The Road Goes on Forever: Talking with John Tobler
If any music journalist can be described as legendary it's John Tobler. He was a major force behind Zig Zag, the UK's first rock music magazine that he became involved with in 1969 at the invitation of Zig Zag founder Pete Frame.
Writing in the January 2012 issue of the late, lamented Word magazine Frame describes John's role in the Zig Zag story:
"Without his momentum and mad-arsed enthusiasm the magazine would have been toast; no one was ever more crucial to its survival."
Moving on from Zig Zag after a spell as CBS's press officer Tobler went on interview the stars of the day for Radio 1 and write for Melody Maker, NME and other music papers. He helped compile the Rock 'n' Roll: The Greatest Years TV series and has written hundreds of album sleeve notes and around two dozen music books. John now runs the Road Goes on Forever independent roots music record label with his wife Lynda. Ian Ravendale popped round for tea and a chat.
Where did your interest in music start?
I heard Rock Around The Clock in 1955 when I was 12 and it changed my life- despite it being not that good a record! I was entranced! I'd started buying records before that. I was taken with American musicals like Oklahoma and Annie Get Your Gun. They've got wonderful songs and have lasted a lot longer than rock 'n' roll! Although rock 'n' roll was necessary because in the early 50's it was Ruby Murray and stuff like that which has nothing to do with rock 'n' roll.
The first records you bought will have been vinyl 78's?
Certainly were! Out of my pocket money! My two favourite acts are from that time- Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers. I wrote a book on Holly and have interviewed both Everlys.
There's never been anyone like them. The harmonies are perfection and their songwriting team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant were perfectionists who wrote beautiful songs that you still hear today.
When and where did you start going to gigs?
I lived on Hamstead Heath with my parents and the first gig I went to see was Lonnie Donegan in 1959 at The Palace Theatre at London's Cambridge Circus. Donegan was extremely influential. I had a guitar and pretended I could play like him. It was a thrill seeing him- I was word perfect on all the songs because I'd listened to the records so much! Alma Cogan might have also been on the bill.
Around the same time I also saw Josh White, a famous folkie at Islington Town Hall. He was fantastic! He broke a string but didn't miss a beat. He started singing Strange Fruit accapella and while he was singing he put the new string on. Before the end of the song he'd put the new string on and re-tuned the guitar!
I'd got married when I was 20 and lived and worked in London for the Nat West bank and Prudential building society in the 60's. I went to the 2i's coffee bar in Old Compton Street, Soho at least half a dozen times. One of the acts I saw was (early rocker) Vince Taylor. I also think I saw The Geordie Boys! (Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch) It was a very small place with a coffee bar on the top and a cellar underneath which held 60 or 70 people and was very unpleasant. But it was rock 'n' roll!
Which British acts of the period did you like?
I was taken with Tommy Steele when he first started. The Melody Maker was the best paper of the time- more serious than the NME!
MM had a jazz section and I went through the Trad phase liking Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball and Chris Barber but that didn't last long. It was a great breath of fresh air when The Beatles arrived!
In the early 1960's the future major bands were playing little clubs. Which ones did you see?
I saw The Rolling Stones quite a few times before they were famous. I went to The Crawdaddy Rhythm and Blues Club at the Station Hotel in Richmond where they played at least a dozen times. And also to Ken Colyer’s Studio 51 Club in Leicester Square. It was jazz club but had groups on as well.
A typical Sunday for me would be see The Stones at Studio 51 between 3 and 5. Then down to Richmond to see them at The Crawdaddy. On Monday they might be at the Marquee or Ken Colyer’s Club. I thought The Stones were very good. Back then they were playing a lot of Chuck Berry who I was fascinated by.
Did you feel there was a 'happening scene'?
Not especially! I would buy records occasionally and friends would bring records round. It didn't seem there was big movement going on. Nobody lasted for long in the UK chart, apart from The Beatles and The Stones.
A bit later I got interested in the Elektra label and bought most of the albums they put out. The Doors, Love and so on. Da Capo is my favourite Love album because the first side is six beautiful songs. I still haven't played the second side!
