. It proved sufficient to convince the group to retire from public performance following their final concert at San Francisco on August 29. 

        Meanwhile, in the studio, their work continued in groundbreaking fashion. Revolver (1966) featured some of Lennon’s most adventurous work, most notably the world-weary ‘I’m Only Sleeping’, and two LSD-inspired compositions ‘She Said She Said’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. 

        After a long break in singles releases, the group returned in early 1967 with the brilliant double A-side ‘Penny Lane’/’Strawberry Fields Forever’. The latter was one of Lennon’s most striking and original works. This was followed by the summer release of one of rock music’s most famous albums, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. One of the great studio albums of the era, it revolutionised rock music with its complex array of electronic recording techniques, original ideas and strong lyricism. Lennon’s influence was notable on several of the tracks, including the psychedelic-tinged ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ (inspired from a drawing by his son Julian), ‘Good Moring, Good Morning’, ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite’ and the awe-inspiring ‘A Day In The Life’.

        Thereafter the group members slowly drifted apart. Lennon became the first Beatle to pursue a film role outside of the group, cutting his long hair for the role of Private Gripweed in Richard Lester’s black comedy How I Won The War. In August 1967, while The Beatles were studying transcendental meditation in Wales with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, their manager Brian Epstein died from a drugs overdose. Lennon was stunned by the news of his mentor’s death and later admitted it signalled the demise of The Beatles. 

        McCartney took the helm for their next venture Magical Mystery Tour, which included Lennon’s Edward Lear-influenced ‘I Am The Walrus’. Lennon continued to provide the group with startling compositions during this period, including ‘Revolution’, the B-side of ‘Hey Jude’, the first Beatles single to appear on Apple, their own record label. Over the next couple of years the group would record three more major albums, The Beatles (a double LP, aka The White Album), Abbey Road and Let It Be

        During this period Lennon became romantically involved with Japanese artist Yoko Ono, whom he had first met in 1966 at a London art gallery. By November 1968 he had divorced his wife Cynthia, and four months later, on March 20, he married Yoko in Gibraltar. The nuptials were immortalised in the autobiographical ‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’, a Beatles single recorded without George and Ringo, and the group’s last UK number one single.

        By this point Lennon had effectively begun the second stage of his career, working with Ono on the avant-garde Unfinished Music No 1 – Two Virgins, distributed by Track Records after EMI objected to its full-frontal nude shot of the two artists. The audio-verite LP consisted of 30 minutes of voices, distorted instruments and various sound effects. This was rapidly followed by two further avant-garde experiments, Unfinished Music No 2 – Life With The Lions and The Wedding Album. Both offered snapshots of the pair’s eventful lives, including Yoko’s miscarriage and John’s protective pleading of guilty to a marijuana possession charge against the couple. 

        Lennon and Ono created more headlines when they embarked on a series of ‘Bed-In’ peace missions, inviting television crews to their room at the Amsterdam Hilton where they stayed in bed for a week “to register our protest against all the suffering and violence in the world”. 

        One month later, Lennon launched his next project, The Plastic Ono Band, whose single ‘Give Peace A Chance’, recorded at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel with the world’s media present, became a summer hit and remains a universal peace anthem to this day. It was followed by the harrowing ‘Cold Turkey’, Lennon’s brittle account of his withdrawal from heroin. Its release coincided with the return of his MBE to the Queen as a protest against Britain’s involvement in Biafra and against “’Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts”.

        In September, an ad hoc version of The Plastic Ono Band, including Eric Clapton, Klaus Voorman and Alan White, made a surprise appearance at The Toronto Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival Concert. An album, Live Peace In Toronto 1969 was issued at the end of the year. A third POB single, ‘Instant Karma’, produced by Phil Spector, once more displayed Lennon’s talents to the fore and rewarded him with another Top 10 hit in early 1970.

        Following the dissolution of The Beatles in April 1970, John and Yoko enrolled in Arthur Janov’s primal therapy programme, which inspired Lennon’s first solo album proper – John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band – one of the most lacerating and self-analytical records ever released by a popular performer. It remains the most accomplished work of Lennon’s post-Beatles period. The follow up, Imagine, was more successful commercially and its title track became one of Lennon’s most well-known and best-loved songs. 

