July 26th, 2004

I Remember . . . (Melody Maker Reminiscences)


I Remember (Melody Maker reminiscences)

I REMEMBER a three month stint in 1986 as a trainee chartered accountant, a profession for which I was ill-suited in every respect except the rather elegant suit I enjoyed wearing. I had supposedly beaten nine other applicants in order to secure this berth, despite my half hearted interview. Probably the only time my Oxbridge pedigree secured me any sort of advantage. I was still writing for Monitor, the deliberately austere and high-minded “fanzine” set up by Paul Oldfield, Chris Scott and Simon Reynolds, already writing for Melody Maker. One of my most recent articles had been a lambasting of a Melody Maker Bands To Watch Out For . . . feature, which I derided for its deluded optimism, lazily vacant, cliche addled prose and for the fact that the only reason one might wish to watch out for these bands was to throw things at them if you saw them coming. Loftily, I concluded that at no price would I myself compromise my obscure principles and become a hack for the weekly music test. This ringingly pompous declaration, which resounds down the years to my acute embarrassment, was put almost immediately to the test when Frank Owen of Melody Maker rang me and asked if I’d care to write for Melody Maker. My retort took the form of a single word; “Yesplease”. And, on the promise of one trial review, I was out of chartered accountancy like a shot. My first review was of James ‘Blood’ Ulmer, live. “The wider the flares, the badder the funk,” I wrote. That line means nothing now, it meant something then. I remember what, too, just about.

I REMEMBER that, despite Melody Maker’s establishment comprising an apparently reactionary rearguard of unconvincing sub-Smash Hits boisterousness, faded glam/goth worship and hymns of praise on the ed’s part of what (to our ears, Futurist to the point of being pointy) laboured pub rock, of jaded sub-editors whose policy was “cut it where it falls”, ie if an article ran 200 words over, they would simply excise the last 200 words on the page, regardless of sense, so that pieces would end abruptly, occasionally in mid-sentence if the subs were feeling especially lazy/malicious. I remember that despite all this, efforts on Simon Reynolds’s, Frank Owen’s and to an extent my own parts to effect a revolution in terms of MM’s content and polemical tone weren’t met with either fierce resistance or hostility. We were allowed extraordinary liberties – 4,000 word pieces lambasting the concept of “decency” in pop and rock, even a series with the frankly meaningless title “Age Of The Aerial”, the memory of which makes Allan Jones guffaw to this day. I remember a time generally when a managerial policy of “Well, you seem to know what you’re doing, get on with it”, yielded great things. Nowadays, such an approach would be deemed lackadaisical, with tight word counts, ‘creative’ input from the marketing department and a grey ring of middle management steel ensuring that the music press will never again descend into such an appalling, shambolic state of interestingness.

I REMEMBER during that early era, circa late 1986, Jon Savage being invited (back) to MM to write an uncompromisingly cerebral piece on something or other. I remember it was very good. I also remember that at the end of it, he included a list of “further reading”. It’s doubtful whether at that stage, when MM’s readership consisted primarily on confused Cure fans, that any of them read further than the first paragraph.

I REMEMBER . . . actually, there’s a lot I don’t remember. Having joined MM’s staff properly in 1987, a typical day would go something like this. 7am: Wake up in a state of cold sweat, disorientation and panic. Realise you have 3,000 words of finely wrought, considered prose to produce for a midday deadline, subtracting an hour to shower, dress, get to the office (no e-mail, of course). Bash out said 3,000 words on a recalcitrant old typewriter whose keys often attempt to hit back when you hit them. Arrive at the office at about 11.57, as if bearing an official pardon from the Home Secretary to the gallows. Hand in your copy. Try to look modest as the ed gives it the once over and, if deserved, a word of praise which bucks you up almost pathetically. By now, it’s 12.10. The pubs have been open for quite some time, you can feel it in your nostrils. Utter the words “anyone fancy a pint?” Anyone does. Repair to the Oporto until 3.20 (these were the dark days of afternoon pub closing). Carry up four tins of warm Swan lager to see you through Prohibition, which ends at 5.30 when the Oporto landlord opens the doors and you tumble in, for a resumption of the ongoing (and true) editorial meeting. Wake up the next morning in a state of cold sweat, etc . . .

