Into Creative: Interview with Kris Needs
Kris Needs is perhaps the single most revered U.K. music journalist of the past 40 years having written for the likes of NME, Sounds, Creem, Mixmag, Mojo, Muzik, and Vive Le Rock amongst others as well as being Editor in chief at Zigzag magazine at the height of punk and beyond. Kris has also authored books on the likes of The Clash, New York Dolls, Suicide, Primal Scream and George Clinton, as well as spending time as the resident DJ at Manumission in Ibiza. His book Just A Shot Away: 1969 Revisited (Part One January to June) was reviewed by Into Creative here and ahead of Part Two July to December which is due for publication by New Haven on 15 July 2020, Kris took time out for this exclusive interview with John Welsh for Into Creative.
Just A Shot Away – 1969 Revisited is written in 2 parts (Jan-Jun and Jul-Dec) with the latter due to be published on 15 July 2020. What was the thinking behind splitting into 2 books rather than 1.
It was never my intention to split the book! It’s a long story but, after Helen and I came up with the idea over Christmas 2017, I started writing it then, sadly, she passed away in June 2018 so the book went on ice for a couple of months. When I started writing it again, it also became a tribute to Helen and had changed publishers, but continued to grow and grow, ending up so long that New Haven suggested splitting it into two parts. At least they’ll both be out now!
As a reader, I could really identify with what you describe, starting the year as a nervous teenager and finishing the year more self assured in yourself and in the musical choices you were making (you reference John Peel, reading up on the music weeklies, seeing Hendrix on TV and discovering new vinyl). Can you outline why that was important to you to put your own personal stamp and experience on the book?
When we were talking about the book, we knew there’d be a bunch of 1969-related tomes coming out and most would focus on Altamont, Woodstock and the rest, probably from a retrospectively researched, cut and paste angle. I’m old enough to remember that year, how it happened and all the life-changing stuff that directly concerned me, rather than a muddy field thousands of miles away. It was more relevant to what I ended up doing right until now to talk about Pete Frame starting Zigzag as it was road-map. I never thought then I’d end up being the Editor! Or Friars Aylesbury opening so I could see so many important bands, including Mott and soon Bowie. And seeing Hendrix was incredibly special and a total privilege. That’s why I interviewed my teacher, Robin Pike, as he enabled so much of all this.
I could also indulge my obsessions, like Curtis Mayfield and P-Funk, or the Third Ear Band and any number of the bands Peel played. Obviously, he was one of the most vital elements of the whole story. I’ve sometimes tried to imagine how our music scene 50 years ago would have been like without Peel and it doesn’t bare thinking about. Artists like Beefheart, John Fahey, Tim Buckley and so many more would simply never have been heard, got a following or come to the UK. He’s the most constant factor in the book, as every month that year I never missed one of his shows on Sunday afternoon (and did as many night-time ones as my transistor radio under the bedclothes would allow!).
There is also a real sense of the importance of your parents in those formative musical years, your chemistry teacher, Robin Pike, and Zigzag founder, Pete Frame. Can you tell Into Creative a little bit about what they added to your journey through life and music?
In so many ways I owe everything to my parents, although at the time I must have been the ultimate sulky teenage rebel. All they cared about was me, my brother Adrian and sister Julia being safe and happy with something of a future. Of course they couldn’t understand the Rolling Stones as, when I was born it was less than ten years since the end of World War Two! But even if they made me have a haircut and wouldn’t let me go to the Stones free concert in Hyde Park, they bought me a toy guitar when I was ten and a record player! Must have been hell to have all the music I describe in the book blasting out all over the house! More importantly, my dad, who was a senior lecturer at Willesden Technical College, instilled an early loathing of racism and work ethic that has never left any of us three kids. Now I’m looking after my mum, who’ll be 94 next month, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Robin Pike’s contributions to these formative was simple but invaluable; thanks to the tickets he acquired and coach trips he organised I got to see the Stones when Brian was still in them in ’68, Tyrannosaurus Rex supporting Donovan that same year, Hendrix at the Royal Albert Hall and he got me to design the membership for the club he was starting called Friars.
