It was barely 7am in Florida when I caught up with broadcaster and former music industry promotions high-flier Tony Michaelides. But he’d already walked his dog, still seemingly functioning on Manchester time, 18 years after leaving the North West for a new life, stateside.
It would take more than five hours to get to Key Largo from his adopted St Pete Beach base, but when he talks about soaring, clammy heat I’m transported to the Florida Keys with Bogart and Bacall in 1948, fighting the mobsters. Perhaps as far as you can get from Gatley, where young Tony kicked a football with his mates in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, dreaming of running out at Old Trafford.
Humidity aside, all that talk of storms – ‘it’s the lightning capital of the world,’ he tells me – suggests he’s at least taken a little of that Mancunian rain across the Atlantic. And while home is now a Sunshine State resort just west of St Petersburg, it was the UK that shaped him, his loyalties remaining divided.
“With climate change and all that, summer started in May this year, when the family were here, and it was gruelling. I can’t complain. I used to come here with the kids, when I bought a place for vacations. I kind of knew what the weather was like, but I’ll never get used to the humidity. It’s just not normal. Then again, winters are beautiful, and when everybody else is freezing their ass off, we can sit outside a bar or restaurant. It is what it is.”
We soon get on to America today, with its sorry catalogue of mass shootings, the aftermath of Trump supporters’ post-election failed insurrection, and the recent overturn of the abortion laws. But while we’re on the same page there, I didn’t call Tony to get into all that. I was out to discuss Moments That Rock.
From the moment Tony first heard and was promptly seduced by Roger McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker guitar sound on The Byrds’ cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, the writing was on the wall for this lad from South Manchester to embark on his own rock’n’roll fantasy.
Hopes of making it for Man United were soon replaced, his newly published memoir revealing how a love of Bowie, Cream, Dylan, Hendrix, Neil Young, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin ultimately led to a job opportunity not to be missed, one that effectively shaped his career path.
An interview with Transatlantic Records’ Ray Cooper in rainy Manchester city centre in August ’74 led to his first role in the music business, moving on from that Northern sales rep role to Anchor Records and in time Island Records, including a parallel career as a record plugger and DJ, Piccadilly Radio’s ‘Tony the Greek’, his most memorable interviewees on The Last Record Programme, the weekly show he presented after close pal and former lodger Mark Radcliffe (who wrote the foreword to Moments That Rock) left for BBC Radio 1, including those with REM, Leonard Cohen and an early line-up of The Stone Roses.
Going on to run a successful promotions and PR company, he’s barely drawn breath since, getting to know and help spread the word about some of the biggest names in the industry down the years, from Bob Marley, Peter Gabriel, The Police and Genesis to New Order and U2, his initial role criss-crossing the UK in a van selling LPs to record stores leading down the years to personal audiences with many of his heroes, including Steve Winwood. And then there was his dream role as David Bowie’s late-‘90s publicist.
Experiencing and overseeing key decades of change in the industry while amassing a wealth of great stories during that long career, he later started out again in the US, but shows no signs of losing his enthusiasm and hunger for new music, new experiences and new ideas, as au fait with the world of radio podcasts as the pirate stations of his youth, remaining a fan first and foremost all these years on, with plenty still to give and share.
And it’s a life he tells us, ‘I never could have planned, and neither would I have wanted to, but it was an incredible journey and a golden path to a life I deeply loved.’
However, while there’s plenty of opportunities for impressive name-dropping, that’s not his remit. Nor is his newly arrived memoir a warts’n’all autobiography of rock’n’roll excess. As he put it, ‘I wanted it to have purpose and be of value. I wanted it to resonate. It’s about what I learned in life and what 30 years in the music industry taught me. I saw the mistakes these people made, how they learned from them, how others failed.’
Moments That Rock is as much a ‘how to succeed’ manual as an engaging memoir, with dashes of down-to-earth humour, wisdom and homespun philosophy as he reveals his ‘lessons learned in rock’n’roll’. And it’s going down well, judging by the early feedback. What’s more, the experience of writing it all down and reliving key moments has proved good for his soul, post-pandemic lockdowns and a recent medical procedure that briefly saw him housebound again.
