Banging his own drum

Once shunned as a publisher of top-shelf magazines, Richard Desmond is now a successful press baron and friend of the Prime Minister. He's also a front-runner in the race to buy The Daily Telegraph. But what he really wants, he tells Sholto Byrnes, is to make music. Loud music...
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Ludgate House, 10am. The news that Lord Black of Crossharbour may have to sell his Telegraph titles has the media in a frenzy. Will they be bought by Richard Desmond, owner of the Daily Express and Sunday Express, the Daily Star, OK! magazine and a clutch of publications containing even more column inches of bare female flesh than The Daily Telegraph?

The papers are certainly on his mind. Although I am offered a seat in his fourth-floor office overlooking the Thames, the Express proprietor, exuding adrenalin, insists on remaining on his feet. "I'm in a pacing mood," he says, wearing out the carpet between his desk and the opulent white sofas. Mischievously, he mentions that he might be getting to know the Berry family (former owners of the Telegraph) rather better, and picks up on a comment attributed to Conrad Black's father in the morning papers.

Desmond, however, has summoned me to talk about a rather more important subject - drums. Interviewers invariably mention the kit that greets the eye immediately on entering the office of the 52-year-old media magnate, sometimes offering their inexpert opinion on his competence with the sticks. The drums' presence is often treated as a sign of Desmond's eccentricity, on a par with the duck hooter and bell he uses to signify approval or disapproval in meetings. In the same vein, his recent appearance behind the kit at a gig in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust at Ronnie Scott's, where fellow band members included Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey of The Who and Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, could be dismissed by doubters as a rich man's indulgence.

But they would be very wrong to do so, as anyone who hears the live recording made that night would have to agree. Shortly after I arrive, Desmond leaves his office to find the CD and plays two tracks, "The Letter" and "My Generation", on the stereo. He keeps time well, the accented tom beats are entirely of the period, and the fills and rolls across the kit are impressive. "My Generation" ends with a cymbal crash and screams from the audience; it sounds like a proper rock gig.

This, though, should not come as any surprise. Before newspapers and magazines, music was Desmond's first love, and a profession in which he shared bills with many famous names of the time.

"Roger [Daltrey] is convinced that if he hadn't found music he'd have been a gangster," Desmond says. "He's convinced that music took him out of Acton and gave him something to focus on." For Desmond, it was an alternative to the torments of formal education a few miles away in north London. "I hated school with a passion. I couldn't understand why I was learning this stuff," says the man tipped to become the owner of Britain's biggest-selling quality newspaper. "Why learn what the capital of Botswana is? Who cares?"

At 14 he bought a drum kit that had been rejected as a bar mitzvah present by a schoolmate, and started working in the cloakroom of a club in Manor House where he heard Georgie Fame, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Jimi Hendrix and Cream. "Apparently I'd always bashed away on biscuit tins," he recalls, "but the thing that did it was hearing Mayall's band on a hot summer's night. There were about 30 people in a room that held 300, and you could smell the colour slide on the spotlight burning. Then I heard Clapton play. I remember standing there grabbing the radiator and thinking, 'Fuck, this is it. I've found it.'"

A friendly drummer taught the young Desmond paradiddle patterns during intervals and encouraged him to take lessons, which he paid for by taking on a Saturday job at Woolworths. One day the Tube was delayed and he turned up to find his teacher still demanding payment for the missed lesson. Thirty-five years later, Desmond's famed temper ignites at the memory. "I said, 'Do you realise, pal, what I've gone through to get this?'" His tone makes one think the teacher was quite wise to have agreed to give the lesson later. "I was so intense, as focused then on playing the drums as I am on running this business now. If one tom was a quarter of an inch out it was the end of the world."

Before long, armed with a kit that had belonged to Bill Bruford of Yes (which Desmond still has today), he was out on the scene. "In the 1960s you played with every band; lots of blues bands, jazz bands, Motown bands." It was connections forged then that led to Daltrey approaching Desmond about an evening in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust. "Last time I'd seen Roger was when I was about 19 and we'd gone out and got pissed after he played at the Regal in Edmonton, which is now a Safeway, and we went off to the Playboy Club. He came to my office here and said, 'Why don't we do a gig?' I said, 'I last did a paid gig 30 years ago.'" After his secretary urged him to accept, Desmond agreed. "I said, 'OK, give me a date.' Next thing I know, they've started talking about lighting and ticket sales, and I am crapping myself."

