Novelist/music promoter & agent Paul Charles talks about his experiences in music, friends and books

"The impact of music on literature is simple: to have a great song you always need two main ingredients, words and music. You can’t have one without the other. The relationship to music to socio-cultural is a much bigger topic, possibly even a book."

Paul Charles: Literary Notes & Words

Paul Charles is a Northern Irish novelist, music promoter, and talent agent. Charles managed his first act, The Blues by Five, when he was 15 years old, and had to list the number of his local telephone call box on business cards. The telephone would be answered by whomever was passing, who would then walk to Charles' house and knock on the window to let him know there was a call for him. In 1967 he moved from Northern Ireland to London, planning to study Civil Engineering, but soon began writing for Belfast based magazine City Week, filing live reviews of Irish groups performing in London, and returned to the music business full-time. He then became manager, agent, lyricist and roadie for progressive rock band Fruupp. When the band split up Charles formed a promotion agency, Asgard, with associate Paul Fenn. The agency's first big signing was English punk band the Buzzcocks. Charles' clients include Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Ray Davies, Christy Moore, Don McLean, Waterboys, Van Morrison and Ry Cooder. 

Paul Charles says: "Music has always been a major force in my life and I have a need for the music of The Beatles, Hank Williams, Nick Drake, Otis Reading, Bob Dylan and the artists we've been lucky enough to work with. But as well as all of that I'm also a committed book reader—and collector—particularly British Detective fiction, and I have always loved dabbling in writing, lyrics, sleeve notes, short stories, etc., so in 1996, inspired by Colin Dexter (the creator of Inspector Morse), I attempted my first Detective Inspector Christy Kennedy Mystery, I Love The Sound of Breaking Glass, which was published the following year. Nine further Christy Kennedy titles followed, including 2008's The Beautiful Sound of Silence. In 2007 The Dust of Death, the first of a new series featuring Inspector Starrett was published. Family Life the second in this series set in Donegal was published in Sept 2009. Also published is First of the True Believers, a novel concerning the Beatles, and two Castlemartin novels, The Last Dance Down on Cyprus Avenue and The Lonesome Heart is Angry, plus three factual music books Playing Live, How to Succeed in the Music Business, and The Best Beatles Book Ever and the Prince of Heaven's Eyes a novella from the Fruupp days re-published recently as an ebook. Down on Cyprus Avenue is my latest (published by Dufour Editions November 2014). This is the first of the McCusker Mysteries set in modern day Belfast. Well at least I hope it's the first in the series as I've already started work on the second, A Day in The Life of Louis Bloom."

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Rock n’ Roll culture and what does the blues mean to you?

The thing I learnt the most from the Rock n’ Roll culture was the absolute power of some of the lyrics. I also learnt a lot about American culture thro the lyrics. To me the Blues, and Soul music, is all about performance. When someone sings from the heart – and in some cases simply because they just have to sing in order to live - then it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about Billy Brown from the Freshmen Showband – when he sang When Smoke Gets In Your Eyes or Cara Mia Mine in the Irish Ballrooms, it would make you want to cry - as was the case with Otis Redding singing Loving You Too Long or Van Morrison singing TB Sheets; or Seamus Heaney reciting some of his poetry in his powerful voice, or Rory Gallagher singing thro his guitar, ah yes… to me that, and a whole lot more, is the blues.

What were the reasons that you start the cultural, social, spiritual and musical researches and experiments?

It started by accident, and certainly not by design, on the day I heard the Beatles’ first single, Love Me Do, played on my mother’s radio for the first time. I certainly didn’t have any musical talent that warranted trying to get up on stage but I certainly had the energy to help those talented enough to make music, to get up on a stage and took great pleasure from doing so. In the early days, yes the good old days if you want to view it through rose tinted glasses, it wasn’t so much a case of of helping to invent the wheel but it was incredibly fulfilling feeling that in some small way you were involved in helping some of these amazing artists reach their audience. Now the likes of X Factor and the Live Nation anti-entrepreneur template have most certainly helped to make the music business the ghost town it is fast becoming.

How started the thought of Asgard Agency? How do you describe and what characterize your philosophy?

Paul Fenn was an agent who booked bands into venues and he worked under the name of Asgard which was the name of a club he used to be involved with.  I used to ring him up and blag him into booking my (then) only client, Belfast prog rock band, Fruupp. He became a good friend and eventually I joined him at Asgard as his partner. Our philosophy has always been very simple: only represent artists you love, that way you’ll be able to do much better work for them. 

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? Which memory makes you smile?