        In September 1971, the Lennons settled in New York and John would never return to the UK. His involvement with politics was evident on the sloganeering ‘Power To The People’ while his quest for peace reached an unexpected apogee on the festive standard ‘Happy Xmas (War is Over)’, another Spector production. Embraced by New York radicals such as Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, John & Yoko teamed up with the bar band Elephant’s Memory in 1972 for the overtly politicised Some Time In New York City, which offered Lennon’s views on such topics as women’s liberation, the IRA and US prison riots.  

        By this time the Lennons had scaled down their public appearances, although they headlined at Madison Square Garden for the charitable One To One concerts. The following year Lennon released the accessible Mind Games whose standout title track proved a highlight.

        In the late autumn of 1973 Lennon temporarily separated from Yoko Ono in what he later called his “lost weekend”. Living in Los Angeles with May Pang and hanging out with drinking/drug buddies Harry Nilsson (whose Pussycats LP he produced), Ringo, Keith Moon and Jesse Ed Davis, Lennon’s occasionally foolhardy behaviour was well reported in the US press. 

        Despite his recklessness he managed to complete the melodic and accomplished Walls And Bridges, which included two major hits, a chart-topping duet with Elton John – ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ – and the ethereal ‘#9 Dream’. Lennon’s final concert appearance occurred when he guested with Elton John at Madison Square Garden on November 28, 1974. Soon afterwards he reunited with Yoko.

        In 1975 he co-wrote and guested on ‘Fame’, David Bowie’s first US number one single, and resolved a long-standing legal dispute with music publisher Morris Levy by releasing Rock’N’Roll, a back to the roots album of covers that included songs to which Levy owned the rights and a modest US hit courtesy of Ben E. King’s ‘Stand By Me’.

        On October 9, 1975, Lennon and Ono’s son Sean Tara Ono Lennon was born. This triggered what was effectively Lennon’s retirement from professional music making for the next five years to become what he termed a “house husband”. Regularly targeted by the US government for his political views, it wasn’t until 1976 that he finally earned permanent residency status after a long legal battle that cast further doubt on the integrity of the now disgraced Nixon administration. Now assured that he could safely return to the US, Lennon visited Japan, the Bahamas and, curiously, South Africa during this period. 

        In late 1980 Lennon re-emerged into the public eye with a series of interviews promoting the comeback album Double Fantasy on which he and Yoko had recorded alternate tracks. Released just before Lennon’s death, the first single, a retro-sounding pop-rocker ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ was zooming up the charts. 

        John Lennon was shot dead outside his apartment building, the Dakota on Central Park West in New York City, shortly before 11 pm US Eastern Standard Time by an unstable 25-year-old man. The gunman, who did did not flee, was sentenced to 20-years-to-life at the Attica Correctional Facility where he remains to this day. 

        With Lennon’s death mourned on a worldwide scale Yoko Ono vowed to continue releasing Lennon material to keep his memory alive, and there have been several posthumous releases including boxed sets, books, some of doubtful authority, and videos. A reissue of ‘Imagine’ topped the charts in the month following the atrocity. 

        The passing years have done nothing to diminish John Lennon’s status as a giant of contemporary music. While at times he was inclined to disparage some of his Beatle music, he seemed towards the end to have come around to agreeing with the world that the group’s legacy is triple-locked, and that no matter how many pretenders may come and go, the crown The Beatles wear as pop’s greatest ever pop group is simply unassailable. Once viewed with some suspicion as a questionable influence on her husband, Yoko Ono has now emerged as a heroic figure in her own right, not just as a pioneering avant-garde artist and musician, but as an indefatigable peace campaigner and, like Olivia Harrison, a dignified Beatle widow. 

        In 100 Greatest Britons, a television series broadcast by the BBC in 2002, John Lennon came seventh, one place below Elizabeth I and one place above admiral Admiral Nelson. Paul McCartney, the only other pop musician in the Top 20, came 19th. 

 

Johnny Rogan’s book Lennon: The Albums was published by Omnibus Press in 2006 
and is still in print. 



5.12.20

SHEPHERDS BUSH & RCA – Part 3



Of course, the best logo that RCA Records ever had, albeit it only in America, was Nipper the dog listening to ‘his master’s voice’ on an old wind-up gramophone. It was used by several record companies, including the Victor Talking Machine Company, RCA’s predecessor, but in the UK it was best known as the logo of EMI’s HMV label. I still think it’s the best logo any record label has ever had, with Island a close second. 

