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Bible Burning: Sleevenotes By Joe Thompson Review, Extract & Interview
John Doran , May 19th, 2019 07:24

Does DIY music need a Bible? That's debatable, says John Doran, but either way Sleevenotes by Joe Thompson of Hey Colossus should be mandatory reading for anyone who aspires to the life of an underground rock musician. Plus extract and author interview

When I first became a music writer in 2003, it was a case of, ‘Jump in the river while holding a can of Stella and learn to swim’. I’d just spent the 90s in a dark room on drugs jumping up and down to dance music and my downtime lying on a couch drinking beer listening to post rock. I had no business becoming a music writer really but after blagging the job while bladdered down the ale house, I figured I should at least try and make a good fist of it. If you think I’m bad now, oh sweet baby Jesus, you should have seen me 16 years ago. Anyway, previous to 2003 there was quite a lot about rock music that I was blissfully unaware of and that included everything to do with the band Mötley Crüe (bar the one abysmal song ‘Smokin' In The Boys Room’ which my friend Mike tortured me with when I was a fragile teen and just wanted to listen to Bauhaus). From the outset, one of my regular outlets became Metal Hammer, so I figured I’d better do some due diligence. Among the many books I powered through that year was The Dirt: Confessions Of The World's Most Notorious Rock Band, after several writers assured me it was ‘The Bible’.

The book is essentially an oral history-style autobiography of the insufferable, oafish, cack-handed hair metal group Mötley Crüe, interviewed and steered by American journalist Neil Strauss. Now, I don’t want to speak ill of the dead-eyed but Strauss is something of an anus. His bibliography includes The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists and Rules Of The Game. The former is a hagiography of the ‘seduction artist’ community and the latter a how-to guide to becoming a pick up artist. (Some of the ‘skills of the trade’ include instructions on how to deploy The Neg. This is an actual lesson on how to subtly undermine the confidence of women in conversation with backhanded compliments, in the hope that they will hang around long enough for the seducer to work more of his ‘magic’. These books are quite some distance away from being humanity’s finest moments. I think there’s at least a conversation to be had about how a truly healthy society might at least consider taking people like Strauss outdoors, before putting them forcibly against a wall and shooting them.)

But here’s the thing: I enjoyed The Dirt when I first read it. (It took a second reading for me to snap out of it and chuck the thing in the bin.) And this is testament, in part, to how good a writer Strauss is - technically I mean. (It’s also clearly partial testament to what I was like in 2003 to my eternal shame.) I’m choking on the words here but really his skilful, clinical ability to make you empathise with Mötley Crüe - or to stop yourself from throwing the book in the bin long enough to read it through to the end, at least - is on par with Nabokov’s prestidigitation in getting you onside, to a certain degree, with Humbert Humbert. Except Strauss is no Nabokov and here is exactly where the comparison should end. Once you’re aware of the tricks Strauss has deployed to get you acclimatised to certain themes - the reckless destruction of life in pursuit of hedonism, garbage ironically venerated as art, financial gain seen as the primary function of the creative process, the continued normalisation of the sexual humiliation of young women as a legitimate pastime - there really should be a period of readjustment. So technically, Strauss may well be a good writer but he is also clearly either a very bad or a very weak person, and The Dirt is nothing but a terrible book - albeit one that has played a neat trick on many readers.

Joe Thompson is not a good writer in the same way that Neil Strauss is. He is not a former feature writer for The New York Times, he has not infiltrated a ring of ‘seduction artists’ in order to write an American bestseller (or at least I don’t think he has), he hasn’t penned the autobiography of Mötley Crüe or Marilyn Manson - in fact he’s not a writer by trade at all. His 9 - 5 (or 5 - 1 most likely) is as a postman in rural Somerset. There are some sentences in his debut book Sleevenotes, which would make a ‘good’ writer like Strauss wince; there is the kind of avant garde approach to punctuation, in one or two places, which would cause Lynne Truss existential pain; I’m no prescriptivist, I’m an easy rolling descriptivist, daddio, and even I was shocked by one or two of the random apostrophes that have snuck onto the page like bullet holes strafed across the front of a grand old building. The structure of this book is, at best, a bit counterintuitive. It’s clearly stitched together from old tour diaries and new tour diaries, ad hoc interviews, random observations, social media posts and record reviews. I would bet money that the manuscript was only given a cursory subedit by one person before publication and that the idea of having a dedicated editor, line editor and multiple pre-publication readers is an expensive luxury that small independent cottage industry publishers Pomona can only dream of. And here’s the thing: Sleevenotes by Joe Thompson is, in many ways, one of the best rock books I’ve read. It certainly towers above The Dirt.

