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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Alexis Petridis

Rock’s best kept secret: Tony King on life with John Lennon, Elton John and Freddie Mercury

Tony King (centre) with Elton John and John Lennon, with plates of food and drinks, on a plane
Tony King (centre) with Elton John and John Lennon, en route to Boston in 1974. Photograph: Courtesy of Sam Emerson

On the wall of Tony King’s flat in north London, there is a beautiful signed Andy Warhol print of Marilyn Monroe. There’s another inscription on the back, in a scrawl immediately familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the Beatles: “To Tony with love, from one of your problems, love John.”

An abashed Lennon gave it to him after a particularly raucous night in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s: drunk and furious after an altercation with Phil Spector during the recording of what became his 1975 album Rock ’n’ Roll, Lennon had smashed up the house where he was staying. King, who was essentially managing him at that point, arrived to find windows broken, gold records shattered and the singer attempting to pull a palm tree out of the ground. He intervened and ended up pinning Lennon to the ground: “I never knew you were so strong, dear,” Lennon quipped.

The whole business of the Warhol print is very Tony King. It’s a remarkable little piece of history, with an incredible tale attached to it, but discreetly hidden: you have to remove the picture from the wall and turn it over to find out the whole story. Now in his 80s, King might be rock history’s best-kept secret: a Zelig-like figure whose career in the music industry connects the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to Elton John, Freddie Mercury and the late 1970s zenith of disco. He was there when the Beatles recorded All You Need Is Love and met the Maharishi (he wasn’t impressed with the latter). He spent a chunk of the 1960s attempting to work for the Rolling Stones’ manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, from a flat used by various band members as a crash pad. Once, he was upbraided by Keith Richards for smoking a joint with the guitarist’s then partner: unbelievable as this now seems, Richards initially disapproved of drugs.

King at his London flat, with his Warhol print visible in the background
King at his London flat. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

An out gay man before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act decriminalised homosexuality – “I knew no other way, to be honest” – it was King who encouraged his friend Freddie Mercury to tell his partner, Mary Austin, that he was gay. Meanwhile, King’s unabashed flamboyance had a profound effect on Elton John, who, when they first met, was a struggling singer-songwriter given to dressing down: “Tony would have attracted attention in the middle of a Martian invasion,” John subsequently recalled. “I wanted to be that stylish and exotic and outrageous.”

In the late 1970s, he was on the dancefloors of New York’s legendary clubs – the Paradise Garage, 12 West, Studio 54 – working in what he calls “homo promo”: in the disco era, record labels sought out men who understood the music’s queer roots to promote new releases to DJs. In the 1980s and 90s, he toured the world with the Rolling Stones, and worked as Elton John’s artistic director. By anyone’s standards, his has been a packed life – as you might expect, King has stories for miles – yet his name seldom appears in the pop culture history books. “I’ve always been slightly under the radar,” he says. “To be honest with you, I think it’s quite chic to be in the background, it’s a nice place to position yourself. So I’ve always favoured that role, to stay slightly low-key and hopefully have a bit of integrity about what I do.”

It took decades of cajoling by friends for King to write a memoir, a task he finally began during lockdown. The resulting book, The Tastemaker, is fantastic: a funny, moving, incredibly charming saga that sees him graduate from an Elvis-obsessed teenager in Sussex to a job at record label Decca and thence into the eye of the swinging 60s storm. It all seems to happen very quickly: one minute King is working in a record shop in Worthing, the next he’s chaperoning the Ronettes around London and leaping out of a taxi at the behest of Roy Orbison to flag down a passing car the singer has decided he wants to buy. “You fly by the seat of your pants, don’t you?” he says. “I always loved showbiz, so it seemed natural to me – it was a world I’d always been rather fond of.”

Tony King (standing, third left) with the Ronettes, Phil Spector (seated) and George Harrison in 1964
Tony King (standing, third left) with the Ronettes, Phil Spector (seated) and George Harrison in 1964. Photograph: From the author’s collection

The other striking thing about his story is how much pop stars seem to have liked and trusted him. He became friends with the Beatles after supplying them with singles by the American R&B artists they loved. After switching jobs to work with Oldham – who lured King by playing him the Stones’ next single, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction – he struck up a lifelong friendship with Charlie Watts. This after Watts’ initial assessment that he had “never seen anyone as gay as that new guy in the office”.

“I suppose I was always very straightforward, a straight speaker,” King says. “I wasn’t an artist but I understood the artists, I was in their camp. I think I had an innate understanding of what artists needed, and I didn’t put up with bullshit.”

