MORE MARK ELLEN

IN THE SECOND PART OF THIS EXTENDED INTERVIEW WITH THE TOP-NOTCH MUSIC JOURNALIST AND BROADCASTER MARK ELLEN, WE CONTINUE LOOKING BACK AT HIS FIFTY YEARS OF LOVING MUSIC AND WORKING WITHIN IT. WE PICK UP WHERE WE LEFT PART ONE – WITH MORRISSEY’S 2013 AUTOBIOGRAPHY…

DESPITE ITS FAULTS I THINK IT’S A REALLY GOOD BOOK – TURNS OF PHRASE, THE SELF-DEPRECATION…
There were two great moments in that book, I think. I’ll see if I can remember – as I said, I gave up half way through… There’s the one where he’s born and his mother has a terribly difficult birth because, he says, “even then my head was too big”, ha ha. And then there’s another one – which I don’t believe at all, actually – where he’s at school and he comes last in a running race on sports day, and his father’s there and comes up and says “You came last”… And Morrissey’s line in AUTOBIOGRAPHY about that is “… and life decomposed in a bucket”, ha ha. And you think “Well, that’s just horse-shit” – because no father is going to come up to a son and remind him that he just came last. That just doesn’t happen in real life. You’d go up and say “Never mind, son. You gave it your best shot. Get back on that tiger and ride it again – there’s another race tomorrow”… Not “You came last”, ha ha…

THERE’S A FANTASTIC SECTION IN YOUR BOOK WHERE YOU DESCRIBE HEARING THIS CHARMING MAN (BY THE SMITHS) FOR THE FIRST TIME…
Oh God, yeah… Wonderful…

ME smiths 2… AND SOMETHING YOU CAN, SADLY, ONLY EXPERIENCE ONCE. WHAT A GREAT RECORD – SOMETHING ABSOLUTELY FAMILIAR BUT ALMOST ENTIRELY ALIEN ABOUT IT, TOO…
Yeah! Completely! I was quite old when that record came out – twenty six or something like that – and I thought that fluttery rush of delight might never come again for me. That incredible rush I’d got when I’d first heard The Byrds or The Kinks when I was a kid. Of course I know now that that feeling hasn’t stopped and it doesn’t stop for all your life, you know? It’s obviously a bit more powerful when forged in the white heat of adolescence! I was thrilled by THIS CHARMING MAN. I thought it was just magical when I first heard it, and I still think that now.

IT’S THE PERFECT POP SINGLE, REALLY…
It is, yeah. It’s got every single ingredient you could possibly want or need. Not only is the arrangement of it wonderful, there are those chords that Johnny Marr plays… and nobody really knows what he’s playing or how he’s playing it. That sounds like a very boring and technical thing to say, but it’s true. It’s like the late great Robert Johnson and those Mississippi blues numbers he only recorded twice… Both times he recorded with his back to the people who were recording him. He put the mic in the corner and turned his back to them, and people have developed this theory that he didn’t want them to see how he played the CROSSROAD BLUES or whatever he was playing, because it was so complicated and such an original way of playing that he wanted to keep this special thing he had a secret, you know? And people said that about Johnny. When Johnny left The Smiths one of his first jobs was playing on a Bryan Ferry album. Bryan Ferry really liked – or, rather, someone probably advised Bryan Ferry about – Johnny’s guitar playing.  Apparently everyone, even the engineers, just crowded around him in the studio to watch his fingers to see how on earth he managed to play! In THIS CHARMING MAN you’re being given these broad brush-strokes of another world entirely – musically and lyrically. The punctured bicycle on the hill, the leather running smooth on the passenger seat… You’re not really sure who these characters are, it’s just a mystery, and the song seems to happen in another time. The 1920s or something. It’s fabulous. It has all of the magic that the very best pop songs should have. And all these years later you still don’t really know what it means, ha ha!

IT TRANSPORTS YOU SOMEWHERE ELSE ENTIRELY, LIKE ALL OF THE BEST POP MUSIC…
Completely, completely. It’s brilliant. The Smiths were brilliant. You wait until they’re back together and we’re there in the front row, being reminded of just how great they are…

LET’S TALK ABOUT WHISTLE TEST A LITTLE… I ALWAYS FELT ON THAT PROGRAMME, AND OF COURSE ON THE THINGS THAT YOU’VE DONE TOGETHER SINCE – AT THE WORD, FOR INSTANCE – THAT YOU AND DAVID HEPWORTH HAD THIS REALLY BEAUTIFUL DYNAMIC… IT WAS NICE COP… NICER COP…
Ha ha ha! That is priceless. That’s hilarious!

