Saturday, 10 December 2016

Tennant's Extra!

Apologies it’s taken me a few months more than expected to conjure up a few choice morsels to whet appetites further for what’s to come in From Cents to Pence!, so without further ado lets whizz back a few months once again...


Neil Tennant: This is all such a long time ago, it was literally forty years ago.

Rob Kirby: Yes, it hadn’t really struck me until you said it. A quick question to start with. Had it always been you’re intention to go into journalism?

Neil: No, it hadn’t. My long term plan in life… well, I had two parallel plans. One was to become a successful song-writer and pop star, kind of thing, but I recognised that that was a difficult thing and an unlikely thing to achieve, and so I did my degree in History. I realised I was going to get some job, but my initial thought when I finished my degree was to do post-graduate [studies], an MA maybe. But, as you [say]… All the way through this period at Marvel and indeed through MacDonald Educational I’m also writing songs at home, y’know; little cassette demos of them. And I was always interested in music, and so I did vaguely think that I would like to be a music journalist because I was just so interested in music and rock music and all the rest of it. But anyway, as you accurately say, right when I finished my degree, a friend of mine who was a mature student –  I should say in her thirties – she’d been a journalist in Fleet Street, used to get the UK Press Gazette and pointed out this advert saying ‘Production Editor needed for Marvel Comics’. And she said ‘If you were ever thinking of going into journalism, which I must have said to her, this looks to me the sort of job that’d be a great beginning’.

Rob: This is always the thing, isn’t it… [getting that first foothold].

Neil: I went in and Ray Wergan interviewed me and they offered me the job, and so three weeks, I think, after I finished my degree, I had a job. I took the degree in June and by the beginning of July I had a job at Marvel Comics! (Laughs) As I always said to him, ‘I still haven’t had the cap yet!’ (more laughter). I knew Marvel Comics because, in the late Sixties I think, there was a different British version of Marvel.

Rob: Yeah, the Power Comics.

Neil: Yup. And my brother Simon used to buy them, but I used to read them. They were sort of quite a thing if you were sort of thirteen/fourteen in the late Sixties. There were quite a few of them I used to read. So that was my real introduction to Marvel Comics.

Rob: So, it was always on the British side, not on the American side, y’know, the American imports as well?

Neil: No, you might see American comics occasionally. The newsagent would have a sporadic distribution of them, y’know, up in Newcastle.

Rob: Exactly. Which was, of course, their whole reason for eventually setting up [in this country] rather than licensing, as you’ve mentioned, through the Power Comics or TV21.

Neil: Yes, yes. What happened to Power Comics? Did they go down the pan?

Rob: They did, yes. They had a huge explosion… they probably put out too many titles, the pound dropped, so they merged and merged and then stopped. They then put some stuff in TV21, again to save an ailing comic, and again that didn’t work…

Neil: TV21. We [referring to his brother, who bought the comic and shared it with him] used to love TV21. Yup.


Neil: I realised quite early on that the production thing was a bit boring, but it had to be done, obviously. But I could use the fact (laughs) of supposedly being editor of the Marvel London operation to pursue my own objectives, which were to write articles myself and to put them in there, particularly to do with music, and also maybe there could be a comic originated from there. Which I felt would be a really interesting thing to do. Alex Harvey had had comics’ graphics on at least one of his album covers and so he did the interview, and I tried to get one with Paul and Linda McCartney, but they wouldn’t do it. And I also tried to get one with the Bay City Rollers, who were also Marvel Comic fans, but they wouldn’t do it either.

Rob: We wondered if you were latterly going to try and arrange another interview with Marc Bolan around the time of his TV show, a couple of months’ before he died.

