My disastrous career as a music journalist by Tim Lott

Being a music journalist in the 70s was seen as a ticket to debauched glory. But, Tim Lott recalls, the bands were morons, the Stranglers tried to kidnap him, and Kate Bush wouldn't take him up on a date

The phone call came during the summer of 1975. I was crouched in front of a typewriter in the smoke-fogged newsroom of the Middlesex Advertiser and Gazette counting down the minutes until I could flee the tedium of writing yet another report on local centenarians, rainy flower shows or missing dogs. The voice at the other end of the line informed me that a national pop music weekly, Sounds, was offering me a job. I stood up and punched the air with jubilation - punched right into that smoke, it seemed to me, and through to the clear air. I believed that day that I had not only been issued a passport to paradise, but also an entry stamp marked "Power and Fame", as well as a temporary visa from the Ministry of Drugs and Debauchery.

To be a music journalist back then was to be important - not only to the record companies, but to the artists and the record-buying public. This was because "rock", as opposed to "pop" - despite being a multimillion-pound industry - still had only a passing relationship with mainstream media. National daily newspapers and TV stations would happily cover the Bay City Rollers, but more "underground" forms of music were treated with suspicion or indifference.

When I started at Sounds in September 1975, it was best known for its coverage of heavy metal. NME and Melody Maker, our main rivals, were primarily concerned with lengthy coverage of "serious" acts such as King Crimson, Genesis and Supertramp. The LA music scene - Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, the Eagles et al - was regarded by pretty much everyone to be the promised land, the Eden of quality, taste and refinement.

Punk was in its birth pangs - Johnny Rotten had a few weeks earlier been signed up as lead singer in the Sex Pistols after turning up at Malcolm McLaren's shop in the Kings Road - but most rock writers were oblivious. When punk began to make an impact, early in 1976, Sounds took it to heart. But it was hipper writers than me who were at the forefront. I sat there in my promotional Fleetwood Mac T-shirt simultaneously scratching and nodding my head to the first acetate Damned single as it played in the office, trying to work out what was going on and wondering whether it was a "good thing" or not. Whether I liked it or not, it was my job to cover this new phenomenon that threatened the heroes I had previously held so dear (not all them dinosaurs - I loved Patti Smith and Iggy Pop). But the whole scene made me anxious - not because of the musicians, but because of the attitude, or the pose, that they carried like ready stilettos.

Truth was, like many apparent extroverts, I was somewhat shy. I was nervous of the people I interviewed anyway, even when they were friendly, inoffensive characters such as Nick Lowe or Jonathan Richman. I was scared when they were superstars like David Bowie, Freddie Mercury or Bryan Ferry. And I was terrified when faced with buccaneers like the Stranglers, the Clash, the Pistols and the Jam, who treated the music press - when it suited them - as deadly enemies.

Quite quickly, I made the discovery that musicians weren't, for the most part, very godlike or even particularly interesting. In fact, they seemed rather dim. There were exceptions - Kate Bush, then merely an unfashionable "pop" singer, was extremely bright and articulate, as were Ralf Hütter from Kraftwerk and Debbie Harry from Blondie. But for the most part, getting an artist to string together a few interesting words was backbreaking work. They were either bland, or overgrown children, or stoned, or all of the above.

When I visited Freddie Mercury at his house in Kensington, I was astonished by both his narcissism and his insecurity. Before we actually sat down to do the interview, he spent 20 minutes painstakingly showing me around his antique Chinese lacquered furniture, which he had just had shipped over at great expense. I nodded and smiled indulgently as he proudly took me through the history of each piece, while all the time I was wondering, "Why would Freddie Mercury bother to impress me with his taste in furniture?"

Embarrassment, in fact, was my key memory of those years. Going on the road with a band, which we were required to do as a matter of course, could be excruciating. Bands are closed communities which you only enter on their terms - and although I wasn't a very good music journalist, I was at least a committed journalist - one of the few "properly trained" ones on the music press. This is to say, I was determined to preserve my independence in a world, which, even then, was PR-dominated.

Most writers made their names by attaching themselves to a band and becoming their No 1 fans. I tended to keep my my distance, lurking in the background, making secret notes in a deliberately in-decipherable handwriting, lest one of the entourage should discover it. (You were unlikely to get the cooperation you were hoping for after the coda "bass player looks like a chimp" had been deciphered.) It was that cussedness - I liked to think - that led me to having an awkward relationship with many of the people I interviewed, reviewed or went on the road with. There was an inevitable conflict between trying to get "inside" a band - which required you to be affable, inoffensive, a sort of proto-friend - and how you got your journalistic stripes, which was to find out all their dirty little secrets and expose them to the public.

