It’s Only Rock‘n’Roll But Not as You Know It by Jane Risdon

It’s Only Rock‘n’Roll But Not as You Know It by Jane Risdon

AccentPress AdminMay 24, '193 comments

Writing about the music business is not difficult for me. I’ve spent most of my life involved in it in one way or another. In my teens I met (later marrying) a lead guitarist with a rock band who were on the cusp of success. I gained a great deal of inside information and experience during the late 1960s and 1970s being ‘with the band.’ Eventually my husband and I went into the international management of recording artists, musicians, songwriters, and record producers as well as music production. We went on to place music on many TV series (Baywatch comes to mind) and movie soundtracks such as The Jersey Girl and others right up until the mid-2000s, and my knowledge and experience helps me when writing contemporary stories about life in the music business as well as nostalgic novels such as Only One Woman.

Only One Woman is set in the late 1960s UK music scene and I’ve used a lot of my experiences during that time for the plot and the characters of Renza, Scott, and Narnia’s Children. Christina Jones co-authored the novel with me. I’ve known her ever since she became fan-club secretary to my husband’s band in the late 1960s. Between us we have a wealth of knowledge about the UK music scene then, as well as life with a gigging band, recording, and how the music press, television, and radio, worked at a time when the business side of music was new and basically in unchartered waters. Since then I’ve been involved in the business throughout its evolution and the seismic changes of the 21st century.

Recording and touring with a band in the late 1960s was crazy when I look back on it. For example it was almost unheard of to travel in anything larger than a Bedford Transit van with possibly one roadie to hump the small amount of gear used back then and to set up the instruments ready for a gig. There weren’t any massive PA systems or front of house sound-desks where an engineer would balance the sound for the band or play a backing track alongside a performance to enhance the recorded sound for the audience. Mostly it was done by ear. The musicians would stand next to each other to tune-up, tuning their instruments together and often they used a good old fashioned tuning fork! No-one had their own drum technician or guitar tech to prepare the instruments or to play them in a sound check ready for the pre-show rehearsal, ensuring everything was right for the musician to use. Lead singers just kept singing through the mic and someone shouted if it sounded off-key; no fancy electronic vocal tuners for them. The sound the band had was created organically and therefore it had to be great from the start. You had to be able to ‘cut it’ live as there weren’t gadgets to improve your sound. Practice, practice and more practice was the mantra. Now artists have everything plus the kitchen sink thrown at them on stage so they can recreate the sound they obtain in the studio and on their recordings ‘live’ on stage.

Since those days, of course, touring has become a massive business. Merchandise and ticket sales is where the bulk of an artist’s money is made now. Back in the day there wasn’t any merchandising and the bands were lucky if they got paid enough to cover their petrol. Often when gigs were at the other end of the country they’d sleep in the van as funds for B&B were not forthcoming. I have memories of my husband’s band being booked in Wick and Elgin (Scotland) at the start of the week only to travel (by road of course – no motorways either) to Torquay and London at the end of the same week, then finding themselves heading for Dover and the Channel ferry to do a few days in France, Belgium, Germany, or to drive to Switzerland over the weekend. Then it might be back to Edinburgh or Cardiff. And so it went on, back and forth, up and down the country and throughout Europe.

I haven’t even touched on cruises; somewhere to get fed and watered on board fabulous cruise ships for little effort, with stops off in exotic locations, for just playing twice a day for the guests on board and a gig in the early hours for the crew in what is known as ‘The Pig.’ More on that another time perhaps, and I might cover recording and how that has changed since the days of analogue 4 track reel to reel tape, through the digital explosion when the number of tracks on a recording numbered in the hundreds and the recording desk looked like something from the Star Ship Enterprise, through to the present day when everyone in his bedroom is a record producer.

In later years the tours got bigger and the means of transport changed to large buses and then with huge convoys of trucks taking stage-sets, the crew, the musicians and their gear across countries. However, we never got to own our own aeroplane as many did, such as Fleetwood Mac.

Soon the tours needed to move faster and the distances became so huge with schedules so tight, the only way to reach venues and festivals was by air, especially tours of North America. Oh the joys of tour scheduling and flight time-tables, not to mention weather delays and musicians or their passports getting lost – you do not want to know!

Though having said that, I have toured America and Canada with rock bands in stretch limousines and on tour buses, and not only via air transport. You have no idea what mayhem a band can cause whatever mode of transport is employed or where they get to bed down. Don’t go there – well, that is another story for another day - perhaps.

I want to say the days of the grubby B&B with bossy landladies and their strict rules had gone by then – well, the landladies had – but sadly, sometimes, the Agents and Record Companies wanted to keep costs down and we’d find ourselves – especially in the USA – in rundown motels located in dubious areas with mould in the showers, bedding which was damp and much used, and often with some strange-looking individuals who used to want to ‘hang out’ with us; stalking us wherever we went. Some thought having a gun with them would make us all feel better. I know that the radio station reps who often travelled with us were all armed – boy could I tell you some tales about our escapades with those guys!

