This Happened: Sylvia Patterson And Miranda Sawyer In Conversation
, July 12th, 2016 08:13
Jude Rogers took a long brunch (if we're going to be specific) with two of this country's best music writers, Sylvia Patterson and Miranda Sawyer, recently. Samantha Hayley was on hand to take photographs
It’s 10 o’clock on a brisk Monday morning, and two titans of music journalism are sitting side-by-side in a tapas bar in London’s Kings Cross, gassing, rabbiting, finishing each other’s sentences, cackling like panto dames. Technically, today’s rendezvous is a brunch rather than a lunch. Coffees are being drained, but an artfully-plated croissant sits ignored in the volley of chatter, while a request for a cheese roll in a thick Scottish accent confuses a waitress more used to the lingo of dried Hispanic meats. “Maletti toast?! Is that just normal toast?,” hoots Sylvia Patterson peering at the menu, her Perth background still raging through her vowels. “Served at room temperature,” quips Miranda Sawyer, softly Northern, one arched eyebrow raised. “As opposed to iced. Would you like some iced eggs with that, Sylvia?”
Wit, absurdity, “larks”, a healthy disregard for ponciness in a world brimming full of it: here’s the attitude that’s shaped the music writing of two of its best practitioners over the last 30 years.
Amazingly, it has been 30: Sylvia Patterson starting at the endlessly inventive, gazillion-selling pop bible Smash Hits in 1986, before having similarly stellar stints at The Face and the NME, and as Interviewer Cum Laude at many glossy women’s magazines. Sawyer followed her to Smash Hits two years later, heading onto The Face, Select, Time Out and The Mirror; she now writes a radio column and interviews at the Observer.
This pair haven’t been mythologised in magazine lore like the Big Boys of Music Writing (Kent, Marcus, Bangs, et-bloody-cetera) however. It’s partly because their stories they write are much more about their subjects than themselves. It’s partly because they’re far less distant, far more human presences on the page. Both have brilliant books out, though, which will hopefully change that. Sylvia’s I’m Not With The Band: A Writer’s Life Lost In Music tells the tragedy of the decline of traditional music journalism in the guise of a no-holds-barred personal memoir, while Sawyer’s Out Of Time: Midlife, If You Still Think You’re Young is a moving exploration of the modern mid-life crisis. Both books are also very funny, and take absolutely no prisoners.
Ten days after the Brexit vote (“and here we are wanging on about the decline of music journalism – boohoo”, Sylvia hams), we talk about desperate times for the media, bands, the hallowed past lives of magazines, what it’s like to grow up and grow old, and the ethics of journalism – or rather, how to manage the ways in which to write about Shaun Ryder’s crack habit.
A light one to start: what’s gone wrong with traditional music journalism, in your qualified opinions, in recent years?
Sylvia Patterson: Well, there’s the lack of freedom you’re given now. Journalistic freedom is absolutely everything. Right through the 90s, I was not once told what to write, or how to write it, or given any agenda. It was never, “Come back with this headline,” which you get all the time now. I’ve been speaking to people who have worked on the NME in recent years and the horror stories that they’ve told me about how things are actually run now… [shakes head] I feel like I didn’t go far enough [in my book]. A lot of music writing is either a massive whitewash or you’re put in a rewrite situation, or you are shoehorned into a corner, or sometimes you’re even told to write like someone else. What is happening? If you’ve got no journalistic voice in a piece, what’s the point?
Miranda Sawyer: You only learn as a journalist by doing things in your own way, and we were allowed to do that. It’s like everything in life. You can philosophise as much as you like, you can be educated as high as you like, but you don’t learn anything until you do it and you learn in the doing. If people aren’t allowing you to make mistakes, and just want a clickbait headline, then it’s a disaster.
SP: And [music journalism’s] not half as mixed as it was. I remember starting at Smash Hits in 1986, and here I was in the world, finally, with these incredibly bright people from all over Britain…From Oxbridge graduates [nods at Sawyer, who studied law unhappily at Oxford before replying to an advert in the Media Guardian] to poor Scots.
MS: And we got paid! When I got the job, I got 50 quid a day. You’re paid about the same as that now starting out.
SP: We were loaded.
At Smash Hits, you also got away with a lot. You brought musicians off their pedestals constantly, and used humour as an interrogation tool. I rage at the people who dismiss it– I repeatedly tell people that I learned about Section 28 from the Pet Shop Boys in Smash Hits. I was 10!
Sylvia: We couched a lot of stuff into these outwardly silly questions. I mean, if you’re asking somebody questions about being sick in their shoes, you’re actually asking questions about what their life is like, aren’t you? About their control. Or take ‘Does your mother play golf?’ That’s a question about class. All these things we thought about very hard.
MS: It was about finding out whether people have an ego too. Remember Jon Bon Jovi, for God’s sake.