Stepping out with RCA’s personnel manager while I was its Press Officer was chancing my arm but I didn’t care and having a live-in girlfriend while I was staying at Glen’s flat was never going to work either. So, when Jenny and I decided to become a couple I needed to find somewhere else for both of us to live. Combining our salaries, we rented a flat at 6 Gloucester Road in South Kensington, quite trendy. I don’t think Glen was too sad to see me go but in the event I would soon be back in that neighbourhood as a year later I would buy a basement flat in Nasmyth Street, just around the corner from his hideout in Dalling Road. 

        RCA had an account at an upmarket Chinese restaurant in Maida Vale called Pangs where Jenny and I ate a lot, usually washing our meal down with several Mai Tai’s. One night I was asked to join a party dining out with Al Stewart, another RCA artist, at the Mirabelle in Curzon Street where our group of eight, which included the company MD, somehow spent just over £800, about £3,500 in today’s money. Al, who was married to a daughter of the Martell brandy family, lived in Los Angeles and had expensive tastes. I’ll never forget him asking to see the ‘Port List’ and selecting a bottle for us, nor the eye-watering price of the many different wines he chose. 

        After the dinner the MD asked me where I lived and when I said South Kensington he said he was going that way and offered me a lift in his white Silver Shadow. He got out first and told me to keep the car, so after the most expensive meal I ever ate I was driven home in a Roller with a chauffeur in a peaked-cap. I wish my dear old mum could have seen me. 

        By far the best experience I had at RCA occurred in August 1980 when I took two journalists, one from New Musical Express and the other from the Sunday Times, to Chicago where David Bowie was appearing on stage at the Blackstone Theatre as John Merrick, the Elephant Man. The following month his album Scary Monster (And Super Creeps) was scheduled for release, and David had agreed to do two UK interviews to promote it. NME had promised me front page, and the Sunday Times front page of the magazine section. Our party was to stay at the luxurious Whitehall Hotel, from Monday to Friday.

         When we arrived in Chicago I was informed in no uncertain terms by ‘Bowie’s people’ that each journalist would be allotted just one hour in which to talk with him. This seemed not to be a problem for the Sunday Times man but it sat uneasily with Angus McKinnon from NME, who was aghast that he’d come all this way and was staying for four days in Chicago for a one-hour audience with DB. Additionally, McKinnon – unbeknownst to me – had brought along the Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn to take pictures exclusively for NME. This, said Bowie’s people, was out of the question.

         I thus found myself in the middle of a politically charged battle. On the one hand I was expected to respect the wishes of Bowie’s people, who represented the interests of RCA’s biggest star (and money-earner), yet at the same time I was beholden to the journalists who might renege on their page one agreements if the interviews were slight. This would put me in hot water with the hierarchy of RCA in London who had funded this expensive jaunt.

         “It’s up to you,” I told McKinnon. “If you can engage David in an interesting, stimulating interview and along the way make it clear to him that you need to talk for more than an hour, he might just overrule his minders. But if you bore him you’ll only get an hour. Oh – and mention Anton to him yourself.”

         So McKinnon did just that and David granted him not only extra time on the day of the interview but a further two hours the following morning. And – having already become aware of Corbijn’s growing reputation – he agreed to pose for him, both in his Elephant Man costume backstage at the theatre, and in the bar where McKinnon’s second interview took place.

         Bowie’s ‘people’ were furious with me for having been a party to what they considered a deception, but I couldn’t care less. Next week – the week that Scary Monsters was released – NME had a Corbijn picture of DB on the cover and five pages of McKinnon’s interview inside, and a month later a picture of DB in his Elephant Man loincloth, taken by the acclaimed Mary Ellen Mark, graced the front page of the Sunday Times colour magazine. David, as I suspected all along, knew far better than his advisors how to achieve maximum coverage.

I watched David on stage as the Elephant Man for three straight nights. He had to contort his body for the role and spoke with a strange, high-pitched accent in imitation of the real John Merrick. I came away hugely impressed, as did all the theatre critics who reviewed him when, after a month in Chicago, the play went to The Booth Theatre on Broadway in New York for a further three months. He was a true polymath and I am thankful that I had this slight relationship with him. Unfortunately, I had no further dealings with David Bowie who left RCA for EMI soon afterwards. 

