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. 

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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 appears in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people