JOHNNY ROGAN - In Remembrance

Yesterday, at St Declan's cemetery in Tramore on the southeast coast of Ireland, I stood in quiet contemplation by the grave of my great friend Johnny Rogan, the music writer who was my role model for almost 40 years.

        Tramore, a pleasant seaside town with a population 11,000, lies 12 kilometres west of Waterford from where Johnny's parents emigrated to London in the 1940s. Johnny owned a small house on a steep hill in the old part of the town, now unoccupied, in which he liked to write, and a few minutes drive away is the home of his former partner Jackie who tends his grave weekly, trimming the grass that grows around the headstone that bears his name. At its base is a line from a poem by Edmund Spencer, whose Faerie Queene was the subject of Johnny's MA dissertation: "Where, whenas death shall all the world subdue, Our love shall live, and later life renew." It was chosen by Jackie's uncle Sean who gave the eulogy at Johnny's funeral at the Holy Cross RC Church in Tramore shortly after his death in February of 2021. 

        From beginning to end ours was a master-pupil relationship. Johnny was a literary scholar, university trained, with degrees in English. I left school at 17 with five O-levels and, apart from a two-year course in the tradecraft of journalism at Bradford Tech, picked up all I knew on the job. I had much to learn and in Johnny found the perfect teacher, schooled not only in the art of literacy but in how to adapt this skill to writing and editing books about our shared love, rock'n'roll music. In view of how our futures would pan out, it was the ideal match.  

        We met for the first time in Paddington, December 1982, at a Christmas party thrown by Proteus, a publisher for whom we had both written books, Johnny on Neil Young, me on Pete Townshend. It was held in a nondescript church hall just off Praed Street, close to Proteus' offices, and though I cannot remember who introduced us, I can recall quite clearly that after the introduction we didn't much talk to anyone else at the party, and that when it looked like the free booze was running out we headed to the nearest pub together and carried on talking until closing time. It's quite likely I was a bit sloshed when I headed for home that night, thus establishing from the very start a pattern that would become a key aspect of our friendship.

        Proteus Books went bust a couple of years later and Johnny and I sat next to one another at a creditors' meeting in a hotel on The Aldwych. Both of us were owed money by the company and we took pleasure in watching its managing director, on a podium at the front, squirm as a bankruptcy accountant read out a damning indictment of mismanagement. We were highly amused when the Irish photographer Finn Costello, another creditor, stood up and swore loudly at that MD, calling him a "fucking cunt", as I recall. Many in the room, us amongst them, cheered loudly when Finn upped and left the gathering, his parting words, "I have to leave now. There's a nasty smell in this room and its coming from the podium." Johnny and I liked that kind of thing. 

        Soon after this I became the editor at Omnibus Press and acquired the rights to the first of three books by Johnny that Omnibus would publish. Johnny's title was Wham: The Death of a Supergroup but with his approval we opted to retitle it Wham Confidential which we felt had more immediacy. It was, of course, the story of the duo formed by George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, perhaps not the most obvious subject for an author of Johnny's background, but this was no hagiography aimed at the teenage girls who screamed at George and Andrew, more an investigation into the music industry levers that were pulled to make Wham what they were and the strains that tore them apart. It was only 160 pages, quite short by the standards that Johnny would set in the future, but it was the first indication to me that in him I had found an author of unusual precision who wrote about music and musicians with great clarity and insight. I'd already formed a high opinion of Johnny's skills when I read his Proteus Neil Young book and now, running Omnibus, I was in a position to take full advantage of them.

        Johnny delivered the manuscript for his Wham book in the manner of students submitting a thesis: several sheets of A4 paper typed in double spacing and bound together in a folder with the title and author's name in bold lettering on the front. Although in the 1990s computers would preclude the need for typed manuscripts from which books would be typeset, in 33 years at Omnibus, during which I commissioned and/or edited over 800 rock books, no other author ever delivered his work in such a professional way. 

        The Wham book sold respectably but wasn't what I could call a commercial success. I suppose we should have realised that Wham fans were unlikely to want to read a serious book about them, and those readers who liked serious music books weren't interested in Wham. It slipped between two stools but the lesson we learned, however, was put to good use in Johnny's next book, Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance, which soon became the best-selling book that Omnibus had ever published. It was controversial too, vexing Morrissey who described it as “all lies” and famously commented: “I hope Johnny Rogan ends his days very soon in an M3 pile-up or a hotel fire,” a quote we gleefully included on the cover of future editions. 

        Johnny delivered his manuscript for The Severed Alliance in the same manner as he'd delivered the Wham book, but he was a few weeks late. When it became clear to him that he wouldn't deliver on time he asked for a meeting with me and our sales director Frank Warren. At that meeting he offered to return the advance, producing from his pocket a signed cheque made out to Music Sales for the amount. Frank tore it up. I was astonished. In all those 33 years I helmed Omnibus' editorial department, no other author ever volunteered to return their advance when they were late delivering, as almost all invariably were. This cemented my admiration for Johnny. Not only was he immensely skilled in his chosen field, he was an honourable chap too. 

