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I arrive in London in the summer of 1968. I’ve left Manchester after four years at the University doing a drama degree. I went there from Hull where I was brought up. When I was sixteen I read Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’ and from then on I knew the freedom and excitement I wanted in my life. Reading that book was as explosive and disturbing to me as first hearing Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’ which scared me to begin with, then drove me into an obsession with rock n’roll. For my sixteenth birthday my Dad bought me a Dansette record player from a bike shop on Newland Avenue. It became the centrepiece of my life and I spent every minute I could playing my 45’s, often the same song fifty or sixty times consecutively. Going to Manchester University was the first step towards the life I dreamed about.
At Manchester University Chris Wright was the Social Secretary responsible for booking the bands for the Students Union dances. We got to know each other because we shared an obsession with the music scene and went to a lot of gigs together. We ended up living in the same house in Brooks Bar and since Chris had a car we were able to do the rounds of all the clubs in the city, cabarets like the Princess Club and the Domino Club that featured singers, comedians and strippers, night clubs like Mr Smiths with crooners and gambling but best of all the blues and soul clubs like The Cavern, Heaven and Hell and the Twisted Wheel with their legendary ‘all nighters’. This became our regular pattern for a couple of years.
I got a taste for life in the clubs and it seemed to have a lot going for it, not least solving the problem of my not being able to get up in the morning. I learned from Chris how the band booking process worked and I was able to book the artists for the Students Union when he left. I also worked with some of the local promoters like the Abadi Brothers at The Twisted Wheel and Peter Stringfellow at The Mojo in Sheffield on ‘doubles’. These are bookings where artists play an early show at my venue and a late set in their club. They, of course, pay less.
The experiences I had at university and the people I met there encouraged me to believe the life I want is possible, but my time at university is finished and I feel detached from the city I’d enjoyed so much. I need to move on.
I read the underground newspaper the International Times regularly so I know London is where all the exciting things are happening and that’s where I need to be. I don’t have any money so my situation is precarious. My efforts to claim benefits in Manchester failed at the form filling stage and I don’t expect to do any better in London. Apart from auditioning unsuccessfully as an actor at the Bromley repertory theatre, the only theatre to reply to my letters, I have no other job ideas. In any case my clothes, long hair and inability to get up in the morning don’t help my chances of getting work.
My parents can be relied on to send me some money, but they’re hard up so they can’t really afford it and anyway I feel bad taking it from them. Things change when I meet up with my old university friend Chris Wright at a free concert in Hyde Park where the band he manages, Ten Years After, are playing. Chris and I haven't seen much of each other since he moved south to London. He started the Ellis Wright booking agency in partnership with Terry Ellis, another ex-university student who, like Chris, has also gone on to be an agent and the manager of a band, in his case Jethro Tull. Their agency is going great, representing a lot of artists and dealing with most of the universities in the country.
I say yes without thinking too much about it. I’m curious and glad to earn some cash so I arrange to turn up at their office in Regent Street on Monday morning.
Blackhill Enterprises, a company led by Peter Jenner and Andrew King, have just this summer started putting on free concerts in Hyde Park. They are quite small affairs, tucked away on a side of the park where they feel like private events. Chris and I meet on a lovely late August afternoon, perfect for an open air gig. There are no tickets, no posters, no billboards, no bars, no catering, no VIP area, no fences or barriers, no police or security of any kind and of course the artists are playing for free. You just amble up and find yourself a space.
The atmosphere is great, full of excited anticipation and everyone feels part of something special. The bands know it and respond by producing their best and most adventurous shows. Ten Years After have another gig to get to so they open, playing a thirty minute instrumental based around 'Woodchoppers Ball' from their just released "Undead" album. They are followed by Fleetwood Mac, Fairport Convention, The Deviants and The Family amongst others. I overhear someone say "I'm so glad things like this can happen”. Things like this do happen, it’s the second summer of love after all.
Chris is pretty much the same since I last saw him although his rather thin hair is a lot longer and he's grown a beard. He surprises me by offering me a job doing college bookings for their agency. Apparently Terry has already hired somebody called Nelson Bathurst from Birmingham University, but Chris isn't happy about him, so he thought he would hire his own candidate. I say yes without thinking too much about it. I’m curious and glad to earn some cash so I arrange to turn up at their office in Regent Street on Monday morning.
I am staying with my new girlfriend Kate and with her help I get up early that Monday morning. I have never had an office job and I find to my surprise I’m nervous. Also I’m not sure about what to wear. To be on the safe side I wear a plain shirt and Kate has lent me one of her father’s ties, in beautiful silvery white with pink roses. I wear my mac, despite it being August, to look more businesslike. Kate lives at her parent’s home which is the vicarage at St Martin's in the Fields in Trafalgar Square.
We just have to walk across Leicester Square to get to the office, and she comes with me most of the way on the first day. The West End is different to the rest of the country. There are a lot of people from different communities, French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Cypriot and Maltese all living amongst the offices, department stores and tourist sights. They are mainly based around work in assorted small businesses like the rag trade and the theatres and most of the restaurants, cafes and shops in Soho. Then there is Chinatown as well. Soho has strip clubs, dive bars, brothels and bookshops all catering to interests prohibited by law. Trafalgar Square has the only twenty-hour Post Office which helps the homeless and runaways on cold nights and acts as a convenient meeting place. Piccadilly Circus has the only chemists open twenty-four hours a day which is convenient for drug addicts who can get a heroin prescription from a doctor and do a bit of trading with the non-registered addicts.
Soho is a magnet that draws anyone looking for a different life or just escaping from an old one, and a place everyone can make some kind of connection.
