We’ve all heard of rock stars playing at being writers. From Nick Cave’s dark forays into gothic Americana, Mark Manning (AKA Zodiac Mindwarp) and his disturbingly depraved Hunter S.Thompson meets Marquis De Sade gonzo memoirs, that bloke from My Chemical Romance’s graphic novels and Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden’s bawdy volumes on Lord Iffy Boatrace, all manner of rock ‘n’ roll scribblings have made their way onto our unsuspecting bookshop shelves over the years. Hell, there’s even been cases of writers becoming rock stars, Leonard Cohen and Gil Scott Heron are probably the most noteworthy examples of this particular cultural trend.
But what happens when music journalists, people paid to write about music, get in on the act? What happens when they decide to play at being rock stars? In the past a band’s career could be made or destroyed by the flick of a quill and the dabbing of an ink well, with music weeklies (and monthlies) selling by the truckload. Folk from all walks of life, professors, painters, plumbers and paupers would eagerly wait in anticipation at the verdict on their favourite band or singer’s new album, perhaps even seeking out a new favourite act if they were the adventurous type. With print media now in decline, the world of music journalism is rather more fractured, many preferring to dip into a dazzling array of music sites with a click of a mouse or a press of a button. Here, I’ve attempted to delve into a world of music inhabited by writers from an age where the music mag was the only real source of info, a time before a quick look on youtube could tell you almost all you need to know about the latest artists, a top ten list of bands to feature music journalists. As ever, this list is in no particular order of preference. Here goes…
1. Gay Dad
Armed with a Glam aesthetic and an eye catching name, Gay Dad were the brainchild of Cliff Jones, a music journalist who had earned his pennies writing for Mojo and The Face, in rode the band on the back of some lucrative publicity and high profile support slots. Gay Dad’s debut single, ‘To Earth With Love’, shot into the top ten of the UK singles chart with all the speed of an ejaculating Leopard. Unfortunately, the band’s time in the limelight was to prove short lived; despite the debut album, Leisure Noise, reaching a respectable 14 in the albums chart, the follow up singles (Joy!, Oh Jim) only managed to trouble the top twenty and lower reaches of the top forty respectively, fuelled in part by a press backlash at Jones’s perceived pretentiousness and aspirations of grandeur. With the second album, 2001’s Transmission failing to chart the band called it a day the following year, with Jones moving into music production and freelancing for the Sunday Times.
2. Pet Shop Boys
Celebrated electronic pop duo the Pet Shop Boys were the creation of Neil Tennant, a former editor of the UK branch of Marvel Comics. Tennant occasionally wrote music pieces for Marvel, interviewing pop stars such as Marc Bolan and Alex Harvey, and had progressed to the position of associate editor of Smash Hits come the eighties. During this decade he formed a pact with Chris Lowe, taking on the greyness of the eighties with their effortlessly tuneful, politically and socially informed brand of electropop, with ‘West End Girls’ acting as their first big hit. A haunting, jarringly evocative vision of a consumerist society gone mad, the ‘east end boys and west end girls’ depicted as mere pawns in a ‘dead end world’ of backhanded business deals and money making, brought to life by a multitude of mournful vocal effects and a beat bigger than Boris Johnson’s lunch box, with legendary US music producer Stephen Hague manning the controls. Bleak yet beautiful, danceable yet dour, in my opinion the boys never quite recaptured the rush of this song on record, although having seen them at Glastonbury in the early noughties I can happily vouch for their live show being a thing of wonder. Pop music doesn’t come much more informed than this!
3. Marilyn Manson
Not so much a ‘band’ as a twisted solo vehicle for Brian Warner, a former journalist who wrote music articles for a South Florida “lifestyle magazine” called 25th Parallel back in the 80s. In the mid nineties/ early noughties Marilyn Manson was the scourge of regular God fearing folk the world over, becoming a poster boy for designer goths, S&M fetishists and spotty adolescents in clammy, semen stained bedrooms, selling albums and singles by the truckload in the process. A sort of pantomime Trent Reznor, Mr Manson and his backing band of fellow supermodel/serial killer juxtaposed troubadours (see what he did there?) struck gold in 1996 with the release of their album Antichrist Superstar, with the first single lifted from it, ‘The Beautiful People’, retrospectively making many ‘best songs of the nineties’ lists in various different music publications, an enjoyable slice of Goth metal folly comprised of industrial riffs, Adam and the Ants inspired Burundi drumming and some titillatingly ghoulish vocals from Mr Manson. Los Angeles producer (and onetime Black Grape member) Danny Saber released ‘The Horrible People’, the first official remix of the song the following year.
4. Regular Fries
Part of NME’s short lived ‘Skunk Rock’ movement of the late nineties (alongside Lo-Fidelity Allstars and Campag Velocet), psychedelic indie stoners Regular Fries counted NME and Q writer Paul Moody amongst their ranks, on ‘synthesizer and vibes’ duty to be precise. Moody had previously played in neo mod band Studio 68. The highlight of their second album, 2000’s War On Plastic Plants, came in the form of this propulsive collaboration with surreal Bronx rapper (and Ultramagnetic MC) Kool Keith; a magnificently funky, lethally paranoid shambles of sixties garage, skewed wordplay and hazy drug fuelled mischief, a match made either in Heaven, Hell or the court of the crimson king. Manic Street Preachers frontman James Dean Bradfield (a big fan of Keith) contributed a remix of the song to the CD single.
