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Flying Music celebrates 30 years

Music Week, 6th July 2012


Nostalgia is a powerful thing and music is perhaps its most effective vehicle. It snares the senses with a sonic hook and drags its wistful victim back through the ages to a time since forgotten.

Live producers and promoters Derek Nicol and Paul Walden know this better than most as they’ve propelled their company Flying Music into its 30th year by looking back. Nostalgia is Flying’s key product, with a range of music shows purpose built
for children of decades gone by.

Whether it’s a live coupling of legends that have left the limelight, a star-studded line-up of genre defining pop groups or an all-singing, all-dancing cast production prepped to recreate an iconic era, a Flying Music show is an experience you thought you might never have again.

Today, Thriller Live is the company’s flagship. Take a stroll through London’s West End and it’s hard to miss ‘Michael Jackson’ strutting from billboards at the Lyric Theatre, Billie Jean point and all.

The show itself is a journey through the life of one of music’s most important figures - from the child star to the King Of Pop. It’s a tribute, but it goes well beyond a meager impersonation. It’s been praised for its high production values, charismatic leads and careful but energetic recreations of Jackson’s most defining works and moments.

If it’s not showcasing cast productions of musical legends, Flying Music is bringing the legends themselves together. Whether its coupling Ray Charles with Van Morrison, pairing two former Bluesbreakers in the form of Peter Green and John Mayall or managing the unenviable task of reuniting The Monkees, Flying Music has been behind concert bills that most would only dream of including putting Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino together for the first time.

The defining first line-up from Flying, however, featured Gerry And The Pacemakers, The Searchers and Peter Sarstedt.

“The company started in 1982 and originally promoted club nights with the independent local radio network at that time,”
remembers Walden.

“The local radio stations were keen to be seen to be doing things in the community so we started putting on club nights and the odd concert for them - primarily disco nights and concerts with artists like Amazulu and Bananarama.”

Nicol adds: “We worked with artists that had either had a couple of hit records or some credibility in the market that we could take out, but a lot of them were up-and-coming acts who were just bordering on the charts. They were up for it because it was a radio station night so they would get the promotion on air in addition to the live opportunity.

“In fact I think we were one of the first into the PA circuit, where artists would go out and play to their current tape,” he ponders. “That’s what we did up and down the country. We created tours for these artists and they became like concert tours.”

In 1984 Flying Music worked on its first concertshow for Southern Sound Radio in Brighton, promoting none other than the legendary Stevie Wonder. It was perhaps a suggestion of what was to come as the company put on its first nationwide concert and theatre hall tour the following year. “It was a brand that we still work with today called The Solid Silver 60s Show,” says Walden, “and the very first one was with Gerry And The Pacemakers, The Searchers and Peter Sarstedt.”

It was an all-star nostalgia line-up for any Merseybeat mums and dads on the surface, but something much more significant sat at the core of the show: Flying Music had discovered a way to breathe new life into acts that were otherwise resigned to winding down, their glory days well behind them.

“We were taking acts who, at the time, had actually stopped performing concert dates,” explains Walden. “They were all, pretty much, doing cabaret shows, corporate events or whatever they could pick up.”

“Their recording career had gone a long time ago but they made their living by live performance,” Nicol adds. “So we took the concept into a more comfortable environment for the audience: we put them in a nice seated concert hall rather than a
smokey, dingy club.”

Whether it was a dream pairing or a bumper blast from the past, Flying Music subsequently put on similar shows over the next 15 years with the likes of Glenn Campbell, Frankie Valli, Neil Sedaka, Smokey Robinson, The Supremes and The Four Tops. Walden and Nicol had hit upon a niche that would prove incredibly popular with the public and, in fact, the artists themselves.

“They were completely reinvigorated by the whole experience,” says Nicol. “They would do packages back in the early Sixties when they were doing the Odeon circuit playing to thousands of people. And now there they were, back on theconcert platform again, playing to huge sold out audiences. They felt great about it.

“Their craft was always performing live, so the guys felt comfortable from the moment they stepped back on stage for the first show. It wasn’t a case of having to get into it and I think the audience felt that as well.”

Thanks to their combined experience in promotion and artist management during the Seventies, as well as stints in recording and publishing, the duo saw potential in the acts they were working with and the sell out shows they could still achieve under the right conditions.

“A lot of the acts that we started to work with didn’t have record deals,” says Walden. “We realised there was an opportunity there, so, with some of the artists we actually put what’re now known as ‘360 degree’ deals together and started working with them, not just in terms of live performances but recording deals and video for some of them as well.

“The first one we did was with Neil Sedaka. Neil hadn’t released any product to speak of for quite some years. We put together a deal with him that involved not only touring but also a greatest hits album where he actually re-recorded some of his originals and licensed others.

“We established a deal with Polygram to do a TV-advertised album package alongside the tour and a BBC One TV special, which was also going to be available for video. So that was a truly 360 degree deal, if you like, and going from selling very few records in the five or six years previously, that album came out and went platinum for Neil.”

The Sedaka tour sold out, the album hit 400,000 units in the UK alone and the TV special went out in a prime time slot. It was a level of success that no-one would have dared predict for the singer at that stage in his career.

For record labels and publishers with semiretired stars on their books, the implications of the Flying Music concept went far beyond a reminiscing audience and aging icons happy to be back on the boards.

Nicol and Walden had hit upon a formula that tapped into the greater potential of catalogues otherwise forgotten about. But companies had to be clued into what Flying was doing.

“The repertoire record labels had was sitting on the shelf,” says Nicol. “You might have been able to get it in certain shops, but there was no marketing, promotion or anything like that. If you wanted to find it you really had to search for it.

“So when we went to them with the overall campaign we had planned, and got them to TV market it, they already had a lot of the material on license anyway so they were able to make a compilation album to go alongside. It benefited all of us: it worked for the record company, it worked for the artist and it worked for Flying Music as well. It was a complete cross-marketing effort.”

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