YOU GOT THE BEST OUT OF PEOPLE, INTERESTING STUFF, AND YOU WEREN’T AT ALL CONFRONTATIONAL IN THE WAY YOU GOT IT. THE WHISTLE TEST DIDN’T SCREAM IN YOUR FACE…
No, not at all. I always felt that we weren’t really TV presenters – we were journalists who’d happened to be on the telly. There’s a real difference. Jo Whiley is a presenter – very good at being on the radio and the telly, but… anyway, we were just guys that knew a lot and were enthusiastic and quite evangelical. And I think the BBC just felt that that’s what they wanted for that programme – people who appeared to actually know what they were talking about. We were there just trying to get the groups we liked onto the television, really. It was a very lovely feeling when you did, if you liked an act. We got the Pet Shop Boys on, very early on in their career, and I was friends with Neil so that was rather fantastic, to be able to put them on a programme that had 2.75 million people watching it – most of whom were probably recording it on a dodgy old VHS tape, ha ha…

I THINK I MIGHT HAVE SOME BITS AND PIECES ON DODGY OLD VHS. I’VE DEFINITELY GOT SOME OF LIVE AID WHICH, OF COURSE, YOU PRESENTED. THE BBC’S TV BROADCAST OF LIVE AID CAME OUT OF WHISTLE TEST BEING A UNIT CAPABLE OF TAKING IT ON… IN YOUR BOOK YOU DESCRIBE THE WAY LIVE AID ON THE BBC WAS PUT TOGETHER AS “SCHOOL SPORTS DAY – SUPERCHARGED LUNACY”… 
It was. And what was extraordinary about it was that most of the time you don’t realise the impact of something until quite a bit after it. But LIVE AID was one of those things which appeared to be reviewing itself, in a way. We would constantly be being given information saying “Tell the viewers how many people are watching”, so we’d say “X number of people are watching” or “So-and-so has just given X amount of money to the charity” or whatever. Or “This is happening in Russia” or something. And it became a sort of self-mythologising thing. Even when it was only two hours old it was already legendary. Geldof was being asked at one point what his reaction was, or how it felt, this great profound emotional moment. So it was one of those rare occasions where you’re told something is going to be huge – but it was actually even huger.

IF AN EVENT LIKE THAT HAPPENED NOW, I HAVE THIS NAGGING FEELING THAT THE BROADCAST WOULD BE FOCUS-GROUPED WELL IN ADVANCE AND THAT EVERYTHING WOULD BE STRATEGICALLY PLANNED DOWN TO THE LAST MICRO-SECOND OF JO WHILEY TALKING TO MADONNA OR SOMEONE… MILITARY PRECISION… WHICH IS NOT WHAT WE REALLY WANT…
It was, as they say, an analogue world back then – and therefore the transmissions, the connections that they set up, were very very risky, actually. They’re not risky these days but back then it was risky to try and set up a satellite link with the Soviet Union, as it was called, or with Australia which they did as well. There might also have been one with Japan – I’m trying to remember them all… Those things were very risky technical propositions – as was the technology on the stage itself, actually. It all broke down at one point. I think The Who were off the air for about seventeen minutes or something. So that kind of clunky attempt to pull together this global broadcast was… erm… a real liability.

ME BAND AIDIT MUST HAVE BEEN TREMENDOUSLY EXHILARATING TO BE SITTING AT THE TOP OF THIS HEAP OF STEAMING CHAOS…
You had to change all the time. You had to react to things very quickly, in the moment. If you showed that video for DRIVE by The Cars and it got an incredible reaction on the charity fund, all the phones rang, then you’ve got to show it again because this is raising money and that was the point. So I found all that really exciting. And the thing that really summed LIVE AID up for me – I don’t think I put this in the book, actually – was Bob Dylan coming onto the stage at the end. This utter chaos and this amateurishness about it. Dylan comes on to end it, the whole show – and there were billions of people watching – and he comes out on stage with the least promising opening words to a live performance I have ever heard in my life. These are his exact words, and I know them because I’ve got the tape. He says [adopts perfect Dylan drawl] “Hey… I’d like to bring on Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood for a song… but I don’t know where they are”… Ha ha! Just marvellous! There’s this terrible awkward pause and then eventually Ronnie comes stumbling onto the stage – “Oh, awlright…” – and then Keith appears with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, absolutely pissed… It’s just so funny. Everyone’s guitars are out of tune and you just think “What?!”… They’re completely pissed and you really really can tell. That’s my favourite bit of LIVE AID, I wouldn’t deny it.

