By Carl Begai
UK-based writer / journalist Neil Daniels has created his own little-and-ever-growing literary empire showcasing some of rock and metal’s finest – Robert Plant, Judas Priest and Bon Jovi to name a few. He has also issued All Pens Blazing, a book that focuses on the journalists that keep the metal industry media ball rolling. I caught up with Daniels earlier this year to discuss his new Priest-related outing, Al Atkins’ autobiography Dawn Of The Metal Gods, and other irons currently in the fire. Following is an interview that has been long overdue with regards to seeing print and is certainly worth reading.
And on that note…
CB: What was the catalyst, the defining moment if you will, that you said “Okay, let’s write a book about / with Al Atkins”? Folks might look at the project and go “Why bother?” given that Judas Priest has done just fine without him.
Daniels:“Basically, I’d worked with Al a lot during the researching and writing on my Priest bio Defenders Of The Faith, which came out through Omnibus Press in 2007 and is now out in paperback; gotta get that sales pitch in, right? (laughs). He has loads of great stories about the band from the pre-Halford years (1969-1973) and kept a few stories to himself for his own book. He’d already started work on his book but the word count was too low and he needed somebody to assist him to finish it off and make a coherent narrative. I had nothing else on the go and liked what he’d written so I thought, ‘Why the hell not?’ Matthias Mader at Iron Pages in Berlin liked my Priest bio and was keen on the Atkins book so there was no problem getting a small book deal. Any book deal is better than none, right? I though IP did a really good job on the production of Biff Byford’s autobiography so it was a no-brainer for us. Matthias is a really cool guy and has an immense knowledge of metal history so he was keen to work with us. He’s also very friendly and approachable. His reputation preceeded him which is not what you’d say about a lot of publishers.”
“Nobody else was all that interested because I had a book out on the band, as did Martin Popoff and Matthias himself had published a German bio, so the book market was already saturated with Priest tomes after years and years of starvation. The Atkins book came from a different angle in that it’s the autobiography of a former member, plus Al had been in bands before and after Priest and had released a handful of solo albums. He’s a down to earth bloke with some really cool stories and the picture sections in the book speak for themselves. Sales haven’t been that great which is a shame because Priest fans and metal archivists, if they gave the book some time, would enjoy the pictures and anecdotes. It’s an historical document about metal history, at least that’s what I tell myself. Most of the reviews were positive. Naturally some criticized us for cashing in on Priest’s recent success and complained that we went off on tangents in the narrative, but that’s Al’s style. He’s a humble working class guy and has only ever used the Priest name when record companies have required him to do so on his solo albums).”
CB: I’m assuming that because you’re from the UK that you were a little bit more “up” on Atkins’ history with Priest going in compared to some so-called authorities on the band. Being from Canada, for example, chances are diehard fans here know more about Annihilator’s or Voivod’s history than fans / press living outside the country because that info bleeds down into the local music community over the years. That said, did you have a solid basis going in beyond “Oh yeah, Priest is British and they had another singer before Rob Halford…”? I mean, you lived the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal-era first hand, didn’t you? That has to count for something.
Daniels: “Certainly, coming from the UK like Al made writing the book much easier because I am familiar with the way he speaks, his local accent that is. I’m from the North West of England and Al is from the Midlands so we’re not that far about and England is a very small country, anyway. I think it’s important for ghost-writers/co-writers to get the tone write of the artists. I mean, Lemmy’s book was very disappointing and part of it was to do with the fact that it was written by an American and thus failed to get Lemmy’s very English, very sarcastic tone. I know he’s lived in California for years but he is still very much a quintessentially English guy. But then again, here in England and elsewhere we’re so consumed by American pop culture that I could write an American book and make it sound authentic. At least I think I could. In terms of being an authority/knowledge on a band then I suppose that’s what you could become – if you’re not already – during the research period.”
CB: Any surprise revelations during the interviews with regards to Atkins, Downing or the lesser known members of the band?
Daniels: “Hmmm… I’m going to have to seriously think about this because writing both Priest books seems to long ago now and I’ve been busy since then. Certainly in Defenders Of The Faith having made contact with disgraced ex drummer Dave Holland was a major coup for me. I’d received a hand written letter from him from behind bars and published it in the book. I took a chance and sent letters to prisons that I assumed he’d be in and it was pot luck really that he got a copy and replied! Because of Data Protection laws here in the UK the local authorities were not allowed to tell me exactly were he is based. Al is also quite honest about the whole Dave Holland-Priest issue in the book because Al had worked with Holland on an album, Victim Of Changes, and knew him quite well. Al also makes clear who owns the Priest name and what exactly caused the demise of the first few line-ups prior to Halford joining. He’s also honest about what KK Downing was like as a guitarist in the early days. He was actually turned down at first because apparently he was not a very good musician but after some years of practicing he met up with Al and joined a new line-up of the band with Ian Hill. Luck? Fate?”
