Jonathan King, Queen of Pop

| 16 Feb 2015 | 06:05

    Given his longstanding predilection for recording cheeky covers of others' songs?"(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," the Hombres' "Let It All Hang Out," the Archies' "Sugar, Sugar," B.J. Thomas' "Hooked on a Feeling," among countless others?you'd think that at some point during his 35-plus-year career that it would have occurred to English pop singer/record producer/satirist/ tv and radio show host/pseudonymist nonpareil/novelist/journalist/talent scout/record label owner/stage producer/political gadfly/ gay gadabout Jonathan King to cut a version of the Beatles' "I'll Get You," on which John Lennon, another master of cheek, repeatedly sings, "I'll get you in the end." For King, that would mean la derriere.

    As it happened, in the end the British legal system got King, now 57, convicted last November on charges of buggery and indecent assault on a handful of underage boys in the 1980s. He was sent to the pokey for seven years, yet King's case?like his career?hasn't registered a blip on the U.S. radar screen, lost amid all the hand-wringing, teeth-gnashing and general tsk-tsking associated with the sexcapades of Roman Catholic priests.

    Never anything less than a relentlessly raging cultural phenomenon, King's sticky imprint can be found on everything from mid-60s protest pop through early 70s art-pop, mid-70s disco and the timeless genre of British novelty tunes. In the topsy-turvy hurly-burly of British pop, he has been a constant presence and influence. Not forgetting his vast entertainment quotient. Dressed as an Edwardian dandy or a court jester, adorned with a multicolored afro wig, perpetually grinning loopily from behind oversized glasses, tooling around London in a white Rolls-Royce (personalized license plate KING1 or JK9000, depending on the year), King has sent up the pop scene while simultaneously scoring major UK and European hits under both his own name and a string of ridiculous guises: Nemo, the Weathermen, Sakkarin, the Piglets, Shag, Bubblerock, 53rd and 3rd, One Hundred Ton and a Feather, Sound 9418, St. Cecilia and Father Abraphart & the Smurps.

    Additionally, he discovered and named Genesis. Signed and named 10cc. Produced?and sang the bulk of the vocal parts?on the Bay City Rollers' breakthrough single. Coughed up dough to help stage the original Rocky Horror Show. Stood for Parliament as a member of his own political party, the Royalists (the electorate didn't bite). Wrote two novels with titles calculated to induce pained sighs: Bible Two and The Booker Prize Winner. Reported from New York radio station WMCA on the U.S. music scene. Penned a regular pop-music column for the Brit tabloid The Sun. Founded the weekly music industry magazine The Tip Sheet. Hosted the hugely successful BBC tv show Entertainment USA (plus produced another music program, No Limits). And in 1997 Prime Minister Tony Blair lauded him for his "important contribution to one of this country's great success stories," as the British Music Industry Trust deified him with a lifetime achievement award. (King also takes credit for much, much more, although the provenance of some of his claims remains a trifle dubious.) No one else quite like him ever has trod the pop landscape.


    Born Kenneth George King in London in December 1944, a rechristened Jonathan King, at the time a 20-year-old undergraduate at Cambridge University's Trinity College, roared into the UK Top 5 and U.S. Top 20 in the summer of 1965 with his hauntingly dreamy ballad "Everyone's Gone to the Moon," whose coyly subversive lyrics hinted at a creeping societal anomie: "Streets full of people, all alone/Rows full of houses, never home/Church full of singing, out of tune/Everyone's gone to the moon." He struck back immediately, handing over to his proteges, the British beat band Hedgehoppers Anonymous, his jaunty protest anthem "It's Good News Week" (it skewered the vacuity of the media), which he also produced; the song cracked the UK Top 5, while peaking at number 50 here (although any serious Brit Invasion fan knows it by heart): "Someone's dropped a bomb somewhere/ Contaminating atmosphere/And blackening the sky/Have you heard the news?/What did it say?/Who's won that race?/What's the weather like today?"

