Ian Penman has been a television and radio presenter, researcher, producer and journalist for more than 30 years, generally writing as Ian Ravendale to avoid confusion with the Ian Penman formerly of the NME. He returned to music journalism (and Ian Ravendale) seven years ago writing for Classic Rock, Classic Pop, Vintage Rock, AOR, Vive Le Rock, Iron Fist, Blues Matters, American Songwriter, The Word and many more. Ian has interviewed literally thousands of musicians from multi-millionaire rockstars to local indie bands on the dole…‘I worked in television for Border, Tyne Tees, Channel 4 and also ran River City Productions an independent production company based in Gateshead. In addition to making lots of local programmes I also worked on national music shows including Get Fresh, Bliss and (to a lesser extent) The Tube. The Tube was shot at Tyne Tees Television’s Studio 5 on City Road in Newcastle. The site is now a Travel Lodge! It was interesting going to the canteen on recording day for shows like shows like Razzmatazz and The Tube and seeing who was in. I remember standing behind Phil Everly as he got his cod and chips!’
‘The music programes I worked on were mainly produced by Border Television in Carlisle. I spent a lot of time there in the 1980’s. At Tyne Tees I worked mainly in the Arts and Entertainment department. Anything different or off the wall it would usually be me doing it. We produced a program about rock poetry, presented by Mark Mywurdz, who at the time was a Tube regular. For some reason Mark wanted to present the program just wearing a raincoat. Nothing underneath! After we finished recording the show one of the camera men came up and congratulated me; ‘That was the biggest load of rubbish I’ve seen in my life!’ I did a lot of alternative stuff. Some was challenging but none was rubbish!’
Talking about alternative stuff, can you remember Wavis O’Shave ? ‘He had a number of names – Wavis, Fofffo Spearjig, Rod Stewart, Pans Person. When I was writing for Sounds he saw me as a way in as the paper liked the off-beat stuff. He was a great self publicist. And still is! He once told me about getting £1,000 out of the News of the World for a tip-off about a forthcoming witches coven scheduled for Witton Gilbert-or wherever Wavis said it was!’
What can you remember about working on Get Fresh ? (kids 1986-88 morning weekend TV show produced by the regional ITV companies taking it in turns for Saturday and Border producing all the Sunday editions). ‘For Get Fresh and Bliss, Border’s 1985 summer replacement for The Tube, most of the guests came up to Carlisle the night before so I’d take them out. People like Rat Scabies and Captain Sensible from The Damned. We’d go into the music pubs and clubs around Carlisle and people would love seeing them there. Rat got up a few times to play with some of the local bands. When I met him I said ‘What do I call you?’ (His real name is Chris Miller). (Adopts cockney accent) ‘Just call me Rat’. So I did. Nice guy. At the time he was really hoping to get the drum job with The Who, as Keith Moon had recently died. Didn’t happen, unfortunately.’
‘Bliss was presented by Muriel Grey and produced in Carlisle by Janet Street-Porter. We featured live bands, got them to play for half an hour, used two songs on the weekly show, then repackage the 30 minutes for a Bliss In Concert special. There wasn’t that much going on in Carlisle at the time so we had no problem getting local kids in as the audience.
One week we didn’t have a live band and I’d got an advance copy of the famous animated video for Take On Me by A-Ha, who at that point were totally unknown. Graham K Smith, the other music researcher and I thought it was really good so I rang their record company to see if A-Ha were available and importantly if they could play live. A resounding ‘Yes, they can do it’ was the answer. Bliss was aimed at a teenage audience so A-ha would have fitted in perfectly. Janet-Street Porter comes in and looks at the video and goes (adopts cockney accent) ‘Oh no, that’s art school stuff, it’s boring. Draggy!’
Border TV could have had half an hour of A-Ha playing live in concert for the first time in the UK. But no. The band she booked instead were King Kurt, a well-past their sell-by date punk band. So up they come in their ratty old bus with dogs on pieces of string and a stage act that consisted of throwing slop at each other. We – or rather Janet – turned down what became one of the biggest bands of the eighties’.