To that end, he turned the Beatles down when they asked him to work at the newly formed Apple Records: “I thought it was being run by a load of cowboys – nice cowboys, but they weren’t record company people. It was too airy-fairy for me.” He subsequently changed his mind when Ringo Starr assured him that the company had become “much more organised”. Newly installed as the head of A&R, he discovered that organised was a relative term. “It was so mad, Apple,” he says. “The poor office boy had to do Ringo’s shopping every Friday. There would be all these toilet rolls stacked in the lobby while they counted them out, making sure they’d got the right number for Ringo. But the mad side of it was lovely. We had an Apple darts team and we’d challenge different record companies. Keith Moon showed up wanting to play, but he was so drunk, the office boys had to hold him up so he could throw a dart.”

Eventually, King moved to LA to work with Lennon, where his duties involved dressing up as the Queen for a TV commercial advertising the album Mind Games. Lennon was in the midst of his “lost weekend”, a notoriously boozy sojourn when he was temporarily separated from Yoko Ono. In King’s telling, it wasn’t anything like as tumultuous as it’s usually depicted – as he points out, it was an era in which Lennon made a No 1 album, Walls and Bridges. But there was certainly an element of chaos: King had to usher Lennon out of a performance by Frankie Valli after he started suggesting loudly that the Four Seasons frontman should “show us your dick”; he also retrieved Lennon from a toilet cubicle where he was doing cocaine with David Bowie. But, for the most part, he says, Lennon was a delight. “I knew him in the 1960s and he could be very cutting. I was intimidated by him. I went to LA expecting this sharp-tongued Liverpudlian, and instead I got this really soft, vulnerable man. I couldn’t believe it.”

Meanwhile, Ono emerges from The Tastemaker as an absolute hoot, a hilarious eccentric who encourages King to take magic mushrooms before a business meeting with a music industry executive. “Oh my God, I took off halfway through lunch,” he laughs. “I was flying. And Yoko leans across the table and says” – his voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper – ‘Good, aren’t they?’”

The book is filled with vivid, poignant descriptions of LA and New York in the 1970s, dispatches from backstage on Rolling Stones mega-tours and an impossibly starry supporting cast: everyone from Kenny Everett to Joni Mitchell to Donald Trump, who threatens to hijack a Stones press conference at his casino, causing the band’s roadies to tool up “with screwdrivers and hammers and what have you” in order to stop him.

King with Freddie Mercury in 1981
‘Indomitable spirit’ … King with Freddie Mercury in 1981. Photograph: Courtesy of Tony King

The most powerful part of the book has nothing to do with music, though. King’s depiction of life and death in New York during the Aids epidemic is a shocking, haunting read: the dying friend he sees in hospital, looking dishevelled because the nurses are so terrified of catching the disease that they refuse to cut his hair or fingernails; another sick friend, who breaks down in King’s kitchen, sobbing that he doesn’t want to die. “I was literally living on Ground Zero. You could see it in the streets of Greenwich Village, people who were dying. You could tell by the colour of their skin, if they were being helped down the road, if they had a walking stick: that’s someone who is dying. You were surrounded by death. It’s impossible to explain to people just how devastating it was, and the fear and rejection that went with it.”

Of all the people he knew who died, he says Freddie Mercury was the bravest. “So brave. Shopping until the end, buying up paintings in Christie’s auctions. I used to lie on the bed next to him and hold his hand, which was stone-cold, like a bone. They’d bring in the paintings he’d bought and prop them up at the end of the bed for him to look at. I said, ‘Fred, why are you doing this?’ And he said, ‘What else have I got to do? I can’t go out, I can’t leave the bed, but at least I can go shopping.’ He had this wonderful, indomitable spirit.”

By the time King discovered he had contracted HIV himself, drugs were available that meant the disease was no longer a death sentence. Nevertheless, he ended up in rehab after a breakdown that seems to have been brought about by seeing so many friends die: “I’d just suffered so much grief. Survivor’s guilt.”

He recovered and ended his career working with Elton John, overseeing his album sleeves and working on the staging of his Las Vegas show and ongoing farewell tour. Now retired, he says that writing The Tastemaker was a strange experience, tinged with sadness and regret: many of the characters in it are gone; it ends with the death of Charlie Watts. Then again, King achieved what he set out to do.

“I knew as a teenager I was never going to be a star, but I loved hanging out with stars, the glamour of it all. I liked working for famous people and helping them to achieve things they were set on doing. After one of the Rolling Stones tours, I got a card from Mick that just said: ‘Thanks for keeping it right.’”

He smiles. “That summed it up for me: keeping it right.”

The Tastemaker by Tony King will be published by Faber & Faber on 2 February, £20. To order a copy for £17.40 and help to support the Guardian, go to the A delivery charge may apply.

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