In January, 1972, Melody Maker dispatched me to the Midem Festival in Cannes, the annual trade fair for the music industry where behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing is transacted, much of it related to the mysterious business of music publishing and sales of territorial rights on this or that song or publishing catalogue. I stayed at a small hotel in the back streets near Cannes railway station, away from the fashionable Croisette which runs along the sea front, and on the first morning shared a breakfast table with an amiable British chap with long blonde hair, a beard, blue jeans and rumpled sweater. He looked like a bit of a hippie, the sort of bloke I could befriend, and he told me he’d just opened record shops in Oxford Street and Notting Hill in London and was thinking of starting his own record label.
After breakfast my new friend asked me to do him a favour. He explained that he didn’t have a pass to enter the Midem Festival hall but that he had a Rolls Royce car, borrowed from his father, in which he’d driven down through France. Would I, he inquired, pretend to be his chauffeur, drive him to the hall and open the car door for him. That way, he reasoned, the doormen would assume he was someone important and allow him entry without even asking for a pass.
I agreed to do this favour on one condition, that the following day he would do the same for me: drive me to the hall, and open the door as if I was someone important. He agreed.
And so we set off, me driving the elegant Roller and he sat on the back seat. I negotiated the narrow back streets of Cannes successfully and arrived at the hall, leapt out and opened the door for my ‘boss’. I watched in amusement as the doormen, noting the car, saluted my new friend and ushered him through the festival doors without asking for a pass. I then drove the Roller back to the hotel and left its keys at the reception desk as we’d agreed.
There was no sign of him next morning at breakfast, nor the following morning. It seemed to me that he’d left the hotel and forgotten about me, and his side of our bargain. Then, two days later, I saw him again, on the beach with some cronies, other hippie types, perhaps four or five men and girls, having what appeared to be a picnic lunch. He saw me staring at them all and beckoned me over.
“Thanks for the other day,” he said, smiling.
“You promised to do the same for me,” I replied.
“I know. I’m sorry. I left that hotel.”
“What did he promise you?” asked one of his friends who was eavesdropping the conversation.
“You welched on the deal,” he said loudly so that the whole party heard. “You must pay a forfeit.”
One of the girls jumped up. “Will you cancel the debt if he runs into the sea naked?” she asked.
“Yes,” I laughed.
Without argument, the bearded man promptly tugged off his jeans, pants and shirt and ran naked into the Mediterranean.
Thus, for the first and last time, did I observe Richard Branson’s arse.
Just over two years later, in April 1974, I was flying from New York to London when who should be on the same flight but Richard, in the economy section like me. In those days I crossed the Atlantic a lot, as did he, and we both knew that midweek night-flight jumbos were unlikely to be full and if you were lucky you could find an empty row of central seats towards the rear of the plane on which you could stretch out and sleep. We were lucky that night and after a quick chat we bid each other good night and slept well.
It would have been somewhere over Ireland when we awoke and had tea and toast together the following morning.
“Do you like flying?” I asked him.
“I love it,” he replied. “One day I want to have my own airline.”
Fat chance, I remember thinking.
Fat chance, I remember thinking.
I didn’t see Richard Branson again for about 20 years, but in the early nineties I was playing host to Artemy Troitsky, the well known Russian music writer who had written a book for Omnibus Press and who has since become a close friend of mine. On this visit Artemy had asked me if I could fix up a meeting with Richard and I was able to oblige.
The meeting was arranged for 6.30pm in an upmarket art gallery in Mayfair where Richard had been invited to privately inspect a bejewelled carving of Buddha that he was thinking of buying. Artemy and I knocked on the gallery door and were ushered inside. We were expected and were led downstairs to a vault where the Buddha sat twinkling on a table. Richard was scrutinizing it as the gallery owner looked on.
He greeted me like a long lost friend and seemed especially pleased to meet Artemy. The gallery owner wasn’t too pleased at the interruption.
“What do you think of this, Chris?” asked Richard. “Do you think I should buy it?”
“How much?” I asked.
“Three hundred thousand pounds.”
“Well,” I said. “If I had three hundred grand to spare I wouldn’t spend it on that.”
“Hmm, maybe you’re right. Neither will I.”
The gallery owner looked like he wanted to kill me.
The three of us left the gallery together, Richard conferred with his driver who was waiting outside in a big car and we strolled down the street to a pub. I left Richard and Artemy chatting in a quiet corner and went to order us all a beer. The barman had recognised the man whose face was as well known as the Virgin logo.
“Is that Richard Branson?”
“Yes. He’s having a quiet, private meeting and I’d be grateful if you say nothing to anyone about him being here until we leave.”
I rather enjoyed playing the Looking-After-A-VIP role, and gave him a fiver. “Look after us and there’s another of these for you when we leave.”
Thereafter the barman gave us waiter service while Artemy asked Richard about Virgin Records’ plans for Moscow and Richard quizzed Artemy about travel opportunities in Russia. At one stage in the conversation Richard told Artemy that the Kremlin had offered him the chance to buy a hotel at a Black Sea resort and evidently talked it up big time.
“Do not buy it,” Artemy told him in that wonderfully resolute way that Russians have, the deep voice that brooks no argument. “There is a rubbish tip nor far away. Terrible smell. The best place is one hundred miles down the coast where all the government people go on holiday. But they won’t let you buy there.”
Richard was grateful for inside information untainted by vested interests. When we left he told Artemy that if ever he was in the UK again he could stay at any of his houses, in Holland Park, Notting Hill, Maida Vale or near Oxford, anywhere he liked.
I gave the barman another fiver as I left the pub, and that was the last time I had any contact with Richard Branson.