- 24 Oct 19
April 1977. The decision to launch a magazine had been made. A name had been chosen. But there were still obstacles to be overcome. The thought that we might make it to 1,000 issues of Hot Press never entered our tiny little minds. Indeed – as this extract from his upcoming memoir reveals – there was a moment when it dawned on the crazy collective that even to get one issue onto the streets would be a goddam miracle.
Our early Hot Press management meetings took place in a flat in Earlsfort Terrace, where Bill Graham, who was one of the founding editorial team, lived with his mother Eileen. She would offer us a choice of Darjeeling, Earl Grey or Broken Orange Pekoe and serve the tea up in real china cups, offering us a glimpse into a more rarified and sophisticated adult world than the one we inhabited. But we couldn’t impose on her too much and so, while we searched for offices, we hung out in Trinity College Student’s Union where Ian Wilson, later of 2fm and RTÉ, gave us a bit of space. But there was only so long that could go on for too, and eventually we were forced to use public telephone boxes as our impromptu HQ.
As a teenager, I’d developed an ability to tap telephones like a Russian spy, hammering the beats out like a Morse code message, and so we’d base ourselves in a call box for hours on end, tapping out the numbers and begging for appointments with advertising agencies, record companies or potential commercial partners, the sound of trucks wheezing and honking and cars zooming by in the background. Outside, other more innocent and law-abiding citizens would queue to use the box, but the three-minute limit on calls didn’t apply when you tapped the phone and so we’d ignore their shuffling, grunting and banging until they’d finally burst in, fuming. “How long more are you going to be?” they’d wail. “My mother is dying,” whichever one of us was hogging the phone would say, pointing knowingly at the handset and they’d shrink off into the smog in embarrassment.
We didn’t have many other options. With Máirín Sheehy in cahoots, I spent precious hours driving around the city in our battered Fiat 124 looking at the ‘To Let’ signs. Whatever we had decided we could afford to spend on premises clearly wasn’t enough. We were shown one kip after another and none of them had phones. Eventually, amid mounting panic, we identified offices on the second and third floor of a Georgian house in Upper Mount Street, a few doors down from the headquarters of both of the biggest political parties in Ireland, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The estate agent was a decent skin and he accepted our bona fides without any Gestapo-style interrogation. We had found a home.
We signed a lease for two years and nine months, bought office chairs and desks and moved in with a new spring in our steps. This was what running a business was all about! The launch date was looming precariously and so preparations were fast and furious. We hired staff. We hooked up with a firm of typesetters, based two miles out of town in Kilmainham. We met potential printers and tried to hammer out a deal. We talked to distributors. We sent a circular to every record company we had an address for both in Ireland and the UK. It was all go, go, go, go, go. We applied for telephones. A letter came back from the department of Post and Telegraphs. Unfortunately, they explained, they wouldn’t be able to install phones for nine months. There were no lines available in the area, they told us bluntly.
It was impossible to know whether to laugh or cry, so we did both. Nine months! Without phones! How the hell were we going to function? How were the ad team supposed to sell ads? How were we going to arrange interviews? How were we going to… fucking talk to people? It was the end! We hadn’t even started yet and the colossal inefficiency of the machinery of State in 1970s Ireland was going to do us in, before we’d even written a word. We redoubled our efforts in the telephone boxes.
There were times you’d have to leave a number for a potential advertiser to ring back on, and the phone box number was given in dread, knowing that you couldn’t keep the hordes outside at bay forever. As we waited for the call back, we developed a technique of staying glued to the phone, holding the button down with one hand so that the phone wasn’t engaged, the handset pressed to the ear with the other, me or whoever else might be waiting for the return call all the while animatedly pretending to carry on a conversation, smiling, laughing and cracking the odd joke. The trick was to let go of the button at the faintest suggestion of a ring and to answer like it was a real business.
Hot Press! Yes, that’s right. Hold on a second and I’ll put you through to him. But of course we were never at the call box at 9 o’clock the following morning, when most of the return calls were likely made. What the high-powered media buyers must have figured when a passing school-kid or a cleaner-woman on her way to scrub floors would answer the telephone is anyone’s guess but they were unlikely to have been impressed, especially when they gave the number a second whirl. “Are you sure that’s 796 999? You are. It is. (Sounds of a motorbike screaming through in the background). And that’s not Hot Press. You’re sure it isn’t. Thank you very much. Goodbye.”
We were due a lucky break but there was no guarantee that we’d get one. A general election was looming in the middle of June. We had wanted to have a say in it, but that seemed like an increasingly forlorn prospect.
Gulping down a cup of badly needed coffee in Bewley’s Café, I spotted a news story in one of the papers about how the main parties were gearing up for what promised to be a fiercely fought contest. It was a puff piece of sorts, designed to impress the plebs with big numbers. Look! These political parties really do mean business. Fianna Fáil, it was reported, would be getting an additional twelve temporary telephone lines installed in their Upper Mount Street offices. Eight additional lines would be supplied to Fine Gael, across the road. It felt as if someone had hit me in the solar plexus. Fianna Fáil were no more than 10 doors away from us. Fine Gael were almost directly across the road from them. I had always suspected that there were snakes in the grass. Now I was seeing them first-hand.
By any standards, it was outrageous. We were being told that no lines would be available for nine months and yet, apparently with a mere click of the fingers, they could turn on twenty in the same street for the political parties. After I got over the initial stomach ache, my blood began to boil. The swine! It was scandalous but utterly typical of the way things were done in Ireland. I went back to the office and fired off angry letters pointing out the absurdity of the situation to a bunch of politicians including the Minister for Foreign Affairs Garret FitzGerald, who was also TD for the Dublin South-East constituency in which our office was located. The implication that it’d make a good story for the newspapers was clear. A few days later the Department of Post and Telegraphs were back in touch. The three phone lines we had requested would be installed immediately.
Well, hallelujah, it was raining phones. Entirely by chance, we’d uncovered a life-line. Disaster had been averted. If we’d been launching six months later, we’d never have known that they could turn on the lines like a tap when they wanted to – and no one in authority would have given a fuck about another poxy little rock ’n’ roll venture that failed to get off the ground. But the music of chance was playing in our favour.
On such haphazard moments, our collective future often hangs. I am sure that there are people out there who would like to shoot the journalist who wrote the story that saved our lives and enabled us to publish the first edition of Hot Press on time. But, a thousand issues later, it feels like we are entitled to breathe out, and say: that was a close one.
THANK YOU ALL…
A magazine is only ever as good as the staff, the writers and the people who work for it. On this, the occasion of our 1,000th issue, we want to extend our gratitude to every single one of the troops who stepped across the threshold and put their shoulders to the grindstone. At every stage, from 1977 until today, we have been extremely fortunate to have had really great, and often brilliant, people working with us. And that is as true today as ever. So well done teams. A thousand thanks to all of you...