Al Sussman talks with Bill and Leslie King about Beatlefan reaching its 35th birthday. …
How did all this begin? Describe, if you will, the genesis of Beatlefan.
I had toyed with the idea of some sort of Beatles newsletter or fanzine since the early ’70s, running off prototype copies I sent to a friend. By 1978, I was the rock critic for The Atlanta Constitution, and I’d been thinking about the idea more and more, since I was constantly coming up with bits of Beatles news in my job. I was always searching for a reliable, timely source of information about The Beatles and couldn’t find one. So I decided to do it myself. Beatlefest was scheduled here in Atlanta and that gave me further inspiration. Since Leslie and I had always wanted to have a publication of our own, we decided to combine the interests, and that resulted in Beatlefan. A week after we decided to do it in October of that year, Mark Lapidos generously allowed us to put flyers for the new magazine on his table at Beatlefest, and the first issue came out that December.
Leslie, Beatlefan was very much a family project in the early days, with Bill’s brothers, Tim and Jonathan, also on board. As someone who already had familiarity with such things, what was your primary job in those very early years?
In addition to dealing with the administrative side of filling orders, my main job in those days was typesetting the articles. We had a college friend who formerly had run a weekly newspaper, and he had a Compugraphic typesetter. We rented time on it.
Bill, you’ve stated many times that the murder of John Lennon and the days afterward were Beatlefan’s first real test of fire. How did the sudden transition from what was supposed to be the magazine’s second anniversary issue to the Lennon commemorative issue differ from how, heaven forbid, something similar might be covered today?
Well, assembling information in those days was extremely primitive compared with today’s Internet age. Contributors had to physically mail in clippings and articles for the magazine, and in order to contact them quickly we had to use something called a Mailgram (sent via telephone and delivered like a telegram) that younger folks today probably have never heard of. Nowadays, with email and Google, it would be much easier to do an issue like that in a short period of time. Despite the constraints of those days, the fact that we managed to publish our Lennon commemorative issue within two weeks of his death has always been a source of great pride for us.
How long do you think it took for Beatlefan’s readership to “get” the concept of the magazine and not think that it was just another “fanzine”?
Pretty quickly, I think. The fact that we were the only fanzine in that era that was typeset, and that we published on a regular schedule set us apart right from the start. Also, thanks to you and some of our other contributors whose reviews were not always gushing and positive about the solo Fabs’ work, we quickly established a reputation for being a fan publication with a difference — though not everyone was in favor of that particular approach in the very early days. We’d get letters asking why we were critical of this or that release if we were supposed to be fans. And my answer was that being a fan didn’t mean that you mindlessly praised everything they did. It means you’re interested in and receptive to their efforts, successful or not, but if a track or album or whatever is subpar, you should say so.
After that first crisis in December 1980, the mid-1980s were a very quiet time in the Beatleworld, with only Paul McCartney having much of an ongoing recording career. Since the magazine was still in its formative stages, how did you build around that lack of new recorded material from the solo Beatles?
It’s always amazed me that even during relatively fallow periods like that, there’s still always been a surprisingly large amount of news about The Beatles, together and individually, frequently more than we could fit into one issue. Plus, of course, we have never just been about the news. So we had interviews, retrospectives, feature articles and the like filling up Beatlefan. The fact that we always had plenty of people willing to write for us was a big plus, too. It was also during that period, of course, that we absorbed Barb Fenick’s The Write Thing, which widened our readership a good bit.
Leslie, eventually Beatlefan went from you typesetting it to desktop publishing. How did all that (and the addition of Anglofile) change the business affairs of the magazine and the overall shape of The Goody Press?
Production of the magazine became more efficient, though that was due as much, probably, to long years of doing it over and over. The more significant factors were changes in ways of communicating, with the rise of email and the Internet.
Bill, after that quiet period in the mid-’80s, the period from 1989 through the ’90s became very busy. Can you go over some the changes Beatlefan went through during that time? While there was never a moment of crisis like the Lennon murder, what kind of challenges did you face in covering everything that was happening during that period?
Once Ringo and Paul started touring, that amped up both what we had to cover and amount of material we were being sent by readers considerably — especially with the early tours, which we covered in practically microscopic detail on a city-by-city basis. The “Anthology” period also produced a lot of news (and challenges in covering it), and as a result of our being in the forefront of that coverage, our profile and readership were boosted considerably.
I’m going to list some of the longtime Beatlefan contributors. Give me a capsule answer on what they bring to the overall picture of the magazine. Wally Podrazik …
Wally was one of our very earliest supporters and contributors and has remained with us throughout. His specialty, I think, is placing albums and events in a larger historical context. And he’s also provided good advice on ways to approach covering new developments.
In addition to providing some of our biggest interviews over the years, Allan has always been very generous sharing news and information. He also provides a constant example of the sort of standard of excellence that we strive to maintain. Plus, as my daughter and I found out this past summer when we attended his wedding, he throws a great party!
Brad first joined us while he was a college student in Atlanta and remained so after he became a fellow newspaperman up North. Brad has become our chief book reviewer in recent years. He’s always been very much in tune with what we aspire to do, and that shows in his thoughtful, evenhanded reviews. Brad also became a good friend. I always look forward to his visits to Atlanta.
As our chief London correspondent, Simon is something of a wizard, managing to make his way into even the most limited or exclusive of performances and gatherings there. He also provides valuable news and reviews of what appears in the British media. And on our last visit to London, he managed to wangle us a great table at the very crowded Hard Rock Cafe!
John is a close friend as well as a contributor to the magazine. He’s always been an ace collector of Beatles music and releases, and he’s our chief source these days of unofficial recordings, whether it’s Macca in concert or some obscure bootleg. If it’s available digitally, John will find it! John is also a fount of information on McCartney releases and has a formidable archive of photos he shares with us.
