‘Roger Daltrey told me I should have written this years ago’: PR guru Alan Edwards on his rock’n’roll life

‘Roger Daltrey told me I should have written this years ago’: PR guru Alan Edwards on his rock’n’roll life

Publicity guru Alan Edwards is used to being the man behind the scenes. But his new memoir, I Was There, puts him in the middle of the action, as he recounts over four decades of working with some of the most legendary figures in entertainment – from The Rolling Stones to David Bowie, Blondie, Prince and the Spice Girls.

In I Was There: Dispatches From a Life in Rock and Roll, Edwards details how a former “scruffy, stoned 20-year-old” fell into London’s buzzing punk scene and set up his own PR company, The Outside Organisation. Throughout, he observes the strange world of PR and his memories of playing football with Bob Marley, being grilled by Mick Jagger and a brief stint where he was tasked with trying to make Gary Barlow look “more edgy”.

Edwards, 68, told The Independent that the idea of writing a book had been on his mind for years. He used his diaries (“10am, Motorhead. 12pm, dentist. 3pm, Marvin Gaye”) to jog his memory, as well as the war stories he’d logged through years of “hanging out with journalists in hotel corridors, bars…”

“It was much harder than I thought,” he said. “It was a strange experience, as well, because there were things I hadn’t even told my family – hadn’t told myself, really.”

Writing down so many stories, many of them involving wild and raucous trips with some of the biggest rock stars on the planet, was also at odds with his longtime mantra: to not become the story. Trained by Keith Altham, then one of the lead rock PRs, he was told: “Make sure you’re not in the shot; don’t be the story.”

It was only until he kept hearing about people who claimed they’d “worked for David Bowie” that he thought he needed to set the record straight. “It got on my nerves because I’d never heard of them,” he said. “They’d worked on the switchboard for a week, or something. So I felt I should claim that space. Roger Daltrey told me I should have done it years ago!”

Alan Edwards (right) with David Bowie (Courtesy of the author)
Alan Edwards (right) with David Bowie (Courtesy of the author)

Edwards set up his own company in 1977, representing acts including Blondie, whom he took on after going backstage after their gig at Dingwalls in Camden. “Debbie was the most lovely, special, eccentric person you could wish to meet,” he writes in his book. “Always warm and generous – and of course, at that point, every schoolboy’s fantasy.

“Much later, when I found out that Debbie had been adopted too, it made me feel an even stronger bond with her. Every now and then, she’d take pity on me and ask if I’d had a hot meal that day. The band became something of a surrogate family to me. And I couldn’t help but admire how irreverent they were about the industry.”

“I was an outsider,” Edwards said. “I didn’t know it at the time, I just was. I was a good communicator, but I’d still be off doing things on my own and I had this non-corporate air to me that I think made an enormous difference with musicians. They saw me as a kindred spirit.”

People often ask him about the “worst artists” to work with, he revealed: “I can’t think of any… There were some who were really boring. But the worst ones are often the artists who haven’t really made it, but they think ‘this is how stars act’ and they’re rude or late all the time.”

Jagger taught him a lot about PR, he said. “Being interviewed by him [for the job of publicist] was like an exam. He’d grown up in the Sixties and he was really interested in newspapers – he had a great respect and a fantastic understanding for journalism and marketing. When he sat down for an interview, he also wanted to know the last three pieces that journalist had done for the magazine. Which was very hard, before the days of Google!”

Bowie came at it from a different angle, he said. “He really loved writers, and a lot of journalists were his friends, in a way. David would often, after he’d done an interview, call them up and have a chat.”

Alan Edwards with Naomi Campbell (Courtesy of the author)
Alan Edwards with Naomi Campbell (Courtesy of the author)

Music journalism and PR have changed a lot, in that respect. “It wasn’t unusual for a journalist to ask to spend two or three days with the artist. Can you imagine saying that to a PR now?” Edwards asked. “They’d have a meltdown!

“We used to take people out on their own and they’d spend a week there. I sent Nick Kent to do the Rolling Stones in 1982 and I don’t know if he’s come back yet. The editor was calling me up and asking me where he was – he was gone for three weeks.”

Modern PR, he said, has all become “very tightly controlled… I feel it’s really counterproductive. I don’t think you necessarily go on the journey with artists anymore.”

Perhaps one of the most surprising things about the book is how frank Edwards is about his struggles with mental health, while juggling the demands of such a high-pressure job. At the time, he said, the idea of having mental health issues was “unthinkable”.

“There was no such thing,” he said. “So it was terrifying and lonely, and I still get flashbacks sometimes – it doesn’t ever fully leave you.”

Rock and roll calling: Alan Edwards on the phone (Courtesy of the author)
Rock and roll calling: Alan Edwards on the phone (Courtesy of the author)

Edwards arguably writes most fondly about the late Bowie, who died of cancer in January 2016, two days after releasing his final album, Blackstar.

“I worked with him for nearly four decades, and there were a lot of different Davids,” Edwards said. He wondered if they got on so well because, to the Brixton-born star travelling the world on tour, Edwards was “a walking bit of London”.

“Quite often before shows, I’d be called in and I’d have a chat with David, and we’d talk about books, or London, just stuff,” he said. “I look back and I wonder if for him maybe it was this nice calm, anchoring thing. Because we’d grown up about a mile apart from one another.”

I think David Bowie saw me as a walking bit of London

He was called out to New York while Bowie was working on what, unbeknownst to Edwards, would be his final album. “That wasn’t unusual – he did it with every record,” he said. “II said I’d be out in a couple of weeks, and his PA Coco Schwab asked if I could be there any sooner.

“So we went out, and I walked into the studio, and David was sitting there watching The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, which was quite unusual. It was nine in the morning. And we were chatting, and he was telling me these funny stories about gangsters and everything.

“We did this for an hour or two, just swapped stories. Then Coco came to collect David, we went downstairs to the street. I think David gave me a hug and walked off. And that was it, I never saw him again. He died about a month later. I suppose it was his way of saying goodbye.”

Alan Edwards in his Covent Garden office (Courtesy of the author)
Alan Edwards in his Covent Garden office (Courtesy of the author)

Edwards said he is often still asked what his “Plan B” was, if his career in publicity hadn’t worked out. “I just did it,” he shrugged. “I never thought of anything else. And that’s the thing, you do have to sacrifice. It’s not just your job, it’s your life.”

His phone rang during our conversation. “Would you believe it,” he said. “It’s Roger Daltrey!”

I Was There: Dispatches From a Life in Rock and Roll is out now.