Chris Welch Interview
Chris Welch is probably one of Britain’s foremost music journalists having worked on three of the country’s best-selling rock magazines: Melody Maker, Metal Hammer and Kerrang!. He is also an author of acclaimed biographies of Tina Turner, John Bonham, Peter Grant, Genesis, Pink Floyd and Yes.
Can you give me a brief history of your writing career?
My music journalism began when I joined Melody Maker as a 22 year old reporter in October 1964. The first band I interviewed was The Yardbirds with Eric Clapton, then a smart 18 year old Mod. The Melody Maker was the world’s first weekly music newspaper that began life in 1926, way before NME. The office was in Fleet Street and in those days we were equipped with big black Bakelite phones, reporters’ notebooks and battered pre-war desks. No computers, fax machines, mobiles or e- mail.
Twice a day, Daisy the MM Tea Lady came round with her trolley laden with corned beef rolls. Daisy had some interesting customers, including Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Roy Orbison, Ornette Coleman and The Walker Brothers. However, Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan never got to meet Daisy as the security man refused to allow them into the building when they arrived at the back door. However, I got to interview Burt Bacharach, The Shangri-Las and Nancy Sinatra in her underwear during those first hectic days and months…I thought I’d last a week but stayed for 16 years!
Before Melody Maker and after leaving school at 16, I was a Fleet Street messenger on a national daily. Amidst the thriving atmosphere of ‘The Street’ I visited every newspaper office from The Times to the Daily Mirror, delivering pictures and syndicated copy. I even got to review films, plays and concerts. Who would know those unsigned put downs were by the office tea boy?
In 1960 I started work as a reporter with The Kentish Times, a weekly series staffed by bright teenaged girls who heavily outnumbered the less bright boys. However, us lads were given small motorbikes, expenses and went to the pictures free every night. We did some work. I first reviewed the Rolling Stones, a local Dartford band for the KT.
Can you tell me about your years working at Melody Maker?
After three years of local news reporting I joined Melody Maker. My first day at the MM was ‘News Day’ when you had to chase John Lennon for a Beatles story or find Mick Jagger to confirm a front page quote such as ‘The Beat Boom Is Bust’ - already set up in type. It was so nerve wracking I was physically sick after my first day. But that might have been the 20 Senior Service and five pints of bitter with the sub editor.
By the evening, everyone was off to the pub, The Red Lion, which became the ‘second office’. Sawdust on the floor and Jim the cheery Irish bar man created a great atmosphere and warm welcome for David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Viv Stanshall, Arthur Brown, Desmond Dekker, Cat Stevens…just some of Jim’s regulars.
The Melody Maker grew bigger, expanded into the US and had its own New York office during the 1970s. Sales reached 300,000 a week as we wrote about a conveyor belt of musical trends, starting with Merseybeat, R&B, pop and soul in the Sixties and going onto heavy rock, jazz fusion, psychedelia, prog rock, Glam Rock, reggae, punk and heavy metal. Just time for a swift Scotch and coke before the next wave struck.
Among the artists and bands in action during this period from 1964 to 1980 were The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks, Small Faces, Bee Gees, Pink Floyd, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Genesis, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Steely Dan. I had the pleasure of meeting Keith Moon, Pete Townshend, P.J.Proby, Scott Walker, Lulu, Chuck Berry, Diana Ross, Dusty Springfield, Sandie Shaw, Engelbert Humperdinck, Tom Jones, Cat Stevens, Lionel Bart, Stevie Wonder, Steve Marriott, Peter Frampton, Nancy Sinatra, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Phil Collins, Frank Zappa…and…well lots more.
You’ve worked on some of the best UK music magazines (inc. Melody Maker, Metal Hammer and Kerrang!) which one are you fonder of?
Having worked for Melody Maker, Metal Hammer, Kerrang! I would say they were all exciting places in which to lose your sanity. Kerrang! was the loudest and Metal Hammer the maddest. I’m most fond of the MM because that’s where it all started. It was like a family, literally as I married Marilyne the editor’s secretary.
You’ve written a lot on Led Zeppelin: did you go to the reunion gig at the O2 Centre?
Sadly I missed the O2 reunion although Maggie Bell tells me Jimmy Page thought I was there. Unfortunately my old Atlantic Records friend Phil Carson omitted to invite me. Still I did see Led Zeppelin at their first gigs, including that night at the Marquee when they drew about 150 people, so I can’t complain. ‘This band will go far’ I said. I was right. Soon Zeppelin were playing at Cooks Ferry Inn on the North Circular and you couldn’t get much further in 1968.
Of all the concerts you have been to from any band; which one do you remember best?
Must have been to thousands of gigs and festivals over forty years but the one I remember with most excitement was Led Zeppelin at Carnegie Hall in 1969 when I stood in the wings, next to Screaming Lord Sutch. Zep was fantastic, even better at Earls Court 1975. I also remember hearing them play ‘Stairway To Heaven’ for the first time in Belfast in 1970.
Other great gigs were Genesis at the Rainbow in 1973, the 1970 Isle Of Wight Festival and The Who performing Tommy at the Coliseum, London. Oh, and Jimi Hendrix, the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band with Cream, all at the Saville Theatre, London. Don’t remember much about The Doors at the Roundhouse, as I was completely off my head that night. I do remember seeing THREE Jim Morrisons on stage.
