The First 75: A personal perspective (issues 61-75)

Fireworks Magazine - The first 75: Issues 61-75

(by Paul Jerome Smith)


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This (paraphrased) is what Bruce wrote in his Editorial for issue 61 (Jan/Feb 2014)..."Paul Jerome Smith steps down as Reviews Editor and features editor after this issue..... I still remember the first time I met Paul and....soon realised not only what a wonderful person he was" (please excuse my blushes) "but that he also possessed a hefty knowledge (and record collection!) of a wide range of rock music stretching from way back in the 60s to the present day. I quickly brought Paul onboard our fledgling magazine where he has remained for the past 13 years, the last few as Reviews Editor where he brought an unbelievable amount of order and structure to our chaotic magazine. Paul has been the father figure to our rapidly expanding group of writers, a trait honed in the many years spent working for the Prince's Trust as mentor manager....."

Bruce's wonderful words (and there were more!) brought a tear to my eye (well, I am a Piscean!!) But being Reviews Editor had become a mammoth and ever-present task in my life and as I was approaching the age of 65 (yes, really!) and having so many other things I wanted to do knew that I needed to step down in order to be able to stand any sort of chance of accomplishing them. I had alerted Bruce and James to my intentions at a management meeting at the start of 2013, and I was left with the task of identifying my replacement. Two potential candidates - and very close friends (although not geographically) of mine - had recently stepped down from the magazine for very good personal and family reasons but I was fortunate in looking at a wonderful team of individuals with the skills and competences required. I was unfortunate in looking at a team who mainly simply didn't have the time to give any more than they currently were. However, there was one individual, who although he was working, I knew to be unhappy in his role and was kept going by the possibilities for attending gigs, writing reviews and doing interviews provided by Fireworks. He also always had a very positive outlook and I was being drawn to broaching the matter with him, so discussed my thoughts with Bruce and James - very important as the person concerned had only been with the magazine from issue 45. Meanwhile, there was work to be done for 61, and having noticed that most of the book reviews were being written by Rob McKenzie, wondered whether he might like to assume responsibility for a column devoted to book reviews, in just the same way that Steven Reid had done with coverage of shorter format CD releases. He seemed delighted to have been asked, and so from this issue became another of the Assistant Editors while meanwhile Mark Donnelly was a new addition to the team.

Six pages were devoted to a review of the 10th anniversary Firefest, while an advert on the back cover provided the line-up for Firefest - The Final Fling in October 2014. My final interview for the magazine (or, was it?...read on) was with Guy Manning, whose band had just released their 14th album! Of course, I also reviewed this along with new releases from Blood Of Vangogh, Clannad, Corky Laing And The Perfect Child, Floating Worlds, Marcus Reeves, Matthew Good, Various Artists - Teenage Dirtbags and reissues from Jefferson Airplane and Savatage. Interviews with Michael Schenker, Michael Sweet, Joey Tempest, Roine Stolt, Tom Scholz and Mat Sinner provided fascinating insights as usual.


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After the main work for this issue had been completed, I invited Dave Scott to visit for several days to discuss and experience some of the processes of the Reviews Editor role that I was so delighted he had agreed to accept. It did seem a little strange, I must admit, not seeing my name in number 62 (Mar/Apr 2014) but it was a cracking 104 page issue with 42 (yes, 42!!) interviews - eat yer heart out other magazines that pretend to cover the rock and metal scene!! And was it possible to tell that a new Reviews Editor was in place? Not at all...Dave took the template I had developed and this was to be the beginning of him taking the Reviews section to the next level. Very impressive stuff, with new albums from House Of Lords, Magnum and Within Temptation leading the way. If readers could see the amazing spreadsheet he produces for each issue and the number of albums that are demoed for possible inclusion within the reviews pages, you would be gobsmacked! Another aspect that was specially pleasing for me to see was the excellent new 'Bookmark' books review feature page from Rob McKenzie.


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Wow!! 63 (May/Jun 2014), 100 pages and 71 MP3 tracks on the accompanying CD...of a PERFECTLY BOUND magazine (i.e. one with a spine, and incorporating lyric quotes)! Yet, all that Bruce said in his Editorial - and then just briefly at the end was "And I hope you like the new look magazine - the lyric quotes...are just for fun! 33 interviews covered the wide spectrum between Sebastian Bach, Ron Keel, H.e.a.t, California Breed, Linda And The Punch, Three Lions, Stan Bush, Gus G, Gotthard, Vanden Plas and so on.... Mr "front of the Firefest queue" Dave Crompton was this issue's new writer - yet another excellent addition to the team, and one who had also been a long-time subscriber to the magazine. New releases from Alien, Gotthard and H.e.a.t. graced the front of the Reviews section while the Firefest Final Fling advert revealed the entire festival 80% sold...


