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Nick Dent-Robinson - A Life in Music

  by Cila Warncke

published: 8 / 9 / 2022

Nick Dent-Robinson - A Life in Music

Nick Dent-Robinson’s life has always had a distinctive rhythm, from sneaking his school-issue double bass out to play weekend gigs as a youngster in Oxfordshire to interviewing rock star progeny about their parent’s lawn care rituals (more on that later). Although Dent-Robinson is a professional journalist, much of his musical work has been unofficial, between-the-lines stuff, which suits him. There is no hint of the manqué; he relishes the outsider perspective, the pseudonymous byline, the unmediated exchange. Here, he digs into a trove of stories to dish about late-period Elvis, guitar shopping with Eric Clapton and dining with Sharon Stone. What musical culture(s) did you identify with most strongly as a young person? A wide range of things from jazz to Hendrix to the Beatles and the Stones. My mother was a piano teacher, so there was always music at home and we went to a lot of concerts. At school, I played music and wrote songs. As soon as I was old enough to do my own thing, I got to see the Beatles performing to small audiences. What role did music play as you got older? My parents wanted me to go to Oxford [University], but I wanted to get away. I ended up in Belfast just as the Troubles were kicking off, bombs and all that. My work on the university newspaper led to a job on a national paper. Then my paper got taken over, all the trainees got sacked, and I went to work as a press officer for the Government. I wound up at the consulate in Los Angeles, promoting the British entertainment industry. It was a brilliant opportunity to do a little work on the side, though I had to use a false name. I lived on Topanga Beach, near Malibu, and got to know and interview lots of celebrities like Peter Frampton, Olivia Newton John and Rod Stewart. Steve McQueen lived next door; I saw him jogging on the beach every morning. How has your relationship with music evolved? I’d always done [song] writing and, in the 80s, a then-girlfriend was a gardener for someone who knew George Harrison. Through that, I was able to interview him. The story sold everywhere and suddenly it was easy to get interviews. Some of Harrison’s people had studio connections and used to invite me along to sessions. I supplied a couple of songs – on the black market, as it were – no credit but they paid cash. Producers would call and ask me to interview people, too. I always kept my hand in, did a bit on the side. What are the biggest differences in your musical taste between ‘then’ and ‘now’? As you talk to people, you start to listen to things that you might not otherwise listen to. I got into Caribbean music, reggae, by getting to know people involved. Now, I even listen to classical music. I heard it at home [as a child] but didn’t listen to it for years. My tastes have become broader and broader. What attracts you to an artist/band? Clever words, clever chord progressions, the use of minor keys – something the Beatles used to do a lot of. More recently, I liked Amy Winehouse and some of what Billie Eilish does is quite clever. There is a duo called Oh Wonder that have interesting material. People for whom every note matters are what counts. The sad thing in recent years is these talent shows with people who have very little ability, just a yearning to be famous. What’s a band you used to love that makes you cringe now? When I was young I really liked ‘Winchester Cathedral’ by the New Vaudeville Band. What I learned later was that it was just session men – there was no band. When I heard the whole story, I thought it was dreadful. Who’s an artist you came to late but now love unreservedly? Frank Sinatra, who I would have loathed when I was young, I now appreciate. Ella Fitzgerald, I get that now, which I didn’t always. Three gigs that meant something extra-special? Elvis Presley, Lake Tahoe, 1976: It was just before he died and the promoters were more or less giving away tickets. The friends we were with didn’t want to go; we thought it would be awful. Elvis was overweight, he forgot his words, he was shambolic, but when he sang you could see what the fuss was about. The Beatles, Oxford, circa 1963: It was at a small theatre in Oxford and the racket was amazing. You couldn’t hear them much. They weren’t even top of the bill, Roy Orbison was, but no one really listened to him. It was an atmosphere, a vibe you don’t get with many people. Tom Jones, London Palladium: Another one where I didn’t even want to go. He did some rock’n’roll covers, not his own songs. They were so powerful, I was surprised. When and how did you get involved with Pennyblackmusic? It must have been about 10 years ago. When I was writing for other publications, artists or PRs would ask about placing something with Pennyblack. It came from people working with artists who wanted them featured in Pennyblackmusic. It has a good name in the business. How would you characterise it as a publication? It covers a wide range of artists: known, not known, new, old. It’s not commercial, so there are no particular limits on the length of what you do; you can say what you think, which you can’t always do in magazines that rely on advertising. And there is John Clarkson – he really is Pennyblackmusic. His encouragement of the writers is something you don’t get with many publications. It’s more than a magazine, it’s like a club. In a quiet way, you’re proud and pleased to be involved with it. What have been your most memorable interviews? Some of the most interesting interviews I’ve done have been with the children of stars: Scarlet Page, Jimmy Page’s daughter, who is a well-known rock photographer; Dhani Harrison, George’s son; and Stella McCartney. I interviewed Eric Clapton once, in Soho, on a winter’s day. We wandered out afterwards and went into the [music] shop on Denmark Street. He started pointing out guitars saying, "This is genuine, this one is probably a fake." There were these two twenty-something guys and one turned around and said, "What do you know, granddad?" Clapton was wearing an overcoat, scarf pulled up, and did look a bit like a granddad. He just shrugged and smiled. How has your philosophy of interviewing changed? In the early days, I was led by the nose by the PR people. Now, I avoid that as much as possible. I like to talk about people’s background. Once you get them talking about their childhood, how they got into the music, you start to understand where they are coming from. So much of what we are comes out of early experiences. The difference between Lennon and McCartney was that Paul McCartney had a happy, warm environment to grow up in and John Lennon did not; that forms character. My approach takes time, though. Once, with Clapton, I had 20 minutes but at the end he said, "Hey, I want to talk more" and we got three hours. I would never have known that was possible in my early days. During one interview, Sharon Stone asked if I had more time later and we wound up having dinner. After that, whenever she was in the UK she’d call. If you do well, people will ask you back. Why does music writing matter? Anything that gets people interested in music matters. Before the pandemic, I was interested to see how many young people would get along to see acts of different generations. It was good to see how much they enjoyed live music in a world where so much is not real. How has your experience of music changed over the past two years? During lockdown it was more listening to more things, in more depth, for longer. Describe an image that encapsulates your life in music... Me, sitting in the background but managing to nevertheless talk to some of these people. I’m a background sort of person, getting a privileged view. Take 5… 1. The first song you remember? Kitty Lester ‘Love Letters’. As a child, on a summer’s day, listening to an older neighbour – a lad in his teens – playing loud music in his garden; he played ‘Love Letters’ over and over so I got to like it. 2. A funeral song? ‘I’ll See You in My Dreams’ as played in the Concert for George at Albert Hall. Joe Brown started it off on ukulele and was joined by Jeff Lynn, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney – it was a huge finale. 3. The song you never, never get tired of: Procul Harum ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’. It’s based on Back because they learned to play classical music at school. 4. The one artist you’d most like to interview? Paul McCartney, although it would be a struggle to find something original. Or Madonna: I’ve been told she’s a total nightmare, but I’d like the challenge. 5. The one artist you’d most like to be? Jimmy Page. He has huge musical ability, there’s almost nothing he can’t do. And he lives a nice, quiet life now. [His daughter] Scarlet told me he goes over on a Sunday and cuts her grass with a lawn mower.

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Nick Dent-Robinson - A Life in Music

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