Wee Clerkie and a vanished world
It was a different world back in the 1970s. Especially on the music mags. The tabloids hadn’t yet cottoned on to the fact that people who listened to the radio, watched Top Of The Pops and bought records were also keen to read all about them and rock fell far below the radar of the posh broadsheets.
So, for a while there, the music papers had a free hand and boy, did they use it! I was on Melody Maker at the time and it was like bandit country. We did exactly what we wanted and we wanted plenty. Full-scale football and cricket matches were held in the office between heavy bouts of drinking and worse, while record companies wined and dined us and flew us all over the world to write about their acts. They were appalling, glorious, hedonistic, maverick times and I loved every minute of it. The Maker’s owners IPC left us alone to create our own merry hell and turned a blind eye to our indiscretions because we made them a fortune. And that freedom and anarchy was the fertile launching ground for some brilliant writers.
Clerk was at the heat of the action during the freewheeling days of the old music press
It was also unremittingly macho. There were no female writers on the staff at that time. Never had been. Never looked like there would be. And then came Carol Clerk…
Tiny, red-haired and feisty, Carol – ‘Wee Clerkie’ as she was quickly known – had fled to London from Belfast, furious about The Troubles. Not because she cared a jot about sectarian politics but because bands were frightened to play in Belfast as a result. Music was her driving passion. It was in her soul and she came to London to be close to its heartbeat. And to get a job on Melody Maker.
She joined the staff in 1980, smoking like a chimney and immediately filling the air with a pungent barrage of F and C-words, usually followed by peels of raucous, throaty laughter before dragging us off to the pub where she proceeded to drink us all under the table. Every night. She walked with a heavy limp – sometimes using a stick – resulting from a hip defect at birth, but it was never an issue and few ever thought to ask her why. Equally, it never occurred to her that she was a trailblazing pioneer breaking barriers for women in a man’s world. It never occurred to the rest of us either. She was just Carol. And she was unique.
Yet she was also wonderfully kind, drawn to outsiders, misfits and underdogs. She took cowering young freelances under her wing and championed the punk, glam rock and heavy metal bands deemed outdated and uncool by the rest of the staff. Through the 1980s she held court on a nightly basis in the Maker’s unofficial office – the Oporto pub – on what became dubbed as the rock’n’roll table. Carol would sit in the middle regaling stories of her adventures surrounded by various Hanoi Rocks, Damned and Exploited band members while Len the landlord warmly welcomed the colourful parade of clothes, hair, make-up and androgynous beings coming into his bar.
On one occasion she even persuaded the venerable Rolf Harris to join her at the rock’n’roll table, where he spent an enjoyable evening doodling pictures of Carol and her chums. One time she was serenaded by Little Richard, built up close friendships with a bizarre range of people from Yoko Ono to Jon Bon Jovi’s mum, won an award as journalist of the year for her coverage of Live Aid, was treated like a queen by the gangster fraternity after ghost-writing Reggie Kray’s autobiography and on one famous occasion was told never to set foot in Israel again after an almighty bender on the road with Hanoi Rocks. She was news editor on the Maker until its final, sad demise in 2000, going on to write characteristically colourful pieces for Uncut and Classic Rock magazines, in addition to superb biographies of Hawkwind and The Pogues.
Clerk represented a golden age of rock journalism before the suits came in and spoiled the party
She hated that the music business had become….well, a BUSINESS. She despised the corporate mentality and the modern control exerted by record companies deliberately driving a wedge between journalist and artist to use the press purely as a marketing tool. And, while I never heard her say it, I’m sure she detested the anodyne music writing and the suffocatingly sensible characters and their bland reviews and features that have resulted. And she remained true to herself, vehemently anti-drugs but drinking Fosters like it was going out of fashion.
Last Saturday while dozing off watching a particularly grim Conference South football encounter between Woking and Staines Town, I received a text message from a friend. It said simply “Carol Clerk has died.”
I still can’t quite believe it. She’d been suffering from breast cancer for a year but, typically defiant, she didn’t mention to anybody beyond her close circle of family and friends. She was a mighty writer and an incorrigible, outrageous, warm, funny, wonderful, unique character.
I’ll see you in the bar up there a bit later, Wee Clerkie…