Paul Charles told David Hennessy about working with the biggest names in music such as Van Morrison, The Undertones and Tom Waits to name a few.
Paul Charles’ memoir Adventures in Wonderland tells the story of how a ‘wee lad’ from Magherafelt in Co. Derry went on to become one of the most influential music figures ever to come out of Ireland.
Paul has worked, and become friends, with many of his rock and roll idols.
Over his 40+ year career, he has worked with some of the biggest names in music, at different times managing the careers of Van Morrison, Ray Davies of The Kinks, Gerry Rafferty, The Waterboys and Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and launching Tanita Tikaram whose debut album sold almost 5 million copies.
He has also been agent and confidante along the way to The Kinks, Robert Plant, Tom Waits, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Don McLean, Lonnie Donegan, Rory Gallagher, Marianne Faithfull, John Prine, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne, The Hothouse Flowers, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Christy Moore, Taj Mahal, Buzzcocks, The Undertones, The Blue Nile, Shakespear’s Sister, Ronnie Spector – and dozens more of modern music’s brightest stars.
Paul is also a successful crime writer.
Paul’s extraordinary life – also including encounters with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Police, U2 and more – are brought together in Adventures In Wonderland.
“It wasn’t work,” Paul told The Irish World of the experience of putting his story down, something he had often been asked to do before.
“I really, really enjoyed doing it.
“I have been thinking of doing it for quite a while and I’ve been invited to do it a few times over the years by different publishers but the feeling I always got in the initial conversations was some of them were really interested in a more ‘dishing the dirt’ kind of book which I wasn’t really interested in.
“So I didn’t bother with it and I left it and then what happened was towards the end of Covid, I started work on a new Christy Kennedy book called Return of the James Gang that features a Liverpool band from the 60s who were meant to be as big as the Beatles.
“I was doing that but in the course of writing that, I remembered how much I actually love writing about musicians and songs.
“The ‘but’ always was ‘but these are fictitious’, so I thought, ‘Maybe now might be the time to do that book and talk not so much about my life as the people I’ve been lucky enough to either work with or to be fans of.”
You describe yourself as a fan of music and those you have worked with, is that a big part of your success? That you are a fan first and foremost?
“We’ve always worked under the premise that we would only take on acts that we really loved because I always figured if you really love an act then you’re always going to do a much better job for them.
“It’s the same with writing music. I always found the great artists I know, people like John Prine and Van and Tom Waits, do not write songs to make money.
“These people do this because they have to do it, because maybe in a way their life depended on them doing it and then because of the talent they’re putting into it, a biproduct of that is there is a living to be made out of it.
“Gerry Rafferty, the same thing. If there wasn’t record companies, if there wasn’t all these social media platforms, these people would still be writing songs.
“These people would still feel the need to do it because they have to do it, it’s in there and you can tell it in their songs.”
Van Morrison was a big part of your story, wasn’t he? “He was and in more ways than one.
“Back in the day, back in the 60s me and my mates were all so proud of Them.
“Them were the first Northern Irish group that got in the English pop charts, got to number two with Here Comes the Night and we were all so proud of that.
“It was such a big buzz and then I came over to London and I started to be an agent and the agent thing was working.
“We were building, we were getting bigger groups.
“Because I was doing these things for the Belfast papers, I would always see what Van was doing, was there any chance he would come back for shows and as time passed, he didn’t.
“But then he came over once.
“He signed with Harvey Goldsmith to be his manager and he came over to do a showcase and I blagged Harvey to give me a couple of passes to get into it.
“And I went and I sat on the floor in this club in the West End and it was just incredible, it was great.
“So then I kind of knew Harvey well enough to say, ‘Look Harvey, Van hasn’t been back to Ireland since the days of Them, is there any chance at all you think we could get him to do a couple of shows in Ireland?’
“So Harvey went and spoke to Van about it, Van was interested wanted some more ideas.
“I came up with the tour. We had it all set up, the figures had been agreed and whatever.