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These lyric quotes on the spines of the perfectly bound Fireworks started to frustrate me so I had to use t'internet to discover that "Don't hide in doorways, you may find the key that opens up your soul" comes from 'Don't Talk To Strangers' from Dio's 'Holy Diver' album. I've had it for years - but goes to show that I don't really pay much attention to most lyrics, the overall sound of a song being more important as a rule. This links well with the somewhat philosophical focus of much of Bruce's Editorial in 64 (Jul/Aug 2014: 100 pages and 73 MP3 tracks on the accompanying CD) where he concludes by remarking "...what I'm saying is that for myself, it is the music I am a fan of, not specifically the artist."

A great picture of a performing Doro graced the cover of the magazine, which went on to become a bigger selling issue. (How important to sales is the band or artist on the cover? It's one of those things that have been chewed over at length, and not just once!!) No fewer than four Festivals received extensive review coverage in this issue while the three lead new album reviews were from Night Ranger, Tesla and Seven: very interesting choices, I thought. There were 30 feature interviews, including firsts with Eric Ragno, KXM, WAMI, The Parlotones, Night By Night, Elvenking and Sunstrike, if I'm not mistaken, along with "regulars" such as Lzzy Hale, Danny Vaughn, Joe Elliott, Tobi Sammet and Steve Lukather. This was the first issue to become available at some of WH Smith's railway station and airport outlets.


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65
(Sept/Oct 2014) continued the run of 100 page issues (for perfect binding, the pagination have to be in multiples of 4) but there was no CD this time. Helen Bradley-Owers made her writing debut while Bruce waxed lyrical in his Editorial about "collectors editions", and specifically about vinyl albums and revealed something about him that I didn't know - a complete collection of Kiss vinyl picture discs!! (Fireworks has at last two other writers who either have or would give their eye teeth for these!!) I too have some collectable vinyl - unplayed and unopened of course, but I still have about 1500 properly played and listened to from the days before I began buying CDs, including what I am told is a very valuable first pressing of Led Zeppelin's debut album from ...well, whenever it was! There were no fewer than 35 feature interviews in this issue including one with Billy Sheehan of cover stars Mr Big.

The three albums selected to front the Reviews section were from A.O.R., Threshold and Work Of Art. It was another great issue! There was also an important change within the Reviews section from this issue: each review stated in the heading the musical genre represented by the release. Now, had I still been Reviews Editor, I think I would have strongly resisted this change! I know I made my views heard at the time, but on this my advice was not adopted. Of course for quite a lot of releases, it is very easy to assign a genre. But for quite a few the distinction is on a fine line. Then there are the bands and artists whose output floats across several genres between albums, not all of their output being from the same genre each time. Then there are the albums that have songs/tracks from umpteen different genres within a release. Finally the editorial team decided to give the writers a restricted choice of genres from which to select for each review. I personally abhor "BLUES/SOUL" as one of these: soul music has no place in a rock magazine! If there is going to be a genre it should be "BLUES ROCK"! (In due course the 'SOUL' bit was dropped...!!) Then there is "SOUTHERN/COUNTRY/FOLK"!! These are very unhappy bedfellows in my view, and - if genres are going to continued - should be separated into "SOUTHERN ROCK", "COUNTRY ROCK" AND "FOLK ROCK" (as Fireworks does not cover Country music or Folk music as such). However, while on the subject of "ROCK" - the categories (sorry, genres) you will find are "ROCK", "MELODIC ROCK" and "HARD ROCK" but despite stating that the magazine covers it, there's no "CLASSIC ROCK" genre (and I'm not even quite sure what this is, anyway!!) Sorry, but this is the one aspect through the history of the wonderful Fireworks Magazine where I have fundamentally disagreed with something that has been implemented. It is not only a crutch for the lazy reader (I'm sure Fireworks does not have these) but also a far from precise device.


