by Ian Ravendale
Bob Smeaton is probably the UK's (and maybe the world's) most successful director of music documentaries.
He started in 1995 as Series Director and writer on The Beatles Anthology, still music's most-watched documentary series and has gone on to work with many major acts including The Who, Queen, The Doors, Elton John, Pink Floyd and The Spice Girls.
A comprehensive list of Smeaton's documentaries can be found at bobsmeaton.co.uk
Prior to this Bob was lead singer for White Heat, Newcastle's biggest band of the late 70's and early 80's who put out several independent singles before signing to Virgin Records. The move didn't go according to plan and climaxed in White Heat splitting after indpendently releasing the sessions they'd done for the label as the In The Zero Hour album.
I interviewed Bob and White Heat a lot for BBC Radio Newcastle's Bedrock programme and the Sounds music weekly, where I reviewed the band's last ever gig at a sold-out Newcastle Mayfair. Smeaton is personable, easy to get on with and a genuine nice guy who hasn't let his stellar CV go to his head. I caught up with him in late November 2014.
You started singing in local pubs and clubs around Newcastle as a teenager in the late 1970's with a band called Hartbraker.
Hartbraker was a four piece with me on vocals, Colin Roberts on bass, Brian Younger playing guitar and John Miller on drums. Then Alan Fish joined, also on guitar. We were playing blues rock-Free, a few Deep Purple songs. Even then we knew that we had to write our own songs to make it. When Alan came in, I thought "That's the end of me! Two guitar players in the band!"
You then changed the band name. Was that because of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, and the Johnny Thunders' Heartbreakers?
(Pictured left to right:)
Bob Smeaton, Colin Roberts, Brian Younger,
(Photo by Rik Walton www.rikwalton.com)
Partly that but I lied about it!I made up a story saying that we'd been approached by a guy saying; "Change your name!!!!" We didn't get approached by anybody! We were sitting in the City Tavern in Newcastle and John Miller suggested the name White Heat. Great! I loved the James Cagney film and there was also a Lou Reed Velvet Underground song called White Light White Heat. But it was really more because of the Cagney film.
Alan could write a lot better songs than Brian could. Bri and I were writing songs that were pretty much copies of blues songs. Alan had a different mentality. He was listening to stuff like Little Feat that I hadn't listened to. I was very much in the blues-rock vein. Our main goal was to play (Newcastle's) Bridge Hotel!
Did you manage it?
Yes! Our first gig was supporting The Scratch Band. These were guys that seemed really old! They were probably in their 30's! We were 19 or 20! We were like boys around town. Then we headlined it and packed the place out. We were playing Led Zeppelin songs and songs where we sat down and played acoustics, and it just built from there. When Alan joined the songwriting had become better and there was a definite shift in the style of the songs. I'd been trying to sing like Robert Plant and Paul Rodgers and Ian Gillan. I was never going to be able to sing like that! I was never a great singer. When the New Wave thing happened with people like Graham Parker and Elvis Costello I thought: "Hang on a minute, I can sound like these guys!" It wasn't about hitting really high notes.
Bob Smeaton (Photo by Rik Walton www.rikwalton.com)
If New Wave hadn't happened we wouldn't have done as well as we did. We were about the right age and started playing Anarchy In The UK, 2-4-6-8 Motorway etc. That fed into our songwriting but without losing the bluesy base. Maybe part of our problem was that we never went fully New Wave. We were still sticking to our Northern blues roots, but with shorter songs.
White Heat were managed by Brian Mawson, a Newcastle businessman and record shop owner. The band got a deal with Virgin which didn't work out. Why was that, do you think?
We signed to Virgin Music Publishing first. It seemed to take forever to get a record deal. I was desperate to be signed! I thought that once we were signed that would be it. We were going to be The Rolling Stones! We had a few record companies interested. Brian was great and said we shouldn't rush into anything. Richard Branson had been to see us a couple of times and we played at The Venue in London (which was Virgin's gig) we'd taken a busload of people down with us so we had our home crowd there. Branson came backstage after the gig and I said; "Richard, when are you going to sign us?" I had my shirt off after the show and Branson got a felt-tip pen and signed my chest! Within a week we were signed to Virgin!
Laurie Dunn, who signed us to Virgin Publishing was the main champion of the band. Virgin Records had subsiduaries like Din Disc at the time and the idea was that Laurie would get his own label. But then Laurie and Richard had some sort of fallout and Laurie left. The Virgin people just weren't interested in the band anymore.
