Out of His Pen
The Words of Richard Williams

By Simon Warner

In U.S. culture, the rock critic is valued, even venerated. From Lester Bangs to Dave Marsh, from Ben Fong-Torres to Greil Marcus, the voices that have emanated from the pages of magazines like Rolling Stone and Creem have assumed a significant status in popular culture's stampede; their commentaries have helped to cast light, not just on the music, but on our times.

The U.K. has not accorded such reputations to its pop scribes. In a land where weekly journalism has ruled the newsstands for decades, the names of writers on New Musical Express and Melody Maker are somewhat less significant than the acts they write about. If true aficionados of the inkies know their Kent from their Farren, their Welch from their Watts, few in the wider cultural landscape are aware of their existence.

Attention is drawn to this anomaly in a new American publication, Pop Music and the Press, edited by Steve Jones, due to appear in October 2002. In one of the volume's concluding essays, Simon Frith--like Jones a prominent academic in the study of popular music--refers to Richard Williams, whom he describes as "Britain's best rock critic." The fact that Williams is mentioned nowhere else in the book, as fellow Englishman Frith points out, underlines the proposition that some of the UK's finest pop commentators have endured an undersung reputation at home and most certainly abroad.

Richard Williams was a potent force in British rock journalism from the late 1960s and into the 1980s, and, in light of Frith's accolade, it seems an opportune moment to remind ourselves of his achievement. Today he holds the post of chief sports writer on one of the UK's most highly considered national newspapers, the Guardian, but his early professional years were spent preaching the rock--and jazz--gospel.

Born In Sheffield in 1947, Williams grew up in Nottinghamshire. From 1969 to 1973, he worked on the foremost music weekly of the period, Melody Maker, rising to Deputy Editor. From 1973-1976 he served Island Records in an A&R role. From 1976-1978, he edited the London listings magazine, Time Out, and returned to Melody Maker as Editor from 1978-1980. Along the way, he was the first presenter on a British TV flagship, "The Old Grey Whistle Test," wrote for Let It Rock and Streetlife, acted as pop and jazz reviewer on the Times, and wrote books on Phil Spector, Bob Dylan and Miles Davis, before rising through the senior ranks of various UK national newspapers during the 1980s and 1990s. He has spent the last decade writing about sports around the world, but his love of music remains undiminished.

I recently spoke to Richard Williams about his career, about music, about rock journalism and about Simon Frith's complimentary remark placing him in the upper echelons of popular music writers.

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Richard Williams

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Simon:   Richard, could I just check a few biographical details? Where were you born and where did you grow up?

Richard:   I was born in Sheffield in 1947, but I was brought up more or less in north and central Nottinghamshire, although Yorkshire was my mother's county, and my grandparents' county.

Simon:   The period we're perhaps most interested in for this account is the 1970s and 1980s, when you were writing regularly about popular music, though I must admit I'm more familiar with your books--the biographies of Phil Spector, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, and the collection of your writings in Long Distance Call--than with you earlier music journalism from the late '60s and '70s. Maybe you'd just say a little about how your career as a music journalist unfolded?

Richard:    I did four years on the evening paper in Nottingham as a cub reporter on the Evening Post and the Guardian Journal, the morning paper, which doesn't exist anymore. You had to work for both of them. After a couple of years, I got a youth column so I started to write about music, what was going on in Nottingham; the city had a lot of clubs. It was a time when you could get to see Georgie Fame or Graham Bond or Chris Farlowe any night of the week. R&B interested me, that was the music I really liked. So I had this column and youth page with fashion, a girl did the fashion and I did the music, and that was really good. In 1966/67 none of the editors or the subs had a clue what I was writing about so they could not change anything. If I wanted to write 500 words on Albert Ayler I could do it. When The Velvet Underground and Nico came out in 1967 I gave a page to it.

Simon:    You didn't go into higher education.

Richard:    No, I was thrown out of school.

Simon:    So you were a teenage rebel?

Richard:    You didn't have to do much in 1964 to get thrown out of school--smoke a few fags, grow your hair, snog a girl behind the cricket pavilion.

Simon:   So you rather fell on your feet with this local newspaper?

Richard:    In those days you didn't need any qualifications to be a local newspaper reporter. Now you have to have 17 degrees, then 4 O-Levels would get you in, and a plausible manner, but it was good for me. I enjoyed all that--the golden weddings, juvenile courts, chasing fire engines.

Simon:    And you did that training that a regional or local, weekly or daily newspaper reporter did and still does?

Richard:    Yes, sure. The good thing was I had this column with which I pretty well had carte blanche. When the time came to apply for a job with the Melody Maker I could send them all these cuttings about Albert Ayler, the Velvet Underground, and Jimi Hendrix which formed quite a useful portfolio

Simon:    When did you join Melody Maker?

