21.1.14

MELODY MAKER, 1970 - Part 2

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




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

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