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!


  1. Great scoop John. 'Rock Stars Stole My Life' is terrific book.

  2. Good work J. One ex music journalist you want to check in with is Barry Cain. His two volumes are a travelogue of Barry's trips and tours with some real heavy-hitters

    This is volumes 2

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  4. This is volume 1 his year in the epicentre of the Punk Wars - 77 Sulphate Strip. As Rat Scabies, Hugh Cornwell and Lyndon have all said, Barry was one of the few journos who was actually there, rather than looking at Punk as an academic study..

    Sure he'd be up for an interview if you fancied it..

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