NAMEDROPPER – in conversation with freelance author/TV producer Chris Phipps

Being on the dole during the ‘80s had it’s advantages. We queued up outside Tyne Tees TV Studio every Wednesday to get free audience ticket’s for the following Friday’s edition of live music show The Tube. If I was working I wouldn’t have got the chance to be part of what became a ground breaking TV programme and something that changed my life. Looking back it took a couple of years to seep through, but it was one of the magical moments I experienced that massively helped me in my work today.

In one of the programmes I was standing on the gantry looking across the studio with the stage and drummer below, another stage was to my left, there was a bar at the back, pink and blue lighting all around, Pat Benatar at the front of the stage – a little lady with a big voice. And cameras on the studio floor catching the buzz. Something clicked. It was the first time I thought ‘I would love to be involved in something like this’. I knew I was onto something.  

So a chance to interview a man who was part of that show was a great opportunity and one that I wasn’t going to miss. Take it away Chris…..

It’s interesting you mentioned Pat Benatar because I booked her, the drummer was fantastic and she was incredible.

I was at the Tube from the start in ’82 till it’s full run to ’87. But I started as a journalist in ’74 with three big stories happening on my patch, the Birmingham bombings, the hunt for the Black Panther and the Carl Bridgewater murder – a baptism of fire. After that I was producer at Pebble Mill at One and did a lot of regional TV and radio then.

I was doing rock shows, reggae shows and of course in the ‘70s the Midlands was Dexys Midnight Runners, UB40, Specials, Selector coming out of Coventry. It was like a nuclear reactor in terms of the music coming out of there. And of course you had the whole New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and I was involved with a band called Diamond Head who came out of Stourbridge. They were touted as the next Led Zeppelin which was a big mistake. They were phenomenal but for certain reasons they just went on to implode.

How were you involved with Diamond Head ? I did two TV shows with them, both of which are very rare now. One was on ‘Look Hear’ an arts programme on BBC Midlands with Toyah Wilcox. I also had them at West Bromich Further Education college, they done a student recording that was found in a loft a couple of years ago. That whole NWOBHM was fascinating because a lot of those bands were back in their day jobs after a couple of years, apart from Iron Maiden and Def Leppard. Finally, Diamond Head were vindicated because Metallica covered some of their numbers that contributed to their financial coffers.

What are your memories of those first days at The Tube ? I joined in ’82 as a booker and I became Assistant Producer from ’85-’87. My brief was to find bands that we could agree on to put in the show. A band on the first show that I booked didn’t happen, The Who didn’t do it because their pa system got stuck in Mexico or somewhere. So the producer Malcolm Gerrie knew Paul Weller’s father and got The Jam to do it. In a way I’m glad that he did because The Jam playing their last TV gig ever, really said this is what The Tube is all about – that was then, this is now and off we go.

On one show I booked a combination of Green Gartside and his band Scritti Politti, and Robert Palmer which I thought was a good mixture. Then Gartside wouldn’t do it, didn’t want to perform live or something I can’t remember now. But he pulled, you know my job was to convince really big names to come, particularly in the first six months of the programme because it was based in Newcastle. A lot of record companies would say ‘We’re not sending anybody up there’.

There was a show in December ’82 with Iggy Pop, Tygers of Pan Tang and Twisted Sister, who famously signed a record deal after their performance..…Now there is a story that I discovered Twisted Sister in a bar in New York when really the truth of it was I had seen them at Reading Festival. I was just knocked out by them because I love theatrical rock. They were on a label called Metal Blade then, which was run by a friend of Toyah Wilcox. I was interviewing Def Leppard backstage, then spoke to Twisted Sister’s manager and told him I had a gig on a TV music channel in the UK called The Tube. He said if you can gaurantee us a booking we will finance our own trip over.

So yeah they turned up in a van outside The Tube studio direct from New York, played the show, and in the audience was Mick Jones from Foreigner, his manager and UK supremo from Atlantic records Phil Carson. Phil signed them the next day.

Actually I don’t think I was too popular with the Tygers because I had to cut one of their numbers. At the time they had a great album out The Cage, but they were another band that imploded. Incidentally, first time I saw the Tygers was at JB’s club in Dudley. They were supporting Robert Plant and his rock n roll band The Honeydrippers.

Why did you ask the Tygers to cut a song from their set ? Lemmy wanted to jam with Twisted Sister at the end. In fact the guy who directed that show and all of The Tube, Gavin Taylor, who sadly died a few year ago, said his two favourite moments he directed were U2 at Red Rocks and Twisted Sister jamming with Motorhead. And this from the guy who directed Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Miles Davis.

So after that everytime I saw the presenter Paula Yates she used to impersonate my Birmingham accent and go ‘Chris Phipps Twisted Sister’ (laughs). God love her. They sent me a platinum disc as a thanks which I still have, and a manhole cover with the Twisted Sister logo on it.

Also on that programme was Iggy Pop what are your memories from then ? Yeah he was a wild one. No one could find him just prior to his performance, he completely disappeared. I got a call from reception and they said there was something in the reception area spinning round and looking like a mummy. He was bandaged from head to foot (laughs).