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There were some who wondered why on Earth Godsmack were featured on the front of 66 (Nov/Dec 2014). Dave Scott was given a first go at writing the Editorial and the reason for the choice of cover band was explained by him. "As Fireworks continues to improve and expand into new territories, we're happy to announce that from this issue the magazine is now widely distributed across the USA." The concern, of course was that there was a worry that it might appeal less on the magazine shelves in Britain. Dave also gave some idea of the vast number of albums that he was sifting through for possible inclusion in every issue. This was many more than in my time, because he was accepting digital promos, whereas I rigidly insisted upon physical promos only. And they were forthcoming too, because the promotional personnel knew that I would not relent on this principle, so if they wanted a particular album to be considered for inclusion in Fireworks they knew what to do. I got on wonderfully well with most of the promotional guys and gals, but there were a couple with whom the relationship was not how I wanted it to be, mainly because they were forever trying to circumvent my requirements. As for trying to squeeze stuff in after the Press Date...well, I believe it has become worse since my retirement from a front-line role with the magazine. Mike Ainscoe joined the Fireworks team with this issue, and meant that once again there was someone from Bury in Lancashire (or is it "Greater Manchester"?) producing copy for the magazine. 33 interviews were published, including ones with Counting Crows, Deborah Bonham, In Faith, Flying Colors, Vega, Liv Kristine and The Pineapple Thief (as well as Godsmack, of course!) while new albums from Ten, Mr Big and Flying Colors kicked off the Reviews section.


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Skillet graced the cover of the next issue (67: Jan/Feb 2015) and they were among 35 bands to have interview features in this issue, among the others being ones with John Taglieri, Jimmy Barnes, Nubian Rose, Robby Valentine, Harem Scarem, Amaranthe, Crazy Lixx and Russell Allen. The review of the absolutely wonderful Firefest: The Final Fling covered an amazing seven pages, while a writer's poll revealed they thought that albums from H.e.a.t., Within Temptation, Night Ranger, Flying Colors and Work Of Art were the best of 2014. All are to be found in my music library... Indeed nine of the top 10 are there, the exception being Mr. Big's 'The Stories We Could Tell' - and having made that surprising discovery, I have now ordered it!! My name appeared on the contributor's list in this issue: as I undertook an interview with the fascinating Dan Swanö about the wonderful new album 'Retribution' from his band Nightingale. Indeed this was such a long interview, that (as with some other interviews) the full version can be found here, on Rocktopia, in the Fireworks section. Incidentally, Bruce tells the amusing story of getting confused between Nightingale and Skylark in his Editorial! At which point I will just obtusively mention that besides loving the music of both of these bands, one of my favourite pieces of Classical Music is 'The Lark Ascending' by Ralph Vaughan Williams, that was inspired by a poem written by George Meredith. That is always 16 minutes of "shivers down the spine" time for me... But I digress....


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68: Mar/Apr 2015 saw James writing the Editorial in his inimitable, humorous style..."with Bruce deciding for some unfathomable reason that he would rather be in Canada for a fortnight than...helping put the finishing touches to this issue..." . This just went to show what a solid team the magazine has: and congratulations to all on another sparkling issue (with another 35 interviews) is certainly in order. I also contributed (nearly anonymously) to this issue too...as Rob McKenzie included two book reviews (of mighty tomes) I had written. Without reading the Editorial, I wonder how many regular readers noticed the subtle change that happened to the front cover with this issue? Instead of listing bands/artists to be found in the issue along the top and bottom strips, seven of the genres covered by Fireworks were listed instead....Not, perhaps, a major change, but one that in discussion was felt to be worthwhile trying! (Seen in retrospect now, it was, perhaps, the small step that lead onto the much larger step of a relaunch...) Among the interviews were ones with Eclipse, The Answer, China Sky, Leah, UFO, Blackberry Smoke, Blind Guardian, Toto, Scorpions (also shown on the cover of this issue), Skarlett Riot and Gandalf's Fist while the three featured reviews of new releases came from Revolution Saints, China Sky and Toto.


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The CD (this time with 68 MP3 tracks and 22 page .PDF file) made a return with issue 69 (May/Jun 2015), but the number of pages went down to 84. A moody looking David Coverdale occupied the cover position, and his discussion with Dave Scott was the main feature interview of the issue, although other interviews: including ones with Lzzy Hale, Richie Kotzen, Francis Rossi, Neal Morse, Tommy Denander, Michael Schenker, Gunnar Nelson, Steve Hackett and Tuomas Holopainen highlight that this was another fabulous magazine. Nightwish, Radioactive and Whitesnake' provided the three featured new releases.


