Sylvia Patterson, famed music journalist, of Smash Hits, NME, The Face and Guardian fame, came to give a talk about her new book, and ended on a rather sombre note, which paved the way excellently for A Concrete Sonnet, the song cycle based around Shakespeare’s sonnets, performed by five of the most gifted musicians in the city. Again, a superb night of culture, operating outside of the Hull 2017 umbrella, which whetted the appetite nicely for the year ahead.
I’ve followed Sylvia Patterson since her days at Smash Hits; her career following exactly the same trajectory as my musical odyssey. By her own admission, she attempted to ‘indify’ Smash Hits in the 80s, which, as the paperboy slotted said publication through my letterbox every two weeks from 1982 to 1987, directly informed my tastes. I discovered the Bunnymen, New Order, The Cure, The Smiths, The Mary Chain et al within those hallowed pages. In fact, it was Ian McCulloch’s hilarious interviews in that mag that made me take notice of music which resided outside the Top 40; themselves steadfastly in the charts, but it made me search more widely for more esoteric music, which led me onto the “serious” weeklies such as NME, Melody Maker and Sounds. So it was quite a big deal listening to her stories of taking the piss out of Jon Bon Jovi, ZZ Top and Damon Albarn. The former, whilst taking himself way too seriously, inadvertently lining himself up for merciless mocking at the hands of the staff. It was a teen mag, there was no room to be ruminating on the “creative process” or the complexity of the human condition. Questions were routinely asked about growing parsley in gumboots and the like. So they asked Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top if he slept with his beard inside or outside the bed (outside) and made Jon Bon Jovi a figure of fun, his resistance to play the game making them “gang up on him” and ridicule him more.
Over to Sylvia:
“Here was a man that embodied everything that Smash Hits wasn’t. He was a humourless megalomaniac who would talk about himself, and nothing but the music; he took himself spectacularly seriously, and the more he did that, the sillier the questions became. One time I was asking him questions about cats and he tore the questions out of my hand, and said “the only good cat is a dead cat” and ran off to his guitarist saying “some kooky chick is asking some god damned stupid questions!” and he just hated us.”
An almost Louis Theroux-esque offer of rope with which to hang himself. So the refusal to play the game resulted in these people being sidelined and openly mocked. She goes on to say that The Housemartins, whilst pushing their Marxist agendas in the serious weeklies, played the game at Smash Hits, resulting in them being celebrated in the mag. This acute awareness of her location, ensuring that the audience hung onto her every word, as she rattled off story after story of pop stars’ off-the-record existence.
She recounts a story of her time at the NME during the Britpop years, where “booze and drugs were everywhere,” in characteristically self-deprecating manner. She tells of the time she was given a whole load of money to pretend to be Alex James of Blur, pop’s great lothario of the time, who tried (and succeeded) to spend a million pounds in Soho. So she blagged her way into the Groucho Club and Browns (and was kicked out,) scored loads of drugs and spent a night getting leathered in the style of the aforementioned bassist. It’s an anecdote which is preposterous and hilarious and used as an example of editorial policy in the music press in the 90s. These anecdotes come thick and fast and are fascinating for this writer (me,) as you get the sense that she was living like the people she was interviewing, and the audience is in turn, vicariously living it through her. She’s extremely engaging and hilarious. These stories highlight how things have changed in the media, and towards the end of the talk, expertly hosted by Dave Windass, the laughter subsides, and we’re treated to a more reflective analysis of modern times.
She has already stated that, through her questioning of music icons, she was trying to find answers to her own question about life, leading her to conclude that it only leads to more questions, and that really, rock stars don’t really inhabit our world anyway. But after that soul-baring, an audience member asks an incisive question about modern music journalism and the fact that most great writers are blogging for free and don’t actually get paid for their work, despite being acknowledged by the subjects of their writing. The talk takes a decidedly melancholy turn after this, but it loses none of its pertinence; on the contrary, whilst gloomy, it’s fascinating to hear her thoughts, and indeed, commiserations.
“How bizarre that we’re in a situation where it’s never been easier to write and have your voice out there, but people aren’t going to get paid. So it’s not going to work. It’s absolutely catastrophic for all forms of journalism. People are not going to be able to realise their dreams…the young are going to somehow find ways to change this. The only hope I can see is a return to the jazz age where some rich patron comes along and creates spaces and gives people money to actually live because you can’t live on fresh air. You can’t. Most music websites pay appallingly (sighs,) and a lot pay absolutely nothing at all. As a profession, it’s in the most trouble it’s ever been in. I’m absolutely gutted and I don’t know how to help people. There’s a serious problem, and some seriously rich people need to come in and siphon off some of their millions. Culture’s in trouble.”
Her despair is palpable; you can see she really cares. She’s almost on the brink of tears at this point, the more the questions come flying in, elaborating on the original question. It almost becomes a “Dear Deidre” session from here on in, and the rest of the talk is centered around this dilemma.
The talk is wrapped up around 15 minutes later, but a large chunk of the talk is spent ruminating on this question. The anecdotes were pure gold, but it’s when we get to the serious stuff that she really shows her mettle. We get a real measure of her as a person. Compassionate, aware and self-deprecating throughout, it’s the end of the talk that’s the most fascinating. She wants to go on, but it’s time to wrap up. She sticks around for the band and as I leave, she’s enthusiastically chatting to members of the audience a good two hours after her turn, dispensing advice, telling stories and being an all-round good egg.
I purchased the book as soon as I got home. Recommendations don’t come higher than that. Purchase here via Amazon HERE
The perfect tonic on the day that the host of The Apprentice was elected as the 45th President of the USA.
Words | Mike Robbo
Images | Mike White