It is 45 years since I survived the most hectic Christmas of my life, all in the service of Melody Maker. Here’s how it came about.

For the final three months of 1974 I was temporarily relieved of my posting as MM's US Editor in New York. As a result I missed John Lennon’s appearance on stage with Elton at Madison Square Garden on November 28, the last time John faced a live audience – a continuing source of disappointment to me. Michael Watts briefly assumed the role of American Editor so that I might have a bit of time off and re-acquaint myself with what was happening in the UK where MM’s editor, Ray Coleman, decided that since I was so used to travelling I’d be best employed around the regions, reviewing concerts and grabbing interviews outside of London. The two most memorable of these were from contrasting ends of the musical spectrum – arriving uninvited for a Pink Floyd show in Edinburgh on Bonfire Night, and grabbing an interview with Rick Wright in the process, and joining the Bay City Rollers on the road for three wildly chaotic shows in Cardiff, Henley and Edinburgh (again) later the same month.
         In truth, Ray was at a loss to know what to do with me in London so when an invitation arrived from Warner Brothers Records for an MM man to interview six of their acts in America during the third week of December he pressed me into service. The brief was to meet up with The Doobie Brothers, Little Feat, Larry Graham, Montrose, Tower Of Power and a newly-signed group called Bonaroo, all of whom were scheduled to tour the UK the following January. I would fly to LA on December 14 and return six days later after catching a Doobie Brothers concert in Kalamazoo on December 19. This would leave me a few days to write up all these interviews before Christmas, after which I was to fly back across the Atlantic to New York and resume my MM role there; total December mileage just over 16,000 from ten separate flights.
         All of this sounds pretty implausible compared to the life I pursue these days as an indolent retiree on a pension who thinks twice before driving to nearby Guildford, but back then I simply shrugged and got on with it. Because I’d lived there for five months in 1973 I knew my way around LA so picking up a rental car and driving to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, where Warners had reserved a spectacularly agreeable room for me, wasn’t an issue. Before I left I’d called The Who’s offices in London and secured a number for Keith Moon, then living somewhere in LA, so after I checked in I threw caution to the wind and called him up. Keith told me that he and a party of friends would that night be at the Palamino in North Hollywood, a C&W music joint, so after a leisurely bath and a bit of room service I drove there to join him. Rick Nelson was appearing and I was rather hoping that James Burton, the great session guitarist, would be there too but he wasn’t. Still, I watched Rick and his Stone Canyon band, was introduced to him by Keith, hung out a while and eventually drove back to the hotel. It was about one in the morning, but with the time change 9am the next day for me. A long day indeed.
The next day, a Sunday, I drove to Bel Air and up a winding drive to the mansion where Joe Smith, the boss of Warners Records (who died earlier this month), lived with his wife Dione. We chatted for a while about the Warners promotion and I remember how surprised and pleased he was when I told him how much Little Feat were revered in the UK. Later we ate lunch at a huge table in his magnificent, wood-panelled dining room.
 As it happened, the first of my interviews – with Lowell George – was scheduled for that afternoon in the brasserie at the Beverly Wilshire. I’d interviewed Lowell the previous September in New York when Little Feat were in town to play the Bottom Line, and while it would be overstating the case to say we were pals, we were certainly on nodding terms by now, and I’d already reached the conclusion he was among the most unassuming and congenial musicians I would ever have the pleasure of knowing. Unlike Joe Smith, he was aware that Little Feat had something of a reputation in the UK. “We’ve had a bunch of letters from England from people who seem interested in the band,” he told me. “Only the other day Richard [Richie Hayward] got a letter from someone wanting to know how he tuned his drums.”
Lowell was pleased that Little Feat would be topping the bill at the shows in the UK, which didn’t often happen in America. “That’s kinda unusual,” he said. “I don’t know what the audiences will be like but we’ve received some feedback… maybe 100 letters from people all the while we’ve been going.”
Dressed in those loose denim overalls that accentuated his rather portly figure, with shoulder length hair and a none too tidy beard, Lowell was a modest man who didn’t much like talking about himself. He disdained all the mannerisms of a rock star like, say, Jimmy Page or Rod Stewart, but it would be a mistake to assume that for all his sartorial negligence he wasn’t a hit with the ladies too. A year later Bonnie Raitt told me, somewhat suggestively and with a twinkle in her eye, that she and Linda Ronstadt would ‘do anything’ to get Lowell to play on their albums. Little Feat, of course, were the toast of the town when they came to England in January.

