The man who sold the Word
Mark Ellen revolutionised music writing in publications such as ‘Mojo’ and ‘The Word’. He reflects on a life in media and on where the future lies for music magazines
Revolutionary approach: Mark Ellen, writer and editor. Photograph: Virginia Turbett/Redferns
Lady Gaga with Mark Ellen
Certain incidents may cause one to reconsider one’s career as a rock journalist. Having one’s head banged repeatedly against a wall by Elvis Costello’s notoriously combative manager Jake Riviera is probably high among them. Riviera, who had no great affection for journalists, let the young Mark Ellen know this in no uncertain terms by using his head as a metronome one evening in 1977, adding, for good measure, “ ‘And do you know what else we hate?’ I didn’t, no, and the banging continued. ‘We hate f***ing hippies [bang] with long hair and green velvet f***ing jackeeets.’ ”
Which was, unfortunately, Ellen to a T.
Still, Ellen could regard himself as having got off rather lightly. His colleague Paul Du Noyer had his jacket set on fire by a bored Rat Scabies, of The Damned. (Du Noyer was wearing said jacket at the time.) Another junior reporter, Deanne Pearson, was left gaffer-taped to a tree in a desert by The Stranglers.
Ellen has now recorded his experiences in a book, Rock Stars Stole My Life! He is one of the most important figures in modern British music journalism. After stints at Record Mirror and New Musical Express, he went on to become editor of Smash Hits in its 1980s heyday, founding editor of Q magazine, managing editor of Mojo and editor of the much mourned the Word, as well as hosting the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test and anchoring its coverage of Live Aid. Along with his fellow Whistle Test alumnus David Hepworth he launched the age of the glossy music monthlies. Without Ellen the face of music writing would be very different.
Oh, and he was once in a band called Ugly Rumours, fronted by a would-be-Jaggeresque lead singer named Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, from whom little of note has been heard since, musically speaking.
Sitting in his kitchen in Chiswick, in west London, nursing a coffee, a Jaffa Cake and a mild hangover from a wedding the night before, Ellen is engaging, enthusiastic company. What has always characterised the publications with which he has been most intimately involved is their essential good nature. Music papers such as NME and Melody Maker seemed to believe that almost nothing of note existed before 1977, Bowie and Lou Reed possibly excepted. By contrast, the worldview of Ellen and his cohort was conditioned by huge affection for virtually every form of music.
“You have a certain available bandwidth of brainpower and memory, and from a very early age I started to fill this with vast tracts of esoteric musical nonsense,” he says. “I was just genuinely besotted with pop and rock music ever since I was a kid, and I managed to sustain that enthusiasm, incredibly.”
This degree of obsession with popular music is also, I suggest, a peculiarly, though not exclusively, male phenomenon. “Broadly, it’s like when I worked in men’s magazines and women’s magazines. Men’s magazines were about specific mental conditions and exploring them, and they didn’t have much general interest or open-mindedness. They were just about shoring up your own opinions, your own confidence. Whereas women’s magazines were very, very open-minded. Women were just more open to the general possibilities of life.
“And I felt that very strongly about music, too. Women thought that music was there as a backdrop – for parties, for communal activities – while men tended to think of it as a very serious thing, a defining thing.”
Ellen grew up as the only male sibling of three sisters. “My view of pop music was completely conditioned by three older sisters. I saw it as being an amazing cocktail of clothes, fashion, personality and also, yes, chords and lyrics and all that kind of stuff.”
That, in a nutshell, could describe the ethos of Smash Hits, of which Ellen became editor in 1983. Aided by soon-to-be Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant, Ellen and his team embraced the joyousness of the new romantics and their ilk, recognising an act of rebellion in their desire to reinvent themselves through colourful fashion and breezy, tuneful music (in an era of miners’ strikes and Thatcherism). This social statement was, in its way, as profound as punk. It represented a reaction to what Ellen describes as “the group-approved orthodoxy” of NME.
The NME system
“The NME had a system of asking questions to which there was no right answer. Whatever they asked was looking to tease out the thing that was going to let the artist down. ‘That guy is a complete w**ker because he’s never read Kierkegaard,’ or whatever. When I got to Smash Hits we invented a concept of asking questions to which there was no wrong answer, like ‘What colour is Tuesday?’ We were just celebrating the fact that these wonderful groups were around, and we weren’t there to judge them.”
The glossy music monthly Q, which Ellen left Smash Hits to found in 1986, was a product of the CD generation. The development of CDs led to a process of rediscovery, as record companies transferred existing product to the new digital format, which meant that older artists suddenly found their back catalogues being bought again.
“We started covering all of the arch-criminals, the war criminals: Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart. I was the only person taking Rod Stewart, if not seriously, then I wasn’t going to barbecue this guy for being a complete pillock. I was going to try to find some value in what he did, and in him on a personal level. And that was kind of revolutionary, and a whole landscape began to change.”
Q was not without bite, though. The genially eccentric Tom Hibbert was one of the only journalists in the 1980s to question, in an interview with Jimmy Savile, the appropriateness of allowing a character as odd as the BBC presenter to wander hospital wards unaccompanied at night. (Hibbert, now deceased, also provided possibly my favourite six words in modern journalism. Faced with another eye-wateringly offensive joke from the rotund racist comic Bernard Manning, his sole comment was, “Ha ha ha, you fat bastard.”)
Mojo magazine, established with Ellen as managing editor in 1993, took Q’s approach a step further. Mojo zeroed in on particular albums, or periods, in a classic musician’s life, examining them in forensic detail.
Finally, there was the Word, the demise of which clearly still pains Ellen. That magazine saw the possibilities offered by the iPod, hosting a weekly podcast during which Ellen and his contributors sat around and discussed whatever happened to strike them as interesting that week, whether that be the latest news of Bob Dylan or, in the event of your ceiling collapsing under the combined weight of vinyl and CDs, which album you’d most like to be killed by. It was a means of intimately involving the readership in a communal experience of the magazine. It couldn’t bring in enough advertising, however, and ceased publication shortly before its 10th birthday.
Future of music journalism
it is magazines such as Mojo that represent the future of music journalism. “I think the specialist press will survive, and you can’t really replace beautiful pictures printed on paper. But I think the specialist press only appeals to people with an enormous depth of interest.
“What’s going to suffer is the top end, the big commercial mainstream, because there’s a very direct relationship between the depth of people’s interest and the extent to which they want to read about stuff. There are only so many people whose fetishistic attitude to music, like mine, kind of suits that specialist medium.”
Before I leave I ask Ellen one last question. What, if any, is his musical blind spot, the one artist or group that simply leaves him cold? (I confess to being bewildered by Bruce Springsteen.) It takes him a minute, but he finally admits to an intense dislike for Roxy Music and its leader, Byron Ferrari, as NME branded Bryan Ferry.
“I simply can’t stand Roxy Music. There’s nothing about them I can stand. I can’t bear Byron Ferrari. I can’t bear the noise he makes. Jesus, the hours of my life I’m never going to get back spent with people playing Roxy Music records.”
You can take the boy out of NME . . .
Rock Stars Stole My Life!: A Big Bad Love Affair With Music is published by Coronet