Saturday, 9 November 2013

August 1978

Holly Buddy

Life is pretty sweet, but my smile’s only there trying to fool the public because I ache for Dina. It’s the longest we’ve been apart in two years and pretty sweet soon turns to shit without a focus. Maybe I should’ve married her before she went back to Cyprus.

Meanwhile, I’m mastering the art of mainstream journalism, skimming across the ocean like a stone and ending up on the doorstep of a Holly...

After fifteen years in the pulverising world of pop, Keith Richards doesn’t look too well, Bob Dylan is positively ancient and John Lennon looks just plain weird.

But Tony Hicks of the Hollies looks, well, like he did fifteen years ago. He confounds the axioms of the live-now-pay-later brigade with his pristine features and boundless enthusiasm. Those big, doleful eyes have surveyed the erratic eccentricities of rock ’n’ roll − Merseybeat, psychedelia, glitter, punk and power pop − but the guitarist has steered round them all, preferring to chart his own course to stardom.

Result? At thirty-two, Tony has escaped unscathed.

His rewards? A pretty wife, a four-year-old son, a beautiful home in South Kensington, a pair of Stan Bowles football boots and an album standing at number two in the charts.

The band’s 20 Golden Greats record has caused something of a nostalgia wave. Every song showcased is a pop classic. Every song bears testimony to the fact that the Hollies are Britain’s oldest surviving pop band.

‘I’ve looked after myself over the years,’ says Tony, sipping vintage red wine in the pine wood splendour of his spacious lounge. ‘Sure, I’ve raved it up in the past − but I’ve never gone over the top. I’ve merely kept myself on a separate level to the music business. I feel sorry for the new bands around today. They’re virtually forced into "enjoying" themselves, with all the consequences that entails.’

Tony is laconic − the sign of a contented man. And who wouldn’t be with his bank balance?

‘I guess I’ve always had enough to buy what I wanted for most of my life. But money does slow you down. If I didn’t have the music anymore and was just left with the bank account, I’d go out of my mind with boredom.’

The Hollies were the epitome of the pop boom − John Collier dummy lookalikes who pierced the sixties with gems like ‘Stay’, ‘Just One Look’ and ‘I Can’t Let Go’.

‘I suppose it’ll be hard to shake off that old image,’ he says. ‘And you know how it came about? Our first manager was a tailor who insisted on pushing his latest lines − with us! But it didn’t prevent the band going through changes. First there were the Hollymania days of screaming girls and seven-week tours with the Stones. Graham Nash was with us then, before leaving to form Crosby, Stills and Nash. Then when all that eventually died away, we were confronted by a very boring period of ultra-smart suits and violins. But now, who knows ? Look at the Bee Gees. Five years ago you couldn’t give them away.’

And it was five years ago that the father of an attractive blonde called Jane gave his daughter away to Tony. That’s not very long, considering the time he’s been in the business.

‘I don’t believe in early marriages,’ he says. ‘I figure a man shouldn’t even consider marrying until he’s at least thirty.’ He keeps his wife and son Paul hidden from the music glare. ‘Family and music just don’t mix.

I’ll never take them on the road with me. But I decided a long time ago that I should live well while I’m on the road for my health’s sake. I’ve spent a lot of money getting around in comfort.’

He doesn't smoke and plays squash. ‘I've got into sport a lot recently − especially football. I have a pair of Stan Bowles’s boots he wore at Wembley when he played for England.’

His main ambition is to see his son become a Wimbledon champion and then throw a celebration party at the wine château he dreams of owning one day.

The Hollies may be an institution, but the Holly-days can’t last for ever. Or can they . . .?

Tony rings me after the article appears in the London Evening News to say it was the best interview he’d ever read about him and the band. ‘If there’s anything I can ever do for you, please don’t hesitate to call me.’ The sweetheart even gives me his number. I’ve got a Holly for a Buddy.

I was always a big fan of the Hollies, especially the Graham Nash days of ‘I’m Alive’ and ‘I Can’t Let Go’. They poured honey on my lemons as I tried to break free and they looked cool on stage. Never, in my wildest dreams, would I have imagined that baby-faced guitarist on Ready, Steady, Go would one day compliment me. I feel like King Midas, in reverse.

I’m liking this freelance malarkey. The more interviews I do, the more money I make; the more people I meet, the more money I make. But late nights partying and writing will take their toll.

I’m lost in a forest of snappy intros and staccato paragraphs. The tabloid effect haunts everything I write so I leap at the chance to replace Record Mirror’s resident gossip columnist, Juicy Luicy (who shall remain nameless) while she’s on holiday. I adopt the alter ego of Dirty Berty, Luicy’s public-school nephew who doesn’t give a toss.

The first column goes well, and contains some juicy items, including the fan who breaks into Wilko Johnson’s dressing room after a gig at the Marquee, covers the ex-Dr Feelgood man in kisses before dropping his trousers to reveal a multitude of running sores. A member of Wilko’s band, Solid Senders, is about to throw a bottle of disinfectant over him when the fan grabs the bottle and proceeds to drink it before running off into the night. ‘Police are looking for a man with very clean insides but very dirty outsides.’

I also mention that Sid Vicious is playing a one-off gig at the Electric Ballroom, fronting a band comprising Rich Kids’ Glen Matlock, Steve New plus Rat Scabies. They’re calling themselves Vicious White Kids. Every paragraph is an intro and I’m hooked. I’m living the part: I am Dirty Berty, the tabloid hack with the adolescent brain. A lethal concoction.

But the second column almost ruins my career.

I run a piece about Phil Lynott and his relationship with the now pregnant model Caroline Crowther – daughter of comedian Leslie – and hint the father might be thin and answer to the name of Lizzy. But naturally, as a naughty-boy gossip writer, I embellish it. Anyway, somebody up there doesn’t like it and the day after the paper hits the streets, everyone of note at Record Mirror’s publisher, Spotlight, is hit with a heavy-duty libel writ accusing Dirty Berty of everything from allegations of homosexuality to bestiality.

I find one on my desk addressed to Dirty Berty. My sulphate-soaked blood collapses and I can feel it gushing through my body and cascading over my trainers.

Thank God they don’t know my identity.

Alf Martin is on holiday when Spotlight’s publishing director, Mike Sharman, calls me into his office.

‘I take it you’ve seen this?’ He waves the writ in the air.

‘Yes.’ I’m suddenly back at school and Megan is calling.

‘It’s pretty damned serious. What have you got to say for yourself?’

‘Er, it was just a bit of gossip. It’s not that heavy.’

‘Well, these writs suggest otherwise. I can tell you now, you’ll never write another word for Record Mirror.’

I’m speechless, but manage to stand up and go to the door.

‘Oh, and Barry . . .’

‘Yes?’ Maybe he’s changed his mind. Maybe they’ll laugh the whole thing off. Maybe, just maybe, the world is full of goodness after all.

‘I suggest you get yourself a very good lawyer.’

I nearly shit myself on the spot.

After collecting my stuff, I say my goodbyes. Someone mentions a strike, but someone else points out that I’m only a freelancer and, besides, she couldn’t afford it. I guess I’d have said the same. You could replace the entire editorial staff overnight with the freelancers who’ve contributed to the mag over the last year. Plus, regional newspaper journalists across the land would jump at the chance to work in Covent Garden, writing about pop stars and flying around the world. A strike is definitely a no-no.

The next few days are a nightmare. I’m not worried about being sued -- they can’t get blood out of a stone. I live at home with my mum and dad in an Islington council flat and have about five hundred quid in the bank, for Chrissake. Thin Lizzy won’t get fat on that. My fear is of not being able to write about music again. God in his infinite wisdom decided not to give me the fingers of a musician so writing about music was the ultimate consolation. To deprive me of that while my heart is flapping around like a dying fish on a Cypriot beach would be a blow from which I might never recover.

Pass me that axe, Eugene.

Maybe it’s destined to end like this. Maybe 1977 is as good as it gets. Maybe this is my 10th Avenue freeze-out. Maybe it’s nature’s way of saying pop music is dead, that I’d only be shagging a corpse if I carried on. While I’m busy patting myself on the back for not being a necrophiliac, Record Mirror editor Alf Martin returns from holiday. When he finds out I’ve been tossed aside like a snapped plectrum, he does his nut.

‘If he goes, I go,’ he tells the suits and, within a day, I’m reinstated. The following week a big retraction appears at the bottom of Juicy’s column and, as far as I know, that’s the end of it. I meant no harm. It wasn’t me. It was someone else. I swear I’ll never write another gossip column as long as I live.

On my first day back in the office the switchboard girl puts Dina through . .

Next: The Jam, Sham 69, The Who and The 1978 Reading FestivalAdapted from the book Tell Me When by Barry Cain

© Barry Cain 2013

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