Richard:    1969.

Simon:    Would Ray Coleman have been the Editor then?

Richard:    No, Jack Hutton was the Editor then but he left after about six months, taking with him all the people who went to Sounds. I stayed. I thought about going with him but then I thought, "I've come to London to work for the Melody Maker," so I stayed. Those who stayed got immediate promotion, everyone rises. Within six months of going there as the most junior reporter, I was Deputy Editor under Ray Coleman.

Simon:    So the Sounds defection was a major boost to your young career?

Richard:    Yes, it was.

Simon:    How old were you then?

Richard:    22 or 23.

Simon:    I suppose around that time Melody Maker was described as "the musos' journal," it had a particular character, a particular style.

Richard:    It was a very good time to be on it because music was being taken seriously and the more seriously you took it the more you were listened to, so it was a very good time. The NME at that point didn't know how to cope--it was a pop paper. It didn't know how to cope with what I would never call "progressive" rock, intelligent singer-songwriters, that kind of thing, so we had two or three years when the field was ours.

Simon:    But what sort of things were shaping and developing your writing at the time? Did you read other people? Were you reading other journalists? Were you reading literature? What sort of things shaped the way you listened to and wrote about music?

Richard:    I read a lot, I always did. I read Rolling Stone and Creem, but I also read The New Yorker from the age of 16, Downbeat and Jazz Journal, but I had also read the underground press since 1966--Village Voice, East Village Other, IT , Friends, and so on--but I actually have to say that at that point I was too busy to think about the quality of my writing. I was too busy writing to think about it very much. I think that's why a lot of British pop writing of the time does not compare very well with American pop writing, because the Americans were very much aware of themselves as literary figures and became even more so. To begin with, we weren't at all. We were writing for weekly papers which were demanding. We would have to write every day, sometimes, 10,000, 20,000 words a week--a lot of words every day: words, words, words. And you did, in a kind of benign way, see yourself as a propagandist, trying to get people to listen to good stuff, so of course you had to write persuasively but the persuasiveness was more a function of enthusiasm than of literary polish. There were exceptions more and more as time went on. I think Michael Watts was a polished writer from the day he arrived at the paper, a very grown-up writer, with very much more of a literary quality. I was more aware of other people's literary qualities as an editor as well as a writer. I was thinking more about how our writers worked and fitting them in than I was really concerned with my own stuff, to my detriment as a writer. I think I should have done.

Simon:    Did you find as Deputy Editor that your writing chances decreased?

Richard:    Not really, no. I was more interested in being a writer than actually minding the store. I still wrote 20,000 words a week, easily!

Simon:   Were you shaped at all by literature? Were you shaped by fiction or novels in the way you approached your life or your passion for music? Did literature play a part?

Richard:    It played a part in my life. But I didn't think of myself in those terms. I thought of myself as a journalist. I didn't really think of myself as a writer even if I admired (Kenneth) Tynan, for instance, very much, and probably loads of other people, and certainly a lot of American jazz writers--beautiful writers, but I never thought of myself in that league. I think I was doing a job of day to day journalism.

Simon:    So you weren't self-conscious about this process in the way that Hunter S.Thompson, Tom Wolfe or whoever were?

Richard:    No. Whenever I tried a literary conceit I always felt vaguely embarrassed about it and I tried to write clear, functional prose. I was more interested in getting the music right, getting it across more than anything else, I think. I loved finding things--Marley or Roxy Music or Laura Nyro or Springsteen, and presenting it to people, saying, "Here's something you haven't heard, go out and hear it, you're probably in for a treat."

Simon:    Did you have confidence in your own critical ability?

Richard:    Totally...always. I was lucky. I was brought up in a household where music was important. My parents weren't musicians as such but my mother loved music, played piano when she was a girl. My father's a parson, ran the church choir, he was Welsh. So music was a very important factor in my life and I'd always--right from when I was 11 or 12, I was in a skiffle group, then I was in a beat group, then I was in a R&B group, a folk group. After I got thrown out of school at 17 I spent a year mostly playing around the Nottingham area in a semi-pro R&B group called the Junco Partners--repertoire from Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, etc. We split up after supporting Tom Jones and the Squires at the Elizabethan Rooms in Nottingham, the week "It's Not Unusual" got to No 1, if memory serves.

Simon:    What did you play?

Richard:    Drums mostly, and guitar. And I had always listened ferociously under the bed-clothes when I was at boarding school when I was young, that kind of thing.

Simon:    So putting your head on the critical chopping block was never a fear?

Richard:    Not a problem--and not just to strike a pose either. I was absolutely sure I was right...and I still am.

