Rock’s Best Kept Secret: Tony King on Life with John Lennon, Elton John and Freddie Mercury | Music

EITHEROn the wall of Tony King’s flat in North London is a beautiful print of Marilyn Monroe signed by Andy Warhol. There’s another inscription on the back, in a scribble instantly familiar to anyone with even a cursory acquaintance with the Beatles: “To Tony with love, from one of your troubles, with love John.”

An embarrassed Lennon gave it to him after a particularly raucous night in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s: drunk and furious after an altercation with Phil Spector during the recording of what became his Rock ‘n’ Roll album. 1975, Lennon had destroyed the house where he was staying. King, who was essentially running it at the time, arrived to find smashed windows, smashed gold records, and the singer trying to pull a palm tree out of the ground. He intervened and ended up pinning Lennon to the ground: “I never knew you were that strong, darling,” Lennon joked.

The whole Warhol print thing is very Tony King. It’s a remarkable little piece of history, with an incredible story attached to it, but discreetly hidden: you have to remove the image from the wall and turn it over to discover the whole story. Now over 80, King might be the best-kept secret in rock history: a Zelig-like figure whose career in the music industry connects the Beatles and Rolling Stones to Elton John, Freddie Mercury and the disco zenith in the late 1970s. He was there when the Beatles recorded All You Need Is Love and met the Maharishi (he was not impressed with the latter). He spent part of the 1960s trying to work for Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham from a flat that several members of the band used as a resting place. He was once berated by Keith Richards for smoking a joint with the guitarist’s then-partner: as unbelievable as it may seem now, Richards initially disapproved of drugs.

King in his London apartment, with his Warhol print visible in the background
King in his London flat. Photography: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

A gay man before the 1967 Sexual Offenses Act decriminalized homosexuality – “I didn’t know any other way, to be honest” – it was King who encouraged his friend Freddie Mercury to tell his partner, Mary Austin, that he was gay. . Meanwhile, King’s brazen flamboyance had a profound effect on Elton John, who, when they first met, was a struggling singer-songwriter given to dressing down: “Tony would have turned heads in the middle of a Martian invasion.” John later recalled. “He wanted to be this elegant, exotic and scandalous.”

In the late 1970s, he was on the dance floors of legendary New York clubs: Paradise Garage, 12 West, Studio 54, working on what he calls “homo promo”: in the disco age, record labels they were looking for men who understood music. queer roots to promote new releases to DJs. In the 1980s and 1990s, he toured the world with the Rolling Stones and worked as artistic director for Elton John. By anyone’s standards, his has been a full life. Unsurprisingly, King has stories for miles, but his name rarely appears in pop culture history books. “I’ve always been a little under the radar,” he says. “To be honest with you, I think it’s quite elegant to be in the background, it’s a good place to position yourself. So I’ve always favored that role, staying a little low-key and hopefully having a little bit of integrity in what I do.”

It took decades of cajoling his friends into getting King to write his memoirs, a task he finally began during lockdown. The resulting book, The Tastemaker, is fantastic: a funny, moving and incredibly charming saga that sees him graduate from an Elvis-obsessed teenager in Sussex to a job at the Decca record label and from there into the eye of the 1960s storm. It all seems to happen so fast: one minute King is working in a record shop in Worthing, the next he’s escorting the Ronettes around London and jumping out of a cab at Roy Orbison’s behest to stop a passing car, the singer has decided . he wants to buy. “You fly by the seat of your pants, don’t you?” he says. “I always loved show business, so it seemed natural to me: it was a world that I had always liked.”

Tony King (standing third from left) with the Ronettes, Phil Spector (seated) and George Harrison in 1964
Tony King (standing third from left) with the Ronettes, Phil Spector (seated) and George Harrison in 1964. Photography: From the author’s collection.

The other amazing thing about his story is how much pop stars seem to like him and trust him. He befriended the Beatles after providing them with singles by American R&B artists they loved. After switching jobs to work with Oldham, who lured King in by playing the Stones’ next single, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, he struck up a lifelong friendship with Charlie Watts. This after Watts’ initial assessment that he “had never seen anyone as gay as that new guy in the office”.

“I guess I was always very direct, a direct speaker,” says King. “I was not an artist but I understood artists, I was in their field. I think he had an innate understanding of what artists needed, and he didn’t tolerate bullshit.”