SP: The more he resisted us, the worse we came for him. I’d be all, “Jon! Can you play 'The Stars And Stripes' on your collection of harmonicas, then?” And he’d snort, “Hey, that’s Smash Hits’ idea of a music question, alright?” Ah, piss off!
You also revealed things about bands’ private lives in ways few writers would today. Take your interview with New Order, your favourite band back then, Sylvia, which you mention in your book: you reveal that you were woken in the middle of the night by Bernard Sumner being “entertained” by two “foxtresses”, unaware that he had a wife and child back home.
SP: Well, God, that was a disaster all round. Sheer naivety’s to blame for that. It should never have been allowed to run. I was brand new in the job, and didn’t know what I could write and couldn’t write. There was no publicist on that particular trip either, unlike these days, when they’re everywhere. Tony Bloody Wilson was out there somewhere with them, on the periphery, but it was just me and the equally green photographer turning up in a label office somewhere, going, “We’re from The Hits!” And them going, “Who are these goons?” We were just these kids trying to knock on doors to see if they would let us in. That’s how it was back then.
MS: Would you have written about the groupies now?
SP [shaking head]: I would certainly not do anything like that. It was just the band were so bad-tempered and arsey and so I was trying to do the silly, stupid Smash Hits questions to wake them up. You know, “'Bizarre Love Triangle', Bernard: is it about a triangle?” They were punk rock to the absolute bone. The first thing they said was, “Ask us anything horrible and we’ll break your fucking legs.”
MS: See, I knew that was Manchester humour when I interviewed them a few years later but you wouldn’t have. I knew to just go, "Fuck off!"
SP: But we – the writers – were never there to do anybody’s head in. Everyone thinks we are now, but we’re not and we never were. We were there to bring out the best of these people. I mean, if an artist is charming and funny and fascinating and they have an incredible story, then a love letter usually ensues. That’s a win-win. And that’s what we’re meant to do, us music writing people. Look for the win-win more than anything else.
MS: [nods enthusiastically] Exactly. I think that you will probably believe this as well, Sylv, but I believe, genuinely, that most people who make properly brilliant music, have got something inside them that’s incredibly romantic, that’s really inspiring, that can shift minds, that can change lives, and that’s what we’re there to get across. That’s what you’re after, isn’t it, as a writer? That’s what you’re looking for. You know the soundtrack of your life, kids - these are the people that actually created it! They gave that to you, and I’m here to tell you more about them. Why would you want to bust their head?
Talking of ethics, Miranda, your Shaun Ryder interview for Select around the release of 1992’s Yes Please! is rather legendary for readers of a certain age, as you got him talking very frankly about his recovery from drug addiction. [Sawyer won the Periodical Publishers Association Writer Of The Year award for her work on Select a year later.] You talk about the early 90s brilliantly in your book – the flux, how “all around was fun”, until “everything tipped over the edge”.
MS: Well, there was a time in the early 90s whenever there was any piece [to be written] to do with Manchester, I just got sent out. I really liked Shaun, but he was really obviously slightly in pain that time. [To Sylvia] He’s very charming, Shaun Ryder, isn’t he?
SP: He is. He’s an example of an incredible mind. A really unique, maverick mind.
MS: Yeah, and constantly entertaining. So I got out there, and he just didn’t want to do the interview. He just didn’t want to do it. I’d get out my tape recorder and he’d just go into it [leans in]: “Ugggghhhh.” I was really naïve. We’d go to a bar, and I was good at drinking in those days – I’m not so good now – and he’d disappear for 20 minutes, whistle for someone, then disappear into the toilets with me not really knowing what was going on. What a divvy! I had nowhere to live back in London – my shared rented flat had burned down in 1990, and I was basically living out of a suitcase after that…
SP: You ended up at the bottom of my raft, didn’t you, as I called my bed…
MS: Yes! So I had nowhere to go so I just stayed and waited, interviewed Tina from Talking Heads [who co-produced it] and I think Paul [Ryder] were around, but otherwise was just hanging about. You could do that then at magazines. Eventually [Shaun and I] did the interview sitting on a rock in Central Park for an hour, and the reason why he was feeling really painful was he was basically coming off crack. And I wrote it up like a story - “Shaun is in an airport and his methadone-smashed and he’s in a mess” - more like a story than a feature, for some random reason. And then afterwards everyone went, “Ooh, it’s like the new journalism, Tom Wolfe!”, and I hadn’t got a clue what they were talking about! But I got two weeks to write that.
SP: There was time to write then. Usually it’s ‘we want the copy in two hours’ now. Why? What can you do with that?
MS: It’s the same with women’s magazines, in my experience – although I know you’ve had a better experience than me, Sylv. And they always want a nice story, so if somebody isn’t nice to you, you’re not actually allowed to say that. Or if somebody says something a bit controversial, it gets taken out. They want you to ask them about clothes instead. Or babies. If you have a baby, are you running after your baby? And if you haven’t, why no baby? It’s a disaster. It’s not what life is about.