It made me uncomfortable and unpopular. The Stranglers tried to kidnap me from the office after I had written a poor review (they got someone else who happened to be handy, tied him up, kept him prisoner and suspended him over the stage at one of their gigs). Mick Jones of the Clash pushed me over in their dressing room for no apparent reason. The Lurkers brought out a song called I'm a Wanker. Scratched on to the vinyl was the epithet "Dedicated to Tim Lott". Sid Vicious spat at me. Iggy Pop threw a jug of water at me. And Paul Weller did something that I to this day hold against him. My younger brother, Jack, was at that time a 13-year-old Jam fanatic who idealised two people - his big brother (me) and Weller. He happened to meet up with Weller at the Townhouse studios and asked him for his autograph, telling him as he did so - excitedly - that he was Tim Lott's little brother.

"Oh," responded Weller, sulkily scrawling on the album cover. "Do you like him?"

"I love him!" said my sweet little brother, excitedly.

"Why?" said Weller, sourly, making it clear that it was an opinion that he didn't in the least share.

Exit my little brother, upset, disappointed and more than a little confused.

It wasn't all like that, of course. Kate Bush was so nice that she rang me up to thank me for the album review I had just written. Slightly overexcited, I asked her out on a date. She said no.

I got on terrifically well with Sting (how can you resist a star who greets you with - apparently without irony - "So you're the famous Tim Lott"?). And Britt Ekland, during her extraordinary brief singing career (one single) flirted with me so skilfully I thought for a least 30 seconds afterwards that she had actually meant it.

My sweetest memory was getting the first interview for three years with David Bowie in his Thin White Duke days. I had been covering Eddie and the Hot Rods, who were appearing on the Marc Bolan show, on which Bowie was also a guest. I took the train back to London with them and Bowie invited us all to join him in first class for the journey back. He thought I was a member of the band, and I didn't disabuse him of that notion. In the meantime, I noted down everything he said on a paper plate hidden under the table. Bingo - my first ever world exclusive.

I remember thinking that Bowie had a few of his pages stuck together. He talked of meeting the astronaut John Glenn, who had told him that he had seen something on the moon that he wouldn't ever tell anyone about. And Bowie seemed convinced that Nasa kept a cosmic black hole confined in a small metal box in the midwest, which, if it escaped, would swallow the whole universe. But other than that, he was extremely engaging.

The Bowie exclusive was probably the high point of my brief, inglorious career in music journalism. There were plenty of low ones, because truth to tell, I wasn't terribly good at the most important part of my job - spotting and promoting new talent. I had been to see both the Boomtown Rats and U2 at small London clubs in front of tiny audiences, and had dismissed them both in print as derivative and headed for oblivion (for the record, I'm still not a fan). My somewhat unreliable picks for the top were Toyah Wilcox, XTC, and a long-forgotten Scottish soul band called Cado Belle. The only ones I really got right were Elvis Costello and the Police, whom I championed from their first gigs.

But, apart from my general inability to tell wheat from either chaff or a pile of ordure, it was the torture of the interviews that makes for the most painful memories. The worst one still makes me wince. I was told by my editor that I had to - right now! - go and interview Gary Brooker from Procol Harum about their new album. He handed me a cassette of the album and shoved me in a cab. As I travelled the few miles across town, it occurred to me that I knew nothing whatsoever about Procol Harum other than the fact that they had recorded a record once called a A Whiter Shade of Pale 10 years before. It also dawned on me that the album reeked.

I don't know what I was thinking of, but, upon sitting down with Brooker - not, by reputation, the happiest of chappies - my opening gambit was that I "wasn't too keen" on the new album. He didn't respond. My dazzling follow-up was that I didn't really know what the band had been doing since 1967, and I requested that he fill me in. That did not seem to increase his enthusiasm. He just sat there, waiting for me to ask something intelligent enough, or at least polite enough for him to answer. The atmosphere in the following 45 minutes was so dire, it is ineradicably etched in my mind in fiery pictographs. After about 15 minutes of hapless questions, tortured monosyllables and long, agonising silences, I went and locked myself in the toilet.

I was hoping, somehow, desperately, that when I came out Brooker would have had mercy on me and left the building. But when I emerged, at least five minutes later, he was still sitting there, immovable, ready to resume his impersonation of a resentful lump of putty. Clearly the torture was to continue. I don't know how I got to the end of that interview, but it was shortly after that that I decided I didn't want to be a music journalist anymore. There weren't even the hoped-for drugs and groupies to act as recompense. I was offered drugs once in the years I was a music journalist, and got laid by a groupie precisely the same number of times. It was poor recompense. I wasn't cut out, I decided, to be a music writer.

But I was sure I could be a writer of some sort - a conviction not finally vindicated until 20 years later, with the publication of my first book. It was a success, and it felt like what I had always wanted to do. And best of all, not a single person tried to kidnap me after it was published.


Tim Lott

The GuardianTramp

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