Golden age of pop journalism
Music: I'm Not With the Band, Sylvia Patterson, Publisher, hdbk, 448 pages, €23.99
Sylvia Patterson's account of her life as a writer for pop bible 'Smash Hits' is as full of rhythm, melody and crescendo as the acts she covered. And every bit as entertaining, too
A time may come when we will have to sit down the fandom of the future and explain to them that access to an act's sphere of reference or identity once came via a thing called "the music press". Before social-media accounts, Bandcamp pages or heftily priced "premium concert experience" packages, listeners got to know their music idols through a fuelled, formidable and colourful swathe of publications that could make tastes or break careers and provide touchstones for fevered kids wanting a peek behind the stage curtain.
Sylvia Patterson, a veteran great of the heyday of pop mag Smash Hits and indie tabloid NME, was hewn from the very same monolith that Rolling Stone guru Lester Bangs carved out in the 1970s. The Scot was one of a crop of rock scribes (such as Paul Morley and dangerman Nick Kent) that cartwheeled irreverently through the pop circus before lining up hitmakers in their cross-hairs for a thorough face-to-face examination. By way of some of the most deliriously perky penmanship your eyes will have the pleasure of scanning this year, she turns the Dictaphone on herself to detail her own experiences at the rock-hack coalface.
And unlike today, music journos took no prisoners back then. Moving to London, the Joy Division-obsessed Patterson took up residency in Smash Hits as a staff writer at the age of 20, fulfilling a long-held ambition to pour her obsession with music into column inches and maybe meet a few of her pin-ups along the way (one cringeworthy anecdote sees her crash and burn hilariously in a hotel lobby with "incorrigible crumpeteer" and adolescent crush Mick Hucknall). Smash Hits was a monster at that time, shifting a million units a fortnight and being a card-carrying cog in the mechanics of the pop industry. The fun could commence.
It is her job to be opinionated and she doesn't disappoint. Damon Albarn was "not only Blur's but the actual era's monumental pain in the arse". Wet Wet Wet are ingeniously remembered as "sponge cakes exploding in a food fight", while The Strokes were nothing more than "the New York Gene". A roaring chapter about trying to cut Westlife to pieces also shows that she is nothing if not fair, in hindsight at least ("Westlife were the least insultable band in history… Everything I hated about them they found their greatest asset. And they were absolutely right.")
Similarly, an evening in Dublin sees her succumbing to the charm, generosity of spirit and bonhomie of Bono ("one of the world's true, singular eccentrics"), whom she has to bully into actually talking about U2's new offering at the time, 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind. Madonna, meanwhile, is encountered during her Kabbala-and-henna Ray of Light years and topples off Patterson's pop plinth after floating into the interview, "as if on castors", looking like a "tepee-dwelling gypsy". Her skill is remarkable to observe when she bags a gig for a restricted and clipped interview slot with the long-silent Prince in 1996. There, she duly ends up disarming the erstwhile "Purple Perv" and talking erections.
One would devour this bulky tome in a couple of days were there not so many intermissions needed to put the thing down and emit a bellylaugh for a few minutes before reading on. Patterson's patter, assembled from those absurdist days tracing Bros and Kylie in Smash Hits, is as full of rhythm, melody and crescendo as the very acts she was charged with covering. And every bit as entertaining, too.
All this would be useless, however, if Patterson didn't face up to her toughest interviewee - herself. As with Helen Macdonald's H is For Hawk, I'm Not With the Band is laced with an unflinching eye on her own difficulties, and hits moments of real, aching poignancy because of it. Some, such as the drugs, booze, horrid gaffs and bad taste in men, were part of the carnival which, at 51, she now views as perhaps not exhibiting wise decision-making on her part. More tragic are the details of her "damaged, deviant childhood" in Perth and her alcoholic mother who maintained a dark stranglehold on her emotionally. This was reconciled in time to see her mother pass away in 2004, a bruising passage that is made all the more sorrowful when this reformed goth finds love (with equally brilliant Ziggyology and Mozipedia author Simon Goddard), buys a flat, and then cruelly suffers three miscarriages.
As she lets the dust of these huge fractures settle, she also ties up a thread that runs throughout this dazzling memoir - music journalism's "agonisingly slow death". Smash Hits folded in 2006 and NME (which she became sorely disillusioned by as it compromised its spirit to address ailing sales) is now a free-sheet. The journalistic jousting contained here is unimaginable in the entertainment industry of today, what with its vice-grip PR supervision, media training and the cotton-gloved insulation that comes when a multimillion dollar brand is being peddled around the planet's arenas. A 2014 encounter with Lily Allen that opens proceedings demonstrates this. Internet "liberals" - a decidedly intolerant community - have cowed many of today's bigger acts to the extent that many no longer bother with in-depth interviews.
They're scared, argues Patterson, "of public humiliation, of ruinous tabloid headlines, of having the 'wrong' opinion, of ludicrously disproportionate scandal and the platoons of Twitter trolls on constant trawl for the sackable offence".
Who can blame them, she shrugs.
When not even a "thunderingly bored" David Attenborough is able to spell out the meaning of life to her in the closing pages, Patterson, meagre of income and facing into an uncertain professional future, exhumes the unlikely sagacity of Diana Ross from a 1987 interview.
"Good friends and family. Going for a picnic. Going on a long walk. Relationships. Dancing or reading a good book." On that last nugget of advice from the diva, there is no better place to start than right here.