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John Van der Kiste

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A biographer writes: chronicling the Mungo Jerry story
By John Van der Kiste   

Last edited: Thursday, November 28, 2002
Posted: Thursday, November 28, 2002

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Co-writing a biography of British rock group Mungo Jerry to celebrate their 20th anniversary in 1990

In 1985 I wrote a short biography (about 20,000 words) of Roy Wood. Having tried in vain to persuade various 'proper' publishers to show interest, I found myself drawn into the ethos of self-publishing. A handful of press cuttings, some words of encouragement from a friend who runs a prose and poetry magazine, and the advent of word processors at work (in the days when BBC Wordwise was state of the art in the computing world), led to 100 copies of a 56-page booklet and the birth of A & F Publications, alias my humble self.

Once I'd recovered from the shock of people wanting to buy it, and gone back to what friends and family call my 'proper' books, I decided it would be fun to do the same for my other long-time heroes, Mungo Jerry. An exchange of letters with Derek Wadeson, who had also been a Mungomaniac since the early days and had run the fan club for about five years, led to the birth of the project early in 1989.

Initially the idea was for me to produce a photocopied booklet on the same lines as the Roy Wood one. I sent a copy to Derek who showed it to Ray Dorset. His reaction was to take one look at it and decide we could go for something a little more upmarket. "How much is it going to cost me?" I asked Derek a little nervously on the phone that evening. "Won't cost you a penny," he assured me. "Ray will pay." I gulped and put the phone down.

People sometimes ask about the title. I chose this quite early on, my reasoning being that the whole world and his wife (or her husband, must be PC) remembered 'In The Summertime', but only the really knowledgeable could name more than a couple of the other records. As MJ had existed as entity for nearly two decades by then, and as the story went back further than that, I wanted to show the less-informed that there was a good deal more "beyond the summertime".

Considering Derek and I never met - time was at a premium for us both, one in St Helens, Merseyside, and the other in South Brent, Devon - the collaboration worked out pretty well. Both of us had different skills in the researching, shaping and writing process which complemented each other perfectly, and it's no cliché to say that neither of us could have done it without the other. Derek had the contacts, the phone numbers, and perhaps most important of all the gift of the gab (something I've never had). Every few days a massive envelope would arrive containing pages of scribbled-down notes from conversations with various band members of the band and management, past and present. Paul King and Colin Earl, who were both members of the 1970-72 line-up, were kind enough to send us several pages of reminiscences covering their days with Mungo, the King Earl Boogie Band and Skeleton Krew.

In fact, considering the number of people he rang up, the response rate was far more than we had dared to hope. Significantly, perhaps, the only two who didn't or wouldn't cooperate were two who still had a relatively high music biz profile. (Sorry, no naming and shaming). He spoke to one on the phone who professed he couldn't remember anything, gave the impression he couldn't care, and why the hell did we want to know anyway.

Of course the guy who made it all possible, Ray, was terrific throughout. I hope it doesn't make his ears burn if I say that he was more than happy for everyone to give their side of the story, particularly on the events of early 1972 when - his quote - "the other guys sacked me, but…" Each and every one had their say, and Derek and I were delighted. The one nagging thought I had at the back of my mind was that we might end up with a sanitised 'those hits just kept on coming' story which would pack about as much critical punch as a record company A4 press release. But Ray agreed with our warts and all approach. As he said at least once, he reckoned that one of the reasons for the book's existence would be as a cautionary read for aspiring young musos, to show them something of the business complexities of running or playing in a band. Getting a buzz out of playing rock'n'roll to a paying audience is one thing, but don't forget all the legal and management shenanigans that have to go with it.

Oh yes, one of my personal highs was one evening in May 1989. Derek rang about 7.30 to say that Ray was shooting a video for a new single or something but would try and call me later. At about 10.40 that night the phone went again. "Is that John?" a voice asked. "Speaking." "Hi, it's Ray Dorset, sorry to call you this late, but…" We chatted for several minutes, all quite naturally, and it only sunk in after I'd replaced the receiver that I had just spoken for the first time to a guy whose records I had been buying and idolising since I was in my teens. I don't know who picked me off the ceiling afterwards, but next work I was dying to make sure my colleagues knew about it. Is it possible to be a 34-year-old teenybopper!

Another one was when we arranged to meet that August. Luckily my holiday that year coincided with a few days that Ray was at home, and I was staying with a brother-in-law in the Basingstoke area. I had planned to spend a night with friends in London, and he offered to meet me off the Waterloo train at Hook near the Hants-Surrey border. It was our first meeting, and we had a very pleasant chat in the beer garden of a pub, looking at the draft manuscript and noting his comments. And thanks for the pint, Ray!

By the end of March 1990 the whole thing was just about complete. There were one or two little glitches, as was only to be expected. Without giving too many secrets away, we were told a few things about various members of the group and management team that we were advised by our sources, on a period of sober reflection, were best left out for legal reasons. Derek and I pulled one or two things out of the proofs at the final stage in order to avoid causing offence.

One unforeseen complication came when Ray went to a Skeleton Krew gig at about that time, partly to say hello to the guys whom he hadn't seen for a long time and partly so he could add a few words in his 'In the first person' section near the end of the book. A few days later Derek had a slightly testy phone call from Colin Earl on the lines of 'What's going on?' It must be said that a certain amount of diplomatic skills had to be exercised in order to keep both factions (if that's the word) happy.

Well done Derek - I'm glad I was the one sitting at home out of the fray, merely responsible for knocking it all together. Even if there were times when I half-wished the postman wasn't going to bring me yet another hefty package of photocopies and fax messages! If there were a few CDs or the odd single in there, that was a different matter…

A few months of proof-reading, selecting photographs and other illustrations, and visits to the printers in Plymouth later (I won't go into the time when a vanload of outer covers bound for somewhere in Cornwall to be laminated disappeared en route), and by September 1990 we had taken delivery of several boxes of the finished product. Yes, it was hard work, but I am sure I speak for all of us when I say that it really was a thrill to see the end result.

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