Paul Charles (novelist)
Charles managed his first act, The Blues by Five, when he was 15 years old, and had to list the number of his local telephone call box on business cards. The telephone would be answered by whomever was passing, who would then walk to Charles' house and knock on the window to let him know there was a call for him.
In 1967 he moved from Northern Ireland to London, planning to study civil engineering, but soon began writing for Belfast-based magazine City Week, filing live reviews of Irish groups performing in London, and returned to the music business full-time. He then became manager, agent, lyricist and roadie for progressive rock band Fruupp.
When the band split up Charles formed a promotion agency, Asgard, with associate Paul Fenn. The agency's first big signing was English punk band the Buzzcocks. Charles' clients now include Tom Waits, Ray Davies, Christy Moore, Don McLean, Waterboys, Nick Lowe, Lisa Ekdahl, Ronnie Spector, Marti Pellow, Ani DiFranco and Paul Carrack.
Detective Inspector Christy Kennedy series
- I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass (1997)
- Last Boat to Camden Town (1997)
- Fountain of Sorrow (1998)
- The Ballad of Sean and Wilko (2000)
- The Hissing of the Silent Lonely Room (2001)
- I've Heard the Banshee Sing (2002)
- Justice Factory (2004)
- Sweetwater (2007)
- The Beautiful Sound of Silence (2008)
- A Pleasure To Do Death With You (2012)
Inspector Starrett series
- The Dust of Death (2007)
- Family Life (2009)
- St Ernan's Blues (2016)
- Down on Cyprus Avenue (2014)
- A Day In The Life of Louis Bloom (2018)
- First of the True Believers (2002)
- The Last Dance (2012)
- The Prince of Heaven's Eyes (A Novella) (2012)
- The Lonesome Heart is Angry (2014)
- One of Our Jeans is Missing (2016)
- Pocket essentials: How to Succeed in the Music Business (2002)
- Pocket Essentials: The Beatles (2003)
- The Complete Guide To Playing Live (2004)
- The Best Beatles Book Ever (2013)
The Birth of Punk
- Punk's Secret Agent: How Paul Charles brought punk to Ireland, Britain and the International Market.
by Michael Mary Murphy Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology.
How did punk get beyond its small venue roots? How did punk acts get to Ireland? How did punk bands like Buzzcocks reach a regional audience? How did punk find audiences in continental Europe?
To address these questions I tracked down, Paul Charles, from the Asgard agency in London. I have never met Paul, yet he agreed to conduct a series of telephone interviews with me. Although he is understated and does not actively seek credit for his achievements, as I pieced his story together, it became apparent that he is one of the key ‘unknown’ background figures missing from punk history.
Paul Charles grew up in Magherafelt, a small town close to the precise midpoint of Ulster. He followed the path of countless Irish people by emigrating. By 1976 he was perfectly placed at the epicentre of an emerging youth culture: punk rock. Charles was far from a silent witness to the punk explosion. In fact, he was a willing participant in bringing punk to a wider audience in Britain, Ireland, and continental Europe, and later to North America. While perhaps best known today as a celebrated author of excellent detective novels – you might start with I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass (2004) – Charles made a significant contribution to punk and post-punk.
Punk has a curious and complicated place in music industry history, probably because it was both commercial and anti-commercial. It generated millions, possibly billions of pounds, for the major record companies, yet it was also an invitation, even an education, in do-it-yourself (DIY). Because of this complexity, studying punk can shine a light on some of the hidden aspects of the music industry. One of the most under-documented roles in the industry is the booking agent. Few people know of their existence, and they are generally absent from written histories. Paul Charles was, and is, one of these mysterious booking agents, and his case proves why booking agents should be included in any music industry history.
Having grown up in Ireland myself, I have particular reasons to celebrate Charles’ contribution to the music industry. In the early years of punk he brought Dr Feelgood, Eddie and the Hot Rods, The Adverts, The Ramones, The Clash, Buzzcocks, The Stranglers, The Undertones, the Runaways, Penetration and The Lurkers to play in Ireland. It is an incredible list, particularly given the lack of venues for rock music at the time. What is even more surprising is that this was done during an era when playing in Ireland was unattractive to visiting bands; artists were understandably worried about violence during ‘the Troubles’. To allay their fears, Charles would often travel with the acts on their Irish visits. In addition, travelling to Ireland was expensive and inconvenient, so Charles worked with Irish promoters to establish a circuit of six or more concerts in different cities on both sides of the border.
Punk and Rock Come to Ireland
While the Asgard agency, which was founded by Charles with Paul Fenn, continues to be a home for major artists including Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, The Kinks and Nick Lowe, it began life as a small start-up; in its early years it was responsible for guiding emerging acts.
While it may not seem important now, it is notable that the musicians didn't recall anything out of the ordinary about the concerts in Southern Ireland. In addition, the Northern Irish concerts went off without incident. In the context, however, the ordinariness of the Southern gigs is very significant; performing there ‘wasn't that different to playing many places in the UK’. This was because Charles had invested so much time and energy, from the mind-1970s, in normalising the Irish live music industry and making it possible for bands to visit without any difficulties.
Charles recalled how he put that early Irish concert circuit together:
The thing is that Ireland has always been into its music. Ireland has always loved its music and there was always a great demand. I was kind of going around with my band Fruupp for ages and I met the social secretaries. When I would go to Belfast I would always go to Queens [university] and hang out in the Student's Union. All of these people were suffering from “the Troubles”. They would ring up and once the people in the English agencies heard these Northern Irish accents, and these people saying: ‘do you want to send a band over for a gig?’, they were going ‘well, not really’. And so they were all saying ‘we gotta get bands’. So I kinda just went out and I talked with the bands and said ‘the gigging circuit is great, it’s the place where people from both sides come together to listen to music - you’re safe’. And they’d say ‘well will you go over with us?’
The circuit that Charles dreamt up, assembled and maintained was centred on universities on both sides the border. Visiting acts performed in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and typically played in Belfast, Coleraine, Galway, Cork and Dublin. He recalled why the circuit functioned so well:
...it was a reliable circuit because it was the Students Unions, because it was connected with the different universities and colleges the money was safe. The organisation was safe in terms of you weren't going to get knocked or anything. Because if you are going over to Ireland at that level and you lose one of your shows, your tour is immediately a loss. You really needed a reliable group of people and that group of people were one hundred percent on the case. They were one hundred percent all great promoters. And they all had that energy and enthusiasm and they would go out and convert an audience to come and listen to this new stuff that was coming along.
This helps to understand how the music industry functions. The booking agent works with local promoters, sometimes in each city or university. The promoter agrees a fee in advance of the concert with the booking agent, and the agent is responsible for ensuring that the bands get paid. It is notable that the Irish live music circuit that Charles built up was reliant on student unions with their, generally, young student promoters. They may have been young, but they didn't lack enthusiasm or professionalism.
Charles was on the scene before punk. He had a background in the small Irish music scene, particularly the tiny counter-culture portion of it, and so he clearly understood DIY and the associated work ethic. He also knew intimately the pub rock scene that immediately preceded the punk movement in London. These pre-punk connections proved valuable. From 1976 on he continued to personally convince bands and their representatives to play in Ireland:
I would go and blag the managers, and sometimes the bands themselves, or their agents and try and get them away from the mode of ‘no we’re not going to go over there because it could be difficult for us’.
His knowledge of DIY, counter-culture and pub rock literally made him ‘the right man at the right time in the right place’.
I started out in the early 70s booking out bands like [innovative Irish prog-rock band] Fruupp, which was more a managerial thing and you booked them out yourself as the only way of getting them gigs basically. It was hard to get agents in those days. So I got to know the circuit very well and then I became partners with a guy by the name of Paul Fenn and we started off on our adventure and the music of the day came along and we were right there at the right time.
The forerunner of punk would have been the pub rock bands, and in fact the pub rock boys had to do the same thing as the punks did later. They didn't have to work as hard at it as the punks. I mean nobody basically wanted the punks, as you know, so they had to go and find their own venues, their own circuit, and some of the ones they discovered were the ones the pub rockers had been to six months or a year earlier trying to persuade the landlords to give them the back room of the pub so they could sell tickets to their mates or whatever. And that grew up into a great little circuit, with people like the legendary Brinsley Schwarz; Ducks Deluxe; Bees Make Honey and Eggs Over Easy; great acts like that. And then the punks came along, but initially, nobody wanted them.
While the media moral panic about punk meant that some members of the public and the music industry viewed them as degenerates, Charles related to the musicians on an individual basis:
I remember going over [to Ireland] with The Stranglers and travelling around with them. You know, their reputation as a bunch of punks and then you're in the van with them travelling around Ireland and they're the most genteel, intelligent people you'd wish to meet and you go ‘hang on, these aren’t really punks these are just good people. On top of which they were a magnificent band’.
He also observed that the audience for the new acts responded to them on a personal level.
And yes, all those other bands, the Elton Johns and the Rod Stewarts, the Genesis’ and the Pink Floyds...they were all ‘great’, but they weren't ‘ours’ if you know what I mean. And here was this new amazing energy coming from young people making music and not being scared of the fact that they didn't need to be proficient musicians or whatever, you could just scrape together equipment, get in the back of their family car and head off and do a gig because it was a new vibrant underground movement there would be a group of people turning out to see the bands. Now equally, if that wave of artists hadn't have been of the quality of The Undertones and The Stranglers and The Clash and Buzzcocks then it would have fallen flat on its face. It would have fizzled out and something else would have taken up its energy and moved on from it.
The main thing for me was that it really started with the bands I worked with, and was very happy to work with, I heard these amazing songs. I mean Pete Shelley from the Buzzcocks, as a writer, he was just incredible. Those first three albums; just great songs, track after track. My logic with all the punk bands we represented was – behind it all it was my belief these bands all had great songs: The Undertones, Buzzcocks, certainly, Gang of Four... all these bands had great songs.
Ted Carroll, Chiswick and Proto-Punk
Paul Charles suggests that Dr Feelgood ‘bridged the gap’ between pub-rock and punk. He also credits the Irish entrepreneur, Ted Carroll, with bridging that gap from behind the scenes. Initially, it was in Dublin that Charles recalls sensing that an innovative new movement was about to burst onto the music scene:
I remember one night going down to Moran's hotel [a short lived, yet influential, Dublin rock venue] and the Boomtown Rats were there. And they were more of a Dr Feelgood but in a different hat, not quite punk at that point. That night was the first night I sensed that there was a new vibe, a new wave, coming along. I felt there was a new audience coming along and that particularly for my prog-rockers Fruupp our days were certainly numbered. The raw energy coming from the stage convinced me that anyone who had not ‘made it’ by that stage, were most certainly not going to make it for quite a while. You could definitely feel it, [the promoter] Smiley Bolger used to run these great sessions down in the basement at Moran's hotel, and there was definitely a vibe there. Something was going on there. You couldn't quite put your finger on it at that point, but there was definitely a vibe that the guard was changing. It wasn't really the Boomtown Rats as a group that I was tuning into. No, it was really more this revolutionarily sound. It was DIY pop music. People were allowed, were even being encouraged by the audience to make it up as they went along. And the band had the confidence to have a go. The audience were willing to listen and to be receptive to the new primitive, but energy-based music to be open to it. So that night in Moran's I felt that it wasn't that Boomtown Rats were ever going to become a big band or were even not going to become a big band. No, it was more just the feeling that the timing was perfect for this new generation of musicians and an audience hungry for their sounds.
Back in London, Charles noted the significance of Carroll's Chiswick records, at the epicentre of the emerging punk movement. Charles was the booking agent at the time for a number of Chiswick acts including the Count Bishops and the Hammersmith Gorillas.
