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.