Next month it will be five years since the death of my former boss, Peter Hepple, and I still miss the man who saved my career and very possibly my sanity.
Peter was for 20 years, from 1972–92, the editor of the Stage newspaper, often affectionately known as the actors’ Bible. But he contributed to it for more than half a century. His first article appeared in 1950, a review of the long-forgotten male impersonator Ella Shields who was topping the bill at the Queen’s Theatre, Poplar. His last, a piece on stage psychics, appeared posthumously in the week of his death.
Peter would review almost anything that moved, from strippers to Strindberg, from high opera at Covent Garden to cheesy tribute bands in working men’s clubs. He respected anyone who was capable of entertaining an audience, and his notices combined discrimination and knowledge with a complete absence of malice or cheap shots.
I arrived at the Stage in 1984 after five punishing years as arts reporter and third-string theatre critic on the Evening Standard. At 29 I was a burnt-out Fleet Street wreck. Two years earlier I had run away from the job, unable to face the stress of interviewing that logorrhoeic polymath, Jonathan Miller. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I could face interviewing him now. Doing a vanishing act to Dawlish, where I sat in a deckchair for several days, reading thrillers and watching pensioners playing bowls struck me as an entirely sensible option.
I thought the Standard would sack me when I got back, but they didn’t. Instead, I attended a psychiatric day hospital for several weeks before going back to work. But a couple of years later the stress again became unbearable and I quit the job. I assumed I’d have to become a minicab driver to pay the mortgage.
Then I heard that the Stage had a vacancy for a sub-editor. I had never done any subbing but Peter nevertheless took me on, and I spent two of the happiest years of my life in the paper’s Bermondsey offices. The depression and anxiety lifted, and as well as the desk job, Peter let me do some reviewing. Whatever voice I have as a critic was acquired during my relaxed and blissfully happy two years on the Stage.
I’ve been thinking of Peter because I know he would have loved the two books I want to recommend this week. He had a voracious appetite for facts and information about every aspect of showbiz, and though his main musical love was jazz, he kept abreast with all the other genres, too. I will never forget my surprise when, apropos of nothing in particular, he reeled off the box-office receipts of the latest Grateful Dead tour in the States.
Richard Morton Jack is another obsessive in the Hepple mould. He has published two telephone directory-sized books covering the Sixties and Seventies music scene. Galactic Ramble, at 531 pages, covers more than 3,000 British rock, pop, folk and jazz albums issued between 1963 and 1974. Its companion, Endless Trip, does the same for American releases between 1965 and 1974 and clocks in at 784 pages. In both books, well-known acts are juxtaposed with the fabulously obscure, and reviews published in the music press when the records first came out are combined with present-day assessments by a panel of experts in popular music. The books are also lavishly illustrated with album covers, pictures of the artists and reproductions of the trade ads that appeared when the LPs were first released.
There is clearly a big market for this mammoth and not entirely sane enterprise. Galactic Ramble has already sold out, but a second edition is promised for next year. Endless Trip, meanwhile, is readily available on Amazon. For anyone who loves pop music, these two books offer hours of happy browsing and information about a host of bands and musicians of whom you have never previously heard. You may know about the Doors but have you ever come across their Californian contemporaries, Kak? And though the Yardbirds may be familiar, how about another bluesy British outfit, the Brunning Sunflower Band?
I should warn that these reasonably priced books could nevertheless reduce you to penury. Even many of the most obscure albums are now available on CD and it is a terrible temptation to go mad on your Amazon account. I have recently discovered, for instance, that Donovan is a far more interesting artist than I took him for. And it now seems absolutely essential that I get hold of a copy of an album by a group called COB with the splendid title Moyshe McStiff & the Tartan Lancers of the Sacred Heart, which one of the contributors describes as ‘the greatest LP ever recorded in England’.
I have a hunch that even the usually omniscient Peter Hepple might not have heard of this one, and I just wish he were alive so I could tell him about it.
Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 24, 2011