'Smoke On The Water', has one the greatest guitar riffs ever recorded, but the tune also contains some of the worse lyrics ever written. As for their fans, at live concerts, they stick their heads in the bass bins until their ears bleed and play air guitars - 'nuff said. In many countries, this kind of behaviour would get you arrested.
As well as The Jam, Siouxsie and Sham 69, I was the product manager for the Who, and Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow. I knew a fair bit about Ritchie's early career, playing on recordings that Joe Meek produced. He was a member of the instrumental combo The Outlaws, who backed Heinz on his top ten hit, 'Just Like Eddie'. Blackmore, along with Jimmy Page and 'Big' Jim Sullivan, were the top guitar, session men, in the early '60's. He joined Deep Purple in 1968, and the rest as they say, is Rock-n-Roll history.
When you work for a record company as big as Polydor, you can't choose which bands you want to work with; you are told. Not being a fan of this kind of music, but having a large mortgage, I had to be professional. I started working with Rainbow in 1978, and they were in throes of finishing their latest album, with the prophetic and tedious title of, Long Live Rock 'n' Roll. Their press officer Chris Bohn had arranged for a front cover, and an exclusive to appear in the 'pop' paper, Record Mirror. Shelia Prophet, a journalist at the mag would accompany him to the States, to see the band perform at a festival in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Our MD had other ideas, and decided a senior member of staff would accompany the journalist, and ordered me to oversee the trip. As it would be my first visit to New York, I was excited, but I was also a little sad about Chris being taken off the case. I knew he would get other opportunities to travel in the future, but it couldn't have been a pleasant experience.
Polydor was struggling financially that year and the MD was on one of his expenditure cutbacks. As far as travel was concerned, no first class, or club seats, and anyone flying to America, had to go standby. At the time, flying standby was an immense problem. All flights were heavily booked, and many people flying from Heathrow, had to spend days sleeping rough at the airport. I spoke to 'our man' Jeff, at Hep Travel, who assured me there would be no problems getting seats on the flight, and I bunged him a box of albums to smooth the way.
We arrived at Heathrow at about 10 am, and joined the long queue to check in our baggage. When it came to our turn, I handed over the tickets to the BA official and, after punching our names into the computer, he told me, "you're not on the flight list." I explained that my travel agent had assured me we had seats on the flight, and could he check again. He did, but gave the same reply and informed us, it could be days before there were any standby seats available. The situation was embarrassing and I called Jeff to sort it out. As there was going to be a long wait, we headed to a bar. I settled down with a large Vodka and OJ, and apologised to Sheila, wondering what she was thinking about and, what would eventually appear in her article.
Jeff eventually rang back and apologised for the delay. He went on to explain, he'd arranged first class tickets on BA's late afternoon flight, and Polydor would only be charged coach prices. I thanked him, and returned to the bar to pass away the time until our flight was called.
When we eventually checked in, I must have a looked a sight, dressed in Levi 501's, an Eric Clapton tour T-shirt, Dunlop Green Flash tennis shoes, and sporting, Rayban [snides] aviator sunglasses. On producing our tickets the girl asked, "Would you like to be upgraded to Concorde? It leaves an hour later, but you arrive two hours before the flight you are booked on." By now, I'd spent more than five hours in the terminal, consumed a lot of Vodka, and not in the mood for a wind up. "Listen luv'" I replied tartly, "I've been at the airport all soddin' day. I just want get to New York with as little fuss as possible." She smoothed my ruffled ego, assured me this was no joke, and directed us to the Concorde desk. As soon as the formalities were completed, we went into the luxurious lounge, where they handed out free champagne and booze, until you boarded the plane.
Since watching Concorde's maiden flight, I'd always wanted to fly on this wonderful plane, now the dream was coming true. In addition, I would be visiting New York for the first time; God seemed to be looking down on me. Had I not been so inebriated, perhaps I would have noticed that it was Bacchus smiling down.
Concorde was surprisingly small, the seats were large and comfortable, but I still had problems with my long legs. Not that I complained, I wanted to make the most of this exciting trip, as I knew, I wouldn't get the opportunity to fly on her again. The food and drink was first-rate; in-flight food at this time was ghastly, and not much better than a motorway service station. By the time we landed at JFK, I was in my cups, and looking forward to seeing the Big Apple.
As we prepared to deplane, the flight attendants handed each passenger, a dark blue, plastic briefcase, filled with goodies as a memento of the flight. However, I wanted something more substantial and decided to purloin the lunch tray. I stuffed it inside my Harrington jacket and nonchalantly walked off the plane. Before I reached the top step, an airhostess tapped me on the shoulder. "Could we have our tray back," she asked with a gracious smile. "We will need it for the return flight." Extremely embarrassed I handed it over, mumbled an apology, and staggered down the steps.