We'd been working with the legendary Ted Carroll at Chiswick Records, a great man, a great music man, he didn't hear “punk”, he didn't hear anything other than music. All music, to further the cliché, was music to his ears. He basically had the Radio Stars, the time we started to work with him, and we took on the Radio Stars not as a punk band, just as a great band. A band who were capable of writing great pop songs. And then Ted had the Hammersmith Gorillas, and we started to work with them. They had this incredible following. From nowhere they would go out and literally pack these venues. And they didn't play too much; they never played around too much. They might go out for a weekend and then they’d disappear again, which all added to the legend. So this was all before punk - as it was becoming - came over-ground and came on the national radar... for me Ted was really in the thick of it, he was in the middle of it. He was, if not the main London instigator, he was definitely one of the principal ones. He again picked up the vibe [of the emergent punk movement], he had a record stall down at the one of the markets that he used to do every Saturday morning and he would have come into contact with all of these young musicians, all coming in asking for ‘the classic this, the classic that’ you know what I mean. He would have had his different sense of what I was sensing in Moran's hotel.
If Ted Carroll and Chiswick represented the DIY aspect of punk, Paul Charles soon sensed that the punk movement could appeal to large audiences and even to major labels. While many industry insiders remained sceptical of punk, Andrew Lauder, who represented the United Artists label in London, was one of first members of the mainstream industry to embrace it. For Charles, Lauder's championing of Buzzcocks was: ‘the first time I thought maybe ‘OK, this can certainly challenge the old guard’’.
[…previously I was the booking agent for one of Lauder’s acts] an American act called the George Hatcher Band. They were doing phenomenally well on the university circuit. Hatcher was one of those great acts, a bit like Rory Gallagher in Taste or with his own band. You get them on a stage somewhere, anywhere, and just sit back and wait for the phone to ring. These are the great acts for an agent to represent. And George Hatcher was king of American boogie. He was American, from the south, the rest of the band were British and they were just a great, fun, goodtime band. We packed their date-sheet, they were working six nights a week, week-in, week-out. And Andrew rang me up and said ‘can you come around for a bit of a meeting?’ And I thought it was about the George Hatcher band and I went around. And he said ‘look we have this other band and they can’t get gigs; their date-sheet is empty.’ And I said ‘yes, OK I’ll have a look at it’. This band turned out to be Buzzcocks. We got to work with them basically because of the great full date-sheet we had given to the [George Hatcher band]. And when you booked Buzzcocks, when you went out to any of their gigs, there was, it was just like it was in Ireland, this whole new audience that had materialised in the meantime. And Andrew was quite tuned in to what was going on out there and he saw the Buzzcocks as being a big, big, big band. And I thought they had great songs when he played them to me originally but when I went to see them for the first time, well you could see immediately why Andrew was so convinced. The Buzzcocks had such a powerful big sound. They were exciting. I realised this thing I'd felt in Moran's was real. I booked The Stranglers for Irish universities; they were another band that had such an amazing live show, they had a mighty big powerhouse of a sound so tight they created a singular sound. They and the Buzzcocks were two of the tightest bands around. Well that was until the Undertones came along; they were just so tight, it was just incredible.
The United Artists label's offices are remembered for fostering a community feeling that encouraged creativity and networking, in contrast to the more formal and bureaucratic major label workplaces.
Andrew Lauder signed Dr Feelgood in the 1970s and guided the band to number one on the LP charts in 1976 with ‘Stupidity’. The band were a key element of the London music scene that incubated punk. Nor was that Lauder's only contribution to the development of the British music industry and the punk movement. He released Nick Lowe from his contract so the musician could sign to the newly formed Stiff records. More importantly, he arranged to have the initial Stiff releases pressed, and then quickly signed The Stranglers, Buzzcocks, and 999 to United Artists.
Despite, to some, the commercial promise of early punk bands, there was a real danger that the authorities would prevent them from touring. The legendary, yet chaotic and financially draining, ‘Anarchy Tour’ featuring the Sex Pistols and guests The Clash, The Damned and the Heartbreakers provoked a major establishment backlash. As Mick O’Shea (2012) documents, individual councils took steps including temporarily revoking the licences of venues that dared to book punk concerts. Punk in 1976 was in real jeopardy of being forced to stay underground by the authorities. To flourish, to inspire, punk needed to meet its audience. Just as importantly, to be more than a London fad: punk needed to meet its regional and international audience. Here, Paul Charles played a key role. If the early movement had an inbuilt DIY ethic, it also needed somewhere to play.
...lots of the bands, like Siouxise and the Banshees, wouldn't have any equipment, they would go to the gigs, make sure there were other bands on and they would blag to use some of their equipment, it really was a hand to mouth thing, and it really was DIY, it was: make it up as you go along. The music industry certainly didn't want them. Most of them couldn't play their instruments and took great joy and pleasure in the fact they couldn't play their instruments properly. But they could make a bit of a racket and that was what the audience wanted from them so they got on the circuit and the circuit started to grow because all the bands were very supportive of each other. A movement is always stronger.
The mainstream music industry didn't like, or understand, the new acts; on the other hand, Charles with his experience with DIY and counter-culture music had an open mind and knew what had to be done.
And yes, initially this year's model was dressed as punk, and it was definitely attitude, and a look and it was definitely a reaction against the normal promoters not allowing them or not wanting to work with them – so they would go out and work with people like me and Ted and others. You would find a bar manager who had an upstairs room that hadn't been used for years and if you threw him a few a few bob, or guaranteed to bring a crowd in, he would let you [use it]. So bit by bit that circuit was built up to the point that punk became over-ground and then all the normal promoters and the normal venues wanted to embrace them and have them in.
So you were going out looking for this new circuit, you were going out trying to find places, because they had an audience, because of what was happening in the underground, they had an audience, so all you needed to do was to go out and find places to put them on that would be safe and which you could get an audience into. And it built from there. And then because they were doing such great big business, the music industry woke up to them. The regular promoters woke up to it, and certainly after Andrew and Ted, and Stiff Records obviously, who were there at the beginning as well, the major labels woke up to it. Initially we had the majority of these new acts until punk came over-ground, then all the agencies wanted their punk acts. It was the same with the promoters, same with the record labels. Pretty soon everyone wanted to deal with punk music.
Charles specifically recalled a vital and immediate bond between the audiences and the early punk bands, as well as how the bands quickly challenged notions that they couldn't play:
That was part of the vibe between those bands and their audience; the fact that the establishment didn't want them, the fact that they were getting those kinds of headlines. All of which only served to endear them [to their audience]. It was a bit of ‘we’re all for one and we’re all together’, it was all part of the big thing. If everybody had been embracing them with open arms, and one night you had Elton John, and then you had ELP and the next night you had Buzzcocks, it wouldn't have been the same thing. But it was ‘we don’t want those people, they spit, look how they dress, they can’t play their instruments’ or whatever, but the bottom line was - beneath it all - the great punk bands had incredible songs, and like Buzzcocks and The Undertones and The Stranglers they really could actually play brilliantly on stage.
Taking punk over-ground: The Runaways and The Undertones
As well as the major record labels beginning to appreciate the commercial potential of punk, and ‘new wave, Charles found that some concert promoters were receptive to the new music also. He recalled:
John Curd at Straight Music took great delight in booking punk acts, and booking them onto the circuit, he was probably the main national promoter who started to do extended English tours for these acts, certainly with The Clash. I don’t think he ever did the Pistols; The Stranglers he would have done, Dr Feelgood he would have been doing for quite a while, Elvis Costello and the Attractions who weren’t really punk obviously, he was doing Elvis tours, we were working with Elvis at the time when it was part of the new wave as opposed to punk, if you know what I mean.
As Charles noted, ‘new wave’ became a more sanitised name for the bands emerging from the scene that was initially labelled punk. Yet, he also argues that ‘punk’ and its opposition to complacency and the establishment struck a chord with the new audience. In fact, the anti-punk rhetoric from the establishment and the media served to promote some of the acts Charles worked with. He recalls working with The Undertones, who grew up in the same part of the world as he had.
I shared the accent. It was an important part because normally in record company meetings every second word from the record company staff was ‘pardon’, ‘sorry’, ‘what?’ And then the boys would play up to it.
The Undertones, who quickly became UK pop chart regulars, were brought to Charles’ attention by a contact at Belfast Queens University. Significantly, as Undertone Michael Bradley notes in his autobiography, the band met with Charles before they even had a manager. Charles described how the young band developed their initial audience:
...there was Good Vibrations in Belfast, they were spreading the word. You had John Peel on the radio late at night spreading the word. So it wasn't all at the coalface by yourself. All that other stuff was happening as well.
