A Conversation With .. Martin Melhuish
-- Pictured at the combined Methuen Publications launch of Martin Melhuish's Bachman-Turner Overdrive book and Ritchie Yorke's Led Zeppelin bio-tome at Stop 33, Sutton Place Hotel, Toronto: kneeling Jim Chalmers (Methuen), Kris Blok-Andersen; middle row: Ritchie Yorke, Christine Ditchburn, Martin Melhuish, Dave Drew (Methuen); rear: Methuen staff members. Photo: Bruce Cole.
How to encapsulate a person’s body of work or abilities in a few well-considered words is near impossible with author, TV producer, director, writer, radio producer, journalist, magazine editor, music historian Martin Melhuish. Maybe creative entrepreneur, two words given a wide berth on Melhuish Linkedin page.
The extensive interview between the two of us has been long in the works. That wait is most revealing - near biographical from a man graced with rare passion and a desire to fill each day with those interests that enrich and excite.
Bill King: The endless stream of interests and accomplishments would exhaust most people. Writing is both physically and mentally demanding. What prompts you to take on a project knowing the hours ahead will be long, and you will be mostly locked to a seat?
Martin Melhuish: It necessarily begins with wonderment and passion for the subject. For me, that is music and the endlessly-fascinating story of its enduring, world-transforming cultural, spiritual and societal impact. It’s that level of creative fervour that allows you to face the mountain time and time again and convince yourself this time you will navigate an easier path to the summit. The truth is that at the completion of most projects -- and I doubt I am unique in this -- you usually find yourself looking skyward and swearing that you’ll never put yourself through that torment again. In the case of books, money is rarely the inspiration. If you break down the actual hours expended on interviewing, writing, editing, revising, picture-gathering, etc. and relate that to the potential financial return based on advances and royalties, you’ll have reason to envy the wages earned in the manufacturing industry in Sri Lanka. For that reason, most projects I take on or instigate have a multimedia element.
B.K: As a child, were you a voracious reader?
Not “voracious,” but books were an important part of my early life.
B.K: What were your favourite page-turners?
If you are asking about my childhood, there was a book that I cherished and probably read more than a dozen times. It was the story of two kids, a brother, and sister, who ran away with the circus and lived in a gypsy caravan. I don’t recall the title or who wrote it, though it could have been Enid Blyton, because her books, including the Famous Five series, were part of my adolescence. Later on, I would read every book in Edward Stratemeyer’s Hardy Boys series, which were actually written by a number of ghostwriters under the collective pseudonym of Franklin W. Dixon. Most books came into my life in those days at primary school or Christmas when you would get the latest hard-cover annuals like Rupert Bear, The Beano, The Dandy and Boys Own Annual, which was about three inches thick with reprinted content, with additional illustrations, from the Boy’s Own Paper, a London-based children’s weekly. Looking back, the author who has been most influential and inspirational to me is Charles Dickens.
B.K: What were the most common discussions around the family dinner table?
When my sister arrived -- she’s three years younger than me -- it was likely about what a pain in the arse we had been to each other that day. You know, typical sibling rivalry stuff when you are used to getting all the attention, and somebody else shows up to share the spotlight. There were a lot of discussions on family outings. We didn’t have a car, so you needed a plan for the walking and transit routes to your ultimate destination and, of course, the timing for stopping to eat. We’d usually bring our food along, but we were also big on tea rooms and bakeries, and it was always reason for celebration when you encountered one along the way.
B.K: Did they encourage you to write?
They encouraged me to do well at school, and that would have included writing, but I don’t remember them having a vision of me as a journalist or novelist. Like most parents, they were practical in their thinking of which vocational areas would provide a stable living wage. They would have had no understanding of the concept of entrepreneurship at the time. They were working-class people with a practical view of the world. I often wonder if we had stayed in Penzance, where I was born, whether I would have been out there on the boats as a fisherman or a character from Rudyard Kipling’s novel, Captains Courageous. My Dad had been in the Royal Navy, so there was a sea-faring precedent.
B.K: When did you first put pen to paper and what was scripted?
I recently found the evidence for the answer I am about to give you. When I arrived in Canada, I briefly attended Withrow Public School in Toronto’s Broadview and Danforth area before moving on to Charles E. Webster Public School in the Eglinton and Keele district, which I have since learned was also the alma mater of noted jazz critic, author, historian and photographer Mark Miller, and Michael Burke who is, among many other things, the founder and president of Victoria, B.C.-based Cordova Bay Entertainment Group.
In grade five, I was given a writing assignment in which we were to talk about various elements of our lives. I decided I was going to write my memoirs in book form. I covered pieces of cardboard in some pretty cool looking curtain material and used bits of string to secure the pages. The book titled rather unimaginatively, “My Life Story,” had eleven chapters: My Baby Days, My Earliest Memories, School Days, Grade Five Memories, My Family, My Hobbies, Out of School Life (Travel), My Friends, My Pet, My Most Embarrassing Moment and My Dreams.
Revelations included the fact that I wanted to be a scientist, my favourite subjects were arithmetic, art, phys ed, and social studies, I collected stamps, matchbooks and rocks and liked to play hockey. The teacher gave me 22 out of 25 on the project with the note, “I’ll be looking forward to reading about Scientist Martin in the newspapers someday.” Me too.
B.K: Did you study journalism?
I had no formal studies on the subject -- I abandoned school after Grade 13 when I caught the music bug -- but had a great interest in the English language. I discovered that journalism was something people did as a career when I was a page boy at the Ontario Parliament Buildings when I was 13 years old. Part of our days’ work was to keep the information flow current by renewing the Hansard reports (edited transcriptions of house sessions) each day in the binders at each MPP’s desk. During that period, I came into contact with a number of court reporters, and I made the connection that what they wrote subsequently showed up in the newspapers and often caused an unholy ruckus.
B.K: What was your first writing assignment?
As far as I can remember, while at the Toronto underground newspaper Tribal Village, I gave myself the assignment of spending an afternoon with my friend Francine, and Oliver Dragojevic who, under his first name, had the hit Good Morning Starshine from the “tribal musical” Hair, for a feature story.
B.K: You and music writing seem to be the perfect match. What brought you to focus your life’s work on this?
Though I would spend some time as a musician (guitarist), booking agent and manager, my obsession was in establishing a publication in Canada devoted to music.
Being from England and aware of such iconic publications as Melody Maker, New Musical Express, Disc, and Music Echo and so many others, this was an area of arts reporting that was sadly lacking in Canada. I became entertainment editor at Tribal Village, a job akin to tending rocks in a rock garden fellow music journalist Jim Hickman once suggested, before launching Beetle Magazine. I abandoned the project after four issues when I met internationally-renowned rock journalist Ritchie Yorke and we embarked on a number of rock ’n’ roll adventures, including the establishment of three rock publications: Pop Magazine, Grapevine and Rainbow Magazine, the latter of which had an editorial relationship with a number of the iconic music publications from the U.K. mentioned above. By 1973, I had become Canadian editor of Billboard and, during that same era, Canadian correspondent for a number of U.S. magazines including Amusement Business, Performance, Zoo World, Rolling Stone, and several others. I also spent time in New York developing an insert devoted to music in the magazine Modern Hi-Fi, and Stereo Guide titled The Music Paper.
B.K: You write across genres. Bachman Turner Overdrive to George Jones to Supertramp to Celtic. When starting a book which centres on a specific artist, are you at first a fan of their music, or are these assignments?
The first of my more than a dozen books at this point was Rock Is My Life, This Is My Song: The Authorized Biography of Bachman-Turner Overdrive. The catalyst for that tome was the band’s manager Bruce Allen calling me up regularly and turning the air blue with his thoughts on how the group was being ignored and disrespected in their own country. At this point, they were filling arenas in major markets in the U.S. At the end of one particularly hot-under-the-collar call he said, “Get on a plane and come on the road with us for a while and see this for yourself.” A couple of week’s later, I flew out to Vancouver and joined the group for dates in Long Beach and San Diego. That was the inspiration for the book, and the timing was perfect as British publisher Methuen, who had an office in Canada, wanted to take the plunge into publishing books on rock music.
The first entries into that field were my book and Ritchie Yorke’s insightful biography on Led Zeppelin. The Supertramp Book, written with full cooperation of the individual group members and even their families who provided me with scrapbooks and other ephemera, came from my friendship with Charly Prevost, who had been head of publicity for A&M Records in Canada, and was ultimately hired as road manager for the band on their first world tour.
When the band went on hiatus, Charly decided to spend time in Montreal. I had room at the house in Westmount (Quebec), the magical 7 Burton, and he spent time there between gigs. He kept journals, and it was from interview sessions I did with him around the kitchen table that the Supertramp book was born. Heart of Gold: 30 Years of Canadian Pop Music was at the suggestion of John Brunton of Insight Productions who did that wonderful three-hour production of the same name for the CBC. I was working on a Canadian music encyclopedia titled Made in Canada -- Jaimie Vernon later picked up that torch with his comprehensive encyclopedia -- and I recall I was in Los Angeles when I got a call suggesting we do the project I was working on a companion to the TV production. I flew into Toronto, and we cut a deal with CBC Enterprises for the book. I also co-produced, with Insight’s Ann Mayall, an eight-hour syndicated radio series under the same title.
B.K: Do you find commonality between artists? Is it a passion that drives most, or is its livelihood?
Over time, you learn that the artists destined to make a cultural impact, with or without massive financial success, follow their unique path to the point of obsession. It’s all about the art and their creative view of the world. They are a rare breed and can often be passionate to the point of social distraction. These days, a great litmus test is to suggest to an artist that he/she should try to sound a little more like Drake. If you are forced to dodge a flying piece of furniture… well, I leave the conclusion to you.
B.K: Before the first word lands, what is the preparation process?
In preparation for any project, I like to do a comprehensive chronology of events. It gives everything a historical context, which is extremely valuable in structuring your story-line and even revealing stories and connections you might otherwise miss.
B.K: Are you comfortable with musicians?
I had a house in Montreal (7 Burton) for about seven years which was always filled with singers, musicians, and creatives. In the early ‘80s, it was the Canadian address of Simon Fuller (American Idol creator, Spice Girls manager, etc.) with whom I worked on a number of management and recording projects between here and the U.K. at the time. The Montreal Gazette did a two-page spread on the house at one point and suggested that a plaque should be put on the place given its history. My next-door neighbour was legendary Canadian political cartoonist Terry Mosher (Aislin).
B.K: You’ve done several bio-flicks profiling artists – Jerry Lee Lewis, Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings, Roy Orbison, Chet Atkins – those are just the country artists. What do you find endearing about the first generation of country artists whose success ran parallel with the popularity of television?
I think the simplest way to explain their appeal for me is that they are real, no matter the anti-social aspects of the character of many of those artists. Documenting their life stories present some challenges. One is in not making them caricatures. There is a real organic connection between the subject of their songs, the artistic imagery and the rebelliousness that has a great appeal to a vast audience. I remember being in Jake Riviera’s Stiff Records office in London in the late ‘70s with Nick Lowe when the phone rang. It was Elvis Costello in Nashville who was working on a project with George Jones at the time. The excitement was palpable… and these were artists at the vanguard of the New Wave and Punk movements of that era.
B.K: Did you have a personal relationship with any?
Since the late ‘80s, I have worked with Nashville/Toronto-based TH Entertainment, originally known as Hallway Productions, a partnership between brothers Greg and Mark Hall from Pickering, Ontario. There was a period early on in which we tackled a number of the biggest names in country music.
Greg Hall, one of the principals of TH Entertainment with his wife, producer/director Barb Hall, ended up administering the Patsy Cline estate with Patsy’s late husband, Charlie Dick. I’d like to say I had a personal relationship with Patsy, but the next best thing was those lunches with Charlie where I soaked up the stories of the Nashville of Patsy’s day, which is now part of history.
Chet Atkins was always the “country gentleman” he was reputed to be. I can still remember sitting in front of him at his Music Row office and finishing off an interview by asking him to play something for the camera. He was not particularly well at the time, yet he picked up the guitar and played an almost flawless version of the instrumental, “Borsalino.” That excerpt from our production Wired For Sound: A Guitar Odyssey that celebrated Gibson guitar's 100th anniversary is on YouTube, and I still get goosebumps.
B.K: The Mamas and the Papas had a short but impactful run. The songs – the harmonies the breezy tone of their originals gave added spirit to a generation in search of utopia. How did you approach this documentary, and what did you bring from this?
The Mamas and the Papas emerged in the wake of the British music invasion, and they quickly became the great American hope is partially stemming the tide, but the story was always John Phillips, a complex, self-centred musical genius. Nonetheless, he had a great impact on the era. Besides the group's big hits which he was responsible for, along with their impeccable harmonies, he wrote one of the anthems of that generation, San Francisco (Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair), which became a hit for Scott McKenzie. John and Michelle Phillips were also organizers of Monterey Pop, a historical event and one of the first of its kind to be held in the U.S.
B.K: You’ve done several high-profile books for the Canadian music scene – Oh What a Feeling: A Vital History of Canadian Music for one. The importance of such a volume can’t be understated. Did you have a mental over-view in mind before you started the labour intense project?
I have always been astonished at the quality of musical talent that can be found the length and breadth of this country. I have always found it frustrating as well that so many of the musical accomplishments from the past have either been lost to the mist of time or been co-opted by the U.S. I mentioned that with most projects I would do a comprehensive chronology to put events in perspective. Oh What A Feeling turned into one of those chronologies on steroids.
With most projects, I look for multimedia opportunities, and that worked well here. For example, the book Oh What A Feeling: A Vital History of Canadian Music, commissioned by the Canadian Academy of Recordings Arts & Sciences (CARAS) as part of the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Juno Awards, led to the creation of a radio special of the same name, a TV production (Tower of Song) that aired on the CBC and PBS, and ultimately a second, greatly-updated version of the book with the original title and the tag line The Next Generation. That led to the mounting of the theatrical musical OH CANADA! What A Feeling, which had run at Caesar’s Windsor and Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre.
B.K: What did you bring from this that will always stay with you?
