The story goes that The Human League’s Phil Oakey smashed the phone to pieces immediately after hearing from his manager that ‘Don’t You Want Me’ had gone to number one in America.
There was a creeping suspicion that he had peaked too early, and the only way was down.
Maybe it was a natural reaction in those competitive, cut-throat pop years of the early 1980s, but little did he know that that song would probably come in very handy over the years and pay for kids’ school fees, parents’ homes, tax bills, etc etc.
Nick Duerden’s gripping, important new book ‘Exit Stage Left’ doesn’t interview Oakey but does many others from the pop pantheon who have had some early success and then swiftly asked ‘Is that all there is?’ after a career downturn or ‘change of musical direction’.
Duerden has a formidable contacts book and gets candid quotes from some surprisingly big names. Shaun Ryder tells of having to pay back huge debts after being hit with a legal bill in 1998. Robbie Williams discusses his surprisingly lonely, low-key bachelor life when moving to Los Angeles after becoming the UK’s biggest pop star.
Suzanne Vega relates the shame of having to ‘downsize’ her band and crew mid-tour when audiences failed to fill large enues and The Boo Radleys’ Martin Carr discusses saying no to licensing requests for ‘Wake Up Boo’, trying to hold onto his punk credentials, but then ‘teaching himself to say yes’. Ex-Frankie Goes To Hollywood guitarist Brian ‘Nasher’ Nash talks about his PTSD diagnosis (as do a few other artists).
Elsewhere there are fascinating interviews with Lloyd Cole, Natalie Merchant, Roisin Murphy and Wendy James on the relative benefits of success and the words of Kevin Rowland, Musical Youth’s Dennis Seaton and Ed Tudor-Pole are touching and somewhat humbling.
Duerden writes with compassion and has a winning way of summing up his interviewees’ physical essences – Stereo MC’s Rob Birch ‘never rose to his full height but rather hovered in a perpetual half crouch, as if his bones were made from elastic bands.’ Billy Bragg ‘looked like he would sunburn easily and so was best kept far from exotic beaches.’
‘Exit Stage Left’ is a sobering read and will ring true to anyone who’s ever been stung by the business, or had their dream job whipped from beneath them. Thanks to Duerden’s witty, fast-moving style, it’s pithy and powerful but never too depressing.
The book also touches on areas generally not touched with a ten-foot (Tudor) pole by the music biz – mental illness, poverty, shame, family estrangement, divorce, burnout. Like any other industry, the music biz sure has its casualties. And if the more discerning, slightly cynical reader may at points be shouting: ‘Why don’t you just go and get a NORMAL job?’ – well, a surprising amount of the interviewees did just that.
Along with Simon Garfield’s ‘Expensive Habits’, Eamonn Forde’s ‘The Final Days Of EMI’ and Seymour Stein’s ‘Siren Song’, ‘Exit Stage Left’ is one of the most illuminating books this correspondent has read about the music industry – how it really operates. As Duerden says, ‘Successful businesses tend to be the most ruthless, and the music business is very successful indeed.’ Don’t miss.
Duerden talks about ‘Exit Stage Left’ in this recent WORD podcast.