Chris Charlesworth has flown Led Zeppelin’s private jet, tended Pete Townshend’s nosebleed and was on first name terms with John Lennon
- Credit: Archant
Entertainment writer Wayne Savage speaks to former Melody Maker US correspondent Chris Charlesworth, coming to Stowmarket’s John Peel Centre this week
You’re 40,000ft up, sitting aboard Led Zeppelin’s private jet when their manager asks if you’d like to have a go behind the controls. What would you say?
“Everybody else has had a go so I said ‘alright’,” laughs Charlesworth.
“There was a co-pilot sitting next to me but I actually flew them. I lifted the plane up and brought it back down to cruising height. (It was) my first and last time (flying a plane).”
Welcome to the life of a music journalist in the 1970s, the subject of his May 22 appearance at Stowmarket’s John Peel Centre in aid of St Nicholas Hospice Care.
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Charlesworth got into music young. “I was buying Elvis Presley records when I was 10, before anybody had ever heard of The Beatles,” he laughs.
“Seeing them at Bradford Gaumont with my dad in 1963 when I was 16, there was no turning back. Something happened to the wiring in my brain and I’ve never stopped thinking about guitars and drums and the fantastic noise they make.”
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Working as a reporter for the Bradford Telegraph and Argus from 1968, he persuaded the editor that half a page of pop news once a week might draw younger readers. The next 12 months saw him reviewing and interviewing acts, including a certain Jimmy Page about his hopes for a new group he’d formed.
In late 1969 he spotted an ad for a job at British pop and rock newspaper Melody Maker, one of the first music weeklies. He didn’t get it, but the editor called a few months later asking if he was interested in another vacancy.
“I joined in the summer of 1970 and stayed there until the spring of 1977. I was thrust into the midst of it and it was wonderful,” he recalls.
Promoted to news editor a few weeks after joining, he spent three-and-a-half years as the paper’s US correspondent; first in LA and then New York.
“It was the best job in the world… I was the only person from Melody Maker in New York so I got tickets to every rock concert and every new album was piled up in my flat.”
Days blurred into each other as he bashed out interviews and reviews on his typewriter or toured with this or that group.
Charlesworth, who laughs that he once spent a whole flight cradling Pete Townshend of The Who’s bleeding nose in his lap with a damp towel, has lost track of all the people he interviewed. It’s safe to say the list includes every major league rock performer of the era.
When he joined Melody Maker – which ceased publication in 1999 – it was selling 200,000 copies a week in the UK. The New Music Express sold 180,000, Sounds 100,000...“Now there’s next to nothing. The music press then was enormously successful; it was a vibrant thing to be part of… It’s all been destroyed by the internet of course.”
In his day, the only way to find out what your favourite band was up to was to buy one of the above.
“(Some) groups didn’t stick their pictures on their album sleeves. If you wanted to find out what they looked like you had to buy the weekly music press. Pink Floyd, no-one knew what they looked like!”
There was a lot more access to artists than there is today. It wasn’t uncommon to tour with The Who or Led Zeppelin.
“I’d see EVERYTHING,” he stresses. “I’d see them at work, rest and play as I put it, but we didn’t report the back stage shenanigans and what went on in the hotels and things - we were discreet.”
Echoing Almost Famous’ Lester Bangs, Charlesworth says you tried not to get too close to the acts. It made life awkward when you gave them a review they didn’t like.
“That only happened to me once, where I fell out quite seriously with someone. It was Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople. He cancelled a tour and his publishers put out a press release saying he was sick.
“I discovered this wasn’t the case, the tour was cancelled because no-one bought any tickets. I wrote that in my column and next time I saw him he was very angry.”
Did Hunter ever get over it?
“I don’t know, I haven’t spoken to him since to tell you the truth,” he laughs. Charlesworth was closest to The Who, whom he’s still friends with today. “They were very open with me, probably more than anyone else. They were never very guarded in what they said, they famously criticised one another in interviews.”
He remembers one of the greatest Who shows he saw was in 1976; the last time he saw them with Keith Moon on drums. Used to selling out crowds of 50,000, this hot muggy day only 35,000 turned out.
