Printed By Chimps: Andrew Mueller Interviewed By David Stubbs
, November 23rd, 2014 15:29
Following the release of his new book, It's Too Late to Die Young Now, Andrew Mueller sits down with erstwhile colleague and renowned monocle-wearer David Stubbs to discuss Mueller's life in music journalism, a shared history at Melody Maker, how Straitjacket Fits changed his life forever and the changing face of the music press
A prequel of sorts to Andrew Mueller’s Rock And Hard Places, his acclaimed memoir about evolving into a globetrotting current affairs journalist for magazines like Monocle on the pretext of interviewing a bunch of dubious rock bands in which his level of interest was debatable, It’s Too Late To Die Young Now covers his journey from his teenage fledgling years as a Sydney journalist to his years writing for Melody Maker in the late 1980s and 1990s. These were halcyon times for the music press, in those pre-internet days when it retained its exclusivity as a go-to source for matters musical.
Although Mueller touches on his adventures with the likes of U2, The Cure and Pearl Jam, this isn’t a mere Boswellian chronicle of the Johnsonian antics of the superstars. What drew Mueller half way across the world was his fascination with the apparent fun-filled glamour of the music press itself and his desire to be among its cast of characters, living that life – he was not to be disillusioned in any way. Despite mockingly characterising my goodself as the Sergeant Wilson of the office, I am nonetheless forced to conclude that the book is typically rollicking Mueller fare, the work of a writer pathologically incapable of writing a dull or foggy sentence. It’s also a celebration of a way of working life and an era in the music industry which has most likely vanished forever, but from which inspiration and example can still be taken. I took the opportunity to chat to my erstwhile comrade and Krautrock/Country DJing smackdown foe over lunchtime pasta in central London.
Yours isn’t the usual background of a music journalist. You come from a military family, but no one would ever accuse you of being bitterly pacifist or anti-military, or in revolt. The fascination towards music culture comes from somewhere else.
Andrew Mueller: That’s true. The interest in music derives entirely from my Mum’s side. She was not untalented as a singer and a piano player and did it in public a few times in the Sixties when people did that sort of thing. But I never thought of it as a rebellion against what was in most respects a perfectly agreeable childhood. I’d also been interested in writing. I was writing – though that stretches the definition of the word – since my late teens. But happening across those early issues of Melody Maker and NME in a newsagents in Crows Nest in Sydney, to discover that this universe existed in which people were making a living to toss off about music, interview bands and travel round the world struck me as very exciting. As indeed it turned out to be.
So, while being in your own band, The Blazing Zoos, it was actually the world of writing and writers that appealed?
AM: Oh, yes. And the thing that’s always appealed to me is writing that’s funny. And I found Melody Maker absolutely hilarious. I laughed at people like you, The Stud Brothers, Chris Roberts, Everett, Steve Sutherland, Allan Jones, Carol Clerk, Jon Wilde – even Simon Reynolds, he’s very underrated in this department, he had a very dry wit. I’m sad that it’s gone – thing is, I shouldn’t understand what remains of the weekly music press anyway. It’s not for me; I’m 45 years old. But if there’s any nostalgia that underpins the book, it’s that the 17 year-old me encountering the music press meant that the next 27 years of my life would be very entertaining and a great way of making a living. If I’d have been 17 now, where would I go? I’m not about to tell you I grew up in a shoebox in the middle of the road, I had a very comfortable middle class upbringing, but there’s no money in my family, I didn’t go to any of the right universities – I wouldn’t have been able to shunt about from unpaid internship to unpaid internship… I’d have had to go out and work for a living, which would have been awful.
Prior to that, however, you earned your Spurs writing often somewhat embroidered copy for the street press in Sydney in your teens.
AM: I was churning out up to 10,000 words a week which is far too much – no one wants to read that amount from anyone, let alone an 18 year-old yahoo who has no idea what he’s doing. But it was terrifically good fun and again, I can only be retrospectively thankful I did all this before the internet. I still have the stuff I wrote then in scrapbooks. I can’t read that stuff without having to go into the garden and scream. Terrible, terrible, terrible crap which if had been printed in this day and age would quite rightly have been pilloried worldwide by guffawing hecklers.
Everyone feels like that, though. Lord knows I do. Trying out your voice meant you were more ready than most when you got to the Maker. I remember the first time you walked through the doors. I knew who you were because I’d used a photo of you in the funny pages apparently leering over Belinda Carlisle.