There’s three really. The first would be Loudon Wainwright III. I used to book UK and American acts into the Irish University Circuit. During the Troubles I’d accompany the acts on their visit. That was how I met Loudon; I accompanied him on his Irish tour. Loudon is another incredible live artist and a great man. I heard him sing My Girl or Motel Blues enough to realise he’d also learnt how to tap into that something special when he needed to. I eventually became his agent and he introduced me to a lot of artists I was luckily enough to get to work with, namely The Roches, The Boys of The Lough and Paul Brady.

I’d been a major fan of Van Morrison’s music for years and eventually I negotiated a deal with his manager, Bill Graham, to present his 1979 UK ‘comeback’ tour. Van is a hands-on kind of man and so when he came into London before the tour for rehearsals he came into the office to see me. You have to realise how much of my life I had spent listening to this man’s music, particularly Astral Weeks. So he walks into my office sticks out his hand and says, “Hi I’m Van Morrison.” And for the first time in my life I was quite literally tongue tied, I could not get a word out. He turned out to be very friendly, extremely funny and one of the most professional artists I’ve ever worked with. I was lucky enough to witness the majority of his concerts for the following six years and loved every second of every one of them.

With Tom Waits, again I was a major fan of his work and I’d tried for ages to become his agent but the main problem I was having was that all the managers/lawyers I would eventually track down would eventually become ex-managers or ex-lawyers. On one occasion I was visiting LA for meetings and as per habit, the first thing I’d do when I arrived in the city (after I’d thrown my luggage in my hotel room) was to head straight to Tower Records on Sunset. On this occasion I was greeted with lots of in-store promo material for Tom Waits & Crystal Gayle’s 1982 soundtrack album, One From The Heart. I couldn’t find any copies of the album in the racks, so I went to the counter to ask the assistant for a copy. “We’re all sold out,” she replied and then dropped to a conspiratorial whisper to offer, “and you’ll never guess who has just bought our last copy. It was bought by Tom Waits himself and there he is standing over there with his wife Kathleen.” So I jumped at the opportunity, went over and introduced myself. They’d heard of my approaches and we all went out and had a few cups of tea, and a few more cups of tea, and later that afternoon I became their agent.  Once again another unique and ground-breaking artist that I’ve been luckily enough to work with.

"The thing I learnt the most from the Rock n’ Roll culture was the absolute power of some of the lyrics. I also learnt a lot about American culture thro the lyrics. To me the Blues, and Soul music, is all about performance."

Are there any memories from John Lee Hooker, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, and Rory Gallagher which you’d like to share with us?

John Lee Hooker I first met at a Van Morrison gig just outside of San Francisco, Van had a song called, Satisfied, that he was working into the set. He spread the word around his band that he didn’t want to do Satisfied that night as John Lee was in the house. They were good friends. I remember John Lee was a very sharp dresser all the way down from his beautiful felt hat down to his well-polished shoes. Totally Mr. Cool. He was very polite, not loud. He was clearly doing something right, he’d more female attention than anyone I’ve ever known.

I remember another meeting years later. I was his agent by this time and he was playing at Crystal Palace in South London (5th July 1992). When I arrived at the gig I was told John Lee wanted to see me as soon as possible. I thought there must be a major problem so I went to see him immediately. As ever, he was sharp as a pin, looking a million dollars in his fine threads, which looked like they came straight from Saville Row. He just wanted to tell me to my face how happy he was over my endeavors on his behalf in negotiating the fee for the gig. He was very, very happy that day. Later that evening during his performance he felt the audience was being a bit… well, shall we just say, ‘lazy’. “Look, I’m okay,” he said, as he patted his back pocket, “I’ve already been paid, so if you don’t get up on your feet and let us hear you, I’m outta here.” The entire audience were on their feet immediately and it turned out to be another amazing gig.        

Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee I just loved. On the first tour I did with them we met at the hotel the night before the first gig. The three of us sat down around a table and I talked them through the tour. All the dealings up to then had been through their New York rep and Sonny & Brownie wanted me to talk them through all the details in person. So I went through the dates one by one, giving them the deals, confirming all the deposits where in, how much they were picking up at the gig etc., etc. At the end of my chat Sonny who’d been blind since he was 16 started back up again with, “So Paul how much are we getting for Copenhagen?” And then we when through each gig again, gig by gig.  They hadn’t actually talked to each other for years – legend had it that they fell out over a woman – and so Sonny wanted me to now address him directly, feeling the first run through had been for Brownie. Every time we had one of our business chats it always had to be just the three of us, when you talked to one you had to talk to both, but separately if you see what I mean. Sonny was such a big loveable man and so realistic was he at making his harmonica sound like a train was chasing you down the tracks, that you actually feared for your safety the ‘closer’ the train became. He could holler and cry through his harmonica sounding like a full-on, powerhouse, one-man band. Now right there, there’s another definition of the Blues: Mr. Sonny Terry. They received such an amazing reaction on every show they did. They also ate nothing but chicken while on the road in Europe, claimed they didn’t want to risk eating anything else.  

