Like this zine’s founders, Richard Houghton knows a thing or two about being a fan of the Wedding Present. Published last Friday, The Wedding Present: All the Songs Sound the Same collects more than 300 stories from fans, friends and current/former members of TWP, all of whom discuss favorite recordings, along with loads of previously unseen images from bandleader David Gedge’s archive. Gedge even coedited the 336-page hardcover book along with Houghton.
Gedge says: ‘When I’m asked to choose my favourite of the songs I’ve written, I never know what to say. It’s like asking who your favourite child is! How could I pick just one? However, I did think it would be interesting to see which songs fans would select, and why. There’s quite a few from which to choose … When an audience member requests one of the 280-plus songs that we haven’t rehearsed for that particular evening’s set I usually sympathise with them by saying, “I know, I know… there are just too many classics, aren’t there?!”’
The songs are discussed, explicated and championed by all the superfans in the book, including Sir Keir Starmer, Peter Solowka, and Mark Beaumont, along with CF editor me (Gail), who discusses the origins of the Pavement Boy comic (it’s Wedding Present related) and road trips to NYC with Pam Berry, Mike Slumberland and Dan Searing where we were listening to Seamonsters. We asked Richard a few questions about the new book.
How did this book come about? David Gedge and I worked together on a book called Sometimes These Words Just Don’t Have To Be Said which was published in 2017. That was fans talking about seeing The Wedding Present in concert. But lots of people mentioned songs that were favourites of theirs, and I thought a book of people writing about their favourite Wedding Present songs would be a fun idea. I pitched it to David and he agreed to give it a go.
How long has it taken to get made? I started compiling the book in 2018, so it’s been five years. It took a while to gather together all the material. I also had access to David’s personal archive and scanning in images and getting clearance to use some of those (including David deciding which ones he was happy to see in print) also took a while. And then we had to find a slot in David’s busy schedule, as he’s been publishing his autobiography in comic strip form, and we needed to avoid launching the book when it might clash with the release of one of those volumes.
Where can people get it? In the US? Europe/rest of world? The book is available in hardback via Amazon and also via Spenwood Books (who ship worldwide). The hardback is also available in the UK and Ireland via your local bookshop, although you may have to ask them to order it in for you. But the book is also available in paperback via Barnes & Noble in the US, meaning fans only have to pay domestic shipping.
Will there be any book events? David and his bass player, Melanie Howard, are doing a semi-acoustic gig at Resident Music in Brighton on Friday May 5 at 6.30pm BST. More details are available here:
All The Songs Sound The Same is published on 28 April 2023 and available to order now from Spenwood Books.
David Lewis Gedge lives in Brighton and is the founding member, lead singer and guitarist for the semi-legendary indie band The Wedding Present, who were founded in 1985, and his ‘other’ band, Cinerama. He is also the author of several books, including two volumes (so far) of his illustrated autobiography, Tales from the Wedding Present.
Richard Houghton lives in Manchester and is the author of 20 music books, including authorised titles on The Wedding Present, The Stranglers, Simple Minds, OMD, Jethro Tull and Fairport Convention. His People’s History series of music books is published by Spenwood Books.
If you’re reading this, you probably already know who Michael Galinsky is. We interviewed him back in 2021 (and also in our paper zine) when he was putting together an art show, and he posts zillions of photos of all your favorite bands from the olden days in NYC and Hoboken on his socials. He makes films and TV shows and was in Sleepyhead. He was 20 years old when he drove across the U.S. making these images. He originally made a book called Malls Across America (Steidl, 2010), which is out of print. So he made his own new mall book, The Decline of Mall Civilization, in 2011. He is in the midst of crowdfunding the second edition of The Decline of Mall Civilization, so we wanted to share some of his 1989 photographs shot in malls across America, which have gone viral umpteen times. Interview by Gail / Photos by Michael Galinsky
Chickfactor: Let’s start with the basics about the book(s). Michael Galinsky: I created this project when I took a color printing class in 1989. It was at NYU, but it was not in the art school. It was in the education school. I didn’t feel like I was an art student. I had this idea that I wasn’t that kind of creative person and the way that I took photos was more observational, which didn’t seem like art, but it also didn’t feel like journalism. I was going to a photo bookstore a few times a week, going through all these books and figuring out what I liked. What I found I liked was mostly stuff that was documentary in style but wasn’t really a documentary—so it was folks like Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander or Garry Winogrand. People who were observing the world, but from kind of a specific and interesting point of view that wasn’t so specific and interesting that it drew attention to their prowess as a technical shooter. I was really annoyed by technical stuff. It almost always ended up feeling like advertising copy or something, or drawing attention to this precision stuff that I wasn’t interested in. There was this connection between photography and music, and what I was mostly photographing at the time was shows. I was just trying to figure out what it was to be a photographer. a friend who was a photo student looked my photos, and he was like, “you should be trying to figure out what you’re shooting.” That was such great advice, to be thinking of the frame as a frame. My photo education was this bookstore where I looked at stuff, and then the first class I had was this color photography class and the teacher was awesome. Her first assignment was to watch River’s Edge and think about the color, the way it’s used and what it’s trying to say. Keanu’s best work probably. By far. It’s just a weird, crazy movie but it made me think, how are the images being used, and how is the camera being used? So even in photography, it started making me think about storytelling. I had to have a project. My girlfriend went to college on Long Island. I was visiting her, and we went to the mall, and I was like, “Oh my God, I have my project.” I shot like a roll that week. I went back the next week. My teacher was like, “this is great, you should continue this project.” So, I drove across the country, I took pictures all over the place. No idea what the fuck I was doing.
Which route did you take? I went with my friend Sebastian; first we drove from Chapel Hill to Columbus, OH, because my aunt lived there. Then we went to Chicago, where we stayed with Gene Booth, and he took us to some malls and then we went to Detroit, where we met my friend Tom, and he took us to some malls. Then we just hightailed it across the country. I think we stopped in Wisconsin, but we didn’t find a mall. We just kind of stumbled upon places. We got to San Francisco after going up through Seattle and down and then our car got broken into; thankfully, we’d camped on the side of the road the night before and the car was a fucking mess. I had a bag with the film in it and the ones that were shot had not been separated from the unshot ones. That night I separated them out and I stuck that (shot) bag under the front seat. The other film got stolen. My friend was like, “I’m done.” It’s hard to travel, so we drove from San Francisco 40 hours straight to Saint Louis, shot a couple malls there. We did stop once near Denver, in a mall in Aurora, Colorado, but literally didn’t sleep. One of us slept, the other drove. What kind of chemicals were in your body to be able to do that? Just caffeine? A lot of coffee and cokes. When you got tired of driving, you just switch seats. If you can’t keep your eyes open, you can’t keep your eyes open. Originally there was no interest in the project. I had no concept of how you do something with work when you have it. I went to one gallery where they literally laughed at me. They’re like, “these are pictures of people in malls. Yeah, it’s not really for us.” I just felt ashamed and weird, and I never did anything with them. I showed them once when we (Sleepyhead) played with Guided By Voices at Threadwaxing. I set up a projector and I projected them on the back wall. And then they went back into the box.
In 2010 I put them online and they went crazy. I found a box of the slides. I had two boxes, which I thought were the best ones. I started scanning those. Some of the other ones, all the rejects, are the best ones. They didn’t used to mean anything, but now they do. They’re the wide shots and stuff. I didn’t think those were important at the time. I brought them back to New York. I did a Kickstarter and that ended up being a book called Malls Across America, which went viral again when it came out and sold out. It’s hard to get now and what happened was because they didn’t reprint it. When it was going viral, this designer came to me and said, “hey, I have this imprint on Steidl or Rizzoli, would you like to do one of those?” He wanted to look at the slides. He wasn’t even a guy who’s ever on the Internet, but so many people contacted him. He was like, “OK, let’s do a book.” We could do it on Rizzoli. It will be in the malls, or we could do it on Steidl and then you could make this amazing book. You probably won’t get paid, but it’ll be the most beautiful book ever. I knew who Steidl was because I’d filmed a conversation between him and Robert Frank at the New York Public Library. So I was like Rizzoli, it should be in the malls. He’s like, OK. The next day I was at Hot Docs film festival and this guy I was with says, “let’s go see this movie: How to Make a Book with Steidl.” I was like, “you’re kidding.” The first movie there was him making books with Robert Frank. I was like, “OK, let’s do it on Steidl,” which ended up being a nightmare. They took forever; they printed a beautiful book. They didn’t see me as the artist, they saw the designer, Peter Miles, as the artist. It was his project to them. So, they didn’t let me come to help make it. Then I had 300 books to send to backers, and they charged me like $25 a book. But at that point, Kickstarter, you didn’t add in shipping. So, I had to ship these books all over the world. It cost me more to do this than I raised for making the books. So, it was kind of a nightmare.
Malls Across America was all double page spreads and it was meant to be lay flat, but they didn’t. The printing itself is unbelievable. You can’t believe that this is a printed book. I mean, it looks so beautiful. The paper is so thick. I was told it was going to lay flat. I wasn’t there and it didn’t happen. People still appreciate that book. It was like The Times top ten list and stuff like that. It’s out of print. And if they want to reprint it, I will let them. But they did also destroy a bunch of my slides because they wet plate scanned them, and I was like, it’s Steidl, I don’t need to check them. And then when I replied to rescan them for this book, I found some of them are all covered in mold. Steidl wouldn’t give me their scans until I explained that to them. They did it as a wet plate scan, meaning they got wet and then didn’t dry them properly so when they put them back in, they were moldy. I would have them do the book again if they wanted to because I’d like it to be out. I’d like them to do a second printing. But they didn’t and it’s fine. What I’m going to do next is make a book that combines the best of both books.
I didn’t feel like I had the agency to like kind of reprint the book that they designed. So I made an entirely new book with entirely new images, and that book was called The Decline of Mall Civilization, which, as anybody in your audience knows, is a reference to the Penelope Spheeris series. I was really into those movies. It made sense that I was documenting in the same way as maybe she did, in an observational way that wasn’t judgmental and was open to whatever it was, even if some of it seemed a little silly. And so I made that book, I did a Kickstarter and that sold out immediately. So that book now goes for $500 like the first one. Then I met with a publicist in Brooklyn, and I was like, “listen, I’m going to make this go viral.” And she was like, “Yes, everybody believes that.” I’m like, no, no, really. I was like, please make sure they print enough. She was like, “OK.” The Kickstarter was 2011 and this was 2013, so I had a bunch of really angry backers, and I got them to all them. But here’s the thing: The book also, because it was priced pretty cheap, actually they priced it at like $36, even though they charged me $25. One article in Gizmodo had a like an Amazon clicker, it sold well over 600 copies. It also talked about The Americans; it sold 75 copies of that. It sold out so fast that it didn’t even go to stores. It never went to stores in the US, like no stores were able to get it. And then they said, “OK, yeah, yeah, we’ll reprint it but then they didn’t.” So that’s why it costs so much now (from $500 to $4000). A few years later, I made a new book, which is entirely my own. All new images, laid out differently, Tae (Won Yu) designed it.
Recently, this website called Chasing the 80s made a reel of the book, and it just went crazy. It got like 600,000 views. So, I was getting crushed with requests for The Decline, and I don’t have it. And the price was going up even more. I was like, OK, I already have the printer, I already have the drop shipper. I’m just going to do another Kickstarter because these people want it so badly and it doesn’t seem fair to kind of be like “you can’t have it.” I spent a lot of time looking at older books of older photos that resonated with me, even though I hadn’t been in that time. I was really into music at the time and reading about old music. I was aware that if you’re looking at Television pictures, someone was there, and they were taking those pictures and nobody else was. I started to go to shows and take pictures of bands that I liked but I wouldn’t do it if anybody else was taking pictures because film was expensive and I was in my head, it was like, this is important, it needs to be documented. That’s how I felt about the malls. You never saw anybody in the mall with a camera and I knew they would go away, and I thought, this is going to be interesting in a while. Now, 30 years later, it has a much deeper resonance.
What was it about that original mall that made you think this was a good idea? Generally, people didn’t know you were photographing them. Right. I was shooting from the hip, and I was doing it like as if I was … quite immediately it felt like this is what America is. I was thinking about Robert Frank’s The Americans and he shot so much in diners and honkytonks, like if he was going across America now he would be shooting in malls. But I also thought of William Eggleston, if he was doing it in malls, he would be doing it in color like William Eggleston because photography expands, and color had become possible and had become an art form. I was kind of combining those two elements in my head and I didn’t have a lot of great technical prowess, but I was also taking a lot of anthropology, religious studies classes, sociology. So, I was thinking like the way you want to do this is without judgment, even though was a judgmental punk rock motherfucker and I hated the mall, I was like, that’s not the way to make this work.
A lot of people in places with malls didn’t have other options. They don’t live near cafes or pubs. It’s where I worked as a teenager. Has anyone in the photos contacted you? Tell us a story about any of those people. There’s a picture of two couples, like an old couple looking one way and a young couple looking another way on a bench. And it’s almost like kind of mirror images of these couples. And I was like, oh, that’s great. I was on my Facebook page for 10 years and just before the book came out, someone was like, “hey, that’s me.” She came to the opening and we started talking at a signing at Dashwood Books in New York. Mike McGonigal was there. Tae was there. My friend Jimmy was there. Suki was there. The woman I had photographed was like “Oh my God, like two years before that, I had a pink liberty Mohawk.” She said her favorite band was the Butthole Surfers, and half the people at the opening realized we had all been at the same Butthole Surfers show at the Ritz in 1987.
Once I studied all the Top 40s and Billboard 100s from every year of my lifetime and the late 80s had the worst popular music. What did these malls had in common, what was the vibe? The malls all had a sense of placelessness. I took a couple pictures outside a mall, but they all look the same outside and they all look the same inside. When I got back, I tried to write down the names of all the malls. Like I could kind of tell from a set where it was. Sometimes I couldn’t even and so I’d write that. But then when I had to scan them, I had to take all the images out. So now I don’t know where they’re from, but I can usually tell by the floors is the most telling sign. Woodfield Mall had amazing architecture. Southdale Mall in Minneapolis was one of the very first malls. So that was kind of lucky. I stumbled upon that, and it was designed by Victor Gruen, who designed the first malls. But also, what was weird is there’s a mall in Vancouver, WA, looked just like one in Columbia, MO, it was literally the same with all the same places in the food court. It was such a weird, shocking thing.
Have you ever had a problem with somebody you photographed asking you to remove it? Once or twice, someone didn’t like the way they looked. Most people are happy to have it documented. I haven’t had any issues with this project, but I’ve had it with other things. It’s confusing because one of the important aspects of a free culture is that we should be free to make images in a public space. I mean, that’s the law. No one has the right to say “you can’t take my picture” if you’re out in public. You can’t then turn around and like use it to sell something, but you can make art out of it. And that’s important. But it’s also important to be respectful of what other people desire but trying to balance that out with public needs. there are people who do it problematically. At the same time, if you look at what’s so important to our culture, if we didn’t have Vivian Maier and Robert Frank, these things are important for understanding our culture in the future.
Things are so much more politicized now. People have often said to me, “hey, don’t take my picture” and I’ll try to honor that. But when it’s violent and they grab your camera, they get in the way of you photographing or talking to someone else, and they’ll disrupt it, they also don’t want to be seen. It’s complicated and important for the free flow of information that we allow these things to happen. We are in such a weirdly politicized moment that I’m less interested in doing anything political anymore, and it’s hard to find the value in a lot of this stuff.
Do you have any tips for photographers who want to make their own book or crowdfund? Number one, be patient. Shoot a lot. Be Organized. Double back everything up and take the time to put them in a folder with a date and some keywords so that you can find stuff later, which I didn’t do. I did kind of organize my negatives back in the day, but not that well. The main power of photography is it captures something that will be gone. It captures a moment that will not be repeated. Don’t launch until you’ve already created a lot of connectivity, so people who will share it, websites that will share it because without networks, without people sharing the work, it’s difficult. There was so much demand for this that I set up a sign up for an e-mail. So, the first day of this campaign we already made 50% of the money. So, it relies on having people willing to share and want to back what you’re doing. Someone will share it; I’ll see it get shared and then there’s two sales. So, it really does impact it. So, make sure that the people you have as allies are going to step up and be an ally.
chickfactor: Tell us about your childhood and teen years. What music sources were you finding back then? Jude Rogers: I was a big pop fan when I was really little, graduating to being a bit of an indie kid essentially at the exclusion of everything else for a while like a typical teenager, before I fell in love with all kinds of electronic music, back in love with pop, then in love with folk, et cetera et cetera. My first favorite band were R.E.M., who I talk about in very—what’s the word I’m looking for?—gushing teenage detail. From when I first bought Out of Time, that little trip to a huge Virgin Megastore and seeing this prized object on the shelves, and unfurling the concertina of liner notes, to my absolute love of Michael Stipe, I loved writing about that journey of fandom, when you’re watching videos and replaying them and listening to songs and the lyrics are just for you. How you’re sort of controlling that narrative in a way and the power that you have is really interesting, especially for teenage girls. You’re accessing other worlds and shaping your future along with that.
