Music journalist Mike Nicholls has spent the past 40 years interviewing rock stars for publications including The Times, Penthouse, Daily Express, Hello! and Evening Standard. Now, he’s collated 100 of those interviews into a memoir: ‘My Life with Rock ‘n’ Roll People’ and I went along to Kentish Town’s Owl Bookshop to see him promote it.
It was a highly entertaining evening. Mike shared priceless anecdote after priceless anecdote, aided by his friends & fellow journalists Dave Stark, Susan Sharma and Dave Sinclair. Between them, they’ve met just about every musician you can name and listening to them reminiscing was the stuff nostalgia is made of.
It’s hard knowing where to begin so, as this talk took place in north London, let’s begin with musical genius Dave Stewart – a northerner by birth, but who made his name in this part of the world. Nicholls’ book transports us back to 1985 and the Accident & Emergency department of the Royal Free Hospital – where Nicholls, nursing broken ribs, having been beaten up by the actor Oliver Reed, bumped into Stewart, prostrate on a stretcher due to a punctured lung. The pair had met before, but never under such surreal circumstances.
“I first met Dave Stewart when The Tourists were shooting the video for ‘So Good to Be Back Home Again’, just after they’d opened Roxy Music’s 1979 comeback tour. They endured major label problems – but that worked out for the best, as Dave and Annie went on to form Eurythmics.”
I didn’t know this, but Eurythmics, who I used to LOVE, recorded much of their early material in Chalk Town, just up the road from this bookshop and not far from where I live. Once they went on tour, Nicholls told us, all the top musicians of the time wanted to join them, including Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan. Even their backing singers had star quality: remember Fairground Attraction’s front woman Eddi Reader?
Nicholls and Dave Stark have known each other since the 1980s, when they both worked for Express Newspapers owner Richard Desmond. Retired now, Stark drums and sings for The Trembling Wilburys – named after, I’m sure I need not tell you, The Travelling Wilburys. Now there’s a blast from the past! Do you remember the 1980s supergroup that comprised Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Jeff Lynne? What a line-up. It’s hard to imagine how it could be replicated today – and hard, also, knowing that three of those great musicians are no longer with us.
Did you know that ‘Handle with Care’ was named after the label on a box in Bob Dylan’s garage? Or that the band’s first album was written and recorded in under a fortnight, due to touring commitments? A huge fan of all the band members, Nicholls spoke particularly warmly of Tom Petty, who he interviewed on his first visit to America. “Tom was a self-confessed Anglophile who loved British music. But he hated his first appearance on Top of the Pops, because he came on directly after Kermit the Frog. He called it the silliest day of his life.”
Nicholls was with Petty when a fight broke out between Petty’s drummer and a waiter at a Marble Arch hotel, when said waiter objected to the drummer resting his feet on a dining room table…I’ll leave you to guess who won.
When Petty died last year, Nicholls told us, “It was a huge shock. Worse than when any of my family died.”
Susan Sharma was the first person to read the first draft of Nicholls’ book – and tonight she read us her favourite chapter from it: Nicholls’ interview with John Lydon (formerly Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols) – “…because I love the way Mike brings to life the essence and quirky characteristics of musicians like Johnny.”
Back in the day, Lydon and Nicholls lived near each other in West London, frequenting the same pubs. “A man of integrity” is how Nicholls describes Lydon, who shared a manager with Terence Trent D’Arby. Cue a hilarious anecdote about a concert after-party, at which a “wasted” Keith Richards made a surprise appearance and proceeded to party the night away with John Lydon et al. “Terence didn’t know what had hit him”, chuckled Nicholls, adding that Lydon eventually moved to America after he got fed up with the police raiding his house.
Another quirky character of whom Nicholls has fond memories is Kate Bush. “She seems ethereal, but actually she’s very strong. The first time I interviewed her was when she was recording her third album, “Never Forever”, at Abbey Road Studios.” Nicholls was struck by Bush’s belief in a higher power; a belief that acted as her motivation: “Without it, I wouldn’t do anything. My work is my God”, Bush told him.
Nicholls and Dave Sinclair know each other from their 1980s & 1990s days writing for The Times. Acknowledging that no-one was as good at sniffing out an interview opportunity as his friend, Sinclair read us Nicholls’ reflections upon meeting Mick Jagger for the first time and the many attempts it took to get Jagger to agree to an interview – including an ill-fated encounter with the Stones’ front man and Jerry Hall in a New York nightclub during the 1980s.
Keith Richards succumbed far more easily. Backstage at a Rolling Stones concert, it wasn’t difficult for Nicholls to get him talking about Class A drugs – and about, more surprisingly, Keith’s belief that The Rolling Stones are really a punk band. Who knew?
Mike Nicholls told us that he’s never found it difficult to get musicians to open up to him. “You just need to ask the right questions”, he insisted, adding that he despairs of current interviewers and their lack of interest in their subjects – or, indeed, music. He was equally disparaging of today’s musicians, confessing that he hasn’t though highly of anybody since Amy Winehouse or The Killers. “It’s ludicrous that Ed Sheeran has made more money than anyone else in music. All his songs are based on algorithms.”
The big stars – the likes of Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger – are the most co-operative interviewees: “They are so sheltered from the press that they feel isolated.” It was through calling Dave Gilmour directly that Nicholls secured an interview with him, during which the Pink Floyd guitarist told his side of the story about his relationship with Kate Bush.
Difficult though it may have been to narrow a lifetime of careers down to a favourite one hundred, Mike Nicholls is adamant that there will be no sequel, even despite his encounters with the likes of Ry Cooder and David Bowie – “…who was great fun. I met him mainly at art functions, where most of the journalists didn’t know what to say to him.”
His few regrets include not having achieved “Long, sit-down” interviews with Nick Lowe and Bryan Ferry – and that, having managed to “bump into” Michael Jackson on Marylebone Road, after the singer had visited Madame Tussauds, and finding that the singer was “ready for a chat”, unfortunately “his security people were a pain” – and the interview never happened.
What an incredible career. What I wouldn’t have given to have been a fly on the wall during those 100 interviews – and oh, how much I’m looking forward to reading this book.