“It really helped, physically after my operation, and also inspiring me to get creative. And I enjoy writing.”
This being Tony, whose impressive CV – with further stop-offs at Circa, Arista, BMG, and Magic Leap – also includes past work with Whitney Houston, NSYNC, and Depeche Mode, we’re soon off-topic again. And believe me, this fella can talk. In fact, Mark Radcliffe reckons, ‘He talks more than just about anyone else I know.’
When he mentioned a friend who was Jimmy Page’s roadie, I asked whether he caught any Glastonbury Festival coverage, telling him about a winning set by one of his formative heroes, Robert Plant, with Alison Krauss, seeing as there’s a lovely tale in the book of Tony as a schoolboy getting backstage in June ’69 after Led Zep rocked Manchester’s Free Trade Hall.
Then we talked about Inhaler, the Irish outfit fronted by Bono’s son, guitarist/ vocalist Elijah Hewson, an act that for many rekindle memories of early U2, who Tony helped launch when they first crossed the water and got to know so well … in fact, as homesick young Dubliners they were regular guests at early-‘80s family barbecues at his Cheadle Hulme base (soon renamed The Edge), their manager, Paul McGuinness remarking on the back of Moments That Rock how Tony was ‘one of the UK’s foremost record promoters and undoubtedly one of the best that U2 have had the pleasure of working with.’
But soon we’re back on to the book itself, one I had the pleasure of helping edit, and the reaction so far.
“I absolutely love it, and think everything about it works perfectly. I did a post on LinkedIn, that’s had 5,000 views, and got more than 100 comments. That coupled with various shares … it’s really encouraging, because it’s genuine feedback. Some of these people I don’t even know that well. Even when I pick it up and feel and touch the book, it feels a bit precious to me. And once people get a copy, hopefully, they’ll make comments. Some have already sent me photographs of the book in their hands.”
That’s despite it not being readily available in the US yet, where it’s expected to get even more traction, Tony going on to mention future plans for an audio version, ‘especially here because people love the English accent.’
Then there are the podcasts he records and shares these days, and the two internet radio stations he helps out. Yes, he’s as busy as ever, it seems, despite this dad-of-two and grandfather-of-three being just one year off (whisper it) his 70th birthday. And apparently, he doesn’t even record his podcasts on C60 or C90 cassettes, confirming to me he’s ‘got all the right equipment and that.’
While he planned to have the book out last Christmas, he reckons the delay worked out for the best, coming out in the year which marked the 50th anniversary of Bowie’s ‘Starman’ and Ziggy Stardust, key recordings celebrated in the book by a fella who had his first indirect connection with Brixton-born David Robert Jones in 1969, first caught him live at the Hard Rock in Manchester in September ’72, and went on to look after the iconic performer’s press and publicity from 1997’s Earthling tour.
These days, Tony is happily settled with his partner Mary, originally from New York City (‘my Queen of Queens from Queens’, as he put it in the book’s dedication), the pair marrying on the beach to a handful of people (others watching around the world via the wonders of Zoom) two years ago, to the strains of Britney Spears’ ‘Oops! … I Did It Again’ (it was his third marriage, and Mary’s fourth, he told me). What does he miss most about England?
“I keep having these conversations with people. The thing is, America’s not the place I came to, now, with everything going on. We have conversations like, ‘Should we move to another part of America?’ but it might just be conversations. The other thing is people that helped build this city can’t afford to live here, with this mass influx from New York and so on.
“At the same time, I don’t think England is the country I left. The world has changed. And I came from a different era. I learned my communication skills on the school playground, and when I was a teenager discovering girls that I had to stand in front of them to ask out, fearing rejection, and those are the things that shape you – it’s got nothing to do with the music business.
“Theoretically, when I moved into sales in ‘74 with Transatlantic, I’d kind of been groomed – I was used to meeting people, I went to a lot of gigs as a kid, and had friends that shared similar tastes in music. And I don’t know whether that happens now. Music brings people together, but there’s a different type of person out there … I don’t want to sound like this boring old fart though. I’ve got to be careful when I’m doing interviews that I’m not talking about coming from a better time … although I did! Haha!”
