Monday, September 5, 2022

King of Skeptics: An Interview with JONATHAN KING (1981)

© Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 1981/2022
Images from the Internet unless indicated

One afternoon while sitting and chatting in her Times Square office with former National Publicity Director for Sire Records Janis Schacht, about life and the Ramones, she suggested I might be interested in interviewing a local-based, London-bred acerbic talk radio host, Jonathan King. This is the same, Jonathan King, it turns out, who had the hit in the 1960s with “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon,” a treacly yet enjoyable pop number. Sure, why not?

It seems his career had actually been much more expansive than I had imagined. When I told her I was impressed, she looked at me hard and explained that King did not like people who just liked him solely based on the criteria that they like his music. I decided to take a more offensive tone rather than defensive or placating one when we talked.

I grabbed video editor Alan Abramowitz. As it turns out, having Alan along worked out well, because it seemed Alan, being young and blond, was just Jonathan’s type. Alan, being the straight blade innocent that he was, had no idea of Jonathan’s flirtation, especially before and after the interview proper. It was quite amusing to watch the dynamics of the situation. It also put Jonathan in a playful enough mood to have fun during the interview.

Yes, I am totally aware of what Jonathan King has been accused and do not condone it, though he insists on his innocence. However, this interview took place decades before his arrest, and concerns interesting aspects of the music industry, so I believe it has merit in publication

This interview was published in FFanzeen, No 7, dated 1981.

King of Skeptics: An Interview with Jonathan King

I wanna catch phrase
I wanna start a craze
I wanna gimmick
I wanna hit
I’m just a poor boy
With a song and a smile
And not just another
Shallow entertainer
– Neil Innes (d. 2019)

 There is no doubt that Jonathan King knows what he wants and, more importantly, knows how to get it. His past is a perfect example of that. While at Cambridge, he had his first hit record, “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon,” in 1965. Since then, under a variety of names, he has had hit after hit on the charts in England – if not as an artist, then as a producer, having introduced such groups as 10cc, Genesis, the Bay City Rollers, and the original theater production of The Rocky Horror Show.

Despite all his success in England, King has never “made it” here in America, but he is determined to break this market. Since coming over last year, he was offered the temporary job as DJ on WMCA-AM, a talk-oriented show featuring guests and call-ins. And from this stepping stone, he hopes to take over the musical direction of a FM station and create a monster success. And if anyone can do it, as past experience has shown, Jonathan King can.

But the question is, is King part of the solution or the problem? His idea of a New Wave station utilizes a commercial format, playing the same records over and over, much as Top-40 stations do now. Whether this is good or bad is a debatable point – but most likely it is commercially viable.

The following interview took place at the old UK Records headquarters in midtown Manhattan in December 1980. Though the interview spanned a mere half-hour, more was said than during an average hour-long discussion. King knows his mind and speaks it very quickly, often embroidering his points considerably.

Jonathan King [glancing at the cover of an issue of FFanzeen] “Rock and roll with integrity?” But I have no integrity whatsoever. What am I doing in this place? I would be in the “no integrity section”
FFanzeen: Okay, I’ll be in the back.
King: I’d prefer the front cover, please. I’m prettier than all these people

FFanzeen: Not Ronnie Spector.
King: Ronnie Spector. Oh, well. Anyway, yes, right.
[FF stammers over question, King turns to Alan] He can’t ask the questions cos he’s gazing at me with such love and admiration, never having met anyone so intellectually and physically beautiful in his life before; his eyes are gazing at me.

FFanzeen: I still prefer Ronnie Spector.
King: Don’t worry. Phil Spector felt the same way.

