Over the past thirty-five years, in the financial wilderness between producing works of nonfiction, history and biography, writing about popular music has kept the wolf from the door, as far as I am concerned. However, I envy prolific successful writers who can write all day whilst listening to music. I owe much of my survival, as a writer, to music as subject matter, yet once the PC is fired up, silence has to reign supreme. Listening is one occupation; writing is another. When studying for both his BA and PhD, my son’s intense reading and writing was constantly accompanied by the steady throb of rock, soul, rhythm and blues, and the aggressive racket of rap and hip-hop. This had me scratching my head. How on earth could anyone writing a dissertation entitled ‘Tragedy in the Age of Shakespeare’ succeed whilst simultaneously being bombarded with Public Enemy, The Notorious B.I.G., 50 cent or Ice Cube?
There are successful writers such as Nick Hornby, Tony Parsons, Paul Morley, Julie Burchill and Stuart Maconie who honed their skills back in the heady days of British popular music at the New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Sounds and Record Mirror. The wonderful thing about the music press of the 1970s and 80s was that anyone who could write an informative and entertaining review of a gig or a new record release could find themselves in print. During that time, and under various soubriquets, I managed to pick up the occasional £15 fee for a 300-word contribution. I also managed a music shop and the extra money was welcome. Appearing in the music press gave me a lot of kudos with a new breed of customers: punk rockers.
My own words and music experience began in 1981 when I was commissioned to write a tour brochure for The Blues Band, whose line-up includes ex-Manfred Mann chart-toppers Paul Jones and Tom McGuinness. This eventually led in 1994 to my first published book, which was a biography of the band entitled Talk to Me Baby. I found that I had ‘a profile’ when various record companies asked if I was interested in writing CD box-set liner notes. Much of the CD work plunged me into a specialist area of US rhythm and blues history. You may well have heard of Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf, but when faced with obscure names like Todd Rhodes, Con-nee Allen, Nosey Joe, Big John Greer, Bull Moose Jackson or Fluffy Hunter, among many others, you know you’re in for some late nights and serious research.
Between 2003–2008 I supplied research and copious sleeve notes for twenty hefty R&B box sets on the Boulevard Vintage label with a total of over 1,000 often obscure or forgotten recordings made in the USA between 1942–1952. Burning the midnight oil whilst working to deadlines introduced me to dozens of lively ghosts of long forgotten stars such as Charles Gray & His Rhumboogie Five, Crown Prince Waterford, Nappy Brown, Mercy Dee, and the Delta Rhythm Boys. Some of these deceased acts might have made just one record for an obscure label before disappearing back into the wings of African-American history. Later, there were notes for other reissues of a British vintage — hardy perennial acts such as The Fall, The Alarm, Hawkwind, Man, and Stray. In those stories I was able to talk with surviving musicians and roadies.
The tour brochure market in the late 1970s always seemed like a rip-off to me. Fans will still today pay over £10 for a glossy 12-page souvenir which is padded out with photographs. After my experience with The Blues Band’s brochure I was determined to inject these publications with more literate content. Through contacts in the music industry I was introduced to Ed Bicknell, a British music manager and drummer. As he was manager at various times for Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler, Gerry Rafferty, Bryan Ferry, Scott Walker and The Blue Nile, I realised I was moving a rung up the ladder. Bicknell played drums with Mark Knopfler’s ‘other’ band, The Notting Hillbillies. I was privileged to be offered the job of writing their tour brochure.
Even though I had been a full-time writer since 1997, I was totally naïve about fees (beyond the agent-negotiated advances for my more orthodox books). Like many freelancers happy enough to be scraping a living, I charged whatever I thought I could get away with. This sporadic rock and roll material didn’t seem the kind of thing to be bothering the Society of Authors with, but the National Union of Journalists had a scale of suggested earnings, so I aimed at the NUJ rate per 1,000 words for public-relations copy. It paid the council tax more than once. Yet I had a bit of a shock after delivering the Notting Hillbillies brochure. My input was about 2,500 words for which I charged £400. I was paid promptly. When I went backstage after the Hillbillies’ gig at Derby Assembly Rooms, I was thanked for my efforts by Mark Knopfler. Then Ed Bicknell congratulated me, saying ‘Nice job on the brochure Roy, and may I say, at a very economical price…’. I had learned a sharp lesson; I was a cut-price scribe.
Since then I’ve written brochures for three tours by The Four Tops and The Temptations, two for B. B. King, for Dr. Hook, Willie Nelson, Neil Sedaka, Leo Sayer, Spandau Ballet, David Essex, Andy Williams, Tony Christie and just about every geriatric 1960s act still able to tread the boards from Gerry and the Pacemakers and The Searchers through to Herman’s Hermits, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders and P. J. Proby. You don’t necessarily have to be a fan of some of these acts, but sometimes there are rewards beyond the fee or the free concert tickets. In 2007 I was commissioned to write a big brochure for one of my idols, the great Smokey Robinson. I was thrilled when Smokey appeared at the Royal Centre in Nottingham and the promoter asked me to go up to the great man’s dressing room before the show, as Smokey wanted to say something about the brochure. Being in the presence of the velvet-voiced Detroit legend and composer of classic songs such as ‘My Girl’, ‘The Tears of a Clown’, ‘The Tracks of My Tears’, ‘Being with You’ and ‘You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me’ was the pinnacle of my intermittent ‘words and music’ career. Smokey gave me a poster which is now framed in our hallway, upon which he wrote ‘To Roy — God Bless You… the text is great…’.
Once I’d passed the age of seventy-five, I noticed that many of the acts I had written about two or three decades ago were retired or dead. Every month another musical legend seems to shuffle off. David Bowie, Dr. John, Leonard Cohen, Status Quo’s Rick Parfitt… Consequently, my brochure-writing days are drawing to a close. Today’s chart music has little appeal to me. However, there is one occupation where I can simultaneously listen to music and write about it. I’ve been a reviewer of CDs for Blues Matters magazine for the past twenty years, and every month they send me a parcel of new releases. Yet there is one final brochure just completed: The Sixties Gold farewell tour. Would you believe that Herman’s Hermits, The Merseybeats and Wayne Fontana are still on the road wringing out the last drops of fading fame? And taking me back to to my beginnings as a music writer, The Blues Band are currently on their fortieth anniversary tour after releasing over twenty albums. Paul Jones and Tom McGuinness are both seventy-eight, but it was the band’s seventy-two year-old drummer, Rob Townsend, who summed up the attraction of music. I asked him when the band might retire. He just laughed: ‘Retire? We’ll just bop till we drop…’. ‘Bop till we drop…’ — sounds like a good title for a book.
You might also like:
Caitlin Davies and her father Hunter Davies let us eavesdrop on a conversation about their respective writing careers, being compulsive writers in a family of writers and generational changes in the publishing industry.