When the warning bells began ringing I started going down to London to meet people. I was like the assistant manager to Brian Mawson! I went into Virgin and they asked me if I'd like to join The Ruts! Malcolm Owen, the lead singer, had died in July 1980. That's when I knew it wasn't going to work out with Virgin. We'd made the album and they weren't going to release it so we put it out independently. We knew then that White Heat wasn't going to make it. But where we were lucky was that Geoff Wonfor had started helping us out. Geoff was working as a director at Tyne Tees Television on the Check It Out (youth magazine) programme and he'd do little videos of the band and also directed a Check It Out special. Brian Mawson said that for our final gig we should go out in a blaze of glory. We booked Newcastle Mayfair on Friday night and sold it out.
I know you feel aggrieved that when Tyne Tees made the Northstars series about rock and pop musicians from the North East some years later White Heat weren't included.
This gets my goat so much! We were the only local band without a record in the charts to sell out the Mayfair but we weren't on the programme or the book they put out. At the time we were the best band in Newcastle. We had a following, a bunch of great songs...
I reviewed White Heat's Mayfair farewell for Sounds and it was a great gig.
I tell you another gig you reviewed, which was one of our best reviews. (Former Tyneside music hall) Balmbras, where you say that the next train to Newcastle (for record company A&R men to get on!) leaves Kings Cross at 1am. I still get goose bumps thinking about it! There was you and (Sounds journalist) Phil Sutcliffe writing about us and we were suddenly in the papers.
During your appearance at the Bedrock Festival there was some trouble in the audience. You stop the rest of White Heat, jump off the stage and sort it out! 'My hero' I remember calling you in the Sounds review! The thing that struck me was what a great front man you were. Maybe not a great singer, but neither is Mick Jagger. There were definite similarities.
That's what I thought too, which is why I thought we were going to be the next Stones! And when it didn't happen I was devastated.The business got in the way. It wears you down. We were thinking we could maybe sign with somebody else but I didn't want to see it fizzle out, so we did that gig, it was great and I was really happy. Then I woke up on Monday morning and didn't have a band any more.
A little while after White Heat called it a day you and Alan and Colin from the band regrouped as The Loud Guitars. How did that come about?
Laurie Dunn was now running Statik Records. He got in touch, asking what I was up to and said he'd sign me to a solo deal. We'd record some tracks and he'd get me a deal in the States. I was singing better and writing some songs on my own so I said: "Right!"
He put me together with (producer) Pat Collier (ex-Vibrators and Boyfriends) to record some tracks who said he'd put a band around me to do it. I was writing again with Alan Fish, so I got Alan involved. I'd also been been working with a great Northumberland guitar player called Martin Campbell and he took it up another level. We did some demos at Steve Daggett's studio in Gosforth and I sent them to Pat Collier who said that Martin was a great player so bring him down!
Me, Alan and Martin went down to London and recorded an album's worth of material with Pat. We had to have a name so we called it Bob Smeaton and The Loud Guitars. Laurie was pushing the tapes around, trying to get interest. Roger Davies, Tina Turner's manager, was interested in managing us and I thought;
"This time it IS gonna happen!"
But the thing with Statik was taking a long time-about a year. We hadn't done any gigs, just the recording. I'd become close friends with Geoff Wonfor who by this time was working on The Tube that Tyne Tees were producing for Channel 4. He and I had this idea for a series for Channel 4 called Famous For 15 Minutes. We were going to be the first band on it and were going to be filmed playing live. We did a couple of warm-up gigs then a show at Riverside that was filmed. What we'd never had with White Heat was national television which we did with The Loud Guitars.
Alan Fish, Colin Roberts, Bob Smeaton
It all started up again but didn't work out. We recorded a live album at Inventions club in (Newcastle) Haymarket which we put out on cassette and split up.
Looking back, how do you feel about your time in bands?
We'd had two really great goes and I loved it. The best thing I've done. Better than anything else!
Jumping into the present, I get the idea that maybe you'd be up for some form of White Heat reunion but Alan isn't keen.
Alan and I have been doing some recording but have had a bit of a mini falling out. One of the songs we'd been working on he changed round, it became a different song and he got somebody else in to record it. But that's OK....we'll always be friends. A year ago I said; "Before we get too old, let's do a gig. We could hire (Newcastle) City Hall and we'd sell it out." Alan said he wasn't sure. I'd have done it in a heartbeat!