FFanzeen: “Una Paloma Blanca” is really a miserable song.
King: Awful

FFanzeen: But it was a big hit for you in England. Did you record it simply because you knew you’d make a lot of money from it?
King: No, it’s really hard to explain – or it should be hard to explain. There are creative buzzes of various kinds, and I get a great buzz creating something which is commercial and appeals to a lot of people, and which people like. Therefore, I got a great creative buzz out of making a record which had come up and flopped in England, improved it commercially, and producing a final product which was a large hit. One of the biggest hits of the year in Britain. I do get great enjoyment. You don’t have to only get enjoyment in the music business by creating something marvelous. You can get it from promoting something, from marketing something, from selling something, in various different ways, and it gave me a great creative buzz to make a hit record out of “Una Paloma Blanca,” although I never liked it myself as a piece of product.

FFanzeen: What’s the story on Blue Swede and your “Hooked on a Feeling.” 
King: Well, “Hooked on a Feeling” was a record I did like. I had a hit with it in England and around Europe and, as you know, Blue Swede did steal it, made an almost identical copy [you remember: “Oogha-chaga, oogha-chaga in 1974 – RBF, 1981], and had a Number One here in America, simply because my record was not promoted and marketed here. [My version] came out on London Records which, then, was virtually the equivalent of a morgue, as far as records were concerned, went on to remain the same, unfortunately, and therefore killed a number of my acts and bands. But I think it got lost for that one reason. The Blue Swede record came out on Capitol, which was run by Al Coury (d. 2013), who now runs RSO Records and got that complete marketing and promotion treatment. In a way, it was flashing to me, because it showed me that I did make the right record in the first place; it just got lost.

FFanzeen: A lot of your songs can be considered “novelty records.” Don’t you ever want to be taken seriously?
King: I never want to be taken seriously. I never take anyone else seriously, either. There’s no point in taking anything seriously, when we can all be wiped out by a meteor landing on the Earth three seconds after somebody has read this article. So, I don’t believe in taking things seriously at all. I believe in having a lot of fun. I’ve done certain things that one could take seriously if one wanted to, ranging from discovering Genesis, or The Rocky Horror Show, or 10cc, or any of the other more creative bands I’ve discovered, to some of my more creative recordings, like “Hooked on a Feeling” or “Satisfactionby Bubblerock, which is one of my better records. No, I don’t expect people to sit down and start essays in The New York Times about the brilliance of my musical metabolism; I don’t want that at all. I just want people to buy my records in bulk, have fun, like the bands I find, like the artists I discover – and I don’t take life seriously at any time. The moment you start doing that, you’re open for unhappiness.

FFanzeen: Why don’t you perform live?
King: I performed live sporadically, until I had my first hit [“Everyone’s Gone to the Moon – RBF, 1981], and I never really liked it. I felt uneasy on stage. I’m not a performer. My greatest talent in the music industry is probably as a producer. I know how to find, discover, nurture and create hit records, bands, and acts probably better than anyone else in the world. And, he said modestly, I really like doing that. Now, I had my first hit, and I had to make a decision: do I want to become a performer? Now, all performers are cunts. I have a little sign hung above my bed saying, “All Artists are Cunts.” In fact, I had dinner with Rod Steward and Britt Eklund, and spent the entire meal saying how all artists were cunts. It took Rod the whole meal to realize that all the analogies I was illustrating this argument with were coming from the way he was treating Mercury/Phonogram. He finally discovered that I was basically insulting him – during the sweet course. Rod, being a Scotsman, is shrewd enough to realize he’s better off if he has his meal first, before he leaves. He got up, stormed out of the restaurant and didn’t speak to me for a year. Well, Britt and I had a good giggle about his uptightness. I put in a few good insults at her as well. I said to her, “Oh, Britt, isn’t it wonderful? You’re so lucky. What a coincidence that every man in your life has had so much money.” That made Rod giggle. Anyway, all artists being cunts, I decided I wasn’t going to be an artist. I was already a cunt. I didn’t want to make myself more of one. To be a good performer, and to be an artist, you really have to have an inflated opinion of yourself. You have to project over-the-top mannerisms, style, gestures, and everything. I could have done it. I could have learned to do it. If I’d wanted to be a rock star, in the mid-‘60s, I could have slaved away at the boards. I have enough imagination to create an incredible stage show. Genesis has a lot to thank me for their stage ideas. I’m sure I could have become a rock star. How boring. Can you imagine being a rock star? Can you imagine anything more tedious and stupid? Far more nicer for me, who has had the chance to be a rock star, many times over, and every time to have rejected it. Isn’t that much cooler? Elvis Costello can’t claim that.