Like all the buildings on Regent Street no 126-130 is beautifully designed and impressive. The entrance to the office though is in a side street, Regent's Place. Inside the building is less impressive and the Ellis-Wright office is up four flights of stairs. I arrive in plenty of time. There is no one there. I wait around in the corridor outside for quite a while. Eventually a young girl arrives and opens up. I introduce myself and explain I have come to start work. She tells me her name is Roz and she is the receptionist and junior secretary. The office is longish and narrow with six or seven desks jammed back to back down the length the room. There’s a small attic window at the back almost overlooking Regent Street. Roz sets me up at a desk at the far end, connects a phone and gives me a pile of booking slips, an artist roster and some phone lists. I feel out of place and unsure about what to do. I decide just get on with it by answering the phone.
My job is to make bookings for the agency's roster of artists and to help their list of university and college clients to book bands for their dances. I start calling college social secretaries and agency bookers. I've been down to London a couple of times previously to meet some of the agents and hang out in the clubs, so I feel I know the scene a bit.
By the time Dawn Ralston the senior secretary arrives I am already working. Dawn is a little older and posher than Roz with a calm air of authority and like Roz she seems to me to be an unlikely person to be working in a music company. The next person to arrive is Harry Simmonds who is a renting a desk from Terry and Chris. He tells me he is a former postman from Wales who has been transported to London by his younger brother Kim Simmonds, the leader of the Savoy Brown Blues Band, who needs help with his management. Harry has swopped his postman’s uniform for a grey shiny suit and picked up the management of another blues group called The Chicken Shack, featuring Stan Webb and Christine Perfect, on the way. He lets me know how well both bands are doing on the club circuit and what fees he is asking for them on college dates. He invites me to go and see them and then retreats to the pub. I press on, carefully noting all my booking details, filling in the band's diaries and making out the commission notes before passing them on to Roz for contracts to be issued.
Just before lunch Ian Anderson the leader of Jethro Tull arrives. His band are planning the release of their debut album and Ian is concerned that important deadlines have to be met for label copy, artwork and other technicalities. He isn’t happy that his manager isn't around. Later I understand the sense of urgency Ian always summons up to get his work completed and released but this morning it feels like we are on the edge of disaster. Thankfully Dawn is unflappable
After lunch Harry returns to make a few club bookings and deal with calls from his bands. He explains to me at some length in his broad welsh accent how he deals with his promoters and how he deals with his bands. He also demonstrates Stan Webb's trademark of a 40 foot guitar lead which allowed him to play a solo whilst walking from the stage through the audience to the bar at the back of the club where he drinks a pint of beer before soloing his way back to the stage. It goes down a riot apparently. At this point Chris appears. He doesn't seem to pay much attention to what I’m doing, except to ask the question none of us have thought about 'What has happened to Nelson Bathhurst?
No one knows. My first day ends when Roz locks the office and sets off on her journey home to Finchley.
I start the next day a bit later, and without the tie or the mac, and carry on booking. I get used to the rhythms of it all, the telephone calls, paperwork and office rituals like making teas and coffees or popping out for sandwiches. I’m on top of the work and gaining confidence. A day or two later Terry Ellis appears. He has been away on the road with an American girl group Reparata and the Delrons who are touring Europe off the back of a hit single "Captain of Your Ship". He bustles into the office long blond hair flowing and wearing a brown suede jacket and a cowboy hat. He really looks the part, and the pace in the office immediately steps up a few notches. Ian Anderson arrives at high speed. A designer appears with possible sleeve designs and photos. Things are happening. Being together in the one room it’s easy to follow what’s going on, but in any case it’s a friendly and open atmosphere. After that each day follows pretty much the same pattern.
There is endless talk about how different bands are doing, prices for bookings, the gossip about other agencies or promoters, how many punters Ten Years After (TYA) or Tull got the previous night and how well they've gone down. I love all of this chatter, every snippet seems incredibly important. The office is always busy with phones ringing constantly and a fair number of visits from agents and promoters. Some of the band members are regular visitors, such as Clouds, another of Terry's bands. They are a trio of Scots living in London who play a lot of gigs in the 'in' clubs like the Scotch of St James and The Cromwellian which is why they are always around the office. They were managed by Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager, until his death after which Terry signed them. I feel they are relying a lot on Terry to get things going for them hence their regular presence in the office.
I get on with my bookings with a frantic energy I manage to conjure up on the phone. I've found a place for myself and I am anxious to make it work. Despite my excitement and thirst to be more involved I remain quiet and self-effacing in the office. That's how I am normally but I also sensed how changeable and precarious everything is. I am learning how to keep my balance on the tightrope that is the music business.
When I started I thought I would be doing the job for a few weeks to earn some money and then I'd get back to doing my own thing. I still think that. However in such an insecure period in my life the office and my role in it are reassuring, as is the £12.50 plus £5 commission a week I’m earning. I also acknowledge to myself how much I love hanging around with bands and finding I can make a living doing it is a bit unbelievable.
Most evenings when the office closes I go to a pub in Wardour Street called The Ship. It’s the musicians pub where I feel overawed and slip in the side door, quietly order a drink and hope I'll see somebody I can chat to, usually one of the roadies although occasionally a musician. After that it’s on to Jimmy's, a Greek Cypriot restaurant in a basement at no23 Frith Street which serves various meat dishes with cabbage salad and chips very cheap and always delicious. I have become a regular. Then it’s on to the Marquee to check out who is playing and meeting more roadies and musicians. Actually it doesn't take long before I am using the front door of The Ship and I’m permanently on the guest list at the Marquee.
I am happy with this life but the company is about to change it's name to Chrysalis, start a record label, a new agency and move to a bigger office on Oxford Street.