I REMEMBER The (Legendary) Stud Brothers – reprobate Croydon city rockers with a singularly Nietzschian streak and an impeccably tailored line in put downs. Their collective “we” added an uncanny air of authority to their pronouncements. They looked exactly as you would imagine them to, did Ben and Dominic. Ben was seemingly the more affable, Good Cop of the pair, though his occasional aptness to fall asleep, face first in his pub lunch during interviews, was disconcerting to some. Dom, peeping witheringly from behind two dark curtains of long hair, was apparently the Evil half of the partnership, though the truth was, of course, more complex than that – ie they were both evil. In a true measure of the man’s malice, Dominic once had the temerity to call me an “incompetent buffoon” when I bungled the map reading en route to Glastonbury and had booked the pair of them into a room with one, double bed at the hotel (I’d assumed theirs was a sort of Laurel & Hardy/Morecambe & Wise-type arrangement).

I’ll remember more about The Stud Brothers in due course – the time I had to coax Ben down from up a tree following a drunken preview party for an Enya album of all things, the time they bedded down for the night with a mysterious female in the assistant editor’s office, to which he was unable to gain access until two the next afternoon when they eventually work up, etc. The way that they would select the most weak, worthless and unassuming items in the reviews pile, for which they would reserve their most acerbic and piledriving prose. A collection of German Ska, for example, drew from them the wistful thought that it was a shame that the Germans, this “once proud race” had been reduced to bouncing around in white socks and tight trousers. (“proud race” is the key bit . . .)

Right now I remember their interview with Paula Abdul, then at the height of her short burst of fame. The thousand word feature was effectively two parallel texts – on the one hand, Paula responds to The SBs’ presumably inoffensive questions with customary professional blandnesss (“as an artist I have a responsibility to my fans” . . etc). Meanwhile, The Stud Brothers, clearly not listening to a word she’s saying but paralysed by devotional lust in her presence, convey this in thoroughly distracted, dick-achingly frank terms throughout the piece. Finally, by now so driven insane by Paula’s pulchritude that they have given up completely on the supposed engagement that’s traditionally supposed to take place between interviewer and interviewee and have gone into a collective reverie of their own. The piece digresses and concludes on a bizarre note of sexual shame, as The Stud Brothers recall a game of British Bulldog back in their Croydon childhood, when one of them dragged a young girl down by her breasts and was consequently sent indoors in disgrace. Apparently, Paula loved the piece.

I REMEMBER “reviewing” The Pogues album If I Should Fall From Grace With God in 1988. I made no secret of the fact, among those who cared, that I loathed The Pogues as a musical proposition. (NB recent exception among their ranks: Jem Finer, whose recent albums I commend to anyone with an interest in the recent, strange liaison between folk and the avant garde). Loathed ’em, I did. Cod-folk masquerading as rootsy authenticity – where we needed black/white steel in the hour of postmodern chaos, here were this bunch providing wet soil. And, in the lax editorial era of the time, this was all the excuse MM’s mischievous reviews editor of the time needed to commission me to pen 600 or so withering words on their upcoming LP.

Simple enough – all I needed to do was turn up at MM Towers on Thursday evening – I’d taken a day off looking after my young brother-in-law Jasbir, just 13 at the time, who’d been staying with us – pick up the advance cassette, listen to the scrofulous, pox-addled thing then turn round a derisive Phillipe the next morning that would put these drunken, jigging charlatans in their place. Duly, I turned up at the Maker offices that evening, young bro-in-law in tow, popped the cassette in my bag, then went on to Euston, where I was charged with seeing the little feller onto his train back to Birmingham. Then, back home, whereupon I rummaged in my bag and realised to my horror that I’d accidentally plonked the cassette in one of Jas’s carrier bags.

On the phone at once to Birmingham. ‘Hello? Jas? Look through your bags – you’ll find a cassette by a band called ‘The Pogues’? Yes – the Pogues. See it? Found it? Brilliant. Now. Can you fetch down your tape player from your room and, like – play it me over the phone? Good lad.” Problem solved. Dutifully, he played the thing over the phone (fortunately, I had a press release with the track listing), and I was able to attend, albeit not via the ideal sound system, to their latest skirlings. A wave of relief came over me, followed by one of hubris. I couldn’t be arsed to sit with a receiver in my ear listening to this fiddly-diddly nonsense for 40 odd minutes. It had been a long day and I had my first drink of the evening had been unpardonably delayed. Resourcefully, therefore, and after just 10 seconds of the opening track, I produced my own hand-held tape recorder. It’d be a simple matter to tape these cod-Oirish sonic excrescences, unwind with a much-deserved flagon of ale, get up early, listen to the tape and pen my derisive Philippic first thing in the morning. So I duly resolved to do and so I did.

Waking up the next morning at the crack of 10.15 am, in a strange room which turned out, after a few minutes to be my own, I slithered out of bed and, mindful of my deadline as ever, reached for the tape recorder, Old Trusty, which had cost me a princely £15 and played back the tape. To my astonishment, the sound that greeted me was a flatline of hiss, more entertaining than The Pogues album from an abstract/avant garde perspective, doubtless, but decidedly not the actual Pogues album as such. Old Trusty had let me down.

With two hours until deadline, the bro in law back in school and no means of acquiring another tape, I was in something of a quandary. I had no choice but to compose a 600 word review of The Pogues album based on having heard the first 10 seconds of the damn thing over the phone. The review I spun from this fragment of a sow’s earlobe, long on general, disparaging remarks about The Pogues, short on anything remotely appertaining to the actual album, duly ran – weekly deadlines were tight. And, I got away with it – just. The editor, Allan Jones, an ardent Pogues fan himself, peered over his half-moon glasses in my direction at the next editorial meeting and remarked with asperity on a tendency for recent reviews to be long on general points but short on specifics. He cited my Pogues review as an example. I blushed manfully, took the small rap on the wrist with a penitent nod and watched with relief as the water of this incident passed on under the bridge.

Except . . . except . . . that a certain august MM colleague of mine, in whom I had confided the details of the whole affair, but who had somehow come to labour under the misapprehension that the entire editorial staff were in on what had happened, merrily spilled the beans to the editor the next lunchtime in the Oporto. I shan’t mention this august colleague’s name for fear of embarrassing him – let’s just call him Rimon Seynolds to protect his identity – but as I popped into the pub that lunchtime, reporting for staff duties, I was faced with the editor glowering machetes at me and Rimon Seynolds sitting next to him, rubbing his chin, confessing, “I think I might have made a bit of a gaffe, David.” And so he had. I had visions of being thrown out of the window like the typewriter that had suffered the same fate at the hands of the great man some years earlier. Fortunately, he stayed his hand, perhaps recognising the folly of Youth – a lesser man might have banished me to the Ipswich Gazette, to a lifetime of reviewing the Edgar Broughton Band et al at the local Corn Exchange.

As for The Pogues, If I Should Fall From Grace . . . proved to be an overall critical and commercial success, perhaps the zenith of their career and a reminder, both chastening and strangely heartening, to this reviewer, of the Power Of The Press.

I REMEMBER writing the World’s Worst Gossip Column Ever. Prior to my taking it over, Talk Talk Talk had been a merry hybrid of photo captions, Top 10 lists and a chronicle of the nocturnal, inebriated activities of the stars and starlets about town, occasionally obscurely self-referential, perhaps over-leavened by the odd, desperate photos of Whatever-Comes-After Z-list celebs flashing their tits, but at least alluding to people of whom you may have heard, even if they were Martin Degville and the ever-publicity shy Patsy Kensit.

None of that for this scribe. In came a new broom. New fictional features were one thing – The Adam Clayton Corner, The Nod Corner (drummer from Fields Of The Nephilim and his constant efforts, cruelly thwarted and twisted by the rest of the “rotten bastards” in the band, to be noticed by lordly lead singer Carl. Each episode would end in a furious McCoy ordering Nod to do ten press ups) and The Mick Talbot Fan Club Corner, which chronicled the weekly vicissitudes of his dwindling band of fans to combat near-universal apathy toward the ex-Style Council keyboardist, as well as The George Michael Appeal Fund, set up to raise money for the great man following his legal bust-up with Sony, which, over 12 weeks, raised a staggering 87p (all soaked up in administration costs, sadly).

All of these became the new staple fare of TTT – however, there still remained the small matter of the “run-on” section of the pages, which was still supposed to contain actual, you know, gossip. Sadly, under my less than Walter Winchell-like stewardship, readers were perhaps deprived of their due. Seeking out niblets of hot goss was not quite my forte, involving as it did picking up a phone and talking inquisitively to other human beings, which flew in the face of my every journalistic inclination. Week by week, the morsels of anecdote on which the column subsisted were fewer and fewer in number, the engaging self-referentiality which had always been a feature of this pages was stretched and stretched. This culminated one week in a 400 word column which consisted entirely of the important hearsay that myself, The Stud Brothers, Ian Gittins and Allan Jones had gone down to the pub for the afternoon. Shortly afterwards, the column died a quiet and unmourned death.

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