AM: I believe you were wearing a tweed suit and a monocle. Yes, and I’m willing to admit how excited I was. I didn’t take a couple of days to get over jetlag from the flight from Australia. I went straight to the Maker offices. I was staying in Mile End – I took the route a total rube would take, via cardboard city in Waterloo. I was reasonably confident by that point, I’d done a few interviews for the paper including a big one with Johnny Marr when he was with The The, which earned me a postcard from Ted Mico or Steve Sutherland that that had really pissed off the NME. I’m painfully aware a lot of people might have found the office an inhospitable, intimidating environment and I may even have contributed to that but I must say, everyone was incredibly friendly to me, incredibly encouraging and welcoming.
You adapted very quickly and well.
AM: But you see, I felt like I already knew everybody. I would get these copies of Melody Maker, initially three months old by seamail and then by some ludicrously expensive method of freight to get them earlier – and I would read them and reread them, cover to cover, backwards and forward, over and over. I’m not sure I didn’t even read the gig guides. So I had a pretty fair idea of who was who, what they were like. And absolutely everyone at MM was absolutely as I imagined them. This is what happens when you allow your writers to have a voice. And they have always been my favourite writers – the ones who when you read them, you can hear their voice. I could even imagine the voice of Ben of the Stud Brothers – was there any other way he was going to talk? Was he going to talk like some member of the landed gentry? But there was also a mystery about them. Who or what were the Stud Brothers? Of whom you saw a picture once a year in the Christmas issue getting drunk with The Mission? Then, of course, there was the late Carol Clerk. As I say in the book – if there was one person who was the spirit of the magazine incarnate it was Carol. She did serve as the benchmark – if Carol said something wasn’t on, it wasn’t on. And she was an actual proper journalist.
And then a bit of competition comes into it because if you are surrounded by really good writers, the challenge is not to be responsible for the worst piece in the issue that week. And certainly, going back through the back editions of that time, 1995-96, at which point I can find my own writing endurable, and there is some really, really good stuff in those issues. You’ve got Taylor Parkes, Simon Price on all cylinders, Caitlin Moran, Pete Paphides Neil Kulkarni, David Bennun, plus the old school of people like you, Chris Roberts, The Stud Brothers, etc, etc. Sure, there’s some stuff by everybody that reads like youthful bluster but that’s fine. If you can’t bluster youthfully in the music press, where can you?
It was less than two years between living in the bedroom in my last parental house whose walls were covered to an embarrassing degree with cuttings from Melody Maker to actually being reviews editor of Melody Maker – a fantastically improbable sequence of events. To call writers I’d idolised to make very minor suggestions to their copy was surreal.
Everett True selects Straitjacket Fits as single of the week
Then again, we didn’t go in for extensive editing at Melody Maker. Which made for the odd blemish but was generally its strength. It came as a shock to me writing for subsequent magazines who intensively edited all the life and idiosyncrasy out of your prose so that it conformed to a single voice, a house style.
AM: Oh, yes, the first ever Melody Maker I bought had Gaye Bykers On Acid on the cover – of whom we sadly hear so little these days. But that issue that had Gaye Bykers on Acid on the cover also had a big live feature inside by Jon Wilde which effectively said, ‘What the hell are these wankers doing on the cover?’
I loved that the paper was so full of forceful and diffuse personalities – this argument taking place across a magazine. That reflects confidence and that has deserted old school journalism of all kinds. It’s a failing in art, too – when you abandon any confidence in yourself and anxiously start chasing audiences, asking them, ‘What do you think? What do you think?’ There’s a possibly apocryphal quite attributed to Henry Ford – if I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.
That’s one of the fundamentals of human condition – people don’t actually know what they want. At the Maker, we wanted to tell them what was out there to want. But that sense of the argument taking place also arose from an office culture in which contributors had to physically bring their copy to the office, on paper or later floppy disk. There was personal engagement, conversation, in the office, down the pub, a constant exchange of ideas, friction between personalities. That disappeared, sadly, with the arrival of email. The offices were no longer playgrounds but reduced to skeleton staffs.
AM: That’s where you get an esprit de corps from. Since email came in I’ve had working relationships with people that have lasted years and I wouldn’t know them if they were sitting three tables away from me right now. That’s massively convenient but it does amaze me that more magazines don’t email their writers once a month and say we’ve put a couple of hundred pounds behind the bar, everyone come down and have a drink. It would pay for itself exponentially.
A further change is that, when in the office, people weren’t fixated on their screens. They milled around. You didn’t stare at your typewriter or pre-internet PC when you weren’t working on it. You interacted. And, as you hint in the book, being in the Maker office was like being in a sitcom.
AM: Absolutely. I remember vividly waking up on occasions as a freelancer and thinking that I had nothing better to do so I might as well go and hang out down at the Maker offices. Whereas if you tried that now, someone would probably send for security.
I felt like that too, even though as a staff writer, I was actually kind of supposed to turn up at the office.