Do you think dumbing-down has essentially been the death of magazines?
SP: The whole idea of making things very, very superficial [shakes head] – I mean, the more psychedelic and bonkers Smash Hits became, the more it sold. We’d do bits in tiny tiny type running out off the edge of the page… today, focus groups would be saying, “Get rid of all that incomprehensible language, we’ll just make the pictures bigger, the features shorter, the type bigger.” It’s nonsense that only the simple things sell. It’s just nonsense. I’m not having it!
MS: I agree. Because: [looks at Sylvia] why were you so excited about writing for Smash Hits? Because you loved that magazine, and it spoke to you in a way that other magazines didn’t. It was the same with The Face - it was in its pomp then. The NME definitely went through [an imperial phase]. A magazine is really good when it feels to a reader like there’s really cool people doing it that you really like. If they could just meet you, they’d like you, too, because you’re the same. That’s the feeling.
SP: Exactly! And the whole idea of profit being the bottom line for magazines and for magazines to try and chase readerships… you know, The Face didn’t exist to make money. The Face existed to be brilliant and to create culture, and lead it somewhere, as well as reflect it. The minute it tried to actually chase other people’s readers and tried to be much more commercial, by putting David Beckham on the cover or whatever, it didn’t work. Two years after they started doing that, they folded.
There’s an extraordinary chapter in your book, Sylvia, in which you talk about getting flown first-class to LA to write about the Beckhams’ new perfumes for a magazine. You get “a twenty-minute farrago” where everything is so micro-managed it’s almost farcical – you’re handed your edited questions, read out at the ‘interview’ by “a Coty bigwig in a microphoned headset” as “lies gushed around”.
SP: Oh crivvens, yes.
MS: But the thing that’s really sad about both David and Victoria Beckham – I’ve never interviewed David Beckham, but I’ve interviewed her – is they are actually alright, aren’t they? They are quite funny.
SP: They are. I did a piece for her on the cover of the NME when she did that single with the True Steppers [‘Out Of Your Mind’ by True Steppers and Dane Bowers featuring Victoria Beckham in May 2000], and she’s really funny. I put a bit of a case for her.
MS: I would have done, too. The thing is, they were good at interviews, the Beckhams, they were quite natural people. But now, all that’s gone. Read any interview with them – all gone.
SP: What happened?
MS: I guess if you’re famous it’s easier not to do an interview. It’s easier just to turn up for 20 minutes, endorse your brand and go home.
SP: These days, they don’t have to do the interview, and no one actually does, at a certain level, any more. Today you’ve got direct communication through all the social media under the sun.
MS: And basically what happens now is if somebody does an interview, and they say something that Twitter deems controversial – even if normal people don’t – it goes everywhere. Then they don’t want to talk to journalists any more. Everything’s bloody ruined!
MS: [leaning towards Sylvia] Do you remember that thing that Noel Gallagher said to me about Damon [Albarn] and Alex [James] [in a 1995 The Observer interview]? How he wanted them to die of AIDS? It was just that ridiculous Mancunian humour again, as you say – and we didn’t even pull it out that AIDS line as a quote or anything. There was a massive hoo-hah back then, but if that had been on Twitter now, oh my God!
SP: It would have been a nightmare. You’d have been chased out of town! You’d have never been able to use social media again! And I was the person who interviewed Adele when she said she was mad about having to pay lots of tax…
MS: I hadn’t realised that was you until I read your book!
SP: I was crying with laughter when she was saying it [mimics Adele]: “Fucking hell, I’ve got to pay four million quid!” After it, she was absolutely ruined, and I didn’t mean for that to happen at all, and if you read the interview you see the context. And last year she said she finds fame toxic and frightening. What a bloody shame that is.
MS: It’s the same with Lily Allen - these people who are amazing and funny and who should be stars. People take offence just to take offence. It’s like everybody’s horrible.
What is it about social media that makes people so negative about musicians and music, do you think?
MS: I think it’s because [negative people on Twitter] don’t think it means anything. If you’re in a nightclub and somebody says, “You’re a twat,” then they have to face the other person. You might get hit, or get a mouthful, or somebody might step in. If you just do it online, you’re just at home eating your cornflakes, so it’s fine.
Has that happened to you?
MS: The only time I’ve been really battered by social media was when I did a review of these YouTubers, Dan and Phil, on Radio One, for my Observer column. I literally said in my review, “It’s not for me, I’m too old”, and later I opened my laptop to reams of their teenage fans literally saying, “I’m going to come round and stab you, you old bitch.”
SP: Christ! I’m not on social media a lot, thank God.