Others recruited included Gary Moore from Thin Lizzy, Gary Brooker from Procol Harum, the pianist Zoot Money, and Greg Lake, whom Desmond bumped into at a wedding. The four days of rehearsal began with "everyone being Mr Macho". Desmond initially found it difficult to take to Gary Moore. "He has a way about him. Then I said to him, 'Do you remember when we supported you in Folkestone - was it the Eastcliffe Hall?' And all of a sudden we had a conversation going."

I tell Desmond that an old acquaintance from his days running music magazines in the 1970s remembers him being a good drummer. "That gives me as big a kick as anything," he says, proud of the effort he put into his craft before opting for publishing instead. He tells how he met two fellow drummers, Queen's Roger Taylor and Nick Mason of Pink Floyd, for a drink and talked about how they were drawn into playing. "Mason was saying, 'No, I didn't have lessons, it just took off.' I said, 'What about you, Roger?' 'No.' I realised that out of the three I was the one who really loves drums. Nick loves Ferraris, Roger loves the lifestyle, the big house. But I love drums."

There's certainly something very single-minded about his approach to the instrument, as shown by the way he prepared for the Ronnie Scott's gig. "You've got to get your hands back in, otherwise they blister. So from April I put in at least two hours, maybe four hours, every weekend with the drums. Then every night I'd get home at 9pm and play them for an hour. I don't think people realise just what goes into playing."

It paid off. The day after the gig he was exultant; then he sank into a depression for two days, worried about how he had played. "Then they gave me the CD, and I thought, 'Actually, that's OK. I didn't fuck it up.' I've proved that I was the world's greatest drummer," he adds with endearing grandiloquence, "which is why I'm now the world's greatest publisher."

Staff at the Telegraph might care to note Desmond's connection between the two disciplines, as the man who could end up overseeing their futures draws interesting parallels. Publishing, Desmond says, should be fun. "I'm not like some others in the business not so far away from here - first name beginning with Clive, last name beginning with Hollick. Running newspapers is the most fantastic fun you could have. But it's just the same as a band. Your editor is your lead guitarist, your bass player is your number two, you've got the circulation manager at the keyboard, and you're sitting there drumming, trying to add passion and sparkle and keeping time."

Media observers pondering Desmond's suitability as the proprietor of another stable of newspapers gleefully seize on his ownership of such titles as The Very Best of Mega Boobs, Asian Babes and 60 Plus, and his legendarily forceful management style. These factors, however, did not stand in the way of his acquiring the Express group for £125m three years ago; a year later he had paid back the £97m the banks loaned him to buy the papers. Telegraph employees may shiver at the prospect, but in Desmond they would have a proprietor who is a welcome visitor to Downing Street, and the focus he brought to his drumming might not be bad for the finances either.

Desmond thinks his experience working with musicians (as a drummer and as the publisher of International Musician, which he no longer owns) was helpful when he started OK! "We were able to succeed because we understood how to deal with artists. Elton and all these guys, we know them. Phil Collins, for instance, apart from the fact that he used to support us on gigs, used to be in our ads saying, 'Subscribe to International Musician'."

Lest anyone labour under the misapprehension that making music together means there is no possibility of discord, Desmond points out the value of the learning curve. "Playing drums is running a business. I suggest people forget about getting MBAs - get some lessons, get out on the road, get the money out of a promoter when he doesn't want to pay you. What better training could you have than to be 15 or 16, you've driven to Norwich, you're stuck in the back of a van with equipment that's going to kill you if the driver goes too fast, and then the bloke doesn't pay you and you're stuck in Norwich? Which has happened to us all." What do you do then? Pay attention, dear hearts of the Telegraph leader office: "You pin the guy against the wall and you get your fiver out of him. You couldn't have a better training than that."

The Express proprietor has a meeting at 11am, an important one that appears to concern the Telegraph (whatever happens, Desmond owns 50 per cent of the printing works the two groups share and is entitled to buy the other half if the papers' ownership changes), but the butler who deposits the banana for his elevenses has already been and gone.

Still we talk. His public relations adviser, Brian MacLaurin, practically has to drag him away from our discussion about the merits of Zildjian cymbals versus those made by Paiste, or Ludwig versus Yamaha kits. Ever the businessman, though, he has just one worry at the end of the interview. "I hope this hasn't made me seem soft," he says. Soft, no. A more rounded human being and highly entertaining company, I think, yes.