In 1968 I went to see The Doors and Jefferson Airplane at The Roundhouse. It was the first really big gig I'd ever been to. The Doors were being filmed for a Granada television programme called The Doors Are Open. Their first set seemed sort of... alright. When the film crew left and they did their second set The Doors were much much better.
I became obsessed with them! They only played twice in Britain, this gig and the Isle of White festival in 1970 which I was also at. My abiding memory of Jefferson Airplane was that Marty Balin seemed to be the leader and main person. They'd brought a light show from the States which was very impressive.
The first issue of Zig Zag came out in April 1969. How did you get involved?
I'd worked with Pete Frame when we were both at the Prudential insurance company. We've known each other for 50 years now, which for a friend is a long time! Pete started the magazine, sent me the first one and asked if I wanted to help. So of course I said yes. I initially wrote under the name 'John HT' because my surname is actually Hugen-Tobler. My early efforts were pretty poor! Hopefully I improved when I found out what I was supposed to be doing. When it started the competition was International Times, Time Out and Rolling Stone. Melody Maker, Record Mirror, NME and Disc were all around too.
To keep the magazine going you had to get advertising.
Because I was still in London, now working for Nat West bank failing to be a good computer programmer, at the end of the day I'd get on the tube and go to the record companies like CBS, EMI, etc. clean out their cupboards of new releases and go home!
How did they perceive Zig Zag?
I think they were uncertain of the underground press. The promo copies of records didn't cost them much. And if they got some exposure it was worthwhile. Zig Zag had a good vibe right from the start- due mainly to Pete. It covered bands that you couldn't read about in the Melody Maker or NME. Pete had written for an American magazine before this as the UK correspondent.
The thing that most music fans will remember Zig Zag for was Pete's Rock Family Trees. How did the idea come about?
The first one was in Zig Zag 21 about Al Kooper. Pete had worked in the Estates department of the Prudential and had to draw things. He was obviously good at it and the Family Trees idea was what came to define Zig Zag.
Pete went full time with the mag in mid 1970 or 71 and moved to Aylesbury. I was still in London and was the visible part of Zig Zag to the music industry.
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Was the direction of the magazine and the bands you covered purely down to what you and Pete liked?
Yeah... although eventually record labels began to say "If you do a feature on X we'll give you an ad". You have to be very careful with that, but you've also got to balance it against keeping the magazine going or not keeping the magazine going.
In 1970 to advertise in Zig Zag was £20 a page. This was so cheap that Zig Zag 8 had 64 pages of which 32 pages were ads, which was ridiculous! The ads were too cheap so eventually we had to put the price up!
Zig Zag seemed to create its' own niche.
Yep. Then the competition came along, including Let It Rock, who I also wrote for! The distributor we had wasn't any good so we changed distributors. At its peak Zig Zag might have sold between 15-20,000. Printing that many is a bloody big print bill! Distributors don't pay you till ages after they've sold the mags.
Pete doesn't understand money. So from time to time Zig Zag would just stop because we couldn't pay the print bill. By the time of the 5th anniversary issue in 1974 we were only up to no. 40. After five years! That was when Tony Stratton Smith (Charisma Records boss) bought it. A chap called Graham Andrews who was a printer from Reading also bought the magazine at one time thinking he could make a lot of money out of it. That happened two or three times. They all eventually gave Zig Zag back to Pete.
Zig Zag was never a money spinner. It was always hand-to-mouth. Nobody got paid, apart from Pete. A chap called Connor McKnight who I worked with at the bank got terribly excited about Zig Zag.
Pete had decided to give up being the editor and Connor McKnight took over with no. 30. Pete would still contribute but the financial thing was beyond him. When Graham Andrew took over I became the ad salesman.
Zig Zag always had good coverage of American bands. How did you manage that?
In mid 1973 Pete said to me: 'We need to go to America and interview lots of people!'. So, I got £200 from CBS, £200 from Elektra and £200 from Warner Brothers. That bought flights to LA. Because of people Pete knew we slept on people's couches. We did 40 interviews including Lowell George, Van Dyke Parks, Arthur Lee, David Ackles, Michael Nesmith, Roger McGuinn, Andy Williams...