Alan has been involved in folk music type stuff (with his band The Attention Seekers) which isn't my cup of tea, which I've told him. I think we'll probably look back in five or six years time and think we should have done it. You don't want to be doing it as a sixty year old bloke. We all currently look OK! I think what Alan thinks is that we'd be better off reforming Loud Guitars. It was probably a better band and the songs were better...
...but White Heat are the band with the big local reputation.
Yeah. We did used to play White Heat songs with Loud Guitars. So we could get away with playing Loud Guitars songs with White Heat! I told Alan that if I was going to get involved I'm not going to be a passenger. I want to sit next to the driver! But Alan's now been doing it for so long on his own and not having me there. I think he just thought that he enjoys what he's doing now-his folk music gigs and recordings-without me coming in and saying "Right! Now we're gonna be The Rolling Stones!" But Alan's great. He's still got a good ear for melody.... Who's to know? One day he might change his mind.
Around the White Heat time you've also did some television presenting, including a couple of 'youth' programmes for BBC TV Newcastle, The Colour Programme and Off The Peg.
I didn't really like it! I wasn't a TV presenter. Paul Corley was involved then he left to be one of the producers of The Tube and he asked me if I fancied auditioning for a presenter's job on the show. I didn't want to do it!
You've also acted and your first job was a feature film!
The writer Michael Wilcox had seen me on telly. He'd written this play called Accounts which had been done on stage. I'd done bits of acting at school but my first professional acting job was Accounts for Film on 4! It was interesting doing it and I thought, maybe I'm going to be an actor. But everything I did just didn't give me the buzz that the music did. I enjoyed it but I'd go for auditions and Robson Green would be there and he'd get all the jobs! Then I got involved with music again, through Geoff Wonfor.
This was making music documentaries. How did that come about? You'd presented TV programmes but had no experience in television production.
I was closer to Geoff than I was to my father. He was my best friend and I loved Geoff. He was so enthusiastic! I was skint and he'd say; "Come along!" I was his assistant. Then Geoff got a job to go to Jamaica to do the history of Island Records for Channel 4. He'd formed a production company called Strictly The Business with (former Tube video editor) Andy Matthews, which had done Famous For 15 Minutes. I was helping round the office and writing programme treatments. I think Geoff just liked having me around because I would listen and answer him back. Andy was great as well.
We'd shot some footage in Jamaica for Famous For 15 Minutes and I'd been in the edit suite with Andy while Geoff was off doing his other stuff. I could see the transition between filming something to editing it. I'd make suggestions to Andy, he'd try it and it would work. It was just something to do! I was on the dole and Geoff would give me £20.
Geoff Wonfor, Andy Matthews
Andy regrettably passed away earlier this year. He and Geoff worked a lot in the edit suite at Gateshead's Stonehills Studios, which also housed River City Productions, where I was Head Of Production so you and I used to bump into each other. Being around must have brought you into contact with other TV professionals apart from me!
(Former Tube producer) Chris Cowey came in. He was doing this Tina Turner documentary. I sat with him in the edit suite and would make suggestions and Chris would try them and he said; "You know what you're doing here!" I think it was because I'd written songs so knew about structure. Me, Geoff and Andy also worked on Paul McCartney's Liverpool Oratorio in the Stonehills Studios edit suite.
McCartney came into to Stonehills, didn't he?
I was told later he'd flown up and arrived at 7pm after I'd gone home. If I'd known I'd have stayed! You were subsequently about to have even greater contact with Paul, of course.
I was working with Geoff and he'd been saying for a while that we had this big job coming up. The Beatles! "We're going to be doing The Beatles! I'll get you involved in it!" Brilliant! One time I picked Geoff up from the station after he'd been to London. He came walking through with this big smile on his face. He says; "We've got the gig!" Great! When do we start? "Soon!" I went away on holiday and by the time I came back they'd already started. Geoff brought me on board as assistant director.
We went down to Apple in London and I can remember asking him what my role in The Beatles Anthology was. He said; "You can make it whatever you want to make it!" We'd been there for three or four months and we hadn't really started making the programmes!
What were you doing then?
