At the close of play tomorrow I retire as Senior Editor at Omnibus Press, a job that I have held for 33 years, although I have been asked to stay on for another two years as a consultant to Omnibus and its parent company Music Sales. It was towards the end of 1983 that my predecessor Miles, aka Barry Miles, rang to ask whether I wanted his job. Yes please, I said, never imagining for one minute that I’d devote the rest of my working life to commissioning and editing rock books for Omnibus.
Earlier this week my friend Dave Lewis, who knew about my impending retirement, asked me to compile (for his Led Zeppelin fanzine/website Tight But Loose) a list of what I considered to be the 25 ‘best’ books that I had worked on (out of around 800). So I did just that, and added an intro to explain the criteria in a few cases.
The Omnibus Press logo below was designed in 1990 by Lisa Pettibone when she worked in our art department. A year later she became Mrs Charlesworth. I still love the way it looks like a vinyl album with a musical note in the middle, yet suggests the initials OP at the same time.
The top ten is roughly in order of preference, thereafter in no particular order. I have restricted the list to books that I have personally worked on, as opposed to books bought in from packagers or US publishers. In almost every case I saw the books through from an initial meeting with the authors to discuss an idea right through to checking the final proofs before it was printed. The only real exception is Pete Frame’s Rock Family Trees where I had little to do as Pete delivers his ‘Trees’ as finished artwork. The first two Family Trees books were published before I arrived at Omnibus then compiled into one ‘Complete’ edition, and Pete has produced a further three books during my watch.
In the case of Neal Preston’s Led Zeppelin photo book, I worked closely with Neal – an old friend – on a complete revision of the original Vision On book (which he hated), and although the Floyd Mind Over Matter book was originally published by Sanctuary this latest (2015) edition involved a good deal of delicate negotiation with the Floyd’s management and Peter Curzon who took over the Storm Thorgerson Hipgnosis Archive after Storm’s death in 2013.
The oldest title on the list is Uptight! which was commissioned by Miles as a book with integrated illustrations but later republished and revised as text only, overseen by me. The Syd Barrett book came to me around 1990 as a typed manuscript on 200 sheets of A4 paper that had been rejected by dozens of publishers who probably didn’t know who Syd was. It’s been one of our best sellers, as has the Ian Dury biography which was also rejected by many others until Ian announced he had incurable cancer. To the disgust of author Richard Balls many of those who’d initially rejected it promptly changed their minds when this became known but by that time I’d signed him up so he could tell them all to make love elsewhere. I am pleased to report that Macmillan Cancer Support, which receives a proportion of the royalties, has now benefitted by over £12,000 from the sales of Richard’s book.
In the case of Timothy White’s Bob Marley bio, I noticed that the original edition had gone out of print and chased Timothy for a revised edition for Omnibus, thus initiating what turned out to be a close and valued friendship that endured until his sad and unexpected death in 2002. A few weeks before, Tim had been in London to appoint a new bureau chief for Billboard, of which he was editor (he actually offered me the job but I turned him down), and we met to discuss his writing a joint biography of George Harrison and Eric Clapton – Tim was especially friendly with George – which would have traced their intermingling lives, loves and music. Alas, it never happened but if it had I’m pretty sure it would have made the list.
I was quite proud of Bowiestyle but, unfortunately, David didn’t like it because, unbeknownst to me, an ‘expert’ I had contracted to help caption the photographs added his name as a co-author at the last minute in the designer’s studio before it went to press. It turned out this guy had somehow displeased DB over something to do with a fan club that he had run. When DB saw his name on it he went apeshit and instructed someone in his office to go through the book with a fine tooth comb to see if it breached his copyright in any way and thus give him reason to serve an injunction on it. We used one photograph for which he owned the copyright and also included some lyrics, so rather than risk a damaging fall-out we took it off the market. I waited about ten years, then removed the caption writer’s name, the photograph and the lyrics and we republished it. There was no more hassle.
Happily, most of these have turned out to be among our best sellers, especially Dear Boy, The Severed Alliance and Uptight!, each of which has now exceeded 75,000 sales over various editions. I have good reason to believe that very few political biographies reach this sales level and some bottom out at less than 10,000, so it’s nice to know that Moonie, the Smiths and the Velvets are far more popular several of our Prime Ministers, quite right too.
Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon by Tony Fletcher
Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance by Johnny Rogan
Uptight!: The Velvet Underground Story by Victor Bockris & Gerard Malanga
Bright Lights & Dark Shadows: The Real Story of Abba by Carl Magnus Palm
George Harrison: Behind The Locked Door by Graeme Thomson
Pete Frame’s Rock Family Trees (various editions)
Looking Through You: Rare & Unseen Photographs from The Beatles Monthly Archive
Kraftwerk: Publikation by David Buckley
Had Me A Real Good Time: The Faces, Before, During & After by Andy Neill
The Who Concert File by Joe McMichael and ‘Irish’ Jack Lyons
Led Zeppelin Concert File by Dave Lewis
Crazy Diamond: Syd Barrett & The Dawn of Pink Floyd by Mike Watkinson & Pete Anderson
Bowiestyle by Mark Paytress
Under The Ivy: The Life & Music of Kate Bush by Graeme Thomson
Led Zeppelin: Photographs by Neal Preston
Torn Apart: The Life of Ian Curtis by Mick Middles & Lindsay Reade
Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’roll: The Life of Ian Dury by Richard Balls
Catch A Fire: The Life of Bob Marley by Timothy White
Mind Over Matter: The Images of Pink Floyd (2015 Edition) by Storm Thorgerson
Hey Ho Let’s Go: The Story of The Ramones by Everett True
Perfect Circle: The Story of R.E.M. by Tony Fletcher
The Rolling Stone Years by Baron Wolman
Godspeed: The Kurt Cobain Graphic by Barnaby Legg, Jim McCarthy & Flameboy
Mods: The New Religion by Paul Anderson
You Really Got Me: The Story of The Kinks by Nick Hasted