Rock Stars Stole My Life!
By Mark Ellen

Coronet 2014, £18.99, pp340

First thing I noticed as soon as I opened Mark Ellen's new book - I have to admit my surprise could not have been greater - was its font size, characters on the page appearing absolutely huge (what I have is the hardback edition; those with a dislike for "physical objects" will be glad to know that an ebook edition is also available), even larger than those chosen for the hardback edition of Carole King's autobiography A Natural Woman (published in 2012 by Grand Central Publishing): a volume that, not surprisingly, is described as "large print" - something which at the time I considered to be impossible to be enlarged.

I pondered the possibility that this could be what Chance had chosen for me as the best shot in order to make me aware that the distance between those perennial Carole King classics such as Up On The Roof and I Feel The Earth Move and the life of those magazines where Mark Ellen worked - familiar names such as the New Musical Express, Smash Hits, Q, Select, Mojo, and The Word - was by now quite difficult to perceive, both time periods now necessitating the same pair of presbyopic glasses.

Curiously, Rock Stars Stole My Life! made me think of another book, one which Ellen's book does not resemble at all, but which makes the individual character of Ellen's book appear even easier to perceive, by virtue of opposition. I'm talking about Cornflakes With John Lennon - And Other Tales Of A Rock 'n' Roll Life, the autobiography written by US critic Robert Hilburn (published by Rodale in 2009).

Cornflakes With John Lennon is the volume where Hilburn - chief Pop & Rock critic of what for decades was the most influential US newspaper when it comes to the music industry, the L.A. Times - narrates the long history of his career as the most powerful music critic in the country. Here's a partial list of those with whom Hilburn had "close encounters" (readers are invited to take a deep breath): Johnny Cash, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Phil Spector, John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Joe Strummer, Eddie Vedder, Thom Yorke, U2/Bono, Michael Jackson, Eminem, David Bowie, Madonna, Leonard Cohen, Chuck D, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Kurt Cobain.

As it's made apparent by its title - how many of us had breakfast with John Lennon? - the book presents a long list of individuals possessing "heroic" qualities (something which makes Hilburn an "American" critic, in the commonly understood meaning of the term), as described by an exceptional witness: Hilburn himself. The music industry, the market, the audience, the critics - all those entities are not ignored, but taken for granted, and so placed in the background.

Ellen's chosen perspective - which I'll define as "Made In U.K." - is definitely one of "inclusion".

Of course, familiar figures abound: to name just a few, Meat Loaf, Iggy Pop, Van Morrison, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Rod Stewart, and - in a chapter entirely devoted to them, under the title The Lake District And Ancient Ruins (a story which made me laugh a lot, though the tale has a very bitter taste for Ellen) - Jimmy Page e Roy Harper. The huge quantity of names and tales are just part of the whole story, which also features fans, magazines, record companies, radio and television programs, the ever-changing world, and a lot more - something which makes this book more than just an autobiography, as it's clearly shown by its subtitle: A Big Bad Love Affair With Music, which in my opinion is more representative of the real content of the book than its chosen title.

Today Ellen is about sixty, still active as a freelancer writer. But as readers will see, at the end of the book one is confronted with a terminal state of the music press, and maybe of the music industry itself.

What's missing? An index! One will have lotsa trouble finding names and places - which include such (by now) obscure groups as Hookfoot, Fat Mattress, and Colosseum.

As already noted above, Rock Stars Stole My Life! chronicles Mark Ellen's career in its various phases: New Musical Express, Smash Hits, his work for Radio One, his TV work for The Old Grey Whistle Test, co-hosting the UK side of Live Aid, his editing and managing roles in magazines such as Q, Select, Mojo, The Word. The acknowledgments appearing at the start of the book also mention "Annabel Brog, who thinks this book should be called 'How Mark Ellen Was Totally Washed Up Till His Career Was Saved By Annabel Brog From Elle Magazine' - which, to be fair, it was".

How come Mark Ellen's career was saved by Annabel Brog from Elle magazine - and what's Ellen doing on a big plane which flies Rihanna all over the world, with a colourful circus of journalists and fans in for the ride, as presented in the first chapter?

Though the first scene shows Mark Ellen attending a Rock Festival in August 1971, the real story begins in the Sixties, of course - readers will have no trouble tracing a parallel with the story narrated in the movie The Boat That Rocked - with names such as the Beatles, the Kinks, the Stones, Dylan, the Byrds, Barry McGuire's Eve Of Destruction, Top Of The Pops, Captain Beefheart, Chicken Shack, and the Spirit album titled The Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus. We see Soft Machine performing their album Third at the Roundhouse. We listen to Mark Ellen playing the bass guitar in a group called Ugly Rumors, a college ensemble where Ellen sits beside future UK prime minister Tony Blair.

