With three months of 1978, the year in which UK singles sales hit an all-time peak, still to go, perhaps the regular writer was already burned out, although that wouldn’t explain why Melody Maker editor Richard Williams thumbed through sufficient pages of his address book to reach Pidgeon, John, before he found a reviewer for the week’s new releases.
Before then I had had just one piece published in the paper, a profile of Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, whom I’d interviewed at the end of the Stones’ recent US tour. I’d tagged along on the closing California leg, so I could see my pal Ian McLagan, whose keyboard hook had helped make ‘Miss You’ the band’s biggest hit since ‘Brown Sugar’, on stage with the group I’d first come across, as had he, in 1963. The article had been my means of covering the cost of the trip, although waiting for Watts and Wyman to be simultaneously ready to talk had spun out my stay on the sofa of Mac’s suite at the Sunset Marquis into a debilitating version of Almost Famous.
Flattered as I was by Richard’s invitation, I said yes with a flutter of nerves. I wasn’t the speediest writer, coherent thoughts didn’t fly fully-formed from my head to the page, and there could be no prevarication. I would be shut in a room with a stack of new releases, a record player and a typewriter. It would be like sitting an exam. At a given moment my time would be up and what I’d written would be taken from me and judged. To offset the possibility of writer’s block – and to excuse myself from wasting precious time reading any of the press releases that were stuffed inside the sleeves, fodder for lazy hacks – I devised a strategy. I wrote this:
When I started listening to singles, I wore short trousers and our old wireless had valves and a dial marked with strange names like Droitwich and Hilversum that still glow as luminously in my memory as they did then in the dark.
I’d scout the airwaves for rock’n’roll, twitching the knob as sweetly as a safe-cracker, and pick up snatches here and there amongst the static. As often as not, I wouldn’t catch the title or the singer, no matter how tightly I jammed my ear against the grill. But somehow I discovered Little Richard that way, Buddy Holly, Dion and the Belmonts, and Ray Charles.
Later, rattling with doobs down the Flamingo and the Scene, I dug bluebeat and the beginnings of soul, hung on to half a name or a shred of a chorus and spent the next week searching shops and stalls for something that sounded halfway similar. Some I found are still hits on my jukebox.
The point is when I heard all those things I didn’t know what the hell they were. I had no prior knowledge, no preconceptions. They just jumped out at me, grabbed my ears and bored in to my brain.
I went on listening to records and the radio, but something changed. There were no surprises any more. That’s not nostalgic noodling, it’s the truth. Here’s why. Airwaves got busier, reception got cleaner; disc jockeys started talking too much; I began looking at ads and reading reviews, buying the albums the singles came from. Or they were the same old singers pushing the same old songs, and I’d heard them all before, even when I hadn’t. It all became as predictable as a Monday morning hangover. And about as much fun.
Recently, though, some of the excitement has come back to singles. Even Top Of The Pops is watchable most weeks. And occasionally the buzz still bites. A few months ago I was out in the sticks in the car, one of those places where Radio 1 fades in and out – on my radio anyway. From the time of day I knew Anne Nightingale was on, but I couldn’t make out a word she said.
Suddenly I had to stop the car, just pull over and listen. It didn’t help the sound much, but I could hear enough to tingle. A couple of days later I found out what it was and went straight out and bought it. It was the Police’s ‘Roxanne’, and it still makes me tingle. I had no idea who they were, and I still don’t really, but I don’t care. ‘Roxanne’ is simply a great single.
I would review each record blind, as if it were coming at me unannounced across the airwaves. This was more than a thesis. With almost 500 words already written, it was insurance against the most uninspiring batch of records. The flaw in my blindfold test revealed itself almost as soon as the door closed to my Portakabin at Melody Maker’s temporary Waterloo premises, because I recognised the singer of the first record. And the second.
Indeed most of the artists were familiar to me. What’s more I disliked a lot of what I heard: Slade, despite the syn-drums on ‘Rock’n’Roll Bolero’, sounded “old and irrelevant”, while the “piece of flotsam” that was the Moody Blues’ ‘Driftwood’ was “as tasteful as a Tretchikof”. I was unmoved by Black Sabbath, Boston, David Essex, Hall & Oates, Elton John, the Kinks, Leon Russell, Peter Skellern, Bruce Springsteen, Al Stewart, Uriah Heep. The only records I would willingly have accorded a second spin on the turntable were Sham 69’s boisterous ‘Hurry Up Harry’ and ‘Public Image’, the unexpectedly exciting debut by John Lydon’s PiL.
The edition of Melody Maker that featured my singles column came out on October 12th. That preamble was printed at the top of the page under a photograph of its writer, snapped outside the review room. I’d turned up for work, not a photoshoot, and was unprepared. Even cropped to hide a dilapidated jean jacket and worn-out T-shirt, the mug shot showed a bleary scruff with a bush of unkempt hair and several days’ stubble. Before that Thursday’s end, however, I’d had a phone call from the Police’s press officer at A&M Records asking would I be free to fly to Washington in November and spend a week on the road with the band? Let me check my… You bet!
I had already seen the band, at the Nashville Room in West Kensington, one of the scant ten gigs they had played in the previous six months. I’d been accompanied by Ian McLagan, who’d been every bit as excited as I had on hearing ‘Roxanne’, and lugubrious, lovable Kevin Coyne, whose guitarist Andy Summers had been not so long before. While Kevin chuckled into his pints at Summers’ age-defying reinvention as a bottle-blond punk, Mac and I scoured the sparse crowd for someone who might be Sting, our only sight of the singer having been a Xeroxed image on the sleeve of ‘Roxanne’. It was the parachute suit and peroxide crop that persuaded us we’d found him, but, to be certain, Mac asked, “You’re Sting, aren’t you?” To which Sting responded, “Yes, but you’re Ian McLagan.”
I checked with Richard Williams, who commissioned a gratifyingly hefty 3000 words, and, when I delivered my copy, I banged on and on about how big the trio were going to be, leaving his office convinced that I would be reading my article on MM’s front cover, so when I bought the paper, I was mortified to spot psychobilly paradigms the Cramps eying me from the newsagent’s counter, and my fingertips were black with ink by the time I found my Police piece.
Was the Police’s manager Miles Copeland rather more taken than I was by the look of Lux Interior and Poison Ivy louring from that front cover? Certainly he signed them to his IRS record label and put them out on tour as support for his golden boys. Me, I continued to write occasional articles for MM, though never again the singles column, and whenever I ran into Richard Williams I reminded him unfailingly of the editorial injustice he had done me.