Brinsley Schwarz and the press trip from hell
It was supposed to be the New York adventure that would make the Tunbridge Wells pub rockers worldwide superstars. But what seemed like a great idea turned into a PR disaster
Named after their guitarist, Tunbridge Wells’ Brinsley Schwarz were one of countless British rock hopefuls to emerge at the tail end of the 60s. What set them apart was their ambitious management company, Famepushers, who hit on the idea of booking the band to play a high-profile gig in New York in April 1970.
The plan was to fly a planeful of journalists from the UK to witness a show that would put Brinsley Schwarz’s name on the map. And so, on April 4, 1970, a cavalcade of limousines crammed with more than 100 drunk and stoned Brits raced through New York to the Fillmore East. None of them knew it yet, but they were all part of one of the most disastrous PR stunts ever.
Dave Robinson (MD, Famepushers): I’d been tour manager with Jimi Hendrix, then in 1969 I got involved with two guys, Eddie Moulton and Steve Warwick, who had set up a conglomerate of small companies known as Motherburger. They were looking for somebody to start a management company. It was decided to advertise for a group to be managed by the new company, Famepushers.
Billy Rankin (drummer, Brinsley Schwarz): I spotted the Famepushers ad in Melody Maker and took it to Brinsley. Bob Andrews (keyboards, Brinsley Schwarz): We had previously been a pop band known as Kippington Lodge but we were on the verge of changing our style and our name. Dave Robinson: We auditioned about 70 groups and they were the best.
Ricky Blears (MD, Messagemakers): I’d recently left a major film company and I was drawn into Moulton’s organisation because he wanted me to run their PR company, Messagemakers.
Dave Robinson: Ricky was a real go-getter type of guy. He asked me what would be the biggest venue a band like the Brinsleys could aspire to playing. I said probably the Fillmore East. He said, “If you got that, could you get the press to go?”
Bob Andrews: Dave is the sort of guy who, once he gets an idea, will go 150 per cent to achieve it, so the next day he flew to San Francisco and was in [legendary US promoter] Bill Graham’s office when he turned up for work.
Dave Robinson: There was a night about three months later, with Quicksilver Messenger Service and Van Morrison, which needed a bottom-of-thebill act. Graham said, “We’ll give it to you.” Now we had to sort out the press trip. I got on to a friend of mine at Aer Lingus and they were interested in chartering a 707 which could hold 140 people. Suddenly I had a gig and a plane, neither of which I had paid for.
Ricky Blears: I now had to fill a 140-seat plane with media people. I put the word out that we were planning this trip and before long the stairs outside the office were overflowing with people who fancied a trip to New York. It was the freebie of a lifetime.
Pete Frame (journalist, Zigzag): This cat from Famepushers phones me and says would I like to go to New York and see Brinsley Schwarz play? Jesus Christ, of course I would. There were mumbles about ‘hype of the century’ and how the whole thing was a cunning plot to lever a huge advance out of record companies eager to outbid each other to secure 1970’s biggest group.
Ricky Blears: The whole thing was funded by Motherburger. Eddie Moulton had about 14 companies with money floating around between them. He could consolidate money from various projects into one place, enough to pay for a plane.
Brinsley Schwarz (guitarist): We were supposed to fly out on the Tuesday morning [March 31, 1970] and have three days of rehearsal. The gigs at the Fillmore East were on the Friday and the Saturday, two shows each night. Billy Rankin: It was all moving ahead until Bob Andrews and Nick Lowe couldn’t get visas because they’d been busted for drugs at our flat.
Dave Robinson: To try to get round it we flew to Toronto a few days before the gigs and applied for visas there, but the US Embassy there also turned us down.
Bob Andrews: We spent a couple of days in Toronto while Dave had attorneys in New York working on visas for us and we eventually got them on Friday, the morning of the first gig.
Dave Robinson: During the flight, Brinsley’s ears blocked up and he went deaf. Couldn’t hear a thing. We just hoped he’d be okay by showtime.
Bob Andrews: We landed about four in the afternoon, and a limo rushed us to the Fillmore for the first gig.
Dave Robinson: We only had time for a quick soundcheck and Brinsley’s still deaf, so he had to watch Nick’s fingers on the bass to know where he was in the songs.
Nick Lowe (bassist, Brinsley Schwarz): We were awful. I had been a swaggering oaf before that, boasting to my friends about how we were on our way, in my idiocy.
Bob Andrews: The two Friday shows were really just warm-ups. The press weren’t due until the Saturday.
Andrew Lauder (head of United Artists, Brinsley Schwarz’s label): At Heathrow, the departure lounge filled up with journalists and media types of all sorts.
Nick Lowe: Fishing Monthly, everything. Anybody who could bang a typewriter got on this plane.
Keith Altham (journalist): We took off three hours late, and then came down again an hour later in Shannon because brake fluid had been found all over the runway we’d just left in Heathrow. They checked the plane, which took a few hours, and then told us that it wasn’t actually our plane that had lost its brake fluid.
