30.9.17

MELODY MAKER IN 1970



Aged 22, I joined the staff of Melody Maker on the first Monday in May, 1970, and during the course of the day spoke on the telephone to Ginger Baker, who told me about his new group Airforce. To have spoken to a man widely regarded as the most skilled drummer in rock on my first day there seemed like a good start.
The Melody Maker’s offices at that time were on the second floor of a large, institutional, six-storey building on the north side of Fleet Street whose doors, back and front, were manned by overweight security men in uniforms and peaked caps. Many other magazines published by IPC Business Press occupied the same premises, among them several football and farming magazines, as well as such fascinating titles as Laundry & Dry Cleaning News, Naval Architecture Monthly and Cage Birds Weekly, whose bow-tie wearing editor we affectionately referred to as ‘Joey’. Next to Melody Maker was Cycling Monthly* and two doors along was Disc & Music Echo.
Considering that Melody Maker was about to enter its golden age, when the circulation would rise to over 200,000 a week, the offices were decidedly underwhelming; dimly lit with a scuffed parquet floor, dented bottle-green filing cabinets, old wooden desks, rickety chairs and black manual typewriters of questionable vintage. The phones were also black and made from heavy bacolyte and the walls were covered in a random assortment of torn and faded posters. Richard Williams, the assistant editor, had written out some Dylan lyrics and stuck them to the walls. I sat opposite a sign that read: ‘You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows’ and to my right were the words ‘Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters’. Behind Richard’s chair were pictures of Italian footballers. 
I soon discovered that Richard had been hired by MM editor Ray Coleman the previous year in preference to myself as we were both among those who answered the same job advert in the classified ads at the back of the paper. When another opening arose about six months later Ray decided not to advertise again and had called me in March to see if I was still interested. I certainly was, and I still feel quite flattered that I was evidently only second on the shortlist behind Richard. 
The vacant desk that I assumed was next to that occupied by Chris Welch, a cheerful, curly-haired fellow whose Melody Maker features and singles reviews I had been reading for years. Next to him was the urbane, middle-aged Laurie Henshaw, the news editor and reputedly something of a ladies man, and in the corner opposite Laurie sat Max Jones, the much respected jazz critic who wore a dark blue skullcap and spent much of his day at El Vino’s, the Fleet Street wine bar opposite the building. Max was forever complaining about something or other, usually a problem with his expenses or the lack of parking facilities or how a ped (his word for pedestrian) had somehow inconvenienced him on his drive to work. Although jazz was his speciality he liked rock music too, at least some of it, and could discuss it intelligently. For this reason he was the first member of my parents’ generation that I met – and one of the very few from that generation that I would ever meet – that I could relate to as if he was a member of my own generation.
That first Monday at Melody Maker was very busy, it being news day – the day when the magazine’s news pages were filled. Under the supervision of Laurie Henshaw I was assigned to write various short news stories, some of them re-written from press hand-outs, others from information garnered on the telephone. Chris Welch was busy putting together the Raver column, MM’s gossip page, which often featured the adventures and opinions of Jiving K. Boots, a fictitious rock star from his home territory of Catford. 
At various times during the day I felt like pinching myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Here I was, on the staff of Melody Maker, Britain’s most distinguished rock and pop paper, the magazine that I’d rushed out and bought every Wednesday for years. I’m not quite sure how I expected the offices of MM to be, but it certainly wasn’t like this. This was too ordinary, the offices too drab, the staff too matter-of-fact, the situation too mundane. At the end of the day I was wondering if I’d wake up the next morning and be back at Slough Magistrates Court, once again reporting on the justice meted out to those who drove carelessly on the M4. 
