20.10.17

THE POP QUIZ

When Nick Drake observed that fame is but a fruit tree he was conveying the wisdom that fame can endure only if its roots are sufficiently strong. Today’s TV talent show winners rarely last the course but, given the right breaks, musicians who truly master their craft before fame beckons certainly deserve to reach the finishing line, their prize a lifelong career that sees them into old age, a few awards to sit on their trophy shelf and the satisfaction of a five-star review in Mojo when the career-spanning 4-CD anthology box set is released.
I don’t think it ever occurred to me or my colleagues on Melody Maker that we would ever become famous, and that was never the motive when I applied for the job in the first place. Such fame, of course, was microscopic compared to that of those about whom we wrote, not just the big stars who filled arenas and had gold albums but even the also-rans whose fleeting visit to the charts was followed by termination of contracts after their second album sold less than 3,000 copies. 
Nevertheless, we probably did become slightly famous. I was a bit awed at first to be sharing an office with Richard Williams, the first presenter of The Old Grey Whistle Test whose day job was MM’s assistant editor, the first TV personality I ever encountered, not that Richard ever felt at home in front of the cameras, or so he told me. Chris Welch too had achieved a modicum of fame for his idiosyncratic coverage of the pop scene for many years by the time I found myself sat next to him. MM sometimes put our pictures alongside the articles we wrote, albeit only about the size of postage stamps, and when I became its news editor my by-line occasionally appeared above stories that became front page leads. We didn’t get many fan letters addressed to Melody Maker but the odd one arrived every now and then and, very occasionally, readers, often girls, would make their way to 161 Fleet Street, somehow talk their way past the doorman, and wander into the offices.
On such occasions a hush would descend as visitors and writers eyed one another speculatively.
“Can I help you?” one of us might ask. 
“Is this Melody Maker’s offices?”
“Yes.”
“Do you have any pictures of Marc Bolan?”
As often as not Roy Burchall, the hard-nosed office manager, would show them out but if they were lucky one of us might take them for a drink in the Red Lion, or if they were really lucky, well, who knows? In 1971, I recall that two girls who’d come all the way from San Francisco showed up and, after squiring them around London, Roy Hollingworth and photographer Barrie Wentzell both looked rather pleased with themselves the following morning.
It wasn’t all moon in June. A man from Japan famously arrived in the office in search of Chris Welch who, on a recent visit to Tokyo with ELP, had encountered this chap and rashly offered to put him up if ever he was in London. The deadpan Japanese gentleman had taken Chris at his word, all of which led to a rather awkward situation when he, accompanied by his wife and a mountain of luggage, appeared in the offices. 
Among the many benefits of fame, lasting or otherwise, the magnetic appeal to members of the opposite sex seemed to me to be the biggest prize of all. It is the prerogative of rock stars to enjoy the attentions of beautiful women to a greater degree than most other men and in the two years I’d spent on MM I’d had plenty of opportunities to observe this in practice. Some rock stars took the fullest advantage of this privilege and I couldn’t help feeling a bit envious. But it can go wrong, as I discovered for myself in the spring of 1972, and all because of a letter from a student at Keele University in Staffordshire that arrived at MM’s offices addressed to me. 

This occurred around the time of my 25th birthday which I had been anticipating eagerly since that was the age when a fast car could be insured without paying through the nose. Earlier in the year my maternal grandmother had passed on and left me £1,000 in her will. Instead of sensibly putting down the deposit on a house in Hammersmith that today would be worth well over £1 million I decided to blow it (and whatever I could get for my Mini) on a used Lotus Elan sports car, yellow too, a fabulous little toy that went like a rocket because beneath its ultra-light fibreglass body was a souped-up 1,600cc engine. Steering it was like driving on rails and it had a kick like a mule in second gear, but there were snags: like a racehorse it needed to be kept fit, ie driven a lot; it was fragile; there wasn’t much room in it; it was noisy; and although it attracted welcome attention from girls there was an opposite reaction from speed cops, especially if its driver had long hair. Also, to be honest, it wasn’t very reliable. 
In the fullness of time the engine of my beloved yellow Lotus would explode on the M1 just south of Sheffield, the engine oil from its sump draining on to the piping hot exhaust beneath the undercarriage and sending out plumes of smoke that had I been an Apache warrior would have been perfect for summoning the RAC. I was lucky it didn't catch fire with me in it but all that was in the future as I scanned the letter from Keele University. My correspondent, name of Christine*, wrote to the effect that she was a big fan of Elton John and had greatly enjoyed reading an interview I’d done with him at his house in Sunningdale the previous week. Having once given Elton a glowing review before he was famous he was very cordial to me in those days, and I recalled the visit well. I had driven to Surrey in the Lotus with Barrie W, spent an afternoon chatting with Elton and admiring his brac-a-brac, taking tea with him and his mother and finally beating him at table-tennis, all of which I mentioned in my article. Christine’s letter was in extremely neat handwriting, on light blue scented paper with a floral illustration, and was very flattering, and she wanted to know how to get in touch with Elton. It begged a reply and I felt it would be churlish of me to chuck it in the bin. Also, I had some distant history with Keele since that was where an ex-girlfriend of mine from my home town of Skipton had studied, and I’d visited her there back in 1968. 
My curiosity piqued, I wrote back to Christine, giving the address of Elton’s management company, standard policy, and the name of his PR, Penny Valentine, whom I knew well. Christine evidently wrote to Penny and, much to her surprise and delight, received a signed photograph of Elton in return – ‘To Christine, love Elton xx’ – so she wrote to me again, thanking me effusively. I was quietly satisfied that I’d done a complete stranger a nice favour and thought no more of the matter. 
But that wasn’t the end of it. A month or two elapsed before Christine wrote again, this time inviting me to adjudicate a pop quiz that was to be part of her college’s rag week festivities in July. It was for charity, she pointed out, and I would be treated as a VIP, fed and watered and given a place to sleep for the night within the university’s halls of residence. All I had to do was make a witty speech about being a music writer, ask the questions, some of which I could make up myself, and present the prize. I accepted. 