On my way home from Chicago I spent a night at New York and looked up a few old friends. I stayed in the Essex House hotel on Central Park South and in the bar was propositioned by a coloured lady in a short dress who wanted $200 to come up to my room with me. I declined because I knew Jenny was waiting for me back home, but before I went to JFK to catch my flight I took a cab downtown and bought a pair of silver Onkyo HS-20 speakers that cost about $60. I had to pay £30 duty on them at Heathrow but they were a bargain really as they are still going strong after 40 years.

No sooner had I returned from New York than I found myself in Amsterdam for RCA’s European Sales Convention where Sad Café were the star guests. I brought along a few journalists, among them my old MM friend Chris Welch, for what was essentially a three-day binge costing an absolute fortune to very little purpose, but it was while I was there that Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham died. Chris was no longer working for MM but someone on the paper somehow got a message to me. They desperately needed a Bonham obituary, so we wrote one together and it appeared in MM under my byline. 

        Oddly enough, Chris Welch had been in New York with me when Keith Moon died almost two years ago to the day. For the sake of drummers everywhere we made a pact never to meet again outside the UK. 

A week or two after this excursion both Jenny and I were made redundant, as were several other RCA employees, all on the same day. It was a bit of a shock at the time but, in hindsight, it turned out to be a blessing. The reason given was “trading conditions resulting from the government’s economic policies”, and even though Thatcher was then putting all and sundry out of work I always thought there was a bit more to it than that. I didn’t really fit in at RCA. I wasn’t a natural PR because I found it difficult to bullshit, especially to music writers I’d known for ages who had become friends. I wasn’t very diplomatic. I didn’t like some of the acts on the label and wasn’t afraid to say so. I made a few enemies. Still, they gave me a £5,000 pay off – over £20k today – which was remarkably generous considering I’d worked there for less than two years.

I put most of it down as a deposit on the one-bedroom flat in Nasmyth Street. It cost £18,000, which seems ridiculous today. I lied about my employment status on a mortgage application and persuaded Shirley, my former RCA boss, to sign it off. When it came through Jenny and I went out to celebrate – at Pang’s on my RCA account. A few days later the bill arrived on Shirley’s desk. “Last time,” she said, laughing. “And no more fucking Hertz cars either.” 

For the next three years I earned a precarious living as a freelance rock writer, a fragile existence if ever there was one. But that’s another story. 