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70 (Jul/Aug 2015) was another 84-page issue but this time the accompanying CD had 71 MP3 tracks to go with the 22 page .PDF file. My copy still has this attached, and I bought it in the Glasgow Sauchiehall Street branch of WH Smith. I had a nice chat with the manager there, and explained why it would be appreciated if Fireworks could be displayed in a more prominent position. He appeared very supportive when I explained why, so I hope that the store is doing this. Half the battle for an independent magazine such as Fireworks is actually being seen, as that is an important way to pick up casual sales and potentially regular new readers. The headline new releases for the issue came from Kamelot, Ten and the solo album '1' from Dennis Churchill Dries (of White Sister and Tattoo Rodeo) while the 22 Feature interviews once again covered a wide range of solo artists and bands including Graham Bonnet, Joe Lynn Turner, Michael Des Barres, Steve Vai along with Europe, Kamelot, Symphony X, Helloween and Ten.


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Well, it was back to having the names of some of the bands featured in 71 (Sep/Oct 2015) on the top and bottom strips of the front cover. This was discussed, and I did have my say (in my current role as "Consultant") as I felt that it was really too soon for any difference in sales to be noted. However, a strapline under the magazine title was reintroduced and no longer showed "THE MELODIC ROCK MAGAZINE" (as it has always been far more than that) and instead had "CLASSIC ROCK ▪ BLUES ▪ METAL ▪ PROGRESSIVE". Did anyone notice? Did anybody (outside of the Fireworks team) really care? It was at this point that we began to take more notice of sales figures once we got them on an outlet by outlet basis, and I started going around as many of these locally to me as possible. Our publisher didn't like the fact that I had done this "under cover" as it were! They said I should have given the stores notice of my intention to visit. Really?!! That made me think that possibly at least some of the stores might be treating our independent title less favourably than ones from the major publishers. The jury is still out on this point, but at least it is realised that we are watching the situation very keenly! Regular Fireworks reader and subscriber Dawn Osborne joined the writing team in this issue along with Enrico Navella. It was another great issue with 28 interviews including ones with Glenn Hughes, Mike Tramp, Tim Bowness as well as with cover stars Candice Night and Ritchie Blackmore. Two major festivals were reviewed: Sweden Rock and Download while the new albums chosen as the lead reviews were by Blackmore's Night, Newman and Ozone. Once again, James did the Editorial and also conducted his third interview with the Blackmore's Night pair, and the sixth to be carried in Fireworks. The pair can be quite elusive in providing interview opportunities for other music magazines, and James explained that a strong feeling of trust had developed between them and Fireworks. What they say is what is reported; nothing is fabricated or put into an alternative context. Yet another way in which it would appear that the bands and artists interviewed by the Fireworks team are so comfortable with the magazine's personnel. If there is any editing (or, perhaps I should say "when"), it is for length and relevance, as sometimes the discussions (in person and on the telephone or SKYPE) continue for a VERY long time!


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Fireworks 72 (Nov/Dec 2015) was increased to 100 pages so that - as Bruce explained in his Editorial - the interviews with Def Leppard and W.A.S.P. could be included in the magazine in their entirety, so good were they. Indeed, there was a superabundance of excellent feature interviews, including ones with Mark Slaughter, Stryper, Joel Hoekstra, Billy Sherwood, Shinedown and Queensrÿche. Also interviewed (by Ian Johnson) was the guitarist from Riverside: 40-year old Piotr Grudzinski, little expecting that he would very soon be one of far too many from the musical world who would no longer be with us. With this issue the free CD contained 78 MP3 tracks and four .PDF files, while writer Mick Parry joined the Fireworks team.


