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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No, Jeremy Corbyn did not refuse to condemn the IRA. Please stop saying he did

Guys, seriously.

Okay, I’ll bite. Someone’s gotta say it, so really might as well be me:

No, Jeremy Corbyn did not, this weekend, refuse to condemn the IRA. And no, his choice of words was not just “and all other forms of racism” all over again.

Can’t wait to read my mentions after this one.

Let’s take the two contentions there in order. The claim that Corbyn refused to condem the IRA relates to his appearance on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme yesterday. (For those who haven’t had the pleasure, it’s a weekly political programme, hosted by Sophy Ridge and broadcast on a Sunday. Don’t say I never teach you anything.)

Here’s how Sky’s website reported that interview:

 

The first paragraph of that story reads:

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised after he refused five times to directly condemn the IRA in an interview with Sky News.

The funny thing is, though, that the third paragraph of that story is this:

He said: “I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”

Apparently Jeremy Corbyn has been so widely criticised for refusing to condemn the IRA that people didn’t notice the bit where he specifically said that he condemned the IRA.

Hasn’t he done this before, though? Corbyn’s inability to say he that opposed anti-semitism without appending “and all other forms of racism” was widely – and, to my mind, rightly – criticised. These were weasel words, people argued: an attempt to deflect from a narrow subject where the hard left has often been in the wrong, to a broader one where it wasn’t.

Well, that pissed me off too: an inability to say simply “I oppose anti-semitism” made it look like he did not really think anti-semitism was that big a problem, an impression not relieved by, well, take your pick.

But no, to my mind, this....

“I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”

...is, despite its obvious structural similarities, not the same thing.

That’s because the “all other forms of racism thing” is an attempt to distract by bringing in something un-related. It implies that you can’t possibly be soft on anti-semitism if you were tough on Islamophobia or apartheid, and experience shows that simply isn’t true.

But loyalist bombing were not unrelated to IRA ones: they’re very related indeed. There really were atrocities committed on both sides of the Troubles, and while the fatalities were not numerically balanced, neither were they orders of magnitude apart.

As a result, specifically condemning both sides as Corbyn did seems like an entirely reasonable position to take. Far creepier, indeed, is to minimise one set of atrocities to score political points about something else entirely.

The point I’m making here isn’t really about Corbyn at all. Historically, his position on Northern Ireland has been pro-Republican, rather than pro-peace, and I’d be lying if I said I was entirely comfortable with that.

No, the point I’m making is about the media, and its bias against Labour. Whatever he may have said in the past, whatever may be written on his heart, yesterday morning Jeremy Corbyn condemned IRA bombings. This was the correct thing to do. His words were nonetheless reported as “Jeremy Corbyn refuses to condemn IRA”.

I mean, I don’t generally hold with blaming the mainstream media for politicians’ failures, but it’s a bit rum isn’t it?

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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