So you want to be a rock’n’roll star: how music shaped Alan Johnson and Mark Kermode

The former home secretary and the film critic are children of different generations, but their music memoirs both impress.

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The easy fluency, nerdish charm and commercial success of 1990s pop fanboy non-fiction by Giles Smith and Nick Hornby meant that soon everyone felt they had a music memoir in them. By and large, they were wrong. Discerning readers now approach this genre with loins ironclad, since most offerings are dreary identikit faux-modest accounts of girl/boy trouble, bad haircuts and how punk rock changed one’s trousers for ever.

The two authors here both reassure, though. Alan Johnson, “the best prime minster we never had” in the opinion of many, has produced several volumes of raw and compelling autobiography already. Mark Kermode deftly and winningly manages to have one foot in knotty film criticism and one in popular entertainment. His recent BBC Four series, Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema, was the kind of bracingly old-school documentary one despaired of ever seeing again; someone who knew what they were talking about doing just that, at length, straight at us, instead of moody travelogue mid-shots and spurious “journeys”.

They are children of different generations: Johnson was raised in the stewed cabbage ambience of Two-Way Family Favourites and Tommy Steele,  Kermode grew up with the music of Slade and, more oddly, skiffle, the anachronistic love of which becomes the leitmotif of his story. His is the tale of a life spent in bands often touched lightly by celebrity. David Baddiel riffs alongside him in an early schoolboy combo. A bill is shared with Tracey Thorn, of these pages. He stages a brief, awkward, unproductive “doorstepping” of David “Kid” Jensen in the reception area of Radio 1.

In its later stages, the book becomes a considerably detailed inventory of the movements of two of Kermode’s many groups: the Dodge Brothers, still extant and recording, and the Railtown Bottlers, formed in his Mancunian student days and later Danny Baker’s TV house band. If you enjoyed Baker’s various volumes of autobiography, Kermode’s romp through his own “back story” will appeal too, since he has much of his mentor’s style: breezily anecdotal, big on dialogue and set-pieces, light on concerted rumination on matters of the wider world.

Johnson shared Kermode’s obsession with forming and disbanding pop groups, flirting with the big time in various mod bands in the London and Home Counties of the Sixties. This is his fourth volume of memoirs, which might suggest Knausgaardian levels of self-absorption. But in prose and person, Johnson has always had an everyman likeability, enhanced and thrown into relief by comparison with the more baroque figures he has sat awkwardly close to on This Week’s weirdly tiny couch, huddled for safety under Andrew Neil’s basilisk gaze and hairdo.

Johnson’s take on the “good old days” is sparely unsentimental. In one instance from childhood, he and his mother look out from an upstairs window “as the long summer evening unfurls… not long after the Whitsun bank holiday Monday when, right there, at the corner of our street, Kelso Cochrane, a young Antiguan carpenter, was murdered by a gang of Teddy Boys.” He himself is held hostage in Ladbroke Grove “by a man holding a piece of glass to my eye. I forget what he was demanding but what he needed was medical attention.”

Stories of the early Sixties dancehalls are darkly evocative: steel combs stashed in pockets for self-defence, the protocols of “smooching”, the Palais prowlers (older, sleazy men who picked off “unwanted” girl dancers at the evening’s close). Even more alarmingly for some modern readers, this was an England when olive oil was available on prescription for earache rather than in various pressings and vintages and shelved at the deli counter. I liked Johnson’s story about the teenage postman turning up with the Aladdin Sane lightning bolt and being sent home immediately to wash it off: “I wasn’t yet a union rep but if I had been, I’d have made a staunch defence of a man’s right to paint his face,” he asserts – but concedes it could have been a disconcerting sight for the Slough resident faced with this and a gas bill on the doorstep.

While Kermode’s tale comes right up to date with accounts of performances at the Royal Festival Hall, the Cropredy festival and US jaunts, Johnson’s ends in 1982, the year he attends his first Labour party conference. At this point another more navigable route to fame than rock stardom starts to become apparent.

As you might imagine from someone who attained high political office, there’s a greater accent on social observation in Johnson’s book than in Kermode’s more personal account, with its emphasis on toe-curling band names, transit van reminiscence and farragos on various stages.

Some of the hackneyed wisdom of the pub politburo shows itself sporadically in Johnson’s very readable memoir. You will know the sort of thing: the first John Lennon solo effort with the Plastic Ono Band album is his best (it isn’t), Emerson, Lake & Palmer were terrible (they weren’t), the Beatles’ sprawling 1968 White Album would have benefited from a pruning (it wouldn’t) and the Seventies were “the decade style forgot” (they were actually the very opposite) and so on.

But there are also connections and aperçus that feel newly minted. He remarks on Lonnie Donegan being derided by purists for appearing in a pantomime (which Johnson sees as a small boy) and “broadening into an old-fashioned ‘all-round entertainer’ just as the musical revolution he had helped to create was about to consign that breed to history”. I’d never spotted that “Love Me Do”, the Beatles’ first single, came out in the same week that the Cuban missile crisis began. It’s a fascinating detail. Did those young men with their rasping harmonica and lusty appetite for life know what older men were debating in Washington and Moscow? Strange to think that the greatest cultural force of the era might have been not the fledgling cry of a brave new world, but the valedictory wail of an old doomed one.

In music at least, Johnson is something of a conservative. He loves the Beatles, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush. He dallies with the Incredible String Band but finds them “gratingly twee”. Drugs do not loom large. Beyond the standard veneration of the Fab Four, Johnson is curt about the psychedelic Sixties in general and in particular their impact on working-class life. He states several times that he has never dabbled, and dismisses Procol Harum’s epochal “A Whiter Shade of Pale” as “bohemian nonsense… reeking of pot”.

Whether this had any later bearing on his sacking of “drug tsar” David Nutt during his tenure as home secretary, following Nutt’s liberal and enlightened report, we can but wonder. Johnson is a centrist dad, perhaps, musically as well as politically. But, as we are finding out, there are worse things to be. 

Alan Johnson appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival with David Hepworth on 24 November

In My Life: A Music Memoir
Alan Johnson
Bantam Press, 272pp, £16.99

How Does It Feel? A Life of Musical Misadventures
Mark Kermode
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 304pp, £18.99

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The fury of the Far Right