4.12.20

SHEPHERDS BUSH & RCA – Part 2




The RCA Records logo had changed by the time I arrived and not for the better. The RCA in a circle with the live electric bolt was superseded by a rather bland modern font with square letters, which they retain to this day. 
        Nevertheless, I settled happily into my new job there. As well as David Bowie my roster included the Elvis Presley Estate, The Average White Band (old friends of mine from New York), Hall & Oates (whom I also knew from NY), Alex Harvey, Al Stewart, John Denver, Bonnie Tyler, Sad Café and a slew of small bands who had singles deals and never got anywhere. During my tenure RCA signed The Tourists, with Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, who would metamorphize into Eurythmics.
        On the opposite side of the YMCA on Bedford Avenue, down a winding staircase, was the Sportswriters Club and an arrangement was in place whereby RCA staff were automatically granted membership, which meant we could drink there in the middle of the afternoon when pubs were normally shut. It became our local, and I played pool there often. Once I was taken for £10 by the athlete David Bedford, also a member, who hustled as well as he used to run. It was a handy place for me to take journalists who needed somewhere to interview the acts I represented. 
        From time to time my old friend Nick Kent would come into the offices for a chat and peruse the promo records on a shelf in my office. “I don’t have copies of these,” he’d say, implausibly, as he pulled out old LPs by Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, three acts he’d written about at great length in NME. “Help yourself,” I’d say, knowing full well that within the hour Nick would be exchanging them for cash somewhere in Soho, and that the cash would then end up in the hands of a drug dealer. I didn’t mind. We both knew it was a game. I took the view that Nick Kent had served his profession well, and also served Bowie, Reed and Iggy well, so he was entitled to help himself to a few freebies. 
        I soon learned that RCA was owned by the same US conglomerate that owned Hertz, the car rental firm, which meant I could rent cars for business use free of charge so long as I produced my RCA business card at the Hertz offices in Edgware Road. No one really monitored this, so ‘business use’ could be interpreted quite loosely, which more or less meant I could invent a ‘business use’ and have a car for a weekend that might just include a trip to Yorkshire to see my dad. 
        At RCA I went to Paris with Bonnie Tyler, to the Loch Lomond Rock Festival with the Average White Band (in a Hertz car), to Glasgow with Alex Harvey, to Sheffield with Sad Café (in a Hertz car), to Amsterdam for RCA’s European sales convention, to Leicester for an Elvis Fan Convention (in a Hertz car), and, in August 1980, to Chicago with David Bowie to watch him perform as The Elephant Man at the Blackmore Theatre, of which more later. 
        Sad Café, from Manchester, had a few hits during this period and were nice guys but it was a bit of a slog getting them press as they were deeply unfashionable, sort of half way between the old and the new. I was with them when I had a close encounter with the loathsome Jimmy Savile. They’d been invited to perform on a TV chat show that was filmed at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith in West London, and among the other guests was Savile and, if I remember rightly, George Wendt, the chubby actor who played Norm in Cheers, one of my favourite TV shows. 
        I was in the backstage bar with the group when Savile and his minders arrived. He was dressed in his usual downmarket yellow track suit with gold medallions dangling from his neck, smoking his big cigar and giving it his usual “guys and gals I’m Jimmy Savile me everyone and all right how’s about that then top of the pops I’m doing this for charity me” patter to everyone within earshot even though he was off stage. Then he walked up to the bar and ordered a glass of milk. “Jimmy Savile doesn’t drink alcohol, it’s bad for you,” he said, strangely referring to himself in the third person and somehow suggesting that his abstemiousness implied a higher state of morality – Jimmy fucking Savile of all people! – than Sad Café and myself who were all drinking beer. He walked over to our table and introduced himself. We did likewise. “Sad Café, great band, fab gear,” he said, or something like that, implying that he had some knowledge of the group and their music. I thought this unlikely. I also thought he was an idiot. And only children drink milk.
        Alex Harvey was a handful. In the autumn of 1979, shortly after he released his The Mafia Stole My Guitar LP, I went on a brief UK tour with him and his band to help with promotion. It was an onerous task because Alex, bless him, liked to stay up half the night boozing and wasn't one for getting up in the morning for pre-arranged interviews at local radio stations. The radio promo guy at the RCA office in London was yelling at me because Alex hadn’t turned up, and Alex was yelling at me for waking him and trying to drag him out of the hotel. It was a no-win situation. The saxophone player in his band was the jazz giant Don Weller, a huge man of few words, who kept a bottle of Scotch in the same case as his horn. I held him partly responsible for the situation with Alex but felt it unwise to raise the issue. On the coach somewhere between Glasgow and Birmingham Alex told me that back in the fifties he once toured the Scottish Islands billed as Eddie Cochran and no one caught on. 
        I also had a ‘look after’ Gerard Kenny, a likeable American singer songwriter in the Billy Joel mould who had written ‘I Could Be So Good For You’, the theme tune from the TV series Minder. I decided Gerard could do with sharpening up a bit, so, armed with about £500 of RCA’s cash, I took him to trendy South Moulton Street and kitted him out with clothes that didn’t look like they’d been designed in 1970; drainpipe pants, Italian jackets with narrow lapels, slim ties, shirts with neat little collars. He wore his new outfit for a show at the Croydon Fairfield Hall but for some reason chose to discard the trousers I’d bought him and wear a pair of black flares, and when he sat down to play his piano they shot up to reveal white socks and a bit of calf. Backstage after his set I told him he looked daft in those trousers and socks but this was overheard by his manager, an old-school type called Deke Arlon, who objected strongly to the way I had addressed his client. Sharp words were exchanged and, as a result, I was no longer ‘looking after’ Gerard. 
        Something similar happened with Hall & Oates. The band they brought over for a UK tour included the sensational guitarist GE Smith and after their show at the Venue in Victoria their manager, Tommy Mottola, overheard me telling Daryl Hall how good I thought he was. Mottola, who would go on to marry Mariah Carey and become CEO of Sony Music, bristled and told me that as their PR I should be complimenting H&O and not their guitar player. I apologised with a smile on my face but deep inside thought he was being a dickhead and that my admiration for Smith merely reflected H&O’s wise choice. 
        I made at least two trips to Bristol, both of which involved romantic encounters. On the first – I think one of the smaller bands was playing support to someone – I somehow befriended the receptionist in the Holiday Inn where I stayed and enticed her to my room when she got off duty, and for the second – AWB at the Colston Hall – I brought along a girl called Jenny, newly recruited as manager of RCA’s personnel department, who would soon become my live-in girlfriend. 
        Jenny and I would stay together for the next two and a half years but our relationship was not looked upon kindly by the powers that be at RCA. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, she was hot – she’d done some swimsuit modelling in her home town of Bournemouth – and this inspired a degree of envy amongst my superiors. Secondly, she was the personnel manager and this gave rise to notions that I might have access to confidential files of them. 
        It was the beginning of the end. 

