Wednesday 27 July 2016

Mark Ellen

Mark Ellen has edited more music magazines than most people have had hot dinners: Smash Hits, Q, Mojo, Word. He fronted BBC 2's Whistle Test in the 80s and anchored Live Aid with his old mucker David Hepworth. His recently published memoirs Rock Stars Stole My Life charts the career of a music obsessive who still gets excited when he hears the Beatles on the radio. And, whilst at University, he played in a dodgy band (Ugly Rumours) with an equally dodgy Prime Minister in waiting (Tony Blair). Mark kindly consented to a light grilling; so, interrogation lamp on...

Who was the first band (or group, as we used to call them) you went to see and did you get there early for the support?

Appallingly pretentious but my first band was the dizzying prog-jazzers Soft Machine at the Chalk Farm Roundhouse in, I think, 1970 who played in befuddling time-signatures and were impossible to dance to. I was at that stage of teen male adolescence where this brought me a rather smug form of  pleasure as it was lofty intellectual music that only the chosen few could appreciate. The support act was Brinsley Schwarz, slightly countryish pub rockers featuring the 22 year-old Nick Lowe. I was smitten with all of it and beetled off to see Wishbone Ash at Bracknell Sports Centre soon after.

Rumours of Paul McCartney's tightness abound: can he really peel an orange in his back pocket?

Tales of his tightness are, however, unseated by stories of his boundless expenditure. He once sent a sick puppy on a 280-mile return journey to a vet's by taxi. He once ordered a pizza from his favourite place in Greenwich Village which was ferried to St John's Wood by cab, Concorde and cab. Given limitless wealth I'm sure I'd do the same - ie think up creative new ways to get rid of the stuff in handfuls.

Once a writer always a writer - are you ever tempted to buy a cheap and cheerful photocopier, a few reams of A4 and a big stapler from Office World, kick-start your own fanzine and sell copies in your local pub?

I am but I doubt anyone would buy them, especially as I'd be producing a tearful monthly tribute to the Incredible String Band. The general feeling among 'the youth of today' sadly is that print media should be free.

Ray Davies' mother always reckoned he boiled at a different temperature to everyone else. On his day, what set him apart from Lennon & McCartney?

Ray can't match either of them but he did have an incredible run of about 17 consecutive hits in the mid-'60s and mined that rich seam of suburban life that McCartney touched upon in She's Leaving Home. It's the tiny details of ordinary lives (Dead End Street) and extraordinary lives (Sunny Afternoon) that really resonate. Unlike Lennon and McCartney, there was always a sense of distance between Ray and the action, a spectator looking in, a nose pressed to the window. He really *is* tight by the way: when he was shot by a mugger in New Orleans he ran after him to try and get his cash back and when medical orderlies tore his clothes to inspect the wound he bleated "but they're new trousers!"

When all the punks are dead who will write about 1976? And will they rewrite history?

I feel exasperated reading all those pieces by 30 year-olds that begin "It was a cloudless summer morning when Joni Mitchell turned up at David Crosby's place with Graham Nash and turned to James Taylor and said ..." as the writer is so far removed from any first-hand experience of the action. It's like coverage of the Second World War now that those who fought it have gone. Which is why books about punk like England's Dreaming are so valuable as Jon Savage was actually there and gave a precise account of it all. The future legacy of punk will be in the hands of writers who wish they'd been 15 in 1976 and will romanticise the whole era beyond recognition. Viv Albertine's book is terrific - Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys: it's completely unvarnished; you can almost smell the rotting squats they all inhabited.I went to see Adam and The Ants a couple of years ago and the place was gloriously stuffed with lumpy-looking individuals with clanking chains and fading tattoos, all in their early 50s now I guess. They were so principled they walked out when he started playing the pop hits.

Do you and David Hepworth still do mix tapes for one another?

Ha! The last band he tipped me off about was The Silver Seas. We both thought the song 'What's The Drawback?' was a work of unparalleled genius. Tragically I'm just too old to have used the mix tape for romantic purposes (cassettes were only just up and running around the time I got married) but that dimension to it was endlessly interesting I'm told, hours spent pondering which tracks sent the right message and made you look deep and mysterious.

