Rock’s Best Secrets: Tony King Talks Life With John Lennon, Elton John & Freddie Mercury | Music

aOn the wall of Tony King’s north London apartment is Andy Warhol’s beautiful engraving of Marilyn Monroe. Another is inscribed on the back, in a scribble instantly familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the Beatles: “To Tony with love, From one of your troubles, Love John.”

A grieving Lennon gave it after a particularly tumultuous night in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s: drunk and angry after an argument with Phil Spector during the recording of what would become his 1975 album Rock ‘n’ Roll, Lennon smashed a house where he was staying. King, who was basically managing it at that point, arrives to find windows smashed, golden records smashed and a singer trying to pull a palm tree out of the ground. Lennon stepped in and ended up pinning Lennon to the floor: “I never knew you were so strong, honey,” Lennon quipped.

The Complete Works of Warhol prints are entirely the work of Tony King. It’s a fascinating little piece of history, with an incredible tale attached to it, but it’s discreetly hidden: you have to remove the picture from the wall and flip it over to find out the whole story. Now in his 80s, King may be the best-kept secret in rock history: a Zelig-like figure whose career in the music industry links the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to Elton John, Freddie Mercury, and the highs and lows of disco in the late 1970s. He was there when the Beatles recorded All You Need Is Love and met the Maharishi (he was not a fan of the latter). He spent part of the 1960s trying to work with Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham out of an apartment that various band members used as a crash pad. Once, he was reprimanded by Keith Richards for smoking joint with the guitarist’s partner at the time: as incredible as it sounds now, Richards initially refused drugs.

King in his London flat. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

Before the Sexual Offenses Act of 1967 decriminalized homosexuality – “I knew no other way, to be honest” – it was King who encouraged friend Freddie Mercury to tell his partner Mary Austin that he was gay. Meanwhile, King’s unabashed glow had a profound effect on Elton John, who, when they first met, was a singer-songwriter struggling to get dressed: “Tony was getting attention in the middle of a Martian invasion,” John later recalled. “I wanted it to be classy, ​​quirky, and outrageous.”

In the late 1970s, he was on the dance floors of New York’s legendary clubs—The Paradise Garage, 12 West, Studio 54—doing what he calls “human promo”: In the age of disco, record companies were looking for men who understood offbeat roots music to promote new releases to DJs. songs. In the 1980s and 1990s, he toured the world with the Rolling Stones, and served as Elton John’s artistic director. By anyone’s standards, he had a busy life – as you might expect, King has stories for miles – yet his name rarely appears in pop culture history books. “I was always a little bit under the radar,” he says. “To be honest with you, I think it’s very cool to have you in the background, it’s a nice place to put yourself in. So I’ve always preferred that role, to stay a little low-key and hopefully have some level of integrity about what I’m doing.”

It took decades of cajoling friends for King to write a memoir, a task he finally began during lockdown. The resulting book, The Tastemaker, is remarkable: a funny, poignant, incredibly charming saga that sees him graduate from an Elvis-obsessed teenager in Sussex to a job at the record label Decca and then into the eye of the swinging Sixties storm. Everything seems to happen very quickly: one minute King works in a record store in Worthing, the next he accompanies the Ronettes around London and jumps out of a taxi at the behest of Roy Orbison to inform a passing car that the singer has decided he wants to buy. “You’re flying off the seat of your pants, aren’t you?” He says. “I’ve always loved to entertain, so it just seemed natural to me — it was a world I had always been fond of.”

Tony King (standing, third left) with Ronitz, Phil Spector (seated), and George Harrison in 1964
Tony King (standing, third left) with Ronitz, Phil Spector (seated), and George Harrison in 1964. Photo: from the author’s collection

The other remarkable thing about his story is how much the pop stars admired and trusted him. He became friends with the Beatles after providing them with singles by American R&B artists they loved. After switching jobs to work with Oldham—who lured King in by playing him The Stones’ next hit, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction—he struck up a lifelong friendship with Charlie Watts. This is after Watts’ initial assessment that “nobody like me has ever seen such a new guy in the office”.

“I think I’ve always been a very outspoken, straight talker,” says King. I was not an artist but I understood artists, I was in their camp. I think I had an innate understanding of what artists needed, and I didn’t put up with bullshit.”

