Wednesday 24 October 2018

'I give thanks that I'm alive because a lot of crazy stuff happened - I mean crazy' - BP Fallon reflects on extraordinary music career

DJ, musician, and all-round rock 'n' roll star, BP Fallon has worked with Led Zeppelin, shared a stage with John Lennon, and now fronts his own band. But before he gets down to writing his memoirs, the Dubliner has another chapter to live, he tells our reporter

'I give thanks that I'm still alive because a lot of crazy stuff went on. I mean crazy' - BP Fallon. Photo: Patrick Bolger
'I give thanks that I'm still alive because a lot of crazy stuff went on. I mean crazy' - BP Fallon. Photo: Patrick Bolger
BP Fallon in the Freemasons Hall in Dublin. Photo: Patrick Bolger
Rock 'n' Roll star BP Fallon pictured recently in Dublin. Photo: Patrick Bolger
BP Fallon DJing in 1965
BP Fallon with Marc Bolan in 1971. Photo by Barry Wentze
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

With his trademark bowler hat and black Converse shoes, BP Fallon looks every inch the rockstar as he poses for photographs in Dublin's Freemasons' Hall.

As someone who has been in front - and behind - the camera for the better part of his life, he doesn't need much direction.

The all-round music man is back in his hometown to take part in Hennessy Sound Lounge, an 'autobiographical journey through sound' that will see him sharing music, musings and cognac with a small group of guests.

It all sounds very cosy but Fallon admits that he finds the prospect a little daunting. "I've DJed to 80,000 people with U2 and I'm more comfortable with that," he says. "It's easier than talking to 12 people."

'I give thanks that I'm still alive because a lot of crazy stuff went on. I mean crazy' - BP Fallon. Photo: Patrick Bolger
'I give thanks that I'm still alive because a lot of crazy stuff went on. I mean crazy' - BP Fallon. Photo: Patrick Bolger

Bernard Patrick Fallon - or 'Beep' as he is known in the music industry - is talking about U2's Zoo TV tour in the early '90s. As the warm-up DJ, he played records from inside a futuristic mirror-covered Trabant which now resides in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And this is just one of his stories...

Fallon's extraordinary career has given him an Access All Areas pass to just about every corner of rock 'n' roll culture. He shared a stage with John Lennon and partied on Led Zeppelin's private jetliner 'Starship'. He worked with Marc Bolan, Phil Lynott and Joe Cocker and got immortalised in a street art mural by Maser.

He agrees that it's probably time to start thinking about his memoirs when we repair to Buswell's Hotel, but he has another chapter to live. He's now in a band, BP Fallon & The Bandits, and they're only getting warmed up...

Fallon was born in Dublin but moved to Germany when he was three. His father, Colonel John Fallon of the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, was posted to the British Army of the Rhine and, a few years later, young Fallon was sent off to a Yorkshire boarding school run by Benedictine nuns.

He didn't enjoy Ampleforth College. "We were taught more or less to be the same as everyone else," he recalls. "And if you're not the same you're an aggravation to the teachers. But those people who are not the same are often the magic ones..."

He didn't connect with his fellow students but it didn't matter: he had his beloved rock 'n' roll music, and it would soon serve him well.

BP Fallon with Marc Bolan in 1971. Photo by Barry Wentze
BP Fallon with Marc Bolan in 1971. Photo by Barry Wentze

Fallon was a 17-year-old student in St Conleth's College, Dublin, when he got a Saturday job as a panellist on RTÉ's Pickin' the Pops in 1964. "We'd listen to records and say if they were going to be a hit or a miss," he explains.

But the young rocker didn't exactly fit in there, either. "I was the freak," he deadpans. "I had long hair and that caused a furore because it was considered foreign. The Irish Catholic had a front page editorial saying that RTÉ was not set up to mirror the worst of English pop culture.

"Then Gay Byrne had me on The Late Late Show to be objectively probed," he laughs. "There was an actor there who was very facetious with me. He called me 'Sonny' so I called him 'Daddy' and the audience roared with laughter."

Byrne wrote about the experience a few days later in his Evening Herald column. "I know it sounds patronising but he wrote how intelligent he thought I was and how he'd never met a nicer person and all that. So I became famous very quickly in Ireland because television was new for everybody and RTÉ was comparatively new."

How did his St Conleth's classmates feel about his new-found success? "They didn't like me," he says at once. He stops for a moment to consider this before offering up a neater conclusion: "F*** 'em."

It's hard not to draw comparisons between the young Fallon and William Miller in Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical film, Almost Famous.

BP Fallon DJing in 1965
BP Fallon DJing in 1965

William got a $35 assignment to review a 1973 Black Sabbath concert; Fallon was earning £15 for every half-hour Pickin' the Pops segment - more than some Irish people were earning a week.

But he had itchy feet. The King's Road and Carnaby Street were in full swing and Grafton Street didn't have quite the same appeal. "I wanted to go to where the fountain was," he remembers, and, in 1969 he finally made the move.

His first job was driving a bread van. The depot was just off Wardour Street, where the infamous Marquee Club was. This meant he could see Jimi Hendrix play and then pack up the van and drive around London afterwards.

"I was really concerned that people from Ireland would see me and think, 'Oh God, is that what's happened to him?'" he laughs.

The depot were happy with him - even when he crashed the van on the first day - but the young rocker was already thinking towards his next gig.

He noticed that rock stars like Jimi Hendrix were buying Crimean War-era Royal Hussars jackets from antique shops on the Portobello Road. It's illegal for people who are not serving in the military to wear uniforms so he pitched the story to Newsweek and filed a report on the fashion trend from the gritty frontlines of rock 'n' roll.