Simon:    I tend to share some of the feelings you're expressing. I think if you are going to be immersed in a subject you have to have some genuine self-belief that you're saying things that are valuable, valid, and so on.

Richard:    And it comes mostly out of enthusiasm. I never really got any great pleasure from taking somebody apart. I could do it, but I'd much rather tell someone about something I have twigged, that I really like, that I think is going to be valuable and worthwhile, always.

Simon:    In the early 1970s there was an interesting development as NME did find its credibility with its various changes; Sounds was also on board. Could you just say a little bit about the scene in '72/'73? Maybe that is a good couple of years to mention. How did you see the emerging British rock press at that time? There was a three-cornered battle that began around that time.

Richard:   And the two important corners were the Melody Maker and the NME. Most of the Melody Maker writers were from a background like mine--local journalism--so they had journalistic imperatives.

Simon:    Chris Charlesworth? Chris Welch?

Richard:    Michael Watts, Roy Hollingworth, Mark Plummer, Colin Irwin, Jerry Gilbert and those people. That was something that the Editor, Ray Coleman, who came from a local paper background himself on the Leicester Mercury, encouraged. So we had that background and we also had the Melody Maker's tradition of dealing with musicians as musicians rather than, as I suppose they'd be called today, style icons. Whereas the NME re-made itself, it came from a completely different direction, by getting people in--very talented people from the underground press--like Nick Kent and Charlie Murray and the next generation that came in, particularly Ian MacDonald and Angus McKinnon, very, very bright people; it secured a patch that was more aware than we were of music as fashion, or more interested in exploring it, a bit more aware. We were aware of it, but they were also able to operate without the consciousness of the sort of progressive rock dimension. They did not have to be nice about Emerson, Lake and Palmer or Yes. We had a tradition of supporting that kind of music. Personally, it was of no interest to me, but it certainly was of value to the paper. And it wasn't negligible, you know, [it was] legitimate. But the NME could be much more light-footed, I think, in that way by concentrating on those things--we wrote about the Velvet Underground in Melody Maker years before anyone did in the NME, but the NME was more willing to embrace that as the central truth of their existence and the thing that defined the NME was, to us, an interesting thing but there were other things going on the world as well. The NME guys, they took people who were central to their canon, like Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, and they made the world around that, saw everything through the lens of that consciousness.

Simon:    But in the '70s and '80s that must have made life more interesting for the journalists on both publications.

Richard:    Yes.

Simon:    The fact that you were both owned by IPC was a bizarre element in the story.

Richard:    Yes, it was.

Simon:    What was the relationship like between the two publications?

Richard:    Very rivalrous, very competitive, some degree of antipathy, some degree of amiability.

Simon:    Did you drink with these guys?

Richard:    I didn't drink with anybody. There was a bit of that but not very much. The rivalry was too intense, if you like, especially as the circulation figures started to move. We were--and I'm speaking collectively rather than individually--we were dismissive of the NME for far longer than was healthy for us. And I think that was a big mistake--if these were mistakes--because I think the Melody Maker continued in its honest path and the NME had a perfectly legitimate role and viewpoint as well. They were just slightly different, and it was obvious which one would have more currency, which one would be favoured by the coming generation of music paper readers.

Simon:   Just to sidetrack for a second. That comment you made, "I didn't drink with anybody"--just to explore that briefly. NME certainly made a virtue, they made a play of the fact that their journalists did mix with Jagger and Richard, Kent mixed with Iggy Pop. They drank and drugged together.

Richard:    And it worked very well.

Simon:    Was this something that you consciously avoided? Did you want to keep this world at arm's length as a writer?

Richard:    Yes, as a person more than as a writer. I loved music and liked musicians, I loved watching musicians, but I don't necessarily want to...I like being with my own friends. I don't necessarily want to be co-opted into another world, subsume myself in it.

Simon:    So you didn't see the cultural explosion, post mid-1960s, as all consuming and wanting to drown in It?

Richard:    It consumed me but it didn't dictate who my friends would be. It didn't dictate the social milieu I would move in. I never wanted to tag along with all that. I wanted to write about it. I feel the same way about sport. I don't spend my time with footballers or cricketers, no reason why I should. Of course I had some friends who were musicians but they weren't terrifically famous ones. I would think I was more friendly with British jazz musicians and, of course, there's nobody less famous than British jazz musicians, or less celebrated than them.

Simon:    Just to put the 1970s into context as they related to your career: You were made Deputy Editor on the Melody Maker. Did you then rise to Editor?