He'd just had a hit with Solitaire on CBS, who'd given us some money. We knew the CBS press officer in London who was a wonderful bloke called Mike O' Mahony. Completely mad!
He met us at LA airport in a Cadillac and took us to stay for the first week in Chateau Marmont on Sunset Strip. Next door to us were Heads Hands and Feet who were recording an album in LA.
I did Nesmith and Arthur Lee, along with some people I didn't know much about, like the guy from Moby Grape. Frame did Lowell George and went to San Francisco to do John Stewart. Because I'd got to know to know Eddie Tickner, who was the manager of Gram Parsons and later Emmylou Harris, he said to me I should go to a do that (Flying Burrito Brothers road manager) Phil Kaufman was organising. So I went and it was Gram Parsons' wake!
Amongst those playing were Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers (who I'd never heard of at the time!) a very bad Johnny Cash impersonator and Bobby 'Boris' Pickett, who's five song set included three versions of Monster Mash! It was an unforgettable trip, obviously! I got a lot of stuff in Melody Maker, which was my first introduction into the 'proper' music press.
The 5th Anniversary Zig Zag gig at the Roundhouse in April 1974 with performances from Michael Nesmith and Red Rhodes, John Stewart and others is legendary. How did it come about?
You worked as a press officer for CBS in the mid 70's which was your first full-time job in the music industry.
A chap I'd known from the Elekra label called Clive Selwood (who was also John Peel's manager) moved to CBS. Their press officer was leaving and Clive offered me the job. I'd never been a press officer and didn't know anything about it! So I left the bank and joined CBS on the 1st of April 1974. On the 6th of April 1974 Abba won Eurovision and I became their press officer!
Abba and Eurovision, of course, was miles away from The Doors and Jefferson Airplane.
I'd been married then about ten years, with two children and needed to have work and here I was working in the music industry! I was more interested in Michael Fennelly, who'd had a couple of albums out on CBS.
Did you wonder how you'd cope?
Not really. CBS had won Eurovision the year before with a woman called Anne-Marie David. So in 1974 CBS put out this four track EP with Waterloo, Anne-Marie David's winning song Wonderful Dream and two other entrants that year that were on the label.
One I can't remember but the other was a Swiss lady brick layer! The EP was called The Music Family of Eurovision. It must be the rarest of all the Abba releases.
I got on quite well with Abba. They didn't know anything either and I was one of their first points of contact. I got on very well with Benny who reminded me of Brian Wilson and with Frida, who was a very sexy woman! Agnetha could hardly speak English. Beautiful and a very good singer but there wasn't a great deal of communication. Bjorn was a sharp guy who knew what was what. The single after Waterloo was Ring Ring, which was a re-issue of a record they'd had out before and didn't do that well. Then there was a third record called So Long with I've Been Waiting For You on the B side which was quite good but a flop! They made their comeback in 1975 with SOS.
Abba, or maybe their manager Stig Anderson, were very clever. He worked out that if you put out a single like Waterloo with a different major record label in every territory, you'd get a lot of concentration on marketing and with a lot money spent in the hope that they the label would get more territories for the next single.
Your career as a press officer didn't last very long...
I was fired from CBS at the end of 1975, because I was no good as a press officer! I knew lots of journalists and was very good at spending the budget on posh lunches!
We had marketing meetings once a week at CBS. A record came out (I won't say who it was by!) and I was asked what press we had coming up for the record. And I said, perfectly truthfully, that none of us in the press office liked this record so we didn't have any, I'm afraid. Dick Asher, who was the Managing Director said. 'If it's got a CBS label on it, it's a great record!' So I was heading for the exit door from that point! I'd started working on The Arms of Mary by The Sutherland Brothers and Quiver. When that became a hit CBS paid me for three months as a freelance PR.
Did that set you off down the road as a freelance PR?
No. It didn't last. I was still no bloody good at it. I was too honest. If I didn't like a record I wasn't going to say it was any good! That was the Zig Zag vibe! One of the things that really got me thrown out of CBS was that I had to promote Melanie. She did a gig at the Albert Hall and it was awful! Inviting the audience onto the stage and all that bullshit! And she had a very unpleasant manager who she was married to. I made it clear I thought she was a complete waste of time and past it. Which I said! There was a lot of things I said during my 21 months at CBS that you're not allowed to say!
