Mark Ellen: Pop Court Chronicler

Mark Ellen has documented late 20th century pop music's biggest moments in his memoir Rock Stars Stole My Life! Here he regales us with tales of those times and offers a lament on why modern day stars just don't cut the mustard (or anything else)

Feature by Angus Sutherland | 04 Mar 2015

Mark Ellen is and was a music journalist, if you didn’t know. An important one. Mark edited Q and Smash Hits, helped launch MOJO, presented the Old Grey Whistle Test and Live Aid (the '85 one), and almost shunted John Peel off Radio One. Mark Ellen, more than anything else perhaps, was the designated driver of 70s and 80s popular music. He was the kindly friend who got you into bed, tucked you in, then in the morning reminded you where you vomited, who you insulted and what stimulo-depressant cocktail was to blame for it all. That is to say, Mark Ellen was present and (largely) correct throughout the giddy, gaudy peak of pop. He’s recently placed those memories onto the page, his book Rock Stars Stole My Life!: A Big Bad Love Affair with Music.

He did drugs in earnest just the once. It was while interviewing The Teardrop Explodes, Liverpool, 1980. Several bumps of ropey speed, he and the band "filled both sides of a cassette with fizzing gibberish," then he spent the night juddering away in bed, "brain mushed to guacamole… feeling as though [his] internal organs had been taken out, pummelled with a milk bottle then put back in the wrong places." So ends Mark Ellen’s narcotics career. So begins a period of clarity perhaps unrivalled in the history of music journalism. Instead of hoovering up recreational drugs, he has hoovered up anecdotes and, with them, insights (for instance: there’s those who like Van Morrison and those who’ve met him).

His colleagues were much more taken by needles, powders and pills, he tells The Skinny, just before taking the stage for an Edinburgh event on music journalism. Nick Kent, NME star journalist, "was addicted to methadone, and a bit hopeless and disorganised and couldn’t really type, so he used to handwrite everything on cardboard, basically torn up cereal packets - it was the only food he could eat." Mark made his start at the magazine typing up Nick’s opioid-and-cornflake-fueled copy.

Mark has a great, gawky love of pop music and culture. He adores the unabashedness of it all. Take two days he spent with Rod Stewart, for instance. Mark acknowledges Rod the Mod’s popular mythos – "an absolute buffoon, a ludicrous popinjay" – and takes no great pains to undermine it. "There’s a massive over earner for you. Again symbolic of a world where you can make absolute fat loads of cash. … He literally appeared to be getting up as early as he could in the morning to allow himself more time every day to see how much money he could spend. He could not spend it fast enough!" But, for all that, "he was just a working class guy who made a lot of money. If you’ve got a lot of money, go out and spend it. He used money as a kind of suit of armour. It was his protection against the people he didn’t like." As with so many of Mark’s tales – and tales of tales – this episode is recounted with unmitigated pleasure. He’s a bit like an exiled court chronicler, liberated and loose of tongue. Instead of 17th century Versailles, he got 20th century Britain, London mostly. His gossipy tidbits come from the courts of Stewart, Jagger and Morrissey.

Morrissey, compared with someone like Rihanna, presents something of a contradiction as regards Mark’s pop worldview, though he does fit with the Rod model (he’s loveable because of, rather than in spite of, his profound deficiencies of character). The tension resides in the scrupulously-created Morrissey persona. "Everything about him was just so thought through," says Mark, "...and I thought it made the world a better place, I thought it raised the sum of human happiness to have people like that around. He loved that sense of theatre and artifice." Yet this joy, this patience in the pop flimflam seems in short supply for Mark when it comes to the musicians of today. A press spot on Rihanna’s 7Countries7Days7Shows tour has left him visibly disenchanted with the contemporary superstar. The episode even brackets his book.

The problem lies in accessibility and the generation of the mythos, the star persona. Rihanna’s inaccessibility is, by Mark’s reckoning, largely self-generated. "My composite mental picture of Rihanna is one largely made up of information whose main agent is Rihanna herself. It’s Rihanna who’s created the world of Rihanna, through her tweets and her blogs, because no journalist has been allowed to get anywhere near her who can paint a really accurate picture. And I think that’s a shame in a way." New media has steadily disenfranchised the once mighty music writer. It’s easy to see why a veteran like Mark might be miffed and nostalgic.

Instead of 17th century Versailles, he got 20th century Britain. His gossipy tidbits come from the courts of Stewart, Jagger and Morrissey.

It’s a short distance between two poles. On one hand, we’re given near constant access to stars’ private lives, or at least slithers of them. On the other, we’re given relentlessly mediated slithers and little else besides. Mark trumpets a positive role for the music journo, whose job it is "to be evangelical, to bang the drum, but also to bring to life the music people are already listening to." But people like Mark have, ironically, helped birth the new status quo. Music journalists didn’t create Instagram, of course. But read or listen to Mark’s tales of NME’s heyday, and it’s easy to see why record labels and artists are so glad to disenfranchise pop’s chattering classes. They were brutal in the 70s and 80s, and back then it mattered. One typically capricious change of critical preference is outlined in the book as 'the same writers who’d adored the prog giants and rock monsters now hitch their carts to the punk bandwagon and draw a bead on the old regime as if they were eighteenth-century French aristocracy, milk-fed pompous nincompoops destined for a painful execution.' Hard to blame the ducs and duchêsses for fleeing the terrors.

Mark’s not so callous though. For all the sentimentality, he’s actually quite forgiving of the current pop brood. He won’t even take the bait on TV talent contests – and avoids them in the book – for fear of sounding like "some superannuated old git. Some kind of grumpy old man." In actual fact, Mark sympathises with the would-be stars of today – "I think they have to work very, very hard to get attention" –  and bemoans the focus on stage school over individuality and life experience. Still, it’s difficult to avoid the past’s lure, especially if you’ve witnessed and documented some of its truly eccentric moments.

Elton John – another eccentric with whom Mark has of course spoken – seems an interesting case study in the game of persona management. In one sense, his star façade seems too clear and readily available for it not to have been cooked up by some crafty pop capitalists. Yet old Reggie also seems to give something of his private self, something authentic. Mark heard a good one about a shindig of Elton’s in the summer of '73 or maybe '74, a time when "everyone was competing to have more and more outrageous parties." Challenging Elton on the story’s authenticity, our chronicler was given a soft confirmation: "Really there were so many parties, but let’s say it did." How it goes is that Elton and "his very gay gang of pals are throwing this party out in some stately home." Lawns, powdered pick-me-ups, gallons of brandy etc. The guests are ushered out into the evening light of a stubborn mid-summer sun. In coasts a bomber plane peppering the sky with little dots, dots that grew into "paratroopers, paratrooping down into Elton’s capacious estate. Turns out it’s naked men on the end of parachutes!" Mark giggles. "They land, at which point Elton’s dinner guests CHARGE keenly out onto the lawn, pursuing these naked men into the bushes. Is that happening with Ed Sheeran? I don’t think so!" Hard not to hearken after the good, gaudy old days.

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Rock Stars Stole My Life!: A Big Bad Love Affair with Music is published in paperback by Coronet on 26 Mar, RRP £8.99