Saturday, 23 July 2011

Reeling in the Years: Interviewing Bob Marley

In 1978 I interviewed Bob Marley. Yup, the Bob Marley. Face to face. Now, before Marley fans get too excited, I must state here and now that it really wasn’t a great piece of work. I did it backstage: never my favourite place to conduct an interview. Backstage is a working area, definitely not DJ territory.  And Marley was… somewhere else. He really didn’t have that much to say to an impressionable Brit rock jock. Island Records were pumping up the Bob Marley mystique as hard as they could. That meant preposterous backstage faffery and ego-trips between promoter, pr people, tour managers, jocks and journos. I was really quite nervous, being a callow young honky and all, and Marley’s security was, shall we say, forbidding.

Job done and interview broadcast, I forgot all about it. For decades. Until yesterday, when I was contacted by a film company who wanted to use some of the material. How’s that for something echoing down the years and smacking you in the face?

I think this is a fascinating turn of affairs. There’s a whole bunch of things you can draw from this, none of them are about me and my interview.

Firstly: with today’s inexhaustible media, you never know when something you said in the past, no matter how ephemeral, will come back out of the blue. And that leads to the ‘how’ question:

… which is: how in the hell did they get hold of a 33-year old interview, which only went out once, on a not particularly well-listened to local station? Like a lot of broadcasters, my old station – BRMB – deliberately recycled its reel to reel tape to get the most mileage out of what was by today’s standards, very expensive recording media. Like many others,
and to their eternal shame, they did not keep a detailed archive. Realistically, there are two possibilities: either I gave the record company a courtesy cassette of the final production, or a Marley completist taped the interview as it was broadcast. And that also leads to the why question…

… which is; is there a point to storing all this old stuff? The immediate and obvious answer is, yes, of course, it’s a no-brainer. What gets more interesting is how you judge what should be preserved, and when does the material acquire significance? Let’s, theoretically, suppose that after 1979, Marley had simply not had that much success. Let us further suppose that he had simply retired instead of dying, and that he might be still alive today, living in obscurity. Those facts would not detract from the quality of the work he had done up to that point. But I bet you there wouldn’t have been half as much interest as there is now. It’s a sad fact that death always has a pretty powerful positive impact on the record sales of an established star. It allows a mystique to be reinforced. And, boy, did Island ever reinforce that mystique, throughout the 80s.

Finally, and coming back to the film company who want to use the interview clip, there’s the interesting question of copyright. Who, technically and legally, owns the rights to the interview clip? Well, it’s not me. It’s the company that now owns BRMB. Ironically, none of their current employees were working there when the interview was recorded. They probably weren’t even aware of its existence until I dropped them an email this morning.

And morally, who has a stake in the clip? That’s another question altogether. I don't really mind either way. It was a difficult interview to conduct, but, as people often say: there are no good or bad experiences… there are just experiences.


Paul Flower said...

I didn't see this back in the day (July 2011) but would've thought that the copyright reverts to you after so long. Given that the radio station and your then employers no longer exist and that it was your work - research, questions, reactions and voice - it's your copyright (in my opinion) regardless of what was the case at time of recording.

Anyway, did it go anywhere?

Robin Valk said...

Paul, you may well be right, but I do seem to remember a contract BRMB thrust at me back in the 70s stating that all the work I ever did at BRMB, or for BRMB, was irrevocably their copyright in perpetuity. That sort of thing was and is quite common, I'm told. I'm not entirely sure if it was legally watertight; morally is a whole other question.

As to whether it went anywhere... that's another story altogether. It turned out that the company seeking my verification was Nine Alps (Bob Geldof's outfit), and that the interview they thought might be mine was actually by somebody else. It was an interesting listen, with questions like: 'Mister Marley, could you kindly explain to the radio audience the meaning of Rastafarianism?'....

Pretty much a meeting of two totally incompatible worlds. I got back to them in a hurry to tell them that that was NOT me on the tape :-)

Brian CK said...

haha :D i would've loved to hear what Bob answered to that Qn :D anyway.. i love this interview