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!”

1 comment:

Steve666 said...

Great days. Well remembered Chris. Would have loved to have been there. I've found your 2014 blog after googling Jiving K Boots. I once sent in a cartoony type drawing of 'Rock Stars' just for the fun of it and MM published it...and gave it a double page spread. I was amazed. It featured Jiving K Boots, Edgar Broughton, Lennon and Ono, Dylan.....I've still got the issue of MM somewhere in a cupboard. Best wishes.....Steve