Bonnie & Lowell

That night I was wined and dined by the PR from Warners and the following day we flew together to San Francisco where I interviewed Larry Graham, bass-playing leader of Graham Central Station, at his house in Marin County. Earlier that year, in New York, I’d interviewed Sly Stone who’d told me, somewhat truculently, that he’d played every instrument on all his records. Larry Graham, however – who’d been a member of the Family Stone – said this was untrue and that he had played bass on Sly Stone’s records. I was inclined to believe him.
Still in SF, I spent the following morning with horn blowers Tower of Power before flying back to LA to interview Ronnie Montrose and Bonnaroo. The next day I flew to Detroit, spent a night alone in a hotel near the airport and in the morning caught a plane to Kalamazoo where the Doobie Brothers were waiting for me. Before their show at the 6,000-seater Wings Stadium I talked to their guitarist Tom Johnston who was at pains to emphasise the eclectic nature of his group’s make-up. “What makes the Doobie Brothers in the first place is Pat [Simmons] who comes from a folk background, John [Hartman] who comes from a hard rock background, Keith [Knudson] who comes from the blues, me from a soul and blues background and now Jeff [Baxter] from a jazz, country and rock background. Tiran [Porter] comes from all kids of backgrounds, so we have just about everything.”
Nowadays Gibson guitars are made in Nashville but in 1974 the company was based in Kalamazoo so the morning after the show I found Gibson’s number in the phone book by my bed and called them up. An obliging PR man came on the line, invited me round and took me on an hour-long tour of the works. I saw the whole manufacturing process, how a plank of wood was turned into a Les Paul, a Flying V or a J45. There were mechanical saws that cut the wood to patterns, varnishing rooms and hot air drying cupboards, benches where beading was attached and fretboards lined with frets, and an electronics department where pick-ups were assembled and mounted. At the end of the production line were half a dozen booths in which guitarists played every single guitar for about 15 minutes each to check they were OK to leave the factory. Those that weren’t went into a reject room, even if all that was wrong with them was a scratch or slight discolouration. Most would end up in the furnace I was told, but the PR guy wouldn’t let me take away a condemned guitar as a souvenir. No chance, he said. In the fullness of time I turned the visit into another MM feature.

The Gibson factory in Kalamazoo. I recall entering by the door on the bottom left. 

         It was now December 20. I hung out with the Doobie Brothers when I got back and when I mentioned to Jeff Baxter that I’d been to the Gibson factory earlier in the day he seemed disappointed I hadn’t invited him along. I rather wished I had as that would have given me an unusual angle for a story about the man who’d played guitar on the first three Steely Dan albums.
         From Kalamazoo in the late afternoon it was but a short hop to Detroit and a direct connection back to London – or so I thought. When I tried to check in at Detroit the nice girl at the British Airways desk told me the travel agents had made a mistake and no London flight was leaving that evening. At first it seemed like I would have to wait 24 hours for the next London-bound flight but because another BA girl’s boyfriend just happened to be the pilot on a Delta flight leaving soon for Chicago I could squeeze onto that plane and get a connection to London from there. Carrying my luggage, I was marched across the tarmac to this plane, searched at the top of the steps and directed to a first-class seat. Off we went into the December night sky, with me settling back with what turned out to be the first of an endless supply of free drinks, a stiff Bloody Mary as I recall.
O’Hare Airport, the busiest airport in the world, was snowed in and my flight went into a holding pattern that lasted for two hours. The runways were snowbound and planes could take off and land only in brief windows when a runway was cleared. After a few minutes it needed to be cleared again. More free drinks appeared, and as I sipped vodka after vodka I watched the hands on my wristwatch slip past the time when my connection to London was due to leave. Christmas was rapidly approaching. Would I spend it at O’Hare?
Eventually we landed. Inside, the airport was a shambles, overcrowded, chaotic, bags and delayed passengers everywhere, many of them asleep. I fought my way through the turmoil and laughingly discovered my connection to London had yet to leave. I checked in, hours late, and got a boarding pass and, yes, vouchers for complimentary drinks at the bar nearest the departure gate. I took full advantage of them until it eventually ran out of booze then wearily joined my fellow passengers waiting to take off for London.
Finally, somewhere around 3am on December 21, we boarded, took our seats and waited until a runway was cleared. Once in the sky, perhaps an hour later, we were offered – yes – free drinks to compensate for our inconvenience. Then came the bombshell. The plane would not fly direct to London but to New York JFK first in order to refuel. Evidently the snow on the runway had prevented refuelling at Chicago.
Many passengers, animated through drink, began to jeer but to no avail. About two hours later we touched down at JFK and stayed on the ground for at least four hours. Then, sleepless but fortified by yet more free drink, we got going again, crossed the Atlantic and eventually landed at Heathrow. It was the night before Christmas Eve and I was exhausted, jet-lagged and sleep deprived. Somewhere along the way I’d lost almost a whole day.
A friend met me at Heathrow with the news he was hosting a party at his house in nearby Egham where I was staying that night. I passed out in a bedroom long before midnight. The next day I was reliably informed that later in the evening an amorous couple had joined me on the bed, undressed, did what couples do in those circumstances, put their clothes back on and left. I slept through the entire encounter.      
        The day after, Christmas Eve, I drove a rented car to Skipton in Yorkshire where I spent Christmas with my dad and sister, alternately asleep or drunk. On the day after Boxing Day I drove back down to London, spent two days writing up all my interviews from the US trip and, on December 29, flew back to New York to resume my duties as Melody Maker’s US editor. The Manhattan skyline never looked more inviting than it did as my plane descended into JFK that night.
And the January 11, 1974, edition of Melody Maker included more pieces with my byline than any other ever.

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