If you’re a music fan, especially of the Manchester music scene, and appreciate a good biography then there’s a good chance you’ve read one of Simon Spence’s books. Some of his published works include the excellent Donnelly Brothers biography Still Breathing, War and Peace (which is the latest and most complete Stone Roses story ever (arguably the second best Roses biog!) ) and next, due for release this November, is Excess All Areas, the real story of The Happy Mondays. The book includes contributions from band member’s such as Paul Ryder and Gary Whelan, which, unlike past biography’s on the Mondays, comes straight from the horses mouth. Covering the group’s career from 1982-1993 it’s shaping up as the definitive Mondays story.
On top of all that, Spence talks us through his Stone Roses biography War And Peace and tells us why getting the chance to cover the band you’ve idolised as a kid can also have its down sides as well as highs. He also talks about some of his other publications, such as the already classic Andrew Loog Oldham bio’s; Stoned, 2Stoned’ and more …
Hi Simon, thanks for chatting to Louder Than War, am I correct in saying you’ve just finished putting together the new Happy Mondays biography ‘Excess All Areas’?
Simon Spence That’s right. Just put the book to bed. It’s out on November 20. I’ve also written a film script based on one of my earlier books and that’s getting strong interest. Plus my agent is trying to hustle me a deal on a proposal for a new music book. I’ve got mouths to feed.
Every book that’s ever been written on the Mondays has been unofficial and put together using past interviews as well as hearsay / rumours, but Excess All Areas really is the first Happy Mondays biography which members of the band have collaborated on isn’t it?
Simon Gary Whelan, Paul Ryder and Mark Day were all unbelievably generous with their time. I interviewed Gary and Paul on and off over a few months; they did over ten long sessions each, and I spent many enjoyable mornings talking with Mark who also kindly let me rummage through his box of Mondays stuff. He has some amazing recordings in there, including a very early band rehearsal when they’re doing a Depeche Mode cover version!
I also met up with Paul Davis and spent many hours interviewing other key figures in the Mondays story, such as Phil Saxe, who managed them from 1984 – 1988, Nathan McGough who managed them for the next five years, and Shaun and Paul’s dad, Derek, who was with the band from 1982 – 1993. The photographs in the book come from the band and have never been seen before. I got early encouragement to pursue the idea from Pat Carroll, of Central Station Design, and the Donnelly brothers, Anthony and Christopher. Keith Jobling, who as one half of the Bailey Brothers shot all the band videos, was instrumental in getting me access. Shaun has obviously put his side of the story out there already and so has Bez and, yes, I’ve read all the other books too.
So did you unearth what really went on behind the scenes, was it all as crazy as you’d thought it would be or was it actually quite a different scene to the one which was put out there by the press and such? Does the book also cover the band’s music, shedding more light on their influences and ideas behind their sound?
Simon – The book ends in 1993. There’s obviously an afterword about the intervening years, up to present, but the book is focused on 1982 to 1993. My editor at Aurum, the book’s publisher, worked on Alex Ross’s book The Rest Is Noise and after I came up with the first draft he honed in on three areas to address with real clarity: evaluate the cultural importance of the band, give a snapshot of Britain and separate myth from reality. It’s long – almost 120,000 words – with very little, if any, fat on it. The story of Factory is interwoven in the Mondays’ journey and I’m told this is the most accurate depiction in print of Tony Wilson.
The music press of the era hardly began to scratch the surface of the band. I read almost every interview and there was barely a word of truth. Most of it is bullshit. Excess All Areas – like all the band’s work – is very honest, brutally so. There is a rare elegance in that. It’s something that marks the band out in my opinion. Obviously there are parts of their story that are comic, reckless, dark, or tragic and all their problems – as a band and personally – are in there, but it gives you the context. The Mondays are much more than the one-dimensional animal they are so often portrayed as, perhaps not on this website but more generally. They were incredibly hard working, meticulous about the sound of their live show, deep-thinking, literate, serious about their art. There’s no punchline. The perception of the band is far from the actuality.
I interviewed their American agent, Marc Geiger. He also looked after The Smiths and New Order in America, was a close pal of Tony Wilson’s, and is now one of the most powerful men in the American music industry as head of William Morris Endeavour’s music division. He said: “More than the Roses, more than the Primals, who both only had one great record, the Mondays, pretty much, all their albums were great. I don’t think historically they’ve earned their due.” It’s not far from the truth. The five albums the Mondays released between 1987 and 1992 are such a remarkable body of work; not only do the Mondays never sound like any other band, each album sounds different to the one before. You hate to make claims on their behalf but they are one of the greatest original rock bands of all time. Paul, Gary and Mark (not meaning to denigrate Paul Davis’s invaluable contribution) were the musical driving force of the band, so, yes, the book gets to the heart of the matter – the music – and, without doubt, in greater depth than ever before.
