Alan Edwards interview: Publicist who worked with David Bowie on the often maligned world of pop PR

Edwards is publicist for The Who and Blondie, and past clients include the Rolling Stones, the Stranglers and the Spice Girls

On the wall is a large self-portrait drawn by a red-haired David Bowie in 1998. On the floor, atop a stack of records, is a vinyl copy of the great musician’s Station to Station album. And on the coffee table is a pile of newspapers and magazines whose covers lament his passing and celebrate his legacy.

Alan Edwards, 60, steps out of his office on to a balcony overlooking the BT Tower in central London, to reflect on the complexities of his lot as a master music publicist. Clearly he still feels the loss of an artist he represented for more than 30 years, a man he describes as “brilliant, rational, charming and decent”. 

The photographs on the bookcases and the diverse record collection are clues to the extraordinaryy connections that Edwards has forged with the music of the past 40 years. He is the publicist for The Who and Blondie, and past clients include the Rolling Stones, the Stranglers, Prince and the Spice Girls.

For all the showbiz glamour, his is a job based on close personal relationships and he also laments the recent passing of Motorhead’s Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister, who he worked with for seven years. Amy Winehouse and Michael Jackson were clients too.

He has agreed to speak to The Independent on Sunday in relation to the television series Music Moguls, the final part of which he presents on Friday on BBC4. The programme delves into the strange dependency of musical artistry on the often maligned practice of public relations.

“PR is the unseen hand behind the most successful musical acts in the world,” says Edwards at the top of the programme, discussing Jimi Hendrix’s burning of his guitar on stage in 1967.

“When Jimi set fire to his guitar it looked like a spontaneous act by a great performer but it wasn’t. This was a PR stunt, pure and simple, and it broke Jimi in America.” The ruse was thought up by pioneering rock publicist Keith Altham, who became Edwards’ mentor after persuading the young writer for music paper Sounds to switch to PR.

Bowie's UK number ones

Edwards had a little-seen but central role in creating the legend of punk. In the BBC4 documentary, Hugh Cornwell, original singer with the Stranglers, recalls how Edwards repositioned the group by “manufacturing stories” which demonstrated a punk attitude. “There was definitely an open door, which Alan saw, and the door said ‘Come in here if you are punk’.” Bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel says “Alan encouraged us to be provocative”. Edwards admits that he would often “add a nought to what happened”.

Today he has no regrets that his myths may have become accepted truths. The night before we met he attended Punk London, a celebration of that movement’s endurance. “When it began there were 200 people involved. Forty years on, the Mayor of London is leading a campaign to celebrate it,” he said. “The drive underneath is tourism – it’s part of the reason why people come to London. [Pistols punk anthem] ‘God Save The Queen’ has become God Save the Sex Pistols.”

He said similar tactics are continually deployed in politics. “Everyone’s talking about Donald Trump, I’m sure he has a team of publicists fanning the flames.” 

Punk “wasn’t completely manufactured”, he said. “Central London in those days felt quite Dickensian, it was dark, you could hear bombs going off and it felt as if society was under threat. Some of those ingredients are there now.”

He rates punk impresario Malcolm McLaren as a “PR genius”. At an early Sex Pistols gig, Edwards recalled McLaren “at the back doing a whirling dervish thing, ‘accidentally’ bumping into people and spilling their pints of beer”. The result – “a Laurel and Hardy-scale brawl with half the Nashville punching each other and no one knowing who started it” – made headlines in the music press.

David Bowie, for whom Edwards began working in 1982, was more sophisticated in his marketing. “He knew more about the job than I did, he had such a feel for what was going on.” Edwards worked the Serious Moonlight tour in 1983, when Bowie filled vast arenas worldwide. “He had gone from being the coolest cult act in the world to the biggest superstar in the world.” In tune with Bowie’s tastes, the publicist had to become expert in art PR and in newer genres, such as drum and bass.

By the release of The Next Day in 2013 Bowie had determined on a strategy of anti-hype. “I had a meeting with him in New York and he played me this album, which was great. Then he said ‘I want to put it out on Tuesday’,” Edwards recalled. The release, coinciding with the artist’s 66th birthday, was Bowie’s first in 10 years.

Edwards had to alert the media without disclosing details of the story or offering Bowie up for interview. A press release was sent at 5.30am, the Today programme on Radio 4 played the single “Where Are We Now?” in full, and the song went on immediate sale on iTunes. 

The public, jaded by the usual fanfare of record launches, embraced Bowie’s approach of allowing the music to be treated on its merits. “It was a ground-breaking campaign,” said Edwards. 

“At the end of the day it was his master plan, his concept. That’s the confidence of a great artist.” 

Edwards founded his own PR business in 1977 with £150 and a single telephone in a former squat in the yet-to-be-gentrified Covent Garden. He has a long and reciprocal relationship with the red-top press, and recently hired former Sun editor Dominic Mohan as CEO of his Outside Organisation empire.

The man who represented David and Victoria Beckham for seven years was inevitably the target of phone-hacking, and at one point he had his office scanned for bugs. “I was always taught that if you are in a cab the driver might be listening, and be careful in a restaurant because the waiters are eaves-dropping. I understood from day one that journalists would do all sorts of things to get stories. I didn’t feel sanctimonious about it,” he said. “Popular journalism is rough and tumble.”

Last year, he staged his own show at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, called “Always Print the Myth: PR and the Modern Age”. Among the contributors were Bob Geldof and Alastair Campbell. 

“One of the reasons I did that was that I wanted to celebrate journalism and PR. I got sick of the negativity,” he said. “This is part of popular culture and I wanted it to be looked at a bit more positively.”

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