My first Tuesday at Melody Maker was equally eye-opening insofar as when I arrived at the offices at the appointed time of 10am no-one else was there, apart from the office boy and an elderly chap called Chris Hayes who wasn’t there the previous day and for whom the term lugubrious had probably been invented. Very tall and unusually slim with thinning black hair, dressed somberly in what looked like a demob suit, and with the demeanour of someone who has just attended the funeral of a dearly-loved relative, Chris Hayes had at one time been a full-time staff member but was now employed solely to produce the Any Questions column, to which readers would write to inquire about what equipment was favoured by the stars. He was on the phone and I sat and listened to his end of the conversation.
        “Tell me Eric old boy [Hayes always, but always, called everybody ‘old boy’], there’s a reader from Leicester here... writes in and wants to know what sort of guitar you use these days?” 
        I was not so much bemused by the fact that Chris Hayes was evidently talking to Eric Clapton (at 10.30 in the morning!), as much as the casual manner in which he addressed him.
        “Fender Stratocaster, old boy? How do you spell that? S... T... R... A ...T... O... C... A... S... T... E... R. Thanks. And what sort of amp do you use these days?”
“Marshall? Does that have two Ls?”
        Another call. “Pete, old boy, there’s a reader from Brighton wants to know what sort of wah-wah you use.” (This to Pete Townshend.)
“What, you don’t use a wah-wah?”
“But how do you spell wah-wah anyway? W… A… H W… A… H. Sounds bloody silly to me old boy. Best of luck with that Tommy business.”
And so it went on, with Chris Hayes talking on the phone to the great and not so great. He became quite exasperated when a PR person refused to immediately connect him with the rock star to whom he wished to speak – “Well, can’t you wake him up?” – though the depth of his telephone book largely precluded the need for PRs anyway. Occasionally his conversations would stray off the point and I came to realise that he was a chronic hypochondriac, and that an innocent ‘How are you?’ could bring forth from Chris a detailed account of all illnesses, aches and pains and minor accidents he’d suffered during the previous 12 months or, if you were really unlucky, a deeply pessimistic forecast of his health prospects for the foreseeable future. For me this was even more surreal than the previous day. For almost two hours the office was occupied solely by he and I, and me with absolutely nothing whatsoever to do but listen to him on the phone and read back issues of the paper. 
Eventually Max Jones rolled up. “Couldn’t park my bloody car anywhere,” he muttered. “What are you doing here?”
“I started work here yesterday.”
“Well, no-one comes in on Tuesdays.”
I soon learned that Tuesday was press day. Editor Ray Coleman, chief sub-editor Allan Lewis, his assistant and Laurie Henshaw all spent Tuesdays in Colchester where MM was printed. The rest of the staff stayed at home ‘doing research’, which meant listening to records or reviewing them, or simply catching up on sleep. The staff actually reconvened on Wednesdays at noon when we gathered for the weekly editorial conference, chaired by Ray. For an hour those present, which included the magazine’s chief photographer, the denim-clad, rake-thin and rather impish Barrie Wentzell, discussed what to include in the following week’s issue. Welch, as ever, was assigned the singles reviews, someone was delegated to do ‘Blind Date’ during which a musician was played singles ‘blind’ and had to guess who’d recorded it and comment, concert tickets were dispensed and potential interviews discussed. The meeting concluded, we dispersed to the nearest pub, the Red Lion in Red Lion Alley, which was run by a huge gay man called Wally who was always dressed in a black Russian tunic, and where lunches were long and liquid, unless they were taken upstairs in a small Chinese restaurant. My new acquaintance Barrie invariably ordered a ’glass of dry white wine and a small piece of cheese’.