On the appointed day, a Saturday, I drove from London to Newcastle-under-Lyme where Keele University is located. I followed Christine’s written instructions and arrived in the late afternoon, leaving the Lotus in the car park where it looked a bit ostentatious to say the least. Christine described herself as tall and blonde, which sounded promising, and I simply had to find my way to the students’ bar and ask for her there.  
She did indeed turn out to be tall, taller than me in fact, and blonde and it was evident from the moment I introduced myself that she was exceedingly pleased to meet me. Indeed, because I was news editor of MM and had met Elton John she had probably made up her mind well in advance to be exceedingly pleased to meet me even though she had never set eyes on me before. It was a bit overpowering. She steered me away towards a table away from anyone else and came on very strong, far too strong for my liking, and to my utmost regret I found this rather unappealing. Her blonde hair was too blonde to be natural, probably the product of peroxide, her smile seemed affected and there was an element of unsettling anxiety in the slightly brittle way she spoke to me. Rock stars were do doubt accustomed to girls being nervous in their company and had developed ways to cope with it, but I wasn’t a rock star and wasn’t used to this type of encounter, and I felt a bit uncomfortable. It didn’t help that Christine laughed at her own jokes, which weren’t particularly funny, but I did my best to be sociable, smiled as appropriate and answered whatever questions she put to me. I guess I was trying to put her at her ease, which was clearly necessary, and I had no reason to dislike her, but even at this early point in our association I sensed that it wasn’t one I’d look back on fondly. After a drink in the bar I inquired where I would be sleeping.
“Come with me,” she said, grinning. 
“I need to get my bag.”
We went outside to where the Lotus was parked. It had what would have been the desired effect were it not for my growing disillusionment with the situation.
“What a fantastic car!”
For once, I wished I still had the Mini. 
We went back inside and I followed her up a flight of stairs, down a corridor and into a small hall-of-residence room that was clearly her own, and she closed the door behind us. It was furnished sparsely with a desk, chair, cupboard, dressing table with mirror and extremely narrow bed. A window looked out on to green fields. On the desk were a few books, some LPs and a record player, and on the dressing table were cosmetics, scent bottles and a hair bush. She extracted her signed photograph of Elton from a drawer and showed it to me proudly. 
“Thank you so much for this,” she gushed. “I’m so grateful to you. I don’t know how to thank you.”
I sensed she wanted me to kiss her so I did, quite chastely on the cheek. I think she expected more. “We’ll sleep here,” she murmured, indicating the bed. 
I was dumbstruck. Having by now reached the disappointing conclusion that Christine was not a girl with whom I would have chosen to embark of a relationship, brief or otherwise, I was simultaneously faced with the sudden realisation that my reward for having secured Elton’s autographed photo was to share her bed when the evening’s festivities were over. I honestly didn’t think she’d be that forward, especially as she seemed like a nice middle-class girl to me, well-spoken and quite virtuous in her appearance and dress, but she’d obviously planned this in advance without seeking my assent beforehand. For all she knew I could have been married. Like John in ‘Norwegian Wood’, she showed me her room, isn’t it good? 
This really did fill me with trepidation and I couldn’t help but think that if the situation was reversed, by which I mean that if I had been the female party and she the male, then I would almost certainly have felt justified in objecting. But this way round? What to do? I was in a quandary. I wanted to enjoy myself, have a few drinks and not have to do any more driving, but if I did I’d have to stay the night and sleep with her or ask for a room of my own which probably wasn’t available anyway and which might have offended her, and here she was being ultra nice to me, far too nice in fact, which was probably what made me want to extricate myself from this whole predicament. Also, if I did sleep with her, there was a distinct possibility that she might take this as a sign that an ongoing relationship was on the cards, an impression I certainly did not want to give. Neither, for that matter, did I fancy a one-night-stand with me leaving in the morning and her thinking I was a ‘love rat’ as the tabloids so aptly put it these days.
Should I stay or should I go? It was no win situation and to make matters even worse there was an added distraction that would gnaw at me as the night progressed. Christine’s best friend, name of Janet*, a brunette with wavy hair down to her shoulders and big blue eyes, was drop-dead gorgeous in her black minidress, more confident, more fun, more attractive, more sexy than Christine in every way, and she was tagging along with us, as she would do throughout the evening, smiling away at me and certainly giving the impression that she was envious that Christine had evidently snagged me for herself. Oh, the irony! Of course, I’d have given anything for the roles to be reversed so that I could be with Janet, and maybe even establish a proper relationship with her somehow – but this was clearly unthinkable in the circumstances. I decided to wait, to play it by ear and see how things panned out. 

