Harley Young chats with the godfather of modern music PR ahead of his event at John Rylands Library

On Thursday 11 July, Alan Edwards, founder and CEO of PR firm The Outside Organisation, will take to John Rylands Research Institute and Library for an ‘In Conversation’ event chaired by author, founder of City Life magazine and ex-MEN diary editor Andy Spinoza. 

The event will see Alan discuss his book ‘I Was There: Dispatches from a Life in Rock and Roll’, highlighting his 45-year career which has seen him work with some of the greatest names in music including David Bowie, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Sir Paul McCartney and many other household favourites. 

Having represented a stellar list of clients over the years, Alan will share first-hand accounts of what it's like to work with some of the biggest music stars on the planet - plenty of whom are from in and around our wonderful Greater Manchester such as Johnny Marr, New Order and The Buzzcocks. 

Ahead of the event, I caught up with Alan to talk about all things music, Manchester and marketing.

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Alan Edwards Image: Dave Hogan

How did you get into music PR? Has it always been a passion? 

I think I knew it was the path I wanted to go down, back when I was a kid, because I was really into reading. I used to get library books and read all these adventure books. I thought I was going to join the Merchant Navy and see the world, but I ended up doing that another way. 

I was a natural communicator. Even as a five year old I talked to everybody. Then, I became really excited and obsessed with music so was made for PR although I didn’t know it yet.

I was at a The Who gig in Bingley in Staffordshire, and a PR, a guy called Keith Altham, who represented everybody from Woodstock, you know, everyone you think of, The Stones, The Moody Blues, Status Quo, The Who; he said to me ‘What did you think of this gig?’ And, although I'm a big The Who fan, I thought it wasn't their best - the acoustics were bad and so on. 

Anyway, afterwards, he said ‘Would you like a job in PR?’ and I said ‘Well, I don't know.’ There was a bit dodging, ducking and diving, but on the other hand, I was struggling to pay my rent - which was four pounds a week, in Islington in North London - so I thought I'll do PR for a month or so and it'll sort of help stabilise things. 

So I took the job, and here I am, half a century later, still doing it. 

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Alan on the road with Motorhead Image taken from Alan Edwards' book 'I Was There: Dispatches from a Life in Rock and Roll’

You’ve spent some time on the road with celebrities most could only dream of meeting. Who was the most influential?

For me, it's really got to be David Bowie. Partly because I spent nearly 40 years working for him and also he's one of the greatest British artists ever, I think, by a mile. But apart from his great music and everything, he was a gentleman and a decent man who was great to work for. 

I learned an incredible amount from him about the media, about marketing, but also books. We had this great relationship based on books. He was always recommending different writers to me and he’d say ‘Oh, you've got to read this one, read that one'. and then I would go out on the tour and take books that I liked and then I'd take another one out to him. He recommended to me Peter Ackroyd, who wrote some incredible historical books, Hanif Kureishi, you know, all different writers. 

He was very down-to-earth in a way and also very funny. People didn't know that. I remember we came up to Manchester and Mark & Lard were doing a show for Radio One

We got the train up from Euston and it was just him, me and Julian from my office. No bodyguards, no entourage or whatever. We got on the normal train and a couple of people did a double take but they seemed to think ‘Well, it can’t be David Bowie as they were jammed in their normal seats'’

We went to the radio station and did the interview and it was all good. Then afterwards, because he was in the mood, he said ‘Would you mind if I did the traffic report?’ and he did. All these things about pile ups on the intersection and different roads being closed. Not one person recognised that it was David. But he did it for the rest of the show, because he was just like that. I learned a lot from him, like how you can be really successful but still be a self-effacing and modest person. He really was a wonderful mentor on many, many different levels.

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Alan and David Bowie Image taken from Alan Edwards' book 'I Was There: Dispatches from a Life in Rock and Roll’

You’ve worked with some of the biggest names to come out of Manchester. Which Manchester artists and celebrities have you enjoyed working with the most and why?

That’s quite a hard one to answer.  I started out working for the Buzzcocks, which was fantastic. They were playing the Electric Circus with bands like Magazine back in the really, really early days. I would come up to Manchester from London with journalists like Tony Parsons and watch them. 

They were electric. They were doing something that was a completely different sound to what was happening in London. 

I worked with New Order for a while, just after Peter [Hook] left the band and they came back with a really, really good record - ‘Music Complete’. But I got to know Bernard best - he's a great, insightful, interesting man, so I've enjoyed spending time with him a lot.

