A legend is gone; the gentleman editor bows out

1969.

Do you remember it?

Revolution in the air. Something In The Air. John and Yoko naked. The Beatles in their pomp, unassailable Kings Of The World. Nixon in the White House. Muhammad Ali out of the ring and in the US courts. Monty Python’s Crunchy Frog and Dead Parrott.

That’s what you call a year, that is.

And at the heart of it, in London, in Carnaby Street, one man – imperturbable, immaculate, a gentleman to his fingertips – held court to pop stars and PRs in the alcohol dens of Soho.

Peter Jones was only the second person I knew to earn more than £100 a week. The first was Derek Taylor, PR to the Beatles. But Peter was fast on Derek’s heels.

Derek managed it by being a supremely talented part of a money-making machine.

Peter Jones managed it by writing, writing and more writing.

When I first met him he was Editor of Record Mirror, one of the four pillars of pop music journalism. There was New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Disc and Record Mirror – not necessarily, and certainly not always, in that order.

Peter would get into the office at some ungodly hour – certainly at or before 8 am. Believe me, in the music industry, that was ridiculous. Before the rest of us turned up and boiled the kettle, Peter had done the equivalent of one of our day’s work.

On the other hand, he would leave the office between 11.30 and noon, and be at his favourite spot at the bar of one of the pubs behind Carnaby Street. There he would be joined by the likes of Alan Clarke and Tony Hicks of the Hollies and other pop royalty, and a succession of supplicants seeking coverage for their clients.

But more important for his heritage, was the family of writers and contributors he built up at Record Mirror. Norman Jopling, whose recently published Shake It Up Baby contains some great Peter Jones stories, quickly spotted – as the newly employed office boy – that Peter Jones was a ‘proper’ journalist, unlike some of his colleagues.

But ‘proper’ was not as important to Peter as knowledge and enthusiasm. He encouraged those with particular tastes: Norman and his obsession with r’n’b; Charlie Gillett (within two years of his journalistic debut in RM, Charlie’s seminal Sound Of The City was published in 1970); James Hamilton, a dj who knew what was filling dance floors; Lon Goddard, an ex-pat American who became the go-to guy for your singer-songwriter updates and much more besides; and Rodney Collins, a radio obsessive whom Peter encouraged, and who built a career in the radio industry from that initial push.

My own experience with Peter was less glorious. When Billboard bought Record Mirror in 1969, I was seconded to RM to help with production, which meant sub-editing the copy and laying out the pages.

The reasoning was sound. As the youngest Music Week employee, I was also the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the current music scene. Unfortunately, having been trained in the disciplines of a business magazine, I was utterly unfit for purpose at a consumer weekly.

Peter was incredibly patient. The worst criticism I heard from him was, “I do find it troubling that no-one here seems to be able to picture a page that might look good to the reader”.

‘No-one’ was me. My secondment lasted a year – which demonstrated inordinate tolerance on Peter’s part.

But there was one incident that slightly altered the balance sheet in my favour. The illustrator Alan Aldridge was causing a stir with his absolutely brilliant psychedelic art. It seemed like a coup to commission him to create the cover for a Record Mirror relaunch.

It arrived late, the day before the magazine was due at the printer. I can’t remember if it was Elvis or Jimi (Lon Goddard will certainly remember).

But it was a rock god, with a guitar and, no question, it was amazing.

Unfortunately, on not-too-close examination, the head of the guitar – the bit where the tuning keys are – revealed itself as the head of an erect penis. The left hand of the guitarist appeared to be masturbating the neck.

It was a fantastic analogy. But even in the revolutionary air of 1969, the senior management at Billboard UK had a panic meltdown. It could not be used.

Lon Goddard and I stayed behind that night, Lon creating a new, non-pornographic artwork, me watching as it took shape, and creating a front page around it. The only cover line I remember writing was ‘Plastic “Oh No! Banned”‘. It wasn’t the classic cover it might have been with the Aldridge drawing, but it saved the day.

I went on my first transatlantic flight with Peter Jones, to Montreal in 1972. I was 23 and very excited. Peter’s sang froid and alcohol intake was breathtaking. He bought me my first drink in a Montreal bar – all dark wood, and low lighting, just like in the films.

We travelled by train from Montreal to Toronto. Such a baby was I, I went to Niagara Falls just so I could look at America across the water. Peter just went to another bar.

Forty years after these events, Record Mirror had a reunion in 2009. I was fortunate to be included. I wasn’t really one of ‘the family’.

But Rex Gomes – the sweetest of men – was coming over from Australia and contacted me. Before we knew it, a full blown get together was taking shape and Lon Goddard planned a trip to London, staying at mine. Photographer Allan Messer, once Dezo Hoffman’s assistant, flew over from Nashville.

Val Mabbs was there, she of the definitive 60s look and innumerable pop star interviews. She kept guard over Peter’s office and became a presence to be reckoned with. And Derek Boltwood, an urbane and witty man who singlehandedly reminded me of the civilised qualities that so enraptured me – an exile from the English Midlands – in my earliest days in London.

Charlie Gillett was there. He never mentioned he was sick, and it was the last time anyone of us saw him.

Most of us gathered again seven months later for Peter’s 80th birthday. That was a more crowded event, including the legendary Clem Cattini, drummer on Telstar, the first US number one by a British group, and Barry Cryer, best man at Peter’s wedding, and lifelong friend.

As you might imagine for a journalist who cut his teeth on 1950s showbusiness, there was barely great star that Peter hadn’t seen.

One day I was burbling away about all my own favourites. “Do you know who was the greatest performer I ever saw live?” he asked me. I thought he was going to say The Beatles; maybe, at a push, Tom Jones, or maybe Judy Garland.

“Billy Fury,” he said, and described in vivid detail the almost supernatural power Billy had over the females in his audience. So here’s a reminder of an underrated star (also, very possibly, Britain’s first pop singer-songwriter).

Thanks, Peter. Enjoy Paradise. You deserve it.

2 Comments

  1. Great memories Paul and they were such special times. Peter was a lovely man, a great writer and friend and dearly loved. So glad we were all able to share the reunion and Peter’s 80th birthday. Spoke to Lon this morning. Here we are, the RM team still sharing a bond……

    Like

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