Writers

Prior to writing The Stones Roses: War and Peace, Simon Spence (NME, i-D and The Face) collaborated with Andrew Loog Oldham on the acclaimed memoirs, Stoned (2000) and 2Stoned (2002).

The book Spence and Dickinson refer to in the clip is Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom (1970) by Nick Cohn. In this book Cohn refers to Oldham as: ‘…without doubt, the most flash personality that British pop has ever had, the most anarchic and obsessive and imaginative hustler of all.’ In the same book Cohn describes Mick Jagger as: ‘…more a projection of Oldham than of himself.’

Oldham was 19 when he became the Stones manager in 1963. Among his many achievements with the group, it was Oldham who forced Jagger and Richards to make their first attempts at songwriting (and promoted these efforts). He also produced the group’s recording output between 1963 and 1967.

Words On Music panellist Simon Wolstencroft is close to completing the writing of his memoirs, You Can Drum, But You Can’t Hide.

Born in 1963, Simon’s drum skills became self-evident early on. From keeping a beat with paint pots and knitting needles as a small child, via a family holiday in Spain – on which a generous cabaret drummer allowed the starstruck 9-year-old the chance to play a real drum kit for the first time – to ultimately being given the ‘Funky Si’ moniker by Johnny Marr during their time playing together; Simon’s style and technique evolved over many years into the distinctive solid back beat still in evidence today.

Passing the 11+ and earning a place at the prestigious Altrincham Grammar School in 1979 provided the beginning of a lifelong friendship with classmates Ian Brown and John Squire. From listening to the Buzzocks, Sex Pistols and The Clash to visiting the Manchester Apollo after school (helping load tours in and out of the venue in order to gain free entry to the gigs there) and then on the night bus back to Altrincham after underage nights out – sometimes sleeping rough; the three formed a strong bond which ultimately led to the formation of The Patrol (with Simon on drums, John playing guitar and Ian initially on bass then singing).

After an explosion of local youth club and village hall gigs, attended by an entourage of hardcore punks, The Patrol played fewer gigs and ultimately disbanded during their time at South Trafford College. As his classmates went on to forge The Stone Roses, a chance meeting in a local pub with two like-minded musical aficionados in the form of Andy Rourke and Johnny Marr produced Freak Party – the precursor for The Smiths. The only part lacking at this juncture was a singer. After Morrissey had been found, despite playing drums on the original demo recordings, Simon declined the drum hot-seat in the band as he didn’t like the cut of Morrissey’s jib. As The Smiths’ star rose, Simon went on to work with, briefly, The Stone Roses and Terry Hall’s The Colourfield.

As Madchester, The Hacienda, and the local area became the centre of an unparalleled musical universe, Simon continued to play for a number of the era’s most evocative artists such as The Weeds, before finally becoming a long-standing member of The Fall. He debuted with the band in 1986 on the Bend Sinister album and in the following decade became much loved by Fall fans who described him as ‘a human drum machine’.

Simon departed The Fall in 1997; before coming almost full circle to collaborate with, and play for, Ian Brown in 1999 on his second solo album, Golden Greats. Simon co-wrote the Top 40 track ‘Golden Gaze’.

The opportunity to play once more with Ian and John Squire, at a secret benefit gig with Mick Jones of The Clash in December 2011, completed the musical circle for the trio who first performed together all those years ago [see below for an exclusive insight into that night].

Since then Simon has continued to work with and play for a number of bands and solo artists; developing his repertoire into a veritable ‘who’s who’ of the Manchester music scene. Simon is currently playing with The Family Bizzare, alongside Jez Kerr (ex-Factory signing ACR ), who supported New Order on their recent UK tour. Simon has also undertaken a new project called HouseShare, recording their initial demo tacks during June and July 2012.

For Words On Music, Si Wolstencroft writes: My first ever gig was with Ian Brown and John Squire as The Patrol back in 1980, when the three of us left Altrincham Boys Grammar School and started at South Trafford College – this was how we began to cut our teeth as musicians.

I have played hundreds and hundreds of gigs since; some of them small ones like our first gig as The Patrol at the Sale Annexe Youth Club; then a few larger ones during my eleven years as the drummer in The Fall – including supporting U2 at Elland Road on their Joshua Tree tour. In 2000, I was back with Ian again on the main stage at the huge Mount Fuji festival in Japan.

All these experiences pale, and none have delighted me more, than when I was ultimately reunited on stage again with Ian and John – if only briefly – at the Ritz Theatre, Manchester, in December 2011…

The Stone Roses reformation and Heaton Park gigs had only just been announced; it seemed the whole of Manchester was buzzing with the news and everyone suddenly wanted to see the Roses first ‘on stage’ performance together.