At some point while reading Sleevenotes it becomes clear that it was much more than just a wise-cracking, experimentally punctuated, string of anecdotes about squat gigs in Belgium with improbably named noise rock bands and blocked studio toilets in Camberwell. This book should in fact be regarded as core curriculum reading for those just embarking on the path of rock music today, and is essential nourishment for those who have existential concerns about the point or the viability of doing such a thing in 2019. And once you acclimatise to Joe Thompson’s easy-going, autodidact style you will, I guarantee it, find yourself punching the air (when you aren’t nodding furiously in agreement).

Within its 261 pages it captures not one but multiple truths about the nature of rock music; it illuminates the very hows and whys of underground, independent culture; it lionises the often woefully unlionised community that survives with DIY music as its primary adhesive; it sets out a roadmap for those of us who know that music is much more essential than an explosive passion of the teenage years - for those of us who are in it for the long haul, despite our shattered hearing, depleted serotonin and cringing, brick-hard livers.

Only those lacking in imagination think that in binning garbage like The Dirt and Hammer Of The Gods you lose some kind of essential spirit of what rock music is about. Liberated from stuff that was never on offer in the first place (or at least never should have been on offer), rock music regains something essential: something resembling righteousness. The truth of the matter is you don’t have to be in a band to have lots of casual sex, to drink heavily and to take drugs all the time, in fact being in a band is probably detrimental to those pursuits. Certainly, if you want to earn tons of money, then picking up a guitar and a Roland Space Echo pedal is the last thing you should be considering. But what is left is much more valuable - a way of life that offers true (if temporary) liberation from the grinding wheels of late capitalism and a sense of optimism that remains undimmed, despite the continued collapse of the mainstream music industry and the conventional touring circuit.

Full disclosure: The genesis of this book was a feature written for this website. I’d only been reading this book for about three minutes before I started stumbling across names of people I know. Hey Colossus’ first gig in 2004 was with Trencher and Southall Riot. I’m now in a band called Self-Help with Mark Dicker of Trencher and Derek Walmsley of Southall Riot, another friend, is now editor of The Wire. I’m a fan of Hey Colossus (someone has to be, arf!) I’ve put them on at several festivals where I’ve had a curatorial role, including Sea Change and Desertfest. I even promoted a gig by them once at The Lexington in London. I think Fat White Family and Wharves were in support. It was an amazing night. Joe’s other band Henry Blacker played a gig with me at the now defunct Black Cat Records in Taunton when I was temporarily the frontman of Arabrot for one sweet month in 2015. And for one really exciting 24 hour period a few years back, the Quietus were even on the cards to release the Hey Colossus long player In Black And Gold until the madness thankfully passed, sense prevailed and Rocket Recordings stepped in to stop the whole thing from becoming a complete disaster. So really, we’re talking about a scene that, in my own small way, I’m embedded in, at the periphery but there’s a bigger truth to it than me merely boosting creative projects by people I know. The creation of DIY art for no reason, other than the enjoyment of being part of a community of like-minded people and for the intrinsic joy it can bring you, is a noble pursuit and it is a pursuit that anyone can follow.

Joe Thompson will be in conversation with John Doran for Rock & Roll Book Club in Walthamstow, May 29

More information on Sleevenotes and other books by Pomona available here

Can you tell me a little about the series of books that this will be released as part of?

