Tony Tyler

Author of 'The Tolkien Companion' and editor on the 'NME' who gave Julie Burchill her first job


James Edward Anthony Tyler, writer and editor: born Bristol 31 October 1943; twice married; died Hastings, East Sussex 28 October 2006.

In his time on the New Musical Express, Tony Tyler was one of those rare, inspirational editors who can see every element of a story in a one-sentence description, and commission it on the spot: lengthy lunches discussing the piece held no interest for such a meteoric, extraordinarily intelligent and encouraging mind. Besides, only half of his teeming brain was focused on the job, as Tyler feverishly moonlighted at home on The Tolkien Companion, published in 1976 under the name of J.E.A. Tyler, which intermittently funded him for the rest of his life.

Always hilariously funny in his writing, as a human being and in his editorial roles on the increasingly surreal NME in the mid-1970s, he arrived with a romantic past. "He was the only journalist on the music press who had carried a weapon in war," said Michael Watts, a rival editor on Melody Maker. Tyler used to love telling the story of how he had been wounded in the shoulder by a bullet from an ancient musket whilst serving in the Army in Aden: half-cut, he was carrying a beer-case and didn't realise he had been shot until another private noticed blood.

He had enlisted in the Royal Tank Regiment via a circuitous route. His father, from an upper-middle-class family, had been a fighter ace in the First World War. The experience had turned him into an alcoholic. Giving up drink, he married his nurse, who was much younger than him. Their only child, James Edward Anthony Tyler, was born on Hallowe'en night in 1943 in Bristol, during a thunderstorm punctuated by a German air-raid.

Tony Tyler grew up in Liverpool, where he attended Liverpool College, at the age of 16 turning on prefects attempting another of their habitual beatings, and leaving before he could be expelled: he had one O-level, in English Literature. His mother died the next year. He became a police cadet, but quit when told his stammer was so extreme he would never be able to give evidence in court. (When people asked him later what cured his debilitating stutter, Tyler would reply, "Acid.") He found more stimulating employment as a trainee reporter on a Merseyside paper.

But Tyler had decided to become a beatnik. His best friend Tim Craig (later the father of the actor Daniel Craig) was a merchant seaman. Tyler stowed away on his Hamburg-bound ship, aware that the Beatles - whom he vaguely knew - were resident in the German port. Tyler's Bohemianism resulted only in starvation; Gerry Marsden (of Gerry and the Pacemakers) bought him the occasional meal.

After he was hospitalised with pneumonia, Tyler was sent home in 1962 by the British consulate. Noting the healthy demeanour of squaddies, he decided to enlist - after first failing in his attempt to join the French Foreign Legion. A guitarist since he was 13 - he once played in a skiffle-group with Richard Stilgoe - he was promoted to the regimental band.

When his father died in 1966, Tyler came into an inheritance, which he quickly burnt through. First buying himself and two friends out of the Army, he purchased an AC Cobra off the stand at the motor show, totalling it on his way home. Taking a job in a London musical instrument shop, he found himself playing Hammond organ in a soul group based in Italy, the Patrick Samson Set; they had a No 1 there with a cover of "A Whiter Shade of Pale".

Back in London in 1969, after writing an article for a competition run by Beat Instrumental, a music trade paper, he was offered the job of editor. Soon he became publicist for EG Management, who cared for the careers of T. Rex, King Crimson and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

He was brought into the NME in 1972 by the editor Alan Smith, who was re-launching the pop paper; Tyler's zest, hilarious verve and formidable energy made him a pivot of an editorial team that included Nick Logan, who succeeded Smith in 1973 and went on to found The Face, Charles Shaar Murray, Nick Kent and Ian MacDonald. With MacDonald, he formed a double act that informed the paper's humour. It was Tyler, who adored to debunk pomposity, who, when confronted with Bryan Ferry's latest sartorial extravagance, came up with the headline "How Gauche Can a Gaucho Get?"

In 1975, his first book was published, The Beatles: an illustrated record, an astute and amusing analysis of every recorded song by the group, a collaboration with Roy Carr, another NME editor. The next year Tyler, by now NME assistant editor, advertised for "hip young gunslingers" (his own phrase) and hired Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons. Two years later, when he learned he had both The Tolkien Companion and The Beatles in the New York Times Top Ten, he decided to give up journalism and be a full-time writer. His guide to J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth was issued in new editions as The New Tolkien Companion (1979) and, again revised and updated, as The Complete Tolkien Companion (2002).

In 1982, Tyler married, as his second wife, Kate Phillips, an NME staff writer: at the time of his death they had been together for 31 years, with one of the happiest marriages any of his friends knew. He and Kate bought a house overlooking the sea outside Hastings.

Fascinated early on by the very notion of computers, Tony Tyler plunged into that emerging world, trying to bring the same sense of NME absurdity to Big K, a computer magazine he started in 1983, but which folded. He celebrated his new fascination with technology with I Hate Rock & Roll (1984). He began to write columns for the magazines MacUser and MacWorld. These were only intended to fund his efforts to be a fiction writer. He completed several novels, none of which was published. "They were so intelligent," said his agent Julian Alexander, "with incredible flights of fancy, that I don't think they were easily understood."

Tyler, who viewed life as a cosmic joke, was wryly philosophical about the failure to place these books with publishers. As he was when confronted with his cancer, diagnosed only 11 days before he died. "Shit happens, but I'm completely cool with this," he said, phoning his friends to come and visit him. He was annoyed, he said, that he would never get to see Casino Royale, starring his godson Daniel.

"I want you to know, for when your time comes," Tyler told his wife, her sister and mother two days before he died, his curiosity about the mysteries of life and death undiminished, "that this isn't really too bad. It's quite dealable with."

Chris Salewicz

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