Neil: No, I wasn’t there then, I’d moved on. I was at MacDonald Educational by then. And we also only really needed one, I think, although I think Marc Bolan did suggest that he’d quite like to write a comic, but I don’t think I ever took that seriously. But he was a very sweet person, Marc Bolan. It was the first time I’d done an interview, bearing in mind I went on to edit Smash Hits, and I went to his publicists’ office in Earls Court, with a cassette recorder that Alan in the office had lent me. And we started talking by a table in this room and I turned on the cassette recorder and then we sat on the sofa and I just left the cassette recorder there. And Marc Bolan obviously thought I was an idiot (laughter) and he walked across the room, got the tape recorder, walked back across the room, put it between us, like ‘this is what you do’! And it was very, very sweet of him. One of my few regrets of my life is that he gave me a copy of the album Futuristic Dragon, and I was too cool to ask him to sign it.

Rob: (laughs)

Neil: And, to this day, I bitterly regret that I do not have a copy of this album that says ‘To Neil, Love Marc’, because I still like T-Rex’s records, y’know.


Neil: I was astonished that you’d spoken to people in the American office, and they’d said such nice things about these nice English guys. I had no idea what they thought of us, really (laughs). They probably thought I was a bit of a pain because I was relentlessly complaining about Captain Britain. Marvel in the US was… You must remember in these days, phoning up New York in the afternoon was like phoning up the moon!

Rob: Hmmmm!

Neil: I mean, this wasn’t the period when everyone had been to New York and America several times – no one had been to America. America was a sort of dream land. And so to phone up Cadence Communications in New York in the afternoon, and get through to whoever I had to talk to, it was incredibly exotic. It actually was thrilling, to be honest. Phoning up New York, and saying ‘Sorry, I’m on the phone to New York’ (laughter all round). Y’know, I was only 21, so it was really like phoning up the moon! (chuckles) And I was interested to see again, in your book, that you’ve spoken to the American guys.

Rob: Hmmm, oh yes!

Neil: And we did have this thing where they would occasionally send me a record. Because in those days, of course, a record could come out in America that didn’t come out in Britain.

Rob: Of exactly, well that’s still the case now [to a lesser degree].

Neil: And so they sent a single by Bob Dylan that I really wanted called ‘Hurricane’, which wasn’t available in Britain, it wasn’t released, and it came over by the courier. And then I bought them a Mike Oldfield single.

Incidentally, Jim Salicrup still remembers that copy of Don Alfonso that Neil sent him!

Marvel-lous Neil Tennant!

No, it's not a conspiracy at work.

I stupidly managed to delete the original column I posted under this heading back on September 30th, so here it is again - thank god for internet caching!

I may try writing comments off site in future and then pasting them in at the end to avoid draft versions.

Technology, don't talk to me about technology ;)

It was 44 years today, that the smilin' one had his say...

On the 30th September 1972 something special happened, and I'm not the only one who feels that way! A drought was ended. For almost year, bar a solitary Annual, no regular weekly comic in Britain had contained any Marvel reprints, but with the arrival of The Mighty World of Marvel everything changed. And that instant hit quickly birthed a line of comics that by 1976 had surpassed the number of titles that their predecessor Odhams had grouped together under the Power Comics banner back in the late 1960s.

There was something in that blend of artwork and story craft that appealed to me in a way that no indigenous comic had ever done. I'd read comics for years, but as a regular reader and no more, moving from the Pippin to TV Comic to Tiger and Scorcher and briefly Look-In, taking the same sort of age progressive steps between titles as was expected of most readers. But the US titles weren't written that way, and the artwork was wildly different too. But even so, that expectation that eventually you'd switch from reading the UK weeklies to collecting the US colour monthlies when you were older was still there, as much amongst some fans as it was in the plans of Dez Skinn when he took over the UK wing in late 1978. But I'd become too loyal to the UK titles, so as they expanded and diversified into pocket books and monthly magazines, and then ever greater origination (for a time), I kept buying them alongside a small selection of US comics that seemed unlikely to ever see print over here, and many years into the Panini era nothing has changed.

This perspective, and a collection to fall back on, eventually took me down the path of first indexing what had been published, both reprinted and originated, and then - with a few prods - looking ever deeper into the story behind Marvel's British division, and then in the wider context of their relationship with Marvel in America, as well as Marvel's many appearances in British comics before the Mighty World of Marvel commenced, dating as far back as 1951.