After putting up with appallingly conservative teachers and ignorant bullies, it was great to sit in Robin’s chemistry lab and look at the psychedelic posters and Oz cuttings on the wall too. He’s now my oldest friend and made some fantastic contributions to Part two of the memoir, even going through my text and pointing out errors!
Pete Frame starting Zigzag in ’69 provided my road-map and inspired me to dream of being a rock writer. Until then, the music press was quite staid, lightweight and unhip. Pete injected irreverent humour and took the piss at the same time as running long, detailed features on the artists who escaped Melody Maker but got played on Peel, like a fun blueprint for Mojo and the others over 20 years later. When I was poring over the pages of those Zigzags (that I still have now and did again for the book!) I never dreamed that five years later I’d be writing for it then Pete would ask me to be editor when punk started!
1969 saw a wide and varied output of music which you cover in the book – from prog to soul, folk to rock’n’roll and loads more besides. When you were researching and revisiting music for the book, what bands or artists did you (re)discover that took you pleasantly by surprise?
Erm, none really as I wrote about records and artists that I liked then and shaped me for life. There were a couple I loved then and couldn’t work out why! It was more being reminded just how great artists like Tim Buckley or John Fahey were, even more so than I realised at this time, when they were cult figures.
The main thing I regretted was not getting into soul music on a deeper level then than I did later when I spent most of the next three decades tracking down rare 45s and albums through the US and all corners of the globe.
During the year, the venue Friars in Aylesbury opened and you are asked to design the venue’s membership card, and at the first gig you attend, you see Zigzag magazine for the first time (2 things go on to have a profound impact on your life). You were only 14 at the time but did you have any idea at that point what you wanted to do with your life?
At that time, I really wanted to pursue a career in art. I’d started drawing rabbits when I was about six, copying Marvel comic characters when I was ten and designing psychedelic posters by the time I was twelve. Robin even put them on the chemistry lab wall and the next volume of the book has an illustration I did for the school magazine. After doing the membership card, a couple of years later I started doing the Friars’ flyers, designed the membership card for David Bowie’s fan club and spent all my time painting and drawing; it was the only subject I was good at in school; the other one was English. And that’s what I ended up doing as I got a job with the local paper in 1973 when it became obvious I wasn’t cut out for an advertising agency and didn’t have the qualifications to get into art school.
You mentioned attending the NME Winners Poll concert which included the Rolling Stones playing, with Marianne Faithfull in front row attendance. Years later, and Marianne has become a good friend to you. It must have been a huge worry when she contracted Coronavirus – how is she doing now?
Marianne became big part of my life after my Helen passed away. I was already talking to her regularly for a Mojo piece when she was creating her remarkable Negative Capability album; that probably came about because I’d often interview her when she released an album, going back to Broken English 40 years ago.
Now she became my best friend and there was a lot of long distance love expressed that, without doubt, helped get me through that weird, difficult time. We lost touch when she had her own personal obstacles to face, very probably would have re-established contact again; then came the pandemic. I knew she was in lockdown but I was mortified when I heard she’d contracted it.
Somehow, I thought she’d pull through. After all she’s been through (more than a lot of people know), it would take more than this to stop her ultimate aim of getting back on a stage. Amazing lady.
Briefly in the book you talk about your record collection – we’d love to know how much vinyl you have and is storage an issue? Moving on from that, you’ve DJ’d extensively around the world (I saw you support Primal Scream at Scream on the Green, Glasgow 1997). How do you decide what to play in your set?
I started collecting records in December 1968 and did so rabidly and rampantly for decades. Obviously I’ve lost a few over the years (there’s a few thousand still in New York somewhere!) but, right now, about 20,000 are stashed in a storage unit in Essex. I had a few boxes I used to DJ on those tours and on the club circuit. Never planned a set, just had a lot to choose from when the mood hit. The Scream tours were incredible, often requiring a lot of thinking on my feet (and stamina for those all-nighters!).
Reference is made to being a member of both the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix fan clubs. Later on, you started a Mott The Hoople fan club – how did that come about?