That said, while it’s a very different music business now, the building blocks he used to make his way remain relevant, not least that enthusiasm he has, and ability to network with the right people and use his knowledge of the field.
“Well, with this book I’ve found myself picking it up, flicking through, reading certain things, finding myself subconsciously smiling. It’s not an egotistical thing where you smile at your own words, but if that can make you laugh, it makes me think maybe there’s people out there who will too.
“And while I’ve been historically shit at social media, already I’m a lot better, because I have a purpose now! I know a lot of people, so if I wasn’t telling them the book was out, they’d probably be pissed off with me. I’m not telling them to buy it. I’m just telling them it’s out.”
It’s been a full-on career. Is he slowing down now? Or is he still the eager bloke he must have been 40-plus years ago?
“I’m probably worse in as much as I don’t shut the fuck up or anything! And I don’t want to lose the excitable kid in me, because it got me through life and through the reality of working in a pretty cut-throat industry full of a lot of fucking horrible people … but with a lot of amazing people too.
“And I had the ability to pick out the great people that are part of my life still. I mean, Bowie, for example, will always be relevant. And even just to pick up the phone and interview (Mark) Radcliffe three times for my podcast, we’re reconnected. And when I see him (in the book) in a photo holding my daughter – he was there when she was born – it becomes very personal.
“But there’s that fine line with ‘sad bastard’, and I never want to be this bloke they bring out of the closet to talk about when the music industry was great.”
He’s soon on to another of his heroes, Neil Young, and how he remains relevant and above the constraints of the music industry, and from there we get on to another who falls into that category, Bruce Springsteen, as opposed to the rebirth of the (Dixie) Chicks and how he felt the industry conspired to try and end their career because of their political stand, the music business becoming all the more corporate and more answerable to shareholders, so few high-profile music artists speaking out, at least in America.
“I feel that now I’m learning a lot more than I ever did. Although subconsciously I was learning every day in my career, with the type of people I gravitate towards. And when I write about someone like Bowie I write about my own experiences. There are shit-loads of books about him, but to make it about those moments that involved you – like when we sat down and discussed promotion – makes it very personal and relative to what I’m writing about.
“I’ve said this before, but there really was a star man, he did come and meet me, and he did blow my mind. And that sends shivers down my spine – his words, but my life!
“On my podcast, Ian McNabb was talking about Will Sergeant’s Bunnymen memoir, and how – asked if he had any regrets – Will said he just wished he’d given himself more time to enjoy it. That really hit home with me, and my time to enjoy it is through indulgence in my book. And I’m enjoying the moment. When I was writing about being that 15-year-old meeting Led Zeppelin backstage, at that time in my life when all my friends at school had gone to the same gig and seen the same band but didn’t get backstage like we did, I was back there in that moment!
“And the good thing (about Moments That Rock) is that I’m not sat in every photograph with every person I worked with. But right behind me in the room where I’m speaking to you is what I call the bullshit wall, a load of gold, platinum and silver discs. Over the years I’ve given a lot away to charities for auctions and stuff, but these ones didn’t fit in the cupboard, so I stuck them on the wall, and they work as a great backdrop when you’re talking to certain people – it’s kind of an endorsement. I’m also looking at a Wonderland poster of David Bowie for the Earthling tour, ‘To Tony, Best Wishes, Bowie ‘97’, and David was leaning over me when he signed that – that’s so personal.
“And I have original artwork of Joni Mitchell, the (Steve) Winwood covers, and Peter Gabriel III … those are things that are personal to me because they’re works of art … and I’ve this amazing anvil for ‘Blue Monday’ – there’s only like seven of those in the world. Hooky sold his at an auction for eighteen grand.”
The anvil, incidentally, was commissioned by Factory Records, assigned catalogue number FAC 73, to mark half a million sales for that iconic single, my interviewee’s personalised edition inscribed ‘TONY FAC 73 500 000’. As for hooky, that’s New Order bass legend Peter Hook, of course, who Tony briefly managed around the time of his Revenge project. Anyway, he’s still talking, and I couldn’t have got a word in if I’d tried, but soon enough we’re back on track …
“I don’t live in the past, but I appreciate the time I was given, and there’s lots of things in the book that are inspiring. And when you think of all those friends that went to the same gigs and bought the same records, all had access to the Manchester Evening News, so any one of them could have applied for that job I did. But they didn’t, although there’s a certain part of it that means anything’s possible. And that’s a lesson learned from rock’n’roll!”