Along this journey it's been my privilege to talk to some fascinating creative people from many different walks of life - writers, editorial, artists, editors, production artists amongst them - and almost every discovery then led to an even more surprising one. I'd always hoped to speak to Ray Wergan, but he'd long retired from his business, Transworld (UK) Ltd., from which those early British Marvel comics had issued forth, so finding Ray in 2011 was a huge joy. What he told me then led to the Stan Lee archives housed at Wyoming University, and with all this information I was then able to construct a much more detailed picture of life in the UK Bullpen. This helped enormously when I then located two of their early editors - Peta Skingley and Maureen Softley - as the more information you have to begin with the more it helps to spark long-buried recollections and revelations.

But there have always been others that I'd still like to speak to, and looming high on that list was the one man that almost everyone I've come into contact with has asked about at some stage. As of Monday this week, as those of you who follow me on Facebook will already know, I can now answer that query in the affirmative, as it was my huge pleasure to chat at length with Neil Tennant about his time at the British Marvel tiller. Having sent him copious extracts selected out of the drafts from From Cents to Pence!, and aided by some additional questions (okay, two pages of questions and factual prompts!), this hugely helped the conversation zero in on specific areas where Neil had more to say. I've yet to transcribe the tape - hey, it's been a busy week at work too (especially having had Monday off to conduct the phone interview) - but I can tell you that there are some very interesting new revelations and additions to come.

Oh, and he's every bit as charming, funny and insightful as any interview you've ever seen or heard. And well-prepared too. Not only had he clearly gone to the trouble of carefully studying the extracts I'd sent over, but he'd checked back through his earliest diaries to see what he'd written during the last few months before he left Marvel for MacDonald Educational Books. Now that's class! I must admit that I'd never thought I'd get the opportunity, and it's thanks to an unexpected set of circumstances that it happened at all, so I was hugely grateful that Neil was happy to spend so much time speaking about his early career with such candour and humour.

It's strange, but had I spoken to Neil before 2011, long before all the information I spoke about above came to light, I very much doubt that our chat would have been as long or as detailed. It does sometimes feel that I've been led on a certain path in completing this work. So, once I've looped back to add in and contextualise these latest findings, I will return to revising and updating the remaining few chapters - sorely neglected after half a decade spent on a period spanning 1960-1981, but most specifically within that period 1970-1979.

I'd love to say that I will be finished by the end of the year, but I'm sure you'll forgive me if work leaks into the New Year a bit further than planned!

Thursday, 8 December 2016

An artist called Vince... with two ears (you'll find him on Kickstarter!)

Not every creative genius has lost an ear in pursuit of their art, of course.

But that header above is not a cryptic crossword clue. This is my attempt to help Andrew Thomas and Toby Gleason realise their dream of releasing their long-awaited feature length documentary: The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi.

I've long had more than a soft-spot for the music of Vince Guaraldi. There's a cliche about his work, but it's very true: he's the jazz great whose work you've doubtless heard but never connected to him... that is, unless you've never seen any of the first fifteen Charlie Brown animated shows that he scored from 1965 until his death from an aortic aneurysm in 1976, hours after completing the recording session for It's Arbor Day, Charlie Brown. Or more precisely heard. Guaraldi's sound, and his style of keyboard playing, is entirely unique to him Once heard, never forgotten.

I suppose its possible that you might not have heard his music, but I find it unlikely seeing as his scores include the very first instalment - the ubiquitous A Charlie Brown Christmas (which still packs a punch today in even more commercialised times) - through such other classics as It's a Mystery, Charlie Brown; You're not Elected, Charlie Brown; It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (surely responsible for introducing the 'trick or treat' concept to Britain); You're a Good Sport, Charlie Brown and A Charlie Brown Valentine, amongst other classics.

Vince didn't travel much when he toured, preferring residencies at local San Franciscan jazz hang-outs, although his music certainly has done over the years, thanks predominantly to those early cartoon shows. And it's perhaps for that reason that he isn't more well-known beyond the jazz cognoscenti and Peanuts nuts. He's also been poorly treated on record, in some respects.

Although the majority of Guaraldi's albums, both solo and collaborative, have stayed in print on one format or another, it's only in the last decade or so that more compilations have finally started to appear on CD, mopping up other selections of music taken from surviving original masters from the TV recording sessions. These have been haphazard at best, and not always correctly annotated at that, leading to further confusion, but they have coughed up some surprises. Having researched all of his TV scores earlier this year to satisfy my own curiosity on the matter, and to try and pin down the exact episodes that the music on all these CDs actually featured on, I've discovered two other albums whose bonus tracks were previously unknown to have also featured a cue each that belonged to the TV shows.

Until now, there's been almost no way to actually watch Guaraldi in action, either, apart from one mid-1960s episode of Jazz critic Ralph Gleason's own San Francisco-based cable TV show Jazz Casual which eventually escaped on to DVD a few years' back. And with the original 1962 B&W documentary The Anatomy of a Hit, filmed following the breakthrough chart success of his classic Cast Your Fate to the Wind, thought lost until fairly recently, it looked like the half hour 'featurette' about Vince on the Peanuts 1960's Collection DVD - The Maestro of Menlo Park - was going to be the only place to hear those who had worked with him talk about Guaraldi.

This newly expanded version of Anatomy that Thomas and Gleason have loving constructed in their own time, and without any sponsorship or commercial support, includes many new interviews with the likes of Dave Brubeck, Lee Mendleson, Dick Gregory and Charles Gompertz, as well as "an eclectic group of musicians, artists and social activists", all integrated into the original footage from 1962. So far only screened to rapturous audiences at a few arts and jazz festivals, the film promises, says Thomas and Gleason (Ralph's son), to showcase "never-before-seen" performances, with "a soundtrack constructed from previously unheard material gleaned from Vince's live and private studio recordings". It's a mouth-watering prospect when they state that "you won't hear or see this anywhere else".

What they need now is the money to pay for the remaining music clearances to enable the film to be released at last, which is where you come in. If you like jazz music, then this is definitely a worthy cause worth supporting via their Kickstarter campaign (link below).

There's now just ten days to go until the funding rally ends on the 19th at 7.59am, so please spread this post, and maybe we can all make this a really Charlie Brown Christmas!!

Friday, 7 October 2016

Marvel UK invades Comic Heroes!

The latest edition of Comic Heroes magazine (#29) - fronted by Wonder Woman on her 75th anniversary, features an overview of Marvel UK by 'Scintillatin'' Sean Egan - features new interview material with John Freeman, Mike McGrath and a few words from myself after Sean kindly asked if I'd like to contribute to the feature. It was through doing this interview that I came into contact with Mike for the first time, and then later made contact with Neil Tennant, so I'm obviously rather glad that I agreed to be interviewed... once I'd got over the shock ;)

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

From Cents to Pence! - summer update!!

As promised, a quick update on the progress of the final read-through of the history part of From Cents to Pence! - and it's all good news, as a small window of time has opened up, allowing me to blitz a good proportion of the remaining chapters. A few of the latter ones will require material jettisoned from an earlier chapter stitching into place, and the final chapter will require the insertion of a lot of extra material to bring the story up-to-date. So, apart from a few details to be fed in earlier on, I'm delighted to report that progress is all good!

Friday, 22 April 2016


Anticipating the questions,  since Christmas work on From Cents to Pence! has been very much on-going again, although sporadic in concentrated bursts due to, well, life intruding really :)

What have I been doing most recently?

I've condensed and re-written the introduction by pulling in some material from the main text that now sits better ahead of the history part of the book. I then formed a new preface out of what was the first two pages of the first chapter proper, once I realised that they really worked better on their own (inspired by some Christmas reading), and have since read through over half of the 32 chapters, feeding in most of the last scraps of useful info acquired over the past year into the relevant later chapters… something I don’t intend to repeat now.

So, yes, you could say that I’m slowly getting back into it :)

Some progress, yes?