“And then I got this message from Harvey’s office, ‘Harvey’s no longer the manager of Van’.”
Paul would find out that the new manager was Bill Graham who he describes as ‘the legendary American promoter’.
“I rang up, the same wee lad from Magherafelt ringing up the world’s biggest promoter and saying, ‘Look any chance we could get Van to come over and do these Irish shows?’
“And he was so sweet, he was so patient.
“He said, ‘Paul, I’m sure Van would love to play in Ireland again and we would love it to happen but the thing is it’s a big band, it’s a big touring party we just couldn’t afford to go over to do six shows, it wouldn’t make sense for us’.
“So I said, ‘Okay’.
“I crossed my fingers behind my back because we had never promoted a show anywhere before, ‘We’ll promote the English dates as well’.
“And he said, ‘Okay, well in that case please send me a routine and some figures’.
“So we did that and I got another call back saying, ‘Look, we also work with two other promoters in England and we really feel it would be fit and proper that we also tell them there’s a chance Van might tour so we have to ask them to make offers as well’.
“And I didn’t realise until I set the phone down that they were actually telling me bad news.
“I was so enthused about the thing and I realised the way music business works: You work with the people you work with and you have a loyalty to them’.
“But I put in my offer and they rang back and said, ‘Your offer’s good, it’s better than the other two gentlemen’.
“Because we had been offering three nights in Hammersmith.
“They rang back and said, ‘Van has agreed, Van wants to do it with you and that’s what we’re doing’.
“So I, for quite a while, thought that was fine. We got Van because we put in the best offer.
“But it turned out later.
“Mick Brigden in Bill’s office said, ‘No, you didn’t get it because your offer was the best. Your offer was the best but Van, when he saw your name, remembered an incident’.”
Writing a column on music Paul had asked if anyone knew where he could find the song Friday’s Child which Herbie Armstrong had introduced ad a Van Morrison original but which he did not know of.
“I consider myself a Van Morrison fan and I had never heard about it so the next week in my City Week column I said, ‘They did this beautiful Van Morrison song. It’s called Friday’s Child, does anybody know what record I can get it on or where I can find it?’
“This was before the days of the wide world web so the next week in the office a package arrives and I open it up and it’s a record. The A side is Gloria and the B side is Friday’s Child and there is a beautiful letter and the letter turned out to be from Van’s mum and it was a letter only a mum could write and she was saying, ‘Thank you so much for keeping Van’s name in the paper’.
“And then those years later Van recognised the name and said, ‘Look, I’d like to do it with him’.
“Fast forward another few months and I’m sitting in my office one day and the receptionist buzzes through and says, ‘Paul, there’s a man out here claiming that he’s Van Morrison’.
“I realised it was Van come in early to do a rehearsal.
“Van being Van he’s so hands on he decided to pop in and see the person who was promoting the dates.
“And so I walked out into the reception area.
“This man Van Morrison, who had been in all my thoughts and all my great moments of listening to music for ages, sticks out his hand and says, ‘Hi, I’m Van Morrison’.
“And I physically could not get my mouth to utter a single word. I just couldn’t get a word out, I was totally dumb struck.
“I think that’s the only time I’ve been tongue tied.”
Paul would also play a part in launching an act who are now bona fide legends of Ulster music and the punk scene: The Undertones.
“I think we had pretty much signed all the punks before the rest of the London agents knew there was a punk thing happening.
“But with The Undertones I remember a friend of mine sent me this EP Teenage Kicks and I put it on.
“I couldn’t stop playing it and part of it was in disbelief because this band- this five kids really as they were then, as we all were then- were from 30 miles away from where I grew up and here they were making this world beating music: Just unbelievable, really so powerful, so energetic, so vibrant.
“To me the punk movement really was the same as the movement that started when you had the Stones, the Beatles, the Small Faces, The Who and The Kinks, that energy and new vibe they brought to an old world, old man’s music business.
“The punks did the same thing.