Who was the last real pop star?

There simply isn't enough mystery about people like Rihanna and Lady Gaga because their social media makes them seem so available so I'd probably go for Morrissey. He ticks every box for me - he never appears knowable or remotely ordinary. He's utterly self-obsessed and narcissistic. Every single utterance seems to be to shore up his legend. He seems magnificently other-worldly, breezing in from some distant galaxy to scatter a little fairy dust and then disappear for another six months. You can't imagine him ever taking public transport.

Know any good drummer jokes?

Poor old drummers. It's ill-deserved I think. George Martin once played me just the bass and drum tracks from Something and Come Together and Ringo's contributions and mind-blowing and completely transformational. According to Nick Lowe, a good drummer should 'tell the story of the song' and they're often the heart of the band - eg Charlie Watts - as they're the one member that doesn't threaten anyone so no-one falls out with them. That said I like 'what's the difference between a drummer and savings bond? One will mature and make money.'

Writing or broadcasting. What's your preference?

The great thing about live broadcasting is it's done, dusted and over and you can't change it, quite liberating. Then again the great thing about writing is you *can* change it.

Tell us one thing about yourself you've never shared before.

When I was on the underground rock paper New Music News my pseudonym was 'Candice B Reel': pathetic.

I've got two spare tickets for my time machine. I'm going back to 1971 to see the Faces at the Marquee. Are you coming? Hepworth's already at the bar getting them in.

Of course: mine's a pint of brown with a rum and black chaser!

Tuesday 26 July 2016

All Things Must Pass

In January 1969, when George Harrison played Macca his demo of All Thing Must Pass (George was pitching songs for the next album), McCartney pretended he could hear the phone ringing in the next room and practically ran out of the room shouting 'I must get that.'
Suffice it to say that Macca and his group didn't get that; instead, George saved it for his own jaw-dropping triple album of the same name he brought out eighteen months later. Much to McCartney's chagrin.
People who have met Paul McCartney will tell you he's shrewd. Well, let me tell you, he ain't that shrewd.

Sunday 24 July 2016

Pink gin. And blue

Typically tropical
Blue for a boy, pink for a girl
Having spent most of yesterday drinking beer - thanks to a new micropub discovery in Nottingham (more details on A Room With A Brew to follow) - I thought I'd take a day off today and...make some Gin Skittle Bombs. Using the same method as the Vodka Skittle Bombs from last week, these two bad boys (OK, one's a girl*) are now in the freezer rubbing shoulders with a bag of frozen peas and a leg of lamb; thinking about it, I think I have all I need there for a near perfect meal next Sunday.

* I should really have made a third, LGBT, bottle and covered all bases. Next time.

Saturday 23 July 2016

If you pick up that telephone

Don't you realise the things we did, we did for real, not a dream
I just can't believe they've all faded out of view

Tuesday 19 July 2016

It's like being abroad

Don't leave your sunglasses on the dashboard
The roads are melting, you can fry an egg on the pavement and Asda have sold out of BBQ stuff. And if you’ve left your Aviators on the dash, expect to severely brand the bridge of your nose when you return to the car later and put them back on. Yep, it’s summer.

Sunday 17 July 2016

Rainbow alliance

Cheap & cheerful bottle of vodka + Packet of Skittles = Vodka Skittle Bombs

Saturday 16 July 2016

John Medd used to wear Kickers

Although they never asked me to appear in any of their advertising campaigns, damn you Roger Daltrey, Kickers were definitely my footwear of choice in the late seventies. I also had a penchant for white baseball boots - they looked good with drainpipe jeans. There will be photographic evidence of me and my size nines somewhere in the archives, but in the meantime I'm more than happy to let Messrs. Daltrey and Stewart take centre stage.

Thursday 14 July 2016


What makes a painting a great painting? I guess it all comes down to personal taste; just because Sotheby's (other auction houses are available) have catalogues full of canvases with asking prices north of what you'd pay for a Lear jet, or even a small island in the Bahamas, doesn't make them great. With maybe a one or two exceptions.

Back in 2006 I cut loose on a family vacation in New York, left Jenny and James back at the apartment devouring waffles and American TV, and spent a morning at the Metropolitan. Therein I lost all track of time and just immersed myself in ART! In a museum bigger than the town I currently live in, I wandered through vast halls in what I can only describe as a heightened state. And then, maybe an hour in, I found what I was looking for. A visiting Edward Hopper exhibition was in town, and they'd brought the big one: despite having practically grown up with Nighthawks - on posters, prints and postcards - nothing prepares you for the sheer size of the thing as you approach it from the far end of the room.

The painting measures 60" x 33 1/8 " and hits you like a sledgehammer. It did me, anyway. I stood, just a couple of feet from it for a good thirty minutes. My eyes took in every square inch of canvas as I tried to memorise it. I wanted to shut my eyes and still see it. It worked. And it still works - as a mindfulness exercise, I can recommend it.

Hopper, who painted his masterpiece in 1942, was very vague about the inspiration behind the diner and where, and, indeed, if it existed. The clever money is on a little place in Greenwich Village that was later torn down, but nobody really knows. This picture (left) claims to be it, but isn't.

As with most great paintings it's been parodied more times than Downfall. Yet, as with most forms of imitation, a lot of them are very flattering. My favourites are the pixellated version, Star Trek and the one that hangs in Medd Towers - try and spot the game it's depicting. The fact that the diner is called Chalkies may give it away.

Here's a quirky little film bringing the painting alive:

Sunday 10 July 2016

You've got a friend

Tapestry (with cat)
Tapestry (without cat)
Reading David Hepworth's riveting 1971 on the train to the Harrogate Literary Festival yeterday (to see David Hepworth and Mark Ellen speaking together), I was struck in an early chapter by just how pivotal Carole King's Tapestry album was to the history of rock music. Prior to 1971 precious few albums recorded by women had ever gone to the # 1 slot on Billboard - Janis Joplin and Bobbie Gentry being the notable exceptions, muscling their way in to what was a very testosterone fuelled environment. At its peak Tapestry was selling an eye watering 150,000 copies a week: every week for pretty much most of that year (it's now sold north of 25 million). And it soon became the bedrock of many a playlist on America's fledgling FM radio stations, where it hit the sweet spot - for men and women alike. It really did, and still does, sound like she was singing her intimate songs to you and to you alone. Especially 'You've Got a Friend'.

Often covered but never bettered - even when she gave the song to her good friend James Taylor who recorded it within days of King and with many of the same musicians.

Friday 8 July 2016

With your long blonde hair and your eyes of blue

It's always the way: I'm looking for a photograph of me wearing a particular shirt I once owned (long story) and I end up with (as it turns out) a much better photo of the Number One Son rehearsing with his band, Trippin' Over Wah. The image (above) captures him perfectly. It was taken in 2005. In 2005 James was famous. Seriously.

* Phill Jupitus played their single on  6 Music.

* Did I mention that Phill did his whole breakfast show from our house in July of that year?

* James was a Rock Star in Japan. His tee shirt said so.

* Trippin' over Wah were regulars at Nottingham's Boat Club - that reminds me, James once helped me do some research on one of the UK's most illustrious music venues for a future blog post I really must get round to writing.

* Another guitar hero, Gerry Laffy, painted James' picture that year (left).

* The police were regularly called out to their gigs.

* He was fighting off the babes with a shitty stick.

* Their debut, single, Tokyo Joe, still sells for silly money on eBay.

* I was their manager. Ably assisted by Ross Kenney (RIP).

Saturday 2 July 2016

Safety in pins

I'd like to think you'd sit next to me on the bus anyway. Or acknowledge me if I smiled in your general direction; it saddens me that, following the seismic shift in our political landscape after the events of last Thursday, anyone in this country should be in anyway fearful of just getting on with their lives.

Johnson and Gove's actions will, I'm sure, come back to haunt them, but in the meantime a little bit of solidarity is called for. Be safe.