HAVE YOU READ DYLAN JONES’ BOOK ABOUT LIVE AID?
I have, yeah. It’s very very good, isn’t it?

IT IS… I HAD QUITE A BIZARRE EXPERIENCE AROUND IT AS I INTERVIEWED HIM OVER THE TELEPHONE ABOUT THAT BOOK… WE HAD THIS CONVERSATION ABOUT LIVE AID AND I WAS IN THE RAIN AND THE GREY OF THE NORTH OF ENGLAND AND HE WAS… I THINK THIS IS RIGHT… ON A YACHT IN ST TROPEZ!
Ha ha, that is wonderful… Exactly where you’d expect him to be! If you’re talking to the Editor of GQ and he’s not on a yacht in St Tropez then he’s not doing his job properly, is he? Ha ha… A sackable offence!

SHORTLY AFTER LIVE AID CAME Q MAGAZINE WHICH YOU LAUNCHED AND WHICH WAS IN PARALLEL WITH THE RISE OF THE CD… I WAS STRUCK BY A PASSAGE IN YOUR BOOK ABOUT THE PUBLISHER OF Q SUGGESTING THAT YOU SELL FIVE-STAR REVIEWS TO RECORD COMPANIES… YOU WERE DISGUSTED BY THIS SUGGESTION AND I THINK WHEN THAT SORT OF THING HAPPENS YOU’RE READY TO MOVE ON. THERE’S ALWAYS BEEN AN INTEGRITY TO YOUR CAREER AND TO ALL OF THE PUBLICATIONS THAT YOU’VE HELMED…
Yeah… I have to say, obviously, for legal reasons that Q magazine didn’t adopt that ridiculous policy. What I was so appalled about was that he should even think of that. And I suppose it made me realise that that particular era was over, for me. I’d joined EMAP (the publishers) as a kid and we’d had some success and – I think I use this analogy in the book – it was a bit like being in a pop group. If you have a hit single, then you have another hit single, and then you have a third hit single, you have a lot of power. And they would help us put these magazines out without bringing to bear any of their market research. They felt that we instinctively knew what we were doing – and I don’t think that was untrue, actually. I think the way David and I worked then, and still work now, is just pure enthusiasm. It’s not a question of right and wrong. If you’re interested in things and the thirty or forty things you choose to write about that month – and they may not be things you’re personally interested in, but there’s a fascinating story there – and you sell those things with enthusiasm and real belief, then it’s extremely effective. We had a lot of fun but then EMAP was taken over or it merged with something else or… I can’t remember quite what happened. There was a reorganisation of sorts at the company and people who, really, had barely even read a magazine and who certainly weren’t interested in magazines, were put in charge of a magazine company…

… WHICH IS RIDICULOUS. THE WRITING WAS ON THE WALL?
Which was ridiculous, yeah. That was the writing on the wall for me. They literally appeared to have no interest in anything other than the profits they made, and no capability whatsoever of understanding what made these magazines good, bad or indifferent. So I didn’t feel that those people were in the slightest bit qualified to take any kind of a view on the quality or the worth of the editorial. They didn’t know what they were talking about. So that was a bad moment. I think that incident happened in the late ’90s or something. One of the reasons I wrote about it in the book, actually, was because I felt it was happening everywhere. It was happening in the BBC, it was happening in the newspapers, it was happening in radio, it was happening in all manner of arts worlds. Business people and strategists were coming in and taking these things over. I refer to it as a chess board. We built the pieces and they came in and moved them all around the board – and I felt that was… ha ha… a shame.