As I describe in Part Two of Just A Shot Away, I first saw and met Mott in December ’69 when they played Friars and Robin booked them for my school’s Christmas dance. They were the first band to talk to me as an equal and were routinely awesome on stage so I followed them about and saw them all I could. When Bowie took off in Aylesbury first, a local girl started his fan club, so i did the membership card and helped out.
When Bowie brought Mott to the Mainman label with Dudes, it was like a surreal dream come true and I naturally took up their offer to start a club for them (Bowie gave that idea the thumbs-up too). So I went to Mainman, met Defries, printed up membership , dished them out with Angie Bowie at the Rainbow Theatre. For the next two years I attended recording sessions, got into the gigs and the drummer, Dale ‘Buffin’ Griffin, even gave me a dog! I loved that band and they were lovely people.
Another Mott fan was Mick Jones of The Clash. Was Mick a member of the fan club? When did you first meet Mick and The Clash and did you immediately strike up a rapport with the band?
Blimey, I’ve written a whole book about that! I first Mick in the dressing room at Mott gigs but he was never in the club as he backed away when they had a hit with Dudes. The first time i saw The Clash – in Leighton Buzzard in October ’76 – we recognised each other and a rapport was swiftly forged – with Jonesy and the rest of the band as I wrote about them in Zigzag and anywhere else I could. For the next six years, it was like Mott all over again, except now I’d grown up a bit! Saw The Clash more than any other band (except Primal Scream).
When The Clash went on the 16 Tons Tour to promote the London Calling album, your own band Vice Creems opened for them at your home town club – Aylesbury Friars. What are your memories of that night?
Mick had already produced the Vice Creems second single in ’79. The band had split the week before so he brought in Topper and Tony James for Danger Love. When the 16 Tons was due to open at Friars, he phoned up and said we were supporting. “But I haven’t got a band!”
“I already got you one band…”.
No answer to that so me and Colin the guitarist roped together two mates, rehearsed in a mate’s garage for a night and winged it (with Joe pissing himself in the wings). For some reason, we did a punked up versions of Bright Eyes. I do remember hopping around the stage with a pair of Bay City Rollers pants on my head (and also being gobbed on severely, as was the craze then). Disgusting. Fun night and The Clash were awesome. I ended up going on most of the tour.
You’ve been involved in music journalism for 45+ years now Kris. What inspires you to keep writing?
It’s what I do and I’m always trying to get better at it. Helen taught me what distinguished a great writer from a good writer, and the music press is littered with workmanlike, proficient but ultimately fairly dull ones. I now find myself drawing from my life, and things I’ve picked up over the years, and fashioning them into words. I learned a lot from Lemmy, who used to sit there laughing at what he’d just written for Motorhead to have to play! I still don’t think I’m there yet but loved writing The Orb book that’ll now be out next year, finishing the memoir and now this Silver Apples biography (which is giving me an excuse to indulge my long-time New York obsession).
Part two of Just A Shot Away is scheduled for release on 15 July 2020. What can we expect to read about in it?
It’s what happened between July and December 1969 so there’s more Stones and Hendrix (Brian died on my 15th birthday), also those who started floating my boat during that time, including Sun Ra, Pearls Before Swine, Moondog, Can, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Magma and even Bowie (though I somehow end up in the Ziggy dressing room in ’72!).
Finally, thinking back to all the gigs you’ve attended, which one stands out the most as really memorable and why?
Impossible to choose between the first Ziggy, Mott at the school dance, the Stones on many occasions, Beefheart, The Clash…it goes on! I would have to include DJs on an equal footing, whether Alex Paterson or the late, awesomely great Andrew Weatherall, whose death rocked my world as I was finishing the book. He’d inherited Peel’s mantle. Like I said, it goes on – and we have to make sure it continues to do so!
Kris Needs book Just A Shot Away: 1969 Revisited Part One January to June is a available to purchase here. Into Creative will be reviewing Part Two July to December soon.
All photos contained in this article are used with kind permission from Kris Needs’ personal collection.