Dave Robinson: We’d put lots of booze on board, so they were already pretty well-oiled, but Aer Lingus opened the bar at Shannon and started handing out free drinks. By all accounts the flight was bedlam. Projectile vomiting over the plane.
Keith Altham: As we descended into JFK airport, smoke started belching from one of the engines. Then another went out on the other wing, and the pilot came out to assure us that they were merely balancing the plane to make landing even safer. The guy next to me asked, “What would happen if another one went out?” The pilot said, “In that case, sir, we will go down like a fucking wardrobe.”
Dave Robinson: I organised for them to be met by a fleet of 22 limos, with pre-rolled spliffs in all the ashtrays courtesy of my limo company friend. He also hired 16 police motorcycle outriders to clear the way through New York for us.
Pete Frame: The idea was that the motorcade would stun people, they’d turn their heads and shout, “Hey, look at that!” But we didn’t get out of Kennedy until well after dark, so nobody noticed.
Dave Robinson: So we had a cavalcade of limos full of people who were all either drunk, stoned or both and all these police officers were stopping traffic to let them through. Two of the limos collided and had to be left behind.
Brinsley Schwarz: We had bought the front three rows in the Fillmore for the press, so security had been told that, after the doors opened, they should do nothing until those rows were filled, after which, a ‘no cameras’ policy would come into effect for everyone else.
Dave Robinson: Meanwhile, I’m trying to hold the curtain until the convoy arrives, but Bill Graham tells me he’s going to dump the Brinsleys because they couldn’t start on time. It was Van Morrison who saved the night. Years before, in Dublin, I had managed him for a while, so I asked him to intercede for us, and he agreed to do it.
Brinsley Schwarz: Our press were so late arriving that when the doors opened, the front three rows filled up with regular punters, and the ‘no cameras’ policy was back in force. So when the journalists did arrive, they had to sit wherever they could find a space, and they all had their cameras taken away.
Ricky Blears: Only about five limos got to the Fillmore in time. A lot of the journalists were wiped out by the journey so they just went to the hotel and crashed. Our last shred of hope was that the band would play their socks off. Instead they were totally exhausted and trooped on like tramps from the local doss house.
Dave Robinson: They got through it, although it was a scary gig for them. Only about 10 journalists actually saw them play.
Pete Frame: They started ragged and ended up less ragged. Between each number they collapsed in giggling fits – more than a wee bit stoned I suspect.
Keith Altham: My limo got to the Fillmore just in time for me to walk in and see the band saying, “Thank you, you’ve been a great audience.”
Ricky Blears: Van Morrison played an absolutely flawless set and Quicksilver were blindingly good, which only served to amplify the inadequacies of Brinsley Schwarz. Andrew Lauder: The few journalists who saw the first set had gone by the second show.
Brinsley Schwarz: The best show we did, probably because the pressure was off and we could just enjoy ourselves, was the second set on Saturday, which no one saw.
Pete Frame: Actually, I saw it. The band was more relaxed, tighter and at the end of their set there were cries for more.
Andrew Lauder: A lot of the craziness was the next day, Sunday morning. Ricky Blears was close to throwing himself out of the hotel window.
Ricky Blears: The whole thing had deteriorated into a catastrophic nightmare which took me years to recover from. I was getting it in the neck from all directions. The whole thing had been my construct and suddenly, it went from having been a great idea to being a very, very bad idea.
Bob Andrews: The band had a great time. It wasn’t ’til we got back to England and had to face the negative reviews that we were brought down.
Keith Altham: Back in England, most of the press coverage said very little about Brinsley Schwarz and focused instead on the trip itself.
Dave Robinson: By the time I got back to London, Eddie Moulton had disappeared and everybody – Aer Lingus, the limo company and so on – was after me for money.
Ricky Blears: Eddie Moulton turned out to be a false name. He simply evaporated about 10 days after the Fillmore, and was never seen again. His partner, Steve Warwick, ended up as a postman living in a corporation flat in Acton.
Dave Robinson: Despite the bad press, the Fillmore trip actually achieved what I most wanted. The band name was now known, they had a profile and some income.
Billy Rankin: We went from a local band earning £50 a night to a £200 headlining band with an album. We wouldn’t have done five albums, Nick Lowe wouldn’t have the career he’s had.
Nick Lowe: For it all to go wrong, it was, at the time, really bloody awful. I felt such an idiot. Since then, I’ve had occasion to fall to my knees and give thanks for that experience. It gave me an early taste of the lure of fame and how it can come and kick you in the ass.
What happened next?
Despite their ill-fated publicity stunt, Brinsley Schwarz went on to release five albums before splitting in 1975. Dave Robinson founded Stiff Records, helping to launch Nick Lowe’s solo career. Brinsley Schwarz and Bob Andrews went on to form The Rumour, while Billy Rankin eventually retired from music – in 2012, he became captain of the English Fly Fishing team. Today, Ricky Blears is MD of PR agency RMS. The whereabouts of the man who called himself Eddie Moulton remain unknown.
This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 181.