“They were furious they hadn’t sold out, they thought the promoter had done a bad job. They played an absolute cracker of a concert and I remember talking to Townshend in his caravan, like a dressing room backstage, afterwards.
“He was on the floor, turned to me and said, ‘Chris we were playing for the people that weren’t there. Every one of those 35,000 is going to go home and tell their friends, ‘God you missed a hell of a show.’ Next time we’re here in Jacksonville we’ll sell out’. I thought that was such a cool thing.”
Despite every effort, you did become part of the gang; sharing a few drinks backstage or in the bar.
“You sort of took it for granted,” says Charlesworth, who went on the road with Bruce Springsteen in 1974. He remembers watching his progress from the latest “new Dylan” to slightly reluctant superstar.
“I went on two or three shows just hanging out in the bar talking and he seemed like a fairly regular guy. He wasn’t a lunatic like Moon; he just had a couple of beers and a cheeseburger and went to bed. He didn’t have an awful lot to say for himself; to tell you the truth. He came alive on stage though…”
One of the best things about the job was following an act from the beginning. He remembers only eight people in the audience the first time he saw Slade, whom he’s also still friends with.
“It was always good to follow a group and report on their progress when they became very successful because you feel almost part of it… I predicted Slade would do well and sure enough three years later they were headlining Earls Court in front of 50,000 people.”
Melody Maker had a record of helping acts hit the big time. It stuck David Bowie on the front before success hit. It was important to maintain their independence and not put people on a pedestal though.
“Some people are plumbers, some accountants; some are rock singers. It soon dawned on me this was their job and I had mine. I went to see one or two acts in their homes. I realised
their circumstances were no better than mine just because they had their picture in Melody Maker from time
to time. I would visit them in their flat and think ‘back up, this flat’s no better, no worse than where I live. This guy doesn’t appear to have a huge amount of money and he’s got a crap car’.”
Discretion was also integral.
“I saw Moon lob a television set
out of a window eight storeys up… So yeah, I saw some top quality vandalism as well as some wonderful concerts,” he laughs.
“Virtually every rock star there was took drugs to a lesser or greater degree. We never mentioned that, nor that quite a lot of them were married and they may well have – how else can I put it discreetly– broken their vows while on tour.
“I remember being with one group and one of the members brought his wife along which made him very unpopular. They – the other four members of the group and I’m not going to tell you who it was – insisted they stayed in a different hotel because this wife would report back to the other wives,” he laughs.
Charlesworth thinks big stars are too cocooned these days, making it much more difficult for journalists to approach them. If you do get an interview it’s fairly bland, with rules about what you can discuss.
“On Melody Maker it was open season,” he says. Until John Lennon’s murder.
“A terrible tragedy, of course; but that was a key moment in the manner in which big rock stars chose to make themselves public.
“He walked around the streets of New York where he lived and people respected his privacy. I was lucky enough to interview him and got to know him a bit; to the extent I asked him for his phone number once, which was a bit cheeky.
“He didn’t know what it was; he said ‘Yoko’s always changing the number you know’. We made an arrangement that I could send him a telegram saying ‘Dear John please call me; Chris from Melody Maker’.
“He’d ring me back and say ‘Hello Chris, it’s Johnny Beatle here’. Then I’d make arrangements to meet him or talk to him over the phone. It was a nice relationship I had with him for about three years.
“He was very forthcoming; you could ask whatever you wanted. He was very open; unlike a lot of rock stars who are more guarded. But John wasn’t terribly discreet; he just said what was on his mind.”
Chris also befriended Debbie Harry. “I saw her in a group before Blondie. A photographer was with me and I sent the picture to Melody Maker in London. It was the first time she ever had her picture in the paper in England and she never forgot it. Can you can imagine how many thousands of times she’s appeared now? I was the first.
“I saw her last summer at the Round House in Bath. I went with my daughter Olivia and had a backstage pass. She was delighted to see me and she and Olivia were chatting away. I thought this was just brilliant, to be able to introduce my daughter to a rock star.”
She and his son Sam must think he’s the coolest dad ever?
“No,” he laughs. “(They say) we’ve heard this before, shut up. But their friends say ‘Oh, I can’t believe your dad knows David Bowie’.”