Richard:    Not then. In 1973 I was offered a job as head of A&R at Island. Island was a wonderful label then, and Chris Blackwell, whom I'd met a couple of times, was a very interesting, charismatic person. I thought I'd quite like to get closer to the actual making of the music. Cause I had always admired people like Neshui Ertegun and John Hammond, you know, producers. I knew I was never good enough to be a musician--I never had any illusion--but I wanted to try that and Island seemed to be the ideal environment for it.

Simon:    That was the time when Bob Marley was being promoted and projected as a major new international talent.

Richard:    I'd written the first pieces on Marley on a trip to Jamaica. That's really how I got to know Blackwell. So yes, Island at that time had Marley, Roxy Music, Richard Thompson.

Simon:    Amazing label. Do you remember those quite lavish booklets they would bring out with every album sleeve in full colour? Island did have a remarkable array of talent.

Richard:    They did. I had three years doing that, for better and worse. It was very interesting to learn from the inside how the business works, to learn what a deal was, to lose my illusions about the business side of things--that was good for me as a journalist. To see how a marketing campaign operates. But Island was actually growing too fast and over the three years I was there it became a much less happy place, a much less co-operative sort of place. It's always difficult when companies are run according to one man's vision and inevitably according to his whim. If you'd started a company like that you'd want to have a say in what went on and wouldn't necessarily want to be argued with too much. It was quite difficult. I signed John Cale, Nico, a few other things, had something to do with Kevin Ayers. I got the Richard and Linda Thompson album I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight released because it had been put on the shelf and forgotten about.

Simon:    The first couple of albums they did together were terrific.

Richard:    Yes they were. Pete Wingfield--do you remember "Eighteen with a Bullet"?--was my artist. But I don't look back on it as a particularly happy time, though it did teach me a lot about the business.

Simon:    So from 1973-76 you held the A&R role and then you left that behind.

Richard:    I'd freelanced for a bit. I had done that while I was doing my A&R job. I had been writing pieces for Let It Rock and Streetlife. So I left Island and freelanced. But then Tony Elliott, whom I didn't know, was editing Time Out, the London listings magazine. He was the founder and the Editor but he was going on holiday and he wanted somebody to look after it with a view to having somebody do the job permanently as a replacement for him. I didn't know whether I fancied it or not but I did it and ended up having two very rewarding years there. It was a very turbulent, very political environment in those days, long before City Limits, its later rival, came along. So all the radical politics were concentrated on Time Out, with a strong news section and we'd breach the Official Secrets Act every now and then. I went in as Editor, unknown to virtually everybody there, so that was quite difficult, quite challenging. I did it for a couple years and enjoyed dealing with theatre, cinema, music, books, dance, all those things. It was fun to have a broad view for a change. And then Ray Coleman stepped down as Melody Maker Editor and I went back as Editor at a very difficult time, 1978, when the paper hadn't quite grasped punk but hadn't shed its other old skin, and that was my job to do that...very difficult because the NME by that time had such a firm grip on it. My idea was to do it by just getting better writers, the best writing I could, so we did get some very good writing and some of the things we did I am very proud of--contributions by the likes of Mary Harron, James Truman...

Simon:    Did you have to let people go? Was that part of your brief?

Richard:    Not really, no. I did certainly de-emphasize some people. And then there were things that happened. Chris Welch went off with Musicians Only. IPC and Ray Coleman started what was supposed to be the musos' own magazine. Chris went off to work on that. Other people came and went. I suppose I was after more of a Village Voice thing, and then I got to the point of doing a big re-design which was to be the big statement. Then there was a strike and they wanted me to put out a scab issue and I said "No" and walked out. I was there from 1978-1980. Ray Coleman walked back in, having been nominal Editor in Chief, and tried to reconstitute the Melody Maker as he had left it rather than how I had left it, so I don't have a very happy memory of that. Two years of working incredibly hard. It was very nice to bring in James Truman, who's now running Condé-Nast, Mary Harron, now a very successful film-maker, and various other people, whose work I was very proud of, but it didn't, in the end, work.

Simon:    One other thread that's just worth picking up before we move into the 1980s--you were the first presenter on that British television legend, "The Old Grey Whistle Test."

Richard:    Yes. I did a year on it between 1971 and 1972. I didn't enjoy it. The BBC paid me a very small amount of money. I didn't give it very much time. I spent a day a week doing it. I was paid £20 a week to begin with to write and present it. They put it up to £30 half way through the year. No wonder I didn't take it very seriously. I didn't like being on TV anyway. They offered me the next year and I just couldn't face it. I'm not the face on a screen. If they'd paid me £100 a week I suppose I might have been tempted to stay. But I'm very glad they didn't because I wouldn't have wanted to at all.

Simon:    You felt as if print was your "métier"?

Richard:    Always--except in the case of radio where you actually feel you are talking to people.

Forward to Richard Williams, part 2