Remembering when and how I became a journalist
50 years ago I was living in London…
I moved there the year before, arriving on Friday June 10, 1966, with a One-Way Ticket from Rome. The following Monday I landed a good job as an architectural designer for Chamberlain Parking Systems Ltd, a futuristic company set to solve the parking problems in the City of London and in the ancient capitals of Europe.
Mr. Lewis, a civil engineer from CPS, had met me in Rome the month before, following up an application I had sent replying to an advert in the London Times. It was one of many apprlication I sent to London firms who were looking for architechural draughtsmen. I was a good one, fresh of my “Geometra Diploma” taken while I was actively working as a draughtsman for SDD, the studio that was constructing the new freeway from Messina to Catania, in Sicily and for Maffei Civil Engineering, my mentor, who encouraged me to take my 5 years diploma as a private student after 2 years of evening classes. I wasn’t that clever, just worked hard. I was also learning English at the same time and when I passed my final Diploma’s exams, Ing. Maffei pushed me to apply to an American studio that was building new towns in Libya for double the salary that he could pay me. I was 20 years of age, in September 1964, and I was making 100.000 lire per month. A Vespa costed 65.000, to give you an idea.
When I met Mr Lewis, in a fancy café-bar in Via Veneto, near the news-stand where I bought the English newspaper looking for job’s adverts, I was “reduce” of 15 months of National Service, but I still had my job with the American Studios. My plan was to work there 3 months, get some leave money, find a job offer from a London architectural firms and be in England in time for my English girlfriend’s 18th birthday, June 11. That’s what I said also to Mr Lewis who smiled when I told him that my girlfriend family lived in Croydon. “Our offices are near Victoria Station” he said adding that the train ride from Croydon was only 25 minutes. “Come and see me when you come to London.” He added when we shook hands and departed. I was in my lunch hour and I had to run all the way back. My hair, that I combed neatly back before meeting Mr Lewis, flew in the air and dropped down on my forehead. Happy I was, as my three months plan would also give me a brand new Beatles hairstyle.
I loved The Beatles! I loved their music, their songs and everything that came with them: the cultural change that took us all by storm. During my National service, my English girlfriend had sent me various music papers every weeek, like Record Mirror, NME and Melody Maker. I knew everything about the new pop band in England. I knew the Pop charts by heart. I was young, I was in the right place at the right time, as The Swinging London was exploding and we were all living in it, before we actually new it! There was a magical feeling in the air that anyone could be somebody. Everything was possible. Mary Quant was the fashionista of Kings Road, Barbara Hulanicki was Biba of Kensington Church Street, where actors and the new pop gods where choosing their vintage frocks. Hairdressers could become Vidal Sassoon or Leonard who gave Twiggy that haircut that the whole world copied.
In a shop in Old Compton Street…
I found a copy of BIG, the magazine I bought and read religiously every week back in Italy. I was very excited. In the ‘60s London was light years away from Via Cave, the grey Rome neighborhood where I grew up in my teens in Rome: Like being on another planet ! But my fav magazine from Earth just made it thro’. I felt instantly the possibility to do something, a wiered connection, a special link of some sort. We all felt it. We were all living in this ‘turbine’ of young energy. We were the first young generation born during the last insane World War or conceived in the joy of our parents finally living in peace. We were young and we felt safe, we wanted to celebrate life and we were happy and positive. We were in our twenties and The Beatles were our leaders, our older brothers. This was the Swinging London And the connection told me clearly that I could do something. The English charts reported on the news page of BIG were at least one month old and I was ready to help. “I can send you the charts every week” I wrote to BIG’s feature editor Sergio Modugno, at the end of a typical, enthusiastic reader’s letter where I informed him that BIG was on sale in the best news-shop in London’s Soho. And I started dreaming and I thought that if I got to The Beatles, I could be published and at the same time I could probably get Ringo’s autograph for my girlfriend, her fav Beatle! Love moves mountains.
Those were the days. Before Internet, before globalization, before the world moved at supersonic speed. When the boutiques of Kings Road in Chelsea and Carnaby Street in the West End could shape the fashion for the rock ‘n’ roll world just by word of mouth, but slowly. I started collecting a story of the King’s Road by spending my lunch hours in the amazing public library of Buckingham Palace Road, near my work, researching the origin of Kings’ Road. I found out that it was the private road that connected Buckingham Palace to Windsor Castle in 1700s. Carnaby Street didn’t compare! Every week end in 1967, Kings Road was a ‘catwalk of beautiful mini-skirted ladies’, the latest original frocks, psychedelic shirts and vivid colors all around. Chelsea Drugstore opened up near Wellington Square. I started taking photos with a camera borrowed from my girlfriend’s mom. I did the same when an Italian pop star, Rita Pavone, came to London to do Top Of The Pops. Got the interview, took her photos downstairs along Conduit Street, wrote the piece in long hand in a coffee shop smoking cigarettes and drinking black coffe, like they did in the movies, and by evening I mailed everything, also the unexposed roll of color print film (something that you should never do)
And I got published in BIG!