From the point of view of my official reason for being at Keele University that night the course of the evening went swimmingly. I made a brief but funny speech, adjudicated the pop quiz, handed out the prizes, got a big round of applause and lots of students wanted to shake my hand and have a chat. I think I did a good job promoting Melody Maker and many in that crowd no doubt went to bed contemplating a career as a music writer.
Still, the more delicate issue had yet to be resolved. I bided my time and at one point as the revelry drew on Christine excused herself to go the bathroom. I turned to Janet.
“I need to talk to you alone.”
        Janet stared at me with a quizzical expression on her face. What did he want, she must have thought. Christine had gone off somewhere, momentarily, but she was bound to be back soon. Why did he want to talk to me alone? What did he have to say that he couldn’t say here, in the bar? 
        “What is it?” she asked. 
        “Please… is there somewhere we could go, somewhere quiet?”
        Janet took in my pleading look and stood up. “Follow me,” she said, leading the way out of the bar, through a hallway and finally outside and into the night. 
        “I have a dilemma,” I said, glancing around to confirm that no-one was about. “Well, it’s two dilemmas actually.”
        “Go on,” she said.
        “It seems that Christine is expecting me to spend the night with her in her room. It’s a very small room, as you probably know, with a very small bed. She took me up there to see it.”
        She nodded in agreement.
        “It would be difficult to sleep with someone in that bed without… er… well you can guess surely?”
        “Yes,” she said, nodding, trying not to grin.
        “Well, the fact is Janet... I don’t really fancy Christine. And I don’t really want to sleep with her and then leave in the morning and have her thinking I’m just some guy who was after a one-night stand or, even worse, expecting this to be the start of some relationship with her. So I’d rather it didn’t happen at all. So I have to leave tonight. I can’t stay.”
        “So, why are you telling me this?”
        “Well, that brings me to the second dilemma which is sort of tied up with the first.”
        “Well…”
        I hesitated, searching for the right words. “Let’s put it like this. If the situation was reversed, and if it was you who’d invited me up here tonight and it was your room I was expected to stay in, well I wouldn’t be having this conversation with Christine.”
        “I don’t quite follow you.”
        “Christ Janet… what I’m trying to say is that although I realise it’s probably out of the question, and there’s no other way to put this… the thing is… I’d much prefer to spend the night with you.”
        Janet blinked. I couldn’t tell whether she was offended or pleased, but at least she didn’t slap me in the face. Although she didn’t give anything away the fact that she faltered before replying gave me a slim hope. “I thought you were going to say that,” she replied eventually. “But I can’t. I don’t want to hurt Christine. She’d hate me.”
        “Really?”
        “Really.”
        “You don’t mind me asking, though?”
        “No. It’s OK.”
        “Really?”
        “Really.”
        “You won’t tell her about this conversation.”
        “No, of course not.”
        “Thank you.”
        I wanted to hug her and I’d like to think that she wanted to hug me back, but we didn’t. We just went back to the bar together. Christine was waiting for us and asked where we’d been.
“I just fancied a bit of air,” I said.
“Me too,” said Janet.
Nothing much more was said, though Christine looked slightly concerned. Five minutes later I excused myself and called my dad to say I’d be arriving in Skipton, late, and could he leave a key for me in the garden shed? I’d already stopped drinking beer. I went back to the bar and told Christine that I couldn’t stay overnight for family reasons. I needed to see my old dad. She looked crestfallen. I had a pint of water to flush out my system, then drove to my dad’s house, about an hour and a half up the M6, turning right half way through Lancashire. 
I was to pay a price for disappointing Christine, however. About five miles east of Skipton, as I was driving through West Marton, I sensed that the lights on the Lotus were dimming and knew that the fan belt had snapped. By now it was about one in the morning. I needed to keep the car running because if it stalled it wouldn’t start again and I would be stranded. I revved it like there was no tomorrow, eking out the dying battery but eventually it ground to a halt in Gargrave, about two miles from my destination. I left it by the side of the road, and trudged home in the darkness. The next day was a Sunday so my dad had to arrange for it to be picked up and towed to a garage, and it wouldn’t be mobile again until the following week. Monday was news day at MM, my big day, and I had to be there. I returned to London that night by train, then got another train back to collect the car the following weekend, all of which cost me a few bob. 
And I never saw Christine, or Janet, or Keele, again.


* Not her real name.
* As above.

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