Joe Thompson: Pomona Publishing started the Sleevenotes series. Mark Hodkinson who runs the company saw a piece I wrote for this site 18 months ago. He got in touch and explained that Sleevenotes was going to be a series of books, written by music folk, concerning 10-12 songs they'd had a hand in. The others involved, that I know of, are Bob Stanley (Saint Etienne), David Gedge (The Wedding Present), and Mark Lanegan. I'm sure there are others in the pipeline.

I thought the idea was really interesting. We had the scope to cover the topic in pretty much any way we fancied. I think all the books will be very different from one another. I doubt the others involved will have driven around one thousand kilometres to get to a show that was pulled halfway through by the police because it was in a venue that wasn't legal. Mine is along those lines. I've come at it from the only way I know: stream of consciousness ramblings on the ups and downs of being involved in Hey Colossus. That's a thing we love at the level we're at, which, let's be honest, is a world away from the others involved in the series. I think, and hope, this will make the collection of books varied and of worth. I'm looking forward to reading the others. I've stretched the remit, filled it with diaries and interviews and I covered 17 songs as opposed to 10-12. I also went over the 70k word limit. I also took a year to do it. I'm a slow typer.

Do you think there is something particular about the way practising musicians write and talk about music, something in the tone or the form that sets it apart from the way critics or other listeners might write and talk about music?

JT: For me, as someone who spends more time being a postman than a musician, I consider myself more a fan of music than anything else. I would guess most people who make music think they can write about it. Writing about your own schtick isn't easy without coming over like a Gallagher brother though. It's why most bands get a third party to write press releases. Let someone else go big on the hyperbole and lies. The job I do has made me love music more than ever. I worked (ahem) within the music world for some years before and by the end I was getting worn out by it. The grinding and rarely oiled machinations of the industry make for a particularly bleak sight, it's like gazing into the broken down engine of a 30 year old Austin Allegro. My enthusiasm for records has me writing about them. I send reviews to sites but they never get published. So it's clearly not an easy thing to do. I either put them on a blog or file them away for no reason whatsoever. I find writing about a record I love strangely satisfactory. It makes me listen even deeper.

What's going on with Hey Colossus these days? What have you been up to since 2017's The Guillotine and last year's live album? And will there be new music from you soon?

JT: We have a new album out in May, on Alter. It's called Four Bibles. In the book there's a diary of the making of it. We recorded it in Wells, the smallest city in the UK. Very near to where I live in Somerset. We've booked a lot of dates. We're very busy, and very excited to be so.

An Extract From Sleevenotes By Joe Thompson

Dear bands, you have a forty-minute set, you have a thirty-minute set. You have been given an amount of time to play your songs. You start at 10pm, you finish at 10.30pm. You start at 8pm, you finish at 8.40pm. Other bands may be playing after you. The crowd have patiently watched your set. Although it isn’t all about you, you do get an amount of time to impress people. Use the time wisely. Make all the noise you want in your allotted slot. Start on time, finish on time. Have respect for the audience, have respect for the promoter, have respect for the venue. Crush everyone with your wit, amaze all with your bombast. Stun the world with your riffs and syncopated 5/4 rhythms. Change the direction of humanity with your lyrical prowess. Inspire people to pick up a drum machine or guitar or microphone.

But, when your time is up, please stop. Have a song in your set that has an ending. Leaving your guitars feeding back as you sweatily climb off the stage to the adoring tens of people is tiresome for everyone. You are not being punk rock. You haven’t destroyed the room. You haven’t left a pile of rubble. You’re more than likely stumbling off the stage to 27 people all waiting for the next band, all wishing they’d stayed at home.

‘Hey, Dead Eyes, Up!’ (written on set lists, and known only as, ‘Dead Eyes’) is our song where we all end at the same time. We stop on a dime. It’s the end. No feedback, no nothing. We stop, we pack our gear up, we get out of the way for the next band. We’ve learned that people want you to stop. We’re not unrealistic. Even if all the thirty people are baying for more they don’t mean it, they’re taking part in the standardized gig ritual. They would die a little inside if you came back on and played a song that wasn’t good enough to make it into your actual set.