Do you write in a full time capacity?
Although I don’t have to commute to town anymore (no more road rage) I still write full time, five days a week from my home office. I work mainly for Repertoire Records but have also worked for Impact Films in recent years on biographical DVDs including documentaries on Yes, Cream and the Moody Blues, doing interviews and writing scripts. I also write articles for specialist music magazines (Rhythm, Guitarist) and obituaries for The Independent. It’s much quieter of course working at home, without fellow rock writers throwing punches and being sick.
Who have you enjoyed interviewing the most in your career?
I always loved interviewing Marc Bolan as he was funny, showy, self deprecating, imaginative, charming and sincere, while being ambitious and tenacious. We used to make up names for fictitious pop stars – mine was ‘Jiving K.Boots’ and his was ‘Zinc Alloy.’ Once at Marc’s Notting Hill flat I played bongos as he sang strummed and acoustic guitar. For half an hour we were in Tyrannosaurus Rex heaven. When T.Rex went electric he and Mickey Finn came up to my office and sang all their new songs while sitting on my desk. (The staff of Cycling magazine next door issued a formal protest – by banging on the glass wall).
I also enjoyed interviewing those American refugees in London Scott Walker and P.J. Proby. Paul & Linda McCartney were sweet, Mick Jagger, Dave Gilmour, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins and Jimmy Page were charismatic and ‘genius’ – especially when they were young, hungry and broke. Rich and famous = dull. Struggling and unknown = exciting.
Who has given you the least enjoyable interviewing experience?
I liked Roger Waters of Pink Floyd who was charming, intelligent and self deprecating (like Marc) when he was a young Pink Floydian, but Rog became embittered and aggressive with age. No idea why. Earning lots of money can’t be that much of a burden. Van Morrison was sullen and taciturn with Them but surprisingly, much more cheerful when I saw him years later. When I have to endure a difficult interview I tend to throw away the tape or lose the note book.
When I last interviewed Alice Cooper he stabbed me with his flick knife – but that was an accident.
What are your favourite rock biographies?
My favourite rock biography is The Mighty Shadow about Graham Bond by Harry Shapiro.
What do you think of the current state of rock journalism in the UK?
Rock journalism has become less combative and destructive and more entertaining and supportive, at least if my reading of the current NME is correct. I bought a copy to read about the new Mighty Boosh Band and the piece was very well written, full of drama and incident. Discovering new talent and supporting it should be every rock writers’ raison d’être. Oh, and having fun. British pop journalism was at its nadir when it was promoting German synthesiser music at the expense of Bad Company. Mind you, I quite liked Kraftwerk…
Given the fact that you have worked in the business for so long; how big is your record collection and where do you keep it all?
I do have a large collection of LPs, probably several thousand. I did try counting them once but gave up. They move house and follow me around. At present they reside in four bedroom wardrobes, and a wall length row of bookcases. They include mainly review copies of UK and US rock, heavy metal, jazz and pop albums from the 1960s up until the death of vinyl in 1990. I did have ‘Beggars Banquet’ signed by Brian Jones, which got pinched, along with my early Tyrannosaurus Rex LPs and a rare Blind Faith. I still prefer LPs to CDs and I gave away an Apple IPod - too fiddly. In fact, I think the music business died with the demise of the LP. The LP sleeve was its own artistic statement and presented the music to the world. ‘Listen to me!’ Now it’s all lost in cyberspace.
In terms of books, how easy/difficult is it to get your ideas commissioned?
Strangely enough I hardly ever have to get a book commissioned. The publishers usually come to me and request a book on a given subject. Whenever I suggest something - like A Complete History Of Ukranian Skiffle, I tend to get turned down.
You’ve written a couple of books on Tina Turner; what do you make of your returning to the stage at 68?
I wrote just the one book on Tina Turner, which was later updated and republished by Virgin. Tina was at her best in the 1980s so it would be difficult to recapture the spirit of those days now, but you can’t stop a performer doing what they love best. Ask Mick Jagger. In 1965 he said ‘I can’t see myself still doing this at 30…’ (To be aged thirty in the 1960s was like reaching dotage).
Which book has been the hardest to write?
The hardest book to write for me is... when the artist won’t co-operate, usually because somebody else has got there first! I couldn’t get Adam Ant’s management interested in a book project but I wrote his biog anyway and Adam said later he preferred it to the official version.
Since 1999 you’ve had a book out nearly every year (in 2002 and 2003 you had two books published); do you find writing tiring?
Writing is physically tiring and mentally draining, although if the raw interview material is stimulating and throws new light on a subject, then it can be a satisfying process. In MM days I couldn’t write a word without lighting a Benson & Hedges. Now I just nibble lots of fruit. But spending hours staring at a computer screen and typing on a flimsy keyboard is wearing. My shoulders and hands begin to ache and I get headaches. The only cure is to go downstairs and beat hell out of my drum kit for half an hour. (At the MM writers would get so frustrated or enraged they would throw heavy Adler typewriters down stairs or even through the windows).
What are your future projects?
My future project should be writing my own biography about life as a rock journalist for 40 years, but as a publisher once told me ‘Nobody is interested in pop music anymore.’ His company went bankrupt shortly afterwards.
Interview by Neil Daniels 2008.