Cutting together music sequences and getting the tracks together. Like the opening song of the series was In My Life-and Andy and Geoff would put pictures to it. I remember saying to Geoff; "Where are we going to start the story?" (Apple Corp manager and life-long Beatles associate) Neil Aspinall's original start of the story was the release of Love Me Do. I said to Geoff that we ought to start with when they were born! That didn't happen in music documentaries. You never went back to Day Zero. So that's what we did. We put together a rough cut which ran 90 minutes and they hadn't even formed the band! It was great stuff and that's when I thought; "I can do this!" I was told I was going to be Associate Producer.
Which must have been mind blowing! You were doing the definitive documentary of the definitive band!
Yeah! So I got more and more into it and Geoff pretty much let me take control because I was in there and I loved it! I'd get piles of transcripts, I'd do the questions for (presenter) Jools (Holland). Neil Aspinall said that he didn't want Jools in the programme. I'd sit there, really frustrated because I knew what I needed to tell the story. In the end I'd jump in and say things like; "George, can we just backtrack? When you first went to Hamburg......" So I'd do that. And eventually Jools wouldn't be available, so I said I'd do it. When I was in there, I knew what I needed to get and I could do it! I was really really enjoying it.
What were your first encounters with The Beatles themselves?
I'd met Paul before because of doing Liverpool Oratorio with Geoff. I'd met George when we did the Mr Roadrunner documentary about the music of Memphis and Nashville. We went to Memphis where George was playing in a tent with a bunch of other musicians. The first Beatle interview we did for Anthology was with Ringo. He came in and answered a bunch of questions. Geoff was dealing with Paul, George and Ringo but I would ask the interview questions. I got on really well with George.
He saw the situation I was going through. He got friendly with me and it was great. I can't tell you too much stuff because it's going to be in my book! I got on well with Paul too. Geoff was great at dealing with them. But he would tell them whatever they wanted to hear. Then I would go back in and say; "Geoff, we can't do it! We haven't got that!" I resigned three times. I wanted to get on and do the job. All of a sudden I felt it was my gig, even though it wasn't, it was Geoff's gig. And then it got really difficult...
Creative differences within the production team, you mean?
When Geoff wanted to shoot sequences he was thinking of the visuals but I was thinking all the time of the story. Neil was great, he knew what was happening, he let me go with it, (Anthology producer) Chips Chipperfield was very supportive. His role was to look after Geoff, really and deal with Neil Aspinall. Chips and Neil became really close. And (longtime Beatles associate) Derek Tayor too. So they'd be dealing with all that. I just wanted to be in the edit suite with Andy putting stuff together.
Anthology was obviously a huge undertaking, being eight one-hour programmes.
It ran for three years! Paul, George and Ringo would come in and make comments and we'd change it. The way it would work was we'd make a cut of each programme. I'd put together what each of the programmes would be, the start point and end point. We started with the idea that once they became the Fabs-1963-we'd have a programme for each year. It didn't quite work like that, Some of the programmes just ended when it felt right. Neil would look at the rough cut and we'd make Neil's changes. Then it would go off to the guys. And Yoko. But they could only change what they said in the programme, not what somebody else had said.
How did that go?
Geoff said that he'd had more comments on a three minute pop video than we got from the guys, which was great. We did a big section on Sgt Pepper and they said; "Why've you spent half an hour on Sgt Pepper but only ten minutes on Revolver?" We'd say; "Because it's Sgt Pepper!" They'd say; "No, no! You might have thought that but we thought Revolver was THE album!" Their comments were all really really valid. There was never any big rows.
Geoff dealt with Yoko. She was probably the most difficult. She was saying things that would upset the apple cart. For example, where the 'Beatles' name came from. We had a whole section saying that Stuart Sutcliffe thought of the name. Yoko came back saying that John thought of the name. He had a dream that a man on flaming pie had said "You shall be Beatles with an A". So suddenly Stu doesn't get the credit. But there were no major upheavals.
The only voices you hear in Anthology are the four Beatles themselves-John via archive footage of course-along with Aspinall, Taylor and George Martin. There's no outside narration as there generally is in documentaries.
We didn't try to impose ourselves. It was The Beatles in their words telling their story. It worked and was such a great time. It got difficult in the last year. Geoff and I fell out and didn't speak for two years. Andy, Geoff and I went out for the Emmys Television Award ceremony in the US and we didn't win. I was working on something else by then but thought; "Great! Go to LA!" I was happy just to be there. Geoff was devastated when we didn't win. Three months later we got nominated for a Grammy and neither Geoff nor Andy wanted to go. So I said I'd go. New York? Madison Square Garden? Great! And we won! So I go on stage, pick up the Grammy and make the acceptance speach. I'm on the stage of Madison Square Garden! I'm Bob Smeaton from Benwell! I come back and front page of the (Newcastle) Evening Chronicle is a photo: "Local soap actor wins an award!" I was appearing in Quayside at the time. And Geoff thought I was stealing the glory! I didn't put the picture in the paper!
Let's get onto Quayside, which was a soap opera based around Newcastle Quayside produced by Zenith North for Tyne Tees and Yorkshire Television which ran for five months in 1997. This was a return to acting for you. How did that happen?
When we were on the last legs of Anthology, doing bits and pieces I was pretty much burned out. It got really tough at the end and I was thinking that I didn't want to do it again. I was exhausted. I got offered this acting job up here on Quayside and it was great. Six weeks of doing that.
Between us finishing Anthology and it being on TV there was a three month gap. Even though I'd worked on it, nobody had seen the programme! So, I thought I'd do something totally different. On the week I finished filming Quayside, Anthology came on TV and I realised that I really enjoyed making music docs.
Your next job was the Classic Albums television series that you were heavily involved in.
I got offered 'The Band' Classic Album. The series producer was a guy called Nick de Grunwald. They'd done Hendrix's Electric Ladyland and Fleetwood Mac and the Grateful Dead and one of the cameramen who I'd worked with before suggested to Nick that he get me in. Suddenly I didn't have the safety blanket of Geoff and Andy. Andy Matthews was brilliant. A great editor. But two's company, three's a crowd and I was always on the outside because Geoff and Andy were best mates. Then, I'm doing The Band and they're not there.
The Band programme wasn't your first go at directing though.
When we were doing Anthology we also did a programme about the song Danny Boy which I directed. I was suddenly telling the cameraman what to do. Geoff got a producer's credit and Chips was also involved. We also did 21 Years Of Virgin Records. Geoff directed the live gig and I directed the documentary. I'd been around Geoff and knew the cameramen. All I had to worry about-which I worry about even now-is the content. Have a vision as to what the story is and make sure that you get the material to do that.
The Band programme was nerve-racking but I had the freedom not to worry about whether I was going to upset Geoff. I could say; "I'd never have shot that eye-line that wide! I want the camera up here!" And I could make sure I got the interviews. I loved the research process, I loved writing the questions. The Band guys were just brilliant. So I was on a roll then! I've done six or seven of the Classic Album programmes, including Lou Reed's Transformer, Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Nirvana's Nevermind...
Dave Grohl seems like a really nice guy.
Dave was great and was flattered that Nirvana were being included in the Classic Albums series. Dave told us that Nevermind was the thing that he was most proud of out of all the things he had achieved as a musician. We filmed with him at Capitol studios in Los Angeles and he mentioned at the time how he loved visiting studios that had a history. Three years later he himself was Directing a documentary a about Sound City studios which was where Nirvana had recorded the Nevermind album. When he found out that i had worked with the Beatles he mentioned that his two favourite drummers were Ringo and John Bonham and that Kurt was a massive Beatles fan.
Martin Smith, Dave Grohl, Bob Smeaton, Steve Onopa
I always watch the Classic Albums programmes and wait for the credits to see if you've done it!
You can generally tell mine. (Laughing) They're the best! There's been some great ones in the series. But I always go for the story.
You've directed four Jimi Hendrix documentaries. How did that tie-up come about?
Chips Chipperfield and I got a call from John McDermott who runs the Hendrix estate and he said that he wanted the guys who did Anthology to do a Jimi Hendrix doc. While the Anthology Grammy was sweet, the second for Hendrix Band Of Gypsies was much much sweeter, because I did it on my own. Chips was producer and I was director. We were up against U2 and Radiohead.
Was it an easier process doing the Hendrix than it was The Beatles?
Yes. Because we were dealing with a dead artiste. With The Beatles I'd get nervous and frightened that we wouldn't have a programme. Even now, after having made around 30 films, I still get frightened that I'm not going to be able to make the programme. Are we going to have enough material? When I'm about to start a job I'll wake up in the night and I've got ice in my guts! It's the fear of failing. I think it's a good thing, because when you get complacent that's when the wheels are going to drop off!