Ian rang me in the morning to invite me along to the benefit gig with Mick Jones of The Clash; where he and John were due to perform The Clash’s ‘Bankrobber’ and Stone Roses’ song ‘Elizabeth My Dear’. This had not been announced as part of the gig and was a very hush-hush affair.

I grew up listening to The Clash and wanted to be one of the first to see Ian and John back on stage together after such a long time – it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Mick’s drummer was late for the sound check so his roadie Davo asked me to fill in on drums which I gladly agreed to do. As I sat down on the drum stool to begin, I looked out to the front of house and saw a beaming John Squire with red guitar stood directly in front of me on stage, ready to launch into ‘Bankrobber’. This was a song Ian and our mate Pete Garner (who played bass in an early Roses line up) had actually witnessed being recorded at Pluto Studios in Manchester all those years ago – providence indeed!

After shaking John’s hand for the first time in 16 years, I sat behind the drums, started the obligatory ‘count-in’ for my friends, and launched them into the Clash classic. Talk about going full circle, this was amazing; I was actually shaking when the song had ended, a sensation I had never encountered before, nor since.

That’s how much the Patrol reunion meant to me. There I was with old friends and a boyhood hero, Mick Jones. Never meet your heroes, they say – Mick Jones has to be an exception to the rule.

It didn’t matter to me that Mick Jones’s drummer turned up for the show and I had to watch from the sidelines; I’m best known as the man who turned down the gig with The Smiths after all…

‘Si Wolstencroft’ was the answer to a recent question on Mastermind. He was interviewed for War and Peace and, on the road with the Roses during their recent European dates, gifted his copy of the book to Ian Brown.

Elliot Rashman has worked in and around the music business for thirty years. In that time he has managed and worked with a diverse selection of artistes including Simply Red, Happy Mondays, James, Ian McCulloch and the Lightning Seeds.

A promoter at the Manchester Students Union, Rashman linked up with Mick Hucknall in 1984 and assembled a band of local session musicians for a group called Simply Red. Rashman guided the band to top of the charts in America and the UK. Simply Red’s astonishing career peaked in late 1991 with the release of the album Stars, which became the best-selling album for two years running in Europe and the UK.

In 2007, Rashman became the manager of the Happy Mondays. He is now semi-retired and devotes much of his time to selectively mentoring and coaching young artistes from all the creative disciplines – he specialises in encouraging them to wake up and smell the coffee. Elliot likens to working in today’s music business to ‘tap dancing on the Titanic’.

In this clip, Spence says the Mondays were ‘destroyed by the music press’. He is referring to a late 1991 interview Shaun Ryder and Bez did with Steven Wells of the NME. In the cover story Ryder was asked about a recent made-up tabloid rumour that he’d once worked as a rent boy. Dancing around the issue, with liberal use of the word ‘faggots’, Bez finally told Wells: ‘I hate faggots’.

The band were already struggling artistically but the article put the final nail in the Mondays’ coffin. Almost overnight, they went from people’s champions to being regarded as skag-addled, homophobic scumbags. Although indefensible, there is context Bez’s comment, coming shortly after the Monday’s experiences at hardcore gay clubs in New York.

Helen Mead was the first female section editor at the NME (and the first woman ever on the staff at the NME). She controlled the Live pages from 1988 – 1993. In those years she gave many new writers their first breaks at the NME, including Sarah Champion and Simon Spence.

Helen also championed the acid house scene at the NME – her pages, uniquely for the paper at the time, featuring club reviews, illegal raves and the new dance music. It was Mead who started a dance music section at the paper and commissioned Andy Weatherall to review a live show by Primal Scream – the start of a relationship between the DJ and band that resulted in the Screamadelica album.

The Alan Lewis she refers to is the former Sounds editor charged with revamping the NME in 1987. Lewis was replaced as editor in 1989 by Danny Kelly after he stepped up to the role of editor-in-chief at IPC (the company who owned NME and Melody Maker) with a remit for music and lifestyle titles. Lewis succeeded in getting ‘tits’ in a publication when he oversaw the launch of Loaded magazine.

After leaving the NME, Helen edited i-D magazine before training to be a therapist. She now works at The Life Centre in London, specialising in Energetic Body Work, Indian Head Massage, Nutritional Therapy, Reflexology, Reiki, Pregnancy Reflexology, Thai Yoga Massage, Tui-Na and Metamorphic Technique.

http://www.thelifecentre.com/

Mead, of all the NME writers, was particularly close to The Stone Roses. The band’s profile in the music press was built on a series of live reviews throughout late 1988 and 1989. Mead commissioned many of these, and herself wrote the defining article of the Roses’ career: a colour spread in the NME focusing on their Blackpool Empress Ballroom show. She called it, ‘the gig of the year’.