3.12.20

SHEPHERDS BUSH & RCA – Part 1

The first LP I ever owned was Elvis’ Golden Records. It was a present from my mum and dad, Christmas 1958, and I was 11, and when I carefully took the disc from its sleeve and placed it on our auto-change record player I was disappointed that six of its 14 tracks were ballads. I preferred ‘Hound Dog’ to ‘Loving You, ‘All Shook Up’ to ‘Love Me’ and ‘Jailhouse Rock’ to ‘That’s When Your Heartaches Begin’.  

        It was the first of half a dozen Elvis LPs that I bought, or was given, between 1958 and 1961, all of them on the RCA label, so I got to know its logo well – the letters R, C and A in a circle with a sort of jagged line stretching down from the left-hand curve of the A, like something you might see on a warning about live electricity. The letters stood for Radio Corporation of America which was written in small sprint on the rim of the label, and it seemed to my 11-year-old Elvis-addled brain like the greatest corporation in the world. 

If anyone had told me then that one day I would work for RCA Records I’d have said they were dreaming, but it happened in 1979 after I’d just returned from New York with my tail between my legs. From the early spring of that year until the late autumn of 1980 I was employed as RCA’s ‘Head’ Press Officer at their Bedford Street offices in central London. In the event, the job wasn’t really my cup of tea but at the time I needed the work for I was boracic lint, dossing down on the floor in the living room of my friend Glen Colson’s flat in Dalling Road in Shepherds Bush. It was actually a Notting Hill Housing Trust property, let from them to Bruce Thomas, the bass player in Elvis Costello’s Attractions, and sublet from Bruce to Glen. “It had been used as a knocking shop for the band,” wrote Glen in his memoirs.

        It was up a narrow flight of steps, on the first floor, just two rooms, a poky kitchen and a cold bathroom. Downstairs lived a couple who drank and rowed a lot and Glen told me Bruce used to have it off with the wife. He had painted his bedroom dark blue and had a comely girlfriend called Gillian who stayed over some nights but I never heard them having it off. 

        I arrived there in January, with one suitcase. I’d spent Christmas in Yorkshire with my dad and sister and decided there was nothing going for me up there, so I caught the train down from Leeds to King’s Cross and met up with Glen in The Three Greyhounds, a pub on Old Compton Street. That winter he was renting offices above nearby Ronnie Scott’s from where he did PR for Costello, his manager Jake Riviera’s Radar Records and Dave Robinson’s Stiff Records, and a few other musicians from the demi-monde of post punk. As it happened he’d just severed his partnership with Pete Frame, the music writer most famous for his Rock Family Trees, and was looking for a replacement which turned out to be me. Literacy was never Glen’s strongest suit so he needed someone to write press releases and drive him around. I took on this not particularly arduous position in return for lodging at the Dalling Road flat, but it was always going to be temporary.

        Glen had somehow acquired a white VW Karmann Ghia sports car that had once belonged to Marianne Faithfull which I occasionally drove, and we used to visit Stiff’s offices in Alexander Street and drink in the Durham Castle a few doors down. Here I met – or was reintroduced to – those who worked for Stiff: Robbo, Paul Conroy, Cynthia Lole, Nigel Dick, Alan Cowderoy, Kosmo Vinyl, who I thought was a bit of a loudmouth, and a few more. Pete Jenner and Andrew King’s Blackhill Enterprises was just up the road and they’d be in the Durham too, along with some of the bands they managed, Ian Dury and his Blockheads, Roy Harper and Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias.

        On Sundays Glen and I would eat lunch at his sister Gail’s house in Clapham where she lived with their mum and dad. The big terraced house had once belonged to Roger Waters of Pink Floyd and on the second floor was a huge, hollowed out single room, a playroom really, with Gail’s massive record collection. Glen’s glamorous mum Stella fussed over me and I almost felt like part of the family. 