I recall one band being chased by a truck-load of Mexican men for many miles across Texas once. We never stopped to find out why, or what they wanted.  Too many guns and so little time. Our radio station rep wasn’t worried; he had guns in the glove compartments and in the trunk of the limo he was ferrying us around in – no worries there then. They did a runner when we finally stopped at a gas station in the hope of salvation and a patrol car pulled in behind us and a rather large Sheriff got out. All we saw was dust and tumbleweeds as our pursuers sped off into the sunset. Thankfully.

Of course there were exceptions and we’d mostly end up in ‘normal’ chain hotels, even 5 star hotels with full-on silver service and staff who insisted on speaking French to us all, even though they were American. The burgers and fries which they served cost more than the band got paid in per diems jointly. Go figure!

Life on the road in the 1960s was simple and straightforward. Your agent booked your gigs, your manager negotiated your record deals and handled the finances and you toured yourselves stupid, learning your craft night after night in venues up and down the country; large and small, rural or in the cities, to packed audiences or one man and his dog. Often there were fights with the organisers to get paid – it was rare for the booking agent to receive promised cheques so many bands asked for cash on the night which could lead to some interesting ‘negotiations.’ I mention some of the heavy-weight managers around at that time later on – their bands got paid or the venue manager got laid-out!

There’d be jealous guys in the audience who decided that the lead singer or lead guitarist was eyeing ‘his girl’ and all hell would break lose. I recall our lead singer brandishing the mic stand many a time to ward off attacks from such lads, stamping on their fingers as they tried to mount the stage ready to lay into the band. I’ve seen the band being chased by gangs of skin-heads – after the gig was over – when they’d lain in waiting for the band to start loading the van. The only difference in later years was that in Texas we might have been shot, whereas in Luton the band might have just been bottled. It’s a great life on the road.

Another difference – for us at any rate – was when negotiating record deals overseas. Mostly through our lawyers and – in the case of American companies – their attorney, who’d get most of the deal done with us – the managers – who’d negotiate and agree points on the contract with us prior to the band signing it. One of the first deals we did in the USA on behalf of an artist was done with the company attorney who placed a baseball bat and a gun on his desk; just in case we asked for more money, so he said, when we casually asked why they were there! A huge shock as you can imagine but we managed to break the ice by asking if we’d get the horses head in the bed or concrete boots if we ever fell out over anything. You’ve got to ask! Thankfully he laughed and we managed to work with him and his company for many years without the need for any of the aforementioned methods of persuasion. In fact, the story of our time with them in particular could well be the subject of a book – could well be, but won’t be unless I can enter Witness Protection. I’ll leave it to you to think about that. I may hint at some of it in another book or perhaps a blog sometime when I’m feeling brave.

In the 1960s many managers were notorious in the UK for using ‘muscle’ and other means to get their artists’ signed and with the contracts they wanted them to have. You only have to read about Small Faces manager, Don Arden (Sharon Osbourne’s dad) and Peter Grant (Led Zeppelin’s manager) to find out what went on. The stories are well documented and Peter Grant in particular managed to change the way bands got paid. He would never argue with a venue over payments for Zeppelin and the venues never refused to pay if he’d been involved. If you have never read anything I suggest you do. It is mind-blowing. Although I have met both managers – since deceased – and they were fine with me. Lucky I guess.

When it came to writing Only One Woman I was able to dig deep in my memory of how things were in the 1960s and of course I had my husband to fact check for me. Many of our experiences with bands and artists since then also found their way into the book because, although technology changes and the method of recording and touring has changed over the years, life on the road with two, four, five, or more musicians is very much the same. They behave the same way – in so many respects – as their 1960s trail blazers did. It’s just that today the press discovers so much of what goes on and the whole world knows before long. The days of ‘what happens on tour, stays on tour,’ have almost vanished. Also, it’s not as easy to cover things up or pay people off with impunity now and, of course,  a ‘Don’ or ‘Peter’ wouldn’t be able to intimidate their rivals and bands the way they could back in the day. I cannot imagine a manager’s heavies dangling someone not ‘playing the game,’ from a third storey balcony by their feet without all hell breaking out and law suits flying left and right. Back in the day that was considered tame.

When you read Only One Woman – perhaps after reading this first – you may well understand why the 1960s really were the golden days for those of us in the music business when it was in its infancy. There were eccentric and larger than life personalities, innovators, and sheer, raw talented youngsters fighting their way to the top, sometimes with heavy-weight management looking after them, and those musicians and songwriters are still revered today.

I wonder if the Zeppelins and Faces of today would have had such fun or success without the trail blazing managers of the 1960s.

Oh the tales I could tell. But perhaps that’s for another day.

It’s only Rock’n’Roll, but not as you know it I’m sure.

 

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Jane Risdon co-wrote Only One Woman with author Christina Jones, and is available as paperback and ebook.

Comments (3)

Jane Risdon on Jun 5, '19

Many thanks to all the lovely people who have popped in to read this and left such fab messages for us on Facebook, Twitter & Social Media. We hope you will love Only One Woman and tell your friends too. xx

Marian Lanouette on Jun 5, '19

I loved Only One Woman, and your other books. Always looking for more.

Toni K Kief on Jun 5, '19

What a fascinating life at the best of times. I was married to a “lounge” singer and he used to laugh that our main connection was I could lift his equipment. Your story is the best.

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