Only once in my career on Melody Maker between 1970 and 1977 was I offered a direct inducement to give a band a good review, of which more tomorrow for reasons that will become clear after a certain news story breaks today. Nevertheless, bribes were often indirect, taking the form of travel and hospitality doled out in such largesse that it seemed churlish on the part of the writer not to acknowledge gratitude in the form of favourable coverage. It’s a dilemma MM’s staff faced time and again.
Before I went to live there as MM’s US editor, I was flown across the Atlantic three times at the expense of record labels: by RCA to celebrate their signing The Kinks in November 1971; by EMI (first class) to see Deep Purple in the Midwest in 1972; and by Warner Bros to do a story on Badfinger who were playing New York’s Carnegie Hall. At this time it was a big deal to fly to America, expensive too (relative to today), and in all three cases I was wined and dined sumptuously, accommodated in fancy hotels and generally catered to in a manner far more lavish than I would choose if I was paying my own way. Indeed, the first time I ever visited New York, on the Kinks trip, I was housed in the Plaza Hotel, one of the swankiest, most famous hotels in the world, where The Beatles stayed when they first visited the US in 1964. So to have returned to London and written anything derogatory about The Kinks, or Purple or Badfinger for that matter, would have seemed like gross ingratitude, though as it happened I liked these three bands anyway and would probably have flattered them even if I’d gone no further than Watford.
Then there were the carefully worded suggestions that it might be in my best interests to adopt a positive line. Take my trip to California to see Bad Company at San Francisco’s Winterland, for instance. This occurred in 1974, not long after the group was formed and signed to their US record label, Swan Song, owned by Led Zeppelin, whose formidable manager, Peter Grant, effectively my host on this trip, also managed Bad Co. I flew from New York first class and was lodged at the altogether splendid Japanese-styled Myako Hotel, from which I was ferried to the concert in a Cadillac stretch limousine. Being as how the lads in Bad Company had already achieved a degree of renown elsewhere before they formed the band, which no doubt helped their debut album to top the Billboard charts, the concert was a sell-out and was wildly successful, all of which I duly noted. The next night was the same and after the show the band and entourage, including yours truly, decamped immediately for Los Angeles, flying down in a private jet. At some stage during this journey I was summoned to the rear of the plane, where Grant was holding court in a small private room.
Actually, I was sitting minding my own business when a roadie came down the aisle and whispered in my ear, “Peter wants to see you”. It was a bit like being summoned to see the headmaster. I made my way to the partitioned-off private area at the rear of the plane where he was sat with some of the band. There was a huge pile of cocaine on the table in front of him and Peter indicated that I was welcome to partake. I partook.
“Did you enjoy the show Chris?” he asked, quite pleasantly, all smiles.
“Er… yes Peter.”
“Well, mind you say so in that paper of yours. You can go now.”
Clearly it would have been inadvisable to launch into an objective discussion on the merits or shortcomings of Bad Company with Generalissimo Grant, or for me to go back to my typewriter and pen a bad review. In reality I was of the opinion that for all Bad Company’s success and professionalism the truth was that that I preferred Paul Rodger’s previous band, Free, and that although Bad Co played their socks off they lacked the inspiration and imagination of this group. I hadn’t so much been bribed as mildly threatened.
My MM colleague Chris Welch, in a piece intriguingly titled ‘Six Wine Glasses and a Pop-up Toaster’, once described how he was a guest in Germany of Jon Hiseman’s jazz-rock outfit Coliseum, a band about whom he’d already written flattering reviews, so much so that he’d been gifted said wine glasses and toaster the previous Christmas. Alas, it seems that in Germany Coliseum failed to come up to Chris’s expectations and, being of stout pen, he said so. The fall-out was sharp: what about the wine glasses and toaster, they asked. I didn’t ask for them, he replied.
Another colleague, Michael Watts, also found himself in a dilemma when 10cc invited him to Japan, of all places, clearly an expensive jaunt which, in their opinion, merited fulsome coverage of a praiseworthy nature. When Watts took it on himself to write a lengthy piece about the state of pop and rock in Japan which happened to mention 10cc in passing, he was all but threatened with broken legs.
Indirect bribery didn’t necessarily need to take the form of expensive air travel to exotic locations. The publicist buying round after round in the pub might feel that this gesture warranted a favour in kind, and the only favour they’d be interested in would be to mention his client in the paper. Lunch? Certainly, and here’s a copy of my client’s new album to review. I recommend the Chablis with the lobster.
The motor-mouth PR Tony Brainsby, who died in 1999, was adept at subtly inveigling his journalist prey into providing coverage for his lesser known clients by offering hospitality which was designed to render them incapable of demurring. This often took the form of inviting the journalist to a ‘party’ at his or a friend’s home during which copious amounts of drink and other substances would be consumed, often in the company of attractive girls who seemed sufficiently friendly to assume that a close personal encounter might be on the cards. When the party was in full swing Tony would bid everyone to hush and introduce his latest singer songwriting protégé who would step forward with his guitar and perform an original composition or two to wild applause.
It may have been scripted but at the end of the performance one of Brainsby’s girls would approach the journalist, position herself unusually close and squeeze his hand. “Isn’t he fabulous?” she would purr seductively.
“Er, yes, great,” you would say.
This was the cue for Tony, who had placed himself within earshot, to step up and complete the coup de grace.
“You’re absolutely right. He is great,” he would say to the ambushed journalist whose head was already spinning. “He’s definitely going to be huge one day.”
The trap was set. “Let me introduce you.” Whereupon Tony B would bring the minstrel forward for handshaking. “Well, what about an interview?” he’d say. “In fact, why don’t we do it now?”