Interview: Chris Charlesworth, music journalist and publisher

chris charlesworth with debbie harry

Chris Charlesworth with Debbie Harry.

Many of us have dreamt of being in a rock band, surrounded by screaming fans, loud music, and trashed hotel rooms. In reality, the closest we may ever come to that dream is sitting down with a good book that tells what it’s like to live the rocker life. Chris Charlesworth has been giving readers a glimpse into the rewards and pitfalls of the music business as editor with Omnibus Press in London, the world’s largest specialist publisher of music-related books, launched in 1976 as part of Music Sales Ltd. In his decades-long career as a journalist and editor, Charlesworth has interviewed such musical luminaries as Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Frank Zappa, Steely Dan, The Band, Santana, and the list goes on and on and on. And to think it all started with Elvis.

Lori: Tell us a bit about your company. When and why was it started?

Chris: Omnibus Press is part of Music Sales Ltd. which is the second biggest publisher of printed sheet music in the world, after Hal Leonard in Milwaukee. It was launched in the early seventies on the back of a deal by its owner to publish the Beatles printed sheet music in all territories outside North America. It was the first company to publish a Beatles Complete songbook; i.e, all their songs in one book for guitar and/or piano. Within the next few years Music Sales had obtained the rights to many more top acts – Dylan, Paul Simon, Rolling Stones, the Who, Pink Floyd, Bowie etc. When I joined as Omnibus editor in 1983 I made the decision that Omnibus would concentrate 100% on music titles which we’ve done ever since.

Tell us about your connection with reading and writing and how it is connected to your publishing company. Also, what is your background?

Prior to joining Omnibus I was on the staff of Melody Maker, a once thriving UK weekly music paper. I spent three years training on the weekly paper in my home town of Skipton in the north of England and going to college, then moved to the daily Bradford Telegraph & Argus after passing my journalism exams. In 1968 a T&A sub-editor called Leon Hickman and myself approached the editor with the idea of having a half page a week devoted to pop music and he went for it. I remember interviewing Jimmy Page on the phone when the first Led Zeppelin album was released in 1968. He told me his new band wouldn’t release singles or appear on TV which was quite revolutionary. “We’re not like Herman’s Hermits,” he said. Indeed not!

I just loved pop and rock music since I bought my first Elvis record in 1957. I played guitar and bass in various local semi-pro cover bands from the age of about 15, the same year (1963) I saw the Beatles on stage in Bradford. I saw the Stones at the Nelson Imperial, a ballroom, around the same time. Since I was training to be a journalist it just seemed natural to combine the two. I knew I’d never make it as a guitarist so writing about rock was the next best thing.

I joined Melody Maker in 1970. At its peak (1972-75) it was selling 200,000 a week, the biggest selling weekly music paper in the world. So it was a fantastic time for me. In 1973 I become its US editor, based in New York. Among those I interviewed were Lennon, McCartney, Bowie, Led Zep, the Who, Rod & the Faces, Byrds, Springsteen, Elton, Beach Boys, Clapton, CSN&Y, The Band, Sabbath, Slade, Paul Simon, Alice, Traffic, Free, Santana, Eagles, Deep Purple, Yes, Zappa, Iggy, Bee Gees, Steely Dan… the list is endless, just hundreds. I also went to around 1,000 concerts in 8 years. I left MM in 1977, worked in the industry for a while then joined Omnibus in 1983.

What are the pros and cons of being a niche publisher?

Pros – Our books are not the kind of books that are bought on the spur of the moment, or by people who are browsing in book shops. I think they are bought by people who already know what they want to buy. Because of this we don’t have to take so many chances. Also, of course, we can observe the progress of a band or singer and eventually do a book in the knowledge that there are plenty of fans out there who might buy it. We are fortunate in that we can use the fulfillment facilities (warehousing, delivery) of our parent company Music Sales.

Cons – We’re never likely to have million sellers like Harry Potter or mass market fiction, but I don’t care. That’s not what I want to do anyway.
What do you look for in submissions? How do you want writers to approach their topics?

An author who appears to know his or her subject, has done decent research and is very literate. I ask for a chapter breakdown and about 2,000 words sample text to gauge the abilities of a new author. Many of my authors have done several books for me – this is because I trust them to do a good job. Also, I can’t stand authors delivering late as it causes problems all down the line. An author who delivers late (unless there is a very good reason) is unlikely to be commissioned again.

Describe some of the company’s latest releases?

Sample listing from this year, either just out or in the pipeline – Blondie, Alice Cooper, Smiths, Taylor Swift, Leonard Cohen, Kraftwerk, Pink Floyd, Michael Jackson, Led Zeppelin, Stone Roses, Beatles, Jay Z, Florence + the Machine, Kelly Rowland, Black Eyed Peas, Madonna, Sex Pistols, Machine Head, Nicki Minaj, Thin Lizzy, Procol Harem.

Our best-selling books tend to be on rock acts with a past; i.e., those that have been around for 25+ years.

What are some stories from your books that you can’t forget?