Another recent publication you put together was The Stone Roses: ‘War and Peace’. what was it like putting that one together and what’s the reaction been like to that, is it correct there some dispute in putting it together?
Simon Well, I was a Roses kid. I saw them at the Blackpool show as a teenager, fell in love, copied the look and went banging on doors in London. I walked into jobs at The Face, i-D and NME just on the back of having a northern accent, the hair, a decent top, flares and Wallabees. I got to cover Spike Island as a cover story in The Face, and what was that, nine months after Blackpool? So the Roses have always been my band.
I still can’t – or won’t – reveal the whole shooting match behind the making of the book but it was great fun. You’ve got to love Reni. I was like a kid in candy shop. I went after everyone. I loved getting John Kennedy, Toxin Toy and Greg Lewerke and I’ve been talking recently again to Guns N’ Roses manager Doug Goldstein who managed the Roses briefly in 1995. I spent six months to a year interviewing people: six former band members (not quite six…Editor) plus former managers, record company bosses, lawyers, promoters and producers… many of these only talked because I was going in with some authority from the band. All this work, over 400 hours of interviews, of course, was to allow Reni, Ian, John and Mani to talk over the detail.
Then they reformed! And two weeks before they held their news conference announcing they had, there was a double page spread in the Independent about the book – nothing to do with me but seen – the paper reckoned – as an indicator of an ‘imminent third coming of the Roses’. That didn’t help. John and Ian were reading the piece when Reni walked in for their first rehearsal. There was an argument. Later I had a heated exchange with Ian.
Basically it became a different book to the one I started out to do but with the backing of my editor at Penguin it became a huge success – certainly for me creatively. It sold remarkably well, got great reviews around the world, was 6 Music’s book of the month, The Times book of the week, NME book of the year and The Financial Time’s pop book of the year. It also got a full page slating for ‘micro-music trivia’ in the New York Times, but mostly it got called definitive and forensic a lot. I saw Mani and Ian at the launch of the book I did after the Roses one [Still Breathing: The True Adventures of the Donnelly Brothers] and they both shook my hand. I did the best I could with what I had and crucially I learnt from the work and enjoyed doing it (buy War & Peace here.)
You’ve actually written biography’s for many of your own personal fave groups / artist making it sounds like the dream job. But how did you initially get into this line of work?
Simon: It took ten years. In 1990, as a teenager working for the music press, I tracked down Andrew Loog Oldham, the Stones 1960s Svengali, who had disappeared and was presumed dead by many – or at least deadly. For me the Stones with Brian was the zenith in terms of image, aura and sound and Oldham was the young man, younger than the band, 19 when he took them over, who managed, packaged, produced and promoted the whole shebang: made Mick and Keith write their own songs too. He was basically cooler than the coolest band ever. He looked it too, walked it and talked it. He was described by Nik Cohn as ‘The most flash personality British pop ever had, the most anarchic and obsessive and imaginative hustler of all.”
So I went after Andrew Loog Oldham. I called Allen Klein’s office daily until I got a number in Bogota, Colombia. I rang it and this growl – and the lines to the country were unstable then, always cutting out – said if I made it out to Bogota there might be a book in it. I convinced The Face to stump up the flight money and off I flew. Andrew was crazy back then, and we didn’t sleep for ten days: lots of grass, cocaine and Grappa. I was hallucinating. Then he came to London for more drug and drink-fuelled work on the book. Luckily for me he got straight and finally, in 1996, after I blagged another lot of flight money from another magazine, we made an agreement in Buenos Aires and started work seriously. It took six months in the British newspaper library, 300 interviews with various key figures in his story and several trips back out to Bogota, but three years later the big book was done. It changed from third person to first person real late on – which was kind of heartbreaking – and became two volumes Stoned and 2Stoned published in 2000 and 2002. Both are highly regarded and the experience of doing them was invaluable, unrepeatable and the greatest of adventures. Andrew showed me how to do it and most importantly showed me that I could do it.
‘Stoned’ is one of my all time favourite biography’s ever; I’ve read that book at least five times my copy has kind of fallen to bits. Some of your other acclaimed titles include the Donnelly brothers ‘Still Breathing and ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ The Depeche Mode bio … but which books are you probably most proud of, and why?