For Words On Music, Helen writes:

… journalism & music… So many layers but so much to do with intention… Codes…. Morals…. I started interviewing & writing at 14 with a passion & belief in the power of music that I think has been proven by the feeling the planet has bound up with the Roses…. Leaps of faith are what are required by individuals & the masses in order for society to move on & we witnessed/lived such a time…. At journalism college three rules were drummed into us…. Accuracy above all, protect your sources & off the record…. I always adhered by these rules & my gut instinct wouldn’t have let me do otherwise…. The music scene I came from in Harlow was highly political & very community based… The values I had were the values the artists i got on with best also shared & many of those that were tarred as awkward interviewees were the ones I bonded with…. the Roses, the Primals, Weller…. I think so much is a question of codes…. I was never looking to make a name for myself, stitch anyone up, climb on anyone’s head…. I wanted to write the best story I could that captured the artist the best…. & was thrilled to be part of such an empowering scene…

Actually on the paper it was so important to me to have writers that shared my values & passion… Simon [Spence] was one of them & one of the few…. It was always great having him around…. One of my key memories was of him correcting my pronunciation of Givenchy! Still puts a smile on my face…

Helen Mead recalls her high times with the Roses in the late 1980s.

This is no tale of sex, drugs and fuck-ups…. Is that what you really want from a frontline story about the Roses: the usual rock’n’roll cliches, of pills thrills & tummy aches? If you do, I’d have to challenge your ideas of what really makes a legendary band. You’d be mad when you can have the real deal: a glimpse into the world at the moment it changed forever. When the moment was nothing other than NOW!

Blackpool in August ’89 was the Roses coming of age party and nothing was going to spoil that. They’d been playing gigs constantly that year and the message and momentum had spread exponentially. I’d seen them play first at Brunel university in April, then the ICA (and partied with them after at the Land Of Oz), then Walsall, the atmosphere everywhere was the sweetest feeling ever and now THIS was the gig everybody had been waiting all summer for. The perfect ending to our summer of love!

They had a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, but I’d become their number one ally on the NME and pretty much across the music press. I was the papers’ Live and Dance editor, two seemingly divergent sections that, at that moment in time, only I could see how linked they were by the explosion in music that was happening. I was out every night of the week, first at gigs and then in clubs and was still in work at 10am the next morning! I had the best job in the world!

I’d been constantly getting their gigs covered that year when the Editor had pulled me into the office to demand to know what I was doing, it was this support that gave us all the front covers later on. By Blackpool, the paper still hadn’t got it and I commissioned myself to write a 2-page live review with interview within the live section as the paper wouldn’t commission a feature.

This gig, of course, was THE event of the year! The defining moment when the crossover between acid house and live music happened…. The Roses so defined the time delivering a live gig that was also a rave – the crowd fully connected, dancing as if they were at a club.

Post soundcheck, I was with them until the moment they went on stage. We did a photo shoot on the seafront and in a kids funhouse where I wanted to get on one of the slides, but couldn’t with my bare legs; a total gentleman; Ian, lent me his 21 inch bottom green Wrangler 1972 corduroy flares, and I couldn’t get them over my thighs. Classic!

We went back to their B&B to hang out and do an interview, the band getting ready to go on stage. Cleaning teeth, changing shirts, all very practical and down to earth, all very relaxed and together – it was in the tour bus on the way to the venue that the music went on and they started to fire up the electric energy that they took straight out onto the stage- we literally drove into a docking area that took us straight on… It was “look ma, I’m on-top-of-the-world” stuff!

After the show, there was no planned after-party and we went back to their B&B where I persuaded the night manager to let us have a party in their bar/breakfast room… If we promised to be good boys and girls and help them clean up and set the tables for breakfast, it was a deal. When has that ever happened before? Respect! Over 100 dedicated party-people and we all remained perfectly behaved!

At dawn with the space all spic and span, serviettes and plates laid on tables, Ian walked Jack Barron and myself back to our hotel down the seafront. Deep in thought, this natural, heartfelt man, the man so totally of the moment, asked, “Promise you’ll tell me if I ever need to be brought back down to earth”. It brought a beautifully humbling quality to the moment.

Twenty-three years later, I’d love to take a walk with him after Heaton Park…. Some moments are just perfect in time… And that was one of them, Thanks Ian… We all owe it to ourselves to be the best we can be. And this weekend is proof that we can be and that, for so many of us, music is the key to that. And especially the music of The Stone Roses.

Helen Mead reviews the Roses after seeing them play on Friday 29 June at Heaton Park.

Magic exists…. Ever since they announced Warrington at 4pm in the afternoon so many weeks ago my body has been flashed back into 1989…. The sense of anticipation, the sense of purpose, the sense of being fearlessly alive and living.

A few days before Heaton Park…. The same as you’d feel on the eve of a first date, or the first time you ski down a mountain, I suddenly felt fear: what if they don’t pull it off? It hadn’t even occurred to me as a possibility before.