There are so many it’s difficult to know how to answer this but here’s an extract from our biography of Keith Moon, which happens to have been one of our all time best sellers (80,000 in the UK alone – probably double that in the US where I don’t have rights).

A man of extremes, the Keith Moon at ‘home’ in the Valley – confused, insecure, insomniac, struggling with alcoholism, impatient for the next Who tour, dreaming of an acting career while doing nothing of note to pursue it – felt compelled to make up for it when on public display. The occasion that February (1975) when Oliver Reed threw a secret fortieth birthday party for his older brother (and right-hand man) David at the Beverly Wilshire became one of Keith’s most exhaustive and explosive ‘performances’.

            It can be told factually or anecdotally. As with so much that happened around Keith, everyone has a slightly different recollection. Best perhaps, to leave it to the memory of the raconteur actor who arranged the occasion.

            “I invited some people that I knew,” says Reed. “And Keith asked if he could invite Ringo and people like that. I’d always heard about these girls jumping out of cakes, but I’d never seen one. So I got this girl who volunteered to jump out of the cake and introduced her to my brother beforehand at the cocktail party, and there was Keith rolling his eyes, he couldn’t wait. We sat the girl next to David, everything went fine, and I got a sign from the man and went into the kitchen, and Moon was up like a rat out of a drainpipe, and the girl undressed and went into the cake. And the chefs helped ice her in. We went back and sat down. This huge great cake with 40 candles on it was dragged down, and then boom! Up came the girl out of the cake, with her boobies hanging out of the top tier: ‘Surprise surprise!’ And with that Keith picked up a bun or a bread roll and threw it at the girl. And with that the man that I used to travel with, his wife picked up a bread roll and threw it at her husband, and then the husband threw one at somebody else and then they all started throwing bread rolls about the place. Moonie then got up and started grabbing all the tablecloths – the pink ones that I’d ordered to go with the pink crockery – and dragged them off the tables. All the crockery went up in the air. He then went and jumped on the table and got these pink chairs and started smashing the chandeliers, and I just dived at him and dragged him across… I dragged him into the kitchens… He had gone completely berserk.”

            It had happened in a flash – mere mischief mutating into Moon mayhem, a party ruined, a room destroyed, damage to be paid for, apologies to be made. Oliver Reed had never witnessed anything like it. And for all that he loved his friend and, according to many of those who knew them both, was a bad influence who brought out the worst in Keith, the behaviour shocked him. He could only put it down to drugs. It wasn’t the kind of sudden madness that a few cocktails would bring on.

            There was more to it than that. “He’d cut himself. He’d cut his hand. So I held it above his head while they called the ambulance. He was on the floor and someone was keeping his head down and his mouth shut. And then the ambulance fellows came in, gave him a jab, calmed him down and took him to hospital. After which I went back upstairs. The people had screamed and run out because of Moon sprouting blood everywhere and the whole thing was in chaos, the waiters were going crazy, and bodyguards were punching people out… And Ringo was sitting at the table, just shaking his head like he’d seen it all before.”

            The bill for replacement of chandeliers, new carpets, crockery and so on ran into tens of thousands of dollars, footed by an Oliver Reed who never dreamed of asking his friend to pay up. “And I’ve never been allowed in [the Wilshire] since.”

Why rock and roll?

Because that’s what we do! Some publishers concentrate on children’s books, others on sport, others on sex, others on cookery. We do rock.

What does that sort of music do for you and what do you want your readers to get out of reading your books?

I’ve always loved rock – see above. Hopefully the readers will end up knowing more about their favorite performers, what inspired the music, what goes on behind the scenes.

What are you seeing happening in England as far as the future of publishing?

More and more e-books are being sold, though I think it will be a long time before they catch up with printed books. I don’t think they’ll ever take over completely as a book, a well-produced one anyway, is a nice thing to own, especially one with plenty of photographs. I think there’ll be an increased market for high-end books, while the cheaper books will eventually all be done digitally.

What are some of your rock and roll music favorites? 

Loads really… The Who of course (I co-produced their box set, and did work on their upgraded CDs), R.E.M., Springsteen, Beatles, Dylan, Van Morrison, Byrds, the Band, Bowie, Marley, Marvin Gaye, many more… Elvis started it for me, Hendrix was a genius, I really loved Little Feat, great band, and Richard Thompson is as good a guitar player as anyone I think. More recently Gillian Welch and Arcade Fire, and I like Elbow too, also Bloc Party (thanks to my daughter). I also have a weakness for Abba. My all time favourite songs are ‘Waterloo Sunset’, ‘Don’t Worry Baby’, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and ‘I Fought The Law’ (by the Bobby Fuller Four).

Lori M MyersLori M. Myers is interviews editor at Hippocampus Magazine. She is an award-winning writer of creative nonfiction, fiction, essays, and plays. Her work has been seen in more than 40 national and regional publications. She has a masters in creative writing from Wilkes University, is part of the writing faculty at York College of Pennsylvania, and teaches writing workshops.
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  • Nice interview, Lori! I love hearing about successful niche publishers. I had no idea something like that existed for music – very cool.