I found a lot of music through TV when I was a young kid, through Saturday morning British television and pop stars that would appear there for interviews, people like Adam Ant, George Michael, Neneh Cherry—who I found through Top of the Pops, the big British Top 40 chart show—and Kylie Minogue. I grew up in the ’80s, which was the time when the pop video became obviously gargantuan in its importance, its relevance, its budgets. Then in the ’90s, I fell forradio, which I write about with much love in my book too. Taping off the radio, especially taping cassettes off my friend Dan, whose Scottish sailor dad got a job parking ships in the United Arab Emirates, of all things, after he left the navy, and he’d bring us back dodgy pirate copies of PJ Harvey albums, Tori Amos albums, loads of stuff. I was quite into CDs in the mid-’90s too. Any way I could find music I’d find it. Oh, and buying 7-inches from Sullivans Record Shop in Gorseinon, the tiny town next to the village where I lived—it was my local tiny record shop, where I bought loads of singles and albums. I remember buying Come on, Feel the Lemonheads there and Elastica’s first album the week they came out and being very excited.
Tell us about the book. The book is out just in the US and published by Hachette. It came out in November in the U.S. It’s been out in the UK since April. Yeah, it’s got some really great press. Ann Powers loves it, hurray! And lots of other American people too, which is cool. It’s about how songs shape our lives in so many ways, taking me through the story of my life, from my first memory to the death of my father when I was five, through childhood, adolescence, crushes, falling in love, becoming a journalist, parenthood, grief and growing up—all soundtracked by songs. I speak to neuroscientists, psychologists, fandom experts and so many other people to find out why songs shape us so intrinsically, comforting us, enthralling us, propelling us back to the distant past, and into different future lives.
Tell us about the teenage brain on music (or your teenage brain on music). Which pop stars stayed with you and are you still fans of today? I talk about this in detail in my book with the amazing neuroscientist Catherine Loveday. I love the part where she talks about another neuroscientist who went into an fMRI scanner to see what happened to her brain when she had an orgasm—she made herself have an orgasm—and the same bits of the brain get activated when we listen to our favorite parts of music. I think that says a lot! We really respond to music in that way when we’re teenagers because our brain is developing at this incredible rate—and we still remember that intensity when we’re older. I can listen to Automatic for the People and I’m in some sort of mad, beautiful reverie still. I love it.
What is the essence of the relationship between musician and fan? It can be all kinds of things, but at its best it can be a love story, can’t it? You fall in love with a band or artist’s way of expressing themselves, their delivery, their lyrics, the way they craft music. It’s quite extraordinary. It’s not really with them as a person, it’s with this abstract but incredibly concrete thing that they have created. To share that with people is quite something. It’s funny having written a book and I’ve had lots of people at festivals come up to me and say, “God, I loved your book, it was great” and that’s wonderful, but it is weird thinking that people get really moved by something that you’ve made. What must that be like for a massive musician or somebody who’s engaged with a larger community of fans? And music works differently to words—it activates more parts of the brain and it encourages your sense of personal identity aside from your family, as well as your social sense when you’re interacting with others. Music is very strange and magical because our reaction to it is emotional and it’s profound and worth sharing. It’s the stuff of life for people. It’s intense. The essence of the relationship between music and fan, musician and fan, is intensity.
What is your favorite anecdote or quote from a scientist you interviewed in your book? Definitely the orgasm one, although I still love the experiment about “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in the chapter about babies in utero and how some babies remembered specific versions of the song after they were born. For my UK launch party for the book back in April, the amazing DJ and musician Richard Norris—who I interview in the book elsewhere about music and healing and how music can comfort us in times of trauma—did this amazing mix of me reading a part of the book with versions of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in the background. I also did a reading from the last chapter about “I Trawl the Megahertz” against an instrumental mix of the song that was structured the way that the rises and falls of the song could have met with my chapters. It was magical doing that. I really want to do that again. Richard and I are thinking we might record it actually, cause it just works so perfectly.
I had a relative with Alzheimer’s years ago who seemed to respond to music more than anything else. What did you learn about how music stimulates memory? I love the chapter about music in later life, in which my main interviewees are two of my best friends, for whom music and memory is hugely important. One is the wonderful writer Kat Lister, who wrote an amazing book called The Elements about being her first year being a widow. She was married to the wonderful music writer Pat Long, who many chickfactor readers will know from the NME and other places. Wonderful guy. I talked to her about music and funerals. Pat knew he was dying, he had cancer, and he chose the songs for his funeral. In that chapter I interviewed her along with my friend Jess George, one of my very best friends, who works in dementia care as an occupational therapist—she talked to me about her working experience of music and memory with her patients, how music is absolutely one of the last things to go from your mind. And I also talked to an amazing palliative care doctor called Mark Taubert, who in 2016 wrote this amazing letter to David Bowie after David Bowie’s death thanking Bowie for his album, Black Star, which stimulated conversations in his palliative care practice with patients. A song kind of gets timestamped really into a lot of other sensory information in our heads. My chapter about “Only You” performed by the Flying Pickets talks about this as well. I wanted to know how and why it is that when I hear that song, I don’t just remember my father, I remember the last time I saw my father, where we were, the doorway, our whole world—and I do a lot of digging into research and doing interviews to find out why.
How did you start out as a music writer? Who are some other folks you learned from along the way? Literally? I used to pick up the Top 40 charts from a shop called Woolworths in Llanelli, the small Welsh town nearest to where I grew up, where I used to work at the weekly newspaper on Saturday mornings. I was in my mid-teens and one of my tasks was to go to Woolworths, pick up the charts and type it up. So, if that counts as music writing, then there! Otherwise, it was through starting a fanzine when I was 24 with a friend of mine I had got to know through going to gigs—a guy called Matt Haynes, who I’m sure indie fans and chickfactor readers know. Matt was one of the cofounders of Sarah Records and later Shinkansen. I’d become a fan of a Shinkansen compilation, Lights on a Darkening Shore, not long after moving to London in my early 20s, met Matt at a gig at a merch table and started chatting about my new hometown. I was new to London and a bit obsessed with weird little secret stories about the city and he was born in London and knew lots of odd, geeky things. We thought, let’s make a fanzine about London (Smoke)—like a love-letter to it—and we did that in 2003, and it ran for years. I sent a copy to a music, film and books magazine called Word, where it was featured, then they asked me if I wanted to write for them, and six months later, in September 2003, I’d given up my horrible job, taken a pay cut of half my salary to go make tea, open envelopes, and hang around in the Word offices. I quickly got loads of reviewing work and started learning a bit more, but yeah, that’s how it started. I was with these amazing journalists, UK editors Mark Ellen and David Hepworth, who had been TV hosts in Britain of Live Aid and used to present a show called the Old Grey Whistle Test. They’re a really funny double act. There was an amazing guy called Andrew Harrison, still a really good friend, who is one of the best editors I’ve ever had. He was editor of the brilliant Select magazine in the UK in the mid-1990s, my period of reading it, and at Word he was my features editor. I couldn’t quite believe it. Paul Du Noyer, who I write a lot about in my book, was the reviews editor, an amazing quiet, clever, incredibly funny Liverpudlian who mentored me. Plus, lots of other great colleagues including the art director Bad Keith and ’70s Mike, the production editor. There were all these characters. It was amazing.
What are some funny stories from interviewing musicians or engaging with music you’re writing about or seeing live? Lady Gaga once danced over my lap in her pants, bra and leather jacket while filling my glass with whisky—this was backstage in the London O2 Arena in 2010, and she was previewing her new album to me and a few other broadsheet journalists like Caitlin Moran. The next day I was working as a lecturer, and the kids couldn’t believe where I’d been! When I interviewed Kylie Minogue, I asked her about her Welsh roots—I’m from Wales—and we ended up talking about her grandma who still lived in the Welsh valleys, and Kylie tried to say this incredibly long place name in Wales from North Wales, which I won’t say into the tape, but she did it brilliantly. That was funny. Then there was the whole meeting your heroes, not sleeping before the interview scenario that I had with Michael Stipe, my teenage hero. That’s chapter five of my book! Did it go horribly wrong? It didn’t go horribly wrong, but the buildup to it was absolutely terrifying. I loved writing about that. ¶ I didn’t write in the book about my crowdsurfing fingernail-down-the-arm injury that lasted for 10 years after seeing Sonic Youth at Reading 1996 but maybe that’s one for the US paperback!
Did you ever receive a mixtape from someone and spend hours deciphering its meaning?Of course. I’m a woman who grew up in the ’90s!
Was there a time when you had a demystification moment, where you saw a musician you admired turn out to be a not-great person? Do tell. This isn’t quite what you’re asking, but before I was a journalist, when I saw Michael Stipe live on a stage and he was a human being—which I also write about in the book—that was such a weird thing to me. It also didn’t help that this was R.E.M. in the Monster album phase, which did not fit in really with my love of the mysterious R.E.M. of Automatic for the People! Also my hero was being shared with lots of other people—but he’s mine!—and there were those people there just singing and not really listening … that was a weird demystification moment. Meeting people, I’ve been pleasantly surprised, to be honest, most of the time. I guess I haven’t met anybody who’s that unpleasant. Marianne Faithfull was as amazing as you’d hope she’d be, quite formidable, but also quite wonderful. Chrissie Hynde is somebody I thought was fantastic. I was a bit scared beforehand, but we got on really well and she did a painting of me! And at the end, she just took me into her little studio in her surprisingly modest home in a not particularly lovely part of London. And yeah, she did a painting of me, which is now on the side of my office behind some books because I don’t know what to do with it! My husband keeps saying I should have it like behind my desk like a big boss in a film—you know, like an oil painting of a tyrant! He’s joking, obviously. But it’ll probably end up, you know, in the loo, where it will have to be stared at people while they’re having some downtime!
I didn’t have a great time interviewing Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys, who wasn’t having a great day—so much so that I told him off. He clearly didn’t want to be interviewed—I was speaking to him for the NME—and the interview ended with me saying, “Alex, come on, you know, you didn’t have to do this interview.” I gave him a proper Welsh mum dressing down, told him off! But it’s probably not great being interviewed by 10,000 music journalists every day when you’re having a bad day, is it? I’m getting more sympathetic in my dotage.
You grew up when the internet was changing the way we interacted with music as fans. How do you see kids (your own?) now engaging in new ways that are completely different from your experience as a young fan? I sent my first e-mail when I was 18 and didn’t get an e-mail address until I was 20, so I’m probably in the last age group of Western people to have a childhood and adolescence without the internet. I’m fascinated by how kids engage in new ways with music today. My son is 8 1/2. I write about him a lot in my book. Being his mom made me think about music in lots of new ways and very much inspired writing this book in many respects. But he’s now at the age where he has his own playlist—it’s called “110% best ever songs,” which I love. And I’m just profoundly jealous that he can hear the radio and say “put this on my playlist” and instantly any piece of music from the past 50, 60, 70 years he can put on it. If you told me that when I was 8, it would have just been the most space age cosmic idea. His favorite song is “Come On, Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners—not encouraged by me although I do love that song—which he heard on the radio, and there’s stuff like Dr. Feelgood’s “Roxette” next to Ed Sheeran’s “Shivers”, Olivia Rodrigo and loads of modern pop. I’ve been quite enjoying getting into chart pop with him now. We now listen to Radio 1, the UK’s chart pop station. It’s been really fun. But yeah, just talking to him about the way I’d spend loads of money to get music when I was young makes me feel so ancient. CDs were like 15 pounds when I was at university. That’s where my student loans went! But kids still engage with music—just in a much more instant way. I know anecdotally from friends with older kids that many of them aren’t as tied to albums as we used to be. But if the world of music was at your fingertips, I’m not surprised!
What are the tools you use now to engage with or find new music? Apps or analog? I do a lot of rummaging around Bandcamp and SoundCloud to find stuff, which especially helps me write my folk music column for the Guardian. I also have friends who make playlists. My best friend Dan Cuthill, who I mentioned earlier, still has a playlist of new stuff that he updates all the time and I dip into that. My friend Kathryn who I mention in the Prefab Sprout chapter who does the same. And my friend Ian Wade, who I used to DJ with … you know, trusted friends are my guides. But reading The Guardian, Pitchfork, specialist sites like Tradfolk, blogs, listening to Radio 1 and Radio 6/BBC 6 Music over here is what I usually do. And Radio 3, which is classical and newer classical plus experimental as well.
What are some reactions or stories you got from people who read your book and wanted to share their tales with you? I was very excited by getting responses from people saying, yes, I get this, I understand this! I’ll get the famous people out of the way first. Ian Rankin, the thriller writer, loved it and was very moved by my chapter when I talk about my miscarriage. That part seems to have affected a lot of people, especially when I talk about literally where it happened and how it started to happen when I was just about to interview Paul McCartney, the biggest interviewee of my life. And also there’s an actor over here and brilliant writer Ruth Jones. I don’t know if the show Gavin & Stacey has got any traction in the US but it was a massive sitcom here in the UK. She’s a brilliant screenwriter and has written lots of stuff for TV. She sent me a long message with all the things that the book reminded her of from her life, including a Kate Bush obsession in her early teens. That was wonderful.
I’ve also had lots of emails from people I’ve never known who’ve somehow found my address or sent me tweets. I had a man in his 70s, a retired head teacher who had read the book and didn’t know much of the music but was very moved by the experiences and identified with how music shaped his childhood and adolescence and adult years and later life, just from his different experience of being into classical music and different kinds of music. I found that very affecting. Also, recently I had an amazing message from somebody who had gone on holiday with some old friends. This was a bunch of people in their 60s and they all read and enjoyed my book and had made playlists for their holiday based on ideas from my book. And then they sent me the spreadsheet!
Tell us about some songs not in the book that you have strong feelings about. What I haven’t put in and I’m still kicking myself I didn’t put it in the paperback is a song called “The Scarecrow” by Mike Waterson, which is an amazing song from 1972. Mike was one of the Waterson family, this amazing British folk-singing family from the northeast of England who had these tough, stark voices and learned lots of songs from their grandmother who brought them up when they were little because their parents died when they were all quite small. “The Scarecrow” is from an album called Bright Phoebus, and it was written by Lal, but adapted by Mike. I’ve written a huge piece about the Watersons recently for the Quietus website, and I talk in detail about “The Scarecrow” there. I’ll leave you to read that! It’s such an amazing song.
Is there a song you can’t listen to ever again? I think I’ve got past that stage. There was a long period where I used to find “Fairytale of New York” very tough because it reminded me of a boy that I’d dumped at a bus station shortly before Christmas in 1998 who for a while thought I shouldn’t have dumped! And that song always took me back to him for a while. It doesn’t anymore. And obviously “Only You” by the Flying Pickets is a song that I have found difficult over the years because it takes me back to my last moments with my dad, which I talk about my book. My dad asked me, age 5, to find out—just before going to the hospital to have a hip operation—what was No. 1 and it had been “Only You.” Originally it was a song by Yazoo, who were called Yaz in the states (Alison Moyet and Vince Clarke), but it was covered by a Welsh band called the Flying Pickets. They had been No. 1 over Christmas 1983, then my dad went into hospital in early January. The No. 1 became “Pipes of Peace” by Paul McCartney, but I never had a chance to tell my dad because my dad died in hospital. And I used to find it very hard hearing “Only You,” especially as it was a Christmas No. 1, so a song that generally just pops up once a year at Christmas, and caught me unawares in quite a sudden, shocking way. I haven’t heard it yet this year.
What’s something that makes you jump up to dance? Recently, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” by Whitney Houston randomly came on the radio, and that is the ultimate, isn’t it? What a song! In my teens, I started to kind of sneer the things I’d liked when I was a bit younger – hating the high notes of Whitney Houston, and the melisma of Mariah Carey. Fantasy, that’s another one! What an idiot I was. I soon grew out of that. I love dancing to “Heat Wave” by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, which I write about in the context of love songs in my book, that was the second song at my and my husband’s wedding party. Oh and “The Night” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons is such a fantastic song to dance to with friends, although that’s an interesting song for me now because it reminds me of the first COVID lockdown in 2020—it’s the song that really got me through the early days of that. It makes me feel quite sad hearing it now, but hopefully that will pass.
If you were a song, what song would you be? Probably something ridiculous. You know, I would like to be “Heat Wave” by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas or “Cruel Summer” by Bananarama or “Venus” by Shocking Blue, but I’d probably be something far less cool.
