A tribute to NME legend Fred Dellar, who had more knowledge than we carry in our smartphones

The hugely respected writer and journalist, who found his journalistic feet at NME in the 1970s, died last week at the age of 89. Rest in peace, Fred

Fred Dellar, who died on 15 May, just a few days short of his 90th birthday, was a true NME legend.

While his career embraced a swathe of UK music journalism, Fred found his journalistic feet at NME in the 1970s. Making his way from Northampton, he’d get the lift up the IPC Media building at Kings Reach Tower in London, sail past Country Life and Yachting World magazines and hunker down at the music weekly. Carbon paper in situ, Tip-Ex to hand, Fred sat down to impart his wisdom.

Factory Records appreciated Fred’s journalistic tenacity when they awarded him a Factory Number (FAC 227). And a whole generation of NME writers (Julie Burchill, Tony Parsons, Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray) testify to Fred’s generosity, kindness and comprehensive knowledge of popular music.

During his time at NME, Fred also put together a studio round-up as well as a weekly import column. This was important, as album by American acts were then released weeks – sometimes months – ahead of time in the USA before arriving in the UK.

Fred sailed across every musical storm in the music business. Mick Farren’s infamously prescient ‘The Titanic Sails At Dawn’ feature ran in 1976. It bemoaned the way that rock’n’roll had become a remote, bloated artifice. NME was the first of the music weeklies to pick up on punk. You might have thought Fred Dellar, older than the rest of the team, would have sat unhappily in the Kings Reach offices at that time, particularly when a couple of ‘hip young gunslingers’ put up barbed wire around their desks to “keep the hippies out”.

‘Uncle Fred’ was always welcome, though. Tony and Julie used to bring him in cakes.

In back issues of NME bulging with breathless coverage of The Sex Pistols, The Jam, Talking Heads, The Clash, Tom Robinson Band, Generation X and XTC, you’ll find Fred’s column answering readers’ queries. They were on everything from a Simon & Garfunkel discography, Phil Manzanera’s current plans, Zoo (“a French outfit, loosely based on Blood, Sweat & Tears…”), Barefoot Jerry (me neither), Stevie Wonder’s birth name and the address of the Ramones fan club.

His weekly ‘Fred Fact’ boxes answered readers queries about everyone from T. Rex to Throbbing Gristle. Before there were music monthlies and rock encyclopedias, and long before the internet, if you wanted to know anything about anybody in ‘pop’ (later ‘rock’), you dropped Fred a line. And bless him, unlike most columnists, he also took the trouble to reply to individual enquiries.

The cover of NME in 1976, the era in which Fred joined the publication

Fred may have been born at a time when he had to do National Service, but then not many scribes were present at a Hoagy Carmichael gig, or helped Eric Clapton carry his amplifier to a Howlin’ Wolf session. Who else saw Billie Holiday perform and bonded with Tom Waits?

Fred undertook one of the first-ever UK interviews with Waits, in 1976. The gravel-voiced troubadour clicked with the ex-RAF freelance. They talked a lot about shoes. Fred was there when Waits made his live UK debut wearing “a suit straight from the great LA misfits sale of ’48 and a cap that’s more worn than a Ronnie Scott joke”.

It wasn’t just his knowledge; it was Fred’s genuine enthusiasm for every aspect and facet of popular music.

His 1981 NME Guide To Rock Cinema was comprehensive; along with Roy Carr and Brian Case, his book The Hip was… well – hip, man. His Encyclopaedia Of Country Music was a landmark when country was about as cool as something very warm. Fred just loved music: sheet music, 78s, 45s, LPs, CDs. Talking about it; listening to it. He rarely argued about music, because Fred respected everyone’s opinion.

“He rarely argued about music, because Fred respected everyone’s opinion”

Above all, there was the unassuming modesty of the man who carried more knowledge in his little finger than we can load onto our smartphones.

From NME, Fred went to Smash Hits where he encouraged youngsters like Neil Tennant (later a Pet Shop Boy), Mark Ellen and David Hepworth; then on to Vox where his knowledge astounded me when I worked alongside him. I remember telling him, ‘Wasn’t it amazing that Louis Armstrong played on records with country’s first superstar, Jimmie Rodgers?’ Fred smiled, as if I could tell him anything new.

Fred finally landed a berth at MOJO magazine. Fred’s ‘Time Machine’ pages at the back of the magazine was where many began reading. His crosswords were a joy; the Alan Turing of rock bafflement. He was always at the end of a phone when there was that niggling “Who was that bloke, 14th from the right on the ‘Sgt. Pepper…’ cover?” query.

So many journalists who benefitted from Fred’s patronage responded with heartfelt tributes when news of his death broke, among them Bob Stanley, Neil Tennant, Andrew Collins, David Quantick, Barney Hoskyns, Mat Snow, Paolo Hewitt and Stuart Bailie.

You sense that given the choice, Fred’s Heaven could have been listening to Ella Fitzgerald in a Nashville honky tonk while Chet Baker limbered up at the bar. Or Andy Partridge joining the Andrews Sisters. Or Joy Division ‘jamming’ with Gerry Mulligan.

For Fred, though, Frank Sinatra was always the guv’nor. Fred’s writing began with a Sinatra fanzine, then helping run Ol’ Blue Eyes’ UK Appreciation Society. Fred was even there when the singer undertook ‘Sinatra Sings Great Songs from Great Britain’, his only-ever album recording session in London. How cool is that?

It was all Fred’s world. We just happened to be passing through.

Finally, I remember a conversation with Fred; I was grumbling about this damned new-fangled internet taking work away from all us freelancers. Fred told me not to worry: “It’s the stuff that slips between the cracks we deal with.”

Rock on, Fred.

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