We caught a yellow cab and made our way to our hotel in Manhattan. The cab driver asked, if this was my first time in New York, and I foolishly told him yes. When we arrived at our hotel on Third Avenue, I paid the cabbie $30, and gave him a $5 tip. When I told Lee Ellen Newman [Rainbow's press officer], how much I'd paid, she laughed and said, "You got ripped off; at best it shouldn't have cost you any more than $20, with a tip." The next day, when we met up with Lee Ellen, she informed us of our itinerary. We would be driven to Bridgeport the next day, and after the gig, Sheila would get enough time, for a one-on-one interview with Ritchie. The rest of the day was taken up with meetings and that night we hit the town. Lee Ellen's boss, Ronnie Rosenthal accompanied us, and she had a loud Brooklyn accent. The booze flowed freely, and when the conversation came around to Ritchie, Ronnie's tongue was running away, and she didn't hold back. She mentioned, when it came to women, Ritchie was more than partial to a big girl, and that he'd allegedly, had the 'clap' many times. Conversations like this are off the record, which journalists normally respect, and never write them in the story. We had a good laugh at her comments; after all, there aren't many rock stars, who haven't had to take a 'short arm' inspection, followed by large doses of penicillin. At the time, I didn't think much to this story, however, it would come back to haunt me.
After arriving at the stadium and being given our backstage passes, we took in a couple of the band's on the undercard. All of a sudden, Rainbow's manager Bruce Payne appeared, there seemed to be a problem. We went to the backstage office, and he made several phone calls, eventually explaining that Rainbow was not going to show. Blackmore had pulled stunts like this before; however, his reason for the no show was risible. He was unhappy with Rainbow's billing and felt they should have been higher on the bill. The fact that the bands above them were much bigger, and their records outsold theirs, didn't come into it. It started to look like the whole trip was a waste of time.
Fortunately, a few days later, there was another concert in Philadelphia, at the Tower Theatre. The interview was re-scheduled, and hopeful, there would be no further problems. As we had a few days to spare, Lee Ellen arranged for Sheila to interview other Polydor artists, including Millie Jackson [no relation to Michael]. At the time, Miss Jackson had scored a top fifty hit with 'My Man Is A Sweet Man', and was notable for her scathing, quasi raps, putting the male species down. I saw her live a couple of times and she looked to be a real ball-breaker. In the flesh, she was the opposite, and one of the most charming women you could meet.
Having been assured that Rainbow would definitely turn up for the gig, we departed for the long drive to Philly. It was a humid, muggy day and, I thanked God for the air conditioning in a car. We stopped at a MacDonald's for lunch, which was a first, as I'd wasn't into fast food, and had never tried their burgers. When the food arrived, I innocently asked for a six-pack of beer. The man serving looked down his aquiline nose and frostily stated; "This is a family establishment, we don't serve liquor here." He thrust the bag of food into my hands and minced away in a real huff. I located a bar across the street and returned, only to be told, it was illegal to consume liquor in a car in this state. I stashed my brews in the boot and much to my chagrin; it turned out to be a dry trip!
Philly is a great music city, but I wasn't sure what to expect, and when we arrived, I was shocked. It was a grey and oppressive, the air reeked of hostility. Just driving down the streets made me feel uncomfortable. This was one city I wouldn't be re-visiting. We arrived at the gig and hung out in the theatre until Rainbow went on stage.
The current line up featured the leprechaun like figure of Ronnie James Dio on vocals, Cozy Powell on drums, but I don't recall the rest of the band. I sat ten rows from the front and, although Rainbow's manager had assured me the band had turned down the volume, it was deafening. I thought I was going to have a heart attack and, after the fourth number, moved to the rear of the stalls. Even at the back of the auditorium, it was still too loud, and I decided to take in the night air. Outside, I chewed the fat with a security guy, who regaled me with stories on how many blowjobs he'd received for letting girls into gigs free. I returned for the last couple of numbers and, with the show over, we retreated to Ritchie's hotel for Sheila to do her interview. So far, everything seemed to be working out for the best.
A little later, Ritchie entered the hotel, accompanied by a dark haired, well-upholstered girl. She was dressed in a tight fitting, oriental dress, slit down the sides, fishnet stockings, and high heels. She looked every inch the sort of woman that Ronnie had described. At first, I thought Ritchie had the usual dodgy rock haircut, until I noticed he wore a 'syrup' [wig], which resembled a dead cat.
The pair retired to his room to discuss the latest stock market figures, and I have to say, in his place I would have probably made the same choice. I noticed Sheila had clocked Ritchie's latest squeeze and wasn't impressed. Much later, and having put the financial market to right, Ritchie reappeared, and went off with Sheila to another table where it was quieter. The interview commenced, I looked across from time to time and everything seemed be going well.
After the interview, I asked if everything was ok? She replied, "yes, it was great, I got everything I need," and with that, retired to the bathroom to freshen up. After Sheila entered the bathroom, a couple of Ritchie's 'goons' followed her in, which seemed strange, as the Gents was next door. It started to dawn on me that something was wrong, and the night was about to go tits up. When Sheila returned, she was distressed, and I asked what had happened? She replied, "Two men came in the toilet, grabbed a hold of me and stole the tape out of my tape recorder." I was starting to get that sinking feeling that the Captain of the Titanic must have had when his ship hit that iceberg.
