Book Review: Paul Charles “Adventures In Wonderland”

Hot Press Books, 2023.

When it comes to promoting Americana music in the UK, two of the most prominent names that come to mind are those of Paul Fenn and Paul Charles, the two Pauls who own and run Asgard, one of the longest running and most prominent Artists Agencies in the U.K. As Agents and Promoters, they have introduced so many Americana acts to British and wider European audiences that it’s almost an embarrassment of riches. As a result, the announcement of a memoir from one of these two is something of a major event for all fans of this music, and the fact that it’s Mr. Charles who has thrown his hat into the ring is particularly good news, because Paul Charles not only has a wealth of great stories, he’s also very good at telling them.

Paul Charles is already a published author and has some 25 books to his name, with most of them being Mysteries and Thrillers, but this is not his first non-fiction book and he has written books on The Beatles and on some aspects of the Music Business. However, “Adventures in Wonderland” is his first personal memoir and, given that he is now in his 70s, he comes armed with stories from many years working in the music business, primarily as an agent but also as a manager, a promoter, a songwriter and a publicist.

The book takes the form of a series of anecdotes, drawn from throughout his career, and told as single chapter short stories. It’s a format that works well and allows Charles to tell his stories across a range of subjects. Right from the start, in his introduction to this book, the author sets out his stall and tells you what to expect, “The idea here is not to spend time settling old scores: there’s far too much of that already in the world. Instead, I will try to capture the magic of working with artists who are right up there among the best in the world”. It’s a refreshing approach. As Charles rightly observes, too many music business memoirs spend a disproportionate amount of time raking over old disputes and trying to ‘set the record straight’ over perceived sleights and grievances. What you get with this memoir is the reminiscences and insights of a man who has been working in the music business since he was in his teens and has never lost that youthful enthusiasm for music and the people who make it. This is a book written by a music fan who just happens to have worked with some of the biggest names in the industry and it’s a book that carries you along on that wave of the writer’s enthusiasm for his subject.

We get stories from the full range of this author’s experience. We hear of his fledgling days as a manager and promoter with his schoolfriends’ band, Blues by Five, back in his hometown of Magherafelt, in Northern Ireland (where his contact number on his business card was the local phone box), through to his handling of Van Morrison’s business affairs and his management of Tanita Tikaram, following his discovery of her at an Open Mic event at The Mean Fiddler in Harlesden, North West London. Mixed in with this we get stories from his agency experiences, such as the time he turned down the Rolling Stones, and his enjoyment of working with Michael Eavis to book acts for Glastonbury. There are many references to the three artists he seems to admire above all others, The Beatles, Van Morrison, and the late, great Rory Gallagher.

These stories really lure you in. The author has a very relaxed, easy-going way of telling his stories and the book has the feel of being sat in a cozy pub, listening to a good raconteur recalling events from his life. It really is a very enjoyable book to read and, what’s particularly enjoyable, is the detail that Paul Charles recalls in his stories. Recalling the time he interviewed a young Rod Stewart for a Belfast music magazine, he finally gets to pin down Stewart at the recording studio where they’re recording his “Every Picture Tells a Story” album and Charles arrives as they’re working on ‘Maggie May’. He remembers Lindisfarne’s Ray Jackson being there to record his mandolin part – “In my mind’s eye, Ray Jackson was stick thin and had a massively impressive moustache. I watched, mesmerised, as he “nailed it” to quote someone who’d been twiddling knobs on a control desk that looked as big as a football pitch to me”. Charles goes off to conduct his interview with Stewart in another room, before returning to the studio. “By the time we returned to the control booth, work had ground to a halt and an eerie atmosphere had descended. Apparently, one of the musicians, distracted by the partying, had accidentally sat upon Ray Jackson’s mandolin and completely demolished it”. I guess those sort of details stay with you but, considering that album was released 52 years ago, that’s fairly good attention to detail. The book is shot through with little anecdotes like this but it’s also infused with the better things about the music industry that we don’t get enough of in books of this nature. The humour, the camaraderie, the little acts of kindness. The music business can be brutal, we’ve all heard the stories of managers taking advantage of bands, of promoters disappearing with the concert takings, of infidelities and the endless substance abuse but, the reality is, that on a day to day basis it functions like any other business and it’s often only the lurid red top headlines that alert us to the latest ‘scandal’ in the business of entertaining others. Above all else, this book serves to remind us that those scandals are nothing more than a means to sell either newspapers or an act that isn’t good enough to sell on its own merits, and outside of those brief moments there are a lot of good people making some fine music.

Paul Charles has written one of the most enjoyable music industry books you’re likely to encounter this year (and probably any other year). It’s guaranteed to appeal to lovers of americana music because it features so many artists we love. In addition to the names already mentioned, there are stories for the likes of Nick Lowe, John Hiatt, The Blue Nile, Loudon Wainwright, The Roches, Ry Cooder, John Prine, Nanci Griffith, Mark Knopfler, Robert Plant, Ray Davies and so many, many more.

This is a book from a man who really knows the music business and it’s guaranteed to raise a smile as well as the occasional eyebrow.

“Adventures in Wonderland” by Paul Charles is published by Hot Press Books on the 19th May 2023 and will be available in bookshops and from online outlets as well as from the Hot Press website.

About Rick Bayles 354 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!
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