Magherafelt mogul: how to keep Van Morrison and Tom Waits happy
Derry man Paul Charles has been at the coalface of music promotion since the 1960s. He talks about the punk economics of The Undertones and The Buzzcocks, how Van is just misunderstood, and the ‘amazing imagination’ of Waits
Paul Charles: promoter, booking agent and music-industry peacemaker
Van Morrison: ‘Friendly, sociable, funny.’ Photograph: Dani Cardona/Reuters
The Buzzcocks. Photograph: Fin Costello/Redferns
Tom Waits, who has been with Asgard promotions for 30 years. Photograph: Thomas Engstrom/Getty Images
He has a pile of well-received books under his belt that directly reference the grit and glitz of pop and rock. So it’s no surprise that Magherafelt-born Paul Charles is both world-weary and enthusiastic.
The 65-year-old, who is amiable to a fault and generous with his time, has been slaving away at the coalface of the industry since the late 1960s. He is no slouch in the writing department, either, with 10 Inspector Christy Kennedy books, two Inspector Starrett books (and another on the way), four other fiction books (including his latest, The Lonesome Heart Is Angry) and four music-related non-fiction books (including 2004’s The Complete Guide to Playing Live, which every band should read) to his credit.
The writing bug bit hard and deep in 1967, when the music-loving teenager moved from Magherafelt to London to study civil engineering. London’s grubby rock venues were heaving to the Irish-accented sounds of Taste, Skid Row, Thin Lizzy and Granny’s Intentions, and Charles bid fond farewell to studying and started scribbling reviews for the Belfast-based magazine City Week. He also began to write lyrics for the band he was managing, Belfast prog-rockers Fruup, on a “make it up as you go along” basis.
As a young lad in the small Derry town, he had managed a band called Blues By Five, whose business was conducted in the local telephone box. London was, by comparison, “such a closed shop it wasn’t true”. Charles discovered that the best way to make any kind of dent in the music industry was to “just do stuff without any strategy; not to ask for a job, but to create your own space”.
The punk years
Come 1976, the prog adventures of the flares-wearing Fruup were spiked by punk, and Charles had to forage for work.
“Back in the day, a lot of the business was conducted face to face. If you wanted to work with Jim Aiken, then you went and shook his hand and talked with him at three or four different gigs until he decided to give you a chance. And Irish bands were popular, so there was a wee bit of a buzz about them. You could go into the Marquee Club and chat with the guy who booked the acts. Once you did a few gigs and they went well, the contacts progressed even further.”
Charles built up something of a reputation. He was organised, efficient, articulate, could write press releases, and, most importantly, he could fill diaries with tour dates. Cue the founding, with his friend Paul Fenn, of the Asgard promotion agency. Charles was contacted by a major label, which had just signed a punk band that couldn’t get any gigs, and was asked to get them into venues around the UK. Within a few days, Manchester’s Buzzcocks were looking at a full tour sheet. “After that,” says Charles with a mischievous grin, “came Gang of Four, Human League, Penetration, The Lurkers, The Undertones.”