By now, Ritchie's manager had made an appearance and he was extremely pissed off with Sheila. Evidently, her first question was to ask Ritchie how many times he'd had the clap; subtle, I thought. Bruce mentions that Ritchie would like a quiet word in my shell-like, and we walk over to his table, where he is sitting. Flanking him were the aforementioned hairy arsed, security guards, and Cozy Powell. I had no idea what was going to happen, though it looked as if it could kick off at any time.
Ritchie stared at me, trying to look menacing, which was a bit difficult with the wig he was wearing. He accused me of spreading malicious rumours about the band changing personnel. A little confused I replied, "No, I had no idea about the changes in his band." Nor did I care, as he changed his band members, more times, than I change my underpants. The grilling went on until Ritchie seemed satisfied, and the meeting broke up. As there was no 'claret' spilt, I breathed a sigh of relief. The funny thing was, he didn't mention Sheila's question, or any other part of her interview.
On the return journey, the AC in the car broke down, making it was a hot and sweaty return trip. We arrived as the sun was rising and a little jaded, I went to bed. I knew everyone was aware of Ritchie's temperament, but at least we got an interview. Awaking the next afternoon, I felt better and put the previous evening behind me. For the remainder of the trip, I took in the sights, and spent the time enjoying New York.
After the long flight back, and the partaking of vast quantities of alcohol on the trip, I headed home for some shuteye. The next day, I went into the office, with a smug look on my face. At the weekly marketing meeting, I entertained my colleagues with the stories of my flight on Concorde, and the visit to New York, before returning to the more mundane chores of a product manager. About mid-morning, I received a call from the General Manager's secretary; he wanted to see me immediately.
We discussed the trip and he asked me how things went. Naturally, I bullshitted about the interview, and told him it had gone well. I wasn't about to load a gun and point it at my head. We got around to talking about my flight on Concorde, and he made it clear that, all executive staff employed by Polydor were forbidden to fly on this supersonic airliner. He candidly pointed out, "the MD and I are not allowed to fly on Concorde. I'd like to hear how one of the junior members of staff managed to wangle a flight?"
I related the tale of the standby tickets, how we had been upgraded to first class, and then onto Concorde. I later found that this was BA's company policy, and Concorde never flew to New York with empty seats. I could see he was a little jealous and, on exiting his office, muttered under my breath, "up yours." It was a nice feeling to have one over on the management.
Shortly after this meeting, the chickens came home to roost. Chris Bohn popped in with a copy of Record Mirror. The front cover was a facsimile of the record sleeve and I said, "It looks great," to which Chris, replied. "Dennis, you had better read the article before you make any more comments." I started to read the three-page spread and, as I took in Sheila's diatribe, my heart sank.
The article graphically detailed all that had happened, the security guards chasing her into the ladies toilets, the 'clap' question; every gory detail. The article was supposed to be an exclusive on Rainbow, and not only was Sham 69 and The Jam mentioned - my name appeared several times. Sheila had done a real hatchet job on Ritchie, completely slaughtering him and me into the bargain. I would have to do some pretty fast-talking, and asked Chris whether Rainbow's manager had read the article. Chris replied, "Yes, he has."
On hearing this, my sphincter started to quiver, and I didn't have to wait long, until my boss called me in for an explanation. I pointed out that it wouldn't have mattered who had accompanied Sheila, nothing would have changed, and the article would have turned out the same way. At this point, I launched my last line of defence and weakly stated, "it's better to have bad publicity than none." He listened to my story and accepted it but, I knew I hadn't heard the end the matter. A week later, he summoned me back to his office, and I was relieved of duties on Rainbow. I left with my ego dented; muttering oaths about Ritchie and Sheila, and for a while, the mere mention of her name would make my blood curdle.
A couple of months later, Cozy who was in the office, congratulated me on how I handled the situation. He asked, what would I have done if it had kicked off? As a youth, I lived on a notorious council estate in Plumstead [SE London], and even though no great fighter, I wasn't going to back down against Ritchie. I told Cozy, I knew I'd no chance against the five of them, so I decided; if it kick off, I'd have given Ritchie, a 'Glaswegian' handshake. At least I'd have the satisfaction of waking up next to him in the local hospital. Cozy smiled and we parted company.
Although smarting from what had happened, I carried on with the Punk bands, with some success. As for Ritchie, these days he plays medieval music, dressed up like pixie, auditioning for a gig in Santa's grotto. When the original members of Deep Purple reformed, he refused to do the tour, which was a shame for their fans.
Not having an affinity for rock music, perhaps it was a blessing in disguise, and I look back at this event with much amusement. For a short period, it caused me problems but, it had no lasting effect on my career and, I wouldn't even mind meeting Sheila again - I think!Dennis Munday - Ronchi Dei Legionari - November 2012