Music was always a passion for Neil Cossar, from teenage years learning guitar and dropping by at a record stall on Stockport Market through to minor early ’80s success with his band, a move into radio and establishing his This Day in Music brand in the ’90s, then a 21st-century shift into publishing.
And in the month he reaches a landmark birthday, Reddish-born Neil is celebrating the release of the latest The Day I Was There publication, collating fans’ recollections of seeing Bruce Springsteen live.
That follows involvement with several other ‘I Was There’ publications – collected and edited by Neil or fellow WriteWyattUK interviewee Richard Houghton, previous subjects including David Bowie, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and Pink Floyd, bringing together fans’ accounts from across the world, this latest This Day in Music Books title following The Boss from late ‘60s intimate gigs in his native New Jersey through to sell-out 2018 one-man shows on Broadway, with several UK visits catalogued en route.
As with previous books in the series, it’s the early tales that interest me most, and while Bruce never seems to have lost that personal touch with an adoring audience, recollections of those formative gigs are all the more compelling – taking us back to his pre-Born to Run era. And by then Neil was already sitting up and taking notice.
“I first became aware of Bruce Springsteen when working for HMV Records in Manchester. I worked on the shrink-wrapping machine in the days when all vinyl was still covered that way, and this sounds really sad but I really enjoyed that side of the job.
“All these new records would come in and I would see the same sleeves maybe 20 times and wonder what they’d sound like. That was the case with Little Feat, Jackson Browne, and Bruce Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle, and I’d be intrigued and check it out, and soon appreciated what a great songwriter Bruce was.
“And when it came to this book, I was quite surprised as I started reading accounts from fans at his openness and interaction at gigs and backstage, some of which were an eye-opener. He’s unique for an artist of his stature in that respect. David Bowie would always talk to fans and sign autographs, but there wasn’t that level of audience participation. So many big artists now do a world tour, play the hits and do the same set every night, but Springsteen’s shows involve this huge back-catalogue of great songs and covers which he can play at the drop of a hat, even when someone just holds a sign up requesting one.”
Although it’s Bruce’s name on the cover, this book’s as much about his regular backing outfit, the E Street Band, with many a poignant recollection of the late Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici, and co.
“Totally. And again, I think it’s a sign of a good person to work for that he has the same band members for so long. At one stage during his career when he didn’t tour for some time he gave every member of that band a significant amount as a bonus. I’ve never heard of anyone else doing that.”
As well as his previous book in the series, the fans’ take on Bob Dylan, Neil first took on a David Bowie: I Was There book in 2017 for Red Planet, before going it alone. And again that subject was chosen for good reason for a devoted Bowie fan.
“That was also just a joy to work on, and the fans paint such a great picture of someone I see as one of the greatest artists of our time. ‘Space Oddity’ was one of the first singles I bought. I’d go to a second-hand ex-jukebox stand on Stockport Market while helping with the groceries with my Mum and sister on a Saturday morning. I would always disappear, go to this stall and look through the singles.
“I’d heard ‘Space Oddity’ on the radio and it was one of those records of our generation that I played over and over again. I couldn’t quite figure out what all the sounds were, and the way he painted a picture with the lyrics of being in outer space floating in a tin can … as a young eight or nine-year-old it was real theatre of the mind for me. Much later in my career in PR I ended up working on his Earthling tour, going to five of those dates, and seeing him live was just amazing. I stuck with him all the way, and the last two albums were exceptional.”
These days Neil is based in Prestatyn, North Wales, with his partner, Liz Sanchez, the pair also running radio, TV and online promotions firm Absolute PR, boasting (albeit subtly) a mightily-impressive list of past and present clients. But what do we call him – author or owner/publisher?
“I don’t really class myself as an author. The Day I Was There books are written by the fans. But I feel very fortunate that I’ve always worked in the music business. From that first job at HMV to being a professional in a band, making three albums and being fairly unsuccessful but making a living out of it, then working in radio and moving into PR, which then evolved into being a book publisher with the This Day in Music website … it’s all been music.”
So how about his brush with fame? He plays his band days down and reminds us how The Cheaters ‘never troubled the charts’, but there was major label backing and even a cult following in Scandinavia. Was he playing guitar at an early age?
“I was. My Dad was a guitarist in a jazz dance band just after the war, and I was always interested and really wanted a guitar. I bought one off a friend’s brother when I was nine and Dad showed me a few basic chords. He was also into electronics and built me a little guitar amp and made me a pick-up for my acoustic guitar. I’d play along with the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Bowie, you name it.
“I formed my first band, Zenith, when I was 14 and did my first gig at that age in a pub in Macclesfield. I had various bands until I formed a band called The Cheaters with a guy called Mick Brophy from London. He’d been in a (punk) band called Trash, on Polydor Records, then moved up North with his job.”