In 2007 you made a Spice Girls documentary for BBC 1, which was a bit of a departure for you.
I'd done a Queen documentary for Bob Massey at ITV who then went to work for 19 Management. He rang me up to say that he needed a doc made about five girls who were re-forming but it's top secret! I went in and met (manager) Simon Fuller who's a massive Beatles fan. Everybody else who was pitching for the doc had talked about who they'd interview about the group-Robbie Williams and so on. I went in and said; "People don't want to know what Robbie Williams thinks about the Spice Girls! They want to know what the Spice Girls have got to say, just like we did with the Beatles." And Simon Fuller liked that idea.
Talk us through the five of them. What are they like?
I got on really well with Mel C. She was really supportive and helpful. Mel B was really good. I used to think that she didn't like me and would say; "Mel, you were a bit off with me yesterday..." And she'd say (Leeds accent) "Don't worry about that! I love yer!" She was great. Geri started ringing me up about changing stuff. Someone had given her my number, which wasn't meant to happen! So she was a bit scattered. But still nice. Emma, Baby Spice, was great. Really sweet. Victoria was the most difficult because by then she was the most important Spice Girl.
Because of David Beckham and the fashion line?
Yeah. The job took place over the space of a year and I said that what I wanted to do was interview everyone individually before they got back together, before they became friends again. So I did that and got things like; "She punched me! And then said this...!!!" And so on. Victoria had her hair blonde. Six months later they're back together and I interviewed them again and I'd say; "You know what you said six months ago..." And they'd say; "Can you change it?" And I'd say; "No, that was the idea!" We go to interview Victoria in LA and she's now got her Posh Spice bob back and she says all that stuff that we shot in the first interview we can't use any of it! Why not? "Because I've dyed my hair black!" I said;"Victoria, that was the whole point! That was you when you weren't a Spice Girl and now you are again." It was a bit difficult but she was calling the shots. She was definitely the big cheese then!
I filmed some stuff at the first rehearsal in LA and I thought they were never going to get it together. The amount of time they'd got-dance steps, re-learning the songs, singing live....Then we filmed some stuff at the dress rehearsal in Vancouver before the first gig in the December and I was thinking; "This is not great!" But when they came on stage for the actual show-no lies-it was like Beatlemania! They were absolutely brilliant! It suddenly went from being fairly ramshackled and went 'Click!' When they came up on stage the crowd went absolutely mental and they just rode that wave through it. I've got the utmost respect for them.
It was such a great job because suddenly I wasn't interviewing blokes with beards! I was interviewing people younger than me, which I'd never done before!
So which one did you fancy, if any?
I didn't really....I remember when we did a press conference at the O2 Arena to launch the tour, which Richard E Grant presented. All the world's press were there and we were filming it. The band were there, of course. Victoria has a good business brain and said that we were making a documentary which is being directed by Bob Smeaton who did The Beatles Anthology. I thought; "Good for her!" And somebody from the press said; "Why did you choose him?" And Mel B said; "Have you seen him? He's really hot!"
They were really great. But you just do your job. When I've worked with someone like this I've never become friends with them. Never rang them up afterwards. I didn't want to cross that line even when I've worked with people again-I've done three Elton John documentaries and got on really well with him. He's really into both music and football so we've got that common ground. Elton invited me to his civil partnership party but I didn't want to go!
I didn't feel it was my place and I'd feel embarrassed. When I did the Squeeze doc I got on well with Chris Difford but it was on a professional level. I never want to go for a drink afterwards with anybody.
How do you deal with the business end of being a documentary producer? It's very different to divvying up the door money for a gig at the Bridge Hotel!
One of the things I've realised over the years is how important education is. I'm not stupid but I've never had business acumen. My thing is 'I'm working and happy to be working.' I could never see beyond the end of the job I was working on. Whereas some people had a load of balls in the air at once. Even now, I think; "I've done all this great stuff, maybe I should have set up a company and have other people making the films for me? I should be an executive producer, rather than sorting out films on my own." I look at other people's programmes and I can say; "Move this around-it'll make it much better." When you're directing or are producer/director, you're there right at the beginning till the end. It takes over your life for three months and it becomes all-consuming. To the detriment of other things. I haven't got any kids, my relationships have always broken up, although I've been in a relationship now for four years. The job was always the most important thing. I didn't have the sense to say; "Hang on I've got to step back from it." But I've had a great time and would never regret it.