Looking at it in retrospect, should you have just shut up and got on with it?
Well.... no! I was developing as a writer and my path was moving in a very different direction to being a PR. At the end of 76, after a year of scratching around, I got friendly with John Walters, John Peel's producer. I knew his wife because she was Elton John's PR at DJM records. I got on very well with Walters who was a fabulous bloke. I did an interview with him for Zig Zag and he was brilliant. As a result he started writing a regular column for the magazine. He'd left the BBC and was writing for two or three papers and also had his own Walter's Weekly radio programme. Walters introduced me to Teddy Warwick who was a producer at Radio 1 and he sent me along to Stuart Grundy who was producing a programme called Rock On Saturday and I became the person who did the punk interviews!
I interviewed The Pistols, The Damned, The Clash, The Stranglers and so on. Most of the rest of Radio 1 were shit scared!
I interviewed Rotten and Vicious when Never Mind The Bollocks was released. Vicious was completely stupid! Johnny Rotten I got on quite well with. He was an intelligent bloke. I was also writing the odd punk thing for Zig Zag.
Around this time Zig Zag had a complete change of direction. Out went the laid back American bands and in came the punks, in what must have been the biggest about-face in rock journalism.
It was a ridiculous thing to do! Nobody would do it these days. It was Pete Frame's idea. The music we were keen on was no longer happening. It still limped on in the States to a certain extent. I've always felt that punk was necessary because of Emerson Lake & Palmer! And all those other silly prog groups that were all very self-conscious and costing a lot of money with their special carpets to stand on and so on. Kris Needs had been there right from the start of punk and he was brought in as editor.
Did the readership change?
It must have. I remember trying to get things into Zig Zag at the time. I would occasionally get a review in if it was of someone who was acceptable to punks like Arthur Lee or The Doors for example.
A lot of the American acts were still OK to punks. The Stooges, Lou Reed. I interviewed all these people and also Blondie who Kris and I were in complete agreement about.
Blondie first came to the UK when they were opening for Television in 1977. After the gig Kris and I went to their hotel and I actually stood on a pair of Debbie Harry's knickers that she'd thrown on the floor! She was a wonderfully attractive looking woman!
Against the odds, Zig Zag soldiered on…
I think all the old hippies had probably given up on the mag when Kris Needs was editor. A bloke called Paul Kendall edited it for a while. He was a mate of Pete's from Aylesbury. It was a bit dull. Andy Childs became the editor- lovely fella. He was a fan of Jesse Winchester and that sort of thing so the magazine moved away from punk and into singer-songwriters.
In the meantime, you were freelancing for Radio 1.
The next big thing for me was a couple of projects for the Beeb with Stuart Grundy, one called The Record Producers and the other was The Guitar Greats.
I wrote books to go alongside the programmes and think that they were the best books I ever wrote. A lot of the people in them are dead now, unfortunately.
We couldn't get to Phil Spector for the Record Producers series. That was my big regret. Nor could we get to Eric Clapton for the guitar one as his manager Roger Forrester had made an exclusive deal with Capital Radio. The brother of a friend of mine went to the same Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as Clapton so I asked him to mention to Eric that we'd love to interview him. Roger Forrester rang me up and gave me a ten minute ear-bashing about that! And he was right but I was doing it for musical reasons! There's two people I've always wanted to interview, Phil Spector and Eric Clapton, and it looks like I won't get to do either!
The series were broadcast in 1981 and 1982. Stuart was promoted so I worked with Trevor Dann for a while. There was lots of magazines springing up around this time so I wrote for them. One was called Blank Space and given away in the Virgin Records shops and edited by a chap called Pete Stone. Because it was to do with Virgin I could get to lots of very interesting people to interview. It lasted for 15 issues. I was also writing sleeve notes and wrote the horoscopes for many years in a magazine called Disco 45! I was Juan La Vista!
I met this chap called Cyriel Van Den Hemel, who was a mad Dutchman. He had aquired the rights to a lot of interviews that were done by Radio Veronica, which had started out as a pirate station but then became the national broadcaster for The Netherlands.
There were interviews with people like Fleetwood Mac and The Kinks- lots of big names. We would make programmes about these artists called The Story Of. Cyriel then got to know a Dutch bootlegger, who somehow (perhaps by copying them off TV) had a huge collection of clips.
So we put out a series called Rock n' Roll-the Greatest Years. We did a 1950's one and then every year from 63 to the 80's. We had a lot of trouble getting paid sometimes, but it was an amusing thing and I spent a lot of time in edit suites. This lasted for about seven or eight years and took me into the 90's.
I became the commissioning editor for the book company of Zomba Records. I got fired and then started working a few days a week for Music Week. I became their expert on country music! A rival to Music Week called Record Business started and I wrote for them for a couple of years. And then started writing sleeve notes again. And that's what I've been doing pretty well exclusively ever since!
The only company I write sleeve notes for these days is a re-issue label called BGO who are based in Bury-St-Edmunds. They're re-issued the entire output of Johnny Rivers and the same with Leo Kotke. I've written hundreds of sleeve notes!
You've written lots of music books, one of which was North Stars which was based on a local Tyne Tees Television series about rock and pop musicians from the North East.
The book was my idea! Because it was local series some of the people we interviewed said things they wouldn't have said nationally.
You and your wife Lynda run an independent record label called Road Goes On Forever. How did you get into that?
RGF was formed by Dave Hatfield, Simon Hart, John Garrard (who's a manufacturer of CDs) and a fourth guy who was some sort of producer in 1991.
The first album they put out was a Fairport Convention live album which Simon Hart had bought at an auction at a time when Fairport had broken up!
The label was launched in 1991 and you and Lynda took it over in 1993. You didn't have any experience of running a label so why did you do it?
I did it to see if I could! Because it's small and low key it's pretty straight forward. I've never worked on the basis that it had to make a profit or I'd go bust. Loads of record labels start and fall away after a couple of years because they can't afford it. Even those run by people you think would know better, like producers.
The first thing I put out was by Ralph McTell. I was writing for Folk Roots by this time and had interviewed him for it. I went to see him about putting out one of his records. It became clear that the only one that nobody wanted to do was Alphabet Zoo, which was a TV series for kids where Ralph had written a song about an animal for each letter of the alphabet! So I put that out! We also had three albums by The Strawbs and a couple of Ashley Hutchins things. Ralph and the Strawbs were the big sellers initially. Then Ralph left to issue his own records and then The Strawbs did the same. But by then I'd got Steve Gibbons and he's kept the whole thing running.
Steve Gibbons is internationally known. I go the Cropredy Festival every year and one year he was one of Fairport Convention's guests and we started talking. I'd interviewed him for Radio 1 in 1977 when he was having success with records like Tulane and he remembered me. He told me he was looking for a new record label.
Steve had been managed by the bloke who managed The Who and The Steve Gibbons band was the opening act for The Who for a couple of years. His manager had told him that he was too busy with The Who and so he'd give him back the master tapes of his four albums.
RGF has put out some Carolyn Hester albums too. She was involved in the US folk revival of the late 50's and early 60's. How did the label link up with her?
I had to interview Carolyn Hester for Folk Roots. Pete Frame knew much more about her than I did so he came along for the interview. We did it and I think she was very pleased we were interested. She'd just been re-discovered as Nanci Griffith's role model. Nanci Griffiths was big at this point and had done a gig at the Royal Albert Hall where she's brought in a few extra people to be guest stars, one of who was Carolyn.
I got on well with Carolyn and her husband David Blume. At the end of the interview David said that Carolyn had a couple of albums out in the States that had never been on CD and did we fancy doing it? Eventually RGF put out four CDs. When she was touring she'd sell quite a bit.
You do downloads as well as physical CDs, of course.
We're with a company in Sheffield who take care of the downloads. The sellers are Steve Gibbons, Blues And Trouble, who are a Scottish R & B band, Dave Burland who's a folkie and singer-songwriter Julie Matthews. We get £80 a month- mainly for Steve Gibbons. The man in the street may not have heard of Steve but anybody who's into music will have.