I think Rick, who’s another good friend, keeps us in touch with the heart and soul of fandom. We call him the original Fan on the Run, and his reports from Ringo and Macca shows over the years have been an invaluable resource. Rick also has a wonderful collection of Beatles memorabilia and has written extensively for us about that.
Kit provides us with not just a second-generation fan’s point of view, but also an insatiable curiosity about The Beatles and their work seen through fresh eyes. She has done our column about online Beatles activities for many years and also has been a mainstay in our efforts to cover other Apple Records acts.
Tom has become another ace reviewer for us and provides an encyclopedic knowledge of tracks and releases. He’s our go-to guy on the BBC recordings, for example.
Howie is one of the most passionate fans I’ve ever encountered. Whether he’s offering praise of something or is appalled by it, he’s certainly not afraid to voice his opinion! He’s contributed a wealth of interviews in recent years, and his conversations with these folks go way beyond what most interviewers would seek, and he’s provided us with a number of breaking news exclusives. Howie’s also one of our Wings experts.
If only for length of service, I guess I better throw myself in here, too.
Well, in addition to writing some of those early not-so-positive reviews that set us apart, Al, I’ve said many times that you’ve served as my right-hand man over the years. In addition to the many retrospectives you’ve written for the magazine, you’ve always provided valuable advice and suggestions.
No list of major contributors to Beatlefan’s first decade would be complete without the late Nicholas Schaffner. For those who don’t go back to those early years and may even have never read “Beatles Forever,” tell us about Nick.
Nick wrote the book on Beatles fandom, literally, in “Beatles Forever,” and along with Wally was one of our earliest supporters, starting when we first met at the Atlanta Beatlefest in 1978. Nick was always generous in supporting us, whether it was writing one of his eloquent pieces for the magazine, or putting us in touch with someone who could help us. Again, Nick provided a constant example of the standard of excellence we wanted in the pages of Beatlefan. He’s greatly missed.
Over the past year or so, while I’ve largely been away working on “Changin’ Times” (book plug!), some new blood has come on board the good ship Beatlefan. Tell us about some of the new additions to the roster.
Well, a couple of the retrospectives that you ordinarily might have authored have been written by Robert Rodriguez, the man behind the “FAQ” books as well as a terrific volume about the “Revolver” album. Jeff Slate, who is both a musician and a fine writer, has provided us with numerous reviews. Jeff Cochran, who I first met way back when I was a rock critic and he worked at Peaches Records in Atlanta, and who spent many years at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in advertising, has provided some very thoughtful commentaries that often connect the Fabs with what else was going on in the world at key times. Ken Orth has done some fascinating pieces on the making of iconic Beatles album covers. Over the past year, Brigid Choi, a student at Atlanta’s Emory University who works part-time in our office, has provided us with the millennial view of the Fabs. Plus, of course, there are other contributors who’ve been with us for quite a while who’ve continued to play a big part in the magazine, like Bruce Spizer, with his extremely well-researched pieces on Beatles history, and Steven Prazak, who not only has contributed insightful, witty articles over the years, but has designed some of our most memorable covers. Longtime contributor Ken Sharp has returned to our pages in recent months with some much appreciated interviews. Bob Gannon has joined Rick Glover in providing us with some fine concert photography, and Jill Jarrett and her camera are on the scene for key West Coast events, along with longtime news correspondent Peter Palmiere. And there are many others who contribute to our pages. Just check the contributor’s listing on Page 3 of any issue to see the multitude of names listed. We appreciate them all!
Leslie, overall, how do you think Beatlefan has changed from its first decade and how is it still the same?
Fundamentally, Beatlefan the magazine is still the same, a printed publication about The Beatles. But our editorial content has evolved with changes in the lives of the members of The Beatles as well as in the way readers and consumers expect to get information and communicate. Our content reflects and is shaped by changing trends, from LPs to tapes to CDs to digital music. And Beatlefan the brand has grown, as our number of outlets beyond the magazine has increased over the years, first with Beatlefan/EXTRA! and then the Website, the Beatlefan Bulletin email reports and, more recently, with the direct interaction with readers on our Facebook page and now the addition of our SOMETHING NEW blog.
Bill, I think you were asked a variation on this in a recent interview but, if you had to pick a Top Five issues of Beatlefan over the 35 years of the magazine, what would they be?
That’s a tough one. I’ll group the Lennon and Harrison commemorative issues together, plus other favorites include the special issue we did capping our comprehensive coverage of the 1989-90 Macca world tour, the “Sgt. Pepper” silver anniversary issue, our Wingstory issue, and our 200th issue. But there are many more that could take a place on that list, from the issue with the Jack Douglas interview about the last Lennon sessions, to the one where we featured Rupert the Bear, to the Beatles X-Files edition, to the one where my son and I toured Beatles sites in New York City with you, and also the issues that featured the group interview I did with Macca in the “Give My Regards to Broadstreet” era. And so many others …
And what of the future? You’re a professional journalist, working for what is still considered a major daily newspaper, and Leslie has considerable experience in newspapers and magazines. In, say, five years, do the two of you expect Beatlefan to still be a print magazine? What about the possibility of podcasts or a Beatlefan app?
As long as there’s enough demand for a print edition, that will remain our mainstay. We may eventually supplement it with some sort of electronic edition delivered as PDFs, or that could even wind up as the main way Beatlefan is read if the print format becomes no longer financially viable. I imagine we’ll continue to explore social media outlets. As for podcasts, apps and whatever else pops up, those aren’t really my area of expertise and I don’t have the time to deal with such products right now, but I wouldn’t be averse to exploring those areas if the right contributor came along who could help shepherd them.