Simon: Thanks. I’ve been very lucky. I got to spend many years working at the elbow of Loog Oldham, had a wonderful two weeks with the infamous Don Arden – the most feared man in the music business – conducting interviews for his autobiography and the six months I spent working closely with the Donnelly brothers was another education you can’t buy. I covered the formative years of Depeche Mode and their hometown of Basildon and wrote a book on Tony Calder and Loog Oldham’s 1960s record label Immediate, the first UK independent label (the book is being reissued next year as it’s the label’s 50th anniversary). I’ve had a genuine passion for all these people / bands / labels so I’ve always enjoyed the homework and am proud of the result of all the work. Getting both Loog Oldham and the Donnelly brothers to print was quite an achievement and getting the Roses book together took some balls too. But the Mondays book is the best thing I’ve done.
Simon: I hope so. It’ll be interesting to see what the next generation of e-book looks like – you’d imagine music bios would be the perfect vehicle for experiments in combining words, sound and image. The internet certainly makes research easier – I haven’t been to British newspaper library in a while. We all like our information fast but I find, in my line of work, a lot of misspellings, misinformation or misinterpretation pass as fact on the net – mind you, that also applies to many bios too. There’s a vast difference, however, between something like Wikipedia, or some hack job on the latest rock or pop star, and the work of someone like Claire Tomalin. Her bio of Charles Dickens was a good example of a job well done, something to aspire to and everlasting. So yes, I agree with you. I could hardly disagree.
Which groups and artists out there would you really like to cover one day, anyone / thing in particular you’d love the write about?
Simon: It’s tough. What you’d like to do and what you can do, or what someone will pay you to do, are not always one and the same. I’ve been lucky but publishers seem to prefer autobiographies by well-known figures. I’m always getting asked about Pete Doherty. I’d like to do a book of profiles. I’ve a list of people. There’s one more band I’d like to write about. Not who you’d expect. We’ll see. It’s a great story. I’m also chatting with a Manchester man about his book and there’s talk maybe of a Salford fella. I’d like to do something away from music. I’ve been reading The Shock Doctrine and just got round to Fast Food Nation on holiday. It’s finding a subject that tallies with what a publisher thinks you’re capable of or will trust you with.
Will you be doing anything to launch ‘Excess all Areas’, maybe a party or book signing?
Simon: The Donnelly brothers really pushed the boat out for the launch of ‘Still Breathing’. We had two great parties: one in London and one in Manchester. For ‘War and Peace‘ we did a live webcast from 80 Hertz studios in the Sharp Project with myself, Simon Wolstencroft, Sarah Champion, Helen Mead, Elliot Rashman and Bob Dickinson. That was interesting but kind of nerve-wracking.
We’re still figuring out the Mondays book launch. We’ve been offered the main space at HMV in Oxford Street in London. I know the band is signing 50 advance copies of the book and the plan is to use them to trying to raise money for Chico’s Campaign. (Chico’s Campaign Facebook page.)
I think something will be happening around their upcoming gigs. The Mondays are also up for doing interviews to promote the book – better to talk to them than me surely. There will also be a book website up and running shortly – The Boot Room is doing that and it will have plenty of rare unseen stuff: photos, words, audio interviews, unheard music – perhaps even some new music. We’re hoping it’ll become a bit of a fan hub.
Lastly, Simon, can you tell me what your personal fave Mondays album or tune is, and from their early funky punk sound and style, to their later work with Oakenfold, which was their greatest era you think?
Simon: The Egg has to be their first masterpiece. Oasis and Weekend S too are other early standouts for me. Squirrel, their debut album, is such a great piece of work. I love that album. You can listen to it endlessly and never really fathom it out. The 24 Hour Party People session in Rochdale that also produced Moving In With, Yahoo and Wah Wah was very special. Then Wrote For Luck was massive. The video for that is something else. Forget the remixes for a minute, how about Martin Hannett’s six-minute album version of Wrote For Luck on Bummed? Performance from that album as done on The Other Side of Midnight is bewildering too, just for Bez – it’s a moment that ranks alongside anything you care to mention. The Madchester Rave On EP is the best of Hannett and the Mondays together, groundbreaking stuff. Pills ‘n’ Thrills is even better, one of the greatest albums of all time. The Live album is huge – why doesn’t someone put the crowd noise on that album? It’d be one of the best live albums ever. Many of the tracks off Yes Please! – especially live – are wonderful. I’m thinking of Monkey in the Family, Sunshine and Love or Angel. I can’t really separate the whole thing now or choose an era or period … to me it’s all one era – and it’s one they shaped and defined. One song? God’s Cop maybe … should have been a single.
To purchase a copy of Excess All Areas go to this link on Amazon.
You can follow Simon Spence on Twitter where he uses the handle @simonspence69.
All words by Carl Stanley. More writing by Carl on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.