Jonathan King: 'The only apology I have is to say that I was good at seduction'
Sunday 22 April 2012
Should the mere mention of his name turn your stomach and raise your blood pressure, please be advised that you are not the first to be appalled by the degenerate recreations enjoyed by some in the music business.
"Free love," Jonathan King complained, in a 1968 Music Maker magazine article berating what he described as "the seamy side" of the pop world, "is considered natural behaviour by a large portion of British youth. Pop performers," he went on, "take sex wherever they find it, and there are very many outsiders willing to provide those facilities."
Confessing that, "I do not know what the answer to this problem is," King – then best known for his 1965 top 10 single "Everyone's Gone to the Moon" – noted that, "For some reason, when an affair ends, it is always the star who suffers. I have nothing but contempt for these little glory-seekers who trouble the artists they were so keen to sleep with."
Looking at that final observation now – more than a decade after King's conviction for having sex with teenage boys earned him a seven-year sentence, and inspired red-top headlines such as "Evil Lust of Pop Beast King" – it seems curiously prescient; even if back then, as I suggest to the disgraced musician, broadcaster and entrepreneur, he sounded strangely like a Methodist preacher.
"I believe," King replies, "in pursuing my own morality. That is all I have ever stuck by. It is my own morality that really matters."
If that declaration reminds you of the credo of the debauched occultist Aleister Crowley – "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law" – it should be said that Jonathan King still denies the crimes for which he was convicted in 2001: one charge of buggery, one of attempted buggery and four indecent assaults, committed against five boys, each aged 14 to 16.
We are talking in the living room of his mews house in west London. I'm sitting in a chair, Jonathan King reminds me, once variously occupied by Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Scott Walker and – depending on who you believe – other, less musical, guests, whose names surfaced only when they testified against him, 11 years ago.
His case, somewhat confusingly, was split into three trials: the convictions relate only to the first. King was acquitted at the second, following which the CPS abandoned the third. He was released on parole in March 2005, despite having declined to participate in programmes aimed at behavioural correction, because he considers himself innocent.
Since he was freed, King, who discovered and launched the rock band Genesis and played a pivotal role in developing many other commercially successful groups, such as 10cc, has written an autobiography: 65 – My Life So Far (2009) and a novel, Beware the Monkey Man, published under the name of Rex Kenny in 2010. He has released two full-length films: the autobiographical Vile Pervert (2008) and a boldly eccentric musical, Me Me Me (2011), the latter of which was shown at Cannes.
Jonathan King, now 67, has discarded his trademark baseball cap and comedy spectacles, and is wearing a black pullover, track-suit bottoms, and orthodox frameless glasses. When he speaks, his upper lip curls upwards, as it always has. This is not, as some have suggested, an affectation inspired by Elvis Presley, but a legacy of King's delivery by forceps. The widespread recognition his physical appearance once commanded has diminished in recent years and many – including, I imagine, King himself – would consider that no bad thing.
In the course of work, I tell him, I have interviewed murderers, arsonists, drug barons and a man who, posing as a priest, first robbed a woman, then conducted the funeral service of her husband. But even those guilty of gross sacrilege or unlawful killing never experience the detestation aroused by someone convicted of King's offences. It would be far easier, to quote the late novelist Gilbert Adair, writing in a slightly different context, to confess to homicide. "At least a murderer," Adair wrote, "gets a respectful hearing."
I explain that I found the experience of reading through victim statements relating to his trial to be disturbing, and that I can't bring myself to believe that he is innocent of the acts for which he was convicted. But our difference of opinion in this area – as on other subjects, such as Margaret Thatcher (who stands shoulder to shoulder with him in a framed picture on the wall), Tony Blair, or the artistic merit of his recent films – doesn't begin to ruffle him. He remains calm, polite and affable; his manner kindly, his reaction to the guilty verdict one of apparent bewilderment.
All of which seems odd to me: "Because if I'd experienced what you say you suffered – unfair conviction on the most grievous of charges – I think I would be furious."
"I've found rage to be a useless emotion. Prison opened my eyes to so many things." He describes how he read letters for illiterate inmates. "It was a great time. I met interesting people. I got to understand the behaviour of the police and the media. I am an observer," he adds, "of the human race."
King is fond of drawing parallels between his fate and that suffered by Oscar Wilde. Having spent two years researching an unfinished PhD on Wilde (I knew that time wasn't wasted), I'm aware of the graphically scatological nature of evidence presented in the playwright's trials, and the misery caused by his ostracism in the final years of his life. Wilde unquestionably abused minors on at least two continents, but then his last letters are heavily coloured by remorse.
