Things are supposed to come in threes. That’s what they say. So, it must be true. It certainly has for me recently with books about the music industry in the 70’s.
For a long time I’ve been meaning to buy a copy of Danny Baker’s autobiography, ‘Going to Sea in a Sieve’ and didn’t get round to it then in April I did. I listen to his radio show on five live as a podcast and enjoy the warm and positive attitude he has, though he could do with listening to what the people who call in say a bit more often! I had already heard some of the anecdotes from the show but enjoyed reading a lot more about growing up in south-east London and then going to work in a record shop after leaving school and then to New Musical Express(NME) in the seventies and into television in the eighties. I enjoyed reading his take on a time and music that had a big impact upon my teenage self.
The next two books I read I had pre-ordered to get them on publication so the timing of their arrival was outside my control.
I first came across Mark Ellen on the music programme ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ though it might have been modernised to, ‘Whistle Test’ by the time he joined it. I loathed him. I thought he was a smug, self-satisfied public schoolboy and I just wanted to slap him. This opinion continued for some time. Together with his only slightly more acceptable sidekick, although it was probably the other way round and he was the sidekick to David Hepworth, he had been involved in running Smash Hits, the magazine for girls, that as a reader of NME, you looked down upon as been ephemeral and so not serious. Cause pop music isn’t supposed to be fun and ephemeral is it? As I grew older I stopped reading NME and stopped being interested in music for a while. Around the middle of the last decade I started buying different magazines, Q, Mojo, and the Word. As regular readers will know I fell heavily for the Word and was a subscriber for the last few years of its life. I came to look forward to a literate but not showy magazine about the latest releases and things which were happening in the music world but also had interesting coverage of writers, books and films. I even came round to a fondness for the podcast, it was the Word podcast which first hooked me onto what has now become a heavy podcast habit, and I would enjoy the conversations involving Mark Ellen and David Hepworth. I recognise from the book being bitten by the music bug as a teenager, it being the only thing that is important. Reading books because they’ve been referenced by the latest idol, seeing films because the idol has talked positively about them. Mark went on to work for the NME too and then went onto work and edit magazines like Smash Hits, Q etc before the Word. For me there was too much about interviewing Lady Gaga when she didn’t have a stitch on or what it was like touring as part of a massive press and fan entourage following Rhianna around five cities in five days and not enough about the Word. But then I can understand that might be a minority view. I saw Mark Ellen on ‘Later with Jools Holland’ last weekend and they showed a clip of him introducing the Smiths on Whistle Test. It says something of how he has grown that his response to seeing his 80’s self doing a poncey introduction was that he needed a slap.
The last book of the trilogy is ‘Clothes, clothes, clothes, music, music, music,boys, boys, boys.’ by Viv Albertine. Viv also grew up in London, north, and was different from the previous two, as well as being a woman, because she made music rather than wrote about it. From being a music obsessed teenager via a job at a venue and the epiphany that Patti Smith showed that a girl like her, and from Johnny Rotten that someone from a council estate like her, could play in a band. The first attempt, ‘Flowers of Romance’ with Sid Vicious failed but then she joined the Slits and wrote some of, recorded and released the seminal album, ‘Cut’. I remember the shock the subjects of the songs created when it was released, songs about a girls experience, that’s not music! Something added to by the cover of the album where they are topless covered in mud. Like the previous book this brings the story up to the present day, through a career as a fitness instructor in the 80’s and attempts at domestic bliss up to the album ‘The Vermilion Border‘ released in February last year and one of the albums of the year – different from ‘Cut’ but then she’s a different person – singing about being a woman in her 50’s, how many times do you hear about that? Here she is talking about the book:
It’s not only that the first two are written by men and the last by a woman and that they wrote about music whilst she played it that differentiates them. The first two are very heavy on anecdote and told in the boy way to create camaraderie with other boys sat around in a gang. The last is searingly honest, talks about experiences and emotions, talks about the failures as fully and in as much detail as the successes. The bad times as much as the good times. The first two are mostly failure free, unless it can be turned into a funny anecdote against themselves, even the failure of the Word is dealt with in a throw-away remark. I was entertained by the first two, I learnt something and was engaged emotionally and personally by the last one.
Here’s one of my favourite songs from ‘The Vermilion Border’, ‘Confessions of a MILF’;