THE MONEY THING, THE BUSINESS THING, IS REALLY INTERESTING IN TERMS OF THE WAY YOUR BOOK BEGINS AND ENDS. YOU WERE ON THAT ABSOLUTELY RIDICULOUS PROMOTIONAL TOUR – RIHANNA ON A JUMBO JET FLYING JOURNALISTS AROUND THE WORLD FOR A WEEK OR HOWEVER LONG IT WAS… THERE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN THOSE KIND OF GIMMICKS BUT THAT SEEMED WAY OVER THE TOP, COMPLETELY UNNECESSARY, A BIT OF A THROWBACK TO THE TIMES WHEN THERE PROBABLY WAS FAR TOO MUCH MONEY GOING AROUND…
It was hilarious. I think I actually play it down in the book somewhat, because by the end of it a lot of people were almost quite ill! They were just so exhausted by the whole thing, going quite mad, really. Bonkers. You’ll know this, but as a journalist it’s often much funnier if things go wrong. If you go on a private jet with Rihanna and she turns out to be an absolute sweetheart and is terribly available and gives lots of funny quotes and is always bang on time and shakes everybody’s hands… and makes breakfast for everybody and serves drinks and all that… it’s just not actually a very interesting story. If it’s a complete and utter… a total catastrophe… ha ha ha ha… then that, of course, is just priceless.

ME rihannaIT MAKES FOR GREAT READING IN THE BOOK. IT’S HILARIOUS.
It was ridiculous. I was very lucky actually because ELLE magazine was so huge that we’d got a deal with twenty-seven or thirty international editions that were going to publish the interview I was going to get with her. I was the only person on the plane who didn’t have to do anything! I’d just gone along for a bit of colour. I did write quite a lot at the time for ELLE, but I also wrote huge amounts about it for myself. I thought “This is perfect – this is going in my book”… But when I came to write the book I didn’t actually think of opening it there – I’d thought of ending it there. But when I thought about it I was really pleased because it was a really nice device; the book starts and ends in the same seat on the same aeroplane, with me looking out at the same view and having the same thought, really, you know? And I’d worked out that it was fifty years – literally to the day – since LOVE ME DO had come out. So fifty years later on that very day I was on that ridiculous plane. So it was a perfect structure, the perfect framework, to be able to look at what had happened to music and the music industry and to the media that covered it, in my lifetime.

BEARING IN MIND WHAT HAPPENED WITH THE WORD, DO YOU THINK THAT YOU AND DAVID MIGHT HAVE ONE LAST MAGAZINE IN YOU? OR, BEARING IN MIND THE RAPID DECLINE OF THE NME LATELY, IS (PRINT) MUSIC JOURNALISM ACTUALLY DEAD?
Well, I think you’d really have to define what you mean because I think there are several aspects to printed music journalism. I mean MOJO magazine does a fantastic job. It’s very very prosperous and I think it’s very buoyant and I think it’s very very good, actually. It looks in one particular area. What it executes it executes extremely well. It’s beautifully designed, and it’s got that wonderful kind of tactile thing where you want a physical copy of it and you want to keep it. I’m in a room now, actually, that’s got all the old copies of MOJO and Q and THE WORD. I’m looking around and I’m surrounded by music magazines all in order, with all the spines… It’s a very attractive thing – you can look back at it like a giant encyclopaedia, and I think that’s wonderful. Then there are other titles that doesn’t really suit – titles that don’t depend on fabulous rare pictures beautifully printed, or on that wonderful sense of ephemera or archive that MOJO does very very well… If your job is to provide news and reviews and, I don’t know, be reactive then it just won’t work any more in that format. I only joined Twitter about a month ago and Twitter changes your view immediately of what constitutes new or old news, doesn’t it?

THINGS MOVE SO FAST, DON’T THEY, THESE DAYS?
They do. I think it’s really interesting, actually, that on Twitter if somebody dies… well, you can’t just say “It’s such a shame that Leonard Nimoy’s died”… Was that his name? Mr Spock?

