A night at Fillmore East, 1970
You could fill Shea Stadium, never mind the Fillmore East, with all the people who claim they travelled from London to New York City by Boeing 707 and Cadillac motorcade to see Brinsley Schwarz on April 5, 1970. Fifty years later, it remains one of the most hilariously disreputable hypes in the history of popular music.
A bunch of chancers calling themselves Famepushers Ltd took an unknown group from Tunbridge Wells called Brinsley Schwarz (formerly known as Kippington Lodge), talked Bill Graham into giving them a support slot at the Fillmore East, and booked an Aer Lingus jet to carry 100-plus assorted media types — a mix of Fleet Street, music paper and underground press — and scenemakers (such as Jenny Fabian and Johnny Byrne, co-authors of the recently published roman-à-clef Groupie), to go and hear them.
Famously, everything went wrong. Scheduled to leave Heathrow at 10.30am and arrive at JFK at four in the afternoon, which would have given plenty of time to get to the gig, the 707 was three and a half hours late leaving London and made an emergency landing at Shannon, with no fluid in the Boeing’s braking system. I’ve never forgotten looking out of the window and seeing Irish fire engines and other emergency vehicles racing along the grass beside the runway as our pilot used every yard of tarmac and every pound of reverse thrust to bring us to a halt. Rectifying the problem took some time, and the flight didn’t touch down at its intended destination until 7pm. The band were due on stage at 8.
Somehow we were hustled through immigration without needing to show anything. We were taken by bus to the car park of the First National City Bank building on the periphery of the airport, where 25 black Cadillacs supplied by a company called Head Limousines were waiting in the dusk, along with their uniformed drivers and a police motorcycle escort, for a hectic dash that gave me my first glimpse of the Manhattan skyline on the way into the neon twilight of the city.
It was dark when the limos dropped us at the theatre’s entrance on 2nd Avenue, a block east of the Bowery. We rushed in and found some seats just as the Brinsleys took the stage. None of us — not Pete Frame from ZigZag, not Charlie Gillett from Record Mirror, not Geoffrey Cannon from the Guardian, not Jeremy Deedes of the Evening Standard, not Richard Neville from Oz, not Jonathon Green from Friends, not Keith Altham from the NME, not Mark Williams from IT, not Jonathan Demme, the London correspondent of Fusion, not the five winners of a Melody Maker competition and their partners, not my MM colleague Royston Eldridge and certainly not me — had prior knowledge of a note of their music. But, sadly, we were unanimous: their subdued country-rock was best described as nondescript. And, anxious as we all were not to be seen to have been seduced by the hype and the free trip, barely any of us had a kind word to say about them in print afterwards.
Some members of the trip, feeling the effects of the free booze and other stimulants taken on what had turned out to be a 15-hour journey, left immediately after the Brinsleys’ set to check in at the party’s designated midtown hotel — the Royal Manhattan on 8th Avenue — and find other ways of spending Saturday night in the Apple. Those of us who stayed were rewarded by an inspired performance from Van Morrison, featuring the band and mostly the songs from the recently released Moondance, and a pretty good one from Quicksilver Messenger Service, to whom Dino Valenti (the writer of “Get Together”) had recently been added as lead singer, delivering memorable versions of “What About Me” and “Fresh Air”. At which point we all headed off for a few hours’ sleep. All except Pete Frame, bless him, who stuck around for the midnight show and reported the next day that the Brinsleys’ second set was much more relaxed and enjoyable.
There was supposed to be a press conference with the band at the hotel the following morning. I remember people standing around drinking coffee, all vaguely embarrassed by what had transpired the night before. Charlie Gillett delivered the proofs of The Sound of the City, which he had been correcting on the flight over, to his US publisher and invited me to go downtown with him to the apartment of Robert Christgau, the self-styled dean of American rock critics, where we spent an hour or so. After that we went to Sam Goody’s, where I picked up two copies of the original US issue of The Velvet Underground and Nico, with unpeeled bananas, from a large pile in the cut-out section at just 99 cents apiece. And then we were taken to the airport for a comparatively uneventful overnight flight home, arriving in a rainy London at the end of an adventure destined to enter the annals of rock infamy. While the rest of us resumed our normal lives, it would take the Brinsleys a long time to recover from their sudden notoriety.
* The photograph shows (from left) keyboardist Bob Andrews, drummer Billy Rankin, singer/bassist Nick Lowe and guitarist Brinsley Schwarz. For an extensively researched look at the business background to the affair, I recommend the relevant chapters of Will Birch’s highly entertaining history of pub rock, No Sleep Till Canvey Island (Virgin Books, 2000), and the same author’s Nick Lowe biography, Cruel to Be Kind (Constable, 2019). Part of Van Morrison’s set that night turned up on YouTube a few years ago; it has since vanished, alas.