The piece gave him some gravitas in the industry, which he used to full avail when he secured an interview with John Lennon at the 'bed-in' in Amsterdam. The piece appeared in Melody Maker and a byline in one of the most respected music magazines of its time gave him another string to his bow.

The Lennon interview also introduced him to The Beatles' press officer and close friend Derek Taylor who, "out of goodness and kindness", gave the enthusiastic young Irishman a job as a general assistant at Apple Records. As a schoolboy, Fallon used to hide on the Dublin to Liverpool boat to go and see his heroes play at The Cavern Club. Now they were his bosses.

Fallon's tasks varied. One day he would be asked to write a bio on Billy Preston, the next he would be asked to perform quality control on The Beatles' marijuana, the next he would be asked to pick up an instrument and perform 'Instant Karma!' with Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band on Top of the Pops. Yoko Ono can be seen crocheting while blindfolded in the video, while the young Dubliner is centre stage, miming the bass guitar. Lennon later described the motley crew's antics as "concept art".

Things got even wilder in the '70s. Glam rock was exploding and, after learning from the best in the business, Fallon was ready to add 'music publicist' to his rapidly expanding CV.

He was in the middle of the action for the rise of T.Rex, even coining the term 'T.Rextasy' as a parallel to 'Beatlemania'. The following year he was flying high with Led Zeppelin on the 'Starship' private jet.

He worked with some of the most influential rock artists of all time and he began to notice that some of these stars were burning bright before they even picked up an instrument.

"Phil Lynott was a star - not because he was famous - but because some people are just stars," he says. "He would walk down Grafton Street and he was cool. He was exotic and he was erotic. The guys wished they were as cool as him and the girls wanted to f*** him."

He tells another story about the day Jimi Hendrix, Noel Redding and drummers Viv Prince and Mitch Mitchell silenced an entire TV studio with their combined charisma.

"The whole place just went quiet and they hadn't done anything. Jimi was radiating, you know? And Marc Bolan, God bless him, was on the same show - as a side act - and you could see the two of them palpably vibing. It was incredible. They were in contact, you know?"

Does he think musicians can be prophets? "I do - but they can also be pumped-up idiots, too. The Beatles are to blame for that, and acid. Before that, you'd ask a guy in a band what was his favourite colour or who was his favourite movie star and then suddenly, after acid and The Beatles, all of these people were suddenly gurus.

"Eric Burdon, singer of The Animals - a hard-drinking guy from Newcastle - was suddenly Guru Eric, talking about cosmic things. They were treated like that and, after a while, when you're treated like that, you act like that, too."

After a long and storied career as a music publicist, Fallon returned to Irish broadcasting in the '80s. He won a Jacob's Award for his RTÉ 2fm show, The BP Fallon Orchestra. Then he set up Death Disco, an international club night that saw him sharing the decks with everyone from The Kills to Kate Moss.

Things were ticking along nicely - and he was even thinking about getting around to his memoirs - when a chance encounter in a New York nightclub changed everything.

Jack White of The White Stripes approached him and asked if he'd like to come to his Third Man studio in Nashville to record an album. Fallon's answer was an immediate and emphatic yes.

"Unlike a lot of rock 'n' roll stuff, it wasn't just verbal," he says. "A plane ticket arrived and I went down there."

The recording experience was "better than an orgasm". "I was in heaven and something happened - I was higher than I've ever been before."

The session culminated in a three-sided vinyl release, Fame #9, which includes a spoken word track called 'I Believe In Elvis Presley'. But Fallon was far from finished.

Seizing the momentum, he called up three musicians that he admired - guitarist Aaron Lee Tasjan, who has played with the New York Dolls, and the Blondie rhythm section of Nigel Harrison (bass) and Clem Burke (drums) - and asked if they'd like to be in his band. They all said yes and, without much ado, BP Fallon & The Bandits was born. "I'm doing it all back-to-front," he smiles

The ease with which Fallon assembled his dream team would suggest that he has some very influential people on speed dial but, more than that, it shows that he has a canny knack for being in the right place at the right time.

So, is he lucky, smart or both? Or, more specifically, can we engineer the fortuitous encounters we have, or are some people just born under a lucky star?

"I'm not going to tell you that I've never thought about it because I think about it all the time," he admits. "It's to do with not being afraid of the moment. I can walk in any door and if they don't want me there I'll leave and I'll apologise for being discourteous.

"But I do think you can create your own luck. I think you can give things a nudge if you're not too scared of following your instincts and seizing the moment."

Fallon also saw the dark side of rock 'n' roll during his time as a music publicist. "Phil Lynott - God bless him - wanted to be the rock 'n' roll guy all the time," he says. "But you can't do it all the time. It kills you.

"I give thanks that I'm alive because a lot of crazy stuff went on. I mean crazy."

He gave up drinking "a long, long time ago" and he doesn't really do relationships, either. "No one with any sanity would put up with me for more than 37 hours," he says, "but they will have an incredible 37 hours."

He still smokes marijuana, though - freely and frequently - and he would like to see it legalised in Ireland. "It's just a crime that this plant of medicinal value is not put to use."

These days he divides his time between Dublin, Austin and New York. Ireland is for friends and family, Austin is for music, and New York is for mischief. The States also has Whole Foods, which is where he does most of his shopping.

The man who was once at the helm of glam rock is now a healthy eater who avoids foods with added sugars and sweeteners. "People argue that I'm too thin," he says, "I turn sideways and I'm absent! But I take up less space and I can go places other people wouldn't fit..."

BP Fallon is one of seven music collectors speaking at the Hennessy Sound Lounge running in Hen's Teeth, Fade Street, Dublin 2 from July 19-28. Tickets cost €8 (plus booking fee). See eventbrite for more.

Photography by Patrick Bolger

Irish Independent

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