FFanzeen: Have you produced or recorded anything lately?
King: Not much. Towards the end of 1979, as a favor to a very dear friend of mine, Sir Edward Lewis (d. 1980), who is the chairman/founder of Decca-London Records, I have gone back to Decca as sort of the boss, to revive this dead corpse of a record company, which I did. And we got a lot of records back on the chart. I had “Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues on the charts for the third time in the Top 10, and a variety of other hits on Decca. And, in fact, again, by the end of the year. Decca was again one of the most successful companies in Britain. The reason for this is because Sir Edward was selling the record company to Polygram, who did in fact buy it, and he wanted to sell them something that was a positive, active, successful entity, as opposed to a flop. It worked very well. He sold the company, and the new company immediately approached me and asked if I would be interested in running Phonogram/Mercury and Decca. A lot of other record companies in Britain asked if I would be interested in running their companies in England, and even in America. Sums of money were mentioned, ranging to the top offer of $750,000 a year. And I looked at myself in the mirror – especially parts of my anatomy, the most interesting little bits I can observe – and I said, “Jonathan, do you really want to be a record executive? Here you are, just into your early thirties. I don’t want to do something that will keep me going for another ten years, wearing suits and ties. I would prefer to relax. Fortunately, I have earned enough money through the bands that I’ve been associated with over the years to be able to do whatever I want. What would I like to do?” And I decided I would like to come to America and live in my apartment/office, which I’ve had for ten years now in New York, and do two things: one, cover the presidential election, because presidential politics in America fascinates me, as do politics in England – I find them very interesting, and two, broaden my perspective out of just the music world, but also break into the American market because, as you know, in England, I am a fairly well-known personality from fifteen years of doing a variety of things. In America, apart from “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon” fifteen years ago when I was a little seventeen-year-old teenybopper, nobody knows me and remembers me, right? So, it’s a whole new virgin market and a difficult market to break. And I’ve decided I’d try and do that, so I came over here to do weekly reports on the election, called “The King of New York,” which goes out Saturday afternoons on the BBC in Britain, and has about six or seven million listeners. I still do that column. Then, while I was here, I was offered a guest slot on WMCA-AM, “New York’s finest news and conversation station,” and they got good reactions, phones went, letters poured in, so they asked if I would do the 10 to 12 morning show on a regular basis for a while, and I thought about it and decided, yes, why not? Because my other ambition has been, for a while, to try and shake the bland, boring, tedious American radio station back into shape again. And I think I’m probably the only person who can do it, cos I’m young enough to know what the (new) music’s about, yet old enough to have had the experience and success in the industry to have built up a good reputation, so people don’t look at me as a lunatic. So, bearing that in mind, I’m still trying to do that. I’ve got three FM stations on the boil at the moment. I’m trying desperately to get one of them to allow me to move in and program a New Wave radio station for young people who like to hear that new sound younger bands are making; people like the Police, B-52s, Elvis Costello (and) a variety of artists that are around. Playing that all the time, instead of what I call “Dinosaur Rock,” which WPLJ or WNEW play, or disco, which is fine if you’re into disco, but not at all fine if you’re not, or any other music formats around you which are very limited or specialist. My thinking is that the 1980s AM radio is going to become more and more talk-oriented. And FM radio is going to widen out and appeal to a broader spectrum of the community. How nobody has ever done this before I really cannot understand. It’s such a yawning gap in the marketplace, you would think anybody with any brains would cater to that area, right?