        It's no exaggeration to say that the success of The Severed Alliance changed the editorial agenda at Omnibus. Before its arrival we had concentrated largely on large format illustrated books with less concern paid to the text but from now on we would gradually publish more and more text-led titles and fewer books dominated by photography. (The only book Omnibus ever published on my watch whose sales matched Johnny's Smiths book was Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon by Tony Fletcher, another author who became, and still is, a close friend. Johnny indexed Tony's book and, as it happened, Tony would write a Smiths book himself, A Light That Never Goes Out. Far from being displeased by the competition, at a lunch I organised for the three of us, Johnny offered to help Tony in any way he could.)

        By this time Johnny and I had become drinking buddies, working hard - we indexed several books together, he and I devised an Omnibus style guide and I often consulted him on editorial issues - and playing hard. We usually caroused around Soho and though most of these pub crawls are lost to memory, I can vividly recall the evening I introduced him to the US music writer Timothy White, another friend of mine now also sadly passed. The three of us wound up in a nightclub owned by David Arden, son of Don, brother of Sharon, whom Johnny had befriended as a result of his investigations into rock band management. The waitresses - I think they were referred to as hostesses in this establishment - were very beautiful and unusually friendly towards us but we were all far too drunk - David kept bringing us free bottles of champagne - to take advantage of the situation.

        Omnibus Press was a big fish in a small pond as far as rock books were concerned, but a small fish in a big pond when it came to publishing at large. As Johnny's reputation grew following the success of his Smiths book, it was inevitable that he would seek out mainstream publishers that could pay far bigger advances than Omnibus could offer. We only did one more book together, on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, but whenever I went on holiday Johnny deputised for me, enjoying a spell at my desk, and he invariably attended our quarterly editorial meetings at which decisions were made on which books to publish and which to pass on. He became my staunchest ally.

        When Johnny launched his own publishing company, Rogan House, it was to Omnibus Press and its parent company Music Sales that he turned for marketing, warehousing and distribution, or fulfilment as it is known in the trade. This strengthened our ties and friendship even more. Along the way I had, of course, became aware of Johnny's reputation as a rather mysterious, even remote, figure in the world of rock books, a trait he encouraged as his renown grew. In truth, he was amongst the most sociable men I ever knew and I came to suspect that this was a mischievous ploy on his part, a way of ensuring his privacy while at the same time creating an enigmatic persona that suited his way of life.

        Details of all the many other books that Johnny wrote can be found in the more formal obituary I wrote for the Guardian newspaper, a longer version of which appears on this blog here: https://justbackdated.blogspot.com/2021/02/johnny-rogan-1953-2021.html

        Johnny's unexpected and sudden death from a brain haemorrhage came as a great shock to me, as it did to all who knew him, and because it occurred during the Covid travel ban I was unable to attend the funeral in Tramore. I watched the service on my computer by means of a video link up and vowed that when the time was right I'd come to Tramore myself to pay my respects at Johnny's last resting place, as I did yesterday.

        I grew misty eyed as I stood before Johnny's gravestone and felt the need to turn away to face the wind that blew towards me from the sea. I recalled the good times. Then I dried my eyes and my wife Lisa took the photo that appears above. I will miss him always. 



The old adage that we prefer the familiar was never more apparent to me than last night when I watched the stage production of John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. The audience, most of whom seemed of an age that first laughed at Basil between 1975 and 1979 when the TV show was originally broadcast, knew what was coming and were primed to laugh at all the right moments: Sybil on the warpath, Basil losing the plot, Mrs Richards’ deafness, Manuel’s shaky grasp of English, the talking moose, ‘Don’t mention the war’ and, most of all, the layer upon layer of confusion and misunderstanding that made Fawlty Towers a superlative farce. And it’s all been recreated to perfection.

        Now much is new, however. This stage production, overseen by Cleese but directed by Caroline Jay Ranger, seamlessly blends together three of the original half-hour sitcoms – The Hotel Inspector, Communication Problems and The Germans – into one 90-minute plus play that here and there has echoes from the other nine episodes in the series. At times there were even hints of Python’s silly walk and, when Basil yells ‘Polly’ at the long-suffering waitress played originally by his wife Connie Booth, I was reminded of Cleese in the pet shop where Michael Palin sold him a dead parrot. 

        Don’t mend anything that isn’t broken seems to have been the production’s prime concern, so the cast are mimics as much as actors. Adam Jackson-Smith is Basil, as ungainly and awkward as Basil/Cleese, a tall, thin man, with long legs who manages to contort himself into pretzels, agonising over a faux-pas, getting the wrong end of the stick and abusing Spanish waiter Manuel and his guests alike. Anna-Jane Casey is just as effective as Sybil, beehive in place, the clothes just right, ditto her shrill accent, especially on the phone to the unseen Audrey – ‘I know’ – or when berating her hapless husband. There were times when I thought Victoria Fox’s Polly really was the young Connie Booth, at least in the way she spoke, and Hemi Yeroham pitched Manuel just right, not quite as dumb as we might think. When he said ‘I know nothing’ the place erupted. The major’s bigoted dialogue has been softened, no doubt to acquiesce with 21st Century PC sensibilities, but he still hasn’t found the wallet that was nicked by ‘the woman he once knew’.

        Although there is a 20-minute interval, the three episodes overlap smoothly and some additional dialogue has been inserted to assist continuity. The action is fast-paced, with lines traded like ricochet fire at moments of high farce and it doesn’t pay to drift off. At the climax the whole house of cards tumbles into a riot of confusion as the fire alarm brings everyone – all the cast, including the two old ladies, the major brandishing a gun and the three hotel inspectors – to the dance, every one of them bewildered, bemused or furious at Fawlty Towers’ wretched proprietor.

        Though I knew almost all the jokes, I still laughed, as did my whole family, not least daughter Olivia visiting this week from the US. I can remember when, aged about 10, she used to watch our Fawlty Towers video box set in our house in London on rotation, memorising the dialogue to the extent that her and a couple of friends from her primary school actually staged an ad-hoc FT play of their own in our house. We shot a video of that and this weekend I’m going to seek it out and watch it again. Whatever weirdness has overtaken John Cleese in recent years, Fawlty Towers remains a comedy masterpiece, fun for all ages as the billboards used to say.


SHA NA NA, Carnegie Hall, June 1974

Like many others I had a weak spot for Sha Na Na, the tongue-in-cheek American golden oldies troupe that was a surprise hit at Woodstock. I first saw them at London’s Speakeasy in the summer of 1971, and at the Reading Festival the same week, and on that visit to the UK I interviewed them too, or tried to as they acted in character on and off stage. Keith Moon was a big fan, of course. Wearing a gold lame suit, Keith introduced them on stage that year at the Carnegie Hall in New York. He did the same thing at the Crystal Palace Bowl the following year, a show that was headlined by The Beach Boys. 

I was at a Sha Na show at the Carnegie Hall 50 years ago last weekend, and here’s what I wrote on Melody Maker’s Caught In The Act page. 

Sha Na Na were reviving rock and roll long before anyone else, and long before the current wave of nostalgia swept down on both sides of the Atlantic. Last week they played a couple of shows at Carnegie Hall, and despite the familiarity of their act they proved they are the best at this particular form of rock entertainment.

They were handicapped, though. Bowser, the tall skinny guy with the deep bass voice, was unable to appear apart from a walk-on part as a dance hall MC. For my money, he’s always been the star of Sha Na Na’s show, a singularly ugly young man blessed with a remarkable voice that blends naturally into what the group are trying to put over.

As a result, they were down to nine men, not a small complement for a rock band by any means, but they nevertheless sounded thinner than usual. Instrumentation was kept at a minimum and they relied totally on the harmony vocals to carry them along. Last month their guitarist, Vinnie Taylor, died but his replacement, Elliott Randall*, acquitted himself well within the limited range that guitaring for Sha Na Na offers.

Bearing in mind these setbacks, the band whipped up enormous excitement among the New Yorkers who were surprisingly young. I’d expected a Carnegie Hal full of greasers from the West Side but Sha Na Na’s fans seems to be mainly teenagers. There wasn’t a motor cycle to be seen on 57th Street, and the only leather jackets had buttons instead of zips. 

The show opened with the familiar Sha Na Na routines acting out the ’Fifties oldies that are now almost as synonymous with Sha Na Na as the versions by the original artists. Then they “hit the street”, changing clothes for another bunch of oldies. This time the stage props included trash cans, gas lamps and traffic lights.

This was followed by the dance contest, compared by the hitherto absent Bowser who received an enormous cheer as he walked on and explained that his doctor had prevented him from singing and dancing because he had a partially collapsed lung. He then intimated that he’d threatened his doctor with a chain, which resulted in his belated appearance this evening.

Three of the band picked partners from the audience for the contest which was played mainly for laughs. The winning girl’s prize was an opportunity to dance with fat horn player Lenny – “The Sensuous King Of Rock And Roll”.

The show closed with the back curtains pulled back to reveal a small orchestra – brass and strings – all dressed in their vests. Mostly they were drowned out by the vocals and yelling from the audience, and as usual the group paraded back for a total of four encores. A good evening’s fun. 

* Trivia note: Elliott Randall played the well-known guitar solo on Steely Dan’s ‘Reelin’ In the Years’.