The man who withstood Keith Moon, invented the Beckhams and pretended to be Bowie (2024)

Full disclosure: I know Alan Edwards. But it would be hard not to, in my work as a music journalist, since he has been a leading music publicist since the mid-1970s, making a name for himself as a young punk helping The Stranglers, Generation X and Blondie to rise above the new-wave pack. He went on to become a key figure in the career of such superstars as David Bowie, the Spice Girls, Prince and Amy Winehouse, with spells representing Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Elton John, Bon Jovi, Lou Reed, Robbie Williams, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, as well as managing Big Country, The Cult, supermodel Naomi Campbell, and Victoria and David Beckham.

As an opinionated, slightly stoned and music-obsessed 20-year-old, Edwards was recruited as a junior publicist by veteran PR Keith Altham after offering a frank opinion of the poor sound-quality at a Who gig in 1975. On Edwards’s first day, drummer Keith Moon arrived at the office in Pimlico, wearing a fur coat, monocle and top hat, and introduced himself by tipping over a desk and trashing the place. Edwards feared he would be sacked, but when Altham returned from a lunch break, he surveyed the damage and noted: “Moon’s been in, has he?”

My own sense of Alan is that he’s unflappable, dapper, soft-spoken and gently smiling; he has floated serenely for decades through the chaotic world of rock ’n’ roll as if he were in secret control from behind the scenes. But his entertaining and philosophical memoir, I Was There, reveals something else: the anxious, stressed and imaginative working-class misfit flying through perpetual turbulence by the seat of his pants, thriving on cleverness, adrenaline, hard graft and sociability while trying to understand his own place. Adopted as an infant with no knowledge of his birth parents, a yearning for family and connection underpins his surprisingly touching tale.

Memoirs by PRs tend to be compromised by an unwillingness to tell the real story behind the “story”. They know where the bodies are buried, but client confidentiality means they can’t actually dig them up, or dish the dirt without destroying their own reputations. Yet Edwards manages to step through this with diplomacy, wit and a well-honed instinct for storytelling, only treading on a few toes in the process.

For example, a chapter on life on tour with the Rolling Stones in 1982 is painfully revealing about the band’s personal dynamics: a world of “intrigue and politics, a bit like a medieval royal court with everyone jostling for influence and favour.” At a meeting in New York, Mick Jagger subjects Edwards to an interrogation about the circulation figures of obscure periodicals around the world. Edwards describes the frontman as a “natural salesman” who was “strategic” and “methodical”, fascinated by “marketing jargon”, and interested in the granular detail of publicity campaigns.

Under the impression he has been hired, Edwards returns to London, where he’s surprised to receive a phone call from an unmistakable voice: “Listen ’ere, Sonny Boy Jim, I run the Stones, not that f---ing poof Mick Jagger.” Edwards is summoned to a rehearsal studio in Shepperton at midnight, then left waiting for seven hours in a tiny room with a single chair and a broken window, before Keith Richards bursts in, firing questions about blues and reggae. “I guess,” Edwards says, “he was sizing me up and teaching me a lesson.”

Edwards tends to frame such behaviour forgivingly, in the context of highly strung artists operating in environments where everyone wants something from them. Still, the book is crammed with household names behaving quite badly. Sex and drugs are only lightly alluded to, but there are many outbursts, amusingly recounted, of bad humour, gracelessness and sheer weirdness, as when Prince had a flight case adapted so that he could sit inside and observe meetings without anyone knowing he was present. That almost went terribly wrong during an American tour, when the case was parked with others in a corridor, ready to be transported thousands of miles away, with Prince still inside.

I Was There also offers a consistently informative guide to how the publicity business has changed over the decades, from wildly improvised confabulations with boozy hacks in the 1970s and ’80s, through the checkbox corporate image-making of the ’90s and 2000s, to the current explosion of the internet and social media – which Edwards thinks “has helped to dismantle that machine and allowed PR to regain its imaginative scope.”

Along the way, the author plays football with Bob Marley, bribes the US mafia to rig chart positions for Big Country, briefs then-prime minister Tony Blair on David Bowie, helps to create Brand Beckham from notes scribbled on the back of a train ticket, and tries (and fails) to save Amy Winehouse from herself. He amasses over 10,000 contacts on his Blackberry, leading him to become inadvertently embroiled in the tabloid phone-hacking scandal when he’s bugged and burgled by nefarious forces desperate for stories on his clients.

Chief among those clients was David Bowie, with whom Edwards had worked since 1982. They forged a relationship that led to Edwards being Bowie’s friend, confidante and managerial adviser. They were so close that Edwards was able to stand in for Bowie on a phone interview for a live radio show without anyone noticing. “I didn’t put on a voice,” Edwards writes, describing the experience as “a kind of mind meld”. I Was There is his chance to step out from the shadows of his famous clients. It’s gossipy, insightful and a whole lot of fun.

I Was There: Dispatches from a Life in Rock and Roll is published by Simon & Schuster at £25. To order your copy for £19.99, call 0808 196 6794 or visit Telegraph Books

The man who withstood Keith Moon, invented the Beckhams and pretended to be Bowie (2024)
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