CB: How long did it take from start to finish to do the book? Any major hurdles with regards to tracking down people who were interested in offering their thoughts and opinions? Was there anyone you tried to get that outright refused?
Daniels: “For Defenders Of The Faith I really wanted to get in touch with Les Binks, the elusive yet cult drummer who was replaced by Dave Holland. It never happened. I got in touch with someone who knows him but apparently Les doesn’t want to talk about Priest and is happy to continue receiving royalty cheques from the band. I guess he doesn’t want to upset them? I think he plays gigs in the North London area, or used to. Annoyingly, ex-drummer Alan Moore emailed me the other week, three years after the book came out! However, I did speak to John Hinch, Bruno Stapenhill, Ernie Chataway, John Ellis, Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens, Simon Phillips and a wealth of bands that had supported them as well as David Howells, John Pasche, Derek Oliver, Norman Hood and Geraint Hughes all of whom played some kind of role in the band’s history. Over 50 people in total. For the Atkins book, there are some interviews in the book which add depth to his story and there’s also a foreword by none other than Ian Hill who is still Al’s mate after all these years. We were really chuffed that Ian agreed to write a foreword. It’s a very personal one too.”
CB: Any word or reaction from Judas Priest themselves or their management? I’ve had a few experiences with management over the years and been treated like gold at some points, like total shit at others.
Daniels: “I didn’t get a reaction once the book had come out, only before it. When management got wind of the book a notice was put on the official Priest website warning the fans that the band had nothing to do with it. Naturally it got everyone talking and gave me and the book lots of free publicity. Suddenly all the major metal sites were publishing details on the book. It was taken off the website presumably because after they realized that giving the book publicity on the official band website was not a good idea from the band’s point of view. That made me chuckle. I’d only ever had email correspondence with management and the tone reminded me of a teacher speaking to a student who’s gotten in trouble. In their defence they have a job to do and that is to look after the band, so I can’t argue against that, but as with some PR people treating writers/journalists like garbage is not a cool thing to do. They’re just people like us. Nobody’s that special, not even a Metal God.”
CB: What has the reception been like since the release of the book? Is Atkins satisfied with the end result? And yourself? Something can look good on paper (pardon the pun) or in your head and come out being half of what you wanted. The opposite is also true.
Daniels: “I’m happy with it. Al is happy with it. Matthias is happy with it. But, and this is a big but, sales have not been great. Perhaps it’s due in part to the price or the recession…as book sales have gone down in most markets. Because IP are based in Germany and the exchange rate between the Euro and the Pound is what it is, the price of the book on Amazon is quite high for a paperback. It will go down eventually so hopefully then sales will pick up. The other point being is what I said before about the market being saturated in a short space of time with three Priest books – and apparently there is one in Italy – plus this one we’ve done together so that makes five books on the band in about two years. That is a lot for a band like Priest who are hardly a major global act. If they’re going to write their own book then time is running out. Perhaps it already has? And as I said before, we’ve gotten some really good reviews, some OK ones and some not so great ones…but you can’t win ‘em all.”
“Overall, the response was a good one, I’d say. Al has done more interviews for this than he has for anything else and he’s still getting emails all the time from website writers, magazine scribes and broadcasters here and abroad and we got a lot of press so fans are interested. If a book doesn’t work out, there’s little point in dwelling on it. I just move on to the next one. But for Al it is different because it is his only book so he is still working hard on its publicity. Good for him!”
CB: “The cost (mental and financial) of putting out a book like Dawn Of The Metal Gods… is it worth it? I completely understand that it would be on a personal level, but the bigger picture might change your thinking in the end.
Daniels: “As you know yourself, writing a book is very hard. It is physically and mentally draining and by the end of it you are a little fed up of the subject and just want to move on to something else. Financially, no, it’s not been worth it. Far from it, in fact. I have made very little money but that’s not the point. I knew that when I took it on. I just wanted to help Al get his story out there to the metal loving public. Some books are done for their commercial appeal and some are done for their historical substance. It’s good to balance them out. Naturally you learn things about the subject that you never knew if you go deep enough into their history. I mean with my Bon Jovi one I was kind of surprised at how many people don’t actually like Jon Bon Jovi. But then again, he’s also got a lot of nutcases for fans.”
CB: I haven’t seen read it, but your All Pens Blazing concept seems to float quite well. Is that surprise to you? How have the journalists featured reacted to it? Some of them can be real divas, after all.
