Why did I end up with this mad kind of roving role? My own fault, pure and simple. For a couple of years and more I’d been trolling around the South Of England – that was my ‘area’. From Southampton to Haywards Heath; from Newbury to Banbury; from Chippenham to Brighton. That was where my slew of record shops lay; the ones into which I pre-sold all of our new releases.
We all had weekly ‘cycles’ whereby, if it was the second Tuesday in any given month one’s day involved visiting shops in (say) Staines, Esher and Camberley; if it was the third Wednesday then I’d be anticipated in Horsham – this was always a great day, brew-ups that involved urns of tea, not just pots; smoking as many ciggies as one wanted propped up against the shop's counter indulging in lengthy musical discussions with Phil, the manager of the best record store in that part of the UK. Afternoons that inevitably ended up with a drink or five in the pub where, ultimately, the pre-release order would be placed.
However, after months of doing this I’d started to feel that there was something more – was my life to really be just a sales-bloke; wasn’t there more; hadn’t I anything else to offer? I felt I had – we had all these bands out on the road and… maybe there was a way that I could combine (sort-of) being on the road with them and promoting them upfront at the same time on a local level…plus, I’d started to want to travel a bit more – mainland Europe was just across the Channel and… we had bands touring there and there would be record stores; radio and tv stations and… so, wouldn’t this be a good idea? I thought it might be, but… would anyone else at St Peters Square HQ have faith in my germ of an idea?
Fear and trepidation rising like bile in my mouth, I broached the subject one Friday afternoon with Knocker. He was formerly but nominally in charge of all of us – yes, our boss but nominally since we were, in those days, given so much rope that we could have, all of us, hung ourselves many times over. Such was life at Island that any misdemeanors weren’t punished by being fired on the spot, one was given a second or third chance – a far cry to how it is now in business of any kind.
Knocker had been christened as John Knowles, he’d a bristling beard and had a way of putting his point across that usually involved the F-word placed handily at the start, middle and end of each sentence. One knew where one stood with Knocker – a bollocking for under-achieving a monthly sales target was just that, praise for a difficult job well-done was equally dished out – tough and fair in level measures. Knocker Knowles - a true maverick in a non-conformist world.
He also had a fistful of improbable tales – many bound in fact with some that have become absolute legend; from his days detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure for GBH – Knocker, of course, being of the opinion that the Magistrate had dished out a tad heavy-handed custodial sentence as, so far as he (Knocker) was concerned he’d simply incurred a little facial damage to someone he’d come across in a bar who’d unwisely attempted to make a play for his then girlfriend – hence the moniker of Knocker. And then to his method of distracting an audience from an otherwise not-too-brilliant a show-case by Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers at London’s Dingwalls – Knocker simply climbed up onto the bar in the club packed to the gunwales with free-loading media people and paying punters and pissed all over it.
And Knocker’s advice while we sat and talked through my dilemma in the Cross Keys over a pint of 4X – handily situated over the road from St Peter’s Square? Go and see CB, have a chat to him and see what he has to say.
While Knocker spent his days mainly in St Peter’s Square which meant that he’d run across Blackwell on a pretty regular basis, this, for me was near-enough uncharted territory. He was – still is – the man; I was just blokey-bloke from Hampshire selling in new-releases that, more often than not, contained CB’s name emblazoned amongst the credits: album such and such produced by:
We’d met a few times but that was about it. He seemed like an amiable enough chap, appeared quite shy and not too scary, was quietly spoken and given to wearing sneakers with no socks, willing to listen while one chatted away inanely about this or that.
But… he had (well, for me anyway) a real aura. And, to be honest – I was in awe of this aura; after all, CB had founded this skinny little label back in 1959… I’d have been seven years old when he was putting out his first records; as I grew through teen-dom and started collecting records, mysteriously, my collection started to become a bit like the Island Book Of Records… pretty much every single one had as its centre the trademark-pink Island label.
Before long, I’d buy as near as dammit anything on Island, my reasoning being, while I may not have heard of (say) Head Hands & Feet, the label thought it was worthy enough – thus it’d probably be pretty good. And, generally speaking it was. Quality = Island Records – or that was how I saw it. And, i don't believe I was alone in that thought.
And now, here I was, still a record-collector at heart, working for them – for him really – when… if I’d been able to I’d have probably done it all for free. How amazing was that… being properly recompensed to indulge one’s hobby. Allowed into the sweetshop? Hell no, this was more like being paid to be at the best coal-face on the planet.
But, aura or not, nerves jangling or otherwise, I had to wander back around the corner from the Cross Keys, let myself in through the front door with its stained glass window that reflected the current centre of those mostly-magical 12’ vinyl albums and head upstairs – 'cos that was where the big-boss held court.
We shook hands and after a few general pleasantries had been exchanged I asked if we might have a bit of a private chat. CB coughed his pre-conversational trade-mark cough and, with old-fashioned courtesy replied, ‘certainly… how about meeting up at Basing Street?’ That was fine by me, Basing Street was the mid-sized studio complex in Notting Hill from where most of the seminal records had been concocted over the last few years – for me, this was like being invited into the back-room of the sweet-shop; for Chris – a matter of convenience since it was where he worked.
But then came the unexpected; could I be there the following evening… at midnight? Of course I could if this was what was required. It’d take a bit of explaining to my then partner as, after all, business meetings are, more usually, conducted in conventional business hours.
However, this – as I was slowly starting to work out – was hardly a conventional industry that I’d become involved in. And anyway, for me this wasn’t business… how could it be? Business meant corporate and how could a company that to all intents and purposes ran on instinct as much as it did with the ethic of making it up as we all went along be… corporate. Nope, this was a fun in capitals place to work. So, if I was required to be at place X at midnight... so be it.
As midnight approached, I buzzed the buzzer at Basing Street and explained I was expected…