What is the best TV or movie soundtrack ever made? Twin Peaks, probably. I’m probably just saying that because Angela Badalamenti just died but that had a massive effect on me when I was 12. I watched that on a black and white television—a tiny television—in my room and didn’t see it in color until the DVD reissue. It was quite scary seeing scary Bob in black and white! But that music is so incredible. Other movie soundtracks…does West Side Story count? Probably not, but I’m having it! Those songs are so beautifully structured. I studied music at school until I was 18 and I’d love to look at the score and pick apart the movement of the melodies and harmonies.
What are some other music books you have loved in recent years? There’s so many. There’s been such an explosion. From this year, I really love Jarvis Cocker’s Good Pop Bad Pop and Cosey Fanni Tutti’s book, Re-Sisters, but there’s been so many more. PP Arnold’s book I found really interesting about growing up and becoming a backing singer for the Ikettes in the ’60s with a background of a terrible marriage. There’s a Pauline Oliveros reissue I adored too. In recent years, I’ve loved Tracey Thorn’s books, which are wonderful. One of hers that’s less talked about is Naked at the Albert Hall, which is a great book about singing. I loved Viv Albertine’s book like every right-minded person, but I’ve also started this year doing a podcast called Songbook, where I explore great music books with my guests and there’s all sorts in that. For example, I revisited Fred & Judy Vermorel’s Starlust with Brett Anderson, a book of filthy fan letters, which was lots of fun, especially as I’ve been a fan of Suede since my teens. I discovered a great slim academic book called The Folk by a guy called Ross Coles thanks to the brilliant broadcaster Zakia Sewell, and got Vashti Bunyan to read Marianne Faithfull’s memoir, and went to Shirley Collins’ house to talk about her old boyfriend Alan Lomax’s The Land Where the Blues Began. I often review books too. I love so many!
What are your plans for the book over here? Events? No events yet. But I would absolutely love to do stuff over the US at some point. If you want me out there, get me out there. I’ve got friends in LA and extended family in Colorado and New York. I’ll get a mattress on the floor, a sleeping bag. I’ll be out there.
What are five or ten records you cannot live without? The 12 tracks that make up my chapters of the book are my way of trying to do this, I guess, but there are some songs toward the end of it which I include which I’d missed out. In recent years there are songs like “You Forever” by Self Esteem, I can’t imagine living without that. She is so brilliant. I can’t imagine living without “Freedom” by Wham!, who I managed to sneak into Chapter 3. The ones that make up my book, though, I think it would be them, because they’re the ones I chose to tell my story and they’ve got even deeper meaning for me now. When you pick records about your life, like the Desert Island Discs radio show here in the UK, you don’t think just about the songs. You think about all the places those songs take you to, the people they take you to, the worlds wrapped up in that. So, I’d have to go with them. I think the 12 of my book are a pretty good soundtrack to my life.
Track 5 Drive – R.E.M. How Music Obsesses Us as Teenagers
I walked through Mayfair in London on a cold, sunny November afternoon, along the sides of grand, leafy squares, towards a man with whom I’d had a relationship since I was fourteen.
When I first saw him properly, he was gliding over a sea of hands, wearing a shirt, white and crumpled, open at the neck. I saw the pale skin at his throat and the wide, flattened plane of his stomach. His shorts casually revealed his thighs and his calves. His pale eyes, his perfect mouth, his gawky jaw, looked like they were all carved out of marble.
I watched him being passed around like a god then tossed in the air like a plaything.
We spent days together in my bedroom after that, my door closed, my heart open, him whispering feverish things into my little pierced ears. He told me I was wild. He told me I was his possession. I listened, determined to live my life as he told me to live it, full of joy and wonder. Every night, I imagined reaching out and seeing him fully formed at the end of my bed, reaching out his hand, holding it in mine, the two of us sinking through the sheets, the earth, the whole universe.
My heart felt too full that day in Mayfair, rising up from my chest, like it was almost in my throat, or raw and ripe in my mouth. I had barely slept for nerves. We were about to have twenty minutes together, just the two of us, in a hotel room, for the first time.
There’s something intrinsically unhealthy about falling in love with a much older man when you’re in secondary school. At that age, you’re vulnerable, but you also feel invincible. Your every response, psychological, physical, sexual, is on high alert. You’re bloodily, feverishly, desperately alive.
Mr Seaton, a history teacher at my comprehensive, had made the introductions. At wet break-times, my friends and I would beg to be allowed in his first-floor room at the back of the tower block. We loved Mr Seaton because he had a poster of Evan Dando on his cupboard door and he would play tapes while he tried to get on with his marking. One day, he played Automatic for the People. I pestered him to make me a copy until he did.
Over the summer holidays that year, I found myself at a strip-lit urban cathedral in Leicester while on holiday at my new uncle’s house. The name of the megastore glared at me in big, knowing red letters. Inside Virgin, I went to R and found a small, jewelled box with a picture on the front of a thick, golden sea; I felt something inside me unravelling as I took it up to the till, my other hand gripping onto my pocket money tightly, anticipating what these coins could possibly provide in exchange.
I got back to my uncle’s front room, closed the door, unwrapped Out of Time from its cellophane, and ceremonially slotted it into the Walkman I’d been bought a few Christmases earlier. Peter Buck’s guitar strings sounded like spiritual sirens. Mike Mills’ brilliant basslines held the songs upright and straightened my spine. Bill Berry’s drums were unshowy and subtle, always in service of the song. Michael Stipe sang of fantasies flailing around, lonely deeps and hollows, barefoot, naked, on a maddening loop. His voice unfolded me like the concertina of cassette liner notes I held in my hands.
In my mid-teens, I pored over liner notes like ancient scrolls, and I especially loved the liner notes to Out of Time. The mysterious artwork on the front, covered by a yellow R.E.M. logo, was shown in full inside: I found out years later it was called Yellow Seascape With Film and Wood Blocks, made in 1988–9 by American artists and identical twins Mike & Doug Starn. The original suggests two doors that you can open, so you can take the handles in your fingers and comfortably enter the water. They made me want to open them, experience full immersion.
Inside the concertina, there was also a photograph by the brothers, of a plant, taken in black-and-white like a daguerreotype. There were others of fecund fruit and flowers and a cat’s orange tail, struck by sunlight. There were also two cartoons, one featuring a man in a hat, looking like Michael, staring into the window of something that was called a sex theatre. The caption said: ‘These faded, backlit transparencies remind passersby of the live spectacle happening inside.’ I didn’t want to understand what it meant, but also I did.
My fandom wasn’t just about the delivery or the storytelling, I realised quickly: it was about something bigger, a band as a complete work of art. Not long after, I saw the video to their 1992 single ‘Drive’, filmed in stark black-and-white, the scene occasionally blasted by spotlights and lasers. Michael Stipe was crowd-surfing through a huge, pulsing audience, their hands raised to hold him, their fingers at full stretch, heated and hungry, their faces rapt. Sometimes, Michael looked numb, paralysed at the mercy of the mob. At others he looked ecstatic, his arms stretched out as if for a crucifix, blissfully accepting his fate.
It didn’t sink in with me initially that the lyrics to ‘Drive’ were inspired by the idea of young people being politically mobilised. It was a song directed at American youth: youth that felt whacked out by a presidential term of George Bush after two terms of Reagan; youth that were fed up with being told what to do and where to go. ‘Drive’ was even used in a campaign to make voter registration easier in America, a ‘drive’ that later succeeded under Bill Clinton. I was more interested in the emotions in Michael’s delivery than distant political machinations, in the way that he sang ‘hey kids’ like a mysterious invitation, like a breathy Pied Piper.
Years later, I’d find out that ‘Drive’ harked back to Michael Stipe’s youth. ‘Hey kids’ was a line lifted directly from one of his favourite songs as a teenager, David Essex’s peculiar, perfect dub-like 1973 debut, ‘Rock On’. Michael talked about the effects of its weirdness on him in 2017, in an interview with NPR in the US, marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of Automatic for the People. ‘[It] just blasted right into the core of my being as a thirteen- and fourteen-year-old, I think, and presented to me this kind of set-up for what Patti Smith, CBGBs, Television, the punk rock scene in New York in 1974 and ’75 would offer me. It was an entry into a universe that accepted me for who I was. I was already at that point where I realised that I was very different from all the kids around me . . . not eccentric, I never like that word.
But I was different.’ ‘Rock On’ provided him with a key to a new door. ‘A door that would open and never shut again.’
I used to watch ‘Drive’ on my own, on our video player, when I was meant to be doing my homework while my family were out. I had a baby brother now, James, a sweet, chatty toddler. Jon had just reached double figures and was getting into music too. Every Saturday, we’d sit and watch The Chart Show on ITV, taping songs that we liked, taping over others that hadn’t held our interest after a few weeks. Given our different ages, the results were usually a hysterical mish-mash of sounds and styles, my nascent interest in indie buffering around videos by Lionel Richie, KWS, Mr Blobby.
I didn’t want R.E.M. to be for my brothers’ eyes, though. R.E.M. were exclusively for me. I’d wait until my parents would go out with the boys, hearing the car reversing up the drive on the way to the supermarket, to my grandma’s, to Cubs, and I’d let the reels roll and sit motionless in front of the screen. Often, I would watch ‘Drive’ on repeat. It was a strange thing for me to keep watching, because I didn’t like crowds. I found them claustrophobic, frightening – but this was one into which I could safely fold myself, imagine as a launchpad to future experiences, to test out the thrill.
The arrangement of the song built in intensity slowly, giving it a mood which was also slyly erotic. Halfway through the video, the crowd are blasted by a fire hose. The other band members stand in front of them, grinning, their instruments soaking wet. It’s a knowing release.
The words Michael sang also added an element of flirtation into the mix. There is innuendo in the line ‘What if you try to get off?’ which I’m sure I didn’t get at fourteen. I know I felt the word that followed it, though, an old trick out of rock and roll’s playbook, one I already knew from songs by groups I’d loved a few years earlier, like Bros and New Kids On The Block. This time, the word carried a different weight in Michael’s mouth.
‘Baby,’ he called me.
My love of Michael Stipe came in that peculiar period between worshipping saccharine boy bands and my GCSEs, when the teenage brain and body feel like they’re aflame. Neuroscientist Catherine Loveday mentioned this stage of development when we spoke about our fathers. We often return to the music of our teenage years in tough times, she’d said, because this is when brains and bodies are developing at their quickest rate.
I Zoom her again, and she tells me this rapid development in adolescence is a relatively recent discovery in neuroscience. Twenty years ago, it was thought our brains stopped developing in mid-childhood. Now we know there are huge surges of development that come later, particularly in a network of structures colloquially known as the social brain. This includes the anterior cingulate cortex, a region important for understanding and empathising with people, and the fusiform face area, which helps us recognise faces and process the emotions they are exhibiting. As teenagers, we are drawn more to new faces and wanting to understand them, Loveday explains, even if they are just faces on a screen.
Parts of the brain’s subcortical structure are also developing and maturing. The amygdala attributes meaning to the emotions we are feeling, while the nucleus accumbens acts as the brain’s interface between our motivations and actions. Both have to communicate with the faraway prefrontal cortex, at the front of our brain, which is responsible for how we control our behaviour. ‘These subcortical parts are about generating emotion, really a kind of unconstrained emotion, if you like – while the prefrontal cortex helps us to regulate what those emotion centres are doing.’ Then Loveday introduces a theory in neuroscience called the mismatch hypothesis, which suggests that the prefrontal cortex can’t keep up with the pace of the subcortical surges.
Loveday refers to the work of Sarah-Jayne Blackmore, a neuroscientist who wrote Inventing Ourselves, a book looking at different systems of the teenage brain. Blackmore’s analogy is that the experience of having a teenage brain is like having a very fast car with lots of power, but no steering wheel: sensations of exhilaration and elation are everywhere, but without the tools to handle them properly, to rein oneself in.
The dopamine pathway that connects these subcortical areas to the prefrontal cortex is also developing quickly, speeding up the passage of feelings of pleasure. ‘This pathway is really important for feelings of reward and obsessions,’ Loveday says, ‘obsessive love, and that kind of thing, which gives you an appetite, an active drive, to seek novelty.’ The increased activation in this pathway is especially important in evolutionary terms: as they move towards adulthood, young people need to move away from their families to seek potential mates, and not have incestuous relationships. Another thing can also activate this pathway, Loveday says: ‘It has also been shown to be activated by music.’
I think of myself in my bedroom, kicked into life by the rushing sounds of bright guitars, Michael Stipe’s voice in my little speedy-head, telling me I’ve got to leave to find my way. The sensations back then were romantic and thrilling; I really felt like I loved him, that I wanted him to consume me completely.
Loveday then mentions another neuroscientist, Kim Lyall, who went into an fMRI scanner in 2011 to make herself orgasm, to see which parts of the brain were aroused. ‘It’s a study my students are always embarrassed by when I talk about it,’ she says, with a smile. ‘But when people have gone in MRI scanners to listen to their favourite songs, precisely the same areas are highly activated as Lyall’s.’ That dopamine pathway can also become triggered by people, so if you are experiencing that feeling in your brain while somebody is singing, then effectively they become associated with this kind of brain orgasm. There’s also oxytocin being released, which gives a person a feeling of attachment and connection – but it can also shut someone off from other people who aren’t in their blissful bubble. ‘So what’s going on in your mind is, wow, this piece of music is amazing, isn’t that person fantastic – the brain is reacting as if you were actually close to that person and possibly even having sex with them.’ She laughs. ‘And yes – it can be quite overwhelming for people.’
I watch ‘Drive’ again at forty-three. I see other details. I see Peter Buck smiling as he’s soaked, a fan’s hand on his shoulder. On a few occasions, Michael looks at a fan and their eyes lock for a moment. Once he looks straight at the camera and sings at us. At me. I think about how fans and artists feed each other and seduce each other.
I look up Peter Care online, a filmmaker born in Cornwall who has long lived in LA, who directed the video to ‘Drive’. His early work was experimental, with Cabaret Voltaire, Clock DVA and Killing Joke, before he bagged bigger jobs with Belinda Carlisle, Roy Orbison and Tina Turner. In 1991, he was working mainly in commercials, and had had enough; he called his friend Randy Skinner at Warner Brothers to see if she could give him something more meaningful. He tells me what happened next on the phone on a hot Californian afternoon, as I sink into the sofa on a warm British spring evening. ‘I just couldn’t do it any more – I said, I’ll work for free if needs be, for any little tiny band with no money. And she said, well, have you heard of R.E.M.? And I was like, what?’
Peter knew them well. He had loved their early videos, and they’d just released a slicker proposition on screen that went on to win six MTV Video Awards. The video to ‘Losing My Religion’ helped propel them into the mainstream and did so without surrendering the band’s commitment to weirdness. It referenced Caravaggio paintings, the art of Pierre et Gilles and a pivotal scene in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film The Sacrifice, in which people in a room run from left to right past the camera and a milk jug shatters to the floor.
Peter signed up.
His first job with R.E.M. was ‘Radio Song’, and his video played around with ideas of the band’s changing identity. The four members held up moving images of themselves, and were surrounded by others on TV screens; vintage film was mixed in that recalled their earlier, scratchier style.
Michael then invited Peter to lunch and asked if he’d be interested in making ‘the greatest crowd-surfing video of all time’. He wanted to go shirtless, he added, and leant across the table, opening his buttons to show he’d already shaved his chest. ‘He also wanted it to be out of sync,’ Peter says, ‘to look really off. “Peter – everything’s off!”’
But the director was unsure about the idea of the frontman going bare-chested. ‘And I’m surprised he didn’t tell me to go fuck myself, but I said, it’s going to look a bit like we’re doing an Iggy Pop, and I don’t think that’s right.’ He suggested Michael wear a white shirt instead, so the audience could see it getting wet. ‘I said with a white shirt, there’d be a romance to it, a bit like the white sheets in The Death of Marat.’ I look up this picture after our call: it’s a famous painting by Jacques-Louis David of the murder of a French Revolutionary leader. There was another painting Peter had in his head too, by French Romantic painter Théodore Géricault, called The Raft of the Medusa. ‘I said to Michael, it has a crowd with their hands up, a storm, water, and it’s painted to look like the night with the stormy clouds, but it has a humanity to it.’ The references were a bit over the top, he says, self-deprecatingly, ‘but drama is something we gravitate towards when we’re young, and Michael was up for it. And Michael was like, “OK! All right!”’
Peter’s crew shot for two nights at the Sepulveda Dam, a three-mile-long feat of engineering near Los Angeles, constructed after the great floods of 1938, which killed over a hundred people. A radio call for R.E.M. fans saw hundreds turn up each night. A low-budget Lenny Arm crane was used to hold a camera and film everyone from above; it was wound loosely, creating a juddering effect, intensifying the strangeness with which Michael’s hero-worship was being presented.
Peter did five more videos for R.E.M. after that, in which he explored the attention Michael received in more detail. In ‘Man on the Moon’, Michael looks like a movie star in a cowboy hat, doing Elvis impressions, jumping on trucks, confident and charismatic. In ‘What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?’, he’s suddenly reluctant: shot from the chin down, in rock star T-shirt and jeans. In ‘Electrolite’, he’s filmed upside-down with plastic toy reindeer, in roller-skates, then pretending to be interviewed, then singing, hamming up his lip-syncing.
Peter emails me a few weeks after our phone conversation to offer more thoughts on capturing the feelings of the crowd in the ‘Drive’ video. ‘I wanted the camera to focus on Michael like a fan would – all love, fascination, and no irony . . . I never thought the crowd were expressing adulation exactly. The people there were all big fans of R.E.M. of course, and Michael held them in the palm of his hand during the whole shoot. But like any mosh-pit, there was an energy beyond fandom, beyond what would normally be focused on the star on stage.’
To Peter in 1992, a mosh-pit ripe for crowd-surfing was more about the camaraderie within it, the shared experience it offered, and the job it had to do: ‘i.e., don’t drop the crowd-surfer,’ he says. But then in 2001 he went to a pop video convention and saw ‘Drive’ on an enormous cinema screen for the first time. ‘That was a revelation for me – magnified hugely, I saw faces in much more detail, their smiles, their anticipation in waiting for Michael to come their way . . . [they were] so much more powerful as a group of individuals.’
I used to imagine myself among them, my hands lifted up, as I sat on the living room carpet. From the vantage point of adulthood, I remember how isolating it felt back then being in my early teens. In the pre-internet age, I could only imagine being around people like those in the dam, all looking for a way to look up and grow up.
This excerpt has been published with the permission of the author. Buy your copy of the book hereor here.
chickfactor: Why did you want to write this book? Benjamin: I’d discovered the band at the beginning of the nineties (I was born in 1974) as I was a huge fan of British pop music from punk to postpunk. It was a shock for me to discover such an intelligent and melodic band full of cultural references from movies, paintings and books, both sentimental and political, intimate and funny. It was like discovering some band as big and important as the Smiths except almost nobody seemed to know about them. At the time, I started writing books and music reviews for one of the first French indie rock webzines and I made the promise to write something consistent about the TVPs one day. I had written something like 10 novels then, got a few prizes but had always in mind the plan to write about a band. When I discussed doing something for Le Boulon editor round 2015, I started to tell Xavier at a lunch meeting about the dozen wonderful anecdotes I had about Bob Marley, Jimmy Page, David Hasselhoff and Daniel Treacy. We started at 11.00 a.m. and we parted 3 hours later. I realized it was time to write all this down and try to tell Daniel’s story from the beginning to where we were today, so somewhere near the end. And there was already at least 30 books about Morrissey and The Smiths, so why add another? CF
Alison Wonderland Six years after the issue of The Painted Word, the Television Personalities return to the 33rpm format with the album Privilege, released this time on the Fire Records label. The company had been set up five years before by Clive Solomon, a former acquaintance of Daniel and the Television Personalities. At the beginning, Solomon and the Television Personalities’ lead singer hung around the same London venues which heralded the psychedelic renewal. Moreover, he had organised gigs inspired by the 60’s even before McGee and others had thought of it, in a new club destined to become famous, the Groovy Cellar. At the time, Clive Solomon wasn’t directly a member of the gang, but hung around wherever they were. His favourite band, among all those who trawled the scene, was … the Television Personalities, who he had seen a good hundred times on stage and for whom he had tremendous respect. It was thanks to them that he had talked to McGee for the first time, and certainly also thanks to them that he had decided to pursue his career. Producer and occasional musician, Clive Solomon’s name figures, at the time of Whaam!, on Sha La La, the one and only single by the brilliant Jed Dmochowski, as executive producer. Whether that means he invested a few quid in the business, or that he was present during the recording sessions, is a matter of debate.
Be that as it may, in 1989 Clive Solomon is still managing Fire Records from his bedroom and is delighted to produce the Television Personalities’ new album, initially promised to Dreamworld. At the time, Fire has not yet defined its strategy, nor emerged as one of the best-entrenched and interesting independent labels on the market. The model would be simple: produce young artistes, but also welcome older guys with a history, in order to try and take over their catalogue via meticulous re-releases and promotion of their new songs. The label establishes itself by crossing the path of gifted and challenging bands like The Blue Aeroplanes, The Farm, Spacemen 3, the main event of 1989, Pulp (the band before success knocked on its door) Eugenius, Mission of Burma, or even Evan Dando’s band, the Lemonheads. It’s a small world. Fire Records has a reputation for allowing its artistes great creative liberty and giving them long-term support. Some are more critical as regards the personality of Clive Solomon. Luke Haines, for example, doesn’t spare him in the picture he paints in his book Bad Vibes. Solomon is described as a rather spineless guy, shy, bald and sallow, overplaying being nice to avoid conflicts. Haines, under contract to Fire with his band The Servants, quits in order to set up the successful band The Auteurs. If Treacy was to hold a grudge against Fire Records and Solomon, as he would against others later on, the release of Privilege and Fire Records’ support of the band in the following years with two intermediate EP’s and a further album, indicate clearly the attachment of Solomon and his team to the Television Personalities.
The label would moreover on several occasions re-release records by the Television Personalities, first in the early 90’s, then again in 2002 to 2003, and continue to accompany the group up until the issue in 2017 of an album containing rarities, demos and other unpublished works, prior to the release of Closer To God in 1992. It would be a lie to say that the label was well thought of by those closest to the band, but everyone agrees that Fire put a lot of energy into making the most out of the band’s reunified catalogue. Of the two albums released at the time on Fire Records, Privilege and Closer To God, it’s difficult say which is the better. The band’s fans usually place them a notch below their first album, which just goes to show the level of excellence achieved. The songs on the Privilege album, produced by Phil Vinall, one of the best British producers, were carved out and even recorded by the band in the course of three or four years of concerts. These are mostly remarkable songs, some even outstanding, which amply demonstrate the excellent health and the unimpaired genius of their composer. Phil Vinall replaces the insufficiently embellished parts, lightens the band’s sound and gives it a clearly pop colouration never attained up to this point. Apart from the weird My Hedonistic Tendencies, a synthpop track which jars and has aged a little, the album is still as pleasant to listen to, after almost thirty years. Daniel Treacy offers one or two compositions which belong to his former psychedelic and arty inspiration, of which the record’s signature song Salvador Dali’s Garden Party, is the best illustration. But most of the record comprises songs with more personal lyrics, where the inherent sadness is offset by the inventiveness of the tunes and the agility of the guitars. Such is the case of songs like Paradise Is For The Blessed, the sublime opening song, or of the sumptuous A Good And Faithful Servant which follows. The texts are redolent of the singer’s existential doubts, of the depression and solitude waiting in the wings, of the disenchantment (the terrible All My Dreams Are Dead) and of the fear of abandonment. The social and political aspects are always present (on Privilege or Conscience Tells Me No), but generally put aside in favour of sad songs which are among the most accomplished in all the band’s discography. Vinall persuades Treacy to emphasize his voice more, which turns out clearly to be a winning card. Never has the vocalist sung so well as on this album, achieving first-rate performances within his register in pieces like The Engine Driver Song, or the very moving What If It’s Raining? The studio work is fluid. Daniel is relaxed and receptive to suggestions. He knows the pieces by heart and doesn’t mind having to go over them several times. He likes to work quickly, plug in, play without wasting time then move on to something else.
Vinall, who in later years, would be involved for several months with the emergence of Jarvis Cocker (Pulp) and Brian Molko (Placebo), is all admiration. He knows that several of these songs are gems, but he also knows that Daniel is aware of his limits and is not infused with the conquering spirit and aggressiveness which produce superstars.
“These are my songs”, he seems to be saying as he deposits them at the feet of the producer. “They’re for you. I’d rather you didn’t return them to me”.
The mixture of rockabilly (Sometimes I Think You Know Me Better Than Myself), of wild or psychedelic pop rock and of lo-fi, give Privilege extraordinary power and richness. A few stylistic waverings may weaken the whole, but in no way lower the quality of the compositions. Privilege is released in February 1990 and has a cool reception, despite the issue in October 1989 of a sound single on the theme of Salvador Dali’s Garden Party. Fire Records does a low-key promotion of the album, accompanied by a British tour of five or six dates as openers for The House Of Love, which achieves little for the band in terms of notoriety. The House Of Love at the time is a band which has a certain success with the re-release of its first single Shine On and the release of their second album. However, the band is in disarray, having barely got over the sensational departure of Terry Bickers and saddled with Guy Chadwick, a leader sinking into a malignant megalomania weaned on alcohol and narcotics. It’s easy to imagine the benefits derived from being yoked together with the Television Personalities.
1990 continues with an endless German tour, but the sales fail to take off, despite an album of the soundest quality. Fire Records and the Television Personalities are not disheartened and release two new singles in the second half of 1991 and the double album Closer To God in 1992. Between these releases, Daniel Treacy, in need of money, signs with the Overground Records label for a series of re-releases of the band’s early singles. John Esplen, the founder of the label, owes his vocation to Daniel Treacy since it was during a conversation at the end of the 80’s that he had seemingly encouraged him to work on re-releasing oldies and afterwards offered him the possibility of reworking his band’s singles. Things would only come into being a few years later. I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives, then Three Wishes are thus revived, just like Smashing Time, Where’s Bill Grundy Now? and Favourite Films. The singles are simply accompanied by new jackets, created most of the time by Alison Withers, Daniel Treacy’s new girlfriend.
This frenzy of releases, for a band which is not necessarily often in the public eye, gives a strange impression to observers and blurs the communication connected with the new songs. Difficult to know, if you’re not watching closely, which songs are re-releases and which ones are new, particularly as the band now mixes enthusiastic up-beat songs with almost acoustic numbers where Daniel plays solo in a totally different register. Where does such a band fit in? What are they trying to say? If, at this time, the band still had any hope of achieving recognition other than esteem and acclaim, it disappears into an often brilliant, but for most people, unfathomable mist. The re-releases of the first albums on the Fire label add to the over-production which, while making the band’s music available once again, inspires the feeling that the Television Personalities have, in spite of themselves, become a nostalgic band of the past, bogged down in its own legend. Adding to that the live recording of a concert during the 1984 German tour, released apparently without authorisation from the band, it’s the last straw. It’s a false impression, since Daniel has never been so productive. Songs pour out like water from a tap.
When Closer To God arrives, Fire Records’ usual strategy, which consists in rekindling interest in the band via revivals of its old albums, doesn’t work. The signal is inaudible, as if jammed, and doesn’t manage to provoke any response. The album which contains 19 tracks is nonetheless monumental and worthy of the greatest interest. It’s easy to consider it as the band’s last great album and a magnificent demonstration of their talent.
Phil Vinall, who is producer again, returns to the more rock sound, full of effects and echo of the band’s beginnings, which, in the midst of the shoegaze and grunge wave, gives certain songs a really powerful impact. Closer To God is harsher than Privilege, but never departs from the melodic ambition and quality of the lyrics. The studio work is more extensive than for the previous album, since not everything has been written in advance. The music is meticulous, crafted, and once again, open to experimentation.
But for all that, it’s not “where it’s at” or in tune with what’s “in” at this moment in time. Psychedelia has had its day and British pop is not in much better straits. Because of being ahead of their time, the Television Personalities are caught between two worlds and, for the first time in their career, almost anachronistic.
Stylistic coherence is not always maintained throughout the 19 tracks. Some songs are weaker than others, but without much impact on the density and power of the collection. Closer To God is a double album and a further occasion for Treacy to reveal the scope of his talents. The cover, designed by Alison Withers, is strange and relates to no known universe. It’s not clear whether it does anything for the album which gets off to a cracking start with You Don’t Know How Lucky you Are and Hard Luck Story Number39. In these two songs, Daniel warns the listener (and himself) in prophetic tones, against changes in fortune, drugs and decadence.
“Would you like to see scars? My brand-new needle-marks? he sings like a show-off You’ve got a job, a house, a company car But you’ve still got shit for brains”.
The first piece is particularly violent, mixing biographical lucidity and anger directed against the well-to-do. The song ends with “Open up your mind, it’s an open door”, and like an ultimate copout, bids farewell to the world of escapism and psychedelics. Like the previous one, the album is a sort of patchwork of songs composed in the course of Treacy’s wanderings and inspirations.
Between the releases of Privilege and Closer To God, Jowe Head and Treacy initially plan to produce a more intimate album which would only materialise twenty-five years later under the name of Beautiful Despair, a compilation of demonstration items and a few unpublished songs. Treacy literally forgets about the project, before re-injecting it by snippets into the monumental Closer To God. There’s an obvious impression that the band want to give it everything they’ve got. Everything is sweetness and light. And it shows: Treacy is in love. His bouts of anxiety, awesomely expressed in My Very First Nervous Breakdown or Very Dark Today, are contained and overridden by peals of laughter, great moments of self-mockery (the incredible Goodnight Mr Spaceman, the very T-Rex-like We Will Be Your Gurus) and above all some very fine love songs. The benevolent optimism of I Hope You Have A Nice Day is pleasant to listen to, but it’s the sentimental tracks which hit just the right tone that makes the album great. Even though he expresses a little clumsily his homesickness (Coming Home Soon) or his daft projects (Me And My Big Ideas) Daniel Treacy is no longer alone and drowns his sorrows in a one-to-one relationship which lights up his world. Few songs describe so well the ups and downs of love as This Heart’s Not Made Of Stone, and even less dwell on the loved one’s face with such attention and ability for amazement as You’re Younger Than You Know. This lofty, contemplative and luminous song is perhaps the greatest on the album. It’s a masterpiece of balance and delicacy in which the poetic images skillfully succeed each other, mixing naivety and sincerity as if it were a poem by John Keats.
“You’re looking younger now Younger than the newest star That shines up in the sky Younger than the newest dream Baby dreamt last night”.
It’s hard to tell if the narrator is describing the face of the girl he loves, or if he’s talking rather of the effect of love on his own features. However that may be, You’re Younger Than You Know leaves an impression of plenitude and fulfilment.
Closer To God ends with an autobiographical and existentialist eleven-minute-long title of the same name. Treacy comes back to his complicated relationship with the Catholic religion: his strict upbringing, a mixture of violence (at school and probably at home), of guilt and rejection. We know that his father was not a gentle soul and that life in the Treacy household was not always easy. We’ve already mentioned the nostalgic, but ambiguous relations that the singer had with his childhood. They are expressed here in a song carried by bass player Jowe Head, which is not entirely anti-religious, far from it, but transfers the issues of distress and depression into the realm of existentialism and the relationship with God. Maybe Treacy’s career can be interpreted as an attempt to evince a form of original sin, to defile himself and sink to the bottom in order, like the born again, to rise back to the surface. The song suggests as much, but you can’t be certain whether it’s not all an attempt at theatrics. Closer To God, by its length, its intensity and its ambition, seems to be the spiritual and equally disturbed counterpart of Back To Vietnam. Despite the scope of its dramatic impulse, this final song would rarely be singled out as one of the band’s best achievements.
With the release of two such important albums in less than three years and intermediate singles of this quality, at the end of 1992 the lukewarm reception makes things abundantly obvious: The Television Personalities are very unlikely to avoid their fate. British pop is at its lowest ebb. The American invasion is under way and despite favourable critics and reasonable sales, the band’s revival turns out to be a partial failure for Treacy and Fire Records. That doesn’t stop the trio from finally crossing the Atlantic for two successive American tours in 1992 and 1993, and going on tour in Japan the following year. But nobody is deceived by the band’s progress which has all the trappings of a breakthrough which only exists on paper.
Things are starting to fall apart. Daniel Treacy manages to keep afloat thanks to the efforts of Alison Withers, one of the most important women in his life. Lover, best friend and colleague, Alison displays infinite comprehension. Daniel and Alison met up at the very end of the 80’s. The young woman figures on tambourine in a single released in 1987 by a friend of hers, Jerry Thackray, a.k.a. The Legend! She moves in the same circles as Treacy and meets the singer several times at the heights of his splendour. The two meet up one evening in November 1988 during a concert by the Spacemen 3. Daniel has come with Ed Ball. Alison is there with a girlfriend. Like a teenager, she sends her friend like a scout to ask Daniel if he would like to talk to her. Daniel stammers a yes and away you go.
At the time, Alison works in a library in Kensington, not far from Treacy’s parents’ home which is now perched over a Council depot in a block of flats wonderfully named “Sky Gardens”. Daniel had come back there to live after separating from Emilee and having spent several months of homelessness taking drugs and screwing up his head. Since then, he has sorted himself out a bit, surrounded by his family, even if he is still quite unstable. Alison also lives with her parents near Croxley Green, twenty miles or so from the centre of London.
Alison is young, knowledgeable, pretty too. She is free and lots of boys run after her. Daniel Treacy falls in love. And things continue, things go better than well. He comes to fetch her after work and presents her to his parents. His father greets her with a smile. His mother is more wary. Alison was to get on wonderfully with Daniel’s elder sister Patricia, who she still sees even now. In the evening, his mother makes up two separate beds for Daniel and Alison who wait until everyone is asleep before getting together like two secretive children. On Sundays, Daniel is sometimes invited by Alison’s parents to share in the traditional family roast beef. He’s not quite the ideal son-in-law, but he’s on his best behaviour. He talks amiably and impresses them with his pleasant attitude. He spends hours chatting about this and that with Alison’s mother. He has an evident taste for commonplace, everyday things, as if this normality at his fingertips is what he’s always aspired to. A family, a quiet little life, maybe some kids: among the 1001 lives on which Daniel Treacy fantasises, this one has always hovered around him without ever managing to draw him in.
In the summer of 1989, they move into a three-room flat near Acton Town in West London. It’s an old block, built in the 30’s. They do some refurbishing, such as painting the entrance hall black and white. They have come into some of Alison’s grandmother’s furniture, as she has just died. Daniel begins to relax a bit. His drug habit is reduced to a few doses of speed on days when there’s a concert. One day, Daniel comes across a strange bag forgotten on a tube train. Inside is the equivalent of three thousand dollars and five American passports in exotic names, two pairs of binoculars and a very expensive camera. From what he would relate later, the bag was just there at his side. It’s not theft. The bag was calling for help. Daniel takes it and gets off the tube while it’s coming to a halt. Officials arrive and seem to search the carriages and inspect the platform. Daniel makes off. Opportunity makes a thief. The money soon disappears. It slips between his fingers like a fistful of sand. But there’s still the camera, and it determines Alison’s career. Librarian and photographer from now on. The young woman takes her inspiration from pop art, does photos and collages. She goes to night-school. Like Emilee Watson before her, Alison becomes the graphic artist for the Television Personalities. Daniel encourages her with a sincere fervour. He encourages her to take the plunge and enrol at the School of Photography near Paddington, after leaving her job at the library. Alison lacks confidence, but her work gets better and better.
Alison excels at portraits of her boyfriend, group portraits and background shots. How many sofas, pale walls, pseudo landscapes, held up behind the tour bus, peanuts and aperitif tables? Pullovers, jackets, bonnets, whatever you like. Her approach is both distant and eager to grasp everything that is sensitive in humanity, in a corporal pose or the flash of a look. It’s not an insult to other photographers to say that Alison “Wonderland” Withers is the photographer who has best captured what there was of poetic, beautiful and sometimes sadly dark, in Daniel Treacy’s features. You only need to look at the dozens of photos scattered about on the Net to realise it: she created the mystery just as much as she was to reveal it during the seven or eight years over which they shared everything. For the band’s record sleeves, Daniel often gives the impetus, the initial idea. Alison develops and exploits it. One of their greatest successes is the collage made for the jacket of the single Salvador Dali’s Garden Party, which they compose lying on the floor of their flat while their cat Madonna rolls itself in the photocopies. Daniel never stops praising the “little works of art” produced by his girlfriend, which he would immortalise in the song of the same name.
There had been Emilee Watson and the flat at Poynders Court. From now on it would be Alison and Daniel, caught up in the eternity of these seven years from 1988 to the middle 90’s.
The chronology wavers between the fits of depression, the moments of stability and the air-pockets. It comes in seven-year cycles. Such is the curse. At the ages of 14, 21, 28 and 35. The next one would be devastating, but there’s still some time for happiness and love between the couple. Love is a breath of fresh air. You take refuge in your own little world. Failure is knocking at the door and addiction lurks under the carpet. The flat is a nest, an oasis, small, comfy, held together by the colours, the dreams, the piles of books, drawings and music. The main room is a workshop, based on the inevitable sofa seen on dozens and dozens of photos, on the kitchen table, which doubles as a desk, a workbench for cutting out and preparing the material, a place where they sit and work or just daydream.
Daniel and Alison would keep cats, two most of the time, called Madonna, Andy Warhol or, later on, Orangina. Sometimes their contribution is acknowledged on the record sleeves. Daniel plays the guitar, thinks up songs and writes. He writes texts which gather dust in shoe boxes, poems, dozens of pleasant little notes, short and lively like haikus. He sketches out of happiness. He plays records, reads books. Together, Alison and Daniel watch old British or foreign films, on VHS cassettes bought at the supermarket or second-hand, mainstream programmes or series on TV. They cook with Keith Floyd, the celebrity presenter at the time and gorge themselves on children’s programmes and sitcoms. The Brittas Empire is one of their favourite shows. The series relates the life of an incompetent manager. His ideas are mostly halfbaked and his life is boring. His wife has affairs, or swallows pills to keep her head above water. Gordon Brittas’s deputy suffers from allergies. The receptionist is nuts and keeps her children in the drawers of the reception desk. The series is spectacular and wacky, absurd and slightly cynical. The Brittases are everything which Alison and Daniel will never be. Most of the time, Alison calls Daniel Treacy Mister Brittas. They like the humour of comedian Vic Reeves and his show Big Night Out, which alternates silly sketches and more serious items.
They play board games, frequently matching themselves at Mastermind. Daniel is clever at working out the combinations. He has kept the logical agility of his youth. Black and white key pegs for yellow, green and blue code pegs. There is a complexity and at the same time an inevitability in the trial-and-error approach and in the deduction which makes you think that one day, life will be as simple as the game. You just have to eliminate all the possibilities and have a bit of luck. Mastermind is an allegory of life: you make of it what you can. You reach your goal in one or two guesses, or miss your objective by a move or two. Everything comes down to that: getting there too soon or too late.
Daniel is the sort of guy who never arrives on time. It’s best not to expect him at a rendezvous. Alison and Daniel nevertheless fix thousands of them. She starts by waiting. Then she gets into the habit of guessing when he’ll arrive. She deliberately turns up late. It’s their little unconscious game. It’s obviously much easier to go out together and to leave at the same time so as to be sure of not missing each other.
The two of them go out a lot. There are concerts, of course, usually two or three a week. Alison and Daniel go to the Camden Falcon or the West Hampstead Club, the Laurel Tree or the Boston Arms, pubs and clubs which they frequent. They like to discover new bands and keep in tune with the vibrations of the audience when they first hear an up-and-coming band more talented than the others. Daniel would never lose this curiosity. After the concerts, they often finish the evening, although not systematically, with a few jars down at the pub. Daniel and Alison aren’t keen on parties and are more inclined to spend quiet evenings at a restaurant or in a bar, rather than haunt the night clubs. They have their good addresses: the Stockpot, the Brompton Troubadour, the New Piccadilly or the Honey For The Bears (one of the Television Personalities’ titles) in Acton. Their flat is at 37 East Vale on Second Avenue. They live there for two years before moving to Cambridge Court on Amhurst Road near Finsbury Park in the autumn of 1991. They eat Indian food, good or bad curry, or Mexican dishes in restaurants in Camden or Soho. In London you’re spoiled for choice. Daniel and Alison walk all day long when they are alone together. They like romantic strolls, psycho-geographical walks where you discover the hidden treasures of the town. They linger around in Ravenscroft Park, in cemeteries like Brompton or Old Highgate Cemetery, where Karl Marx and George Eliot are buried. They follow the banks of the Thames near Hammersmith Bridge and explore the East-End back streets between Whitechapel and Liverpool Street.
Daniel and Alison are real townies. Hand in hand, they scour the record shops, flea-markets and charity sales. They know the markets well, and rarely go out without coming across people they know. They never miss a pop-art exhibition and go to the La Scala cinema. Swinging London belongs to the past, but London still vibrates to the rhythm of pop and culture. Their world is full of friends and relations who work in the sphere of the press, music, art: failed intellectuals, booksellers, former or future members of the band. There’s Jowe Head of course, but also Ed Ball who is never far away. Alison avoids certain Television Personalities’ fans who gravitate around Daniel and share bad habits with him. Over time, Daniel has become used to not being successful, and to his position as an outsider, revered by “those in the know”. He can see the admiration in their eyes and takes a certain pride in it, which more often than not, he drowns in self-depreciation and alcohol. Between 1988 and 1995, Alison and Daniel’s life is more a romantic than a bohemian one. Money is short, but the couple live modestly and feed on culture. When they’re not going out, they eat a TV dinner off a tray. Daniel is now a vegetarian. He likes to joke and make love in the afternoon. He’s a shy man but he explores his lover’s body with the same serious attention as when he plays the guitar. Daniel is an intelligent man. He likes to stay in the background and do things discreetly, which is obviously a far cry from his exposed position as a singer. But his opinions are sound and often biting. He has a lively political awareness. He likes to support his friends, is generous and a brilliant imitator of singers or public figures.
In the strange life-cycle of the Television Personalities, everything isn’t hunky-dory in those years. The songs bear witness to the presence of spectres, of shadows that take possession of the singer and cloud his mind. But the darkness has ebbed, and love keeps it at bay. Alison and Daniel’s flat is like a sanctuary, a bulwark against doubt and evil. The exclusive relationship which he has with the young woman is what keeps him whole, keeps him together, prevents him from sinking and giving in to his self-destructive bent.
If someone loves you, it means that you are loveable, whatever you may think. We are all what others see in us. You don’t need to be a great philosopher to know that. Life is good, but not for long. These eight romantic years would be a storehouse of happy images, of memories and regrets for the years to come.
Any old record could be beautiful. Brazil ’66. The Frost. UFO. Orpheus. O.C. Smith. Tom Ghent. The Buckinghams. Renaissance. Johnny Rivers. Wishbone Ash. Danny O’Keefe. Melanie. Glass Harp. For a dollar or two, Steve Keene and his wife, Star, found the most amazing songs on cut-out bin albums. Breezy tunes with a creepy edge, heartfelt pop injected with dark hooks, equally joyful and awkward. The easy price and diamond-in-the-rough vibe mirrored the wide-eyed humor, sly depth, and openness of Steve’s art. Records like his paintings on the Threadwaxing Space walls, great stuff right there, cheap and within reach. We used to play Steve’s music at Threadwaxing shows, and I remember suddenly feeling like we were doing something right when a couple of kids came into the room one night while the Left Banke’s “And Suddenly” played over the PA. They were singing along in such a good mood, bouncing on their heels like the floor was made out of Jell-O. Getting a Brooklyn Lager from a keg for a dollar a cup, hundreds of bargain-basement paintings coating the walls in red glow as far down the impossibly long space as you could see. The room felt like it could go on forever, walls as full of color, motion and shadow as the crowd. The paintings not quite exact replicas of each other, hurried brushstrokes and comments across the images as if somehow the art was heckling itself. Or heckling the idea of prints, and somehow at the same time, of unique “pieces.” $1. $2. $5. $10. $20. Signs stapled to the walls: Art for Sale. Cheap!
To claim a painting, half the time you had to get a ladder, and (probably) drunkenly climb it in the middle of a dense crowd watching intense bands such as Shellac, Slant 6 or Boredoms. You’d balance there while writing your initials on a strip of masking tape, stick it on the painting, and then descend. We didn’t know enough at the time to fret over slip-and-fall lawsuits. We didn’t really know much of how to do anything. I’d worked at a magazine and a restaurant, knew Keene and a couple of the Pavement guys, and that they wanted to do a show together. I vaguely knew Tim, the owner of Threadwaxing, a long second-floor loft space on lower Broadway, so I called him up, and we just jumped into doing live shows one night in 1993, completely without a clue. We were always running out at the last minute to buy cups, fans, bags of ice. Late on soundchecks, behind on doors—a long line always snaked out the building, down past Broadway’s gated textile shops and around to Broome Street. Neglecting to introduce bands or introducing them when they didn’t want that, forgetting to put up the city-mandated “No Dancing” signs, overloading guest lists, running late on the run-of-show, our capacity always in mysterious flux. It was all part of the charm of the place, I’d try to tell myself. But Steve was on time from day one, there two days before a weekend of shows to begin his hard labor, double all-nighter installs (painstaking wiring in hooks to hundreds of freshly painted and sawed plywood, hanging them by the dozens on makeshift wires he’d stretched across the walls).
With the sudden success of the shows, the big crowds, the agents calling, the press coverage and MTV crews, things quickly felt precariously close to overwhelming. But Steve had a work ethic and self-assurance I took careful note of. And soon enough, I saw that behind Steve’s slapstick lines and slapdash surfaces was a rigor of theory, skill and a method of original process so atmospherically definable that all I had to do was book good shows and make sure there was plenty of beer and booze.
Fortuitously for booking shows, the early ’90s indie scene was finally beginning to get going in the city, gelling around record stores such as Kim’s Underground (soon to morph into Other Music) in Manhattan and Pier Platters in Hoboken, the Lower East Side bar Max Fish, college radio stations WFMU and WNYU, and venues such as Maxwell’s, the Knitting Factory and Irving Plaza. Art students in ski sweaters. Scrawny musicians in corduroys and T-shirts. Zine girls in pigtails. Pale, bearded dudes looking like they hadn’t crawled out of their rent-controlled apartments since 1978. Dame Darcy in her wicked witch shoes, white makeup and flowing black Victorian gear. The kid who dressed like a Don’t Look Back–era Dylan, complete with peg pants, dark Wayfarers, fuzzed-out hair and a kinetic bop to his stride. Leonardo Drew. Tinuviel. Rita Ackermann. Grasshopper. Jacqueline Humphries. Stewart Lupton. A lot of these artists and musicians coalesced at Threadwaxing.
Until then—outside of the Sonic Youth crowd—there hadn’t been much natural comingling between the downtown art and music worlds. Bands out of the New York art scene were categorically self-conscious and usually pretty bad, and there wasn’t any decent kind of local indie scene. A lot of aging rockers and art denizens had a pinched vibe, seemed “pickled” with coolness, as Steve liked to say, with a collector kind of possessiveness about who you were seen with, where you were seen, and when. Superficially and in conversation, art world people were pretty self-confident, while the indie kids didn’t take themselves so seriously. Steve bridged the worlds by being both those things, and by also being both instinctively enthusiastic and sharp-tongued. He was a relief with his alert cackle, oddly hunched amble, and anything-goes tuneage, with his hectic art-covered walls that gave Threadwaxing a loose, carnival-like atmosphere. Steve brought humor and accessibility to the scene, and these were an essential part of the community.
Community is a word that can sound kind of corny, but in the early ’90s there was a (necessary) cold standoffishness to living downtown—a lot of the Lower East Side was perpetually shitty, getting worse, and at night you had to know how to traverse certain patterns of blocks to avoid gun-toting dealers and agitated crack crazies. People seemed angrier back then, more alone, and there was often some kind of confrontational vibe in the air. I, for one, was never too psyched to be walking into some isolated bar full of hard stares and a jukebox’s brittle sounds of Helmet or Alterations. Community was needed, and suddenly there were all these indie bands coming through that crackled with new forms of delivery, who were somehow—like punk—needling the sacrosanct. Steve was able to frame them in a room with an equally bright kind of energy. His art aligned perfectly with the scene, was a focal point even, in both subject matter and method. Hard work not appearing to be hard work, a loose cleverness and warmth of judgment. There was a charm to the serious intent of the amateurism. Nobody was in any kind of hurry, to paraphrase Stephen Malkmus, and—taking another cue from punk—if you imitated a good sound well enough, had something to say or a certain way of dressing, you’d get your shot.
Steve was one of those artists, like Chris Johanson, whose work has the illusion of self-taught naivete. At a cursory first glance you’d think, Oh, I could maybe do that… Which, of course, was not true. But I remember the thousands of people going through Threadwaxing in those years staring at the incredibly vast array of images, and how it might have stoked belief in the possibility of their own attempts. The scene was good that way. It was fine to try. This guy was flinging it out there. Why shouldn’t I? And you could. You’d get an airing, a listen or a look. I mean, most of the people who worked at Threadwaxing were either artists or had bands. I’d just throw their band on one of the opening slots. A practitioner of junkie boogie schtick, a reedy and hesitant singer-songwriter, a Mudhoney-style grunger, it didn’t matter. Some were okay, but even if a band wasn’t good, their friends would come and watch and have a good time, and the set would be fine. James Murphy was our soundguy, and had a band named Pony. Sure, you can open for Railroad Jerk, or whoever it was. Why not? He worked hard, did a good job. Help your friends. Trust people a bit to get on with what they are doing. Give them time to find their way to LCD Soundsystem. The trust and tolerance in the scene, at least early on, was partly a reaction to all the sleaze and fuckery in both the art world and the music biz, and it was exemplified by Steve’s honor system. He’d bring a couple giant, brightly painted plywood boxes and you’d shove one or two or five or ten bucks into the slot at the top of the box when you’d take your painting off the wall.
But all this trust, this polite patience, could also be a problem. I remember the guy from Bitch Magnet complaining about how so many indie bands couldn’t play anything even remotely capably on stage, and what did they think they were doing, putting people through that shit? He got a lot of blowback, but he was right in some ways. There was way too much grating amateurism to endure. Also, the early indie scene was rife with preciously intense fans, and certain shows had a hushed, serious vibe verging on cultish. Reference points could be ridiculously studied. God help you if you looked too preppy or too fashionable or wore a Lemonheads T-shirt to a Bratmobile or Royal Trux show. When Royal Trux signed to Virgin Records, they supposedly bought a purple Jaguar and cruised up and down Avenue A. This was considered pretty cool. This reaction was unusual. Success, money even, was distrusted. Most bands going to majors, their rep dropped a peg. Indie bands at the time didn’t believe in the established methods of a career path and—initially at least, avoided music-biz marketing characterization or the temporary attentions of major labels. Just like those bands, Steve was looking for another way. He seemed to distrust success—or, more particularly, the success of art world acceptance. Threadwaxing was a different kind of opening.
Everything was the process, a system lived night and day, and there were almost no exceptions. At one of the early Threadwaxing shows, Steve came out with the first series of United States presidents. They looked great, popping off the walls. I went up to him while he was hanging. “Wow, Steve, those are amazing. Can I put my name on one of the James Garfields before doors?” “You have to wait,” he said, shaking his head and frowning disapprovingly. No insider access. No exclusivity. Which was okay, I respected this attitude. At doors, I was immediately busy running around doing whatever, and by the time I turned around the presidents had all been claimed. I was pissed, but then felt bad about the instinct to possess. It was the kind of thing Steve hated. (And in a way, he was much more responsible for the shows than I was.)
Later that year, he sent me a painting as a Christmas card. Really nicely done with care. Chinese food cartons and a plate and chopsticks. “Chinese Takeout. Merry Christmas from Star and Steve.” I had it up in my Bleecker Street apartment for years until some skater kid friend of a friend stole it along with a bunch of records. Skater kids steal with such ease. There was a skate shop on Lafayette a couple blocks away from my apartment. One time after the painting had disappeared, I went in there to look at shoes. They used to play a lot of Beatles and Scott Joplin (pretty contrary taste for what you’d assume their clientele was into), and Magical Mystery Tour was going around on the turntable. The cover was propped up, and I looked at the faded discount sticker across the mustard yellow and realized it was my record. I was pretty sure the Chinese takeout painting was back there behind the closed office door but Steve’s paintings were always winding their way into random places. This was crucial to him. He loved hearing about the strange locations his paintings would pop up in; someone’s grandmother’s apartment in San Antonio, Dennis Hopper’s L.A. bathroom, on the wall of a bail bonds place in Queens. “Wow, that’s so amazing, that’s so great,” he’d respond with genuine glow. His cheerful feeling of randomness, you see it all in the humor and demystification in his images. An old-school classical view of Venice with “Heavy Dub” written along the bottom. A tossed-off Here Come the Warm Jets or some other fetishized album, where he wouldn’t even bother to write the entire record title. Or Made in the Shade, with Mick and Keith as stick figures with yellow blobs for heads. It was still somehow obvious he loved these records, even though the plywood he used would often warp and paintings would balloon out and wind up un-hangable. Essential demise: probably just another part of Steve’s intent. Like the better indie rock back then, he always had such an ease in his ability to demystify things. And while his work ethic was completely methodical, there was something to the whole ethos of randomness he loved, and that exists not only in the surface of his painting, but deep in his core philosophy. Whether it’s an unpainted plywood edge, dots of unrelated color, a crimped word or a slightly off-kilter hook so you can’t ever hang the painting evenly, there are flaws right there contentedly in plain view. Like the city back then, like the way we ran things at Threadwaxing.
At the end of any given night, the Threadwaxing walls would be pretty ragged and bare, most of the crowd heading out the door and down the steps with a painting or two under their arm. The floor would be strewn with red plastic cups, sticky bits of masking tape, and torn ticket stubs. Clouds of weed smoke evaporating in the air with the sweat, the bands hanging around having a drink before load-out. Steve, wired and tired, drinking beer and chatting to lingerers, but looking around with a mixture of contentment and anxiousness, ready to get going dismantling. When we’d finally clear everybody and lock the front entrance, Steve would take the big plywood box, pry off the top, and dump all the money out. Hundreds of bills swirling in the air, floating to the floor as Star and Steve sat down to begin counting. Mostly all one-dollar bills, but at that moment it seemed like a fortune.
Sam Brumbaugh is a D.C.-based novelist (Goodbye, Goodness) who has written for Open City, Chickfactor, The Minus Times and Vice. He coproduced the documentary Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt. He is a music producer and programmer who booked shows in NYC in the ’90s, and has worked for the Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
All photos and flyers courtesy Threadwaxing Space except where noted.
This is an excerpt from The Steve Keene Art Book (Copyright 2022 Daniel Efram, All rights reserved). Order a copy of the book here. Follow the artist Steve Keene, book producer Dan Efram and Hat & Beard on instagram. The book was designed by Henry Owings from Chunklet. Conflict-of-interest alert: The Steve Keene Art Book was edited by CF’s Gail O’Hara.
HARD + FAST, a collection of Melanie Nissen’s photographs from the period 1977-1980 in Los Angeles as punk was forming, is the book my OG LA punk friends and I have always wanted to exist. We all knew that we were living in a special time when you could see culture and society changing, and we couldn’t wait to document it ourselves. It was an era rich with samizdat—independently published zines about our scene, shown and told in our own words and pictures. Mainstream media were not covering the epochal change in pop music, art, and fashion, save for the occasional “look at this crazy new teen fad” filler on tv or in print. ¶ Our subculture took it upon themselves to document our own lives, much like a high-school yearbook does. Melanie, together with her then-partner, Steve Samiof, created SLASH, an era and genre-defining magazine with such an imprimatur that it organically grew into an avatar branding first wave punk. Melanie’s book of photographs overflows with the love and friendships that we LA punks shared, and yearbook/time capsule references to this important documentation is a recurring Proustian theme in this 2022 chat between two zine photographers. Intro and interview by Theresa Kereakes (who was also documenting the scene back then) / Photographs by Melanie Nissen
REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST CF: A lot of the things that I like about the book have nothing to do with punk rock, but everything to do with presenting a chapter of our lives that we lived at the same time. There are buildings that you photographed that are no longer there. Melanie Nissen: I have to say that’s what the book has become for me. I look at it the same way. It’s become documentary to me. You don’t see people on the street selling LA Times newspapers anymore [p 98, with Tommy Gear/Screamers]. You don’t see people on phone booths anymore in Hollywood [p 108/Tomata duPlenty/Screamers]. You don’t see old pool halls where you could just go into, or old eating places that were on the street, and old bars that existed that don’t exist anymore. For me, it’s like a time capsule. I think I really appreciate it on that level. And I’m really sentimental about it on that level, because I felt the same way that you did. You just don’t see this stuff anymore. CF: It’s like a yearbook. Melanie: Exactly. That’s how I feel about it now. I can look at the photos and it’s so funny, and you’ll probably relate to this—I can feel when I took that picture. I remember. I remember where I was. I remember how I felt. I remember taking the photo. I remember everybody’s face. I had a hard time with everybody’s name for the book, but I never forgot their faces. Ever. Everybody was, I think, really open to me taking photos and I really appreciate it.
ART FOR ART’S SAKE CF: Did you know when you were in the midst of it, that punk was going to be the transformative movement that it became? Melanie: Not at all. It was a very unusual time. It was like this big art group that all decided to pitch in and work together. It wasn’t really about anything else except the music. It was very unique that way. It’s so seldom that you get to have freedom in art, and that’s what it was to us—to show anything we wanted, say anything we wanted in the magazine. That’s a luxury in art. Those opportunities don’t come around a lot when there really aren’t any politics there, there’s nothing, money’s not involved, it becomes just a real art project. But no, I didn’t know at the time. I didn’t even take very good care of my negatives to be really honest with you. CF: I’ve talked to a couple of other people from the scene who just really put this stuff in the garage and it’s like, “Well, this is my stuff from the ’70s.” Melanie: That’s what it was. Except unfortunately, I had three really bad floods in garages. CF: So have I. Melanie: Did you, too? CF: Yes. I lost a lot of stuff in Hurricane Sandy. I moved to New York in the ’80s. Melanie: Yikes. CF: I was really devastated then I heard an interview with Laurie Anderson on NPR, where she was talking about the album she recorded with the Kronos Quartet, called Landfall, which was about everything that happened in Hurricane Sandy. And she had lost basically, her entire professional life: staging, work, all of her props and a lot of notes and stuff. Melanie: Oh, God. CF: But her voice was so calm. And I thought, “Well, if Laurie Anderson can get past this, then I can.” Melanie: Well, I did too. But at the time, it’s like you think, “Oh, what a bummer.” Then you just get over it and I think, “Well, that’s it.” Because I didn’t even really know if I would be using my photos again. Do you know what I mean? They were in bags. I didn’t really know I would be actively using them. I didn’t want them to get ruined and it was disappointing when I looked at them, but it’s like, okay, well, so this is what I have left. You move on.
CF: Right. In the spirit of that, is it astonishing for you to see the legacy and the influence of Slash, just from the graphic style to the writing style? Melanie: It is. Steve Samiof was my partner at the time and we started it together. I think the very first issue, I really think it was the consciousness that we’re going to do a one-off art magazine. I really didn’t think we thought we would do more issues. I don’t know if we really thought it would go further than that. So it was a big surprise. We had read all about all the punk stuff happening in London and we were fascinated, because there wasn’t much of it here yet. So we went to record stores and bought every single we could possibly buy, and had to come home and listen to everything over and over. ¶ It’s like we both fell in love with the music, with everything about it. Everything about it was appealing; the fashion, the politics, everything. But did I think it was going to go on and on? No, I didn’t. CF: Yeah. We were just not like other people and we didn’t fit in anywhere, but we all fit in with each other. Melanie: Well, it’s funny. I have to say, everybody asks “Oh, what was it like?” And really, everybody for those three years that I worked with, was on the same wavelength. Everybody was generous with their work. Everybody helped everybody else. Every band helped each other. Everybody gave free work away for the bands to use. CF: I read a quote of you saying, “The first three years were magic, but by 1980, Orange County bands started taking the scene in a direction I didn’t love.” I related to that so much because I felt the same way. I don’t know if you doom-scroll Wikipedia, but the entry for Slash in Wikipedia, have you read it? Melanie: No. CF: It’s like a paragraph, but it conjectures that Slash just stopped because punk was considered dead anyway. But I relate to your quote, “the bands started taking the scene in a direction I didn’t love.” That makes sense to me. Melanie: Yeah. I also didn’t know them. I really didn’t know who they were. I can’t think that I have photographed a lot of them. It’s like I had spent three years with the same bands and all the beginning bands. It’s like it becomes a weird family in a weird way. Nobody cared about me with my camera. Everybody was used to seeing it. We would do photo sessions on the street. We’d never get permits or anything like that. It was very spontaneous. I don’t know. I just think after three years, all my favorite bands were going away. They weren’t really playing anymore. They all were off in different directions. ¶ Then you had the Orange County stuff, and I just didn’t know it. I just thought it was time to move on. I had been in it a lot and it was just time to do something else for me. CF: Do you agree with this: Slash as a magazine is a finite set, it’s like it’s a box set of LA punk rock being born, it’s almost like you inadvertently created LA punk. So, your book is its title. It’s just 1977 to 1980. Hard and Fast, in and out. This is a box set of that period. Melanie: Yes. CF: Did you intend to do it, or did you set the book up that way because that’s what you had? Melanie: I only was in it for those three years, so that’s really all I have to talk about. I don’t have anything to really say about punk. Your life moves in a different direction sometimes, and that’s what mine did. I had a full-time job.
CF: I was just going to ask you that. Did you and Steve and everyone else for the core of Slash, did you keep your day jobs? Melanie: Well, I had to. Steve’s day job was Slash, which it needed to be, because it needed one really strong leader that was there every minute. And he was that person. I worked full-time and I have a daughter. It was a lot. I used to go in the dark room and print all my own prints on the weekend. Yeah. It was a lot of work. CF: You bring back all these memories for me, flipping through your book; that image of the envelope from Richard’s Photo Lab [p 217] ! Melanie: I know. Do you love that? CF: I love that because I have boxes full of the same thing. Melanie: It’s like everything was at Richard’s in the beginning. It was all at Richard’s. He’d develop it, and then I had access to a really great darkroom, which I was lucky enough to get on the weekends. So I’d have Richard develop it and then I would go print it. But that is funny, Richard. That’s where you went. CF: One thing I really appreciate about your book that I haven’t seen in too many other punk photo books is that you’ve included Black Randy [p 62], The Screamers [pp 18-31], and The Kipper Kids [pp 112-113]. The Screamers were just so unique. And Tomata, before The Screamers, had quite a track record as a performer. Melanie: Yeah. Yeah. How good was he to photograph? CF: He was a living art project, right? Melanie: He had the best body language and the best space and the best tattoo. I could have just looked at him forever. I could have photographed him forever. Luckily, a lot of that stuff of him didn’t get wrecked, and I’m so glad I have so much of that early stuff. He was really great to work with. ¶ And Black Randy was such an underground star in the scene. He got up and performed in his underwear and a cowboy hat. It’s like, who are you? Then I became one of his backup go-go dancers at one of his live shows with Belinda from the Go-Go’s, Alice Bag from The Bags, Connie. And myself. We all had wigs on and all this makeup somebody did for us and we had dashikis on. We were his backup dancers. ¶ Black Randy was in our bed while Steve and I were designing the magazine in our bedroom. He just got in bed and just talked to us. He was so weird. CF: That’s this unique thing that only other people who were in that scene would understand. If you tried to tell someone Darby Crash was in your dorm, it’s like, well, they don’t understand. He was just a guy who I knew. And I had a TV and he didn’t. It was just that. Melanie: I thought he had a very sweet side to him. Am I right or wrong? CF: Yes, and I just thought he was really smart. Melanie: I thought he was smart and I thought he was always … I don’t know. I thought he seemed like a really kind person to me.¶ Yeah. Everybody asks, “Oh, and what about Darby Crash? What was that like?” And I’m thinking he was really nice.
CF: You could tell that you were friends in the pictures of him and Pat and Lorna. There’s not a menacing glance. And the young Don Bolles, he looks like a little angel. [pp 12-17] Melanie: I know. I know. I know. No, they’re pretty raw photos. It’s very more documentary than I thought it would be. CF: Is that what got you the most? Is that when you went back 40 years later and you thought “this is a documentary”? Melanie: Yeah. I thought it was a time capsule. I thought here is this one unique period of time in my life and everybody else’s life that was involved in that. And I’ll probably never see it again. This is not going to happen again. And there was that part of me that realized that part, that this was something very unique and wasn’t ordinary. I really appreciate it from that point of view. It was really fun and interesting and creative. ¶ The one thing that I find really interesting, is that it’s true, punk never dies. It never dies. It reincarnates itself. You see it in young bands. You see it in fashion. You see it in hair. You see it in jewelry. You see it in everything. Right now, it’s like hot pink and hot green DAYGLO, and black are the colors of the season. Well, that was punk. Those were the punk colors. And every once in a while, you see photos of chokers with big spikes on them, and then you have Marc Jacobs who’s looking at all the punk stuff. It just gets created over and over and over again, and I don’t really think that time’s ever going to go away, musically or fashion. It’s like Vivienne Westwood. She’s still making clothes. ¶ There’s a little band, a little punk band that was out there… Fidlar. I don’t know if you know them. They’re really good. They remind me a little of The Ramones. They were a very fun little band. You could just see it. And they knew all the people from the punk things. They’re really and they were totally into Slash. And I think, “Wow.” CF: I’m glad to hear things like this, and like you publishing the punk rock yearbook, time capsule. And it brings everyone back together to say hello and wow, wasn’t that something? Melanie: Well, and this is it for me. You know what I mean? I don’t have anymore. I don’t have a lot of punk to show anybody anymore. This is what’s left, or what I have. CF: You know what? It’s still definitive. It’s the foundational visuals of LA punk rock. It really is. Melanie: I don’t know. I hope that people get to see themselves in the book because it’ll be so fun for them.
CF: I think that they will, people will bring it up to them. They’re going to get a call from someone like, “Oh, my God, you’re in this book!”
DIY Melanie: If I never have to go through another box again, I’ll be really happy. I’ll tell you, the hardest part of this whole project was just digging stuff out and editing. It was really, really hard. And getting stuff scanned. Nothing was scanned, at all. ¶ I wound up too, and I hope it’s not boring for people, I put a lot of fan photos in there, fans and people that hung out. They’re not stars or anything. CF: I was so excited when I saw Cheri the Penguin [p 85] ! Melanie: I know. This was so part of the scene that I documented. It wasn’t just the bands. There hardly was anybody that I didn’t take photos of. And I thought, “Well, I’m going to put them in the book, even though nobody is probably going to know who they were unless you were there.” ¶ And is that going to appeal to people? Because basically, a lot of younger people would just be looking at strange people they don’t know. So I was a little concerned about that, but it’s like, how can you do the scene if you don’t do the people in the scene? CF: It’s like you just said earlier. It’s a documentary. It’s how people dressed. Melanie: Yes. CF: What’s so great is that everybody had their own unique style. It wasn’t like they could go to a Hot Topic and say, “I would like the punk uniform for Saturday night.” Melanie: Yeah. But you know what was great? They all made their own outfits. It’s like they had to plan. They had to make something. That was half the fun of looking at everybody, is to see what they came up with and what they created. It was really interesting, and everybody really made an effort for the most part. CF: Yes. Do you think that has anything to do with because it was the analog era? You literally couldn’t phone it in. You had to make a commitment. Melanie: Yeah. You did. There was nothing technical at all, right? CF: Right, there wasn’t. I was envious of people who had motor-driven cameras. Melanie: Yeah. And I was so happy to have access to a darkroom. I thought that was the height of luxury because there was nothing like being in the darkroom and seeing that image first come up. It’s so exciting, whether the photo is good or bad or whatever. It’s just thrilling. CF: The smell of the chemicals. Melanie: Yeah, which people don’t even use anymore. That’s why they really don’t want to develop black and white, because you have to get rid of those chemicals in a certain way now. CF: Oh no, I know. But it’s just they’re gorgeous. And I like the way you printed your photos with the carved out negative carriers. You could see the edges. Melanie: That was fun. I didn’t do that with everything, but I don’t know. I think for me at my age now and everything and from what I have left, this is like doing the last issue of Slash for me. Do you know what I mean? CF: Well, what is the future? What do you want to do? What would you like to do? Melanie: I don’t know. Well, I still take photos. Not a lot of people anymore, but I do a lot of abstracts and landscapes and all that kind of stuff. It’s different now. There are still artists that I work with because I went into the music business for the rest of my career and life. So I always wound up working with musicians, forever, which I felt really well-suited for after Slash. And that I get it and I get them, and they get me.
CF: How did the book come into being, finally? Melanie: I have a friend who designed the book. His name is Mike Lohr. We have been friends for like 20 years, and we have a wonderful friendship and rapport. When we thought about doing this book and was asked to do the book, I said, “There’s only one person who I’ll do this with. And it’s Mike, because he’s such a beautiful designer.” ¶ We did a series of weird punk T-shirts at one point and tote bags. We never did anything big. It was all little and nothing ever made any money, but we liked working together. So when this book came along, we had a chance to do a book together. ¶ Half of the project was that for me, that I got to work with Mike. And we worked together for almost, I don’t know, three, four years on it because he has a full-time job as an art director. We were limited to maybe two weekends a month, one weekend a month, so it took a long time. But I was so happy I got to work with him. It’s like our culmination together, and it’s really nice.
PARTING GIFT Melanie: I’ll tell you one thing that I had to learn that was very interesting for me. I had never shot concerts before. I had never shot music, and I had to learn how to shoot the bands live. I had to learn how to get up front, no matter what was happening or who was shoving who or pushing who. I was very fast. I shoot very fast, and I think you have to if you’re shooting live. I don’t know how else you get it, really. It was really a great challenge for me to have to do something new like that, and learn something new like that, and practice. I got better as time went on, but it’s something that I really valued that I thought, Oh, I have a split second to take a photo up here. Everybody’s shoving me and I have to do this. I have to get a good photo. I have to get something. And I loved learning that. That was a very good learning experience for me. CF: I think it’s all in the learning. Melanie: It is. Everything.
I carried a gun in college (a staple gun, silly!) and I made fliers for everything from my radio show to newspaper meetings and I made collages for fun. We even folded, collated and stapled chickfactor zine during the first few years. Before the internet, you had to use whatever you could find to make fliers: old magazines and newspapers, magic markers and Letraset, paper, staples, gluesticks, clip art. The art of the flier is long lost though we do have a culture that has taken band show posters to a high level. Henry Owings, editor of Chunklet zine, who also makes lots of other stuff, has made a new book called Plus 1 Athens: Show Fliers from a Legendary Scene that collects loads of fliers and ephemera and memories. We asked him a few Qs… (interview by gail / images courtesy Henry/Chunklet)
What time period did you live in Athens? How long have you lived in Atlanta? Where else have you lived? I moved to Athens in the fall of 1991 after a lifetime of being the new guy everywhere I lived. Before I moved to Athens, I was born out on the Maryland coast, then lived there, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Texas, Colorado and Alabama until my mom left my dad and we moved back to her hometown of York, Pennsylvania. I went to college there, then grad school in Pittsburgh, moved to Athens after I graduated. I lived in Athens from 1991 until (vaguely) 1997. I was on tour a lot towards the end. Shortly thereafter, I moved to Atlanta and have been here ever since. How many fliers did you consider for publication in the Athens book? Oh god. I can only say that I currently am holding onto 13,000+ flyers that are primarily from Georgia. As far as how many were specifically from Athens? If I were to guess, it would be a few thousand. How do you even begin the process of selection? I kinda wanted to hit everything, so I just took a lot of mental notes. Clubs, bands. I wanted to make sure everybody of some note were mentioned. I know I missed some bands, but whatever. I did my absolute best.
When did you get the idea for the book and how long did it take? So during the pandemic, which fittingly coincided with my divorce, I decided to try new things. Or perhaps just flex muscles I never flexed before. One of those activities I pursued in earnest was painting my house. Influenced by my dear pal Will Hart from the Olivia Tremor Control and cubist art of the early 20th century, I decided to paint my house. And I had a lot of fun. Like, a LOT of fun. ¶ At some point (May 2021 to be specific), I asked the folks at club called 529 at the end of the street if I could do a painting on the outside of the building. They politely declined, but they offered me the dressing room. Now, anybody that’s been in a backstage dressing room can tell you, it’s covered in more dicks and shitty graffiti than you could imagine, but I thought it would be cool to make a color study in the green room out of old Georgia flyers. ¶ While I was going through flyers I had found on line and was doctoring so they would print correctly, a little voice in my head said “Hey, somebody should do a book of these.” And well, the rest kind of happened quickly. ¶ I tend not to dawdle, and also I just have a lot of friends who opened their collections to me, and it just kinda took off from there. ¶ So yeah, time line hasn’t even been a year yet. ¶ I used to make fliers in college and walk around with a staple gun. Our tools were clip art, collage scraps, magic markers, etc. What are some of the weirdest show fliers you came across in this process? ¶ Oh god, my favorites are always risographs which are early color copies. They’re almost like their own genre of flyers. So beautiful. ¶ I think my favorite flyers have been the most ephemeral. I have a flyer for Athens band Melted Men where it’s written on a cocktail napkin.
You say in the book kiosks were the way people found out what was going on in Athens. Describe how that felt compared with the way we discover shows now. I dunno. I can only speak for myself which is I was, am and will always be a guy that relies on word of mouth. Flyers are fun to do and after Tr*mp won the White House, I mostly stayed off Facebook. I’ve edged back into it exclusively for this project, but yeah, I find most sources of “internet journalism” quite dubious, but then again, so were most magazines back in the 1980s. Tell us about watching the Athens documentary in 1987. I also remember being blown away by the Bar-B-Q Killers when I saw it. What kind of impact did the doc have on you? Athens GA Inside/Out had a profound effect on me. At the time I first saw it, I was living in York, PA, with no friends and just lurking at the local college radio station and just diving into music with all vigor. The scene in Athens just spoke to me. I don’t know how else to put it. The BBQ Killers were the punch in the neck that made me go “I need to move there.” Within a couple years, I had an Athens mailing address. Funny how that stuff works.
I lived in Richmond in the ’80s and it seemed like the SE indie scene had a big LGBTQ element to it (Now Explosion, B52s, etc.). What is the music scene in Athens like now and is that still the case? God, can I just take a second to say that Pen Rollings is probably the coolest queer in Richmond? He and I have been pals for a long time and when I published an interview with him in Chunklet about 20 years ago, it just showed me how silly the fuss over sex/gender politics have become. ¶ As far as the queer scene in Georgia goes, in a word, it’s “fertile.” I love it. Then again, I’m a heteronormative male, so consider the source, am I right? ¶ As far as the contemporary scene goes, I don’t feel like I’m an authority on the subject, but I do love that whoever you want to kiss or fall in love is no more important than the color of your eyes. Life is to live. I love to be in a community where everybody is allowed to just be who they are. Hard stop. Were there particular flier makers or bands that excelled at this art form? Like Ron Liberti in the Triangle, kind of like a signature person behind many? Man, that’s a tricky question to answer succinctly, but I’ll try. I’m cursed with being a designer, so of course I look at the general information hierarchy of a flyer, but I am also very infatuated with Dada and outsider art. If a flyer is good, it’s good. If a flyer sucks, it sucks. I fancy myself a lower case “c” collector of records, and that has afforded me an ability to size up a band or flyer based on their work. ¶ As far as proper designers go, I really tried to avoid using their work as it really fell outside of what was attractive to me. Not a single designer’s work is used seen more than three times in the entire book. That was a challenge, but also an opportunity to show even that much more instead of keeping things somewhat monochromatic. Are there shows or exhibitions that go along with this book? I’d love to, but nobody has asked! Is it true there is another one on the way about Atlanta? How is that progressing? Dude, it’s in proofing! Goes to print next week! Cranking out two books in five months. That’s not too bad.
There are some libraries around the country, such as DCPL, that really take good care of music history, using it in a way that the public can interact with it. What is your goal with these documents, not that you own them? Y’see, I don’t know the answer to that question, but I can say definitively that my goal is to have all of this material live eternally. I’ve been in touch with GSU, Emory and UGA about migrating the assets I’ve already scanned. My biggest aversion is that of bureaucracy and Zoom meetings. I just want to do the work. If some grad student wants everything I’ve digitized to make a database or whatever? By all means! I just am finding that to be brass tacks stuff. What are some fliers that you personally own and are prize possessions? God, before this project I had few. Seriously. However, there’s some people that have been unbelievably generous and given me just gem after gem. The stuff I am most attracted to isn’t the big names, but those that I just love. For instance, Athens band Limbo District’s flyers are my favorite and I think I own one! And I cherish it! I have so many folders of this stuff, but my goal for all of this is to have it in museums. Not today, but eventually. Is that your daughter listed as an editor of the book? How did you involve her in the whole process? God damn right! Look, I did Chunklet. I can say anybody is involved. Shit, I am doing this to have fun, and my 10-year-old daughter has been a good sport so yeah, I’m giving her an associate editor credit. Although she doesn’t do much except put books in padded envelopes, I do love involving her in my life.
What’s your favorite Athens band from 1992 and now? From 1992? Oh god, that would be Harvey Milk. Maybe the JackONuts. Synthetic Flying Machine (which became Neutral Milk Hotel and the Olivia Tremor Control) didn’t figure into my life until 1993, but they’re another top favorite. ¶ From now? God, tough question. So many to choose from. I’m an enormous fan of Linqua Franqa. She’s like the MC5, but a one-person badass. How long has/was Chunklet been around? Chunklet started in 1993. Modestly. And it crept forward until issue 20. Cranked out some books. Kept doing stuff under the Chunklet moniker out of laziness. And so here we are 29 years later and yeah, I’ve put out over 100 records, 20 issues of a magazine, four books, several DVDs, probably put on 1000 shows. What was the question again? What’s going on with your label? I really don’t know. It’s just a hobby that just keeps going forward. I just haven’t met many people who have told me “no” when I ask if I can put out a record with them. I’m like a kid in a candy store.
Are you a trained designer or self-taught? Never took a single class. Entirely self-taught. How did the internet help you make the book? I used the internet (and social media specifically) exclusively as a tool. Finding people with the material is the biggest challenge and those people are usually one degree of separation away from somebody on Facebook or whatever. I just fucking loathe looking at Facebook as the final resting place for any of this stuff. Fuck that. I just have been using it to find people. That’s it. Where can we get the book? Either the Chunklet website or my bandcamp site. A few stores carry it, but the vast majority of the 500 copies of Plus 1 Athens’s first printing were sold direct to customers. Any other books you’d like to mention you’re working on? Or future plans? I think the Atlanta book is it. As you’ve become aware of over the past year, I’m a designer of the impending Steve Keene Art Book we both worked on. I’m quite delighted with it. But then again, I’m a working designer. And I work! ¶ As far as future plans…..a lot has kind of been popping up. I’m going to do a book of Georgia flyers once the Atlanta book is done only because I have so goddamned many, and all these podunk towns have one or two flyers and I think it a beautiful love letter to the state I call home. ¶ Otherwise, I’ve been in the preliminary stages of doing similar books on Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Both are cities near and dear to my heart. I’ve also been doing some work on a similar book on Alabama because again, it’s very near and dear to me. Cut me some slack, I started this eight months ago! It’s a work in progress! CF
Excavate! The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall Edited by Tessa Norton & Bob Stanley (Faber Books)
The Fall were the first so-called ‘indie’ band I ever liked. I would love to be able to say that I came across them on John Peel or on a cool mixtape. In fact, it is on Top of the Pops, or more likely its rival, The Chart Show, that I catch the video for “There’s a Ghost in My House”, first encountering the Mark E. Smith sneer as he dodges china hurled at him by Brix, playing the eponymous grinning sprite. This isn’t early Fall of course, although perhaps that’s relative, given that the band still has more than thirty prolific years ahead of it. But in April 1987, the pop sensibility that Smith’s Californian wife has brought to the band’s abrasive sound is paying dividends. The Fall have never sounded more conventional, but they are still like nothing I have come across before.
“There’s a Ghost in My House” doesn’t feature prominently in Excavate!, Tessa Norton and Bob Stanley’s engrossing new collection of writing and ephemera on The Fall. In fact, the editors have little interest in providing a comprehensive account of the band’s long and turbulent history at all. Instead, with an approach more philosophical than biographical, each contributor to the text comes at the band according to their own interests and expertise, less interested in what the band did than at getting to the heart of who they were. Architectural historian Elain Harwood introduces us to Mark E. Smith the psycho-geographer via a tour of Prestwich, the North Manchester town where Smith lived all his life. Designer Paul Wilson explores the Northern Working Men’s Clubs in which the band played their early shows and ponders the influence that these venues may have exerted on their text heavy artwork. Bob Stanley, whose own band happens to be named after a football team, uses the football leagues as an avenue to discuss The Fall as amateurs (and, circa “TaGiMH,” as professionals).
A real pleasure of the book, one that speaks to the care of its editors, is how the varied contributions combine to unfold as a cohesive and satisfying whole. Occasionally the book format provides an avenue for writers to interact directly. Michael Bracewell & Jon Wilde’s essay on Mark E. Smith and Stuart Bertolotti-Bailey’s on Vorticist co-founder Wyndham Lewis playfully mirror one another. Continuing on the subject of Smith’s literary influences, a reprint of the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher’s Memorex for the Kraken considers the group’s early output alongside modernist and horror literature. Fisher’s essay quotes Mark Sinker repeatedly, and the latter writer here continues the conversation, responding to Fisher with a new essay of his own. Through these and other entries, we are guided from Smith, voracious reader and autodidact, to the group as an education in its own right. Tessa Norton considers The Fall as a curriculum, situated within a lineage of artist-led alternative educational establishments that include the Black Mountain College and Joseph Beuys’ Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research.
Of course, The Fall’s outsider status is never in doubt. There is Mark E. Smith the personality, who disliked the company of musicians socially and kept them on a tight rein within his band, who at the height of Madchester famously claimed Salford as his home, while decamping to Edinburgh until the fuss died down. Then we have Smith the visionary, who “when the Fall began,” quotes Ian Penman “was picking up the past and the future on different frequencies to everybody else.” And no one else ever quite matched their wavelength. In the essay most concerned with the Fall’s influence, Adelle Stripe doesn’t discuss Pavement or Prolapse, instead focusing on a mixed-media art project. For his part, Mark Fisher locates a shared essence between The Fall and the black comedy series League of Gentlemen in their predilection for “grotesque humour.”
A second form of excavation bookends each of the essays. A cornucopia of Fall ephemera has been unearthed for the book, all drawn from the collections of fans. There are posters, press releases and fan communiques, song lyrics and notes on album track listings (“From the book, don’t read it,” Smith comments on Dice Man, a useful reminder not to read all inspiration as endorsement, especially from a writer so fond of the third person). The concert program for The Fall’s ballet collaboration with Michael Clark is included, as is an excerpt from Mark E. Smith’s original script for his play, Hey! Luciani. This is not written on beer mats, as sometimes rumored, although a scrawled-on beer mat is found elsewhere. It has all been lovingly cared for and is beautifully reproduced, along with the artwork for all thirty-one of the band’s studio albums. There is ample material here to reward the serious fan’s careful attention, but its handsome presentation within this hardcover edition also makes the book ripe for the coffee table, a designation that might have prompted some wry amusement from its subject matter.
I never had a big breakup with The Fall. I considered them my favorite group for a few years, and I always considered myself a fan. They were the first band that I ventured to see twice in a single week. One show was thrilling, the second a chaotic mess, the difference itself feeling very much in keeping with this group. At some point in the mid-nineties my attention began to falter, I still had my old records, but I barely noticed as new albums arrived. Inevitably, reading Excavate! has encouraged new excavations of my own, discovering Fall songs that I’ve missed, and breathing fresh connections into old favorites. “There’s a Ghost in My House”: An entwining of Smith’s embrace of Arthur Machen and America music, a Motown cover from a band whose signing to a Motown subsidiary was scuppered by a regrettable lyric in the 1982 song “The Classical.” A music book like none I’ve encountered before, Norton and Stanley have assembled a fine tribute to one of British culture’s most idiosyncratic voices. Excavate-ah!
We’ve been big fans of Pete Paphides since the 1990s when both of us worked for the Time Out media family. One year ago today he published a memoir called Broken Greek — a warm, funny, relatable and charming tale. It captures the thrill of discovery for a young record shopper, the brutality and wonder of childhood, the split identity people from two different cultures often feel, and the euphoria of great pop songs in general. If you haven’t read it, now would be a good time to burrow back in time to Birmingham 1982, where Pete fumbled his way into adulthood to a mighty mighty soundtrack. We caught up with him again(!) to chat about the book. (You can also follow him on Twitter and listen to his Soho Radio show)
chickfactor: so how did it feel to put yourself out there? pete paphides: it didn’t really feel like that. First of all, I started writing the book without knowing if I would finish it. Secondly, when I finished it, I had no idea if it would find a publisher. And then, when we found a publisher, I didn’t know if anyone would want to buy it. So those are three pretty big provisos! The amount of green lights required for me to get to a position where I’m “putting myself out there” was quite a lot. It was only when the book was finally out and I read the reviews that I realised what I’d done was quite exposing. But by then, it was too late. And because the reviews were nice, that softened the impact. The worst thing would be to reveal something personal about your life and for total strangers to say, “This has no real value”… that would have been a bit embarrassing.
Tell us about the process – how long it took to write, were your editors heavy or light, any sort of details about where you write/how you best go about focusing on writing? I started work on Broken Greek at the beginning of 2017. I wanted to write a book that felt as much like a history of music during a particular period as it did a memoir – and the connecting tissue between those two things was the way that music gave me an identity that was different to that of my parents. They were Greek and Greek-Cypriot, but I could never wholly identify as Greek because I was born in England. And pop was the engine of that realisation.
There were no editors, because I didn’t show it to any until it was finished. My friend Bob Stanley was invaluable throughout this time – he read every chapter, and when it started to become clear that this was going to be a lengthy book, he told me to hold my nerve and believe that it needed to be this long. And he was right. We only showed the book to one publisher – Katy Follain at Quercus, who first approached me about 20 years ago, when I was still at Time Out. She asked me if I had any ideas for a book. I told her that I was probably never going to write a book. And she just said, “Well, I hope you don’t mind me calling you up once every couple of years, because I think that one day you might – and when you do, I’d love to see it.” So, after all these years, I thought it was only correct that if I did write a book, Katy should be the first editor who sees it. That said, imagine how embarrassing it would have been if she thought it was awful…
The book was mostly written in cafés in North London. I find that the best place to write is in a café, surrounded by the everyday background bustle of people going about their business. At the beginning of the process, I’d drop my youngest daughter off at school in Golders Green (about five miles from our house) and make a short walk to a café called Bar Linda, which is right next to the tube station and coach terminus. It was pretty perfect in there: large windows, plenty of light and clay-coloured tea, poured out of huge stainless-steel teapots for tube train and coach drivers on their lunch breaks. I wrote the section about Sound Affects by The Jam in there; and at Bar Linda, I also wrote the early section where I heard The Rubettes’ Sugar Baby Love for the first time. Most of the final half of the book though, was written in another cafe The Palace (now renamed The Breakfast Hub) in Crouch End. It’s run by a young Turkish guy called Efe – they were so good to me in there. Ida who works there is Lithuanian. Every morning I’d go straight into the Palace from the YMCA gym across the road and, without even having to ask me, Ida would deposit a frothy coffee on my table. Nescafé on formica in a bustling caff – that’s my happy place. When the first hardbacks were ready, I went straight to the Palace and handed one to Efe and Ida. It’s now sitting on a shelf above the chilled display counter.
What kind of response did the book get from your family and friends? Generally, lovely. It seemed to affect my mother quite deeply. I think it made her feel like someone had borne witness to some of the unpleasant things that had happened to her. And that in turn made me realise that, as you get older, it does help you to achieve some measure of closure to have gone through some sort of adversity and feel like someone was watching as was able to help tell your story. Some of the most touching responses have been from musicians whose records I love – some of whom were even featured in the book: Helen O’Hara and Billy Adams from Dexys were both so lovely. Two of my favourite bands, Crowded House and The Trashcan Sinatras, made videos for singles and deliberately placed the book in background shots without telling me. Even when I watched them, I somehow didn’t notice – other fans had to pointed them out to me! I interviewed Elton John for a Record Collectorfeature and he had been reading the book in the days preceding the interview – he said that me in the book reminded him of himself at that age. Robert Forster of The Go-Betweens was lovely about it too. You can imagine how that felt – I was 15 when I bought my first Go-Betweens single (“Bachelor Kisses,” swiftly followed by “Part Company”). I love that band so much.
And from strangers? Way, way, way beyond my wildest expectations. I get messages via Twitter every day – people from all sorts of backgrounds who saw something of their own childhoods reflected in the book.
And the critics? Again, just great. The first review to appear was by the former Labour MP Alan Johnson in The New Statesman. I’ve never met him; I had no idea he’d even been given the book.
Was your family upset by it at all? Did they read it in advance? I didn’t show them the book in advance because I wanted them to read everything in its correct context. My dad is a complex character and you can’t really sugar-coat that. But if he didn’t also come across as a loving, conscientious father to his kids, then I haven’t done my job properly. That said my parents’ marriage isn’t what you would call – by the modern expectations – a harmonious one. I think we forget the degree to which notions of duty and expedience were once soaked into the definition of marriage. People didn’t expect their marriages to be like the fairytale idea of marriage. That’s why I wanted to mention Fiddler On The Roof in the book – because in some ways, that corresponds more closely to my parents’ notion of what a marriage might be. I think it was a bit of a shock for my dad to see how much I had remembered and to read about how his marriage had seemed to me as a child observing it. I didn’t think my mum and dad were particularly well-suited to each other, and those differences were compounded by their decision to leave behind their support systems, their extended families and run a succession of fish and chip shop in Birmingham for 25 years. I still feel that way, but I have to respect their belief in the sanctity of marriage to the exclusion of almost all other considerations. I don’t quite see it that way. A successful marriage can last for five years if those five years are happy ones. And conversely, if marriage lasts a lifetime, that alone doesn’t make it a success. So, yes, some of the details about their marriage would have been upsetting for him to read, but if I’d chosen not to include them, there would have been a gaping vacuum in the book. He wasn’t always the easiest person to be around, but he was under a lot of pressure, trying to keep a business going in a country that he only stayed in because his kids wanted to be here – and I wouldn’t have swapped him for any of the other Cypriot dads. And I have to say, after the initial surprise, he’s been great about it. We phone each other every couple of days. In fact, the first thing I’ll probably do after this is call him.
What did your daughters think of it? They’re too busy creating source material for their own memoirs to read mine!
What is the funniest response about the book that you got? I stopped reading the Amazon reviews quite early, but one of the first negative ones suggested that I might be autistic. It was the combination of disdain for the book and concern for my well-being that stuck in my memory.
Tell us a bit about the launch. When was it? Who attended? March 6, 2020 – the day of publication, a fortnight before lockdown. One of the most surreal days of my life. The basement of the Heavenly Social in central London. On the ground floor, Cornershop were hosting the launch party for their album England Is A Garden. I arranged for a ‘house’ band of some friends to play a few songs – covers of songs that were mentioned in the book. That came about after my friend Mike Batt (who was the guy behind the Wombles records in the early 70s) offered to play a couple of songs at the launch. Obviously, when Mike Batt offers to play at your launch, you bite his hand off. Then after that, things snowballed. Mike and I are both friends with David Arnold and Eos Counsell. David is, of course, a brilliant soundtrack composer and all-round lovely human; his partner is Eos who is a member of the popular classical quartet Bond, and a brilliant funny human being. Then David said, “I do a pretty good version of E.L.O.’s Livin’ Thing, on which Eos can play violin. Then somewhere along the way, Helen O’Hara from Dexys Midnight Runners, Sean Read (Dexys, The Rockingbirds), Dan Gillespie Sells (The Feeling), Kate St. John (The Dream Academy), Andy Lewis (Paul Weller, Pimlico) and James Walbourne (The Rails, The Pretenders) got involved. What James didn’t tell me was that, for the version of “Back On The Chain Gang,” he asked Chrissie Hynde if she fancied coming along and taking the lead. So suddenly, I’m at my own launch party watching Chrissie Hynde singing my favourite Pretenders song, and one of my favourite songs of all time. Then, a few minutes later, there’s Darren Hayman a.k.a. the world’s biggest Wombles fan, losing his mind because his childhood hero is up there doing “Remember You’re A Womble.” Being an exceptionally lovely man, Mike then offered to appear at the Rough Trade event to perform two songs with Stevie Jackson – who had primarily agreed to come along for the reading. Instead of my reading out extracts from Orange Juice songs, I figured it’d be much more fun to have Stevie actually singing and playing them in person. He also did a magnificent version of “Silver Lady” by David Soul. You know how much I adore Belle & Sebastian, so imagine how it felt to have him agree to do that, and to be up there on stage next to him.
You clearly have met some of the pop titans from your childhood via being a music writer – can you tell us a bit more about who/when/how it went? I met The Bee Gees in 1997, when I was still working for Time Out. That was a big deal for me, because these were people who I adored from a distance, watching them on TV when I was still in my pre-teens. They were promoting the release of their album Still Waters, and the three of them were gathered in Barry Gibb’s house, which was a mansion a short drive outside London. I walked into Barry’s house and he was on the phone to someone from The Brit Awards, where The Bee Gees were shortly due to receive a lifetime achievement award. He was berating them for suggesting that they receive their award from Jarvis Cocker. Barry objected on the basis that, during the previous year’s ceremony, Jarvis had “invaded” the stage during Michael Jackson’s performance of “Earth Song” – he’d been unamused by that. Anyway, the interview – once it had gotten underway – went so well that, at the very end, I summoned up the courage to ask the Bee Gees if they might be willing to sing an outgoing answerphone message to the tune of “I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You.” I asked them if they could sing, “If you want to leave a message for Pete/Hold on, hold on/Leave your name and number after the beep/Hold on, hold on.” To my amazement, they did it – two attempts to get it as good as they wanted it to be! When I got home and played it to my then-girlfriend Caitlin, she dropped to the floor in amazement. Twenty-four years later, she still insists that’s the thing that made her decide that we should be married.
This is clearly the first chunk of your life. Are there various other sequels to come, in a Tracey Thorn sort of way? Too early to say. I work pretty slowly – even more so while lockdown is ongoing and there are no cafés to work in…
What are the plans for putting Broken Greek on the screen? It’s been optioned for TV by Andrew Eaton (The Crown, 24-Hour Party People) and we’ve found a writer to adapt it, but whether it’ll ultimately happen, who knows? Lots of things get optioned but never made.
What other autobiographies have you loved to bits? Julian Cope: Head On/Repossessed; Robert Forster: Grant & I; Chrissie Hynde: Reckless; Katie Puckrik: Shooting From The Lip. Those are the four standouts for me.
Whose autobiography that hasn’t been written yet do you long to read? Linda Thompson.
What music from the book do you still play a ton? Loads. When I’m writing, I tend to listen to music that I know inside-out, so any MOR, soul, disco, New Wave and synth-pop megahits from the late 70s will serve that purpose.
What is your favorite Greek music of all time? Manos Hadjidakis’s work runs the gamut of soundtracks, pop, popular folk songs and classical. I listen to his music a lot. Nikos Xylouris is someone I mention in the book – he was a Cretan singer who rose to become something of a folk hero in the late ’60s and ’70s up to the time of his death in 1980. My parents reacted to his death the way most people of their age reacted to John Lennon’s death.
What snacks from your childhood are the most comforting in 2021? Primula Cheese Spread that comes straight out of a tube – that’s been a dramatic rediscovery for me lately. Also McVities Ginger Cake: thirty seconds in the microwave with a blob of tinned custard added to it. A bowl of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes with hot milk just before bedtime is pretty hard to beat.
Do you know what’s become of the characters from your book apart from your family and rockstars? One of my teachers has been in touch – my German teacher. For legal reasons, I had to change most of the names in the book. His real name was Mr Thomas, but I didn’t try too hard to change his name. I just removed the ‘a’ and called him Mr Thoms because he was tall and had a moustache, just like Peter Thoms, the keyboard player and trombonist from Landscape, who had a hit in 1981 with a song called “Einstein A-Go-Go.” When Mr Thomas got in touch after reading the book, he thought it might have been a typo. One name I didn’t change was that of Ged, the older girl who lived next door because we’re still in touch—she’s a librarian these days—so she was able to give her approval. In fact, one of the nicest things about the response to the book has been the affection that people feel for Ged—she’s like the surrogate older sister that everyone would like to have had. When we hosted one of Tim Burgess’s Twitter Listening Parties for a Broken Greek–themed playlist, I got to introduce everyone to Ged. I can’t tell you how surreal it felt to have Tim Burgess from The Charlatans tweeting Ged because he knew her from the book.
Here is a little promo film we made for the book. We didn’t have an advertising budget, so I got my friend Johnny Daukes to record a version of Brotherhood Of Man’s 1976 hit Save Your Kisses For Me (the winning song in the 1976 Eurovision Song Contest and mentioned extensively in the book) in the style of Subterranean’s Homesick Blues. Johnny is a genius. Not only did he record the song, but he made the video.
What films/TV/music/whatnot have gotten you thru the past year? Or the past four or five for that matter? Caitlin and I hadn’t watched The Sopranos prior to December 2020. We can now concur with the popular view that it’s the all-time greatest televised work of fiction. We also binge-watch any programmes hosted by Cornish TV chef Rick Stein. We’re strangely comforted by what an awkwardly on-camera presence he has. He also doesn’t know how to end and on-screen conversation. The forced smile at the end of the exchange is almost unbearable. And yet also, as a participant in that moment of awfulness, I feel like I’ve been propelled to the essence of something of great existential significance. So much of life feels like that moment fleetingly captured in Rick’s pained grimace. Obviously, Seinfeld and Cheers FOREVER. We’re also big fans of Best Home Cook. Claudia Winkleman can do no wrong in my book. The fact that, ultimately, none of this really matters is the complicit unsayable bond between her and the viewer. Finally, can I also mention Queer Eye, which is the one show that will never fail to envelope our family in feelings of warmth and well-being? We encounter way too much wanton cruelty in our everyday lives, and so it’s more important than ever – to misquote The Chills – look for the good in others so that they can see the good in you. If we were all a bit more like Jonathan, Karamo, Antoni, Bobby and Tan, the world would be a much healthier place.
Can Brexit be reversed? I think so. But not the damage to the lives of all the small businesspeople who were duped into believing the lies on which it was predicated. This country – or, more specifically, the level of political discourse – needs to grow up a little.
What’s the first thing you’re going to do once we’re all allowed total freedom? My local YMCA gym – in particular, the perfumed hair and body wash that comes out of the pump-action dispenser in the shower. Working in cafés. Record shops. All of these things, in any order.
Do you have any future plans/books/etc.? I co-run a small reissue label called Needle Mythology. We’ve put out records by Stephen Duffy, Ian Broudie, Tanita Tikaram, Bernard Butler & Catherine Anne Davies and Robert Forster. They sound as brilliant as they look, and we’re putting out some more this year, by Whipping Boy, Neil & Tim Finn and Butcher Boy. We’re also about to put out our first brand-new album, The Obvious I, by Ed Dowie. I don’t know if there’ll be a sequel to Broken Greek. I’m proceeding slowly, much as I did with the first one. And if it turns out to be a book, then great. If not, well I’ve still written one more than I ever thought I would.
Thanks for chatting with us, Pete!! Thank you. It’s a continuing honour to have the chickfactor stamp of approval.
Read these two excerpts from Pete’s book here and here.