LEONARD NIMOY, YEAH…
… Yeah. Sorry – I’m actually not very good at STAR TREK. These days you can’t just say “It’s such a shame that Leonard Nimoy’s died”… People have to go “Spending the afternoon watching my old STAR TREKs ‘cos I’m feeling sad”. You don’t want to look like someone who’s just discovered something. Even if it happened three minutes ago, you’re late! It’s quite funny, really… So, ha ha, to answer your first question, ha ha… I don’t know if David and I would do another magazine, actually. We have ideas all the time but they wouldn’t be print media magazines, probably – because that’s now a very complicated and very expensive world which depends on a kind of advertising which, probably, doesn’t really exist anymore. That’s what happened at THE WORD in the end. We weren’t really like CLASSIC ROCK or UNCUT or whatever else. We weren’t like them at all, actually, but the advertisers just saw us as another monthly magazine which didn’t sell quite as many as MOJO. You know, THE WORD actually sold pretty well but the advertising began to disappear. I think the advertisers thought of us as fifth in a market of five monthly music magazines. We thought of ourselves as first in a market of one, ha ha… I don’t think I’ll ever be going into WH Smiths again and worrying about whether my magazine is in the rack in the right place. Or that panic, if there aren’t any issues in the rack – did they get copies? Has it sold out?  Should I be suicidally miserable or swinging round lamp-posts before buying myself a pint?! Ha ha…

ME ppbckTHE PAPERBACK OF YOUR BOOK IS OUT SHORTLY… DO YOU THINK YOU MIGHT HAVE ANOTHER IN YOU, OR MIGHT THERE BE ‘DIFFICULT SECOND ALBUM SYNDROME’..?
I have, actually. I’ve got one at the moment which is in with a publishing company who seem to be extremely enthusiastic about it, but I probably can’t tell you any more about it than that! It is another music book, of course, but it’s completely different. A completely different type of music book. But it has got a lot of the same characteristics as this one – the one my agent very sweetly refers to as my “first book” or my “current book”. There were lots of things in my “current book” that I’d hoped people would pick up on. I actually think it makes lots of serious points about all sorts of things – relationships, relationships in music, the journalism profession – and there’s lots of philosophical stuff. But I also hoped bits of it would be funny. All the reviews suggest it’s a funny book – which is great because there just aren’t that many funny books around. There are loads of serious ones, millions of serious ones – possibly too many, actually. But very few funny ones. It’s actually very hard to write something funny so I’m so pleased that people have found it to be funny.

IT’S YOUR APPROACH, THOUGH, AS I SAID SOMEWHERE EARLIER. ALTHOUGH MUSIC IS ONE OF THE PROFOUND AND FUNDAMENTAL COMPONENTS OF OUR LIVES, THERE’S ACTUALLY VERY LITTLE POINT IN TAKING WHAT’S AROUND IT TOO SERIOUSLY. IT’S POP MUSIC…
Well, no, you can’t really and actually I think that’s more honest. I think that quite early on I decided that the more I discovered about these people that made the music I loved, the more idiosyncratic they were, the more difficult and more curmudgeonly, I felt there was more to investigate and maybe understand. I didn’t really like that very literal approach at the NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS where you had to throw yourself prostrate below the shrine of Joy Division, and you couldn’t be critical of them – but everything, I don’t know, The B-52s did was considered to be superficial and trite. It was such a black-and-white way of looking at the world, really, and I’m not like that. The whole thing about music is that it’s entertainment, isn’t it? It’s theatre. It’s theatre, it’s complete artifice, a lot of the time and if that isn’t funny what is? And also, I do think it’s quite clear I’m not taking the piss out of people. There are a few people I take the piss out of but they deserve it, ha ha. But broadly speaking I’m not. There’s a scene in the book where I meet my old hero from Wishbone Ash at a school sort of ‘meet the teachers’ evening, and I’m really sympathetic to him, to what it must be like to be the bass player of Wishbone Ash, meeting your fans from back in the day, who are somewhat crestfallen that you’re not the guy you used to be back at Bracknell Sports Centre in 1972, ha ha ha… I dearly hope it comes across that if the book is funny it’s not at the expense of people, it’s funny about the absolute total and utter absurdity of pop music!

IT DOES… MARK, THANKS SO MUCH FOR YOUR TIME…
Well, no, listen – thank you. I’m very touched that you wanted to talk to me about the book, actually. I’ve had a great time. How much fun was this? I’m only too sorry that I’m not doing the old Johnny Clarke thing and pouring you into the back of a taxi at three in the morning, ha ha ha ha…

ROCK STARS STOLE MY LIFE is published by Hodder. Order the paperback edition here
Enter a competition to win one of five lots of music memorabilia from Mark’s personal collection, at his website here
Mark Ellen will be appearing at Waterstones, Nottingham, on 26th March. Details here

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