Early on in this very breezy look back on his 40 years in writing and broadcasting in the music industry, Mark Ellen laments that he was born too late for The Beatles and too early for punk, Well, judged on what he was born in time for, he ain’t getting any sympathy from me.
I’ll declare an interest early on. The reason this blog exists might well be down to Mark Ellen. Indeed I should have perhaps named it Mark Ellen Ruined My Life. My first issue of Smash Hits (he edited), watching Live Aid on the telly (he presented it), reading Q (editor), Select (editor), Mojo (editor), Word magazine (RIP, editor), etc, etc.
Add to that a tenure at the NME during the Burchill/Parsons/Shaar Murray/Nick Kent years, filling in for John Peel on fabulous Radio 1 and presenting the Old Grey Whistle Test…. All told, for me he’s been a hard man to avoid these last 40 years.
Lucky then that he’s such a bloody affable chap, like the rock world’s Wodehouse. And that affability has afforded eye witness accounts of some defining moments. But what makes this book such a pleasure is, like Wodehouse, the incidental detail he picks up while observing from the sidelines.
Arriving at the NME in 1978, greeted by Danny Baker on reception, his description of a just-off-the-heroin Nick Kent (“He had the crepuscular pallor of nine pint blood donor and legs like a wading bird’s, so stick-thin and rickety you thought his knees might bend the wrong way”) and Julie Burchill (“petite and spindly with a voice to match, delivering barbed maxims in a West Country accent through a slash of lipstick.”) paints a perfect picture of office life at rock’s premier title in its pomp.
A few years later, while watching the Band Aid single recording he notices Boy George wannabe and seemingly pop star punch bag, the “briefly chart-troubling” Marilyn arrive uninvited at the studio (“Hello Doris!”, shouts George), while answering the call for female vocals from Midge Ure in the production booth Bananarama set off shouting “Coming Marilyn?”
Live Aid emerges as a bitter sweet experience for him. With a few years presenting Whistle Test for the BBC under his belt and subsequently appointed as a co-presenter of the BBC coverage, when contemplating the scale of the operation he wonders if staff “trained on the nursery slopes of the Whistle Test – whose idea of a catastrophe was The Waterboys ending a song a bit too early… – have the steel nerve and experience to anchor a live global telecast?” His Whistle Test producer reassures him by observing that “it’s like getting Radio Cambridge cover the General Election”.
With it being 1985, technical glitches abounded of course but people watched in their billions and gave in their millions. Ellen is carried along by the energy of the event, loving the Englishness and “the stunned and excitable courtesy” as rock stars due to perform were flown by Noel Edmonds’ chopper to a nearby cricket pitch where “the fielders held onto their hats in the downdraught and a wedding party waved from its wooden pavillion”. Meanwhile Elton John, “wearing a pinny and brandishing tongs” hosts a backstage barbeque.
And of course there is much more like this. Smash Hits is described in a particularly fond way despite Ellen’s baptism of fire interviewing Sheena Easton (“I’d set off her bollocks-alarm”) and visiting Meatloaf at his home in Connecticut (“The return trip to New York passed in almost silence”). Reflecting the “party on the page” atmosphere the magazine strived for, frequent discussions would take place with Assistant Editor Neil Tennant (yes, that one) about which pop star was “Down the Dumper” (Howard Jones) or “back, back, BACK!” (Bucks Fizz). But of course, for a man in his early thirties, interviewing Duran Duran, Nick Kershaw and JoBoxers week after week is an incongruous profession for someone brought up on Wishbone Ash and The Incredible String Band.
So, launching and editing Q magazine and rock nostalgia-fest Mojo shortly after he left Smash Hits, surfing the wave of the CD boom and box set nostalgia, played to Ellen’s strengths and it’s no coincidence that in a rapidly declining magazine market both these titles more or less survive to this day.
More recently and following a less than satisfactory departure from the above magazines’ publisher, Ellen and friend, colleague, co-presenter of Whistle Test, Live Aid, etc, David Hepworth launched the now sadly defunct Word magazine. Eschewing the usual market research with the rationale “We’d buy it”, (The) Word positioned itself as “At last, something to read”. Ostensibly a music title, Word offered New Yorker style long form articles from brilliant writers covering all manner of popular culture. Word was a labour of love, a Smash Hits for grown ups. And for many months it bewilderingly remained nailed to the newstand.
Ellen details the trials and tribulations of launching and sustaining an independent magazine title in the harsh new digital world and it’s a wonder it lasted so long. As a subscriber to the magazine, visitor to the website and listener to the podcast, I’m bloody glad it did. And reading what they went through to produce it, I’m more grateful than ever.
What strikes me throughout is how grounded Ellen remains in the face of such excess, so many egos. The memoirs are book ended by his participation in the coverage of the Rihanna “7 gigs in 7 countries farce” from a couple of years ago, where the Trinidad popstrel flew fans and journalists from venue to venue, hiding in first class and arriving at each venue with a total disregard for timekeeping. This all contrasts beautifully with Ellen’s now seemingly quaint reports of rock and pop from the front line. And like me reading this book, he never regrets a minute of it.
Rock Stars Stole My Life is published by Coronet (£18.99) and available from all good books shops. And some ropey ones.
Ellen covers a lot in a relatively short book but if you want more I can recommend:
Best of Q: Who The Hell…? – Tom Hibbert. Sadly now deceased, the brilliant Tom Hibbert worked with Ellen throughout the 1970’s, ’80’s and ’90’s and this is the collection of hilarious pomposity-pricking interviews he carried out for Q magazine. Foreword by, you guessed it.
The History of the NME – Pat Long. Ellen pops up often to recount life at the NME or to provide context as editor of many of NME’s later competitors.