When you were reviewing gigs in the early 1980’s for Sounds were there any bands that surprised you or were disappointed with ? ‘It took me a while to ‘get’ punk. I was never into the boring British blues bands and prog acts which still show-up on the BBC’s compilations of 70’s rock. With the exception of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band who I liked. When punk came along it started to make more sense. I was also into what is now classed as Americana. Along with more-left field bands like Sparks and Be-Bop Deluxe.’
I’m reading the book ’No Sleep till Canvey Island -The Great Pub Rock Revolution’ the book mentions the early careers of Joe Strummer, Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello…’There were bands that were like a doorway between punk and the boring rock bands and Brinsley Schwarz, with Nick Lowe were one of them. I saw them play Backhouse Park, here in Sunderland. Dr Feelgood were another. I saw The Damned support Marc Bolan at Newcastle City Hall and it was a short, sharp, shock. And I thought; ‘OK. What was that…?’ Phil Sutcliffe, my predecessor at Sounds did an interview with The Damned for Radio Newcastle’s Bedrock show that we both worked on. It was 30 seconds long and finished off with someone shouting ‘Oi! Who put duh lights out’!
The big article you wrote for Sounds in May 1980 featured local metal bands Mythra, Fist, Raven, Tygers of Pan Tang and White Spirit. How did that come about ? ‘I was freelancing at Sounds, writing articles and reviewing gigs, some of which were of local bands. I was also working on the Bedrock program and one of my co-presenters was Tom Noble who was managing the Tygers. I’d already written individual articles about the Tygers, Fist and Raven and Geoff Barton, the assistant editor at Sounds asked me to source a few more bands for a 4,000 word article. The North East New Wave of British Heavy Metal’ was born!’
NWOBHM had Iron Maiden in London, Saxon in Barnsley and Def Leppard in Sheffield…. ‘Yes. As a reviewer I went as far as Redcar. A lot of the local bands I reviewed were from here in Sunderland, Newcastle and South Shields. Sounds also had a guy called ‘Des Moines’, a pseudonym for a writer from Leeds called Nigel Burnham who is now an agricultural journalist and Mick Middles, based in Manchester. Between the three of us we had the north covered.
One time the Tygers of Pan Tang were supporting Saxon and I’d gone along. I’d previously written a review of Saxon which included something along the lines of ‘in six months time they’ll be back playing social clubs’. At the gig Tygers’ guitarist Robb Weir came up and said ‘Biffs lookin’ for you!’. Fortunately he didn’t find me….Not yet, anyway.’
Was there any conflict between watching a band that you weren’t a fan of and writing something positive about them ? ‘Geoff never said to me, ‘We’ve got a big metal readership here can you go easy on them?’ He never wanted me to do that. But I found metal bands easy to take the piss out of – and I did. This stimulated very angry letters like ‘How dare Ian Ravendale slag off Ozzy. I’ve seen him and he was great’. I remember my opening line of a review I did of Ozzy, ‘What I want to know is how is Ozzy Osbourne so cabaret’. I interviewed him a few times for Bedrock but my interviewees tended not to click onto the fact that ‘Bedrock’s Ian Penman’ was also sharp-tongued Sounds scribe Ian Ravendale.
One time a few years after the Sounds ‘cabaret’ comment I was working at Tyne Tees and on the Friday Ozzy was playing The Tube. The Arts and Entertainment office was next door and I saw him in the corridor looking lost. So I went up to him and said ‘Hi Ozzy, The Tube office is just over there’. He thanked me and then said ’I’ve met you before haven’t I’. He still remembered me from the radio interviews we’d done’.
How did you get interested in writing ? ‘As a teenager I was a huge music fan and also into American comics. I wrote for a few comic fanzines then published some of my own which occasionally still turn up on Ebay. That gave me an insight into writing for public consumption’.