"Oscar Wilde," I remind King, "said that the public viewed him as sitting somewhere between [15th-century serial killer of children] Gilles de Rais and the Marquis de Sade. A stranger spat in his face at Clapham Junction railway station. You must be familiar with that sort of behaviour."
"You'd think so. Once a year somebody goes, 'Nonce', or looks at me in an odd way. But I'm in London; a cosmopolitan city. Most people here have never heard of me." Of those who have, he says, few are aggressive.
"How about on the Tube?"
"I don't get on the Tube. I don't go to pubs. I avoid situations that could get me into trouble."
"You still have the Rolls-Royce, though?"
"I still have the car. I don't skulk. I lead my life as normal."
Which is a privilege, you can hear some accusers remark, that has not been accorded to them.
There can be few less attractive spectacles in life than the British press in moralising mode. King was arrested in 2000 after a man approached the publicist Max Clifford, then contacted the police. News of the allegations reached the red-tops; when they read the headlines, the entrepreneur recalls, other alleged victims came forward.
"Others? How many?"
King, who was investigated in connection with supposed offences dating back 32 years has, in the period since his release, been subject to some crude populist rhetoric.
"One victim claims that King ruined his life," a writer in The Sunday Times observed, having persuaded him to share high tea at a London hotel. "I find it hard not to think of that boy as I watch King gorge himself on the cake stand." When the meeting is over, the journalist concludes, "I go off to wash my hands." ("Never kick a man when he's down?" the poet John Cooper Clarke once remarked. "Name me a better time.")
King is a considerably more difficult and complex subject than he might initially appear. He's a past master at buttering up journalists, but it's unusually hard to tell with him where flattery ends and real engagement and curiosity begins. As an interviewee, he exhibits few of the unmistakeable traits of a seasoned con man, such as hanging on your every word as though you're the most important person in the galaxy. On the contrary, Jonathan King loves talking. Inconveniently for a sex monster, he is bright, entertaining, and excellent company.
He wrote to many reporters from prison. One – Lynn Barber, now of The Sunday Times (a journalist and author who, it would be fair to say, is regarded in the business as nobody's fool) – wrote a moving piece about the consolation he offered her while her husband David was dying from myelofibrosis. "Jonathan," she wrote in 2005, "whom I still barely knew, proved to be a wonderful confidant. He was eager to be useful and read all the newspapers every day looking for articles about bone-marrow transplant. And when David eventually had the transplant – unsuccessfully – and died, Jonathan wrote me some of the kindest, most thoughtful, letters of any I received."
King refers to Barber as "my friend", even though there has never been any suggestion she considers him innocent.
"You've consistently maintained that you are not guilty, in response to which I feel compelled to ask: not guilty of what? If, once convicted, you'd said: 'Yes, I had flings with 15-year-olds, I didn't know their age but I'm guilty, and very sorry,' I think your autobiography would have been a better book."
"It might have been, but I am innocent of the convictions against me. They only referred to five people. I never had sex with any of those five. I never even met one of them. More importantly I would like to think that I never took advantage of somebody, whether they were stoned, drunk or [otherwise] incapable of making up their minds."
"But the law says that if somebody is 14 or 15 they are not capable of consent."
"The law didn't say that back then. The law then said if they were male they were not capable of consent." (King is referring to the situation prior to 1967, when homosexuality was legalised between consenting partners over 21. In 1994 the age was lowered to 18 in England and Wales and in 2001, just before his trial, further reduced to 16.)
"By that logic you could legitimise intimacy with a five-year-old."
I would be insane, King suggests, if I believed he was arguing that. He repeats that, until he was 23, "Going with someone of the same gender – like the night I went with John Lennon, say – meant that you were both breaking the law. On that level I was completely guilty. My attitude was that if boys were over 16 – the age of consent for girls – and they wanted to do something with me, I'd do it."
"What if they were younger?"
"If they were 15, female or male – because I am bisexual – I wouldn't. If I could be sure."
"I imagine it was hard to be sure."
"So you try to avoid it."
At the end of 2011, a BBC Four repeat of a 1976 edition of Top of the Pops excised a track by Jonathan King on moral grounds (the station later apologised). Without seeking to excuse his behaviour, it's a matter of fact that, if the BBC censored footage of every male performer who had taken advantage of a 15-year-old girl fan, its archive would be significantly depleted. It's not so long since I had lunch with an internationally revered star who openly boasted, to a fair-sized gathering, of having seduced minors.