I love the fact that these projects are part of a growing library of books that give an insight into the extraordinary and often untold history of music in Canada. Music journalists like Nicholas Jennings, John Einarson, the late Ritchie Yorke, Jaimie Vernon, Mark Miller, Bob Mersereau, Randy Ray, and Mark Kearney, among others, have added to this growing pantheon.
B.K: Celtic Tides? How did this come about?
This is the perfect example of those multimedia projects I was speaking about. I remember sitting with Greg Hall at his home in Brentwood, Tennessee during one of those sweltering days you get down there mid-summer, brainstorming on new projects. The production company had done the Rankin Family’s CBC special Backstage Pass: Live From the Orpheum in Vancouver.
The group was on hiatus at this point and when the question came up, “Has anyone done a history of Celtic music for TV?” the supplementary was, “If not, what about getting Heather, Raylene, and Cookie [Rankin] to host a special on the subject?”
We decided it was a good idea and I picked up the phone and called Kingston, Ontario-based book publishers Quarry Press, who had published the Oh What A Feeling book, asking whether they’d be interested in a book on the subject. They were, and we cut a deal on the spot. Minutes later the phone rang, and it was David Hazan, who, during my Montreal days, I had managed briefly in The Pinups, which also featured Sass Jordan, David McNally, and Victoria Levy. David was head of marketing at the Putumayo World Music record label at the time. He was calling to catch up but when he heard about the Celtic Tides idea he made me promise to let Putumayo have a shot at the rights for releasing a DVD/Video Cassette of the special, a first for the company, with a companion CD/Cassette.
A few weeks later, I was off on a journey to the Celtic areas of the world including Cape Breton, which coincided with the first Celtic Colours Festival there, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Cornwall, the ceremonial county in the Southwest of England where I was born. The special aired on the CBC and Bravo in the U.S.
B.K: The Appalachian Mountains remain as much a mystery as those who lived and hid amongst the tall trees. It’s that cultural connection between Canada and the U.S. – the roots of country, folk, blues, bluegrass music. The Scots, the Irish, the English, African Americans. Born in Penzance, Cornwall – was this a project that connected both heart and soul for you? One of discovery, humility, and gratification?
There’s a magic in those Celtic areas of the world that never fails to touch something deep inside me. It was a blessing to spend my childhood years in a place like Penzance were, as I note in the book Celtic Tides, “… I came to know the ever-changing moods of the sea that foamed and crashed petulantly against its rugged coastline. The mythology was everywhere.
From a bedroom window, I could see St. Michael’s Mount, the home of the giant slain by Jack, rising out of Mount’s Bay. Beyond, lay the Lost Land of Lyonesse of Celtic Arthurian legend, where the lovers Tristan and Iseult drank the potion that would bind them forever to each other and where Arthur himself would ride to the hunt through a forest long ago buried by a restless sea.”
B.K: The music industry has evolved and always facing technological change. The bottom has dropped out for most expecting to earn a living as musicians, writers, photographers, documentarians. Where do you find yourself in this upheaval?
I find that as long as you don’t depend on someone else for earning a living and you stay light on your feet and keep the all-important balance of staying in touch with the real world without abandoning your own world of imagination; usually, something can be done. More than ever, I find that collaboration with the right person, or people, besides being pleasurable, dramatically increases the chance for success of a project.
B.K: Any projects in the works?
Over the next couple of months, the top priorities include finishing a book/multimedia project titled Mission Possible: The Entrepreneurial Journey with Robert Ott, the founder and former CEO/Chairman of ole, which, over a decade and a half, he grew to one of the world’s largest independent music publishing, recorded music and rights management companies. I am also putting the finishing touches on a multimedia history and celebration of country music in Canada titled North Country: Music From the Heart of Canada. I am currently inserting interviews with some of the current headline-makers throughout the completed manuscript.
At TH Entertainment/Corridor Groups Productions, we have a number of TV projects in development with one at the network level in the U.S. One of the most gratifying things I am working on at the moment is a a series of seminars/performances as part of a project titled The Magic of Music to benefit the Matthews House Hospice in Alliston, Ontario where my mother passed away in October of last year. We just received a sizeable grant from the Ontario government to continue those events over the next year.
B.K: What do you do for your pleasure?
Experiencing the magic of music, live or recorded, as well as the silence of country walks. This time of year, there’s the Rockers Hockey Pool as well as the dubious pleasure sometimes of being a supporter of teams like the Montreal Canadiens, Wolverhampton Wanderers (Wolves) and Tottenham Hotspur. Of course, the odd splurge on good food, wine, and single malt Scotch never goes amiss, especially when combined with good conversation. This is not mine, but I wholeheartedly agree: “The ability to sit down with another person and talk for hours, about anything and everything, is more attractive to me than anything else…”
B.K: The future?
As Abraham Lincoln answered when asked, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” I’m on it!