FFanzeen: WPIX did that for a little while.
King: No, they didn’t, you see. This is one of the two reasons why there is no New Wave radio in New York,: one is because New Wave radio is thought to appeal to the twelve to twenty-five-year-olds who, according to demographics, no longer have much buying power apart from pimple creams, right? I happen to think that’s wrong. I happen to think that, a) the audience has more buying power than people think, and b) New Wave radio would not only appeal to that segment of the community, but would also appeal to a lot of people in their late twenties and early thirties. And I think a lot of parents whose kids would be setting their dial to a New Wave station would like what they heard and leave it turned to that. So, that’s one point. The second, WPIX sort of tried a New Wave format, but when I say sort of, it was a disaster. I listened to it quite regularly. They would play any new record that came out, especially if it was on a little label. Now, I know the music business. If a record is on a little label, it’s got a fair chance of being a real piece of shit, because if it’s not good enough for the big labels and has to crawl out of a little label, it usually is bad. And indeed, much of the records WPIX used to play were ghastly. Now, they had the advantage that one record in twenty was great, and you wouldn’t hear it anywhere else, but the other nineteen were such rubbish, it was presented in a neo-mid’60s progressive laid-back amateur fashion. So, what happens? Nobody listens. You see a tiny little minority listenership, but the figures dropped way down, because it was presented so badly. They said it was New Wave – it wasn’t New Wave radio. It was just amateur mess radio; you cannot run a radio station like that. And so, everybody thought as you do [do I? – RBF, 1981] that WPIX was New Wave radio, it didn’t work, therefore New Wave radio doesn’t work. They’re thinking wrong. New Wave can work marvelously, but only if the very best is played. If it’s presented well, if certain things are encouraged, and if people put their money where their mouth is and back the people they really believe in. You see, it’s easy to play PIX format: play everything, and then be able to say, “We were the first to play ‘Money’ by the Flying Lizards. Admittedly, we only played it once every five days because we play so many records, but we were the first.” Well, that’s bullshit. You don’t do things like that. There’s only a handful of good records at any given time. You play that handful and they’re damned good records, you break new bands, new artists. I can program a New Wave station with about forty or fifty record companies didn’t know ought to be singles, great New Wave singles, marvelous oldies by people like the Sex Pistols and the Boomtown Rats [oldies? – RBF, 1981] that never saw the light of day, and it would be a hell of a good radio station, and it wouldn’t be a mess. WPIX was a mess.

FFanzeen: By doing that, wouldn’t you be guilty of doing the same thing that WPLJ is doing, just programming the same things over and over?
King: Well, PLJ programs that same thing over and over, but they program Dinosaur Rock over and over again. They would put in a Police track or B-52s or something – Talking Heads – to keep people happy. But ninety percent of their format is Zeppelin, Sabbath, and all the various Pink Floyds, all people who are considerably older than I am, and the same old music churns out – and when you hear “Stairway to Heaven” every three minutes, you think, “God, here it goes again, I can’t believe it.” PLJ, ABC and the NBCs are Top 40 formatted. Okay, what I would be doing, in a way, is Top 40 New Wave format. But that’s different because Top 40 doesn’t exist anymore. Top 40 used to be marvelous in the mid-‘60s. Now we’re split into specialist groups so, as a result, there are records that will be major big hit records that we may not want to hear. I think a tight-formatted New Wave station playing new records, bands that are not heard anywhere else in the city, and repeating them a lot so you can hear them enough to really get into them, would do enormously well. But you need that control. There’s no point in saying that people who want the sort of PIX format back are basically the failed rock musicians who, with their second-rate band, knew they had a vague chance of having their record played somewhere at some time cos PIX had such an open format with nobody listening as a result. But they would play anyone, so Fred Nerle and the Scroggs from down in Greenwich Village would be sure that their second-rate piece of rubbish will b played on WPIX, so they could champion PIX. The listeners didn’t champion it. The listeners thought it was a pain in the ass. The protest that was made when it came off was like somebody making a slight fart in Staten Island. I mean, it really had no impact when it left the scene because, although it was doing some good things, it was a mess But to run a good New Wave station you’ve got to find somebody who actually knows what he’s talking about from a New Wave level, cos you can’t go by any of the sales. Any little individual group can hike the sales in one shop by getting their mother, father, and friends to go in and buy it. There is no way they can find out. The phone would be ringing by friends of a band calling in. The only way you can virtually guarantee success if the guy picking the music has hellishly good ears. Now, according to the latest ratings, my ears are worth $750,000 a year. That’s what the record companies are prepared to pay me for the use of my ears in running their companies. With these kinds of ears, you know you’ve got something that is pretty invaluable, and with a little bit of luck, somebody in the radio world is going to pick up on that idea and say, “Hey!” Plus, when the ratings come up on my WMCA show and they see that I’ve slaughtered all the opposition on AM, they will be very keen to get me on FM.

