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

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses