Anyway, with the release of Bob Dylan’s Tempest looming, I was thinking the other morning about a time when albums just, you know, came out. What seemed to happen was pretty straightforward. There’d be a story in Melody Maker announcing a new album by one of your favourite bands that usually gave the record a title, track listing and release date. The week the album came out, there’d be a review, maybe an interview and perhaps a full-page ad somewhere in MM, often with tour dates attached.
On the day the album came out, you went to your local record shop – in my case, Derek’s in Water Street in Port Talbot – and you bought it. How simple it all seemed.
Of course, when I actually started working for Melody Maker in 1974, I found there was a bit more to it, although not much more usually than a launch party. This was basically an excuse for the band, their mates and assorted journalists to have a bit of a piss-up and could hardly be described as an integral part of a carefully-plotted promotional campaign, unless you were Led Zeppelin and the party was a debauched affair in Chislehurst Caves involving naked nuns and the like, in which case the event would get a bit of a write-up in the red tops.
As the 70s went on, album launch parties like everything else in the music business became increasingly lavish, this still being a time when record companies had more money than they knew how to spend. There were parties in caves, as mentioned, and what a hoot I remember that being, and boats for a while were very popular, with the inevitable fallings overboard (the best boat party was much later, in 1985, when The Pogues took over HMS Belfast for the launch of Rum, Sodomy And The Lash and a Melody Maker sub-editor, very drunk, toppled off one of the top decks into the Thames, bouncing off a gang-plank on his way into the water, a fall he was fortunate to survive).
There were some good publicity stunts back then, too, around album releases. When Ian Dury’s Do It Yourself came out, Stiff sent a bunch of hooligans led by future Clash consigliere Kosmo Vinyl around to the Melody Maker office, which overnight they covered completely in the same patterned wallpaper featured on the album sleeve. The MM was housed in those days in a prefabricated hut in a back street near Waterloo Station and when I turned up for work the morning after Kosmo’s crew had been hard at it with rollers, buckets of paste and ample reams of wallpaper, the entire building was covered, the roof included. It looked like an art installation.
Hilariously, I thought, we had to work in semi-darkness until the windows were scraped clear, and wallpaper was still being stripped from the roof and sides of the office a week later, to the teeth-gnashing fury of MM editor Richard Williams, who failed completely to see the funny side of it all. Stiff were also involved around the same time as the wallpapering incident in the launch of their entire recorded catalogue in Portugal. They’d signed a licensing deal with Lisbon-based Nova Records, who were so thrilled to get their hands on Stiff’s repertoire they lashed out on a huge party, hiring a boat to sail 300 guests around Lisbon harbour.
Stiff were asked to send over a suitable representative or two and the best they could come up with was Wreckless Eric, an officious little man in bellbottoms called Andy Murray and me. Of course, Wreckless got hopelessly bladdered at the party, which ended badly when he head-butted the bass player from a local punk band who had tried to nick his beer, kicked the bass player’s intervening mate in the bollocks and then got hit over the head by someone wielding a bottle. Hell’s teeth, those were the days!
Since that primitive time, of course, album releases have become increasingly overwrought affairs, involving elaborate coordination, multi-media synchronicity, feeds and streams on iTunes, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms and more planning than a military invasion. I wouldn’t be surprised if less time was spent on the plans for D-Day than the release of the last couple of U2 albums.
Even Bob Dylan is caught up these days in album launch marketing malarkey. This week’s release of Tempest was preceded by sneak previews, a pre-release video, an exclusive streaming of the entire album for a week on iTunes and on Monday, when the album finally came out, the opening in London, Los Angeles and New York of Bob Dylan ‘pop up stores’. Sony had found some empty premises in Beak Street here in Soho, had the place cleared out, whitewashed the walls, put up some shelves, installed a sales desk and some sofas, put up a few prints and filled the space with copies of the new album, a lot of back catalogue CDs and vinyl, limited edition screen prints, T-shirts and what a press release described as ‘high-end apparel’.
The paint was still drying on the walls when the store opened on Monday at 11.00 am. Some people had camped overnight outside, apparently, and were joined for breakfast by dozens more, eager to at last get their hands on the new album. When I arrived just after the doors opened, there was a queue right along Beak Street, only a few people at a time being let into the store, but everyone in general good humour and eager to spend whatever money they had. It’s funny, but I don’t remember anything on this scale when, say, Down In The Groove came out, Dylan’s reputation at an all-time low in 1988 and the label almost embarrassed they were releasing it. How things have changed.
Have a good week.