Did the show help the careers of other bands ? Fine Young Cannibals got signed, although they already had a publishing deal. The Proclaimers got signed and there was a time when a researcher called Mick Sawyer and some of the Tube crew went to Liverpool to film Dead or Alive. But they weren’t around, then someone in a pub told them to go round the corner to another pub where there is a band rehearsing ‘You might be interested in them’. It was Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

The Tube filmed the original version of ‘Relax’, that was shown and Trevor Horn saw it. He did the deal and re-recorded and produced the single.

Frankie epitomised The Tube and the ‘80s, they got what it was all about. You can never bring The Tube back. It’s of it’s time. Chris Evans on TFI Friday in the ‘90s near enough had it. The set was just like The Tube, so yeah it’s had an incredible influence.

Last year I was on the Antiques Roadshow with memorabilia from The Tube and I thanked the BBC for banning ‘Relax’ because, it not only done Frankie a load of good but The Tube as well (laughs).

Here’s the link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06b19jf

Around the time of going to The Tube I went to a few shows called TX45 filmed in the same studios….Yes TX45 ran parallel to The Tube it was a regional series it didn’t go on the network. Actually a series by Tyne Tees Television called Alright Now got them a commission for The Tube. When I was producing in Birmingham a lot of bands would say ’We’re off to Newcastle to do Alright Now or Razzmatazz or interviewed by Alan Robson’. He had a formidable reputation. Newcastle had a reputation for cutting edge shows really, that’s why it got the commission from Channel Four. Back to TX 45 that was co-presented by Chris Cowey who went on to produce Top of the Pops.

What happened after The Tube ? All the talent from The Tube just dispersed in different directions. Tyne Tees didn’t continue to do any big entertainment. They did attempt to rival Top of the Pops with a show called The Roxy but that fizzled out. Malcolm Gerrie, the main guy went on to form Initial TV in London and made things like The Pepsi Chart Show. Now he’s got a company called Whizzkid producing big award ceremonies things like that. Geoff Wonfor who made the films for The Tube, not the studio stuff, he went on and made The Beatles Anthology. (An interview with Bob Smeaton who worked on the Anthology is on the blog ‘The Boy from Benwell’ Nov.5th 2018)

I went into documentary, feature film making and my bread and butter work for 14 years was working on a series called The Dales Diary, which covered the Yorkshire Dales for Tyne Tees and Yorkshire. What was interesting was that I was dealing with people who had never been in front of the camera before so I went from 5 years of people who couldn’t wait to get in front of the bloody camera to 14 years of people who sometimes weren’t happy to do it. Yeah I had some fantastic times working in Yorkshire.

Have you any stories that stand out from interviewing people ? From 1973-82 I’d done a lot of entertainment stuff at Pebble Mill but I also interviewed a lot of people with some priceless historical value. Like the 100 year old woman who made a living from making nails from the back of her cottage near Worcester. There was a man who helped build a storm anchor for the Titanic. I’ve kept all them interviews and in fact the storm anchor one went for research to the director James Cameron when he was making the film Titanic. So I was no stranger to going to people who just wanted to get on, particularly the farming community who didn’t want people buzzing around with cameras.

Did you work on any other music programmes ? I’m the sort of person who will come across something and say that will make a fantastic programme. I worked on a series for Dutch TV, it was like your Classic Albums series but for singles. Incredible programme to work on, it was called Single Luck. It took me all over America tracking down songwriters, producers, and for one song the backing singers were Ashford and Simpson.

Another programme was for the song ‘Blue Moon’ it profiled The Marceles, who came out of Pittsburg. The song sold I don’t know how many millions and some of them are living on the breadline you know. They got nothing, old story isn’t it.

Well I thought how do I find these people who are living in Pittsburg ? One of the singers was called Cornelius Harp. There might not be too many Harps in the phone book I’ll try that. The one I called said ‘No I’m not Cornelius Harp, but he’s my cousin, here’s his number’. The guy who was managing them had a restaurant called Blue Moon. The producer was in California and came over to Pittsburg to re-produce the song. So yeah found all of them and suddenly you have a 30 minute programme.

What have you been working on lately ? After releasing the book ‘Forget Carter’ in 2016 which was the first comprehensive guide to North East TV and film on screen, I’ve just released another book ‘Namedropper’ full of anecdotes and stories of my time in the entertainment world. I’ve hosted quite a few talks including the evenings with Roger Daltrey and Tony Iommi at the Whitley Bay Film Festival. Currently I’m still working as freelance producer/director based in North East specialising in entertainment and music for network and regional.

Chris is appearing at Newcastle’s Waterstones to sign his latest book ‘Namedropper’ on Saturday August 17th at 12 noon.

 Interview by Gary Alikivi August 2019.

One thought on “NAMEDROPPER – in conversation with freelance author/TV producer Chris Phipps

  1. Great Interview Chris – I remember The Tube & Malcom Gerry ,Andrea/Geoff Wonfor – as I was in on the Animated Title for it..you have worked with and HELPED so many others.. (Loved the Yorkshire bit).keep up the amazing work kidda.

    Liked by 2 people

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