Daniels: “Oh, the response for this one has been amazing. I got great reviews and lots of emails from readers (who are not writers) about how great it was to read interviews with writers like Paul Suter, Dave Reynolds, and Derek Oliver. Those guys are legends in the field of melodic rock writing. It’s a same a lot of them don’t write anymore. The project started on my website and after some emails with Martin Popoff about self-publishing and POD, because he does a lot of self-publishing, I was keen on the idea of gathering more interviews that were not on my site and publishing a book. The publishers I approached were not interested so I decided to go down the POD route just because self-publishing is far too costly and POD is relatively cheap if you find the right company. I went with AuthorsOnline in the UK though for my next POD books I’m going to go for Lulu in the USA which a lot of music writers are going for now or so it seems. The book features 65 interviews and I’ve almost made all my money back so I have begun Volume Two which will be out in the summer. Those who complained about the omission of some writers will be pleased that volume two will feature Mick Wall, Bernard Doe, Kelv Hellrazer, Paul Rees, Krusher and about 50 other well-known names.”
“Yeah, some writers can be divas and more ego-driven than the artists they’ve interviewed but at the same time some writers are way more interested than the artists they’ve interviewed. I love reading the interviews in Volume One and can proudly state that Volume Two will be just as – if not more – interesting. On a technical level, the text for Volume One was a little too small and the cover came out quite dark but as it was my first POD book I was not surprised we had some technical issues. My good friend Robert McKenna who does an amazing job with my website neildaniels.com designed the cover and text and it was also his first stab at it and he was an amazing help and gave up a lot of free time for which I am thankful. It was quite stressful for us both because we had no idea what we were doing. With Volume Two I’ve got a professional designer (James Gaden) who designed my second POD book Rock ‘N’ Roll Mercenaries which came out great. The thing is, Rob is far too busy with work and impending parenthood to design another book as well as run the website so that’s why I’ve hooked up with James Gaden who does an amazing job designing and formatting Fireworks Magazine. It’s all a learning curve. Once Volume Two is out I’m going back to Volume One and redesigning and formatting it so they make a matching pair and then…maybe I’ll do a third volume. It’ll be like the Paris Review of hard rock and heavy metal writers.”
CB: Given your ever growing catalogue of work, are you able to write full time? Any more projects in planning? If so, can you offer some details as to what’s next?
“I won’t be able to go full-time for at least another year and even then it depends on what projects I have. I haven’t made a great deal of money from books but if I was full-time I’d have the time to secure more book deal whereas at the minute I can only work on one, possibly two depending on what they are. There aren’t many writers who work full-time. If you can get two or three big book deals a year then I guess it’s feasible or perhaps some major features in the bigger magazines but there really is little money in music writing. A back catalogue is very important and that’s something I’ve learned from Dave Thompson, a great music writer who publishes through small indie companies, bigger companies and online. He’s also an excellent writer with a vast knowledge of music.”
Daniels:“As for my next projects, well, I’m working on All Pens Blazing Volume Two and the second Rock ‘N’ Roll Mercenaries will be out at the end of the year or perhaps early 2011 and I’ll also republish the first All Pens Blazing. They’re all POD books and as such there is no deadline so I can finish them when I like. I have an agent now and he’s in talks at the minute about getting me another big book deal for a bio of a major American rock band. I hope to have that out late 2011. I’ll continue to work on POD books for the smaller, niche ideas and hope to continue working with mainstream publishers. Depends on the project really.”
CB: Finally, which do you prefer: being an independent do-it-yourself writer of having a publishing house push your work?
Daniels: “Again, it depends on the project. I mean, even with the mainstream publishers or the indie ones you’d be amazed at how little publicity they do. You have to do it all yourself. That’s something I learned early on. Like I said, I’m working with an agent now so if I can get some bigger deals then I’ll carry on working on POD books. Dave Thompson and Martin Popoff are great writers to learn from in that respect. Joel McIver too as he is prolific and very experience. Don’t be snobbish. It’s cool to have a book out there regardless of how much or little money you’ve made or going to make. Naturally it is pointless breaking your back by making the definitive book on a subject if the advance doesn’t cover two months rent. That doesn’t mean it can’t be a good book but it’s pointless interviewing over a hundred people and soaking up your advance with an electricity bill for something that’ll be off the shelves in the discount stores in 15 months. It depends on the project. Because of the All Pens Blazing books I’m in touch with over a hundred writers as wells as lots of PR people and record company personnel so I send out press releases regularly and try to get them published on the major websites so you really have to do a lot of work regardless of who publishes it. My website has been vital in that respect. Robert McKenna, my webmaster, has done a great job building the website up from nothing and with the content I’ve sent him to upload it archives pretty much everything I’ve done as well as an exclusive archive of author interviews which will be extended again at some point. I’m already working on interviews now and branching out in sci-fi/fantasy/horror writers because that’s what I love as well as rock.”
Save a brain: buy a book and then turn off the damn computer 🙂