There’s a joke we make in the UK. We refer to a character called “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.” He’s the model of a reactionary conservative who, discomforted by what he sees as erosion of traditional values in modern society, writes letters to the newspapers to express his opinions. You imagine him as an ex-colonel in the British Army in the mid-20th century, someone who served in India during the time of the British Raj who, having retired to Tunbridge Wells, finds all these new innovations difficult to cope with and who feels compelled to express his feelings in the form of strongly-worded letters to the conservative press.
Really we should refer to the town as “Royal Tunbridge Wells,” a name it acquired in 1909 after King Edward VII granted it the Royal prefix to celebrate its popularity with members of the Royal Family. It’s a spa town. People go there to “take the waters,” which are considered to have healing properties. It lies on the edge of Kent, on the borders of Sussex, about 70 miles from where I live, or about an hour and 40 minutes on the train. It has the reputation of a truly conservative part of rural England.
I was there over the weekend to conduct interviews for the Tunbridge Wells Literary Festival. I interviewed two people who’ve recently published books. The first was my friend John Higgs whose book, Love and Let Die, I reviewed in Splice Today last year.
The other was Tony King, who I’ve never met before. His book is called The Tastemaker and I read it twice in preparation. It’s a great book, not so much for its literary merits as for the sheer wonder of its account of a life lived to the maximum. It was ghost-written by Tom Bromley, who I’ve no doubt added a choice phrase or two, but the tone of the book is that of an adventure story told in King’s own distinctive voice. It has an easy-going, chatty style, while King comes across as a funny, engaging, kind and wise friend drawing back the curtains a little on the enchanted world of pop music from the late-1950s to the 2000s.
King was born in Hillingdon, West London, during the war but the family moved to Eastbourne on the South Coast after the woman he knew as his mum got tuberculosis. She needed fresh air to overcome the illness, something which was in short supply in polluted, grubby old London, still full of bomb sites and derelict buildings after the war.
I say “the woman he knew as his mum” as actually she wasn’t. She was his grandmother. He had a complicated childhood. His real mum he knew as his Aunt Kay, his real aunts he knew as his sisters, the people he knew as his parents (and who he continued to call Mum and Dad throughout their lives) were his grandparents, while the boy he knew as his cousin was really his half-brother. He found all this out when he was 11, hiding behind a sofa, while he overheard “Mum” and her sister discussing him.
“So when are you going to tell Tony that Kay is his mother?” his great Aunt Daisy asked.
“We’re not,” Mum replied. “We don’t see any reason to tell him.”
All of this was the result of a wartime fling and an unplanned pregnancy, which the family hid by the grandparents adopting their daughter’s illegitimate child as their own. Maybe this helps explain some aspects of King’s extraordinary story. The strict social mechanics of normal family life wrenched apart at such an early age meant that he was able to imagine new possibilities for himself. He was free to choose. He didn’t love his notional mum and dad any the less, and, in fact continued to be loyal to them throughout their lives, but that slight disengagement from the normal hierarchy of family relations allowed him to create a new life all of his own.
That life began when he was 14 and heard Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” on the radio for the first time. He was having an all-over wash at the kitchen sink, and, on hearing those first few startling notes he rushed into the parlor, where the old-fashioned valve radio was housed, to hear it better. This is how he describes the experience:
“The hustle and shuffle and swagger of the song were intoxicating. Standing there in my kitchen in Eastbourne in 1956, water pooling by my feet, the sound felt alien, otherworldly… It was like a key to a different way of life.”
Later he says of the song that it “was the wrecking lamp of my school career.” A wrecking lamp is a light used by inland pirates to lure ships onto the rocks so they can steal the cargo. In King’s case it meant he started adopting the Elvis dress style while working in a record shop and immersing himself in rock’n’roll, swiftly turning himself into an expert on all the latest music trends. It was this that impressed the shop manager, who also had a job working for Decca records in London. King was offered a job. It was just before his 16th birthday, after which he was legally allowed to leave school.
That was the start of his 60-year career in the music business, working alongside such luminaries as John Lennon and Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, Elton John and a host of other major figures on the creative side of the industry, as well as becoming close friends with a number of other famous people, including Freddie Mercury and Charlie Watts. Watts was a particular friend, King having saved the drummer’s cat, Louise, whose back leg had been crushed in a car accident. King took the cat to a vet, who reconstructed the leg using wire, a difficult and expensive business. Afterwards he used to stay with Watts and his wife in their cottage in Lewes, and whenever he went to stay, Louise would appear to say hello.
“She always knows when you’re in the house,” Shirley Watts told him.
He was there when the Beatles first appeared on the scene. He describes the first time he met them, in the Green Room of a BBC show called Pop In, when they were plugging their second single, “Please, Please Me.” “The moment they walked in, they lit up the place like thousand-watt light bulbs,” he says. As a plugger in the industry he had access to all the latest sounds. George and Ringo lived just around the corner from where he worked and he’d drop a pile of records at their flat on a regular basis.
He was also there before their fateful trip to the United States, after “I Want To Hold Your Hand” became their first number one in America, and the Beatles held the first five places in the charts, a feat that has never been repeated since. It was the beginning of Beatlemania.
As King describes the party the night before: “The Beatles themselves were hugely excited about the trip. They were a bit like schoolboys about to go on a school outing. They didn’t know—no one really did—what would await them when they landed.”