        Each week I bought Music Week and scoured the job vacancies at the back. I went for an interview as PR at Arista Records and was told by the department head that the job was mine. Then he never returned my calls, so I marked his card. Next up was RCA which looked more promising and, sure enough, I got the job. I was interviewed by Shirley Stone, a Scottish lady who went under the rather grand title of Head of Public Affairs, but she and I got on well, and she seemed to think that employing me was a bit of coup, giving the impression I ought to be aiming higher after all my experience at Melody Maker and Pete Rudge’s Sir Productions in New York. She was probably right. 

        I got my hair cut, bought myself a smart leather jacket, with buttons and lapels, a check shirt and skinny tie and each morning walked up Goldhawk Road to the tube station on Shepherds Bush Green, then caught the Central Line to Tottenham Court Road. My office was on the third floor of the building and I shared it with another press officer called Richard Routledge who in the fullness of time would disgrace himself by shopping the drug habits of the cast from Fame to the tabloids. Shirley, who was a bit older than me, worked from a corner office and most evenings after the rest of the staff had gone home we’d all share a joint together. 

        Also on the third floor was the classical music department whose mother hen was Laurie McCaffrey, Irish and once a regular at Liverpool’s Cavern. Laurie went on to work for Brian Epstein and The Beatles as a switchboard girl and receptionist at NEMS Enterprises, but she was always strangely reluctant to talk about this period of her life. Across the lobby, beyond the elevator doors, was the marketing department, a row of small offices occupied by four different marketing managers, one of whom had decorated his room with innumerable pictures of David Bowie, together with Bowie gold albums and music paper ads for them. 

        “You must like David Bowie,” I commented. 

        “Oh yes,” he said. “I’ve been working on David’s marketing for years now. We’re very close.” 

        New to the job, I thought it best not to mention that I knew David Bowie from my days on MM, had seen him perform many times and interviewed him at great length in 1976. But I didn’t want to blow my own trumpet. 

        With Elvis having died in 1977, Bowie became the jewel in RCA’s crown and I was to be his UK press officer, without doubt the most prestigious aspect of this new job of mine. He lived in New York at the time and seldom visited London but when he did the red carpet was rolled out for him by RCA’s two-man Artists Relations department, a fiefdom jealously guarded by a sharp operator called Tony McGrogan whose friendly assistant John used to be a policeman. Both seemed like loveable rogues to me, but they were good at their job and especially good at keeping David entertained. 

        Time was when the unholy trio of David, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop all recorded for RCA but by the time I arrived Lou and Iggy had jumped ship. David’s most recent album was the live LP Stage in 1978, and his next would be Lodger, the release of which, in May 1979, saw my first encounter with him while at RCA. This was preceded by a dramatic falling out between him and Lou Reed over dinner in the Chelsea Rendezvous, witnessed by Allan Jones from Melody Maker whose graphic description of the barney hit the front page of MM that week. I knew nothing about it until I read Allan’s account and felt somewhat chastened by the fact that David had got front page coverage without my having lifted a finger.

        “No comment,” I said when asked about it by reporters from the daily press.

        This happened the month before Lodger’s release, which was why David was in London, and though he declined to do any PR for the album he did attend a buffet luncheon in his honour in the boardroom alongside the A&R department on the top floor of RCA’s building. Arriving fashionably late he surveyed the room, recognised me and came over to chat. We talked about mutual friends on MM – Michael Watts and Roy Hollingworth – and while we did so the marketing manager whose room was festooned with Bowie memorabilia sidled up alongside us. David ignored him and continued to do so as our conversation ranged from what PR he might not do to the video he’d made for ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, in which he appears in drag. Eventually it fell to me to bring the marketing guy into the conversation.

“Er David, you know so-and-so from marketing of course?”

“No. I don’t believe we’ve ever met. How do you do?”

Anyone who ever had the pleasure of spending time in the company of David Bowie will confirm that, when he wanted to, he could be the most gracious and affable of men, disarmingly courteous and articulate. He turned his charming smile on this marketing bloke who was simultaneously delighted to meet his hero at last yet at the same time deeply embarrassed by having his lie – “We’re very close” – to me about his relationship with Bowie exposed like this. 

        I backed away but that guy never looked me in the eye again.