This book is a musical memoir, and it stikes a chord with me because the writer is from my generation. So there are many times his road and mine take similar paths.
This is an entertaining read by a man from Wigan who became a music journalist with New Musical Express and a broadcaster. “From the earliest days I was dimly aware there was something funny about my hometown.” Whereas Wigan was immortalised by George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier, my own hometown, Slough was lambasted by the snobbish poet Betjeman “come friendly bombs and drop on Slough“. Both towns have been derided by comedians, even the Queen Mother had a dig at Slough, complaining the view from Windsor was so much better before Slough was built.
So Stuart what was the first band you saw live?
“Oh, Focus at the Southport Theatre in 1974 … unless you count The Beatles, of course.”
Stuart had the luck to be taken as a three year old by his mother to a Beatles concert at the ABC Cinema in Wigan. I can’t match that, I was a late starter, the first gig I went to was Tygers of Pan Tang at the Oxford Apollo in 1982, at the time Tygers were championed in Sounds with other purveyors of the pronounceable acronym NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) like Def Leppard and Iron Maiden.
I had a notebook for keeping a record of all the gigs I went to…
In the early seventies, Stuart got into T Rex and Suzi Quatro. Like Stuart, Suzi Quatro, the pint sized rocker from Detroit, may have been my first crush, too. I remember skipping Sunday School once when she appeared on Happy Days as Leather Tuscadero.
From T Rex, Stuart moved onto prog rock and the yodelling delights of Focus. I saw a lot of the later wave of prog rock bands in the eighties (Twelfth Night, IQ, Solstice, Marillion and the Prog Daddies…Pink Floyd). Stuart had a particular obsession with Gentle Giant. I’d never heard of them so had to check them out on Youtube.
From Prog Rock to Northern Soul, Wigan and the Wigan Casino was the heart of Northern Soul. Living in Slough, I was oblivious to Northern Soul at the time, a scene epitomised by dancing to obscure tracks put down by sixties and seventies black American singers like Frank Wilson, whose rare single “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)” is worth thousands of pounds.
Like many music journalists, Stuart Maconie, had aspirations to be a rock musician and with his friends he was in a couple of bands, first Mammoth Frog and later Les Flirts. My own musical aspirations came to an abrupt end aged 9, when Mrs Ringrose, singled me out as the only child not allowed to sing in the school play, my voice was that bad. I did shake a tambourine at a band rehearsal of Nine Steps to Ugly and got Polish October a gig at Aberystwyth University, but I never seriously harboured ambitions of being in a rock band.
In late 1976, punk emerged (there is continuing controversy as to whether punk started in America, UK or even Australia (check out The Saints in 1976)), Stuart’s first taste of punk was hearing the Damned’s second punk single “Neat Neat Neat” on John Peel’s show. By 1977 we were all familiar with punk, The Sex Pistols had released their infamous antidote to the Silver Jubilee “God Save The Queen“, the Clash had put out “White Riot” and numerous other acts good and bad had pushed punk into the spotlight.
I bought my first single in 1977, sadly it wasn’t a punk anthem but the double A side “Mull of Kintyre/ Girls’ School” by Wings. I remember it cost me 69p in WHSmith, and I had to take it back because it was scratched. The first album I bought had slightly more street cred, The Pretenders eponymous debut album, released at the end of 1979.
Punk soon morphed into New Wave, I was listening to Blondie and The Pretenders, Stuart was starting an English course at Edge Hill College in Liverpool. Liverpool at the time was home to such legendary acts as Echo and the Bunnymen, the Mighty Wah and Teardrop Explodes. While Stuart was able to see these acts live. I was in the sixth form, recording Teardrop Explodes singles illegally onto C60 or C90 cassettes. Stuart writes of Teardrop Explodes: “Julian Cope and Teardrop Explodes were my favourites though. Cope was dizzy, bravura, silly, romantic, grandiloquent, not characteristics you normally associate with someone from Leicester.” I was also listening to a lot of heavy metal.
