Juliet and Terence on: tidying up with Mr Trebus and Marie Kondo; is there still room for eccentrics; and just who is this William Shakespeare bloke?
Plus four kaleidoscopic tracks of music.
I met Pete Paphides in a great little caff in North London. His fanzine, Perturbed, was actually the first one I read and I wanted to hear the story of how it came into existence. All that chat will be in my forthcoming book about fanzine editors but here are some choice off-cuts about how a fanzine interview lead to his first meeting with Caitlin Moran, and, some thoughts on Word magazine. I’ve never felt more like I was in one of Dexys’ early music videos, drinking lots of tea and having beans on toast whilst we chatted about the Midlands of the eighties. During our conversation, Pete asked me about my old fanzine and I mentioned that I interviewed Levitation for the second and final issue.
Levitation were the reason I met Caitlin. Do you remember a fanzine called Ablaze from Leeds, run by Karren? I’d started at Melody Maker and she was looking for someone based in London to interview them. I had to meet them at the Southampton Riverside arts complex. The interview was fine, it lasted about an hour. At the end Terry Bickers said, “I think one of your colleagues is up next. Do you know Caitlin Moran?” I’d not met her at that point but I liked her writing. In fact I was kind of annoyed because I’d finished college in Wales and thought I could go back to Birmingham and maybe do the gig reviews for Melody Maker. In my absence Caitlin’s byline had popped up doing Birmingham gigs and she was way better than I was. I thought, ‘Well I can’t compete with her.’ That hastened my move to London. I thought she was brilliant, so much so that I’d written a letter to tell her how great her writing was. Being in the offices in Melody Maker, I knew that you often didn’t get much feedback, it was hard writing into the void. I took it upon myself to write this letter and got her address from the secretary but had never got round to sending it off. We all went to the pub with Levitation that night and she missed the last train home. I said “You can stay at mine if you want – it’s a shitty bedsit in Stockwell but you’re more than welcome.” We stayed up until five in the morning and I told her about the letter. I said “I know it’s a bit weird but I wrote you a letter, I think you’re brilliant. I may as well give it you now”. She thought it was sweet. She slept on my bed that night, I slept on my sofa and we just hit it off.
And that was that?
Nothing happened that night. We went out for a few weeks but she was seventeen and hadn’t even moved to London yet. We decided we’d be better off just as friends and it stayed like that for a few years until we got together in 1995.
We then drank further cups of tea and spoke a lot more about fanzines before I asked him how he came to do some bits of writing for Word.
I think Mark Ellen got in touch with me. I’d do anything for him because of Smash Hits. It’s a shame that he’s not editing a magazine right now, the same goes for David Hepworth. Did you read 1971? He’s a brilliant writer; especially when he’s writing about music that he clearly still finds exciting. It’s funny because beneath that slightly world-weary exterior, he’s a total enthusiast. He is on the inside what Mark Ellen is on the outside, which is probably why they’re so close.
It was always fun writing for them, it was a meaty magazine. In our toilet at home we have all the issues and they’re falling apart because every visitor over the last seven or eight years has picked them up. There was so much in them.
It knew its audience very well and it wasn’t under pressure to get younger readers all the time. For a few years, Q lost a lot of readers by not quite knowing who it’s trying to attract, although for the past five or six years, it’s really got back on track. I thought Word might last a bit longer because it was well written and it knew who it was there for.
Did you ever go to the office?
Once or twice. I went in and did a thing on old music papers with Mark and David. I brought in a haul of old NMEs and Melody Makers from the late sixties and early seventies, and we pored over them for a podcast.
Was that the time you spoke about Darren Burn?
Yes, that’s right. [listen from around 44 minutes in]
I got really interested in him after that and got a copy of the two documentaries from someone.
That DVD has that awful adjunct hasn’t it?
Yes, the short documentary from 15 years later? He looks broken in it. I think he died fairly shortly after that.
He did. I tell you another good one to watch is the Sheena Easton one. She was discovered through a documentary series called ‘The Big Time’. It followed different people like actors, circus performers, or footballers to see if they had what it takes. That’s how she got famous. She was from a suburb of Glasgow – Belshill I think, where Teenage Fanclub and the Pastels are from – and she auditioned for EMI. They take a punt on her and send her to various experts to be restyled. They all chip in with their ideas on what she needs to do to be famous and it’s weirdly demoralising; she’s torn apart basically. At the end of it her first single is released and it’s a flop. The general feeling is ‘oh well, she had her makeover, she was ripped apart by a bunch of experts, she made a record and it stiffed and that’s that.’ It was only because it was televised and a lot of people saw it that her next single was a hit. It was almost out of pity really. At the same time, the song that was featured in ‘The Big Time’ – ‘Modern Girl’ – started rising up the charts too so she had two records in the top 10. It’s still quite a depressing documentary, partly because seventies record company offices are all low low-lit, really dusty and full of cigarette smoke. It looks like terrible things happen in them.
They resemble sit-com sets, like Reggie Perrin’s office, all nylon and over-flowing ashtrays.
They seem to be such uncreative places. There’s something sad about seeing people who were adults in the sixties and now everyone has longer, greasier hair and wider collars. Everyone looks a bit smellier than they did in the sixties.
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While I was interviewing Rhodri for a book I’m writing about fanzines it seemed like a good opportunity to briefly talk to him about his recollections of Word. We met at the British Library, a place Rhodri had never been to before. This made me feel like a street-wise Londoner.
We discussed his writing career following his days as a fanzine editor.
When I left university in 1992 I had no idea what I was going to do. I ended up working for Nick Hobbs, who was the manager of Pere Ubu, Laibach and others. He used to manage Henry Cow, he’d been an agent at Rough Trade for many years, he’d set up Recommended Records with Chris Cutler and organised pioneering tours of Eastern Europe with acts like Billy Bragg and Misty In Roots over there.
I knew him as the singer with the Shrubs, a C86 band who I’d been to see a few times. I was round at his house to tap him for gig contacts in Eastern Europe for my band at the time, The Keatons, when he asked if I wanted a job as his assistant.
It was another one of those moments when someone recognised that I was enthusiastic and reasonably conscientious. He was hugely influential for me in that he was making a living, albeit a chaotic one, out of doing stuff that he thought was important. All of his decisions were motivated by enthusiasm, rather than financial gain; if he needed to buy a thing he would do and worry about it later. He was really good at creating work and making it happen. He was this completely self-contained unit of creativity.
He sounds like a fascinating character.
Absolutely, I still see him occasionally. He lives in Istanbul now, doing the same kind of work. He’s a real eccentric.
Another thing I got from him was that he was an absolute stickler for clarity of communication, whether we were dealing with the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ rider requirements in the Ukraine or communicating with Pere Ubu’s record label. He would write these beautiful, concise letters. He drilled into me that there was no room in this business for omitting detail or not communicating exactly how things are. He wasn’t a writer as such, but he made me good at organising my thoughts in a coherent way. I remember some friends asking me if I’d considered writing for a living, and I thought yeah, maybe I could.
I got to a point with Nick where the job was getting too stressful. It was taking up weekends and I was getting calls from angry people on the other side of the world at 3 a.m. I quit on Christmas Day in 2000. My idea was that I would leave the job and get into writing, but I didn’t have a strategy. I decided to give it six months, and very early on I got a job working on a website for a BBC drama series called Attachments. Then I got to know a few people, pitched a feature for Time Out and it went from there. Bearing in mind how the media has changed in the last 20 years, I was very lucky timing-wise. I just sneaked in under the wire.
How did you first get involved in doing some work for Word magazine?
I can’t quite remember… I’m not sure how David and Mark became aware I existed. It might have been because I was friends with Michèle Noach, the artist, who used to be married to Robyn Hitchcock. Robyn and Michèle were part of a kind of Chiswick social scene with Peter Blake and various others. Mark Ellen was central to all that, so I’d met him a few times. Also, I suppose by that time I’d amassed a lot of Twitter followers, so David might have been aware of me through that.
I’ve never written very much about music. In around 2003 I’d had a column in the Observer Music Monthly called ‘Guitarist Wanted’. The idea was they sent me undercover to audition for bands I had no intention of joining and then write about the experience. It was really stressful because it involved deception, which I’m not very good at. I also remember that my remit was to be mildly amusing but they took all the jokes out – a very common thing, I’ve discovered since, but at the time it left me highly distressed. I remember the editor and deputy editor took me for lunch after six months of this and I thought ‘Ooh, this is a good sign’. But they told me they weren’t going to do the column anymore and asked if I wanted to review some records instead. I didn’t really want to, but I thought I should show willing. They sent me to review ‘You Are the Quarry’ by Morrissey.
I had to go to a plush office and spend an hour and a half with this album, and I remember writing a review which could be summed up as ‘Well, I think it’s alright but who cares what I think?’ And that was the only time I got paid to review a record.
But while I’m not very good at writing about music, I think I’m quite good at writing about the making of it. I think the first thing I wrote for Word was about the art of songwriting. It was looking at how a song emerges, how do people prepare mentally, do they sit down with a guitar or a keyboard, do they have a special room, what comes first, words or music and so on.
And you went on to write some other pieces for them?
I think the main one, which ended up being a three-parter, was about the noises that made pop music. It was looking at the building blocks of pop, things like the Beach Boys’ use of theremin, Big Muff distortion pedal, Motown tambourine…
Exactly, like ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’! More cowbell! Also the 808 cowbell on ‘Dance With Somebody’. Over the three issues it became quite a sizeable piece of work. I remember there was some interest from Radio 2 about doing a documentary but it never happened. I also went on a Word podcast to talk about it.
Were they fun to do?
Yeah! I think I ended up doing two of those podcasts. Green and also I did some Scritti songs in the broom cupboard at the office.
Were you a fan of the magazine?
Yes, mainly because I really liked the people that made it – Andrew Harrison, Fraser Lewry, Kate Mossman… And Mark is such an extraordinary force of nature. I know him quite well now through Michèle. She does these festivals in the Arctic, in a small town in Norway called Vadsø. She invites some of her favourite musicians to go up there, and we put together a show over the course of a week and then perform it. The most recent one involved me, Terry Edwards, half of REM, John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin, Alexis Taylor from Hot Chip – a very improbable collection. Mark came on the first one and he’s just great. I don’t know anyone as enthusiastic as him. When you enter a room and see him there you just think ‘Oh, brilliant, Mark’s here!’
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Juliet and Terence on: Juliet looks back on her week in Cambridge. Plus – Alastair Cook, and boisterous cricket crowds; stealing sharks from aquariums; and the rights and wrongs of audiences singing and dancing at musical theatre.
Additionally – four groovy tunes of towering wonder.