Fireworks-Magazine-73 Section

It was back to 84 pages with magazine 73 (Jan/Feb 2016) and once again there was a CD with MP3 tracks etc. My Reviews Editor successor Dave Scott decided that to celebrate the start of his third year in the role, I should contribute a review...and so I did, and wrote about the wonderful Progressive album by Gazpacho, 'Molok'. The three lead reviews came from Avantasia, Inglorious and Phantasma while among the excellent interviews was an exclusive with Thunder about the band's comeback. Others that caught my eye were Avantasia, Primal Fear, Ugly Kid Joe, Axel Rudi Pell and Resurrection Kings (twice! - well that's what is says in the index on page 3 - although the second one should have read "Reverence"!) Several members of the team spend the weekend before an issue goes off to the printers proofing the draft from James. I think this only goes to show that by the end of all of this ones eyes are completely glazed and the body feels "knucking fackered!! But it was Bruce's Editorial that I am sure took some digesting by the magazine's faithful readers. Issue 74 would see the magazine relaunched, with new graphics, published Quarterly, more pages (at least 120 per issue) and the first price increase since issue 37 (the Sept/Oct 2009 issue)!! I don't wish to comment any more about this than Bruce revealed in what he wrote, but I can assure you that a huge amount of discussion had taken place behind the scenes over a very lengthy period...


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So, what about "new look" issue 74 (Spring 2016)? Well, it really was nearly "all change". A massive 132 page issue (plus CD with 79 MP3 tracks and a 34 page .PDF file) it came with a dominant ROCK & METAL banner below a less prominent F I R E W O R K S. There had been intense debate about this for some time. The magazine name had been chosen initially to pay homage to one of the great melodic rock albums of the pre-grunge era. But there was a concern that the title had become too esoteric and had not permeated deeply enough into the psyche of the rock and metal music buying public. Hence the decision to strengthen the rock & metal message on the cover. Not everyone agreed, and as with all things only time will tell. The team is confident about its offering between the covers, and I have to say that the new presentational elements of the issue I found to be absolutely stunning. I have always thought of James Gaden as being a splendid graphic designer, whose ideas and approaches have grown as the magazine's longevity has increased, but here he demonstrated a complete gear shift, and a great response to ideas and suggestions that had been extensively discussed. The redesigned magazine header alone took many hours of discussion and alternative presentations. Fireworks has always been a labour of love and I have to congratulate the entire team on a magnificent magazine. The writing team was strengthened once again with the addition of Caesar Barton (who had previously written for Classic Rock: AOR magazine) and Paul Sabin (whom some of you might have met at Space Elevator gigs - as he is their official photographer!) The editorial side of things was also strengthened with Sophie Brownlee, Az Chaudhry and Dave Crompton stepping up to become Assistant Editors while Steven Reid and Ant Heeks were promoted to Deputy Editors (Features and Reviews respectively). The new cover price was confirmed as being £5.99 and new Subscription arrangements came into force with the publication of this issue. The cost of these was not increased, but the number of issues to be received was reduced from 6 to 5. However, given the extra number of pages per issue (a minimum of 26 more when compared with issue 73) and it will immediately be apparent that readers will be getting more "bang for their buck"!


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And so we reach 75 (Summer 2016) - and as I look at the cover of this in the Fireworks internal Dropbox system (the magazine is away being printed as I type these words), all I can do is think "WOW!!" As far as I am concerned, it has the most striking imagery in the magazine's 16 year history. The magazine again has 132 pages and 78 MP3 songs on the accompanying CD and a 38 page .PDF!! The writing team has grown once again, and Mark Ashby, Simon Ramsey and Malcolm Smith further strengthen the already excellent family of writers for the magazine. As for the content...well, I will let you investigate that for yourselves!

And by the way, I do not use the term "family" lightly. Compared with the music magazines published by the corporate behemoths, Fireworks is a cottage industry, with most of any profit made ploughed back into the enterprise which, of course, includes the on-line companion, Rocktopia, so capably led by Berny Kellerer. Berny is another passionate believe in "the cause". And what is this cause? It is to help better promote and bring to the attention of those who need to know about it that wonderful original rock and metal music is out there - and the more who buy and read Fireworks Magazine, the more the word will be spread. The support of the labels in helping the magazine to help spread the word, but without being editorially influenced by them, is essential. Most seem to understand and appreciate that.
I am proud to have been associated with Fireworks and Rocktopia in essence right from the start, and I continue to play a part behind the scenes in support of my buddies Bruce and Berny, and intend to continue doing so for as long as I am able. I am sure the current family of writers share this pride too...and it surely says something when high calibre writers continue to come along hoping to volunteer. But the magazine has lost some wonderful contributors along the way as their lives and circumstances have changed. They all know that should they wish to return in the future, there will always be a place for them to do so, for they are all part of the Fireworks story.

I was going to suggest a toast "here's to the next 75", but then I thought "let's get to the magic 100 first..." Thank you for reading.

Paul Jerome Smith


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