MS: I defended myself though. I said, "Well, I said I was old, I don’t quite understand why you’re being like this." But they went on for ages. It was hard. In the end, though, I just thought, “You’re just mad teenagers shouting at me from a bus stop."
SP: And you probably always were, but you were just shouting amongst your friends before.
Do you ever find yourself softening what you’re writing because of comment culture?
MS: No, no way. Because your main duty is to the readers, I do think that. You’ve got access to somebody that they would really like access to, so you have to tell them about it. However, if somebody is in a mess in front of me, a genuine, proper mess, I have not covered it up, but I’ve been careful about what I’ve written, because it’s somebody’s life.
SP: You’ve just got to be sensitive as much as you can, man. I mean, I wrote a piece about Pete Doherty for The Word magazine [in 2005] – I went to his house, and there were literally teenagers off their head on crack on the couch. I’m there going, "What am I supposed to do?"
MS: What you did is write a piece that basically told us that without being really shit about him or those teenagers. You have to basically portray it as a bad situation without being tabloid about it.
SP: Because why would you do that? The situation is so extreme anyway, there’s no need to actually pump any more drama into it.
Talking about difficult personal details…both your books involve very personal details of your lives. Sylvia: your book includes details of how you realised you were going through a miscarriage when you interviewed Mariah Carey. You also write about the death of your dad and your older brother, Ronnie, who had Downs’ Syndrome, and your mother’s alcoholism. Miranda – your book about a woman grappling with getting older incredibly honestly. You’re both not journalists who have written a lot about themselves before. Was that hard?
SP: It had to be done, in my case, didn’t it, because otherwise I would just be a disembodied voice. [raises shoulders dramatically] “And then I met Johnny Cash.” Who’d give a toss? People do think that we have charmed lives, us music journos, that it’s all glamour and just fabulous, but there is a price to pay for the freedom of going to chase those dreams, and to live this precarious freelance life, so I guess mine’s a cautionary tale, in some ways. But it’s also also the story of a generation of romantics and what it does cost to keep within your idealistic self. And how it never even crossed my mind that I could actually even think about being anything else, which is really weird.
MS: I’ve probably put more personal stuff in than Sylv has, and it’s very exposing and difficult. But I think, the older you get, the more you realise that actually how you connect with human beings is actually by saying, “No one’s perfect, things are never as great as they seem from the outside.” Not bemoaning your lot, really, but saying, “These are the things that happen, and you’re not always sorted.” I think that’s quite important to do, and that’s what we’re asking the people we interview in our usual work. I find that quite interesting. We’re asking them to be funny and vulnerable and quite exposed, and so it’s quite good, almost, to do it a little bit for yourself.
And you definitely do that in Out Of Time, documenting your mid-life crisis after having children, thinking about running away from it all. With that Blur song title hinting at your youthful past.
MS: Yes – and I think that’s partly what your book is about too. If you had that privileged kind of exciting time in the 90s, where the music that we really liked kind of won – Jarvis became a national hero, films like Trainspotting were international hits, rave became what everybody did – it felt like the revolution was happening.
SP: God, it really did.
MS: And then suddenly, we were 40, and we’re like, “Fuck, we won, and now I’ve got no money, and the internet happened, and we got old!" My book is embarrassing, really. Poor little me, sitting at home, feeling a bit sorry for myself, wondering why I never got a flat with a patio!
SP: But people have responded to it. People understand it. And to get what you’re saying across I think you absolutely have to be honest. My individual story of obviously coming from Scotland, and my brother and dad dying… I mean, that was really difficult to do. Thinking, am I going to do this to my family? I had to obviously ask my sisters to give me their blessing too. But the great thing is, my sister has been in contact many times now, and she said, "I can’t believe that you actually managed to articulate all of this. You just wrote the truth, Sylv." I just wanted to do it with some kind of humanity. And I hope that my mum, God love her… well, I don’t know what she would have thought. But it was the truth, and her story – her descent into drink – is quite a common one.
MS: It is, and the older I get, the more I realise that there’s something powerful about writing things, isn’t there? And I know this is probably a crude parallel, and I don’t want it to be, but the fact that lots of people wrote about Manchester made Manchester seem like it was the most exciting place for music in the world, even though there were loads of things happening in Coventry and Birmingham too. But if you write about something that’s personal, and you write about it as truthfully as you can by being kind, it gives that thing a reality and a concreteness that’s quite important. You make people realise that it happened.
SP: Exactly! It actually happened.
MS. And then other people can see that and go, “Yeah, it did. That happened. This is true.” That’s what writing can do.
SP: Bloody right it can.
MS: And that’s what we do it for, don’t we? That’s all we can do!
I’m Not With The Band: A Writer’s Life Lost In Music by Sylvia Patterson is published by Sphere. Out Of Time by Miranda Sawyer is published by Fourth Estate