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

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.”

Punk bands weren’t at all business focused, he remembers. But he admired their collective sense of community and supportiveness.

“The Undertones, for example, would pay their support acts more money than most people I knew, and if they thought the support act wasn’t covering their costs, they would foot the bill. Buzzcocks were the same – that ‘one for all and all for one’ vibe was something I got from a lot of bands at that time. But the money? I can clearly recall at the end of some gigs that bands would be so excited about having just been on stage they’d forget to collect their fee.”

Van the difficult man? 

Within a few years, Asgard was flying, and one client after another was signed up. Loudon Wainwright III introduced his good mate Paul Brady to the agency, while the signing of Van Morrison widened the network even more. Van's tour manager knew Jackson Browne's manager; someone in Browne's office knew someone who co-managed Crosby, Stills & Nash; and so on.

Charles is well-placed to shed light on some of rock music’s more interesting figures, including such luminaries as Van Morrison.

“Van?” The query is greeted with amusement and in full knowledge of the public perception of Ivan George Morrison as being just a tad irritable. He says that Morrison is “an incredibly professional person, one of the most, in fact, I’ve ever dealt with in my life.

“He’s very easy to get on with; he knows the music business better than anyone I know. Off stage – certainly in my time with him – he was friendly, sociable, funny. He loves his privacy, and when he’s afforded that, and when he’s allowed to do what he does on stage, then what you see is what you get. I have a lot of time for him.”

And what about Tom Waits, one of contemporary music's most highly regarded mavericks, who has been with Asgard for more than 30 years? Charles recalls a business trip in the early 1980s in Los Angeles, when he popped into the book store Book Soup. While browsing, he clocked posters for Francis Ford Coppola's movie, One From the Heart, the soundtrack of which had been composed by Waits.

“I went to the checkout, asked the person at the desk if there were copies of the album,” says Charles. “She said they had just sold the last one to the person a few feet away from me. I turned around, only to see Tom Waits with the album in his hand. I went over to him and introduced myself; he was with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, who luckily enough knew my name from various people in the music business we were both acquainted with. So we left Book Soup, had a few cups of tea in a nearby cafe and enjoyed a great chat. Four hours later I was his agent, and have been ever since.”

What is he like? “Oh, he’s totally brilliant. He’s a great storyteller on and off the stage, which is why he’s such a great interviewee. I mean, where does fact and fiction start and finish? His imagination is amazing; he’s there in the story, making you cry one minute and laugh the next.”

Charles is still at Asgard, dividing his time between writing books and dealing with the business of making musicians and their managers a happy bunch.

It’s not about the money

What has he learned most in his years as a booking agent and industry peacemaker? “It’s the thing about belief, isn’t it? I’ve turned down so many acts through the years, not because they were bad but that I just didn’t get them. My logic – selfish, I admit – has always been that if I don’t get them, then I can’t convince promoters and record companies to take them on. If I do get them, then my enthusiasm will be infectious.

“So for anyone starting off, or not even starting off, if you’re doing something you can believe in, then keep following the light. If you’re doing it because you want to become famous, you want to make some money, or if it’s a substitute for acting, or something else, then don’t do it.”

The Lonesome Heart Is Angry by Paul Charles is published by New Island