And I've also, over the years, got to know Johnny Marr and his lovely wife Angie very well through a funny sequence of events. His daughter, Sonny Marr, came to do some work for me. Anyway, we all ended up great friends. 

Then there’s people you wouldn’t typically associate with Manchester, Billy Duffy (who was from Hulme) of The Cult for example. They feature quite a lot in my book, mainly for their incredible rock and roll stories, like the time they stayed at the Holiday Inn in Swiss Cottage and their singer Ian Asprey had been painting some stuff on the walls. 

Someone complained and the manager was sent up. This very earnest young manager in a suit turns up and he’s asking what’s been going on. Meanwhile one of the tour managers had nipped over the road and bought a tin of paint to repaint the walls so it looks all cleanly white as if nothing’s happened. 

‘Course, the manager leans against the wall, turns to look in the mirror and all the back of his jacket is white. He goes absolutely spare. We were banned from Holiday Inns thereafter. 

Hang on.

I've missed a very famous person connected to Manchester…David Beckham, who I represented as a PR very much during the early years when he was at Manchester United.

I had this meeting with him where he'd only just broken into the first team and I went round to his place. It was still somewhere that had an electricity meter. He’d borrowed a coin off me to put money in the meter to get the lights on. He was making me dinner and we couldn’t find an opener for the can of beans. 

It was a cold night and the snow was swirling outside. I’m wondering what time I can get my train back from Piccadilly and then he starts talking about his vision for football and it's frankly mind-blowing. 

He talks about how he hates racism in football, about misogyny, about how big soccer is going to be in America, and how he’s a strong advocate for women’s soccer. I mean, it was just incredible. I’d worked with some other players before and normally they were asking how they could get a sponsorship with a car. 

David was on another level. I remember scribbling my notes down on a scrap of paper I had, my train ticket or something, thinking ‘this is extraordinary’. 

How would you describe the music scene now versus 45 years ago?

I try not to be too nostalgic, but 45 years ago I would go and see great new bands almost every night of the week, paying £1.50 or something. I saw Talking Heads playing in a bar in Covent Garden. You could just go and see incredible live music all the time for very good money. 

But the downside of that was sometimes the gigs would be dreadful, it'd be a mess, it wouldn't be organised - you'd get the excitement, but not the organisation. Now, of course, you go to a big show and the security, the catering, the toilets, everything's absolutely brilliant. 

It's quite hard to sort of compare it, isn't it? I mean, now we're moving beyond that anyway, into a world where we're seeing holograms like Abba.  We may be seeing Hendrix at an arena with backing vocals from Frank Sinatra and Keith Moon on drums, you know. All of that is coming to be, isn't it?

I think if you love music, it just evolves. There's always good new talent around, from Yungblud to Little Simz. There’s always something you hear and you go ‘Oh my God, that's totally innovative'.  

Why did you choose John Rylands Library as the location for your upcoming event? 

It’s a beautiful venue. I had an introduction to it from Jon Savage a while back.  I have a big archive of about 5,000 pieces that I've been collecting over the years; everything from photographs, tour passes, all kinds of stuff. Anyway, I spent a day hanging around the museum and I couldn't believe it. It’s like a treasure trove from Harry Potter. 

They let me into the basement, and there were these Bibles from 500 years ago, ancient manuscripts, you know. I loved it because it was sort of a bit ramshackle and it was quite magical. And then, you have the building itself - that wonderful Gothic design. I hadn't been to a library or museum like that and I sort of fell in love with it on the spot, so it's quite special for me to come and do this.

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John Rylands Library

What advice would you give to a young person looking to start a career in music or music PR?

To be really good at it, or any job for that matter, I’d say you’ve got to live it. It’s not a nine-to-five job.

Ideas are still the core of everything. You get them at all times and places. People say ‘Oh, let's have a creative meeting at 9 o'clock’. It doesn’t work like that. Ideas come to you at all times of the day. 

I wake up surrounded by Post-It notes that I’ve jotted down in the middle of the night. Even though they can be a little illegible, they’re really good ideas that I could’ve sat down all day and never had. You’ve got to be switched on. Don’t wait until you’ve got off the bus and think ‘I’ll deal with that later.’, write it down there and then. 

Another thing is that you’ve got to be a storyteller with this kind of job. Don’t get stuck in the corporate world of staying in your lane and staying on brand because that’s the way to be a PA, not a PR. With PR, you have to think freely.

Tickets for Alan's free event at John Rylands Library on Thursday are still available and can be booked here.

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