With BIG magazine in hand, where I could show my name in a two page Rita Pavone’s feature, I ventured to Manchester Square, headquarters of EMI, The Beatles record company. At the reception, I probably asked if I could meet the Beatles, as I was an “Italian journalist”, damn! I don’t remember exactly what I asked for, but I do remember a lovely lady smiling at me. I must have been cute with my young Italian accent. And sweet with my green request, because she led me to the 3rd floor. There she showed my article to the person in charge who introduced me to Jim Watson, a young man from the EMI International Dept. Apparently, I was the only Italian journalist that he had met so far – lucky me – so I spent the next couple of months going to pop clubs around London with Jim Watson, who was eager to show me some of the new EMI acts, like The Creation and The Koobas that he was trying to break into the Italian market. “There is also this pop group that EMI is planning to promote in a special way” Jim informed me. “They are only recording right now and the producer is our new George Martin. His name is Norman Smith. Would you like an interview with him?’ I declined the offer. How could I interest Sergio Modugno, my BIG’s editor, in a new hot producer and a pop group who hadn’t released an album yet? But four months later, I did manage to write about that band in an article titled “Musica contro fiori” – Music against Flowers – London’s answer to the “flower power” of San Francisco, my view was that London was exploring the youth movement with psychedelic music, while California was more taken by the “flower power” and the Summer of Love declared by Allen Ginsberg and psychedelic psychologist Timothy Leary with his LSD motto, “Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out.”
The name of the unknown ‘pop group’ that I had been offered to meet at Abbey Road? Pink Floyd… yes PINK FLOYD! Jim Watson had forgotten to tell me that Norman Smith, Pink Floyd’s producer, had worked as a sound engineer with The Beatles.
That shows how taken I was by The Beatles. The Beatles or Nothing, was my subliminal message to Jim Watson. Until a wonderful day (May 19, a Wednesday afternoon, I think) when he called me up and asked me if I could get off work early: “I have a strong act for you to see.” He said with some fun in his voice, and I knew what he was talking about. There was a buzz round town that the new Beatles album was getting ready for release. My feelings were right when Jim drove me to a place in Belgravia where the Beatles Manager, Brian Epstein lived. There was commotion in Chapel Street: The Beatles were posing for a bunch of shouting photographers at the entrance of a terraced home, before they scurried inside followed by the photographers and journalists. Jim and I went in and I soon found out that the music papers had also asked to have some photos of the band in daylight, instead of just the rooms inside. I had just arrived at that precise moment.
I was stunned. Were they The Beatles? I asked to myself. Is it really them? They looked so different. And so small! Inside I ran into the DJs that I had seen on TV, Pete Murray from Juke Box Jury, and Jimmy Saville and his cigar from Top of the Pops. I was in and the Beatles were there. And again, are these the Beatles? Only Paul looked like Paul did. And he was the chattiest, saying hello to everybody. He was my fav Beatle at the time, and I crowded around him with other English journalists. I noticed that he was the only one without facial air. The others, John, George and Ringo they all had mustaches. John was also wearing rimmed glasses and an afghan waistcoat over a flowery shirt that later on I bought at Granny’s Take A Trip, a cool boutique down on the far end of Kings Road. Jim introduced me to John. He was pleasant and kind, as he remembered the editor of BIG, Sergio, giving The Beatles a party at his house after their concert in Rome, two years before. “Were you there?” he asked me. “No” I said half paralyzed by the fact that I was talking to one of the Beatles and kind of silly to tell him “I missed that concert as I was serving my military service.” (sic!)
Nothing about him changing my life? That he was, really, the reason that I was now living in England? That I love the Beatles? That from October 1963 I went to sleep looking at the life in photograph of his band. That their photos were plastered on my walls? Gosh…
I was star struck! But I managed to ask him a typical Italian Beatles fan question: “When are you coming back to play in Italy?
John gave me pitiful look and melancholically answered, “No, we want to work in the studio, we love to explore more the recording side of our music music and sound…” And he was taken away by someone he knew, looking like a young bookworm professor.
I was 23 years of age. An Italian with an Alien registration card, an outsider looking in.
There was a moment when the room went quite. A journalist had asked Paul about the rumors of the BBC banning the song “A Day in the Life” for drugs reference. Paul was laughing. Everybody was listening. “It will be more publicity for us” he said puffing on (from) a cigarette. 1967 there was no ban on cigarettes, we were all smoking them and we could do it anywhere. We could smoke everywhere. In the hospital, at the cinema. You could do it in a bus, but in England you could do it “finding your way upstairs” on the upper deck.
