I meet Andrew in Sheffield, in the crowded bar at the Showroom cinema. There’s a break in proceedings at the Children’s Media Conference which he’d been attending so there are no free tables and the general hubbub makes it virtually impossible for us to hear each other. We retire to a rival coffee house across the road. To get Andrew into the right frame of mind for reminiscing, I produce issue 3 of Word. On page 3, there’s a small picture of him with Morrissey, taken when he interviewed him in LA.
AH: 2003?! That makes me feel old. I remember that picture – I wish I’d worn a nicer jumper and had a better haircut. Morrissey’s house was disturbingly clean; I don’t think his kitchen had seen cooking of any kind. He had put up his usual set of pictures – West Ham United, Diana Dors, various East End criminals and ne’er-do-wells. It was an interesting visit.
So, where do you want to start?
I thought I’d begin by asking a standard David Hepworth question. What music was playing in your house when you were a kid?
My Dad was a Country & Western fan so that gave me not just a liking of Johnny Cash but also the stuff you’re not supposed to like, like John Denver. It’s seen as corny but it’s actually well put together, well written and very commercial. My Mum was never particularly interested in music although she was from Liverpool. I may have trotted out this anecdote in a Word podcast once. Mum and her friend had got tickets to see Robin Hall and Jimmy McGregor, a folk duo of the time, at the Cavern in ’62 or ’63. It was the era of the folk singer and they were really excited to see this duo. Anyway, it’s a really foggy night and this is Britain before motorways. So, they’re waiting and waiting at the club and somebody pops onto the stage and announces that because of the adverse weather conditions, Robin Hall and Jimmy McGregor will not be appearing and it’s going to be The Beatles instead. Everyone went mad! “I’m sick of them, I’ve seen them before, this is a rip-off!” My mum’s mate said “This is a con, I’m going to get my money back!” She was furious at having to watch The Beatles against her will.
There were three brothers in the house. The youngest, our Ian, has been news editor at Mojo for about 15 years and my other brother Stuart is a cartoonist and illustrator who develops licensed characters. He works on things like My Little Pony and works for The Beano. So, there were three lads with rooms next to each other and the division of labour was that I bought the records, Ian, the youngest, bought 2000 AD and Stuart borrowed everything and never spent any money! I was completely entranced by The Sweet, Suzi Quatro and Slade on Top Of The Pops. I remember seeing Brian Connolly snapping the mike stand over his knee and thinking ‘This is the most outrageous thing I’ve seen in my life. How can it be possible for someone to be allowed to destroy a piece of property on television? It must have cost £100 and he broke it over his knee!’ Then there was Noddy Holder’s mirrored top hat. The first album I got was a cassette of Sladest by Slade. In a terrible Rosebud moment I lost the tape but I found it on CD a few years ago and it still sounds amazing. Your tastes are fixed from early on, they never really change. I don’t like massively introspective, thoughtful music, although I do love the Pet Shop Boys. I just enjoy music that makes you want to jump around and go mad, I like excitement and bright, colourful insanity.
So, with music my first love was Slade and The Sweet. Then I went to secondary school in 1978. I’m no longer a little kid so I need something ‘cos I can’t play football and I can’t fight. I like music so I start picking up on the things that are happening. I always liked things that were dancey and not too ostentatiously deep so I got into bands like The Darts. My next phase began with seeing Madness on Top Of The Pops. I thought it was the biggest load of rubbish I’d seen in my life. ‘This isn’t proper music, just fairground noise while they’re jumping around and acting like idiots from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon’. A week later they were my favourite band and I’ve never looked back. I was all over Two Tone and everything that came after it. There’s this received wisdom that it was Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran that did the groundwork for rave and dance music in Britain. I don’t think that’s true at all, I think it was Madness and The Specials because that was the first time that loads of young men could go mad dancing rather than standing around and glaring while the girls danced. The New Romantic thing was quite elitist; if you didn’t have the right tea-towel round your neck you weren’t going to get into Le Beat Route. Two Tone wasn’t like that, everyone was allowed in.