“They had energy, so much vitality, and they had also a very healthy disrespect for the music business mainly because the old promoters and old venues wouldn’t put them on because they were punks.
“I kind of decided to chase them and I met up with them in Belfast.
“They all came down to meet me and we had a chat, and I was thinking to myself, ‘I’m lucky enough to represent Van Morrison, I must have a good chance of getting to work with the Undertones, and I seem to be getting along well with them’, and whatever.
“One of them said, ‘Of course, we were always going to go with you because you’re the agent for the Buzzcocks’.
“That was the way it worked then.”
It was a chance encounter that would see Paul work with Tom Waits but his reputation had gone before him.
“I had been a major, major fan of Tom Waits over the years.
“I had been trying to make a connection, I couldn’t make a connection and then one day I was in a record shop in LA, the first thing I noticed was all these big posters up One from the Heart, the duets album with Crystal Gale.
“I searched and I couldn’t find it so I went up to the girl behind the desk and she said, ‘We’re sold out. In fact we just sold the last copy a few minutes ago’.
“And then she leaned over and said, ‘And you’ll never guess who I sold it to, I sold it to Tom Waits. But don’t look now because he’s right behind you and that’s his wife Kathleen with him’.
“And I went over and introduced myself and lucky enough they had heard of me and we went out to a café for a cup of tea and several cups of tea and a few hours later I became their agent and have remained so ever since.”
It was at Vince Power’s the Mean Fiddler in Harlesden that Paul discovered Tanita Tikaram.
“Vince had some phenomenal artists in there and that was because he always looked after them.
“Vince came along and he would give people food, he would give them some liquid refreshments and he would chat to them and make them feel welcome.
“He would be Vince and everybody loved him for it.”
From Derry himself, Paul would have to work around the troubles.
What impact did that political situation have?
“It was very difficult in that people just didn’t want to go to the north.
“When international acts would hear of the troubles in Belfast they just wouldn’t want to go to Ireland.
“I would talk to The Clash, the Buzzcocks, they would kind of say, ‘Okay, will you come over with us? If you come over with us, we’ll definitely go’.
“That’s how we got the Stranglers over. I travelled around Ireland in the back of their transit and found out they weren’t ‘punks’ as a bad word.
“They were very intelligent people, loved their music, had a great sense of humour.
“There were certain acts like Rory (Gallagher) who continued to play right through the troubles, he religiously played Ireland every year and would always turn up no matter how good or bad the situation was.
“He would always be there.
“There were a couple of acts like that.
“Music is the middle ground, music is where everybody can meet.
“In those days if you went to Belfast for a concert, the buzz of people being in a room together was off the scale, so when a band walked onstage, they would have this wave of love and anticipation hit them.
“Normally, no matter who you are, maybe by the third or fourth song, you feel you’ve got a bit of momentum going.
“The second that they started to play, every single member of the audience would just be there with bells on.
“The artists would feel they were walking on water, so the people who would go to shows would be desperate to go back again and the people who didn’t go over to do shows started to hear about this so bit by bit we built the circuit up.”
What have been particular highlights for you Paul? “When I saw Rory Gallagher on many a night or Taste on many a night- When I was there to experience it, that was the best night of my life.
“The feeling that I had when I went to see the Carpenters in the Palladium, that was the best night I had in my life.
“When I went to see Van Morrison do his comeback shows, before I ever got to meet him, at that time that was the best night of my life.
“Ray Davies, the Kinks, Hothouse Flowers, the Waterboys, Christy Moore- Seeing Christy Moore perform live to this day is still such a special occasion, it’s still such a special thing and that doesn’t matter if it’s a 2,000 capacity beautiful concert hall with plush seats or it’s the Barrowland in Glasgow with 2,7000 standing up for a good night.
“There’s few people I know who have got that sort of command on both sides of the scale.”
Adventures in Wonderland is published by Hot Press Books and out this Friday.
Paul Charles launches it this Friday 19 May at The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith.