A cavalcade of 22 Fleetwood Cadillac limousines crammed with over 100 drunk and stoned British journalists raced through the darkened streets of New York City on April 4, 1970, headed for the Fillmore East. They were not going to see legendary psychedelic headline band Quicksilver Messenger Service, or even fast-rising support act Van Morrison. They were there at the expense of a recently-formed management company, Famepushers, to see the virtually unknown Brinsley Schwarz, a band whose name was hardly even known in their home town of Tunbridge Wells. None of them knew it yet, but they were all just tiny cogs in the big wheel that would come to be known as The Hype Of The Century.
Dave Robinson (MD, Famepushers) : In the late sixties, I was tour manager with Jimi Hendrix, and sometime in 1969 I got involved with two guys, Eddie Moulton and Steve Warwick, who had set up a conglomerate of small companies, known as Motherburger. They were looking for somebody to start a management company so, to get things moving, it was decided to advertise for a group to be managed by the new company, Famepushers.
Billy Rankin (drummer, Brinsley Schwarz) : I spotted the Famepushers ad in Melody Maker and took it to Brinsley.
Bob Andrews (keyboards, Brinsley Schwarz) : We had previously been a pop band known as Kippington Lodge but we were on the verge of changing our style and our name.
Billy Rankin : Kippington Lodge was all fluffy cuffs and high collars. We wanted to move more into a sort of Crosby, Stills And Nash – Steve Miller Band thing.
Dave Robinson : We auditioned about seventy groups and they were the best, so I had a meeting with Ricky Blears, who was handling press for an Omar Sharif movie project that Moulton and Warwick were doing.
Ricky Blears (MD, Messagemakers) : I'd recently left a major film company and I was drawn into Moulton's organisation because he wanted me to run their PR company, Messagemakers.
Dave Robinson : Ricky was a real go-getter type of guy. He asked me what would be the biggest venue a band like The Brinsleys could aspire to playing.
Dave Robinson : I said probably The Fillmore East. He didn't know what that was, but he said, 'If you got that, could you get the press to go?'
So then I realised that the key element to getting an agent, a record deal, and everything else we needed to launch the band, would be a Fillmore gig.
I knew Bill Graham, who owned The Fillmore, from my Hendrix days, so just before Christmas 1969 I rang him, but he was absolutely not interested.
Bob Andrews : Dave is the sort of guy who, once he gets an idea, will go 150% to achieve it, so the next day he flew to San Francisco and was in Graham's office when he turned up for work.
Dave Robinson : Just when I thought I wasn't getting anywhere, he looked up his future bookings and saw a night about three months later, with Quicksilver Messenger Service and Van Morrison, which needed a bottom of the bill act, because Van was too big to open the show. To my amazement, he said, 'I'm gonna give it to you.'
So I flew back to London with the gig, but now we had to sort out the press trip. I got onto a friend of mine at Aer Lingus and, as luck would have it, they were interested in chartering a 707 which could hold about 140 people. Suddenly I had a gig and a plane, neither of which I had paid for.
Andrew Lauder (Head of A + R, United Artists) : Dave then rang me up and pitched the idea that we should sign The Brinsleys.
Dave Robinson : I had played Andrew their demos before and he kind of liked them, but his MD, Martin Davis, wouldn't let UA sign artists without an agent or a strong live career. Now, though, we had the Fillmore trip lined up, which had also got us an agent, Tony Howard, at The Beatles' NEMS agency, so Andrew went back to Martin and we got the deal.
Ricky Blears : I now had four weeks in which to fill a 140 seat plane with media people. There were only about 20 credible rock journalists in London at that time, so I put the word out that we were planning this trip and before long the stairs outside the office were overflowing with people who fancied a trip to New York. It was the freebie of a lifetime in those days.
Pete Frame (journalist, Zigzag) : This cat from Famepushers Ltd phones me up and says would I like to go to New York and see Brinsley Schwarz play at The Fillmore East for free. Jesus Christ, of course I would.
There were mumbles about 'hype of the century' and how the whole thing was a cunning plot to lever a huge advance out of record companies eager to outbid each other to secure 1970's biggest group.
Ricky Blears : The whole thing was funded by Motherburger. Moulton had about fourteen companies with money always floating around between them. I think the Omar Sharif film, for example, had a budget of about £250,000. So Eddie could consolidate money from various projects into one place, enough to pay for a plane.
Dave Robinson : Now that we had a budget, we had to make an album, and get it out in time for the gig. We rehearsed at The Red Lion in Barnes and did the album in Olympic Studios across the road.
Brinsley Schwarz : We were supposed to fly out on the Tuesday morning (March 31, 1970) and have three days of rehearsal at The Fillmore. The gigs at the Fillmore East were on the Friday and the Saturday, two shows each night.
Billy Rankin : It was all moving ahead until Bob Andrews and Nick Lowe couldn't get visas because they'd been busted for drugs, a piece about the size of a rat turd, at our flat.
Dave Robinson : To try to get round it we flew to Toronto a few days before the gig and applied for visas there but the US Embassy there also turned us down.
FRIDAY 3rd April
Bob Andrews : We spent a couple of days in Toronto while Dave had attorneys in New York working on visas for us and we eventually we got them on Friday, the morning of the first gig.
Brinsley Schwarz : To make matters worse, there was a ground crew strike on the Eastern Seaboard so there were no scheduled flights from Toronto to New York. Dave managed to hire a six-seater Piper to fly us into America.
Dave Robinson : During the flight, though, Brinsley's ears blocked up and he went deaf. Couldn't hear a thing. We just had to hope he'd be all right by showtime.
Bob Andrews : We landed about four in the afternoon, and a limo rushed us to The Fillmore.
Dave Robinson : We only had time for a quick soundcheck and Brinsley's still deaf, so he had to watch Nick's fingers on the bass to know where he was in the songs.
Nick Lowe : We were awful. I had been a swaggering oaf before that, boasting to my friends about how we were on our way, in my idiocy.
Bob Andrews : The two Friday shows were really like warm-ups. The press weren't due until Saturday.
SATURDAY 4th April
Andrew Lauder : The departure lounge in Heathrow filled up with journalists and media types of all sorts.
Nick Lowe : Fishing Monthly, everything. Anybody who could lift a pen or bang a typewriter got on this plane.
Dave Robinson : The film-maker Jonathan Demme was there. Jonathan Routh who hosted the tv show Candid Camera, and his multi-millionairess socialite girlfriend Olga Deterding. Felix Dennis of Oz before he became one of the world's biggest publishers, Sam Hutt who later became Hank Wangford.
Keith Altham (journalist) : We took off three hours late, and then came down again an hour later in Shannon because brake fluid had been found all over the runway we'd just left in Heathrow. They checked the plane, which took a few hours, and then told us that it wasn't actually our plane that had lost its brake fluid.
Dave Robinson : We'd put lots of booze on board for the press, so they were already pretty well-oiled but, at Shannon, Aer Lingus opened the bar and started handing out free drinks to keep them happy.
Ricky Blears : In the next four hours they more or less drank Ireland dry.
Dave Robinson : By all accounts the flight was bedlam. Jonathan Routh threw up, projectile vomiting over the plane.
Keith Altham : As we descended into Kennedy Airport, black smoke started belching from one of the engines. The pilot announced that we didn't need to worry because the plane could land perfectly well with one engine out. Then another went out on the other wing, and the pilot came out to personally assure us that they were merely balancing the plane to make landing even safer.
The guy next to me asked, 'What would happen if another one went out?"
The pilot said, 'In that case, sir, we will go down like a fucking wardrobe.' We all started turning white but we landed safely.
Dave Robinson : I had organised for them to be met by a fleet of 22 limos at the airport, with very good pre-rolled spliffs in all the ashtrays courtesy of my limo company friend.
He also hired 16 police motorcycle outriders to clear the way through New York for us.
Pete Frame : The idea was that the motorcade would stun people, they'd turn their heads and shout, 'Hey, look at that.' but we didn't get out of Kennedy until well after dark, so nobody noticed.
Dave Robinson : So we had a cavalcade of limos full of people who were all either drunk or stoned or both and all these police officers were stopping traffic to let them through.
Two of the limos collided and had to be left behind.
Brinsley Schwarz : We had bought the front three rows in the Fillmore for the press, so security had been told that, after the doors opened, they should do nothing until those rows were filled, after which, a 'no cameras' policy would come into effect for everyone else.
Dave Robinson : Meanwhile, I'm trying to hold the curtain until the convoy arrives, but Bill Graham tells me he's going to dump The Brinsleys because they couldn't start on time.
It was Van Morrison who saved the night. Years before, in Dublin, I had managed him for a while. I knew that Van and Bill got on well, so I asked him to intercede for us, and he agreed to do it.
Brinsley Schwarz : Our press were so late arriving that when the doors opened, the front three rows filled up with regular punters, and the 'no cameras' policy was back in force. So when the journalists did arrive, they had to sit wherever they could find a space, and they all had their cameras taken away.
Ricky Blears : Only about five limos got to the Fillmore in time. A lot of the journalists were wiped out by the journey so they just went to the hotel and crashed.
Everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. Our last shred of hope was that the band would play their socks off and the crowd would love them. Instead they were totally exhausted and trooped on like tramps from the local doss house.
Charlie Gillett : About ten minutes after the journalists were hustled in, Brinsley Schwarz came on.
Dave Robinson : The band went on and played their 25 minutes, and they got through it, although it was a scary gig for them. Only about ten journalists actually saw them play. Charlie Gillett was about the only one who was sober.
Charlie Gillett : Nicholas Lowe sings, plays guitar, wears a Superman shirt and has a trick of nodding his head to make his hair cover his face. If he's nervous, he doesn't show it. He mutters something at the end of the first song, and the organist, who looks like a young, blonde Tiny Tim, laughs. Brinsley plays guitar. The sound is what everybody calls heavy...
Pete Frame : They started ragged and ended up less ragged, having burned their way through Life Is Dead, Indian Woman and various other respectably performed but unmemorable numbers. Between each number they collapsed in giggling fits – more than a wee bit stoned I suspect.
Keith Altham : My limo got to The Fillmore just in time for me to walk in and see the band saying, "Thank you, you've been a great audience.'
Ricky Blears : Van Morrison came on and played a flawless set, had the place bouncing to the rafters, and Quicksilver were blindingly good, which only served to amplify the inadequacies of Brinsley Schwarz.
Andrew Lauder : The few journalists who saw the first set had gone by the second show, but I hung around and they went down pretty well.
Brinsley Schwarz : The best show we did, probably because the pressure was off and we could just enjoy ourselves, was the second set on Saturday, which no-one saw.
Pete Frame : Actually, I saw it. The band was more relaxed, tighter and at the end of their set there were cries for more.
Bob Andrews : The band had a really great time. It wasn't til we got back to England and had to face all the negative reviews that we were brought down.
SUNDAY 5th April
Andrew Lauder : A lot of the craziness was the next day, Sunday morning. Ricky Blears, was close to throwing himself out of the hotel window.
Ricky Blears : The whole thing had deteriorated into a catastrophic nightmare which took me years to recover from. I was getting it in the neck from all directions. The whole thing had been my construct and suddenly, with the benefit of hindsight, it went from having been a great idea to being a very, very bad idea.
Keith Altham : Back in England, most of the press coverage said very little about Brinsley Schwarz and focussed instead on the trip itself.
Dave Robinson : By the time I got back to London, Eddie Moulton had disappeared and everybody – Aer Lingus, the limo company and so on – are all after me for money.
Ricky Blears : Eddie Moulton turned out to be a false name. He simply evaporated when the going got tough, about ten days after the Fillmore, and was never seen again. His partner, Steve Warwick, ended up as a postman living in a corporation flat in Acton.
Dave Robinson : Despite the bad press, the Fillmore trip actually achieved what I most wanted.
The band name was now known, they had a profile and some income.
Billy Rankin : We went from a local band earning £50 a night to a £200 headlining band with an album. We wouldn't have done five albums, Nick Lowe wouldn't have the career he's had.
Nick Lowe : For it all to go wrong, it was, at the time, really bloody awful. I felt such an idiot. Since then, I’ve had occasion to fall to my knees and give thanks for that experience. It gave me an early taste of the lure of fame and how it can come and kick you in the ass.
This feature by Johnny Black first appeared in Classic Rock magazine