As Stuart was graduating, I was just starting my degree (Geography and Librarianship) at the University of Wales (Aberystwyth). There were so many gigs in the first month at Aber that I tried to limit myself, I saw one hit wonders Joboxers but missed Marillion, which I regretted, particularly as after the first month it seems the ents budget had evaporated and there were few bands of any note prepared to venture out to Aberystwyth in the next three years (Ian Dury, Slade and Everything but the Girl being the exceptions). For Stuart, Edge Hill’s cretinous ents committee was once offered as potential bookings, on the same night, The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen and Liquid Gold…they chose Liquid Gold.
The Smiths exploded onto the music scene in 1983, in Aber we were gobsmacked by their debut on Top of the Pops, I regret never seeing them live. The opening plaintive line of “This Charming Man “…is quite wonderful “Punctured bicycle on a hillside desolate…” A whole chapter of Stuart Maconie’s memoir is entitled “This Charming Man”.
After graduating, Maconie applied for a job teaching English as a foreign language in Thessaloniki, got it, but the charms of Greece were bizarrely put aside for the dubious delights of teaching English and Sociology A Level in Skelmersdale. Maconie’s break came when he sent off a review of an Edwyn Collins gig to NME (New Musical Express), James Brown, the live editor, read it, liked it and asked Stuart to give him a ring. I sent a few speculative reviews to Sounds but didn’t hear anything. Now, I get my writing fix, keeping this blog. Stuart Maconie’s writing is a delight, witty, self deprecating, articulate and I just wish I could write so well (sigh!).
For a while Stuart continued to teach at Skelmersdale, whilst freelancing for NME. There is a funny scene where he gets a call from his editor during a class, asking if he could go to Seattle to interview Michael Hutchence of INXS. He felt the trip impossible but his class persuaded him otherwise. It was Stuart’s first foreign trip for NME, he had to get a passport and visa quickly, luckily at the passport office, the clerk Julie was an INXS fan and got him a passport speedily and he promised in return to bring her back Michael Hutchence’s autograph.
Soon after he dropped his Skelmersdale job and moved down south to London, where he rose up the NME ranks to become assistant editor. He witnessed a lot of great and not so great music, from the highs of Madchester (Happy Mondays and Stone Roses) to the lows of a tour van with the awful Napalm Death. I went to a lot of gigs at that time. Many of the bands he mentions, I saw, I worked in music retail from 1988 to 1991, working at Our Price Music in Notting Hill, I regularly saw two of Stuart’s heroes come into the shop: Mick Jones (The Clash and Big Audio Dynamite) and Elvis Costello.
The gigs I went to were a mix of indie, goth, prog and pop. I loved visiting the Marquee in London. Some bands I saw many times, I saw Primal Scream 14 times in 1989, before they had their big hit with “Screamadelica” (1990). “Bobby had defined an era of his own with Primal Scream’s “Screamadelica” the first genuinely groovy album to find its way into student record collections since Michael Jackson’s “Thriller“.
All good things come to an end. Stuart Maconie was with Primal Scream in New York when he had his “epiphany” : “Myself, Primal Scream, George Clinton and various unsavoury hangers on spent all weekend going to rotten parties full of anti-social nitwits trying to find the exact formulation of crystal meth that the Velvet Underground used to get zonked on.”
In 1991 I moved to France and from 1992 to 2000, I didn’t go to a single gig. This century I’ve only been to a handful of gigs, the last gig in England, I shared a stage with the legendary Damo Suzuki from Can, I had made some attempts at stand up comedy and was invited to be the compère by the Dudes of Neptune, friends who were joined on stage by the Japanese legend.
Thanks Stuart for the trip down memory lane. The music I didn’t know like “Lowdown” by Wire (How could I have not known that tune?) today I can easily find on Youtube. In the past when the music press had raved about some obscure record, I often had to buy it to see what the fuss was about.
My rating: It would be churlish to give this wonderful book anything other than 5 out of 5.