Because there was a ‘movement’ if you want, because there was a ‘scene’, if you want, it was a hungry scene; it was a scene that was constantly looking for the next big thing. If you were then, at that stage, a “punk band” you had an audience. If you could get some press and some coverage and knew how to put out an indie single...say just like the Undertones did with their Teenage Kicks E.P. John Peel's support did them so much good that by the time they came over to do their first gigs - even though they were small gigs - there was already an audience waiting for them. And really from that point onwards, it was a case of putting out your singles and then touring afterwards as the album came out. They made great critically acclaimed albums. The live shows rightfully got incredible reviews. One fed off the other and their audience grew until they were selling out everywhere they played and their singles and albums were making serious impact in the Top Ten charts It is harder to describe now, because now the whole thing is totally different, but then, there was this big audience waiting for anything punk or anything the audience considered to be punk. If you were punk you got a chance, a big chance –obviously if your songs didn't make the grade, or you failed to make an impact or you didn't cut it live, then that was that. But if you could do it, and cause that excitement that was the momentum that sent you on your way. I would say, The Undertones in their day as a live band and as songwriters were ahead of the pack.
Punk Goes International
While Charles was on the scene early for The Undertones, he also helped a band from south of the Irish border to deal with the perennial problem: how to find and audience in Britain. He assisted Dublin's Radiators from Space, as the band's Pete Holidai recalled:
Paul Charles’ Irish connection was very useful when the Radiators embarked on our first trip to the UK for a series of gigs around London followed quickly by our first headlining tour of the UK in early 1978. (Pete Holidai correspondence with Michael Murphy, 6 November 2016).
In addition, Charles was responsible for bringing early punk and new wave acts to Europe:
... Holland and Belgium and France were all pretty hip to the new sound and pretty quickly you could tour there without any resistance from the promoters. France was big into the punk; some German cities, but not all of them. I don't remember anybody doing Italy or Spain at that point. Again, if a band became big in Britain on a chart level - as The Undertones and Buzzcocks did - then they could also tour Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. Then the other thing that became part of the circuit was all of the festivals started to want to have punk acts. You had a great circuit of festivals that all the punk could all get on during the summer months.
Clearly Charles, as a trusted booking agent capable of getting live work for punk acts, was a vital element in the transmission of punk to global audience. His instincts and market-knowledge were also in demand as punk morphed into multi-faceted post-punk. In a prescient 1980 interview he was quoted:
Punk was good for English music... it allowed a lot of new bands to come up quickly. But gone are the days of overnight success. That's finished now... now you have synthesiser bands coming up. Gary Numan proved that. Ultravox and Human League could also enjoy total commercial success (Kozak, 1980).
Charles clearly knew what he was talking about: Asgard were booking both Ultravox and the Human League at the time. That said, his predictions were more accurate than most A&R people or record labels. At the time, Ultravox's singles had never dented to UK Top 20, while the Human League, had never featured in the Top 50. The following year, Ultravox reached number 2 with Vienna, while the Human League reached number one in both the singles and albums chart.
This is significant because it proves that the skills and ability that Charles and the Asgard agency had deployed during the initial punk moment were still available to develop the post-punk talent. The commercial impact of punk on the post-punk acts that enjoyed success in the US has never been fully measured, or appreciated. Yet it is clear that entrepreneurs like Charles were preparing acts from Britain for international success just as MTV was ready to emerge.
- Sansom, Ian. "Northern Irish Writing". British Council. Archived from the original on 29 July 2009. Retrieved 16 July 2010.
- McGrotty, Catherine (25 September 2007). "Death Becomes Him" (PDF). Verbal Magazine. Retrieved 18 July 2010.
- Connolly, John. "Paul Charles: Interviewed by John Connolly". John Connolly Books. Retrieved 18 July 2010.
- Doherty, Amanda (13 December 1998). "Paul Charles: Crime is another string to music man's bow". Sunday Mirror. London.
- Gallen, Catriona (24 August 2007). "A dark tale of crucifixtion in Ramelton church". Donegal News. Archived from the original on 30 August 2007. Retrieved 18 July 2010.
- "Artists". Asgard London. Retrieved 18 July 2010.