5. The Gonads
Before becoming white van man’s choice of TV critic, writing for a variety of Fleet Street publications, Garry Bushell cut his teeth as a music journalist, writing for legendary music publication Sounds. From the early eighties to the present day he has been singing, writing, recording and performing with his punk band, The Gonads, contributing to the OI! movement he is largely credited with inventing. During these early days Bushell apparently identified as a socialist (he even wrote for Socialist Worker as a teenager), although questionable lyrics like “Disco music’s what we hate” give a clue to the populist right stance he would adopt in later life as a tabloid hack. That said, this song is slightly redeemed by some pretty sick guitar playing, exemplified by an impressive solo beginning at approximately 2:30 minutes in. The proof is in the (slightly stale) pudding.
6. The Moonbears
Straight Outta Coventry, The Moonbears are fronted by Neil Kulkarni, a former Melody Maker writer and current contributor to DJ Mag and The Wire. A notoriously outspoken cultural commentator, Kulkarni’s passion for Hip Hop and Metal is not registered as such within this particular recording, the opening track of his band’s latest album, Let’s Get Nice With The Moonbears, a Jazz infused slice of Bowie-meets-Cardiacs skronk pop with lashings of 70s Sun Ra at his most mental. Tricky to categorize, impossible to define, The Moonbears are manning a supersonic rocket ship to the depths of the cosmos, a genuine space oddity in frustratingly grounded times. As aural lift offs go, you could certainly do far worse than this.
7. The Redskins
Armed with a manifesto to “sound like The Supremes and dance like The Clash”, York’s premier socialist skinhead band The Redskins invaded the Top 40 of the UK singles chart in 1984 with their anthem ‘Keep On Keepin’ On.’ Fronted by Chris Dean, a Socialist Workers Party member who wrote for NME under the pseudonym of X.Moore, The Redskins were on a mission to bring international socialism to the masses. This performance of the song on cult Channel Four series The Tube is a fascinating piece of a political history which appears to be making a comeback of sorts, the opening line of “Can’t remember such a bitter time” could easily apply to the Toryfied, inverted class wars of the present day. A speech by a Durham miner at the start of the song is rendered mysteriously inaudible, allegedly muffled out by the supposedly ‘right on’ producers of Channel Four at the time. The band split up at the end of 1986, despite their debut album Neither Washington Nor Moscow reaching number 31 in the same year. Rumour has it they were accused of making too much money from their music by the SWP and ordered to disband, their strong socialist principles leading them to obey the command.
8. The Vice Creems
Aylesbury punks The Vice Creems were formed in the late seventies by ZigZag editor and former president of the Mott The Hoople fan club Kris Needs. A handful of lucrative support slots led to their second single, ‘Danger Love’ gaining production duties from Mick Jones of The Clash. However, disaster struck just as recording was about to commence. The other three members of the band quit, leaving Needs to fend for himself. Happily, Jones assembled a motley crew of sessioners, assembling his bandmate Topper Headon on drums, Generation X’s Brian James on bass and taking on lead guitar duties by himself, creating a punk rock supergroup of sorts in the process! Jones, Headon and James were all given aliases on the record’s sleevenotes for legal reasons. Left without a regular band, Needs quit recording after the single’s release, later becoming a well established DJ, music journalist and rock biographer, publishing bestselling books on Joe Strummer, Primal Scream, Keith Richards and George Clinton. Oh, apparently Billy Idol sings backing vocals on this too!
9. Alternative TV
Alternative TV are the brainchild of Mark Perry, editor of the legendary punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue which launched the career of Danny Baker and featured snaps by acclaimed British photographer Dennis Morris. Their first single, ‘Love Lies Limp’, issued on a flexidisc in the final edition of Sniffin’ Glue in 1977, is widely regarded as pioneering the use of reggae rhythms in punk, a powerful ode to frigidity and sexual alienation. The band fizzled out in 1979, with Perry embarking on a series of solo and avant garde projects, only to bring the band back in the mid eighties. Since then they have recorded and played spontaneously, their most recent release being the album Opposing Forces in 2015.
And as an aside:
During his time fronting The Membranes throughout the late seventies and eighties, LTW head honcho John Robb also dabbled in music journalism. As well as publishing his own punk fanzine (Blackpool Rox) he also found time to freelance for a number of British music mags, including Sounds, ZigZag and Melody Maker. After disbanding The Membranes in the late eighties to devote more time to this profession, Robb emerged fighting his way in to the nineties with a vengeance; first with a dance project (the legendary Sensurround), then with the bequiffed, Glam Soul Bovver Boy Punk ‘n’ Roll outfit Goldblade, reaching the top seventy of the UK Singles Chart for the first time in 1997 with their glitter soaked terrace anthem ‘Strictly Hardcore.’ A riot of soul horns, punk chanting, killer riffs and shout outs to “the ravers and the drum ‘n’ bass crew”, the track served as a kind of mission statement; the politicized punk preaching of their later material is largely absent here, being more a celebration of noise, refusal to compromise and the sound of revolution. The band’s punk credentials were furthered the following year when they apparently turned down an offer from Billie Piper to buy their single ‘Hairstyle.’
And there we have it. Quite a niche market if the truth be told, if you can think of any more then please let me know. And remember, the pen is always mightier than the sword. Except in the event of a tie of course.
Words by Sean Diamond, read more from Sean at his authors archive.