It’s now 48 years since that job interview set him on his way, a further segue following about his old friend – his Transatlantic Records interviewer that day in ’74 – Ray Cooper, the Virgin Records US president who also worked with Tony at Island Records, Anchor Records, and Magic Leap, and how when he passed away four years ago, many big names paid tribute in person or on video links at his Los Angeles memorial service – from Lenny Kravitz, Janet Jackson and Peter Gabriel to Victoria Beckham and Simon Fuller.
It’s a very different music industry now, but what advice would you give people coming into the business today?
“It sounds rather cynical, but I recall some speaker saying if you have talent, you’ll make it. I so disagree with that – it’s not enough now to be a great singer or guitarist. My answer would have been totally different 30 or so years ago, but so much that a record company did then doesn’t exist now. And maybe U2 in their current form wouldn’t be where they are without that support.
“There’s so much an artist has to do now that was taken care of, like artist development, which began at the label then overlapped with people like me. We’d plan campaigns with new artists, arranging interviews around various records, from regional TV to press and radio. And you had specialist radio shows – I did one myself – that were instrumental in artist development for those not getting daytime airplay.
“Take as an example when me and Mark Radcliffe went to see U2 on 31st May 1980 – and I’ll never forget the day – they weren’t that good. They were third on the bill to Wah! Heat and Pink Military at Manchester Polytechnic, so we’re not talking about playing to 40,000 people. Most people were talking at the bar. You probably had about 20 people watching them.
“But you were gonna know what that band was called and remember that singer, and you were going to be reminded of it over and over again. Because when U2 played in front of a small crowd, they played to them like it was a stadium. And when they play to a stadium now, they remember what it’s like to play to a small crowd. You bring those people in, so there’s a connection. And great frontmen grab your attention. You have to pay attention.
“I remember Dave Grohl saying that when Nirvana got together in the garage, they were so bad … but they too were so determined to be so good. And if you look at bands that have left a legacy – and I go back to people like Bowie and Zeppelin – people are sometimes now discovering those records in their grandparents’ collection.
“U2 came out after that gig at the Polytechnic to meet every single person. We’re only talking a few people, but me and Radcliffe were so impressed. I brought the local radio DJ, who was playing their type of music on his show, and they were starstruck. But can you imagine now Bono getting into that Transit van, driving four hours in pouring rain then getting on social media, connecting with 10 girls in Japan, going to bed, then waking up and all of a sudden there’s 100 fans, because those girls sent a message saying they’d met this amazing guy from Ireland, then they’d go check him out, and it becomes viral? He would be brilliant at that!
“So much of arts development is down to the artist now. You have to build that up yourself. I firmly believe a record company will not sign someone unless they have to. It’s not about likes, it’s about interaction, and engagement, and that’s the way it works with everything. I apply that to myself, on a much smaller level – my book doesn’t exist unless I turn up on social media and tell people I’ve written a book.
“Working with U2 in that infancy period, when ‘11 O’Clock Tick Tock’ came out (May 1980), Bono wanted to meet everybody. And Michael Lippman, who managed Matchbox 20 and was in his 60s when I met him, wanted to learn from everybody, know every part of the process. He came from working in variety in the ‘50s.
“And when I interviewed (Stiff Records co-founder) Dave Robinson, he said, ‘I learned from people like you, Tony.’ I said, ‘Jeez? You were managing director of Island Records and you learned from a plugger?’ But he said, ‘You taught me a lot about promotion.’ So there’s a guy in a much higher position, but honest enough to admit he still listens to people.
“Those things are still firmly in my mind and mean more to me now because of the current climate, where today record companies have to have a piece of everything – part of the publishing, the merchandising … because they don’t make money off the records.
“So yeah, there’s a certain ‘who you know’ in anything, but someone said recently it’s not just who you know – it’s just as important what you know about who you know! I love that, and it’s so true!”
For more details about Tony Michaelides’ Moments That Rock, head here. And for Tony’s website, head here.