Feed the world: Live Aid 1985, which Mark Ellen helped present. Photo: Getty
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Mark Ellen: a big bad love affair with music mags

Mark Ellen changed the face of music magazines with Smash Hits, Q, SelectMojo and finally The Word. His memoir is as “hectic, self-deprecating, quietly perceptive” as the man himself. 

Rock Stars Stole My Life!
Mark Ellen
Hodder & Stoughton, 320pp, £18.99

Music magazines may be dying out but at least they’re getting a defiant funeral oration in this energetic and highly entertaining memoir by Mark Ellen, who co-founded Q, Mojo and The Word, edited Smash Hits, presented The Old Grey Whistle Test and, in a surely unrepeatable moment of can-do amateurism at the BBC, co-hosted Live Aid.

Almost every successful British pop culture magazine of the past three decades is a variant on the model honed by Ellen and his more acerbic collaborator David Hepworth. In their near-Platonic ideal of the magazine as an all-singing, all-dancing, self-contained entertainment, the headlines were always funny (“Led Zeppelin: the hoarse foremen of the Apocalypse”) and the pictures always forensically informative rather than arty – and a welcoming tone of enthusiasm replaced the hipper-than-thou exclusivity of rock weeklies such as NME or Melody Maker.

Critics moaned that these consumerist rags betrayed the storied legacy of music journalism: that is to say, writers writing to impress other writers. But, impelled by the rise of CDs and pop videos, the new reader-friendly titles eclipsed all before them, partly because in their playfulness they were actually more serious than the serious weeklies. Smash Hits begat Q begat Empire begat Mojo, with Just Seventeen, Heat and FHM in a parallel lineage, and each title became a community with its own private language and mores. They were the original social media.

I worked for Ellen off and on for two decades and his methods and ideas were the making of my career in magazines, even though the first time I met him, he walked in on me stamping on a copy of his beloved Q. (The ailing rival title that I worked for, Select, had just been bought by its proprietors, Emap.) It’s a testament to his sense of humour and open-mindedness that he didn’t fire me on the spot pour encourager les autres and instead threw himself into the company of people who hated all the music he liked (the Beatles, the Incredible String Band) and liked all the music he hated (bleeps, clonks, nosebleed techno). By treating our passions as just as worthwhile as his own, he made us better journalists and helped turn Select from a creaking me-too title into the dominant magazine of the Britpop years.

His autobiography, like Ellen the man, is hectic, self-deprecating, quietly perceptive, never shy of pumping a story full of helium to make it fly and guilelessly in love with the unfashionable, florally scented prog rock he describes as “tragic old rubbish”. In an inversion of rock’s usual narrative arc, this time it’s the middle-class ingénu and not the upstart prole who finds himself the outsider, ultimately remaking the establishment in his own image.

The sharply intelligent son of a lay preacher and wartime parachutist who had lost a leg at Normandy, the young Mark Henry Ellen falls badly for Pink Floyd and Soft Machine at his boarding school. Soon he is wandering through early-1970s rock festivals of Hogarthian squalor (“pie-munching troglodytes, frail hippie chicks, lone idiot dancers”) and dreaming of trysts with girls called Coriander or Starshine. Up at Oxford he grows hair like corduroy curtains and joins a band called Ugly Rumours with a preening Mick Jagger impersonator called Tony Blair.

Thus does he store up a reservoir of impeccable uncoolness that will become his greatest asset. Left out of NME’s inner circle, too young for true 1968 hippiedom but a bit too old for punk, Ellen is forced to set up his own party with the curmudgeonly Hepworth and a vivid supporting cast including the future Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant. By embracing those things his contemporaries despised – interviewing Rod Stewart, giving Adam Ant as much attention as Joy Division, becoming the face of the BBC’s throbbingly unhip Old Grey Whistle Test – he intuited a future when pop would be a mass, visual entertainment instead of a bedroom obsession. The tragic hippie saw more of tomorrow than the Clash-jacketed gunslingers ever spotted.

Like Q in its original pomp, Ellen’s writing style is best described as acid Wodehouse. The rock DJ Tommy “TV on the Radio” Vance, for instance, has “a voice like crème de menthe on warm gravel”; elsewhere Britain falls prey to “Duran-demonium”. If there’s a fault, it is that Ellen’s magazine-bred instinct for pace and brevity – “keeping the ball in the air”, he used to call it – makes the book tighter than it needs to be. I could have read more about the bloodthirsty magazine wars of the 1990s and more about the Ugly Rumours singer. Whatever happened to him?

He also deals economically with Emap’s fall from grace, when the industry fell for the ruinous snake oil of “brand towers” and “cross-platform engagement”. Possibly the details were too painful to dwell on. Mark Ellen kept the flame alive for another decade at The Word, a tiny-budget magazine whose readers adored it in inverse proportion to its low sales. I suspect he was happiest there, editing Britain’s best-loved fanzine.

The New Statesman is a media partner of the Latitude Festival, where Mark Ellen will be talking about his career on July 18

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.