"Jonathan," one of his contemporaries told me, "did nothing that lots of people weren't doing at the time. His problem was that it was boys."
"When you are found guilty of a crime you didn't commit," he says, "and I know that you don't accept that to be true... if it's something like murder, there's always the chance that DNA will surface. I have been found guilty of crimes that never happened and there is no evidence. It's one person's word against another. [A guilty verdict] can be the result of delusion or tweaking, or because there is 20 grand in it for somebody. Or it can be a combination of these things."
Jonathan King is a former friend and colleague of the hardcore predatory paedophile Chris Denning, a one-time DJ who, like King, frequented the Walton Hop discothèque in Surrey. Denning served time for sex crimes in the Czech Republic and is now detained in the UK. King says he severed contact with his ex-associate "when I found out how he was behaving, suggested that he stop, and he didn't".
King himself was accused of having trawled Soho for vulnerable boys. "It's the differential in age and power," I suggest, "that is a bit ugly."
"You say ugly... but isn't that human nature? If you find someone attractive, you try to make them find you attractive. That is called seduction. And seduction is a bit ugly. You could say it's a bit ugly to use your charisma."
"Maybe, in some circumstances, it is."
"You call it ugly. I call it natural."
For Jonathan King, it all started so well. The dominant figure in the photographs that decorate his house is that of his mother Ailsa, an actress – bisexual, King says – who worked with Michael Redgrave, among others. Jonathan was nine when his father Jimmy died in 1954, aged 42.
"I could cope with that," he said afterwards. "My mother's death would have broken me."
"So how did you manage, when she died in 2007?"
"It's the worst thing that ever happened to me."
"She was 91."
"But I still miss talking to my wonderful mumbly. Like today, for instance," King says, good-naturedly. "If she was still here, I could call her up after you leave, and tell her what an unbelievable shit you were."
His father had been managing director at Tootal, a tie manufacturer. Jonathan grew up in Surrey with his two k younger brothers, and was sent to Charterhouse school, then Trinity College, Cambridge. (According to his autobiography, he had intimate knowledge of 65 fellow boarders at Charterhouse.) Even before he arrived at Cambridge, he says, he was desperate to get into the music business. He pestered the Beatles manager Brian Epstein and their press officer, Derek Taylor. The latter indulged the young man with the generosity and grace that characterised Taylor's whole life and career. "Everyone's Gone to the Moon" was King's sixth attempt at a hit. Before then, he recalls, "I'd written this song that went: 'Green is the grass/ Blue is the sky/ Bright is the sun above/ Lonely am I.'"
"And you can't argue with that."
"You can only argue," he replies, "as to whether they are the worst lyrics ever written."
"I recall Jonathan appearing in my office when I was a young reporter in 1965," says the pop guru Keith Altham, a close collaborator of The Who, the Rolling Stones and Sting among many other legends. "He had an armful of copies of 'Everyone's Gone to the Moon', which I liked and still do. He was witty, outrageous and camp and always in demand because of his intelligence. He also had exceptionally good ears for a hit."
Jonathan King's complete musical works are now available on King of Hits, a boxed set of eight CDs. (As well as "Green is the Grass", mentioned above, it includes his punk version of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'" and "Rock Around the Clock" arranged as a classical waltz.) If you value your sanity– and I speak from recent experience – this is a collection best not evaluated in a single sitting. While he enjoyed many successes, under various names, with singles such as "Johnny Reggae", "Una Paloma Blanca", "Lick a Smurf for Christmas" and "The Sun Has Got His Hat On", posterity is likely to judge King, who was running Decca Records at the age of 22, less on his own singles and more on his reputation as an enabler of others.
Had he not discovered Peter Gabriel, Mike Rutherford and the rest of Genesis on a return visit to Charterhouse, and produced their first album, it's probable that most of that band would, says King, "have become architects, accountants or lawyers". Before he met them, 10cc were, as he puts it, "individual musicians and engineers, but never that great a band".
King saw the second night of The Rocky Horror Show: still something of a work in progress at the Theatre Upstairs in London's Royal Court, in 1973. He immediately recognised its potential and, with typical impulsiveness, persuaded writer Richard O'Brien to allow him to invest £20,000 in the production (in return for 20 per cent of all profits) and to record it over a single weekend.
King went on to develop many other major acts through his own label, UK Records, and television programmes such as No Limits and Entertainment USA. He was largely responsible for the evolution of the annual event now known as the Brit Awards. It was Jonathan King who identified and vigorously promoted the mass-market potential of Chumbawamba's anthem "Tubthumping", and he who recorded the first studio version of "Who Let the Dogs Out", before persuading his friend Steve Greenberg ("after eight dinners") to record it with the Baha Men.
"It took years of perseverance," King says. "Nobody else believed in it."
"As Jonathan's career progressed," Keith Altham told me, "he became more outrageous and over-the-top. Was he ever guilty of breaking the law with a minor, however complicit they were? I would say, almost certainly. Jonathan was careless and probably guilty of 'undermining the morals of minors', but he was not a rapist or a kidnapper. I suspect he was singled out because some media did not care for his reckless gay behaviour. Had he been heterosexual he might have got away with it; many did. In my opinion he was probably more sinned against than sinning, and the press coverage of the case ruined his career."
I ask King (who briefly gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry and supplied the committee with a portfolio of documents) if he believes he was set up by a popular newspaper.
It's a cliché, I know, but offenders who believe themselves to be guilty do tend, once convicted, to stop complaining and get on with their lives, especially when the allegations are of such an incendiary nature. One thing is for certain: King genuinely believes that he is innocent in relation to the cases for which he was prosecuted. His artistic output since his release from Maidstone Prison has, at times, resembled a primal scream of rage.
His third novel, Beware the Monkey Man, unlike its predecessors, Bible Two (1982) and The Booker Prize Winner (1997), could not be characterised as knockabout humour. A central character is one Major Grant Sterling who, as his surname would imply, is a man of impeccable character. Sterling is troubled by the memory of a homosexual encounter, many years in the past. "There is always," he is advised, "somebody in every police station with a direct line to the tabloids."
The major is framed by police officers, who alter the dates of the alleged sexual offence as it suits them, and illicitly collude with print journalists. Sterling enters the headquarters of News International and asks to see the editor of The News of the World. Once in the office, the Major activates his Semtex bomb-belt.
"The detonation," King writes, "sounded like Hiroshima and looked similar from above. The mushroom cloud spiralled into the sky. Almost everyone within the perimeter fence was killed." The "heartless media snakes" were "blown to pieces by Grant Sterling".
Call me a cynic, but I feel certain aspects of this narrative may betray just the hint of a grudge. His film Vile Pervert begins with the troublingly indelible image of King exposing himself in a field, and has a sequence in which, dressed as Oscar Wilde, he sings "(There's Nothing Wrong With) Buggering Boys". Out of costume, King, recalling his own case, speaks to camera, with evident satisfaction, about the premature deaths of two jurors, an appeal judge and the wife of a prominent British PR man, all connected with his case. One song defends Dr Harold Shipman as a mercy killer: another provocation which might reflect a sense of his own mistreatment.
The main emotions I picked up from Vile Pervert, I tell him, are anger and bitterness.
"Other people have told me that. I don't feel any anger at all."
"No. It's more bemusement."
"What do you think of the behaviour of Gary Glitter, say?"
"When I knew him – which wasn't well – he seemed a perfectly nice guy. I suspect most of the trouble was [caused by his] going to live in places like Vietnam. Publicists and the red-tops probably had a lot to do with it."
"'When I knew him he seemed a perfectly nice guy' – that's pretty much what your old friend Tim Rice said about you when he appeared as a character witness at your trial, isn't it?"
"Then, once you were convicted, he dropped you like the proverbial old sock, in a newspaper article. I think what he said was, 'How little we know the people we think we know.'"
"Exactly. But the prosecution asked questions such as, 'Were you aware that children were being dragged to King's house and buggered within an inch of their lives?' I wasn't able to stand up and say, 'No. That's a lie.'"
King makes an impassioned case against the reliability of his conviction, implying, though not stating, that police may have assisted victims with their statements. He points out, with some warmth, that the process does not permit him to produce new evidence as to his whereabouts on dates of alleged offences, nor to challenge untried accusations which have been kept on file. He has attempted to appeal in Brussels and elsewhere, without success.
"Just to be clear, what do you think should happen to predatory paedophiles of the kind you were painted as being? Men who prey on 14-year-old kids, as you were portrayed as having done? You must have met some of these people in prison."
"Yes. Awful people. I think they should be locked up. Cured, if you can cure them. They ought to be locked up for ever, or certainly until they can't offend again."
