Rock journalism at its finest, with world-class egomaniacs galore
Rock Stars Stole My Life!
by Mark Ellen
Coronet, 320pp, £18.99
THERE’S a chant I just knew I’d find in this rather wonderful book. It’s the call of the lesser-pinbadged rock fan who’s been following his favourite band for a bit too long, who’s stood up the back of the auditorium when standing for longer than the average drum-solo has become quite tricky, and who’s somewhat underwhelmed by said combo deciding to peddle new songs this late in the day. And it goes like this: “Do some old!”
I knew I’d find it because of all the times Mark Ellen hollered it in the podcasts he and his long-time rockbiz great mate David Hepworth put out under the name of Word magazine – despatches which became even more gripping than the mag, itself tremendous, and which I still replay like favourite albums. (Can fiftysomething guys chatting about music be even better than listening to music? Oh yes).
Ellen does some old here. He recounts, one more time for the people, the lunch where “a large, possibly still pulsating, steaming great slab of pâté de fois gras” arrived at his place just as “the world’s most militant animal rights activist” – Chrissie Hynde – sat down next to him. There’s the yarn about Ireland’’s self-styled greatest-living troubadour: “There appeared to be two types of people in the world: those who liked Van Morrison and those who’d met him.” There’s Joe Jackson being hit with a dead swan thrown from the audience. And has he ever mentioned that he once saw Wishbone Ash play Bracknell Sports Centre? Quite a few times, actually, but that’s OK because his stories are all rip-snorters and in a memoir covering a pop life from Bernard Cribbins (The Hole in the Ground, the first record he loved) to Lady Gaga (reckoning he’s the only journalist to have seen her naked), they now come with added context.
When he was at Oxford Uni, Ellen played in a band whose lead singer was Tony Blair. This used to be bigger news, back when we really did believe about Blair that things could only get better, but is still a nifty chapter to have for your book. These were the first impressions of the future PM: “He had a folk-rock look about him – long hair with a fringe – and was keen, organised, quite posh, very funny and started a lot of sentences with ‘Guys ...’” During rehearsals he wore a “courageous hoop-necked top” and sang in “high, fruity tones”. Finally, showtime: “We cranked up the riff and gave Tony the nod and he burst from behind a hedge doing his now fairly polished Jagger impression – low-slung flares, bare midriff, one hand on a hip, the other wagging a cautionary finger, elbows flapping like a chicken.”
Ellen, though, doesn’t milk the connection for all its worth. He remains a modest fellow, despite all that time spent with some of the world’s biggest egomaniacs. And he puts more into the chapter about his first open-air festival because it was a properly formative experience: the son of a lay reader, Ellen was too polite for the New Musical Express. He’d only ever pretended to be on drugs before. “It was hard to catch up. In most of the places I’d worked, people showered regularly, wore underwear and had no clinical need for tinned fruit.” The office politics unnerved him. “I’d imagined some kind of Algonquin Round Table of convivial debate where cheerful fellow enthusiasts uncovered new music for the common good.” He’d go on to create such a world at Word having found his voice at Smash Hits! and helping launch Q and Mojo, although another mag, Select, was mildly disconcerting for its love of “nosebleed techno” and hatred of the Beatles.
There’s lovely writing here (The “satin-shirt rooster”, the “shameless crumpeteer”? Rod Stewart of course). And great insight as pop music suddenly appeared incredibly important (Live Aid; Ellen was a presenter) then just as quickly became a frivolous lifestyle option. “You bastards,” rants the old hippie, “you don’t know how lucky you are. You’ve got halloumi. We had salmonella and chips. You’ve got Orange Mobile ‘Camp-Finders’ that make your tent light up when you text it. We slept in old fertilizer sacks. You’ve got Primal Scream beneath a harvest moon, the sky lit with Chinese lanterns. We had puddles and Van Der Graaf Generator.”