Though Ellen's first published pieces appeared in the Record Mirror, it's the New Musical Express - which at the time featured such stars as Charles Shaar Murray, Julie Burchill, Tony Parsons, and Nick Kent, and "new names" such as Ian Penman and Paul Morley - that at first looks like the real deal. It's Spring, 1978. The picture of the newsroom painted by Ellen is quite vivid - and, in a way, surprising.

Feeling like the proverbial square peg in a round hole, Ellen quits the New Musical Express. It's Summer 1980, and Ellen starts collaborating with a short-lived weekly created at a moment when the other weeklies were all on strike due to a pay dispute. It's with his description of his collaboration with New Music News that the narration gets more brio, with the portrait of colleague Tom Hibbert - let's not forget it was Ellen who, just a few years ago, wrote Hibbert's obituary for The Guardian - and the interview with The Teardrop Explodes which put an end to Ellen's recreational drug use.

That Mark Ellen became a mature writer in the period when he wrote for Smash Hits (his first major interview: Sheena Easton) could sound quite bizarre, given the "teen" orientation of said magazine (of which Ellen will later become editor). But, as Ellen writes (p.122), "Pop music was taking over in late '81". It's the time when the Police, the Pretenders, and Blondie are having hits, and music videos appear: Smash Hits will ride this wave, with the slogan The Party On Paperô, and one million copies sold. Here Ellen meets Dave Hepworth, who'll be a constant companion in his future endeavors; and Neil Tennant, who'll soon become a star with the Pet Shop Boys.

Readers will encounter many chapters about Ellen's radio and television work for the BBC: first, with the radio program Rock On, and as a stand-in for star DJ John Peel; later, on the screen, as a host of The (Old Grey) Whistle Test. On July 13, 1985 Ellen co-hosts the mega concert broadcast of Live Aid.

There's a point I want to make here: a competent and versatile critic, Ellen is not a "soloist", or a "stylist" whose prose one "gets" after just a few lines; he's more a writer at the service of the music, involved and sincere - so his enthusiasm reads authentic - also quite open-minded when it comes to appreciating different music "genres"; those are qualities that - while they make it quite unlikely that an anthology of his writings will appear - make him a perfect "team player", also an ideal candidate to be a magazine editor.

This, in fact, is the role played by Ellen for UK magazines that are now part of the history of music journalism: Smash Hits (1983), Q (1986), Select (1991), and Mojo (1993), as monthlies that went hand-in-hand with video, the reinvention of "Classic Rock" in the "CD age", a fresh period of "new music", and the "back to classicism" in the age of the "big box". (There's also the reinvention of the Brit Awards, as a bastion of "quality on a mass basis".)

Then disaster occurs, with the Internet, free illegal downloading, and the multiplication of sources that makes the very idea of a "quality industry" an impossibility. (Just compare those 270.000 copies sold by Q in its best period to the 50.000 copies sold now by such magazines as Q, Mojo, and Uncut, others selling a lot less.)

Here Mark Ellen is a clear-eyed witness, those problems on a large scale being made even worse by specific mistakes. And so Ellen is "made redundant" by the EMAP conglomerate, where he occupied a top post and supervised many magazines. It's January 14, 2000.

It was at this point that Ellen and other brave men and women decided to start what I think was the last music paper magazine founded in the Internet age: Word, which later became The Word. I remember quite well the articles appearing in the daily newspapers celebrating this audacious adventure, though I have to admit I never imagined mousetraps were used in the newsroom. I clearly remember the cover of issue #1 (Nick Cave); my amazement when I noticed there was no CD attached to the magazine cover; my amazement when - later - I saw a CD attached to the magazine cover; and a very difficult commercial journey, which started in 2002 and stopped nine years later. They fought to the last, created a Podcast, but - alas - there was nothing they could do.

The last chapters of this book see Ellen, now a freelancer, audition in order to interview Lady Gaga, and fly on that plane in order to write a piece about Rihanna's tour. Those chapters feature quite surreal episodes, which I won't reveal. Here Ellen compares the degree of access available to the music press, then and now.

The book also features some fine pictures.

What's the moral of this story? Maybe the importance of keeping one's faith even when confronted with great difficulties. Maybe the irrational hope that the laziness of the majority won't make it all useless.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2014 | May 26, 2014