FFanzeen: Your born name is Kenneth, but you record as Jonathan and use many other pseudonyms. Why?
King: Well, there was a very good reason for that. I decided that if I put out three records by Jonathan King, people would listen to all three, decide with was the best, play it, and I would have one hit, even if all three were potential hits. If I put out three records under different names and nobody knew they were me, and people thought the records were better than any other around, they’d play all three and I’d have three simultaneous hits, make much more money, and be all over the charts. So, that was the reason I did it, and it works. Three times in 1971, I had three simultaneous Top 30 records under various different names, so it was a great way of doing things. I reached the point where, in 1972, any new artist at all who came out, people thought it was Jonathan King. You couldn’t be an artist without people saying, “Are you really Jonathan King? When I launched 10cc, one of the great problems we had to overcome was getting people to realize that 10cc were actually a real bunch of four individual musicians, and not me under another name. Especially since I thought up the name, and it was a very “Jonathan King” sort of name.

FFanzeen: Do you have any new artists, like New Wave artists, that you are getting ready to produce, or that you want to produce?
King: No, I don’t really want to get into the production end of the music thing just yet at all. I mean, the basic situation is I want to make myself known in America, and I’m going about it on a certain route. And the route I’m using at the moment is talk radio, with TV appearances, which are being booked up because of the talk radio success, and so on. Now, it may well be that the next stage, hopefully, is that I will succeed in getting an FM radio station, and if I do, then I will turn it into a success. I’ve told everyone that I guarantee that within six months, it’ll be the Number One station in the country. And I have no doubt that I would be. People were saying the same thing about the disco format when WKTU started up, and it did, indeed, go on to do exactly that, because the time was right, or “The Tide is High,” as Blondie would say.

FFanzeen: Would you like to go into a bit of detail about the format of your AM radio show?
King: The talk show is very simple, basically. It runs the gamut between serious things like heroin addiction, abortion, capital punishment, and so on, and the lighter subjects like heroin addiction, abortion, and capital punishment. I interviewed Dusty Springfield (d. 1999), and I was hoping Bowie (d. 2016) was going to come on, but he never did. John Lennon was due on the week after his death (1980). Unfortunately, he had to cancel. It ranges from one end of the scale to another. The only common denominator is if it bores me, I stop the discussion. And if it bores me, it will probably bore the listeners. I’m finding we’ve been getting the most enormous amount of young listeners now, a really large amount of college kids and teenagers. How, I don’t know, since most of them are at school or at college when the show is on. We have phone calls; we have interviews on every topic under the sun. I mention things that have happened in the world and my thoughts on them, and usually send them off a bit with a light ribbing. It’s all good fun. Like yesterday, the whole show was devoted to a discussion on the lack of New Wave radio on FM. And I must say that I’ve had letters since, cos I thought we really shouldn’t get into the topic because it was a talk show, and essentially listened to by people who don’t want to listen to music. That was yesterday, and this morning I had three letters which said, “Please don’t say that, we all love music and we love good talk, and the reason we’re listening to you on WMCA is because it’s impossible to hear good music on the radio at the moment. And rather than listen to crap, we’re listening to good talk, and we would love a good New Wave station,” which is a marvelous thing. I really do believe that that is true. I think the ‘80s will see a lot of people listening to a variety of things. Given my own choice, I would listen to some personalities on talk radio and then switch to a good music radio station to hear music. And I wouldn’t stay on one or the other all the time. I’d bounce.