The first gig I went to was The Beat, supported by The Belle Stars at the Royal Court in Liverpool. They were playing the Wha’appen? album and I was transfixed. The next gig was the second to last Specials concert around the time of Ghost Town. With hindsight I can tell they were falling apart, they had a fist fight on stage. Terry Hall came to the front of the stage and told the sieg-heiling skinheads that if that was all they could do with their right arms they should go home and saw them off. It was really intense. So, it was Two Tone that really got me going.
I’d always wanted to write and even as a little kid I’d make little magazines. There used to be this fantastic kit you could get with an 8 page blank magazine and a load of Letraset you could peel off for your headlines. A few years ago we actually found the magazine I’d made in 1977 and it was a newspaper for the Galactic Empire in Star Wars with a front page exclusive interview with Darth Vader where he revealed his plans. Basically nothing has changed!
Only the Letraset has changed.
Exactly! I’m still doing I started to do when I was ten…it’s time to pull my finger out and find something better to do with my life at the age of fifty. Oddly it was both music and wanting to write that drove each other. I wanted to write because I had an uncle who was a journalist and I loved newspapers. I used to read the NME and then discovered Smash Hits and I was in awe of the language and the style of it. In my late teens and as a student I would have Smash Hits and Q on the go at the same time, which in some respects are opposite poles of writing about music but in other ways they are exactly the same because they share a private language and they’re driven by enthusiasm. The mockery that Smash Hits used to incur from the NME was completely misplaced because the journalism was rock solid. They would ask the questions that needed to be asked and then deliver the answers with quotation marks around them. I loved the Wodehousian language that Tom Hibbert, Sylvia Patterson, Mark Ellen and Neil Tennant used. Talking of Neil, here’s a strange connection. The other thing I’ve always really been into is comics and in the mid-70s I used to get the Mighty World Of Marvel, Spider-Man Comics Weekly and all the other British Marvel comics. As you do when you’re a kid, if I spotted a mistake I’d write in and address it to the editor, a Mr. Neil Tennant. “Dear Mr. Tennant, I think you’ll discover that The Thing’s underpants were the wrong colour on the front cover of the Mighty World Of Marvel this week.” Obviously this was before he was at Smash Hits. One of the things he co-created was Captain Britain Weekly written by Chris Claremont and weirdly a few years ago Captain Britain was mentioned on a Pet Shop Boys album. It’s all strangely connected! The guy that was editing the comics that were my favourite thing goes on to form my favourite band then makes references to the comics he produced.
So how and when did you get started in journalism? I found an old interview online you’d done with Paddy MacAloon from 1990.
Bloody hell – that was one of my earliest jobs on Select. I’d always wanted to write and my distant uncle was a stringer for the Mirror and the Sunday Times and also did a lot of industrial oil journalism. He had an agency in Liverpool and when it became apparent that I was not fit to go and work in the butcher’s shop with my Dad, he said, “You can come and work summers with us if you like”- make cups of tea, type the invoices, that kind of thing. So I started doing summers with my uncle Lew in the press agency, in the Port Of Liverpool building, at the Pier Head. It’s the most beautiful building in the world. It’s got this circular atrium and inlaid in gold around it is ‘For those who go down to sea in ships’. I’m convinced that Bill Drummond’s been in there because it’s referenced in KLF’s ‘The Fall Of Time’. I worked there and this was at the time of Derek Hatton so I was making the tea and answering the phone while Liverpool was going insane. Lew was covering it all and it could get quite hairy with violence at Labour Party meetings. We did the Port News newspaper for the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board which meant I had to go and report on darts and snooker and things I didn’t have a clue about. I started reviewing bands for the Liverpool Echo and the Daily Post. The Royal Court and the Empire were big on the touring circuit and basically no-one wanted to review gigs so I did it for £15 a pop. I’d get a free ticket and have to file my review in a weird stinking phone box, stuffing 2p pieces in. I’m pretty convinced that I was the first journalist to go into print on The La’s. I saw them at the Everyman Bistro in ’85 or ’86 and said they were great (which is possibly the one and only time I’ve been right about something). I wrote something like “It’s been such a long time since we listened to four lads in a cellar with a Beatles’ style of song writing.” Oddly enough I ran into John Power on the no. 73 bus a few weeks ago because he lives near me.
I did a lot of reviews and had a full year of working near the white-hot beating heart of the news. It meant I had a lot of cuttings I could show when I went to Leeds University, which I chose because they had a cracking student paper. I did a little bit for the NME and for Smash Hits when I was there. I had a news splash in the NME in 1988. Do you remember Steve Albini’s band Rapeman and the controversy around their gig in Leeds which ended up being played off campus? I took a chance and rang James Brown at the NME and they took that story. I really wanted to go and see Frankie Goes To Hollywood at GMEX so I rang the Smash Hits office and offered to do it. Barry McIlheney, the editor picked up the phone and agreed to it. He said he wanted about 400 words and I think I filed 3,000! They ran it and it was so exciting. The feedback he gave me was that I clearly liked writing using inverted commas and I understood the Smash Hits lingo.
I then edited the student paper for a year. There was a weirdly good crop of people when I was there; Andy Pemberton, future editor at Q magazine, Jay Rayner, who was the editor of the paper before me and others who later went on to work for the BBC and The Guardian. I think a lot of people had the same idea as me which was to study politics, not a particularly onerous course, then spend your free time working on a really good paper. I was so lucky really; a few weeks before my finals, an advert appeared in The Guardian’s Media section for a magazine looking for staff to write about pop culture and pop music. It was Tony Stewart launching Select. I applied and a few weeks later, on the Monday after I finished my finals, I was on a plane to San Francisco to do a piece on UB40! I’d always loved them, I’d been in their fan club at one point. When I look back it’s incredible. It’s so hard now for anyone without independent means to make it in journalism. Then it was an open door with people shoving you through. Select was clearly a ‘post Q’ magazine because Spotlight Publications who had Sounds, Kerrang! and Record Mirror saw how well Q had been doing – and Q was amazing, it had exceeded what anyone thought you could get out of a music magazine. They wanted their own version but as the journalists were already working on Q, they used Sounds writers and new people, which is why they got me on board. The story of Select is quite a funny one because it launched against Q and it couldn’t get the big stories. In the CD gold rush, the people that could actually sell shiploads would be in Q and in the early days Select were putting people like Boy George and Matt Johnson on the cover but they weren’t box-office enough to shift the magazine in the quantities that were required. The strange upshot was that whole group of magazines were bought by EMAP and they closed Sounds and Record Mirror. Kerrang! and Select went to EMAP. We’d had a year of rivalry and suddenly they were our new bosses, some people were in tears! The first time I met Mark Ellen was at the Q offices where we’d been taken to meet the management and we were holed up in a room. I was stamping on a copy of Q in a rage, “These fuckers, these bastards, these are the ones we’ve been fighting!” and in walks Mark (adopts cheerful and enthusiastic voice) “Hello everybody! Oh, you’re stamping on Q – hilarious!” Anybody else would have fired me on the spot but Mark could see the humour in it. He may regret it, perhaps he should have fired me, I don’t know! So, basically, with a few comings and goings, I became features editor and then editor of Select. EMAP’s vision of it was ‘junior Q’ and the writers’ vision was that it should be less like Q and more like Smash Hits for students. It coincided firstly with the arrival of Nirvana and then with the arrival of Brit Pop which was absolute petrol for us, we could run on that forever. There were so many larger than life characters that it didn’t really matter if they were selling many records, you’d get a great read out of an interview with Saint Etienne or Jarvis Cocker.
You were involved from the start of Word. How did you become involved?
I’d been at EMAP for about four years and left to go to America to be music editor at Details. I met my wife there, came back, edited Mixmag, edited Q for a while, various things. EMAP was going through terrible turmoil – they’d got rid of Mark and Dave and got in people who ran radio stations who didn’t care about or know how to run magazines. The two of them and Jerry Perkins were setting this thing up – they approached me and asked if I was interested in coming over. They said “You won’t be the editor, this is going to be a small thing – but here are all the things you won’t have to do.” It was a list all the things I hated doing, like having meetings with people who didn’t read magazines and so on. I went and it was a tiny operation, no picture editor, no sub editors. A PR rang up Mark once and said “Get your PA to sort it out” and he almost fell off the chair laughing! It was the world’s best turned-out fanzine. Obviously we tried to sell as many copies as we could but fundamentally we wrote about the things we were interested in. There were basically three editors in the room, me, Mark and Dave, alongside Jude Rogers who was really, really smart plus Paul Du Noyer, another editor, for the first twenty issues. It meant there was a lot of experience in the room and some high volume conversations about various things but it meant that when something went in, it was something that the writer absolutely cared about. Early on when we were finding our feet, we did try a few nakedly commercial covers like the Travis and Dido covers. They didn’t work.
Oh, the Dido cover – that’s gone down in Word legend!
Yes, nailed to the shelves, shipped gold, came back platinum and all the other favourite clichés. What worked was Nick Cave, Jack White or Tom Waits. The breakthrough was Jeff Buckley because we thought ‘he’s dead, there are no new records out, there isn’t a particular anniversary’ but it was an interesting story and it sold well. It was the oddities and the unusual things that did well, rather than trying to follow what was happening in the album charts. In a weird way it led to lessons from Heat magazine. Heat became successful when it stopped trying to get access to celebrities and with one or two exceptions we stopped too. Jim Irvin, a great writer, wrote a brilliant review of one of Coldplay’s albums asking the question ‘Is this genuinely felt emotional music or is it a simulacrum?’ Writers at competing magazines were thinking ‘Ha ha, you’ll never get that Coldplay cover story now because you didn’t give it a 5 star review’. We were thinking that not only did we not want the interview, it wouldn’t have done us any good if we had. What people wanted from our magazine wasn’t Coldplay – they could get that in Q – and Q do a fine job of that. What they wanted was something like the longer piece I did on Morrissey, where you go deeper and don’t just talk about the obvious and superficial things. People liked that level of depth and examination. Also it was a basic mathematical calculation of effort and opportunity for us. A copy of most magazines at that time might have about five hundred things from an eight page feature down to a short review and its efforts would be divided accordingly. We decided to just do 100 things instead and put more concentrated effort and thought into it. It’s as easy to brief an 8000 word feature as it is to brief a 1500 word feature – and for a Word reader 8000 words is better than 1500 if it’s about the right thing. It was a brilliant culmination of about twenty five years’ worth of magazine craft. It never sold in vast numbers and it wasn’t for everybody but it was influential and people recognised it was good. There were news stories on the BBC when it closed – that didn’t happen to poor old Select.
Do you think it was the last of its kind?
I think the fanzine aspect of it is what’s gone today which isn’t really acknowledged anymore. NME had its own humour as did Smash Hits and then Q, they all had a club aspect. Mojo and Q are both very good magazines and I think Q in particular is doing a great job in onerous circumstances. The thing that everyone in the industry knows is that you could be producing the best writing since Vanity Fair in its heyday or knocking the stuffing out of The New Yorker and it won’t matter because that’s not where things are at the moment, you’re in the wrong place. It’s immensely frustrating for those of us who love doing this.
I really miss writing punning headlines because that was one of my few talents. You can’t do it anymore because they now have to say what they’re about in a few words, like an EPG for the telly. My favourite one just appeared in my mind to go with a New Order piece – ‘The Hook, The Chief, The Wife and The Drummer’. The readers loved it. We put Morrissey on the cover of Select around 1994 and he insisted on being photographed with a bunch of boxers so we tagged it ‘Hand In Glove’.
The thing about magazines that doesn’t apply to digital is that you are gently led towards things that you didn’t know you were looking for. In digital, if you didn’t already know you were looking for it, it’s very hard to push someone towards something. The good thing about now is that my media diet is to get up, have a cup of tea, have a look at Facebook and see what interesting stories from around the world my well-read friends are sharing – it might be a story from a German pop site, something on NPR, or something from the guy that’s digitised the whole of Select, which is very touching. You don’t have that that kind of editorial voice, holding your hand anymore, tiptoeing through the rock’n’roll tulips.
What are your favourite memories of Word?
It was simultaneously great fun and tremendous effort. I was really proud of doing the first big piece on how the iPod was going to change the way we listen to music. It wasn’t my idea; it was Mark or Dave who said ‘You should do this because you’re the one rattling round with your bloody iPod going on about it all the time.” That went down very well. Quotes from my interview with Morrissey often pop up, particularly:
Interviewer: Did you hear t.A.T.u’s version of ‘How Soon Is Now’?
Morrissey: Yes, it was magnificent. Absolutely. Again, I don’t know much about them.
Interviewer: They’re the teenage Russian lesbians.
Morrissey: Well, aren’t we all?
Reader, I was that interviewer!
I managed to force – by being a pain and being tiresome – to get a lot of comics and science fiction culture into the magazine. It wasn’t really Mark or Dave’s interest but it was kind of the coming thing with the return of Doctor Who and the Marvel movies. Those articles always did well. The nice thing about Word was that the box of what it was interested in was drawn very broadly. No-one ever said ‘Well, that’s very interesting but this is a music magazine so you can’t do it.’ The attitude was that if it was an interesting piece it didn’t matter if it was about sport, or cocaine in the music business or award ceremonies. We did a lot about the Second World War too as our readers were of that age. It was good to have people like Charles Shaar Murray write about non-rock’n’roll things. I love reading him when he’s talking about Bowie and rock’s rich tapestry but it’s a lovely surprise when he writes about comic books, Buffy or sci-fi. Even if you weren’t interested in the subject matter you’d give it a go because he’s a great journalist. With Word you knew you had very good writers whose names were calling cards and they would get people to read about things they would not ordinarily read about.
What else? The podcasts were always a massive laugh.
That leads us neatly into your podcast, Bigmouth. You’ve been doing for about a year now?
That’s right and I produce another one we’ve recently launched called Remainiacs which is doing really well. The walls closed in on Word towards the end of the noughties. We’d had the recession, advertising was changing, digital was sucking up all the money and so they had to downsize and I was made redundant. I freelanced for a while then edited Q again for about a year. That was a strange episode. It was good to work with some great writers but it was a very different kettle of fish. I’d been freelancing for The Guardian, Esquire and The New Statesman. I’d stayed in touch with Matt Hall who had produced the Word’s podcasts and we talked about whether there was anything we could do, was there anything missing. We felt there weren’t any particularly interesting podcasts applying the critical and journalistic abilities of a classic magazine to what’s around now.
The idea was to basically make Radio Four’s Front Row but not be boring. With the best will in the world it’s very worthy, and this may be me being a Philistine, but there’s always something about sculpture on it! The kind of stuff that was in Word and is in Bigmouth is disparaged as middlebrow but I prefer to think of it as things that people are more interested in. I love Slate Political Gabfest and we thought ‘what if this wasn’t about American politics but covered films, books and music’?
So it’s me and Matt and a rotating group of journalists – not celebrities. It’s people with opinions and nothing to sell. It’s always interesting because it’s a podcast so you don’t need any fake objectivity, you can be entirely subjective. You don’t have to observe any of the niceties of broadcasting, you can swear and you can talk for as long as you like. It’s great fun to do and though the audience is modest, it’s growing. The great thing about the format is that people don’t listen by mistake. The shows are actively listened to and you can repay the listeners by not patronising or short-changing them.
The idea for Remainiacs came when Matt told me about a great podcast launched since Trump came into the White House called Pod Save America with three ex-Obama staffers talking about politics. They don’t have to give the other side of the argument, it’s unfettered. Obviously Brexit has been driving us mad for the last year so Matt suggested we do a similar thing with that. Dorian Lynskey is one of the presenters, I write the scripts and source the guests and Matt does the audio.
It’s gone crazy – the election episode has had over 20, 000 listeners, which is what Word used to sell – and we’re in the iTunes Top 10. There’s no brand or anything behind us and we think we may have a business on our hands. The best aspect about podcasts is that they retain the thing that good magazines had, they’re a club. I always thought magazines were the original social media, a shared language and the idea that this is where people like us gather. I don’t think that a lot of magazine publishers get that. They think that if you can just get the right components like an article on whoever’s headlining at Reading or you can get an exclusive interview with Chris Martin about Gwyneth Paltrow, that’s enough. But that’s not what it’s about.
I agree, it should be about the relationship with the reader.
I always used to look forward to getting Smash Hits because I felt like I was part of a universe and it changed who I was. Mixmag was like that too, a universe unto itself. A couple of times I tried to mainstream it a little bit by putting acts on the front that sold records. It didn’t work at all! What did work was choosing the DJs or artists who exemplified that life, who lived for clubbing and nothing else. The world of Mixmag has at one end a gurning idiot with his top off, whose body is 60% chemicals and at the other end is a bald, trainspotter guy, going through the record racks. Everyone is somewhere on that continuum. That understanding of the audience has largely evaporated from magazines – look at the NME now for an example.
The biggest problem that publishing has at the moment is big publishing. It’s large companies. You have to finance a big office building, a load of executives on high salaries and some market analysts. It was the same in the record business in the ‘70s and ‘80s,the running was made by some lucky, creative and inspired people who managed to light upon the right things, made things happen and made the companies a lot of money. Then other companies see the money being made and the business suits and marketing people flood in. They’re always much more skilled at navigating corporate structures than the creative people. The creatives are side-lined so they leave and you end up with a content provider rather than something with a heart and soul like Smash Hits or the old NME.
No-one really mentions it anymore but Sounds had some great writers too who were really funny and it had a real esprit de corps. I’m old enough to have seen it happen to the music business and magazines and I wonder if it will happen to the digital business too. That inspired oddness that produced things like Facebook and Apple. I think it’s already happened to Apple; Steve Jobs is dead and they’ve lost their mojo. There’s a great story about him and the iPhone prototype. They worked for about a year at great cost to build this prototype and present it to him. They hand it over and Jobs says “It’s too big”. They reply “We can’t possibly make it any smaller. We’ve made it as small as we can, there’s no more space.” He tells them to give it to him, he walks over to the fish tank and drops it in. As the bubbles come out, he says “There’s your space, make it smaller!” He drops a multi-million dollar prototype into the water just to make a point. The reason I bring that up is that in big publishing, because it’s full of people who like to make grand statements, you’ll always hear people singing the praises of ‘crazy mavericks’ like Steve Jobs or Malcolm McClaren. Every creative retreat you go to they’ll tell you about these ‘crazy mavericks’ and how brilliant they are. In reality these people wouldn’t go anyway near a fucking maverick! They talk the talk but they don’t take one step of the walk.
What other magazines do you enjoy these days?
I read Private Eye obviously. To be honest I don’t read many magazines now, partly because I’m 50 and a lot of my interests aren’t covered and also because you can get great journalism for free on the internet. I know that makes me a massive hypocrite, I should be paying for it but … I find that the discovery aspect that magazines used to provide, ‘Here’s a 5 star album you need to listen to it’ has gone because ‘try before you buy’ is available to everybody. In fact in most cases people often listen twice on Spotify and then forget about it – which is sad because it means music has become ephemeral.
There were so many magazines in the ‘90s that they felt they had to give 4 star reviews in case they didn’t get the interview and that destroys the whole idea. I don’t think people have properly understood that when you are selling reviews of records, you’re not just selling that, you’re also selling something that was entertainment in itself. I can remember bits of reviews I’ve read far better than the records they were writing about. Like David Quantick writing in Q, reviewing a B*Witched album and wondering what the asterisk stood for. Is it a rude word? Is the real name of the band B-Fuck-Witched? I also remember him describing someone like Jim Kerr as ‘the destitute man’s Bono’. Michele Kirsch wrote an old-school music press kicking which began ‘What’s going through Sinead O’Connor’s head as she has her morning shave?’ The final line was ‘We do not want what we have not got to listen to.’ The great, mad, genius Tom Hibbert had to review the Phil Collins Hip-Hop tribute album. It was supposed to be a 400 word page lead but after 150 words he wrote ‘At this point I realised that I have nothing further to say about a record that contains the following songs…’ and then gave the track list! That’s what I mean about album reviews being entertainment in themselves. I’ll never forgive Mark and Dave for inventing star-ratings, the rotters! That wrecked everything. We never had them in Word because they knew what would happen. It turned everything into thumbs up, thumbs down, computer says no. How many utterly forgettable albums are given 4 out of 5 these days? It’s meaningless, it’s like school sports day, everyone has to have a prize. I used to scan Q for the 1 star reviews because I knew they’d be funny. When I was at Q there were certain prominent records that had respectable reviews of 3 stars meaning they were perfectly good. There were ructions, complaints and anger that they’d not had 4 stars and not been described as amazing. I once thought we should suggest ‘A fair price for this record would be…’ 27p or £100! Or they should pay you – which seems fair if somewhat Thatcherite and mercantile. I like what Entertainment Weekly do, they give school grades, from A+ to E.
And with that final scholarly flourish, Andrew departs for London.