Buddhists believe every time we experience fear it is an opportunity to burn off karma from a previous lifetime…. Feel the fear and do it anyway. That’s the only way we ever move forward, into our future, into our destiny.

From the moment I stepped off the train in Manchester synchronicity took over – and I’m skipping the queue and into a cab with Alex Nightingale and Simon Stevens (the Scream’s original management team), hearing first hand reports of man-tears at the Roses’ Barcelona show and a rhythm connection from Mani & Reni that’s the new Sly & Robbie…. Its just what I need to hear.

Backstage at Heaton Park I regret not running over to say ‘Hi’ to Cressa, who is completely alight with energy, and take my first steps outside to see The Wailers. The Roses have got so much right with this weekend. The line-up, the sound, the location: on every level they’ve scored. The Scream provide the perfect labour to the Roses’ rebirthing.

From the first depth charge of Mani’s bass on ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ the fire ignites in the smiles between the Roses on stage and in the hearts of the entire audience. Watching them play live I’m suddenly aware how deeply sequenced the 89/90 set is still imbedded in my psyche.

The changes they’ve made are all phenomenal. It’s a reconfiguration of their essence which has remixed and remade themselves. The new model is the best model yet. Mani’s playful wobbling reverb bass on ‘Bye Bye Badman’, the irresistible free-falling flow of Reni’s drums for ‘She’s A Waterfall’, John’s new crazy finish on ‘Ten Storey Love Song’ morphing backwards into his pseudo Hendrix start to ‘Standing Here’, Ian rapping on ‘Love Spreads’ (one of the set’s jaw-droppers), and the tres chic deliverance of ‘Fools Gold’.

And you know what it all made me think… ‘Fuck can’t wait to hear what they’re doing for the new album’.

Until you see it again, some things you forget, like the way Ian always claps the audience… How much they appreciate us… How much they appreciate the opportunity to be here. People talk about the arrogant swagger… People see what they want to see, what they need to reinforce their own stories….How about compassion in action…. At the end of a rapturous ‘Sugar Spun Sister’… “Listen, people are falling down here. Pick them up. That’s what we do here”.

They’ve even resurrected ‘Resurrection’. We know there will be no encore. But they don’t leave us – fireworks lighting up the sky to the first bars of Redemption Song – the final thought for the evening. ‘Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom?/Cause all I ever have/Redemption songs/Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our minds’…

Watched without any artificial intoxicants, I flew as high as I’d ever done 23 years ago. It was fantastic to know the feeling that they generate in me, and in the entire audience is the same as it ever was… and if anything at this moment in time, even more potent.

If you’ve never been in love… You’ve never seen The Stone Roses…

As a teenager, Manchester-born author/journalist, Sarah Champion wrote about the nascent Madchester music scene for NME and in her weekly column for Manchester Evening News. She was 19 when she wrote her first music book – And God Created Manchester.

Champion immersed herself in dance music culture writing for MixMag and Trance Europe Express and has edited several collections of chemical fiction, most famously Disco Biscuits. With accompanying CD soundtrack and club nights, the book was a cultural phenomenon, selling 70,000 copies. It featured contributions from Alan Warner, Irvine Welsh, Jeff Noon, Alex Garland, Martin Miller, Douglas Rushkoff and many more.

Further collections of fiction edited by Champion include: Disco 2000 (Irvine Welsh, Jeff Noon, William Gibson, Douglas Coupland, Nicholas Blincoe, Kathy Acker & more); Shenanigans: An Anthology of Fresh Irish Fiction (Mulkerns, Martin, Ambrose, McCann & more) and Fortune Hotel (Toby Litt, Will Self, Jean McNeil, Howard Marks & more).

Sarah has lived in Bangkok, San Francisco and Mytholmroyd. In 2004 she found herself in the eye of a media storm, mistakenly ‘unmasked’ as the famous blogging call-girl Belle de Jour. The blog – the ‘Diary of a London Call Girl’ – was a major hit and guessing the identity of its anonymous writer was intense following news of a ‘six-figure’ book deal.

In June 2006, Champion moved back to the UK. She currently works for The Guardian.

Bob Dickinson was the chair for the Words On Music event. A freelance producer and presenter of radio programmes, he has worked for BBC Radio 4 for over 10 years, making documentaries and features for the station such as: a profile of the radical performance group Forced Entertainment (2012); Merzman: The Art of Kurt Schwitters (2012); a personal portrait of the town of Barrow-in-Furness (2011); a history of the happening in art and culture, Really Happening! (2010); The People’s Republic of Hulme presented by Mark Kermode (2010); and two series presented by Jarvis Cocker, a history of fanzines, Zine Scene (2009) and The Art of Pop (2008), a history of UK art schools. Dickinson has also made several notable documentaries for Radio 1 including: Cease To Exist: The Rock & Roll Life of Charles Manson and a biography of Johnny Thunders.