To this end, he refused the Beatles when they asked him to work at the newly formed Apple Records: “I thought it was run by a lot of cowboys—nice cowboys, but they weren’t record company employees. It was too fanciful to me.” . Then he changed his mind when Ringo Starr assured him that the company had become “more organized”. Newly installed as head of A&R, he discovered that regulation was a relative term. “It was so crazy, Apple,” he says. “The poor office boy had to shop for Ringo every Friday. There would be all these tissue paper stacked in the lobby while they counted out, making sure they got the right number for Ringo. But the crazy side of it was beautiful. We had Apple darts and we were challenging the record companies.” Keith Moon turned up wanting to play, but he was so drunk, the office boys had to hold him up so he could shoot darts.”

Eventually King moved to Los Angeles to work with Lennon, where his duties included dressing Queen in a TV commercial advertising the Mind Games album. Lennon was in the midst of his “lost weekend,” a famously raucous residency when he temporarily parted ways with Yoko Ono. In King’s novel, nothing was as turbulent as it is usually portrayed – as he points out, it was the era when Lennon was making his first album, Walls and Bridges. But there was definitely an element of mayhem: King had to call Lennon off Frankie Valli after he began loudly suggesting that the Four Seasons frontman should “show us your dick”; He also retrieved Lennon from the toilet cubicle where he had been making cocaine with David Bowie. But, he says, for the most part, Lennon was a delight. “I knew him in the ’60s and he could be so cute. He freaked me out. I went to L.A. and waited for this sharp-tongued Liverpudlian guy, and instead I got this really weak guy. I couldn’t believe it.”

Meanwhile, Ono comes off The Tastemaker as an absolute hoot, a hilarious eccentric who encourages King to eat magic mushrooms before a business meeting with a music industry executive. He laughs: “Oh my God, I took off in the middle of lunchtime.” “I was airline. Yoko leans over the table and says—his voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper—Good, isn’t it? “

The book is packed with vivid, poignant descriptions of 1970s Los Angeles and New York, as well as sent behind-the-scenes at massive Rolling Stones tours and an impossibly star-studded support cast: everyone from Kenny Everett to Joni Mitchell to Donald Trump, who threatens to kidnap someone. The Stones press conference at his casino, causing the band to rig up the band with “screwdrivers and hammers and what have you” in order to stop him.

King with Freddie Mercury in 1981
“Indomitable Spirit” … King with Freddie Mercury in 1981. Photo: Courtesy of Tony King

But the strongest part of the book has nothing to do with the music. King’s descriptions of life and death in New York during the AIDS epidemic are a shocking and haunting read: the dying friend he sees in the hospital, disheveled because the nurses are so afraid of catching the disease that they refuse to cut his hair or nails; Another sick friend, who collapsed in the king’s kitchen, sobbed that he did not want to die. “I was literally living in Ground Zero. You could see it on the streets of Greenwich Village, people who were dying. You could tell by the color of their skin, if they were getting roadside assistance, if they had a walking stick: that person is dying. I was surrounded by death. Impossible to explain.” For people how devastating it was, and the fear and rejection that came with it.”

Of all the people he knew who died, he says Freddie Mercury was the bravest. “Very brave. He shopped to the last, buying paintings at Christie’s. I would lie on the bed next to him and hold his hand cold as stone, like bone. They would bring the paintings he had bought and prop them up at the end of the bed for him to look at. I said, ‘Fred, why are you doing this?’ And he said, “What should I do? I can’t go out, I can’t get out of bed, but at least I can go shopping. He had this wonderful, indomitable spirit.”

By the time King found out he had HIV himself, drugs were available which meant the disease was no longer a death sentence for him. However, he ends up in rehab after a breakdown that appears to have been triggered by seeing several friends die: “I just had a lot of grief. Survivor’s guilt.”

He recovered and ended his career working with Elton John, overseeing his album sleeves and working on his Las Vegas show and ongoing farewell tour. Now retired, he says writing The Tastemaker was a strange experience, full of sadness and regret: many characters in it had gone missing; It ends with the death of Charlie Watts. Then again, King accomplished what he set out to do.

“I knew as a teenager that I would never be a star, but I loved hanging out with the stars, the glamor of it all. I loved working for famous people and helping them achieve the things they set out to do. After one of the Rolling Stones tours, I got a card from Mick that just said: “Thank you for keeping me well.”

He laughs. “That sums it up for me: Keeping it going is okay.”

Tastemaker by Tony King will be published by Faber & Faber on February 2, £20. To order a copy for £17.40 and help support The Guardian, go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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