When I arrived Melody Maker was in a state of flux. The previous editor, Jack Hutton, had left to launch Sounds, a rival rock weekly, and taken with him a good proportion of the old MM staff. Ray Coleman had arrived from editing Disc & Music Echo and was busy recruiting new staff with backgrounds similar to his own, young journalists from provincial newspapers like myself. In the coming weeks many other newcomers would arrive, among them Michael Watts, Roy Hollingworth and Mark Plummer, and in the meantime I kept my head down, still a little unsure about having pitched myself into the heart of the rock industry.
At first I felt like a bit of a fraud at MM. After all, although my collection of about 50 albums was expanding rapidly by most standards – it would soon increase at a hitherto unimaginable rate as promo records rained down on me from every label under the sun, of course – my sum total of concert experiences wasn’t that great in my opinion, largely because until now I’d never lived in a big city where rock concerts took place regularly. It consisted of Cliff & The Shadows (Blackpool, 1959, as a 12-year-old!), The Beatles and various Merseyside groups who supported them on a package tour in 1963 (a life changing experience, that), a chance encounter with Rod Stewart in Steampacket at a pub in Ilkley, a few bands I’d seen at Bradford Tech and Leeds University (including Marmalade, The Move, Joe Cocker and The Hollies), various acts at last year’s Plumpton National Jazz & Blues Festival, and, of course, my favourites The Who on three occasions by now*; plus dozens of semi-pro bands, two of which included myself. But it didn’t seem to matter because the new intake of MM writers had similar backgrounds and experience to my own and before long we were all going along to rock shows together, learning from each other, simply revelling in the heaven-sent pleasure of it all.
The first concert I was sent to review for MM was an appearance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall by a somewhat mystical quartet called Third Ear Band, who were much respected in hippie circles for their uncompromising sound which was about as far removed from the rock music I liked as I now was from Slough Magistrates’ Court. With instrumentation comprising violin, cello, oboe and assorted hand-held percussion, they played hypnotic, mainly improvised music with a strong oriental flavour which to my ears sounded like an endless and somewhat tuneless drone, this largely because they seemed to have abandoned traditional western tunings. The effect might have been soothing were it not for the disturbing lack of pitch control – clearly an effect they sought and which impressed their many followers. Not wishing to appear naive, I gave them a positive appraisal on MM’s Caught In The Act page. But I never went to see them again.
The first album I was given to review was Soft Machine’s Third which presented similar problems as Soft Machine was an avant-garde ensemble of varying personnel whose free-form jazz improvisation and unusual song structures were so far removed from what constituted my record collection as to baffle me completely. I gave the album to a more enlightened friend who wrote his opinions down for me and which I subsequently reproduced virtually word for word in the following week’s Melody Maker. Richard Williams, in charge of doling out albums to review, never again gave me a Soft Machine album.
There can be no question that life on Melody Maker in the early Seventies was as good as it gets for a young journalist whose first love was rock music. The record industry was about to enter a boom period which was reflected in the largesse it doled out to us. There were endless supplies of free records and free concert tickets, access to the best nightclubs, the opportunity to forge friendships, or at last acquaintanceships, with the stars of the day (which offered ample opportunities for name-dropping), parties thrown by record companies with free booze by the bucketload, and plenty of beautiful, free-spirited girls who weren’t averse to stepping out on the arm of a Melody Maker writer even if they did see this as the next rung on the ladder to a night of passion with a rock god. It was a lifestyle far removed from the daily grind of everyday folk and in this respect it set the tone of my life for the next decade and some time beyond. The pay on MM wasn’t munificent but it would get better and the perks were endless and expenses not bad either. Soon I would travel abroad in pursuit of rock stars, eventually as far as California. Plane travel, posh hotel suites and backstage passes to concerts became commonplace. 
During the early months on Melody Maker everybody was finding their place and mine turned out to be News Editor. Ray Coleman evidently decided that of the new crop of MM writers he recruited in the summer of 1970, I was best suited to the more disciplined task of filling the first few pages with news stories than writing meandering features. This was probably a good call as I’d spent five years nosing out news stories in the real world, but I can still recall my delight when I was promoted after just three months, and for the next three years I held down the News Editor’s job. Thereafter I was destined to become MM’s longest serving American Editor, based first in Los Angeles and then, for almost four years, in New York, but that was way into an as yet unimagined future. 
This was an era in Melody Maker’s history when more emphasis was placed on news than at any other time. The reason for this was the intense competition between ourselves and New Musical Express and the newcomer Sounds, and the consequent need to attract readers with bold scoops. The front page of MM was always dominated by a brash, headline-grabbing news story, often relating to the demise of a group, hitherto unforeseen personnel changes or an impending tour by a big name act, either British or American.        
This was the immediate post-Beatles era, of course, and stories about the activities of the group, collectively or individually, always made front-page news. The most popular Beatles-related story was always a variation on the ‘Beatles To Reform?’ line, usually prompted by activity in a recording studio that involved a combination of two or more former Beatles working together, or a rash comment from one of them which hinted vaguely that a reunion could not entirely be ruled out. I was responsible for several ‘Beatles To Reform?’ stories, both before and after Paul McCartney wrote his famous letter to Mailbag, MM’s letters page, debunking the idea once and for all. 
I also prematurely split Led Zeppelin, ELP, Deep Purple and The Faces and implied that several big US stars, including Elvis, were on their way to Britain for shows that never happened. Indeed, barring ‘Beatles To Reform’, ‘Elvis To Visit Britain At Last?’ was the best of all news stories that never happened. In this regard, all a promoter needed to do was to tell us he’d sent off a telegram to Elvis’ manager Colonel Tom Parker offering him half a million quid for an Elvis tour and it was front-page news, regardless of the fact that Parker probably hadn’t even bothered to reply. Most of these speculative news stories resulted from intense pressure to come up with something dramatic when nothing dramatic was happening. Because of Melody Maker’s increasing status as the most widely read UK music magazine, those PRs who represented the top acts were anxious that their clients’ tours should be front-page news and would barter ‘exclusives’ with me. “If you can assure me of the front page, we won’t tell NME,” they would state. And of course I accepted the deal, even if sometimes their clients didn’t make the front page. 
Stories that generated ‘-mania’ were also popular with editor Ray Coleman. We’d watch the progress of singers and groups very carefully and if it seemed to us that a certain act was about to be promoted to Division One - the ‘toppermost of the poppermost’, as John Lennon famously described it – we’d splash them on the front page alongside a story that said very little other than that they were becoming very popular indeed. Thus did I invent ‘Freemania’ (when ‘All Right Now’ topped the charts) and ‘Purplemania’ (when a Glasgow concert by Deep Purple turned into a riot). My friend Michael Watts coined a neat variation in ‘T.Rextasy’. 
Another area made for headlines was the vexed question of bootlegging, then just coming into its own. By a curious coincidence it turned out that one of the biggest bootleg dealers in London ran a record shop in Chancery Lane, just around the corner from our offices. I became a regular customer and wrote about the availability of The Beatles Live At Shea Stadium, Got Live If You Want It by The Rolling Stones, Wooden Nickel, a live album by CSN&Y and H-Bomb, live Deep Purple. When I wrote a front page story about the imminent release of Live On Blueberry Hill, a Led Zeppelin live double recorded in California, the wrath of Zep’s brutal management descended on that little shop in Chancery Lane. Someone later told me an axe was involved. 

The biggest assignment I covered during my first summer on MM was the Bath Festival at Shepton Mallet over the weekend of June 27 & 28. Compared to the National Jazz & Blues Festival at Plumpton that I’d attended the previous year, this was just huge; perhaps as many as 150,000 people stretching away up a hill almost as far as the eye could see. The reason was that Led Zeppelin was appearing, taking pride of place on Sunday, the final day. I arrived on the Saturday afternoon, having driven down from London, typewriter in the boot of my car, all set to report this major event like the trusty reporter I’d trained to be. I parked my car backstage and wandered around, eight weeks into this job and feeling unusually privileged to be inside the inner sanctum at a major festival. The weather was fine, though it wouldn’t stay that way, and for longer than seemed necessary I was entertained by a chap with a guitar called Joe Jammer, evidently someone’s roadie, who was filling in while Frank Zappa readied himself to face the crowd. Frank came and went and was followed, curiously, by Maynard Ferguson, an ageing (by Bath standards) big band leader who’d taken a left turn into jazz rock to appeal to a younger audience. The highlight of the evening, though, was Pink Floyd, whom I was seeing for the first time, premiering their new work, Atom Heart Mother, the album with the cow on the front. I listened to them in wonderment and awe then retired for the night, driving to Bath and a nice warm bed in a B&B, unlike everyone else who slept beneath the stars.
The next day I drove back to the site around midday and was astonished by the scenes in the village of Shepton Mallet. There was a phone box with a queue that stretched for over 100 yards. I calculated that if there were three people in the queue for each two yards, there were 150 people waiting, and that if each call lasted ten minutes, the last person in the line would wait for 25 hours before making their call. There were similar queues for toilets and food on the site; indeed, the contrast between the conditions endured by the fans and those enjoyed by the artists and their guests brought a sharp intake of breath. Backstage huge tepees had been erected to serve as private quarters for artists while a marquee served as a dining room in which waitresses dressed in traditional black dresses with white aprons served three course meals and a selection of fine wines. 
In the adjoining bar I met Led Zeppelin for the first time, introduced by my new colleague Chris Welch. Jimmy Page was dressed as a yokel in an old coat and scarecrow’s hat, and John Paul Jones had arrived by helicopter. Robert Plant, affable as ever, autographed a pink backstage pass for me*, and later in the day I passed this memento on to a girl I knew who was in the crowd and whom I had arranged to meet later that night. I actually got DJ John Peel to make an announcement from the stage: “Would Lorraine meet Chris by the backstage gate in 15 minutes.” 
        It was my introduction to Led Zeppelin. They played just as the sun was setting behind the stage, and mighty impressive they were too, even though my view was restricted by being too close to the high stage and having to crane my neck to see what was going on up there. But I could certainly hear them. Good grief! They opened their set with the hitherto unreleased ‘Immigrant Song’ which they attacked with all the ferocity of the marauding Vikings Robert was singing about. Drums and bass reverberated like cannon fire, and Page’s guitar cut through the twilight like a broadsword. Every other band on the bill sounded decidedly limp dick compared to this onslaught. The reception was phenomenal, and they returned to the stage for multiple encores. It was a coming of age for them, their first really huge British show, a triumph, and there I was lapping it all up. Serious competition for my beloved Who, I remember thinking. 
        Aside from the mighty Zeppelin, Sunday’s stars were Donovan, Santana, Flock, Hot Tuna, Country Joe, Jefferson Airplane* (whose set was aborted amid pouring rain due to fear of electrocution), The Byrds, who played a truly delightful all-acoustic set and, closing the show, Dr. John. Sunday’s music at Bath that year started at midday and finished at about 6am on Monday morning. I saw it all and in the misty dawn light drove immediately back to London, parked my car behind Fleet Street, rode the elevator to the MM office and wrote my story. 
It wouldn’t be the last night without sleep that I willingly endured in seven years service on Melody Maker.











* The staff of Cycling Monthly once complained that we in the MM office made too much noise. Our Editor, Ray Coleman, informed them that we needed to listen to music for research, reviews and inspiration. He added: “We won’t complain if you lot cycle up and down the corridors testing new bikes!”

* I still think my fondness for The Who might have clinched my appointment to MM, as editor Coleman shared my high opinion of them which I expressed during my interview.

* I hadn’t been on MM long enough yet to realise it was dreadfully uncool for rock writers to ask for an autograph.  Now I wish I’d asked them all, all the hundreds I eventually met, for their autographs.

* I even interviewed Grace Slick, she of the Jefferson Airplane, when her group cut their set short and dashed from the stage in the pouring rain. I followed her into their tour bus and, much to her surprise, did a quick on-the-spot, off-the-cuff interview before the bus pulled away.

5 comments:

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  4. Thanks Chris.Great writing that transported me back to the heyday of Rock & Pop journalism.

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  5. Great piece, Chris ... just how I remember it. The Office Boy.

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