To that end, he turned down the Beatles when they asked him to work at the newly formed Apple Records: “I thought it was run by a bunch of cowboys, good cowboys, but they weren’t record company people. It was too ethereal for me.” He later changed his mind when Ringo Starr assured him that the company had become “much more organized.” Newly installed as head of A&R, he discovered that organized was a relative term. “It was so crazy, Apple,” he says. “The poor guy from the office had to do Ringo’s shopping every Friday. He would have all these toilet paper rolls stacked in the hallway while they counted them, making sure they had the correct number for Ringo. But the crazy side of it was charming. We had an Apple dart team and we would challenge different record companies. Keith Moon showed up wanting to play, but he was so drunk the guys in the office had to hold him up so he could throw a dart.”

Eventually, King moved to Los Angeles to work with Lennon, where her duties included dressing up as Queen for a television commercial promoting the Mind Games album. Lennon was in the middle of his “lost weekend,” a notoriously drunk sojourn when he temporarily parted ways with Yoko Ono. In King’s narration, it was not as tumultuous as is often depicted; as he points out, it was an era when Lennon made a number 1 album, Walls and Bridges. But there was certainly an element of chaos: King had to drag Lennon out of a Frankie Valli performance after he began loudly suggesting that the Four Seasons frontman should “show us your dick”; he also rescued Lennon from a bathroom stall where he was doing cocaine with David Bowie. But, for the most part, he says, Lennon was a delight. “I met him in the 1960s and he could be very cutting. I was intimidated by him. I went to Los Angeles expecting this sharp-tongued Liverpudlian, and instead found this really soft and vulnerable man. I could not believe it.

Meanwhile, Ono emerges from The Tastemaker as an absolute hoot, a hilarious eccentric who encourages King to take magic mushrooms before a business meeting with a music industry executive. “Oh my gosh, I left in the middle of lunch,” he laughs. “I was flying. And Yoko leans across the table and says “– her voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper – ‘Well, isn’t it?’”

The book is packed with vivid and moving descriptions of Los Angeles and New York in the 1970s, backstage dispatches from the Rolling Stones mega-tours, and an incredibly stellar supporting cast: everyone from Kenny Everett to Joni Mitchell to Donald Trump, who is threatening to kidnap a Stones, held a press conference at his casino, prompting the band’s roadies to prepare “with screwdrivers, hammers and whatever” to stop him.

King with Freddie Mercury in 1981
‘Indomitable Spirit’… King with Freddie Mercury in 1981. Photography: Courtesy of Tony King

However, the most powerful part of the book has nothing to do with the music. King’s depiction of life and death in New York during the AIDS epidemic makes for shocking and haunting reading: the dying friend he sees in the hospital, looking disheveled because the nurses are so terrified of contracting the disease that they refuse to cut your hair or nails; another sick friend, who collapses in King’s kitchen, sobbing because he doesn’t want to die. “He literally lived at Ground Zero. He could be seen on the streets of Greenwich Village, people who were dying. You could tell by the color of their skin, if they were helping them along the way, if they had a cane: that is someone who is dying. You were surrounded by death. It’s impossible to explain to people how devastating he was, and the fear and rejection that accompanied it.”

Of all the people he knew who died, he says Freddie Mercury was the bravest. “Very brave. Shopping all the way, buying paintings at Christie’s auctions. I used to lie on the bed next to him and hold his hand, which was stone cold, like a bone. They would bring him the paintings I had bought them and put them on the foot of the bed for me to look at. I said, ‘Fred, why are you doing this?’ And he said, ‘What else do I have to do? I can’t go out, I can’t get out of bed, but at least I can go shopping. He had this wonderful, indomitable spirit.’

When King discovered that he himself had contracted HIV, medications were available that meant the disease was no longer a death sentence. However, he ended up in rehabilitation after a nervous breakdown that seems to have been caused by seeing so many friends die: “I had just been in so much pain. Survivor’s Guilt.”

He recovered and ended his career working with Elton John, overseeing his album artwork and working on the staging of his Las Vegas show and his ongoing farewell tour. Now retired, he says writing The Tastemaker was a strange experience, tinged with sadness and regret: many of the characters are gone; ends with the death of Charlie Watts. On the other hand, King accomplished what he set out to do.

“When I was a teenager I knew I would never be a star, but I loved being with the stars, the glamor of it all. I liked working for famous people and helping them achieve the things they set out to do. After one of the Rolling Stones tours, I got a card from Mick that simply said, ‘Thank you for doing well.’

He smiles. “That summed it up for me: keep it good.”

Tony King’s The Tastemaker will be published by Faber & Faber on February 2, £20. To order a copy for £17.40 and help support The Guardian, visit guardianbookshop.com. A shipping charge may apply.

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