Can we ever forgive him? As changed a man as he might be, most will consider the absence of contrition to be something of a snag. "Those were different times, with different morals," King says.
A recurring theme in his defence is the way some complainants admitted to having returned to his home repeatedly; in one case several dozen times. King asks why they would do that "if they were having such a terrible time?"
"I imagine that, for them, the experience could have been a bit like what happens to characters in classic thrillers such as Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train, or James M Cain's Double Indemnity. They're drawn into a situation where they feel they have committed a crime. They are alienated from friends and family. They fear exposure. They are into something that they don't want to be part of and yet, paradoxically, their nemesis becomes the only person they can confide in. That seems a plausible scenario to me. Do you not believe that you have anything to apologise for, to anybody from your past?"
"The only apology I have is to say that I was good at seduction. I was good at making myself seem attractive when I wasn't very attractive at all. As you can see now, looking at me, my looks are not to be relied on."
King pauses. "If," he continues, "as a result, I became very capable of persuading people who, deep down, didn't want to have sex with me that they should have sex with me... and you ask, should I have done that? In some cases, looking back, I would say no, I shouldn't. I should have been sensitive enough to know that the experience could screw them up in 20 to 30 years' time." This, I suspect, is as near as Jonathan King will come to a mea culpa.
What have we lost as a result of his absence from public life? The temptation is to say nothing, especially since King in his pomp evinced a level of swaggering hubris that might have seemed excessive in the corridors of Toad Hall. "I am a TV immortal," he once declared. "There will never be television without Jonathan King."
Ironically enough, his fall coincided with the rise of a kind of music television he had done much to pioneer: the judging of new, raw talent on telephone voting (a practice he had championed in the early 1990s, on BBC Radio Two).
"Simon Cowell put up some of your bail money, didn't he?"
"He did and he got good karma as a result."
"Since when, Cowell has been doing the kind of jobs that you could very well have been given."
"I turned down being 'Mr Nasty' on Popstars [the ITV talent show that began in January 2001]. I said, 'You should give it to Simon Cowell.' He turned that down, but then there was Pop Idol, then The X Factor. And Simon became 'Mr Nasty'." A role, King's expression suggests, that he himself would have been well suited to play. "But by that time, everything else had happened to me."
The most awkward moment in our conversation comes when I mention how, a few years back, I went with impresario David Arden to the Italia Conte stage school's annual concert. Performers that night included a young hopeful called Pixie Lott. Those are the kind of occasions, I suggested, where you really can pick out the stars of tomorrow.
"I know," King replies. A silence. "But do you have any idea what would happen to me if I showed up at an event like that, to watch young performers? I'd be all over the papers the next day. Can you imagine the headlines?"
Being on the Sex Offender Register, he points out, he is banned from working with anybody under 18.
"After I was released," he says, "I spent £15,000 installing CCTV around this house." The parole service were surprised. "I had to explain to them; this is a secure system with a sealed hard drive. Should it ever be necessary, I want to be able to prove who has not been to my house."
Being on the register, he says, "means that I am legally allowed to have sex with 16-year-olds – not that I'd want to. I'd die of a heart attack. But I cannot discover and nurture a new Peter Gabriel, or a Joni Mitchell, or a Prince, should they be under 18."
A pity, King says, "Because I think I'm still quite good at spotting things. I have my protégé at the moment, Alex Day. He had his second top-10 single earlier this month. That's how I spend the main part of my time: encouraging people. If I hear somebody who's really good," he adds, "it still enthuses me."
If his film Vile Pervert seeks to ridicule and embrace a term of abuse, rather in the way homosexuals have reclaimed the term "queer", there's an implicit acceptance on his part that this title will prove difficult to shake off. It's with him for life. It's true that even the most heavily tarnished of reputations – Jack the Ripper, Dr Crippen or the Krays – become somehow sanitised with time, so that reviled public figures turn, eventually, into near-mythical characters. King's favourite vile pervert Wilde achieved the not-inconsiderable feat of contaminating his own first name (commonplace before his disgrace). It took the best part of a century for Oscars to return in any numbers to the birth registers of the UK. Wilde's work would be tainted for decades after his death. But then Oscar Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest, while Jonathan King is remembered for "Leap Up and Down (Wave Your Knickers in the Air)".
As he shows me out, I sense that King is already impatient to get back to the section of his website where he tips new bands, looking for the next big thing. Even if – for Jonathan as for Oscar – it may take a while before he achieves a more enviable kind of renown.
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