FFanzeen: You’ve said that people are like sheep, and you don’t like people who immediately like you without knowing anything about you.
King: Right, That’s why I’ve never gone out of my way to get fans.

FFanzeen: Yet you produce this pabulum-type of music to suit that very group. Isn’t that contradictory?
King: No. As I’ve said, it gives me a creative buzz to be able to sell things to large quantities of people. If the people want to be stupid enough to like me as a person rather than the records, then that’s their fault. There’s nothing against people liking the record. Because they have different tastes than me does not make them inferior human beings. I consider them inferior as human beings when they’re foolish enough to like somebody they’ve never met, and never spoken to, and don’t know anything about, just on the basis of the music that they like. I mean, if you were to tell me that you think Paul McCartney is a fantastic guy, although you never met him, because he makes such nice records, I’d say you were an idiot. And likewise, anyone who would say the same about Jonathan King. And even when somebody meets me, they would realize that, as anybody with sense does, that there is no black and white. Nobody’s perfect, and that I’m part good and part bad.

FFanzeen: You’ve said that you like everything that you’ve done so far. At the same time, you refer to yourself as cynical.
King: I’ve enjoyed it. I don’t think I’ve done anything of great earth-shattering depth. I mean, even if I’d written plays to the worth of William Shakespeare, or novels to the worth of Charles Dickens, and I was satisfied with my artistic abilities, I still wouldn’t fool myself. I’m cynical. They say, “The cynic is the true lover of humanity.” Somebody else said, and I think it was Oscar Wilde, “A cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” My answer is that everything has a price and nothing has any value. Which, I think, is the true cynical answer to give. We’re here, and we won’t be here tomorrow. There’s no point in overdramatizing everything. My interpretation of a cynic is one who sees life as it is, not as they would like it to be, or as others would like it to be, but as, in reality, it is. That applies to people who believe in extremely weird things like God, or the Devil, or any kind of various lifestyles other people follow. I would use the word cynic without any of the derogatory implications it has. To me, basically, I’m cynical. A total cynic. I’m probably the most cynical person you would ever meet. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being cynical. To me, being cynical is being sensible.

FFanzeen: What you’ve said is almost word for word the opposite of what Cervantes said [in Man of La Mancha], that the maddest thing you can do is see life as it is, and not as it should be.
King: But then, there aren’t many windmills around here.

Having met and talked with Jonathan King, I liked him. Yes, he was cynical and used his opinion like a straight-razor, but he was also straightforward and direct, and firmly believed in his convictions. I also think that his convictions were (and are) what was wrong with the music industry: namely the bottom line is more important than the value of the music. His total lack of regard for independent music was shocking to me, but then again, considering his “place” in the history of the music industry, it is hardly surprising. Did there really need to be a disco version of “Una Paloma Blanca”? Did there really need to be an “oogha-chaga” version of “Hooked on a Feeling”?

Another statement he made I find questionable is that only the best New Wave music would be played. And just what is the totally subjective “best”? And who would be the person or persons who would decide that? Gatekeeping theory states that one or few choose what the majority will know, but a subtext is the question of whether the chooser would be an independent thinker or a cog in the machine. The fin de sicle has shown, I believe, that independent thought in the music industry – especially radio broadcast such as it is in the age of the Internet – is dead. Demographics numbers and polls speak louder than even program directors. The disk jockey has been reduced to mere personality and no longer has a say in the output. These days, you’d have a better chance of finding a religious station than any kind of new music on-air.

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