Sunday, 13 October 2013

Career 2

The independent - March-June 1978

By Barry Cain

Alan operates Modern Publicity from the third floor of a squat in Covent Garden, just around the corner from Record Mirror. He has two rooms, both used as offices, and he and I share the larger one at the back. The smaller office is sometimes occupied by a part-time secretary.

Upstairs, several rooms are taken by impresario Andy Czezowski, the brains behind punk wonderland the Roxy.

Our desks face each other about ten feet apart. Alan sits with the only window behind him, and when the sun is in the right position once a day, he disappears into a black shell, gradually emerging a minute later, when the rays slide off the window and onto the crumbling brick wall outside, bit by bit. I look forward to that minute every day. It keeps things in perspective.

Every time Alan picks up the phone he sparks up a Marlboro Red. Smoke drifts seamlessly all day long because when Alan isn’t smoking Marlboro Red, I am. It’s a stressful job. The artists can be a pain in the arse, the managers can be a pain in the arse and the journalists, especially, can be a pain in the arse. And these are the only people I deal with. My arse aches like fuck on the tube home every night. I think I preferred the gypsies, tramps and thieves.

The bands we represent include the Stranglers, Blondie, the Buzzcocks, Generation X and 999. They each pay up to fifty, sixty quid a week for Modern Publicity’s services, which means getting as much press coverage as possible. I’ve entered the business end of music and this is where it gets serious. Music had always been a dream but now it wears curlers and no make-up. I’m a fantasy man and I think I want to be a music writer again.

It’s far more difficult to become a successful PR than a successful journalist – look how few of them there are – and that’s why the financial rewards for that success are often, deservedly, much fatter.

Music PRs sell people, not brands. They earn more respect than money. They’re the good guys. When I was a journalist they plied me with alcohol and gourmet food and bought me a ticket to the world. I’ve never met a PR I didn’t like and I’ve met a ton of them. It’s an art that I, sadly, soon realise I don’t possess. Sure, I can chat the chat but it churns me up inside. I have to simultaneously impress, coax and charm, and as the weeks at Modern unfold, I start to feel like a juggler on the high wire with no net. Journalists hide their self-doubt behind questions. Successful PRs have no self-doubt.

I miss seeing my words in print. I miss the fascination of interviews. I miss the wooing and the cooing and the feel of a typewriter key at three a.m. on deadline morning. I miss the lunches and the hunches and the expense-form lies. Most of all I miss the freedom. Becoming a journalist set me free, allowed me to roam and write and discover.

During my time with Alan I write new-wave press releases for new-wave bands, canoodle with faces because big clients make big PRs, capture a couple of accounts – including George Thoroughgood and the Destroyers no less – and help to organise an epic press trip to Iceland to watch the Stranglers in concert promoting their new album Black and White.

Oh, what a night?

Reykjavik, Iceland

2-4 May 1978

It’s my first, and last, large organised press event − but what a way to enter and exit.

The Stranglers have released their third album in a year – ‘Black and White’ – and Modern Publicity is charged with the task of promoting it through the nationals and the weekly music press. The record company decide to fly the band to Reykjavik for the opening night of the Black and White tour along with around fifteen journos, management, record-company people, Alan and yours truly, for some serious nights in white satin. It’s the leave-the-light-off season, daylight 22/7.

I arrange for the invitations to be delivered by hand in empty Black and White Scotch bottles, collected direct from the distillery in London. Inside each empty bottle is a piece of rag with a handwritten message (scrawled meticulously by my dad no less, each and every one):

Reykjavik, Iceland.


Anarchic Arctic alcoholics slashing their wrists and 20 hour days. Blood streams in the white. Ice n’ sleazy in Reykjavik. No night, no black, just a northern light frostbitten white­ness. Follow the instruc­tions in the bottle and all this (and more, much more) can be yours. And you can even get to bring home a dead husky, if you play your cards right.

Not seeing darkness for seventy-two hours does something to a man. This is my first trip abroad as a PR and it strings me out. I crave the night life like a vampire or Alicia Bridges. These few endless days are full of thrills and spills and danger that all belong big time to the night time and make everything disarmingly surreal. Great if you’re a journalist but not so hot for PRs who have to organise while they’re day-trippin’.

And Iceland isn’t the best place to trip in. Outside the city the landscape is comic-book Martian – the sky is flecked with red, and never-ending streams of volcanic hot water pour out of tortuous rocks onto little green men.

Inside the city there’s a thousand things I wanna say to you. 