Paul wrote the famous lyrics of getting out of bed, noticed that he was late, and made the bus in seconds flat…the infamous line that the press assumed caused the BBC to ban the song read, …Found my way upstairs and had a smoke/somebody spoke and I went into a dream…
“So?” said Paul. “Everybody who smokes in a bus is smoking dope?” ha ha ha laughed Fleet Street holding a glass, and smoking and listening to the Beatles new album. This was the first time that the Beatles had officially met the press since they had announced that they will never play live again, when they came back from the craziest USA tour of 1966. On a more serious note, Paul added that focusing on drugs doesn’t help the problem.
Only a few days later a letter from the BBC was sent to the President of EMI informing them that the line they objected to wasn’t the smoke on the bus and going into a dream but another one!
“ …words ‘I’d love to turn you on” followed by the mounting montage of sounds, could have a rather sinister meaning.
The recording may have been made in innocence and good faith, but we must take account of the interpretation that many young people would inevitably put upon it.”
“What are they talking about?” I thought. But the letter explained it:
“Turn on” is a phrase which can be used in many different circumstances, but it is currently much in use in the jargon of the drug addicts.
That must be wonderful, I thought. Being turned on, turning on, free publicity for the Beatles but also for the drug market as Paul later on said clearly in an interview for Life magazine.
Jim Watson gifted me with a copy of the album, my very first advance copy of the many hundreds of albums that I got from record companies in the following years. I wrote the article using a typewriter for the first time in my life. I didn’t know then, but my career as a journalist was starting right then and there, on that typewriter as my friends were laughing at me as I was banging the keys one by one using the index of my right hand. I played “Sgt Pepper” continuously until I fell in love with it. That was the great surprising beauty with every new Beatles record. The expectations were always so high that the first listening left you with a kind of wondering void. “What was that? Is that all?” you asked yourself. And then you play it again and again and every time you play it, you discovered new bits and pieces and nuances and you came to love it even more. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” pushed the limits even further.
A few years ago I received a copy of my published article from an Italian collector as I was very curious to know what I wrote: “…A strange, amusing record, of a very high musical level… The most sensational collection of originality and musical ingenuity to ever come out of a recording studio” – translated from my Italian of 1967.
The start is surprising: “There is also La Gioconda, just below the head of Bob Dylan…” as I open describing the elaborate montage of famous people on the cover: Bob Dylan, Marlene Dietrich, Fred Astaire, Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe, Oliver Hardy, Marlon Brando, Lawrence of Arabia, a little girl wearing a dress with “Welcome The Rolling Stone, Good Boys” written over it…” that disengaged the supposed rivalry between the two bands, as John and Mick were good friends.
Why am I writing about the cover, I’m thinking. The cover is amazing, but what about the music? And by the 10th line I know why, as I write, “and hopefully in one month you will also be able to purchase it in Italy.”
Wow! Those were the days before the Internet was breathing down your neck with instant uploads. Life was calmer, slower. You could breath in 1967!
Well, they can’t hear the music yet so I sent the cover to BIG, but I kept the vinyl!
Exclusive articles were sent by Royal Mail!
The large envelope contained everything that came with the album, except the vinyl. The cover, a Beatles poster, a Sergeant Pepper postcard, his sergeant insignia, his mustaches, and a photo of The Beatles in uniform, that the magazine used on the third page of the article. 13 songs all linked together without space between the numbers, that made Sgt Pepper a guide for so many young bands that came afterwards, kids who started playing music and wanted to be in a band because of The Beatles. Sgt Pepper was the first ‘concepts’ album that guided so many new bands to explore their talent. All bets were off. Again, you could do anything, No rules anymore. Now they call it pushing the envelope… Sgt Pepper pushed the fucking walls! After that June 1st 1967, when the album was released in England and the USA, all hands had to be on deck. Jimi Handrix played the Saville theater 3 days later, June 4. He arrived at the gig late, with a copy of Sgt Pepper and a small portable record player. Quickly he played it to The Experience, Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, in the dressing room a couple of times to recognize the chords and they went straight on stage opening with a memorable live version. The entire place went nuts! Paul, George and Brian Epstein were in the audience. Pop, like ‘looking at the navel pop’ was out and rock music was in.
I was in too, flying like a bird in the wing of pop, rock and freedom and winging it all the way to today, somewhere over the North Pole in May 2017…
June 16 1967, the article that really kick started my career as a journalist was published in Italy. On the cover Sandra Milo the muse of Fellini, and below the announcement of my story: A preview of the latest Beatles.
With a copy of the magazine there was a note from Sergio Modugno: “Where shall we send the money. To your parents in Rome or to you direct?
FUCK! I thought, They even pay me for this?
And this is the simple secret of a good life. Do what you love to do. Always.