AM: You a staff writer, it still strikes me as an outrage, it really does. I still remember the daily countdown in the office to your annual gig. Generally, though, I hope the book doesn’t come across as overly nostalgic or ha-ha I had my fun. I’m genuinely sad for people half my age who will never have this. They have other things but they’ll never have the possibility of this.
The idea of a music press whose own working culture has the same delinquency and dynamism of the rock culture it reports on (and the ability to shape it) was actually only 20 years old when we came into it. Even in the late 60s, a paper like the NME was all showbiz banality. The last line of its Sergeant Pepper review was along the lines of “In conclusion, then, The Beatles have furnished us with an album which will not only make you tap your toes, it’ll also make you think a little bit.” The creation of the music press as we came to know it was with the first wave of underground journalist, derived from things like Oz (which ironically was first published in Sydney in 1963 in its initial incarnation).
AM: Before he died, I did interview Felix Dennis who was in many respects a reprehensible character but who was a magazines man through and through. He was talking about his success and he described it simply; hire talent, pay them well and let them get on with it. But that does require a certain amount of nerve. And of course, he was a writer. He understood journalists and journalism.
To some degree the world of magazine publishing has become strangled by a misplaced notion of professionalism.
Whereas at the Maker, errors were actually part of the rich tapestry of the magazine. They’d be celebrated for weeks.
AM: Ah, yes, the relish of the balls-up. The classic one is what’s known as the placeholder caption under a photo, “see sub for details” or whatever, which invariably goes through. Or, in my case, when I typed “Who the fuck is this wanker?”
Ah yes, I remember that one sailing through to the finished edition.
AM: People in magazines get very worked up about this sort of thing sometimes but I really don’t see why. No one’s died, for the few who’ve noticed the howler you’ve brought a little merriment into their day. Two a page and the magazine would look like it was printed by chimps but every so often they brighten up everyone’s day.
Also, the sub editors at the Maker, old school types who held us all in contempt, had a stated policy when laying out pages of “cut it as it falls”. So articles would end quite suddenly because they couldn’t be bothered to edit them to fit. They assumed no one would notice. And, apart from the writers, generally no one did. There was a certain charm about that.
AM: Spelling and grammatical mistakes, however, I am nerdish about, on the other hand. Certain things are important and should be right.
We were allowed our fun, though, our license, because people bought the music press and the arse had yet to fall out of the industry. Cricket in the corridors, bottles of wine to see us through the afternoon, a menagerie of repartee. For those lucky enough to walk through the door and get to stay, it wasn’t just work, it was a great life, albeit not a lucrative one.
AM: Yes, the 90s were flush, People would be flown to New York for a 300-word live review. And then been paid £29 plus expenses for the job! There was often this irony, and it happened to me, of travelling at the pointy end of the plane and staying in a five star hotel to do jobs, only to come home and find the gas disconnected because you hadn’t enough money to keep it on. The great fall-to-earth moment. Even 20 years ago, the living you could make as a music journalist was none too spectacular. But it was a living. You could live on it tolerably well. Clearly other things have changed as well - you could afford rent in London. It had other compensations – it was a lot of travel, a lot of fun and pretty much all that has disappeared too.
I remember when it all began to change – the increasing number of grey suits intervening editorially. Time and motion studies types. I remember when I’d decamped to the NME some newly created administrative jobsworth coming into the office and noting indignantly that one of the staff writers was playing computer games at his desk. But who’s to say he hadn’t been at some gig until the small hours the night before?
AM: I understand the value of bean counters and the job they do but now it’s got to the stage where they’re making journalistic decisions and these people haven’t a fucking clue about journalists. By and large they’re not people who have read or written for magazines, they don’t know journalists or journalism.
They don’t know how beans are made.
AM: And that’s to say nothing of the layers of middle management which grow like barnacles, not just in media organisations. Again, as in all things, it’s about confidence and nerve. That thing of simply saying, “I know you know what you’re doing, get on with it.”
Trust readers to read and writers to write. It’s not complicated. It’s not a process.
AM: Well, quite. And that’s how it once was. And this book is a cosmic gesture of gratitude for a stroke of enormous good fortune on my part. Everybody makes any number of tiny choices that irrevocably alter our lives but I can still wake screaming in the night thinking: supposing that review of Straitjacket Fits at the Lansdowne hotel in Sydney that I sent to MM in 1989 had not landed on Everett True’s desk the week after he’d been teased by everyone in the office for making Straitjacket Fits single of the week. Everyone said, Everett, you’re an idiot, you’ve made this band up, they don’t exist, my review arrives and by shoring up Everett’s position, he bungs it in the paper. I don’t know what the last 27 years of my life would have been like – probably not nearly as much fun. My entire life hangs on an Everett True whim. And that’s not an easy thing to have to live with.
It's Too Late to Die Young Now is out now, published by Foruli