Stand-out white-light, white-heat moments:

Black attack! – Being mistaken for Jet Black as I walk through the airport lounge on arrival.

Shark attack! At a special Icelandic buffet put on by our hotel, the manager urges me to try ‘Iceland’s most expensive delicacy’ and hands me a plate containing a slice of what appears to be a small white saturated flannel. I place it gingerly into my mouth and I can honestly say, hand on heart, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever tasted and believe you me, I’ve tasted some pretty horrible things. My immediate reaction is to spit it out but the manager is awaiting my praise.

‘What is it?’ I ask, after forcing this fiendish thing down my throat and draining a glass of red wine to kill the taste.

‘Well, it’s raw shark marinated in cow’s urine and buried underground for three months. Very nice. Have some more.’

‘Er, no, thank you.’

Of course! That’s the taste − old fish soaked in cow’s piss. Shit, you wouldn’t want to pick a fight with an Icelander.

Cock attack! Standing in the middle of a hotel room with a naked Hugh Cornwell painting half of his body black and the other half white for a Record Mirror cover shoot. Painting his knob is a fairly sobering experience but I’d do anything for love and seven column inches. Or eight.

Chair attack! The journalist from the New Musical Express looks a little apprehensive. I’ve arranged for him to interview the band in one of the hotel rooms and we’re waiting for the elevator. The Stranglers are universally feared by journalists, and with good reason. Reports of kidnappings and violence against writers reverberate around the industry. It’s all really heavy duty, so the NME guy’s obvious agitation is only to be expected as the elevator arrives.

I become a proper PR in that eight-floor ride.

‘I’ve never seen them so laid back,’ I say convincingly, as we get into the lift. 


‘Yeah, Jean has assured me’ (and he had too) ‘that they’ve stopped all their antics. This album means a lot to them and they really want people to appreciate it.

‘Great.’ He looks relieved. ‘I really like the album.’

We hit floor eight.

‘You’ll have a great interview. I know it. Like I said, I’ve never seem them so laid back.’

Jean-Jacques opens the door. ‘Hi.’ He smiles warmly. ‘Come in.’

I do the introductions, but as the journo goes to sit down, Jean pulls the chair from under him and he falls flat on his arse in the most ignominious fashion. I quickly help him to his feet and kinda remonstrate with the band, who apologise profusely. But the damage has been done and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. So I leave and laugh. Out loud.

Massive attack! – And the Icelandic young blades, deprived of beer (you can’t buy it anywhere) but awash with whisky, smash the shit out of each other in Reykjavik Exhibition Hall on the night the band play. The blood gets on your shoes as broken bottles hit vacant faces and life suddenly seems cheap. I’d seen London dancehalls erupt but not like this, not with such hatred.  This is drunkenness blinded by the light; all reason extinguished by a 50 per cent proof flood and some hard-assed Stranglers sounds.

It must be the raw shark.       

Applejack attack!On the final morning  – or was it night? – of our stay, a pony trek has been arranged for the whole party. A small band of pissheads and I opt instead for some extra hours in our luxury hotel rooms followed by a long, slow comfortable, swim up against the pool. Besides, horse-riding seems far too hazardous a pursuit after a night – or was it day? – of skuldruggery.

However, I badly sprain my ankle after treading awkwardly on one of the stairs leading down to the hotel pool. At least, that’s what the doctor tells me three hours later after checking my X-rays in Reykjavik General.

What a klutz. I’m supposed to be looking after everyone, getting them on the coach to the airport, checking them in, attempting to prevent them getting too pissed in the airport bar. And now, here I am, a cripple who can’t walk without assistance. They even radio Heathrow on the flight back to ensure there’s a wheelchair waiting for me.

It’s a glorious Megan moment.

Jean pushes me in the wheelchair when we get to Heathrow. I’m surprised and a little flattered, but also have a vague fear that he’ll whip it away as I try to sit down. That would’ve been stretching the boundaries of taste way too far.

But I’d have laughed.

Out loud.

Heart Attack! – One of the reporters – pissed morning, noon and night – is the inadvertent clown of the party because he’s a bit of a toff who works on a national gossip column, carries a silver-topped cane and is too drunk to care. On the plane journey home, JJ bets that nobody can drink the full bottle of whisky he has in his bag in half an hour and the toff volunteers, pouring the lot down his throat in fifteen minutes, with a little help from his friends. He also needs a wheelchair at the other end.

The perfect end to the perfect day.

Or was it night?

© Barry Cain 2013



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