What about radio? You were involved in Bedrock for nearly ten years…‘Dick Godfrey was producing a program called Bedrock for BBC Radio Newcastle which featured interviews from national and gave local bands exposure which was otherwise very hard for them to get at the time. I had always been interested in the nuts and bolts of the music industry and how it all worked and listened to programs like Radio 1’s Scene And Heard. Dick had a feature called Top Track where each week a different listener would come in and play his favourite track and talk about it. ‘Some Of Shellys Blues’ by Michael Nesmith was my choice. This went down well with Dick so I asked if he’d be interested in me contributing features. ‘Yes but there’s no cash involved’. Nesmith was soon going to be playing in the UK and I was going along to the gig so I asked Dick if Bedrock be interested in me trying to get an interview with him. ‘Definitely’ replied Dick. So I phoned a record label I’d heard Michael was about to sign to and they gave me his hotel number. As ‘Ian Penman from BBC Radio Newcastle’ I arranged an interview, which I did a couple days later in London, the day after the gig. That was my start in radio’.
How did you start with Sounds? ‘Phil Sutcliffe, who was the North East correspondent for Sounds, was a friend of Dick Godfrey and also worked on Bedrock. When Phil moved to London he recommended me to Geoff Barton, Sound’s reviews editor, to be his replacement. Phil wrote a lot about the Angelic Upstarts, he liked the music but also had a sympathetic ear to what they were doing. He wrote the first articles about them. Same for Penetration, Neon and Punishment of Luxury.
I’d also been involved in the music fanzine Out Now which Tom Noble had produced, so I was becoming pretty proficient at interviewing and writing reviews. I was out at gigs four nights a week and was known enough to be able to walk straight into Newcastle City Hall via the stage door. This put me in touch with Tyne Tees TV and when a researcher vacancy came up I applied for that, got it and carried on at Sounds for a short while. I also wrote a few pieces for Kerrang, which Geoff Barton had moved across from Sounds to edit. I wrote the first article on Venom. Yes, I’m responsible for Black Metal (laughs).
Then as now, my attitude was regardless whether I liked the music or not if I could write something positive about local bands, and it was a entertaining ….I’ll do that. If you write something negative about a local band you could do them major harm. Also, a person in Aberdeen doesn’t want to know whether a band from South Shields are crap. Why would they?’
For the work that you were doing how important do you think research is? ’Some writers think of an idea then write a piece in support of that. I don’t do that. For me it’s about the facts and information presented in an interesting way. Opinions and personal taste are what they are. Maybe you like a band that I don’t. That’s fine. But facts stand. I do my absolute level best to write as accurately as possible. It’s really important for me to do that. Sometimes information comes from two or three sources. And if the information is contradictory, I’ll say that’.
Any memorable incidents in your career ? ’I interviewed Debbie Harry at Newcastle City Hall when Blondie had just broken big. We were in one of the really small dressing rooms. It was tiny. The record rep said ‘Ok Ian you got seven minutes’. He introduced me to Debbie who was standing with her back to me. She was leaning on a shelf writing stuff down. I said ‘Writing out the song lyrics ?’ She replied ‘Yeah, well I don’t really know them from the new album yet’. It felt a bit awkward. I literally spent the next three minutes just watching her writing with her back to me, stunning in her jumble sale collection of clothes. Eventually she sat down and off we went.
All of this was fairly new to her, she had just been playing CBGB’s (small club in New York) and now it was to gigs with 2,000 fans like the City Hall. She was trying to get used to all this Debbie-fever that was going on around her. By minute seven we were finally getting somewhere and she was opening up when the record rep walked in ‘Right Ian. Times up!’
I did actually interview the solo Debbie on the phone for Get Fresh nine years later and she was much more forthcoming. (The City Hall interview is on Rocks Back pages if you fancy a listen. RB is a paysite but there’s lots and lots of great stuff up there).
For more information contact : http://ianravendale.blogspot.com
Interview by Gary Alikivi July 2018.