    With his proven songwriting and production savvy, a burning entrepreneurial drive and an elevated public presence courtesy of the six-month-long tv show Good Evening, It's Jonathan King, he soon joined doddering Decca Records (home of Hedgehoppers Anonymous) as chief talent scout and assistant to the label's chairman. In this capacity he whipped into shape the ragtag teens he dubbed Genesis, and oversaw their initial recording sessions.

    Abandoning Decca in 1970 (later in the decade he reunited with the label, effectively running it), King embarked on his career as the Man of 1000 Pseudonyms, peppering the UK charts in 1971 and 1972 with a whirlwind of inventively unlikely hits. As Sakkarin: a Gary Glitter-ized, mostly instrumental version of bubblegum behemoth "Sugar, Sugar," on which he sings only "Sugar, ah, sugar-sugar/You are my," allowing the listener to fill in the rest of the words. As the Piglets: the Caribbeanified "Johnny Reggae," with tarted-up female narration and vocals c/o hired hands. As the Weathermen: a straightforward reading, with strings, of the Four Tops' "It's the Same Old Song." As Nemo: a slice of jolly 1930s Brit music hall called "The Sun Has Got His Hat On." As Shag: the decidedly daft and butch "Loop di Love" (it reached number 4). And under his own name: an ungussied reprise of the Hombres' nutty 1967 "Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out)"; a zippy, ukulele-driven cover of the Hoagy Carmichael chestnut "Lazybones"; the oompah-y traipse "Flirt"; and, most deliciously, the zany 1971 "oogah-chukka" arrangement of "Hooked on a Feeling," released three years before Blue Swede appropriated King's idea and took the song to the top of the U.S. singles chart.

    In 1972 King established U.K. Records (distributed by Decca), to which he recruited 10cc, while releasing a peck of material under his own name and his growing list of absurd noms de studio. Generally, he employed the latter when putting quirky spins on past and recent hits, including a deadpan c&w take on the Stones' "Satisfaction" (Mick Jagger reportedly adored it) as Bubblerock in 1974; a suitably over-the-top cover of Daddy Dewdrop's bizarre "Chick-a-Boom (Don't Ya Jes' Love It)" as 53rd and 3rd in 1975; and, sounding remarkably like the Pet Shop Boys a decade before they invented themselves, a breathy version of Tavares' disco masterpiece "It Only Takes a Minute" as One Hundred Ton and a Feather in 1976. Simultaneously, he used his label to issue more substantive work?well, substantive when placed in context of his overall oeuvre?as Jonathan King, notably the curiously provocative 1973 LP Pandora's Box, among the first pop albums to embrace the gay lifestyle. Larded with opaque allusions ("Colloquial Sex"), open declarations ("Be Gay") and prickly broadsides against religious intolerance of homosexuality ("Jesus Can't You Leave Me"), Pandora's Box picked up where King had left off in 1971 with "I Don't Want to Be Gay," the B-side of "Hooked on a Feeling."


    Meanwhile, he lived the life outside the law. Or so claimed his accusers, men now in their 30s and 40s who alleged that he engaged in "child sex offenses" with them when they were less than 16 years old, after either cruising them in his Rolls and taking them to his home, or picking them up backstage at London's flamboyant Walton Hop disco. While the earliest charge dated from 1969, most supposedly occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, the heyday of King as pop star (70s) and tv celebrity (80s). At his trial last September, six charges stemming from the mid-1980s?four counts of indecent assault, one each of buggery and attempted buggery?were officially brought against King. All stuck. Despite a complete lack of concrete evidence, DNA or otherwise. Despite the fact that not one of the "victims" asserted that King forced himself on them. Despite the fact that all returned for subsequent liaisons, with one relationship lasting 18 months. Five different men claimed "emotional scarring" as a result of their encounters with King, who adamantly rejected the allegations.

    They testified that he seduced and exploited them with his celebrityhood, showering them with free records and t-shirts. He insisted that, in his capacity as multimedia pop impresario, he was merely engaging in "market research," quizzing them in search of useful youthquake morsels. The jury, not surprisingly, believed the plaintiffs.