Phil Spector and the Ronettes were there, as well as Cynthia Lennon. Someone put on “Heat Wave” by Martha and the Vandellas, and Ronnie Spector, the lead singer of the Ronettes, joined in with the song. As King describes it: “George and John… just sat there, mouths agape at this beautiful, clear American soul voice. Note perfect, word perfect—wonderful… It was a moment within a moment, and I stood there, drink in hand, listening and watching on, knowing what a privilege it was to be there.”
After this he went to work for Andrew Loog Oldham, the Rolling Stones’ manager and producer. This was after hearing an acetate of their single, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. Oldham offered him a job. “If someone had played you an advance copy of ‘Satisfaction’ by the Rolling Stones at your job interview, what would you have said?”
Interviewing King at the festival was interesting. The venue was a place called The Forum, a small funky-looking building tucked under a beautiful, wooded hill in the center of town. About 60 people turned up to see us. I was only there to facilitate the event, to keep the author talking by asking him what I hoped would be the right questions. I chose to read extracts from the book, which he said he enjoyed. He’s in his 80s, a little frail, with Parkinson's disease. He would stumble and shake getting up and sometimes needed a hand. The audience loved him. Who wouldn’t? I shook his hand at the beginning of the interview and said to the audience, “I’ve shaken the hand that shook the hand of John Lennon,” to which he replied, “and who wrestled him to the ground once.” I’ll let you buy the book if you want to find out more about that particular episode.
It was a bit like This Is Your Life, that well-known TV series where an interviewer surprises a celebrity guest and then brings on all his family and friends to talk about him. I’d read out a few lines and then let the author carry on talking. I divided it into sections with the names of all his famous associates: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, etc. King knew Elton John before he became Elton John, when he was still Reg Dwight. What I wanted to know was when he stopped being Reg and turned into Elton? As Dwight he was shy and dowdily dressed. As Elton John, of course, he’s well known for his flamboyance and outrageous confidence. King said it was after a sell-out American tour, when he had been lauded as the next best thing. He said he took his style from other piano players, like Fats Domino, Little Richard and Liberace. Piano players have a tendency to get lost behind their instrument and have to do something striking to bring attention to themselves.
One of the subjects I chose to concentrate on was disco. King was the head of disco at RCA for much of the 1970s. One of the great things about the book is that he names all the influential records in his life, giving you the title and the artist. Reading though it, I underlined them all, and then looked them up on YouTube. It was the early disco that most impressed me. It’s not like disco at all, or not like it eventually became. It’s dark and funky, with strong bass lines and a real R’n’B feel to it. Decidedly black music, with none of the trills and violin breaks that characterizes its later form. “Outa-Space” by Billy Preston and “Put It Where You Want It by the Crusaders.” Sexy, funky, soulful with a transgressive edge. My favorite is “Supernatural Thing” by Ben. E. King.
King is an unashamed gay man. He says there was a strong gay element to the disco scene. Many of the promoters were gay: “homo-promo” as he jokes. His descriptions of the disco scene in the USA in the 1970s are glorious and life-affirming. He says he danced his way around America. He was living there by then, in LA at first and then in New York. “The New York club scene, with its energy and happiness, was just wonderful, very joyful and hedonistic. There was happiness and exuberance on the dance floors wherever you went.” It was open and welcoming, every race, every colour, every creed, every sexual persuasion: “whoever or whatever you were, you were welcome…”
He said that of all the clubs, 12 West was his favorite: “There were the fan and finger-bell dancers, great music thumping away, everyone happy and joyful, full of that sense of being at the heart of everything. Here I was in New York, in the midst of this hippest of crowds, Greenwich Village-type people who knew where everything was at. There was nothing fake about the set-up. It was authentic and real. I can’t remember the particular occasion, but I have a strong recollection of being in the middle of the dance floor there one night and thinking, It’s never going to get better than this.”
I read that passage out during the interview and for some reason it made me want to cry. I don’t know why. I had great difficulty suppressing my tears. The last line in particular had me sobbing. I think maybe because I knew what was coming next. AIDS. King lived through all that. He saw many of his friends die. He watched the devastation in the gay community. He watched healthy and vibrant men turn into skeletons before fading away completely. He watched the life draining out of their eyes. He watched as friends developed skin lesions and various unaccountable diseases. He watched the fear in the faces of the straight people around him. He felt the shame of it all and the fear, not knowing what this was. Given the name Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) at first, it was indelibly associated with the gay lifestyle. Religious people said that it was a punishment from God.
“Where once my diary was full of drinks and dates and club nights, now I caught up with friends in hospital beds rather than bars, and later at memorial services.” One of his best friends who succumbed to this terrible disease was Freddie Mercury. King was there with him just before he died: “I was aware now that he was dying. He was in constant pain, and it was heartbreaking to see. I lay on the bed with him and held his hand. He was just skin and bones. And stone cold. I realised he was going to go… Freddie was the bravest man I’ve ever met. In all my years of dealing with friends who died of AIDS, he was the most brave. He would never let it knock his spirit. Right at the end, his spirit was still there, even as it was fading away to nothing.”
King talked about this terrible time with clarity and insight, no self-pity or regrets, shedding a few tears in memory of those friends he had lost. At the end of the interview he thanked everyone for being there, saying how happy he was to see so many friendly faces. Not one “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” among them, only love and admiration for a life beautifully lived. He has seen so many things, has witnessed the worst and the best, has experienced both the ecstasy and the wounds of love, has felt great joy as well as deep sorrow, but has kept his soul intact. It’s no wonder the rock stars adored him. He’s such a generous man.
—Watch the trailer here.