Adaptability – that’s key to a long and successful career as a music writer. Don’t get hung up on what is and isn’t fashionable, or this or that style of music, or office politics; never rule out anything, no matter how naff, and never be condescending towards a particular age group’s fondness for music you wouldn’t play at home. Keep your eyes and ears open at all times and never, in any circumstances, allow your personal tastes to dictate career choices or the bigger picture. Finally, don’t take it too seriously. It’s only music.
These are the lessons to be learned from Mark Ellen’s absorbing and at times hilarious memoir Rock Stars Stole My Life, a copy of which I picked up at the Louder Than Words festival in Manchester a couple of weeks ago which Mark kindly signed for me with a reference to the Weeley Festival in 1971 which he attended as a punter and I as MM’s reviewer. It was clocking such as me in the press area here and elsewhere that persuaded Mark the life of a rock writer was for him. Published in May, I’d been meaning to read Rock Stars… for a while after seeing some great reviews but somehow never got around to it. I suppose one of the reasons is that people keep telling me I ought to do something similar myself, but when I reached the end of Mark’s book I knew the bar for rock writers’ memoirs had now been raised to an absurd level.
After an eye-opening look at an OTT ride with Rihanna, which Mark returns to at the close, the book opens with his childhood in a leafy but desperately dull village in Hampshire; the youngest in a family of four with three older sisters, his father a classical music loving lay preacher who believes that rock’n’roll will damage the stylus of the family gramophone on which Mozart and Beethoven are in constant rotation. Bright and articulate, he heads for Oxford, all the while enamoured of rock and pop, thence to a squat in London via gigs here, there and everywhere.
Wry is perhaps the best word to describe Mark’s version of events that took him from accepting a ‘difficult’ assignment to review Elvis Costello at the Nashville in 1977 for Record Mirror – his post-gig encounter with Costello’s famously cantankerous manager Jake Riviera would have put lesser mortals off rock writing for life – to becoming one of the UK’s best known and widely-read journalists. From Record Mirror he went to NME, then did a cultural U-turn to Smash Hits where he met his great friend and future ally David Hepworth with whom he went on to found Q and Mojo, before he and Hepworth became disillusioned with publishers EMAP and went out on their own with The Word, which lasted from 2003 to 2012. Along the way he also edited Select and became a Radio 1 DJ, and a presenter of the Old Grey Whistle Test and Live Aid, encountering in the process just about every rock star in the firmament, about whom the meat and potatoes of this book is pleasingly choc-a-block.
Mark has a way of describing these encounters that is certainly mischievous, at least from a PR’s point of view, but only rarely malevolent, as in the case of a couple of old-school Radio 1 DJs, who certainly deserve his contempt, and Roy Harper and Jimmy Page, whose dubious behaviour at Ambleside in 1984 you need to read the book to find out about. Mark has a great deal of personal charm which enables him to ease in and out of awkward situations wherein a more tongue-tied, less adaptable, sort might find him or herself awash in humiliation. In this respect, and I hope he won’t mind me saying this, he is on the same wavelength as our last Prime Minister but one, with whom he played in a band at Oxford called Ugly Rumours and who, when he wasn’t convening a meeting with the ‘guys’, had a tendency to ape Mick Jagger on stage, ‘elbows flapping like a chicken’.
So off we go on Mark’s journey through the rock world, a hiccup here, a triumph there, a faux-pas or two and many memorable moments, not least the day he spent watching Bob Geldof and Midge Ure orchestrate the first Band Aid session. A bit later there’s a couple of wonderful chapters of detailed, fly-on-the-wall Live Aid coverage from the inside, not just enlightening but stirring too, as afterwards Mark ponders the significance of all this effort from the towpath of the Thames in Chiswick close to where he lives with his wife and two young children. His dad, a WW2 veteran who lost a leg in the conflict, approves of his son’s vocation at last, and there’s no question that this affirmation is as important to Mark as his role in Live Aid.
There’s more than a subtle hint along the way that the music Mark really prefers veers towards the territory annexed by John Peel, about whom he writes fondly and eloquently, but he knows perfectly well that carrying a torch for Luke’s Lazy Lawnmowers, whose only single ‘I Wanna Be Your Cat’, a self-financed tribute to Iggy Pop that appeared on the Barrow-in-Furness indie label Jarrow Junk in 1982, isn’t going to help his career. (I made that up by the way, but you get the gist.) So although we get Mark’s frequent unflattering asides about those who became dinosaurs, he often swings around to loving them after all, even Rod Stewart, who won’t be interviewed unless Mark undergoes an obstacle course that amongst far worse trials involves sitting on a packing case alongside the fragrant Kelly Emberg, Rod’s current squeeze, while her beau entertains a relatively unresponsive Italian audience.
When we get to Mojo, Mark’s interview with the unfussy Noel Gallagher chimes so symbiotically with the new magazine’s statement of purpose that he suddenly realises Mojo will crush all before it, as it deservedly does. Of all the encounters – and there’s many – this one I enjoyed the most, largely because of Gallagher’s refreshing honesty and unwillingness to be swayed by what is cool and what is not. Just like Mark.
Finally, and shamefully, my sole criticism is that the book does not contain an index. Mark told me his publishers, Hodder, had told him it wasn’t needed but the reality is that Hodder probably didn’t want to spend the £400 or so fee that an indexer would charge for a book of this length. Cheapskates. All decent memoirs – and this is way more than decent – deserve an index and they know it.