Rory Gallagher was responsible for some of the best shows I have ever witnessed. He never had a bad night, and on his great nights he was truly sublime, just on fire from the minute he walked on stage! When he plugged his treasured battered ’61 Strat’ into his trusted Vox AC 30, it was like he was also plugging himself into the mains. You can hear the excitement I’m talking about on an album released a few years ago called Big Guns. There are a couple of tracks recorded live in Brighton Dome and they totally captured what he was about. Off stage however he was a very quiet unassuming man. The other big thing about Rory he was such a fan of other artists and very knowledgeable about their work. He was also a big admirer of all the great American crime writers.  I enjoyed so many meetings with him and Donal, his brother and manager, where the business would either be gotten out of the way quickly or forgotten about completely and we’d get down to talking about some new music or his favourite American crime-writing legends.  Rory was very well read, up to date on new music and was always polite and one of the best mannered people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. He was one of those rare artists who respected his audience just as much as they loved him, and he joined together with them to create something very special every night.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

In a word, SOUL! The sad reality is that record company executives shot their own industry in the foot by not taking precautions while embracing the enfant terrible - the World Wide Web. For the perfect examples, for instance, go on to YouTube today and take a look at The Travelling Wilburys, Dire Straits, Beatles, etc etc and their entire albums have multi-million hits. Act after act, millions upon millions of hits but with no noticeable income for the artists. So how then, tell me, is the record business meant to continue?

I also worry a lot about where the next Eric Bibb or Robert Cray are going to come from.

"I’d go back to Sept 25th 1968, to Century Sound Studios in New York where Van Morrison was recording Astral Weeks."

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I went for a meeting recently at Universal and there was not one note of music being played on the entire floor I was visiting. That was as a complete contrast to what it used to be like when I’d visit the offices of Warner Bros or London Records. The one thing I’d look to do, say I was granted your wish, would be to clear all the accountants, lawyers and “career executives” out of the record companies and replace them with people who are actual fans of music. My big worry is that it may be too late. I also worry that most of the new emerging artists are pushed too far, too quickly. Look how long it took all the greats to get through the paying-their-dues stages; learning their trade and being ready and well equipped for the big stage when it eventually arrived. To me this slower, more considered, approach seems far preferable to the modern alternate where the acts seem destined for the scrap heap following one, yes… usually just the one, multi-platinum selling album and a single touring cycle.

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from Glastonbury Festival the last 20 years?

Well the thing I laugh loudest at is the fact that Michael Eavis, one of the most successful UK dairy farmers, runs the biggest and most successful music festivals in the world!

What is the impact of music on literature and what is the relationship of music to socio-cultural implications?

The impact of music on literature is simple: to have a great song you always need two main ingredients, words and music. You can’t have one without the other. The relationship to music to socio-cultural is a much bigger topic, possibly even a book. But I think it’s important to note that it was the travelling troubadours who original brought the news of the day from town to town. Personally speaking, as a teenager I learnt more about America and American culture from my favourite songwriters than from anywhere else.

What experiences and inspirations in your life have triggered your ideas most frequently for your books?

Well the most obvious one would have to be in The Last Dance which is set in Northern Ireland in the late 1950s and early 1960s against the backdrop drop of the legendary Irish Showbands. The Last Dance is really based on my teenage experiences of managing my first group The Blues by Five and the politics of putting a band together and what goes into keeping a band on the road. It also deals with the politics of romance and the art, and love, of songwriting.  In the Lonesome Heart is Angry the character telling the story is a young lad whose life had been changed by the music of The Beatles. But all the books are really quite heavily themed and inspired by music.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day and what memorabilia (books, records) would you put in?

Easy one. I’d go back to Sept 25th 1968, to Century Sound Studios in New York where Van Morrison was recording Astral Weeks. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be there and to be allowed to experience the best contemporary music ever written as it was being created and recorded? I wouldn’t take any books or records with me; I just wouldn’t want any distractions.

Paul Charles - Official website


Paul Charles ©2015 / Courtesy of Paul Charles' archive

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