That link came after Mick put an advert in the NME in late ’78 looking to form a band in Manchester to play ‘1979-style R’n’B’. Neil answered, his band Idiot Rouge having just lost drummer John Doyle to Magazine and singer-songwriter Nick Simpson to Nottingham University, later to form John Peel favourites 23 Jewels, leaving just John Martin (bass) and Neil (guitar/vocals). soon, the new trio recruited drummer Mike Juckes and The Cheaters were born.
“We ended up being firm favourites on the live scene, supporting all sorts of bands like Dr Feelgood, The Q-Tips, The Piranhas, and The Psychedelic Furs, and did quite a few gigs with the John Peel Roadshow. We signed with Parlophone (in 1981), made three albums and did several Radio 1 sessions, finding our own special niche in Scandinavia, touring there around seven times, going over for six weeks at a time. Happy days!”
In fact, Radio 1 once labelled Neil’s four-piece outfit ‘the hardest working band in Britain’, having completed more than 340 gigs in one year, building up a large UK fan-base during the early ’80’s amid those three albums and various singles, while recording Radio 1 sessions for Mike Read, Kid Jensen, Janice Long and Tommy Vance, plus Piccadilly Radio’s Mark Radcliffe. And that Scandi adoration? Apparently the editor of a leading Norwegian music magazine put them on the front cover, proclaiming they were ‘better than Man United’, The Cheaters during one tour of that region becoming the first UK band in over 10 years to play gigs above the Arctic Circle.
You can find out a lot more about The Cheaters via their Facebook page. It’s a bit late, I guess, but they’re well worth checking out all the same. And as it turned out, Zenith didn’t turn out to be Neil’s zenith, so to speak.
“It certainly didn’t. Actually, I was in some bands with great names, also including Frumious Bandersnatch, named after a Lewis Carroll line.”
The latter was in tribute to the Jabberwocky poem, although to be fair it had already been half-inched by a late-’60s Californian psychedelic rock band who went on to form the basis of the Steve Miller Band. But that’s by the by. Carry on, Neil.
“My Dad was from Scotland and his band were called The Treble Clefs. That’s how he met my mother actually, doing a gig in Dunoon where she happened to be in the audience. They got talking, and there you go!”
These days Neil has three sons of his own, ‘scattered across the North West’, albeit none of them following him into the music business, all having ’proper jobs’ instead. But how did the idea for his website come about?
“I started working in radio – reluctantly – in 1990, for KFM Radio in Manchester, a pirate radio station that was one of the very first new incremental stations awarded a licence by the Thatcher Government. Craig Cash was one of the presenters, as well as Caroline Aherne, Terry Christian and Jon Ronson, and for the first few months it was fantastic. We played what we wanted and the Manchester scene was taking off.
“We’d have The Charlatans in, Noel Gallagher gave his very first radio interview with Craig, we had Radiohead in session, their very first, again with Craig, plus James, The Mock Turtles, Shaun Ryder … everybody came through the doors.”
You can add to that list Blur and Lenny Kravitz too, among others. Anyway, keep going, Neil.
“I wanted to work in radio, but didn’t want to be a presenter, but one Sunday morning the presenter phoned in sick and I happened to be the closest and got called in to do the show. I was terrified but could work the equipment as I was producing a couple of shows. I didn’t enjoy it at all and thought I was dreadful as a DJ, but the boss seemed to think I was okay, so I ended up presenting an evening show, five nights a week.
“I still found it very difficult to talk nonsense though, so started compiling events that had happened on ‘this day in music’, so I could talk about the Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’ reaching No.1 and so on. I ended up doing it for every day of the year, acquiring a few events for every day and just happened to be talking about that to a friend in management, John Wadlow, who managed Seal. He said I should have a website. I really wasn’t aware of the internet at that point.
“This was around 1997, and we launched the site in 1999 so were very early in on all that. Nowadays it gets around 10 million page views a year. It’s very well established and I’m pleased to say it does really well and was a good move. That evolved into a This Day in Music book for the first time 10 years ago, and there have now been three editions. So I guess through that I became involved in book publishing.”
Working alongside publishing clients like Omnibus Press also helped his move into that world. And as the second half of 2018 kicks in, it’s fair to say This Day in Music Books looks to be here to stay, with many more titles at the designing and editing stage, including Richard Houghton’s Jimi Hendrix: The Day I Was There and an official OMD biography, a fourth edition of Neil’s flagship publication, This Day in Music, Joe Schooman’s Iron Maiden biography, and a new biography of The Clash by the bloke behind WriteWyattUK. But more on all that later.
For details of This Day in Music, including a link to ensure a copy of Bruce Springsteen: The Day I Was There, head here.