Book Review: Exit Stage Left (The Curious Afterlife Of Pop Stars) by Nick Duerden

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.

MTV @ 40: The Videos That Made MTV

By summer 1984, Frank Zappa was already decrying the MTV clichés in his ‘Be In My Video’ single (‘Pretend to be Chinese/I’ll make you wear red shoes’!).

But, away from the familiar tropes, there were trailblazing videos that set MTV on its way during the formative years. Either technically or thematically, these clips laid the groundwork right up until the end of the 1980s.

Of course they are kind of familiar, but watching them all the way through brought some interesting surprises, and even an unexpected lump in the throat area during the denouement of ‘Take On Me’…

9. Musical Youth: ‘Pass The Dutchie’ (Dir. Don Letts, released September 1982)

The first ever video shown on MTV by a Black artist. This was a huge bone of contention in MTV’s early days, not helped by their regular, disingenuous rebuttal: ‘We only play rock’n’roll’. Don Letts’ joyful film put a spanner in the works, placing the lads in front of the Houses Of Parliament, the supposed ‘postcard’ vision of London, a tribute to the influence of Black culture in the UK and a stark message to the powers that be. Letts also created a huge hit in the process, reaching #1 in the UK and #10 in the USA.

8. The Police: ‘Every Breath You Take’ (Dirs. Kevin Godley & Lol Creme, released 20 May 1983)

Strongly influenced by Gjon Mili’s 1944 short ‘Jammin’ The Blues’, this was the video that catapulted Synchronicity‘s album sales into the stratosphere and gave the band a UK and US #1. Apparently directors Godley and Creme were pretty blitzed throughout most of the filming – according to the latter, ‘The first thing we’d do when we arrived on set was roll a reefer.’ Sting was reportedly no shrinking violet either, pointing to himself and telling the directors, ‘Keep the camera on the money’!

7. ZZ Top: ‘Gimme All Your Lovin’ (Dir. Tim Newman, released August 1983)

Randy Newman’s cousin Tim helmed all of ZZ’s key videos (and Randy’s excellent ‘I Love LA’) and he masterminded this much-imitated, endlessly-rewatchable classic, giving the band a new lease of life and a lasting image as kind of ‘mythical rockers’ (apparently influenced by his reading of Joseph Campbell). But it was ZZ manager Bill Ham who laid down the law to Newman, offering two directives: ‘Use the car (Billy Gibbons’ 1933 Ford coupe) and put some girls in it.’

6. Cyndi Lauper: ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ (Dir. Edd Griles, released 6 September 1983)

Cyndi’s thing was inclusivity, and she delighted in showing a woman of every race in the video. It has echoes of John Waters’ aesthetic and the early Devo and B-52s videos, but this had a whole different vibe, apparently inspired by Lauper’s love of Jacques Tati’s 1958 film ‘Mon Oncle’.

5. Michael Jackson: ‘Thriller’ (Dir. John Landis, premiered December 1983)

‘Billie Jean’ opened the door for so many Black artists but this was pure box office and a delicious comedy/horror. Famously Michael headhunted director John Landis after watching ‘An American Werewolf In London’, giving him just one brief: ‘Can I turn into a monster?’ Landis was not interested in music videos but did like the idea of making a theatrical short. The video changed the game completely, and it’s arguable whether the dance routines have ever been bettered. It premiered on MTV on 2 December 1983 and reportedly doubled Thriller’s album sales within a few weeks of its first showing. It’s still absolutely thrilling.

4. Van Halen: ‘Jump’ (Dir. Pete Angelus, released December 1983)

Of course Metal acts were starting to make waves before this, with impactful videos by Twister Sister and Def Leppard, but ‘Jump’ laid down all the future ‘live on stage’ clichés, with balls on. Hair Metal became huge after this, and MTV adored the likes of Warrant, Winger and Bon Jovi, but none could ever match this song or Diamond Dave’s natural showmanship.

3. Madonna: ‘Borderline’ (Dir. Mary Lambert, released February 1984)

Lambert had only directed one video (Tom Tom Club’s ‘As Above So Below’) before getting her dream job on this breakout Madonna single. Madonna and Lambert discussed the video’s plot for two days in the former’s minimalist bolthole on the Upper East Side with Madonna insisting there be a Hispanic influence, necessitating moving the shoot to downtown Los Angeles. This is reportedly the first video to use black-and-white footage combined with colour; Madonna’s manager Freddy DeMann supposedly went ballistic on viewing the final cut but of course it became a video cliché, gave Lambert a successful career and Madonna her breakthrough song.

2. Lionel Richie: ‘Hello’ (Dir. Bob Giraldi, released February 1984)

Apparently director/scenarist Bob Giraldi was driven half mad by Lionel’s terminal lateness onto the set. For his part, Lionel was very sceptical about the bust. Apparently he finally plucked up the courage to approach Giraldi about it: ‘Bob, that bust does not look like me.’ There was a pregnant pause. Finally, Bob said, ‘Lionel…she’s blind.’

1. A-ha: ‘Take On Me’ (Dir. Steve Barron, released September 1985)

The song had completely flopped on its original release, so WEA gave Steve Barron a blank cheque to make a memorable video and get a hit. Working alongside rotoscope animator Michael Patterson, who did 1,800 drawings for the shoot, Barron was heavily influenced by Ken Russell’s 1981 movie ‘Altered States’. Barron knew it would work when the memorable image of an animated hand reaching out of a comic book popped into his head whilst he was bored shooting a Toto video. Apparently singer Morten Harket and lead actress Bunty Bailey fell in love during filming, becoming almost inseparable. ‘By take four, they would carry on holding hands even when we’d cut,’ remembered Barron. Aided by the video, ‘Take On Me’ became the band’s only US #1.

Further reading: ‘I Want My MTV’ by Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks