The best books written by people I know or have sent me one 2017 (and other partial lists)

I can’t pretend it’s been a bonanza book-reading year by the fundamental measure of pages turned and spines bent, but the books I have read, or, crucially, re-read, have been essential. That my carefully calculated Top 2 are both written by old friends of mine (one of them the subject of a book I’ve written) should not be taken into account. Stuart Maconie’s Long Road from Jarrow and Billy Bragg’s Roots, Radicals and Rockers form a stout pair and can make decent claims to historical legitimacy. Both delve into history – Stuart’s into twin-timeline British history, Billy’s further back into American history – and both present a humane view, bestowing power to the people and planting a flag for the heroic endeavours of ordinary folk, be it the empowerment of working people protesting against poverty, or the empowerment of young people to get out there and form a band in the 1950s. I couldn’t put either book down, and wished neither to end. Stuart has taken the temperature of Brexit Britain (as he took his journey, Trump was in the process of becoming electable, thus sealing humanity’s doom), while Billy allows the reader to apply the template of punk rock to the skiffle boom, and saves up a final twist that brings it all back home. (I won’t spoil it for you.)

I was sent a copy of Al Pacino: The Movies Behind the Man by its author Mark Searby, and found myself impressed by his doggedness as he set about his labour of finding at least one new first-hand account to accompany each of Pacino’s films, even the duff ones. For instance, he sheds light on the making of The Godfather via an interview with producer Gray Frederickson, Panic in Needle Park with director Jerry Schatzberg, and, well, a magician on Bobby Deerfield. I was also sent Matt Lucas’s memoir to review for the Mail on Sunday, and I gave it a good review, despite its gimmicky A-to-Z format.

As ever, I was moved to revisit old books, most notably A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan, one of the bedrock Vietnam War accounts, published in 1988, inspired to go back into the jungle by Sheehan’s contribution to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s seminal The Vietnam War, shown here this year on BBC Four. I found myself captivated again by Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day (like Sheehan, he was an embedded war reporter). I have a dog-eared 1969 secondhand paperback edition – it was published in 1959 – and it’s only at this time of reading it that I noticed just how ahead of the “New Journalism” revolution Ryan was, personalising the events of D-Day and thus bringing them to life.

For those who follow Billy Bragg, an artist age does not wither, you’ll be happy to hear that I am updating his biography Still Suitable For Miners for publication in spring 2018, its fifth edition, which also happens to mark the 20th anniversary of the book’s first publication way back in 1998. I followed him to Oxford this time, and, over coffee and cakes, we covered the period 2013-17. We were both 20 years younger when we started this book.

Oh, and by the way, as if it needed saying, the New Yorker continues to fill my head with words, opinions, ellipses, poetic sentence construction and big ideas, and that’s why I don’t pick up a book as often as I’d ideally like. Since Trump started to undo America, the magazine – in particular the near-daily bulletins by John Cassidy – has become even more essential. Here’s how my favourite magazine depicted the Baby-in-Chief this year.

To end, a photo I took of myself “method”-reading Stuart’s Jarrow book: by the side of a fairly busy road, on a bench, and eating some lovely fruit loaf out of cling-film. Try it when the weather heats up again.

LongRoadFromJarrowMETHOD

Advertisements

Commie Roots

ASayleThatcherStole

Thatcher Stole My Trousers | Alexei Sayle Bloomsbury Circus £16.99

I applied to Chelsea School Art in 1984 for its reputation, location and the fact that its prospectus arrogantly contained no photographs, a brutalism I found appealing. The clincher, though, was Alexei Sayle, the angry stand-up described in an early review in the London Review of Books as a “portly, spring-heeled Liverpudlian with an Oliver Hardy suit.” I’d identified him as a Chelsea alumnus in a 1983 episode of BBC1 documentary series Comic Roots, in which the thirty-ish Sayle was filmed drinking in the union bar bemoaning the “three years of total nonsense” he spent at the school between 1971 and 1974.

It was thus with some solidarity that I devoured the first chapters of Sayle’s terrific second volume of memoirs (the first, 2010’s Stalin Ate My Homework, mined his family’s Commie roots and left him on a foundation course in Southport). Through parental influence a card-carrying member of the carefully named Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) since short trousers, he was drawn to London by “all the rock gigs, exhibitions and plays … I didn’t actually want to go to any of them, I just wanted to live in a place where they were on.” This will ring true to anyone who has ever gravitated towards the capital. Now 63, he writes with the wisdom of someone taking stock and retrospectively hymns Chelsea as “a wonderful and humane institution” – the Soviet-sounding “painting council” declined to throw him off the degree course after he showed them a film he’d made satirising them.

A deft writer whose short stories led Clive James to compare him to Guy de Maupassant, Sayle is a genial, self-deprecating tour guide on this second voyage around himself and not as didactic or hectoring as his high-blood-pressure comic persona might suggest. On his journey from post-graduate miasma and jobs at the DHSS and in teaching via community theatre to fame and fortune during the so-called Alternative Comedy boom at the birth of the 80s, he finds time to disparage the Arts Council for its remit “to give money only to things that were unpopular”, and the Design Centre as “an Arts Council for teapots.” He thumbnails the infant Channel 4, which gave him and his comedy pals their big break in The Comic Strip Presents in 1982, as a magnet for advertisers of “wines from Bulgaria and different kinds of cheese.” And as a former beneficiary of social housing, he remains bothered by the notion that “if you were a council tenant there were no consequences to your actions, as if you were a big baby.”

Gently mocking his own granite political convictions, he praises the “high quality of snacks” as “a little known benefit of revolutionary politics,” and sees the funny side of his domineering Maoist mother Molly sending Christmas cards in the late 70s bearing the legend “Season’s Greetings from H Block” at the time of IRA prisoner Bobby Sands’ dirty protests.

Like all comedians’ autobiographies, once the career takes off and the hardships fade the prose slides into a list of tour anecdotes and meetings with commissioning editors. But there is insightful reportage on location in Helsinki for his first film role in thriller Gorky Park, observing “dark green trains decorated with Cyrillic script” and “beautiful Estonian prostitutes with hair the colour of butter.” His admission to a semi-religious “sense of wonder” about TV studios is also beautifully illuminated: “the images on monitors glowed brighter than the paintings of Caravaggio in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.”

This instalment ends circa “the first summer of the Miners’ Strike,” around the time Sayle was asked to film the edition of Comic Roots that drew at least one teenaged comedy fan to Chelsea School of Art. Thatcher stole his trousers, but he changed my life.

Kindly reprinted from the Mail On Sunday, 13 March 2016

2014: My Top 50 books

WeNeedToTalkAboutKevinBTheUnwindingGPackerPrivateIslandJMeekKristallnachtMGJoeMoranArmchairNExtraOrdinaryLifeFrankDerrick81CapitalTPikettyRockStarsStoleME

I did not read 50 books in 2014. But then, neither did I in 2013. Or 2012, so there’s a pattern forming. In truth, I haven’t read ten books in any year since 2005 when Stuart Maconie gave me a subscription to the New Yorker for my birthday, which I have slavishly renewed every year. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, one of the books I did read this year was The Unwinding, by New Yorker scribe George Packer, a patchwork quilt of American stories that cumulatively and incrementally describe the fall of a once great nation. Oh, and when I say “read this year” I don’t mean read to the end. That’s another cold, hard reality of my literary life. I am about halfway through The Unwinding, as it’s a hardback and thus too cumbersome to cart around in my bag, and I find I get tired much earlier than I used to, so late-nite reading is at a premium. I like the cut of its jib, but I find it difficult to get back into each true and meticulously researched story as the book’s narrative cuts back and forth between, and I have to re-read the previous installment to get back in the groove. My guess is that to read The Unwinding in one sitting would be preferable to the way I’m doing it. (You can see why I have only part-read eight books!)

You can find fuller reviews of my friend Jim Bob’s latest novel (the only work of fiction I read in 2014 and thus number one) and my friend Mark Ellen’s life story here. I finished both of them, which says something about them. I also finished the nerdily entertaining history of TV Armchair Nation, even though it was a hardback, which says something about The Unwinding. This may have come out in 2013, but such administration means nothing to me. I bought Martin Gilbert’s self-explanatory slice of history Kristallnacht a couple of years ago (it was published in 2006), but picked it up this year after a documentary on TV inspired me to and I hope to finish it – cheery as it isn’t – before Christmas. I accept that I will never read Capital In The Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, one of the most talked-about books of the year in its English translation, even though, as advertised, it is a readable tome about the failure of capitalism; it’s just too forbidding, and a hardback, which actually hurts my wrists when I try to hold it up to read in bed. But I’m happy to have it in my house. I read Kevin Bridges’ likeable but premature memoir (he turned 28 while writing it) on a train journey to Glasgow, which seems apt.

James Meek’s Private Island isn’t really a book; it’s the collected essays of James Meek from the London Review Of Books and the Guardian about the failure of privatisation, and it’s a proper page turner. I loved it, and couldn’t put it down. (It was a paperback, so I didn’t have to put it down in order to protect the joints in my old hands.) I recommend it highly if you’re in the mood to shake your fists at the sky and scream, “Why?” at regular intervals. Meek thinks there are some things in this world that shouldn’t be privatised. Most the ones he writes about in detail have been, and the others are in the process of being done. I happen to agree with him, but he did the research and we on the left should be truly thankful.

I am just about to renew my subscription to the New Yorker. Sorry, books. But congratulations to the eight that managed to break through the barrier around me that looks a bit like the Manhattan skyline.

How to review books written by your friends: some tips

ExtraOrdinaryLifeFrankDerrick81RockStarsStoleMEMemoirsOASGDQ

I am a published author. I like to self-pityingly think of myself as a former published author as the publisher of my exponentially worse-selling memoirs never writes and never calls, but the writing fraternity don’t need me to add to their woes, as the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society have just produced a report that says writers’ incomes are dwindling fast and only the 1% can actually live off rearranging the English language; cue: death of novel, end of world etc. Anyway, a large proportion of book reviewers are published authors. Ergo, authors are constantly reviewing other authors. (After all, what is an author if not a reader with a typewriter?)

books_and_bookmen

It’s a minefield, and Private Eye‘s Books and Bookmen column is particularly hot on exposing elbow-patch nepotism, whether between authors locked in a critical love-in, rival publishing houses locked in internecine warfare, or simply pals giving good notices to pals. Writing is a lonely furrow, so writers tend to be sociable, and always up for a free drink at a reception or launch.

I have not reviewed that many books professionally. Both the Saturday Times and the Saturday Mail have teased me with what looked like regular book-review work in the past, and I enjoyed it while it briefly lasted (the Times even tasked me with providing the first, overnight review of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, but I fear this was an administrative error). I’ve reviewed quite a few titles here. The commissioning editor of this blog obviously fancies me. But I do know this much: it’s much harder and more time consuming than reviewing, say, records or films. You have to read a book, for a start.

ACLostSymbola

If you ever find yourself in the precarious position of having to review a book written by one of your friends, here are my tips:

  1. Declare an interest straight away.
  2. Specify the depth of the friendship, which will help us know whether or not to trust you.
  3. Go out of your way to make at least one critical judgement if you’re otherwise praising the book.
  4. If you don’t like the book, do anything in your power to get out of reviewing it.

Duly armed, I shall now review three books written by three of my friends.

ExtraOrdinaryLifeFrankDerrick81The Extra Ordinary Life Of Frank Derrick, Aged 81 by JB Morrison (Pan Macmillan, £7.99 paperback) is unique among the trio for being a novel. It is JB Morrison’s first book, but Jim Bob’s fourth. I am Jim Bob’s friend. I have known him since Sheriff Fatman, we send Christmas cards to each other, support each other in our respective careers (I recommended him for the Mark Ravenhill Barbican panto gig; he lets me hang out backstage at Carter reunion gigs) and occasionally have a coffee. We have never been to each other’s houses, but I know where he lives and he knows where I live. He has previously thanked me in the acknowledgments of his novels as I have read them in galley form and told him they were good, which they were. I love the fact that a man so renowned for his witty and clever lyrics has transferred that skill to prose. Important disclosure: he didn’t send me Frank Derrick to read, so I’m not thanked in it, and I read it when it was already a book. Maybe this JB Morrison is a bit less matey than Jim Bob. It helps to create a professional distance.

I loved the book. In Storage Stories and Driving Jarvis Ham, quite a lot happens but it is told in a sort of downbeat, matter of fact way. The same approach applies to this tale of a Sussex village octogenarian widower as he convalesces after being knocked down by a milkfloat, but – beyond the accident (“Frank had a broken toe, the one next to his big toe, the little piggy that stayed at home, which was also his prognosis: to stay at home”) – very little happens. He is assigned a carer, an intrusion he initially resists, but in the form of Kelly Christmas, turns out to be a ray of light that illuminates his life (“it felt like a whirlwind has swept through his flat”). That’s pretty much it. But what a vivid picture of old age, male pride, smalltown politics and the arse-ache of familial responsibility Jim paints. Economically, too.

On the low crime rate in the village of Fullwind: “The sound of sirens meant that somebody had left the window open and the TV up too loud during Midsomer Murders.” A new pair of glasses are “so light he might forget he was wearing them and begin a hunt round the flat to find them.” Winning £2.40 on the Lottery, Frank is “almost too embarrassed to collect it … It felt worse than not winning at all.” Jim is a quiet observer of people, and Frank Derrick is his best novel. Although I was all for the Kurt Vonnegut-style drawings in Storage Stories, and the music biz allusions in Jarvis Ham, by narrowing his focus, he’s upped the narrative ante. It’s harder to write about something extra ordinary and make it extraordinary. I can’t think of a negative thing to add, for nepotistic balance. Er, the name Albert Flowers was a bit on-the-nose for the man in charge of Villages In Bloom.

RockStarsStoleME

Rock Stars Stole My Life! by Mark Ellen (Coronet, £18.99 hardback). Now, is Mark Ellen my friend? Well, if we bumped into each other this afternoon, we would, I suspect, hug. He’s someone I’ve known for 23 years. Before that, of course, I read his pop magazine and watched his rock TV show, then read his next two pop magazines. In 1992 he interviewed me for a job and thereafter gave me the job, at the second of those magazines, Select. Such is his voluble, non-hierarchical personality, even if he is your boss, he becomes your pal. If you’ve seen him on telly, or heard him on the radio or a Word podcast, that’s what he’s like. I was around Mark Ellen for five years of my magazine publishing career on a nine-to-five basis, feeding off his boyish enthusiasm, if that’s not too prosaic a word for whatever it is that fizzes around his veins. Freelancing for him at Word was even more like being in his and David Hepworth’s gang. I sorely miss the excuse to drop into the office and soak up Mark’s vibes, or shoot the £50-man breeze with him over a recording device. And now he’s written a book about it all.

Rock Stars Stole My Life!, presented and penned like a sidebar in Smash Hits, it actually reads like Mark’s half of a spirited conversation (and his was never as little as a half). It’s exclamatory, endearingly vague, citation-free and all over the place. It begins “somewhere over Greenland” on Rihanna’s Boeing 777, where the elder statesman of pop journalism is among a more youthful press corps and, in less than a page, ticking off the first of his print-trade neologisms: “I wander down the aisle to see if I can scare up some more booze.” Mark really does use the phrase “scare up.” So in love with the intricacies and left-turns of our old pal the English language is he, such daft verbal ticks become lifejackets as he bobs about in the ocean of nonsense that is pop and the pop industry. Herein, he turns his life – well, his professional life, he’s not big on the old private life, beyond fond passing mentions of his wife Clare – into a 40-chapter Hoary Old Rock Anecdote.

Each tale is turned on the lathe of froth with a flourish and a curlicue throughout – to say they are “embellished” suggests they are untrue, but it’s not that. Mark cannot use a grey, functional sentence. It is not in his bones. Henceforth, whether he’s recounting early festival safaris “sleeping in fertilizer sacks”, his first, faltering steps at the NME, or the full flowering at Smash Hits and the subsequent executive-level eyries at EMAP, we get “records of every stripe”, copy that comes in “screeds”, the video boom that comes in “warm trade winds”, machinery that “cranks into action”, Toyah being “of no audible talent”, the Beatles being “cheese-scented”, the Q Awards negotiated over “long months of fragile protocol”, and “m’learned friends” are mentioned more than once. His style bounces across the facts like a beach ball. It’s difficult to take your eye off it. And the getting there is half the fun.

Though Mark’s writing is decorative, it’s actually as economical as Jim Bob’s. We can see the elder rock journalists in the Knebworth press paddock when he describes them as “roguish characters in leather jackets … forking smoked salmon off paper plates.” When he notes that new partner-in-speechmarks Tom Hibbert was a fan of Big Star, all we need know is that they were “thin, lackadaisical men from Tennessee who played chiming melodies with a mournful cadence and a doomed, romantic sheen.” (It was always a great injustice to the rest of us that Mark declined to review records for the magazines he ran.) He is generous, namechecking other talents as he goes, showering humble compatriots like Hepworth, Andrew Harrison and Paul DuNoyer with bubbly approbation, and never less than effacing about himself. (When he becomes “editor-in-chief” he calls the title “embarrassingly grand-sounding.”)

More than a passing interest in music and magazines is a prerequisite but that’s obvious. If you happen to have lived quite a lot of the book, as I have, it will sing to you. Not least when, just prior to he and Dave jumping the good ship EMAP to go it alone, we learn that the company’s “upper corridors” are suddenly stalked by “highly paid strategists hell-bent on evolution.” What was once the “greatest place to work imaginable”, had become “infiltrated by wiry creeps in designer shirts.” I remember it well. To declare an interest, I get my sole namecheck on page 319, when the Word podcast is hymned and he enthuses that I am “still besotted with Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine.” Which is where we came in.

MemoirsOASGDQ Memoirs Of A Shoegazing Gentlemen by Lord Tarquin (Sonic Cathedral, paperback). Last night, I attended the launch of this tiny but rather beautiful edition because its author, David Quantick, is my friend and since he moved out of London I haven’t seen him very much. Sonic Cathedral is celebrating its tenth year as an independent label specialising in Shoegazing music by producing its first ever book, the collected columns of “Lord Tarquin”, originally published in the NME between October 1991 and February 1992, Shoegazing’s peak. They appeared in the “humour” section, Thrills, edited by Stuart Maconie, with me looking over his shoulder as our desks adjoined and he, too, was my friend. I’ve known Quantick since 1988, when I first walked into the NME. He, Maconie and I formed a comedy triple-act at the turn of the century and took our show (about music journalism), Lloyd Cole Knew My Father, to the Edinburgh Fringe, and onto Radio 2. Quantick had always appeared on our Radio 1 shows, and we had a certain, arch chemistry. (We even had a few huffs during the tense making of the Radio 2 series, which proved how much we liked each other.) For a long while, we were all three represented by the same agent.

To revisit Quantick’s wryly wicked words in stout pamphlet form, exquisitely designed and illustrated by Marc Jones, was a tonic on the train home from last night’s launch at the Heavenly Social, wherein a solo-strumming, flat-capped Mark Gardner of Ride, and three quarters of Lush (host Miki, DJ Phil, guest Emma, all looking hale) provided the royalty. (Andy Bell also turned up, but after I’d left.) The “Lord Tarquin” conceit was then, and remains, that the Shoegazing scene was populated by poshos. It wasn’t, strictly, but it felt that way, with its Thames Valley epicentre and its languidly studenty sound (and one or two actual well-heeled members). Blur, Lush, Chapterhouse, Slowdive, Catherine Wheel, Revolver, even Chicane, all were dragged into Quantick’s world of privilege, boarding, “double deten” and “botheration” at Shoey House school. Tossed off at the time, they may have been, but these short-form lampoons are rich with imaginative language. It is very much in the sculpted spirit of one Mark Ellen.

“Just popped back from a round of fives in the Lower Quad with Russell from Moose! Top-hole shuffle! Russell was ten up on a double shubunkin when he dropped the bally spinnaker! The cream buns are on him next time we pop into Mrs Shoggins’ tea shop in the village!” And so it goes. We might all toss something off as funny and daft as the memoirs of Lord Tarquin. That there is a label specialsing in Shoegazing music at all – never mind that members of the bands affectionately pilloried in a music paper 22 years ago are happy to grace the launch of said satire – simply proves my 20 Year Rule. It’s one that only people who’ve lived for 40 years or more can appreciate: that everything comes round again after 20 years; all you have to do is wait it out, and not fall out with anybody or die in the interim.

Not available in all good bookshops (whatever they are), Memoirs Of A Shoegazing Gentleman is available to purchase here and, before that, from Sonic Cathedral’s stall at the Independent Label Market in London on Saturday (12 July).

Now, fun over, back to reading the introduction of Thomas Piketty’s Capital. I have never met Thomas Piketty and he is no friend of mine, so my review of this book will be pure and unsullied by soppiness and nostalgia when I review in about … a year and half’s time?

H.R. Giger changed my life

AlienBookcover0002

I was sad to read of the death, aged 74, of the Swiss surrealist artist Hans Rudolf “H.R.” Giger. Through his groundbreaking, influential designs for the alien and its environments in Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking, influential murder mystery in space Alien – a style that was known as “biomechanical”, a precisely airbrushed cross between the visceral and the metallic – he had more than crossed my radar. Although I was under the age of consent to see Alien on release in 1979, as an avid teen film fan I bridged the gap by requesting The Book Of Alien – a lavishly illustrated making-of by Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross – for my birthday in March 1980. Via the portal of this otherwise conventional softback souvenir, I entered the rarefied, graphic world of Giger (the book was full of initial sketches and designs by various artists, but his dominated).

This book, though cherished, did not change my life. But Giger did, in 1987, although I didn’t even know it at the time. I was a student at Chelsea School of Art in 1987, on the cusp of graduation and what I hoped would be some approximation of a “career” as an illustrator or more specifically a cartoonist (my chosen area of expertise in the sense that it chose me: I wasn’t much good at proper drawing). I had been an avid reader of the NME since the year Alien was released, and had keenly rolled with its evolutionary punches as it morphed from the inky rag of the post-punk era to a post-modern media studies pamphlet designed with acres of white space in the early-to-mid 80s. What I didn’t know, as a reader, in 1987, is that the paper was on its knees, commercially speaking. This would have been no concern of mine; as long as my weekly fix of music news, culture and dangerous Marxist politics arrived on a Tuesday, all was well.

NME1979

I was the sort of nerdy NME reader who pored obsessively over what I didn’t know at the time was called “the masthead” (ie. the list of staff and freelance writers), and noted any personnel changes with interest. As a student of art and design, I also mapped the visual changes in the NME in relation to whoever was  designing it, and knew that the reigning art editor in 1987, Joe Ewart, had ushered in a starkly dynamic page layout, of which I approved. It was very much in keeping with advances in style magazine design over at The Face and i-D, except printed on shitty newspaper.

In 1988, I was living in a studio flat in South West London and attempting to keep the wolf from the door by taking on soulless freelance illustration work for a modest design agency. It was not “art”, but if I drew enough cartoon cats, cyclists and reindeers in a month for corporate handouts, I could pay the rent. (If you bought the puzzle magazine Puzzled around this time, you will have seen my cartoon owls, polar bears, penguins and other assorted fauna – this was the vertiginous level at which I toiled.) In order to satisfy my creative juices, I decided to produce my own fanzine and write about things that interested me and perhaps sell a few copies, like two new NME writers on the masthead whom I had quickly grown to idolise, Steven Wells (who produced Molotov Comics) and James Brown (Attack On Bzag).

Puzzled

I did not make my own fanzine, This Is This, in their image; instead, I went for neatly typed columns of copy with – yes – plenty of white space around them. I wrote about Tony Hancock, Stephen King, Gerry Sadowitz and the water metaphors in Lloyd Cole’s lyrics, and drew my own cartoon strips satirising TV-AM, Time Out and Apocalypse Now. I borrowed the photocopier at the design company that employed me and used it to “size up” my illustrations and create a clean page design. Then I paid Kall-Kwik to print me up and staple 100 copies. My aim was to carry them around in an Our Price plastic bag and sell them at gigs. I think I sold around a dozen.

However – and here’s where my life intersects with H.R. Giger’s, without his or my knowledge – I sent a copy of This Is This to James Brown, recently installed Features Editor at the NME, and, I hoped, a kindred spirit. The height of my ambition at this stage was to have my fanzine mentioned in the bitty news section Thrills, which James edited. Maybe I would flog a few copies by mail order. What I wasn’t doing at this point was looking for a job at the NME. The prospect was a fictional one.

ThisIsThis

I’m glad that I didn’t know then what I know now about how the office of a weekly music paper works. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have wasted a stamp. The probability that the brown envelope containing This Is This would have been opened, never mind the contents being read, was close to zero. I could never have imagined how high the teetering pile of envelopes on James Brown’s in-tray was. However, the stars were aligned for me, and he did open my envelope, and he did flick through my fanzine, and he did phone me up.

In the message he left on my answer machine he said he liked the fanzine and wanted to have a chat with me about it. I was cock a hoop, and yet still only dreaming of seeing my fanzine mentioned in the pages of the NME. He invited me up to the offices of the paper in London’s New Oxford Street – which was, for me, like visiting Mecca – and casually mentioned that he might be able to put a bit of writing work my way.

Now, the history books tell us that back the white heat of July 1976, the NME ran a small ad asking for “hip young gunslingers” to write “lively and incisive prose” in an effort to refresh the lifeblood of the paper in the wake of punk rock with a new staff writer. (Actually, the history book – Pat Long’s closest-to-definitive The History Of The NME.) It ended up with two from the 1,200 applications: Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, with Ian Cranna, Paul Morley and Paul DuNoyer taken on as freelancers. No such formal clarion call went out in 1988, but Brown and his successor on the live desk, Helen Mead, were unofficially tasked with trying out some new writers. It was in this spirit of provincial empowerment that I found myself sucked into the wonderful and frightening world of the NME. (Barbara Ellen, Stuart Maconie and Steve Lamacq were among those who also had their professional lives changed in the same period of conscription.)

Though lured into the office with the promise of writing work, a part-time vacancy was going in the NME art room and, technically if not practically qualified, I was introduced by James to editor Alan Lewis and new art editor (previously Joe Ewart’s assistant) Justin Langlands, who seemed to like me – or perhaps just my dungarees and Age Of Chance baseball cap – and took me on. All of sudden, from a standing start, I had landed a two-days-a-week post at my bible, which quickly expanded to three days. When Justin took his first holiday in the August of ’88, I actually became Art Editor for a fortnight; that’s two issues of the paper I’d read and re-read for almost a decade under my aesthetic control (yes, I redesigned all the logos while Justin was away, and Justin reinstated the old ones when he got back).

NME1988Proc

From my new vantage point, I set about bothering all the section editors for writing work, and one by one, they caved. My “journey” from layout boy to actual bylined NME writer had begun. The rest is autobiography. But without H.R. Giger, the man whose art had so captivated me in The Book Of Alien, my life might never have wound its rudderless way in this direction, and the NME might have remained a weekly newspaper I pored over and not one I actually tinkered with from the inside. The “media”, as I did not yet refer to it in 1988 – and an industry of which I did not count myself as a member – might have remained over there. I have no idea if I would still be a freelance illustrator, providing print-ready artwork for puzzle books, but it’s conceivable. If not for nine erect penises …

In 1987, when my wildest dreams still revolved around perhaps drawing my own comic strip for a newspaper, the NME I loved was undergoing one of its habitual regime changes. I couldn’t have known how seismic. According to Pat Long’s account, sales had fallen below 100,000 copies for the first time in 31 years. It is sad to say, but choosing Neil Kinnock as its cover star in the week of the General Election – a decision that thrilled me to marrow of my bones as a reader, and cemented all my political ideals – was symbolic of the NME‘s propensity to back a loser. The paper’s owners, IPC, saw that famous cover (“Lovely, lovely, lovely!”) as the shortest suicide note in history. Editor Ian Pye was sacked, and “safe pair of hands” Alan Lewis was parachuted in.

His commercial instinct and desire to drag the NME back to being about – hey – music were seen as anathema to remaining stalwarts like media editor Stuart Cosgrove PhD – a mid-80s appointee of editor Neil Spencer, under whose leadership the paper entered what was, for me, a purple patch of polemic and pretense. It was future Channel 4 Controller of Arts and Entertainment Cosgrove who produced an issue devoted to censorship while Lewis was on holiday in September ’87, which involved the reproduction of a sexually explicit painting by H.R. Giger known as Penis Landscape. It had been given away as a poster by Californian punk activists the Dead Kennedys in 1985 with their Frankenchrist album and landed the band and their lable in legal hot water. It depicted nine erect penises entering nine orifices that could be vaginas or anuses. What could possibly go wrong?

The NME folklore passed down to us was that the printers had refused to  print it and downed tools. According to Long, it was more a case of the colour repro lab complaining about having to print it, but the industrial kerfuffle gave IPC management the excuse to get rid of the staffers it considered “troublemakers”, notably Cosgrove – who I presume considered it a cause worth dying for – and Joe Ewart. “Media” returned to being a token section of the paper with film and book reviews in it, and Ewart’s assistant, Justin, took the art reins. (Having worked under him, I know that Justin was surprised and delighted to get the gig, although the trade-off was allowing Alan into the design room, whose lack of design finesse did not stop him wielding a scalpel and demanding bigger, clearer, more literal layout.)

NMEparty

Without understanding its significance, with a few months of my arrival in Justin’s art room, the NME moved offices back to IPC’s skyscraping HQ King’s Reach Tower in Waterloo. We were the unruly child, taken in hand and put under the same roof as Mum and Dad. I had no real idea that I was part of a new era, but events have proven that to be the case. Under Alan’s earnestly commercial helm, we started to produce a tighter, brighter, more focused, less discursive and more humorous paper. The circulation went back up. We even managed to cover Acid House within the newly revived, conventional rock format, made easier when, during the Madchester boom, guitar bands took E and picked up samplers, while Lamacq and new lieutenant Simon Williams plugged directly into an energised, corporate-sponsored indie scene. (As Lamacq told Long, “Everyone at that time wanted Danny Kelly’s approval,” and this genuflection to the larger-than-life successor to Alan Lewis generated real heat in the office, regardless of musical affiliation.)

If you’d asked me my preference as a media outsider in 1987, I would have wished for a Labour government and the continuation of the Ewart/Pye/Cosgrove regime. I would have cheered a pullout H.R. Giger anal fantasia every week and stuff those evangelistic reactionaries in the print trade. But it was not to be. There’s only so much sticking it to The Man you can get away with when you’re part of the machine, which the NME always was. (Believe it or not, we never referred to it as a “brand” in the late 80s – that was all to come.)

HR-Giger-Alien

So rest in peace, H.R. Giger. You changed my landscape, and very possibly paved the way for Hull indie rockers Kingmaker to breach the Top 20 in 1992.