On the Cover of the Rolling Stone

I’d discovered early on that the most time-consuming, ball-aching bit about being a writer was selling your work. With books, the norm was to present your publisher with a completed manuscript at which point you might see some money. I’d been horrendously lucky in that for Rock: Day By Day I’d been paid a weekly retainer to write it, and for Bits And Pieces, I had persuaded Penguin to pay me an advance on the strength of the idea.

Now though, I had been earning my beer money at the garage and doing nothing with my writing. I had to switch things around. I left the garage and wrote an article on Nick Lowe which I sent to Spiral Scratch, a Record Collector wannabe based in Cambridge. They agreed to publish it (though it would be months before I saw the money – the alarm bells should have rung wildly) but more than that, the publisher, Lee Wood, asked to meet me.

So I drove to Cambridge, probably in my sister’s car, and came home with a job as sub-editor on a monthly music magazine. It would be in Cambridge which presented one or two problems as my drinking was pretty bad at this point. This was solved in the beginning by me catching the train to Cambridge every day and not having to worry about driving.

At first it went well. Within a couple of issues I was made editor, not only of Spiral Scratch but of a new title we were working on called Music Collector. (In fact for pedants, Spiral Scratch was renamed Music Collector and we relaunched Spiral Scratch in a closer format to its original style)

I know some will mock the magazines but I think we did amazingly well given the lack of experience we had. Lee pretty much kept clear of editorial matters and I was supported by Alex – initially a volunteer who came in after his day job at Anglian Water – and a small staff of about three who mostly dealt with selling and typing up adverts.

In due course, Alex came on board full-time and we got an in-house designer (Shaun) which saved us a small fortune in design fees. This though was still the days of cut and paste. Although we can lay out the text on some posh Apple Mac it still had to be printed off and stuck to pasteboard with spray-mount.

Spiral Scratch

There were some expensive lessons along the way. We dealt with a photo agency and I enquired about the use of a Motorhead photo. £65 said they, so I ran it ten times in the article to fill some space. Got a bill for £650. After that we learnt to blag free photos from record company promo departments. We would even base our issue contents around what we could get hold of.

I remember one issue we had been promised a Sham 69 article by one of our fan/writers. All our articles came from fans and we paid peanuts. We had got hold of a free Sham 69 colour slide for the front cover and as we got within a few hours of the boards being picked up to go the printers in Bristol, there was still no Sham article. I had to grab a pile of NMEs and produce a Sham 69 piece from thin air inside an hour. I got some really nice feedback on that feature.

The best feedback I got was on my Sweet article. Brian Connolly actually phoned me up to thank me. At first the conversation was going well, he seemed genuinely pleased with what I had written. Then, the voice seemed to slur more and he started asking things like “Did you speak to my ex-wife?”, “Who told you that then?” I brought the conversation to a rapid halt. Brian died soon after. He had already featured in the Lancet for surviving seven drug/alcohol induced heart-attacks. He didn’t survive number eight.

Brian’s paranoia wasn’t the most worrying moment I had when I worked on Spiral Scratch. I remember one day having to walk past a man with a baseball bat to get into the office. Thankfully he wasn’t interested in me only in my boss who apparently owed him a bit of money. He never came to work that day – must have been tipped off – and I never saw the men again. They weren’t the only ones who were after him. In the mid-70s Lee had a record label called Raw. It released a number of great punk records. He also did some work with the Troggs. Apparently they never got paid and were on his back.

I saw this first hand. I remember one day chasing Lee for some money to pay our writers. We were months behind. Eventually he signed a load of cheques for me and I spent the afternoon writing them out. £30 here, £40 there. As I said we relied on our writers being fans and only paid them a token amount. I guess the whole lot that afternoon came to about £800. I popped them all in enveloped with a covering note and took them down to the post room. Just before I went home I dropped another letter in the post room and saw, ripped to pieces in the bin, all the cheques I had written out that afternoon. That was probably the beginning of the end for me.

Let’s go back a bit. When I first started at Spiral Scratch we worked in a unit on an industrial estate near the Beehive Centre in Cambridge. After a few months we rented a large house in Chesterton that backed on to the pub. Literally backed onto the pub; we even shared their car park. In fact, the house had at one time been the regional office for Tolly Cobbold as we found out when we uncovered stacks of beer mats and other ephemera in the cellar.

So the Haymakers became our extra office where Alex, Shaun and I would go to discuss the latest immoral, money-making scheme our publisher was dabbling in (Let’s not mention Madonna Monthly). It wasn’t a particularly great solution for me. Rather than risk drink-driving I took to sleeping in the office although this just meant I spent the evening as well as lunchtime round the Haymakers.

Like most parts of my life my eighteen months at Spiral Scratch were Punch’s proverbial Parson’s Egg i.e. good in parts. In the end, working for a man like that gets to you and Alex, Shaun and I quit. The titles folded within three months and yes, I’m sorry this meant some other people lost their jobs, but I’m not sorry it stopped that man from trading. He went on to sell second-hand washing machines from a shop in Cambridge and the last I heard he has set himself up as an Internet Private Eye. I think the Troggs still want to kill him; them that’s left anyway.

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