Through writing my book I can see what I've done and it's all about the work. Maybe if I'd been better educated I would have stepped back. But once I stopped working with Geoff and Andy I was pretty much out on my own. I didn't have a business partner. What I should have done was got someone who'd produce and I'd direct and we'd have formed a company and he'd go out and get the work and I'd make the films.
After I did the Festival Express feature film in 2004 I got an agent in LA. I thought that would take me up to the next level. But if the job's not there, you can't do it! And it's getting harder now...
I'm very familiar with the freelance media life as well of course. So, like me, you still have chase work, then?
All the time! That's why I've been writing the book. I've had two jobs that I was meant to be doing this year both of which got pulled. I'd spent two months working on them. Where I've been lucky is that I've had two big gigs-The Beatles and Hendrix. Three Beatles projects. If I got one Beatles gig a year, that would take care of everything financially and I could go and do a BBC 4 doc.
Which don't pay much.
That's right. I've made four Jimi Hendrix films and now they aren't doing as much as they used to, a big part of what you do isn't there any more. From when I started there's now a lot of people making music docs. I think Anthology started that!
You've made around 30 music documentaries with an almost unbelievable line-up of stars. Who did you like the most and the least?
Mark Knopfler was great! Here was guy who's got it sorted. Nice guy, great musician. Seemed like a decent human being-really friendly, still doing exactly what he wants to do. Not re-forming Dire Straits.
There wasn't really anybody I didn't like. Lou Reed was difficult. There was three days when we were in New York where I thought; "This guy is really fucking with my head!" He wouldn't do what I asked him to do. I got that fear; "I haven't got a programme here! I've got to go back to the UK without a programme." So I didn't like him for three or four days. But then he came round a bit. Now I think it was good experience and good for my book!
(Hendrix drummer) Mitch Mitchell I had problems with because he could be difficult. But because I worked with him so often and interviewed him seven or eight times he became alright. I've been lucky in that I respect so much what people have done, especially the ones that have been able to hold it together.
The bigger they are, like Elton and Pete Townshend the better they can hold it together. Some of the guys who maybe weren't as big, you think; "Hang on a minute...." I've never really come away from any job thinking; "I don't like those people!"
What I've found is that musicians can size interviewers up very quickly. Being being a musician yourself, Bob, your subjects must identify with you?
I think they know that when you're asking them stuff that you know what you're talking about. When we did the Who's Next Classic Album Townshend was really difficult at first then he was brilliant. The turning point was when he was going through the demos and chatting to camera, saying; "The sound I was going for was the bass sound that the guy from Led Zeppelin had." And I went: "John Paul Jones." He went; "John Paul Jones, yeah." And straight away he must have thought; "Here's a guy who know's what he'd talking about". And from then on he was great.
You've got an amazing list of music documentaries that you've worked on. Geoff Wonfor has done less big-name work recently. Has that caused problems between you?
I would never have done what I've done without Geoff. I wouldn't have got anywhere near it. He used to say that I ought to wake up every morning and thank him! Geoff was great and liked having me around. Andy Matthews never got jealous and was great too. He and I became good friends.
But... now, Bob, you are much more the 'go to guy' than Geoff is. After The Tube that was definitely Geoff. But he isn't now. You are.
Geoff still does stuff with Jools. He's due to start one soon. I make different sorts of programmes to Geoff. Like you, I want to tell a story. Geoff is brilliant on set, great at thinking on his feet...
But I imagine that if Geoff had been approached for pretty much any of the music films you've made in the last 20 years he'd have done them and got somebody in to be your equivalent. An interviewer or researcher.
Geoff isn't going to go and read six books on somebody and make notes on the structure of the programme. That's not the way he works. And Geoff has made some great films. Mr Roadrunner, Nigel Kennedy.....He doesn't make documentaries of the sort I do. I was lucky that I was given a really, really big gig. But when Anthology won the Grammy and I was on the front page of the Evening Chronicle Geoff was pissed off. Undoubtedly. He thought I was taking the glory. Which I wasn't! Geoff was probably the most important and influential male figure in my life, without a shadow of a doubt. But it'll never be the same again. In bands, I wanted to be the lead singer. You can only have one lead singer in a band!
Unless you're The Beatles!
When we were doing Anthology Geoff thought he was John Lennon and I thought I was Paul McCartney! Geoff had all the bluster and I was the one who wanted to sit and write songs!