He also produced live sessions by many artists including Geoff Buckley, The Creation, Kevin Ayers and The Troggs and produced many live concert programmes for Granada TV including James Live at G-Mex and The La’s live at Manchester Academy.

Dickinson has written for publications including The Guardian, NME, The Observer, Manchester Evening News, City Life, and Art Monthly. He is the author of two books, the graphic novel, Dog Hendrix and Imprinting The Sticks, his history of the alternative press in the north-west of England. Bob also plays drums in the surrealist blues band, Salford Sheiks.

At the moment he is working on a book about audiences, and various documentary projects for BBC radio. In War and Peace, Dickinson is credited as the first local journalist to interview the Roses – for an article that appeared in City Life (Manchester’s Time Out equivalent) on 29 March 1985. Dickinson wrote that the Roses were ‘dramatically different from all other bands’ and coined the term ‘Deviant Merseybeat’ to describe the band’s sound. ‘I wanted to say they were a bit more 60s “freakbeat” but they rejected that idea,’ he said.

For Words On Music, Bob writes:

I suppose I see music and music writing from both sides because as well as writing for the music press, I’ve played and sung in bands (and still do), and I’ve been in groups, some of which received great reviews in the press while on other occasions they were totally slated, so I know what’s it’s like to be on the receiving end of some young music hack’s desperate attempts at writing and getting attention. I’ve also run an independent record label, Monsters In Orbit, and I have known that need to get coverage in the press, and to get the recognition you believe your releases deserve. But on the other hand, I’ve written a lot about music, for fanzines like City Fun, magazines like NME, Blues & Soul, and Echoes, and newspapers like The Guardian, and I’ve worked in music radio, for BBC Radio One, and on music programmes for television, for Channel 4, Granada TV and the BBC, and all of those programmes involved the promoting of new music in some way or other. In addition I’ve made and still make documentary programmes and features for radio about music and musicians.

There has long been a relationship between the media and music industry, which still exists, despite the crisis that the music industry is going through. I’ll leave aside the question of whether the music industry will survive, or deserves to survive – frankly, I don’t care, because musicians will always be making music, whatever happens to the fat cats behind the record labels.

What really interests me is the importance of the relationship between music and music writers. Music writing is an ancient art – I think as long as there have been words, people have used them to try and describe what music does. Music takes us back to some very primitive level of communication and words not only provide an impression of what happens when we are making and experiencing music, but they also contain music in themselves: language reveals its musicality and therefore its depth and complexity, through poetry and song.

Historically, in my lifetime, I consider that relationship – between music and music writers – to have been forged because of the emergence of subcultures in this country shortly preceding the importation of rock and roll, from the 1950s onwards. This is why music writing, in the way we are referring to it, specifically talks about forms of music that are made and experienced by the young. Music writing therefore has the potential to contribute to, as well as to explain, all the factionalism and fragmentation that competing forms of music and competing subcultural groups inevitably thrive on.

As a result, there have been times – punk and post-punk are perfect examples, in my experience – when writers have become musicians, and vice versa. And it’s no coincidence that situations like this were made even more volatile by the existence of a healthy alternative or DIY press which represented and argued about much of the new music of the period. For this reason, I’m pleased that so much music writing now goes on in new media, outside the control of conventional publishing and broadcasting forms.

But all writers, like all musicians, want to get better. As a musician, you don’t simply crave fame and fortune – you want to be recognised as having done something well. Likewise most music writers want to write well – or risk not being understood. But I think there’s very little great music writing around at the moment. Why is this? The older generation of writers – the Paul Morley’s and Greil Marcus’s of the game, may well have said all the important things they will ever need to say. The entire formative history of pop and rock have been thoroughly investigated, but so what? You can rewrite history if you want. And there’s an amazing amount of music out there, from all over the world, that is still totally unrecognised, and not being written about. Someone’s got to do it.

Len Brown wrote for NME in the 1980s and early 1990s – chiefly championing The Smiths, Gil-Scott Heron and myriad World Music masters such as Youssou N’Dour – before embarking on an ongoing television career.

His history of TV music documentary credits (as producer, director or executive producer) includes the My Generation series for Channel Four (The Animals, The Kinks, The Troggs, The Yardbirds, the Small Faces and Herman’s Hermits), The Brit Girls for Channel Four (Cilla, Sandie, Marianne and Lulu), It’s Slade, Wild Boys: Duran Duran, A Fine Romance: The New Romantics, Rod Stewart & The Faces: Wine Women & Song (all for BBC1) plus Close To You: The Carpenters for ITV. He produced the definitive television documentary about Marc Bolan – T.Rex: Dandy In The Underworld.

Brown also wrote the acclaimed music book, Meetings With Morrissey, published by Omnibus Press. A revised and updated paperback version was released in 2009.

For Words On Music, Len writes:

The best music writing manages to convey the emotional strength of music, to capture the moment and strike chords with those who were there without alienating those who weren’t.

Regarding your event, Sarah Champion and Helen Mead always had something positive to offer readers of music mags: the too rare, soft-tongued, oft-lacking female perspective. Lucy O’Brien is another fine example of the species. Most music journos like me have been white anglo saxon or celtic heterosexual males with little to offer but enthusiasm for genres that butter our own prejudices. Most of us tried to escape our limitations through drink and/or drugs. As a result, the only great music journalists are dead music journalists apart from Nick Kent (death warmed up from my NME days) and Charles Shaar Murray, whose experimental lifestyle perhaps enabled him to write from an out-of-body perspective; he looked down on the whole history of rock & roll world and analysed things in a fantastically clinical and almost prophetic way. Most writers try too hard to sound clever or to be rock & roll party animals or be best mates with the band.

Not sure I can tell anyone what makes a great rock book. Research? Access? Insight born from some perceived shared personal experience with the artist? My Morrissey biography got a universal kicking from people who hate him – 95 per cent of the planet – and from those who love him (thought I was too critical and talking out of school etc.) including Morrissey! You’re hated for being friends with the man and hated for writing about being friends with the man. Naturally I’m proud of it for exactly these reasons. Yes, there’s too much about me in it and far too much about Oscar Wilde, but I stand by it as a very flawed, irritating and essential book about a very flawed, irritating and essential artist. (The Independent tells me it’s one of the Top Ten Rock Biographies Ever – feel free to titter out loud!)

I was a serious journalist before NME – chasing ambulances, writing sympathetically about striking miners and travellers, covering murder trials, beauty contests and corrupt council meetings for great newspapers such as the East End News, the South Shields Gazette, the Balham & Tooting News… – and I still try to write about serious stuff such as suicide and dementia. Whether any of it is of interest or value to this self-destructing, tawdry, celebrity-loving consumerist society is another debate.

As for the best writing about music? Saul Bellow on the radical mystery of Mozart: “The music presses us to ask why it is so continually fertile, loved, ingenious, inexhaustible – why it is able to tell us so much more than any other languages can tell us, and why it is given so readily, easily, gratuitously. For it is not a product of effort. What it makes us see is that there are things that must be done easily. Easily or not at all – that is the truth about art. Concentration without effort is at the heart of the thing. Will and desire are silenced (as many mystics have understood) and work is transformed into play.”

Yes, pretentious to the end. Cheers, Len

Words On Music panellist Elliot Rashman insisted Tony Wilson was represented [in spirit] at the launch … and he would have loved it.

The viewers of the live webcast were unsure. “Who’s that lad shouting at the back? Has he got Tourettes,” one twittered in.

It was Nathan McIlroy, the singer in Frazer King (pictured, above, at the event). Sarah Champion unexpectedly invited him to speak on stage. Bob Dickinson must have wondered if this was his Bill Grundy moment. Helen Mead handled Nathan with her usual beautiful Zen aura and knowing, and Si Wolstencroft had seen it all before. Nathan took centre stage and was quickly joined by his pal, Andy Semi. Their hi-jacking of the event meant the digital contributors lined-up to contribute were left dangling in the ether…

For Words On Music, Nathan writes:

One shameful Sunday, I received an e-mail about the Words On Music discussion promising refreshments that turned out to be anything but complimentary. Aside from this footage the day was a bit of blur but I do remember thinking it was futile to discuss music in such detail. It reminded me of academics who write volumes of criticism on literature because they can’t say it as succinctly themselves.

Music journalists earn a wage spewing opinion whilst many young musicians struggle to earn a living. I mention this because Simon Spence was threatening legal action against me for ruining his book launch. I’d like to see how much he’d get past the CCJ of a dolehead – probably a few pints worth a month which happens to be the national average for a musician.

The infrastructure of the music industry is weakening as sales become less lucrative if not obsolete all together. Promoters now run the cartel picking and choosing who plays where for festivals and support slots. This is the only realm where emerging bands can earn anywhere near the amounts that DJs can get playing small clubs.

Music journalists are still part of the bore machine as they are viewed as a reliable compass for the next successful pay cheque for said promoters although their direct influence on the ‘consumer’ is debatable. That isn’t to say all journos are lazy, overpaid, talentless sycophants. I’m sure somewhere the channelled spirit of Lester Bangs is punching a keyboard with an ear to the underground. In fact there are many online bloggers who are decent but lack the concentrated audience that an established magazine can circulate to.

The general myth about the internet is that it allows the D.I.Y. ethic to prosper. Whilst it certainly does to an extent, the colossal scale of information and new music available ensure bands will always hit a brick firewall without more traditional forms of distribution and advertising to separate them from the pack.

Anyway, back to Satan’s little helpers… I know a lad who wrote a few articles for a long standing music rag reviewing new bands. He had to endure watching a truly fucking awful group who predictably fell off the end of the earth two weeks after being in favour. He gave an honest account of their offensive banality but his article was rejected. The response they gave was something along the lines of ‘conflict of interest’. This particular turgid stain on the soul of music were signed to a major who’d ensured a more complimentary article was printed next to a full page advert for their new single.

You can find this kind of absurd transparency across most forms of media and politics. I’m aware that greed and self interest are nothing new but it’s getting to the point where people aren’t buying into it anymore on any level.

If you want music journalism to survive you’ll have to evolve. My advice would be to stop talking so much and get to some gigs and support the local scene. If music journalists had a social conscience they would write less about privately schooled Timmy Mallet lookalikes and help fill some empty beer bellies; Dirty North, Greetings, Onions, Salford Media City, Queer’d Science, Sex Hands and a plethora of others all unique in their own right and that’s only Manchester.

Just don’t forget the biggest underachievers of the lot…

Nathan of Frazer King was invited to speak on the the panel after he’d spent the previous 40 minutes shouting from the audience. We are still trying to make sense of what Nathan said when he did get on the mic. He was followed on to the stage by a second interloper, Andy Semi.

Semi has been promoting new music in Manchester since 2007 and works with a number of musicians including Dirty North, Frazer KingGreetings and Phil Davies. As well as promoting live gigs, he often takes on the role of session musician, producer, press officer, designer and fixer to support new Manchester bands.

Frequently described as idealistic and simplistic, Semi believes the future of great music lies in the artists’ ability to independently produce, promote and perform their work on their own terms. Andy maintains this DIY ethos in his writing and via his website – the ‘genuinely exciting’ www.ivegotasemi.com

For Words on Music, Semi writes:

I’ve been promoting music in Manchester for the last 5 years. Initially my intention was to promote some good new bands and maybe earn enough money to work less hours at my mind numbing day job. The latter is yet to come true, however I have had the opportunity to work with some of the best new musicians in the country. My approach has been simple: go to loads of small gigs and when I see someone amazing I’ll ask them to play a show for me. These musicians then recommend the bands they like and it spirals from there.

I’ve never promoted a band I don’t like and this quality control has always been more important to me than how many people a band can bring to a gig. I would rather work with musicians to help them effectively promote a night rather than threatening them with a pay to play mentality. This approach ensures the gigs are actually fun and, as financial rewards are few and far between, an enjoyable gig almost pays for itself. Money can be a problem though as decent venues are expensive and the general public are wary to part with their cash to watch an unknown. Most good bands I’ve met are also not very good at selling themselves which whilst being a quality that I admire does not help publicise their music. This was where I imagined the music press would come in – I was wrong.

Over the last few years I’ve sent hundreds of emails to journalists, radio stations and publications regarding brilliant new musicians but in most cases I am yet to receive a reply. I often hear that these people are inundated with amazing new music but a brief look at the current Top 40 would suggest otherwise. I am also told that the majority of the press feel the same as the gig going public and wouldn’t risk their time or money going to see an unknown band or artist.

This begs the question how does a unknown artist become known if the press are only interested in an artist once they have already become known! I would imagine to a certain extent that this has always been the case but in a world where profit now outweighs all other considerations I can’t help but feel that the music industry and press have helped to destroy themselves. Whilst the internet continues to provide a wealth of new music blogs and writers it can also lack the quality control and reach of the traditional press. I am sure someone has already discovered the next Beatles, Bowie and Buzzcocks – I just wonder if anyone’s listening.

Too Many Words: Elly Tams Says It’s Time For Music Journalists To STFU!

Elly Tams blogs and tweets as Quiet Riot Girl. Her debut novella Scribbling On Foucault’s Walls wonders what would have happened if Michel Foucault, the homosexual French philosopher, had in fact had a daughter.

For Words On Music, Elly writes:

I am a writer. Sometimes I write about music. At one point in history, I was even some kind of ‘music journalist’; I used to write for The North’s independent muso rag Sandman Magazine.

So why am I here to defend a remark I made recently on twitter that was pretty damning about music journalism? During the Words On Music live discussion event I tweeted:

#wordsonmusic it is time for music journalists to STFU and to let the music, and the technology, and the young people speak for themselves

Apparently my comment was picked up and retweeted by quite a few people, maybe in agreement, maybe in disgust. But it certainly, excuse my metaphor, struck a chord.

I stand by the sentiments expressed in my tweet because I think music journalism is spectacularly slow to cotton onto the social media revolution that is happening around it. And that has been happening for quite a long time! Whilst musicians and fans have been eagerly taking up the opportunities for sharing, promoting, discussing and making music provided by platforms such as Myspace, spotify, garageband, youtube, and bandcamp, writers have seemed to resist change. Maybe they resent the ‘democratisation’ that comes with new media, because anyone can be heard writing and talking about pop music now. This reduces the status of journalist ‘experts’ and completely removes their role as ‘opinion leaders’.

The last time I remember buying an album due to a review in a newspaper was when I read about The Decline of British Sea Power in The Guardian in 2003. Nine years on, I rely solely on word of mouth recommendations, online chats with twitter muso pals, random youtube discoveries, friends’ spotify playlists and, viral music videos to switch me on to new bands and artists.

For me, any arguments about loss in ‘quality’ or ‘depth of knowledge’ of trained, experienced pop journalists are overshadowed by the sheer breadth and variety of voices, styles and perspectives that come with twenty first century music discourse. In a piece in which admittedly I did protest too much about my annoyance with Manchester’s Master of Miserablism, I wrote: ‘I hate Morrissey because listening to middle class white men analysing pop music was already boring enough’.

For example the list of people involved in the Words On Music live stream discussion event this year seems to include about twenty men, two women, most (or all?) of whom are white.

But, having spent some years completing a Phd on gender inequality in the creative sector, and then running a social enterprise training women in the music industry, and having grown weary of feminist rhetoric, I am not going to sit around asking where are the women? Or where are the ethnic minorities? Or indeed where are the young people? In pop music and journalism.

Because I know where they are. They are online, in their studios, at gigs, on Logic and Ableton, on the ball, on form, in tune, on time, in synch, out there, at work, outperforming the old guard.

The future is already here, and we may as well join wise cats like Tom Robinson, Cornershop and – yes – Lady Gaga, and get with the programme. There is still a place for words on music, but those words have to take into account the changing culture, technology and times we make music in. This is no country for out of touch hacks.

For Words On Music, Radhika writes:

We’ve become too complacent as writers who write about music. If you take the idea of music journalism or music criticism or music writing to be one where journalist/writer/critic has to communicate the essence of a song, album or artist to a reader presumably unable to hear it, it is not difficult to see why we may consider it more efficient if, between a few scattered adjectives we toss in a hyperlink or an embed code and leave it to the multimedia clip of our choice to prove a point. Why put in the effort to describe sounds in words today when the readers have likely already heard the sounds in question and are in search of validation, not judgement, of an established opinion? Should that validation not appear, what’s stopping them from taking their dissatisfaction to the streets (i.e. comment boxes)? Should that validation appear but not be expressed as eloquently as ideally desired, why wouldn’t they take out the few moments necessary to do it better themselves?

There seems to be some kind of consensus that popular music writing, particularly criticism (if you choose to see that as distinct), is under threat or, at the very least, not as good as it used to be. You can hardly fault anyone for holding that belief. What authority does the writer have whose opinions may be refuted in the minutes following the publication of an article? How much credibility does the critic has when his or her views are no grander or more authoritative than those of the chap with a wordpress.com (.com!) account?

Authority diminishes when it is questioned – when it is debated, refuted, countered, or ignored, perhaps in favour of someone or something more reliable. When music writing moved online, we all became critics and we all stole a little bit of the professional critic’s cred. If their knowledge was slightly lacking, there was sure to be a little one-man operation that focussed specifically on the sub-sub-subgenre we were interested in and that, no matter how small, could be uncovered with only the slightest of effort.

We’ll still turn to the professionals more often, no doubt. Not just because of their sheer relative visibility, but also for the sake of staying au courant. But we might each favour the amateurs – the ones with the day jobs who fill their evenings with words on music, writing about what they WANT to write about. Free from the sway of editorial pressure, free from the looming unease that comes when you work for a publication that has sponsors you can’t afford to upset, free from the constraints of chronology and often opting to look back and rediscover sounds overlooked, ignored or forgotten. In this freedom to write, there is honesty, and maybe that’s why we trust the hobbyist jotter over the professional scribe. Maybe we related to them. Or maybe we’re one of them. We all have the right to opine, to publish. We’re not held back by geography, we’re not constrained by race, we’re not dependent on nepotism, or subject to biases and bribery. How do liberation and the honesty that accompanies it lead us to believe music journalism is dead?

 
Radhika started writing about music for magazines, for bands, and for herself at the age of 21. Four years later, she submitted her master’s thesis on online music journalism and its impact on critical authority. Of the publications she has written for, only one has been based in her country of residence. She writes for herself at http://agleteaters.wordpress.com and, when she feels like listening, she compares audio doppelgangers at http://familiarsounds.posterous.com