    Certainly, ample precedent for King's behavior exists: The UK music cosmos teems with closeted and uncloseted cases. Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Ingenious record producer Joe Meek. Pre-Brit Invasion svengali Larry Parnes, who launched the careers of Tommy Steele, Billy Fury, Marty Wilde, Georgie Fame and many others. And Bay City Rollers architect Tam Paton.

    In a fascinating, detailed and lengthy account of King's saga in London's Guardian last December, former Rollers manager Paton characterized King's travails as "a fox hunt. Everyone wants to see the death of a fox." Paton spoke from experience. Twenty years ago he served 12 months on similar charges after being sentenced to six years in the Big House. "They would never have gone after us if we were heterosexual," continued Paton, King's friend and ex-colleague. "But if you're a poof, my God." (Perhaps. Remember Bill Wyman and Mandy Smith? Ah.)

    Boy George, no stranger to gay life, also sympathized with King's plight. In his Dec. 16, 2001, Sunday Express column, the Boy mused, "At worst, he is a product of an age where being ashamed of one's sexuality was commonplace and drove men of his type to hunt out naive youngsters who might keep his desires secret. And he might be a randy old sod. But he should be in therapy, not prison."

    But in prison he resides?cell 134 at Belmarsh, South London, to be precise, as #8782?and from there King presides over an uproarious website , a forum for all things Jonathan (Music, Literary, Travel, Biography, Please Send Money), including his forthright opinions on pedophilia in general and his case in particular. This past January, in a section entitled "Not So Profundis (My Side of the Story)"?given the circumstances, he enjoys winkingly invoking Oscar Wilde?King even copped to a certain culpability, writing, "In the merry 60's & 70's, when I was a young pop star, most of us were blissfully enjoying the fruits of our success. We did not always ask for birth certificates. So, whilst I did not want, look for, or enjoy children as sex objects, I cannot swear that every single girl or boy fan was 100% certainly over 16." But he also denied guilt concerning the six specific charges leveled against him: "I still claim to be innocent, but there's very little I can do to prove I didn't do something 18 years ago. Just as the 'victim' couldn't prove that I did?but the jury chose to believe his highly coloured allegations. My pathetic defence?'I didn't do it'?was rightly rejected as boring, dull, and not worthy of a tabloid headline."


    So King does his time. Meanwhile, you seldom, if ever, hear "Everyone's Gone to the Moon" on American oldies radio. Not because the broadcast mullahs have banned it as a result of King's conviction. Hardly. Rather, very likely it's considered too insignificant?a one-hit wonder by a forgotten Englishman. For similar reasons, you seldom, if ever, hear Whistling Jack Smith's "I Was Kaiser Bill's Batman" or Ian Whitcomb's "You Turn Me On," both from the same era.

    And outside of eBay, good luck finding any of King's greatest-hits compilations here, despite being packaged and repackaged at least a half-dozen times in the UK. The most satisfying: the 1989 double CD The Butterfly That Stamped, with King conjuring Kipling for the occasion, not Wilde. Then again, hints at the terrifying possibility of a future eight-disc box set of King's complete works. Yikes!

    In a recent missive from cell 134, King ?chunkier, grayer, but still grinning loopily?deftly, if somewhat bitterly, encapsulated his life: "In the 60's I was a pop star and writer. In the 70's I added producer and record label boss. In the 80's I branched into TV, radio, and journalism. In the 90's I produced the Brits, won Eurovision, became Man of the Year, and published the best music industry magazine in the world. In the 2000's, I'm a pop pervert, evil sex beast, and serial pedophile. Since I've always wanted to be an irritation, I appear to have peaked."

    Maybe. And yet King's longtime chum Jimmy Savile, the barmy-looking blond who hosted the essential British tv music show Top of the Pops for what seemed forever, probably came closer to the true essence of the man when he once remarked, "He's a sabra. A sabra is an Israeli fruit that's prickly on the outside and all soft and lovely inside. That's Jonathan King."