Book Review: I’m Not With The Band (A Writer’s Life Lost In Music) by Sylvia Patterson

Sylvia Patterson’s hugely enjoyable memoir had me at page 28: ‘The post-punk era, roughly ’78 to ’83, was arguably the most richly dynamic of all musical time, an era defined by a cultural geyser of creative freedom and political indignation – all stoked, crucially, by the incendiary spark of jokes…’

That this pithy analysis of the era grabbed me immediately won’t surprise regular readers of this site. But what was more of a surprise to me was that ‘I’m Not With The Band’ turned out to be in the top two or three music biogs I’ve ever read.

It helps that Patterson is first and foremost a music fan (between 1980 and 1983, she describes herself consecutively as a Mod, Massive Goth, Moody Art-School Dreamer and Indie Kid). She is also a highly respected journalist who cut her teeth writing for Smash Hits during its million-readers-an-issue peak and has also contributed to the NME, Face, Big Issue, Glamour and Observer.

She has been a witness to how music journalism (and the wider recording industry) has become run by the lawyers, PR people and gossip mags. And she knows where the bodies are buried, locating the beginning of the decline in the 1990s when ‘tot pop’ (Christina Aguilera, S Club 7, Britney etc.), boy/girl bands, reality TV, corporate branding, celebrity culture and the internet ran roughshod.

She writes brilliantly about the surreal pop boom of the late 1980s, when Kylie, Jason, Big Fun (remember them?) Guns N’ Roses, Phil Collins, Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, Enya, Deacon Blue, Milli Vanilli, Brother Beyond (or The ‘Yond, in Smash Hits-speak), Bananarama, Salt ‘N Pepa and especially Bros ruled the waves. But in 1990, as the music biz hits a recession, Patterson opts to go freelance – an interview with Stock/Aitken/Waterman pop poppet Sonia is apparently the straw that breaks the camel’s back…

A few months later she’s on the dole, drinking too much, struggling to pay the rent, mourning her father and brother and rueing the deterioration of her relationship with an alcoholic, mentally-ill mother. Cue the second half of the book and the second half of her sometimes troubled life.

Mariah Carey and Sylvia

‘I’m Not With The Band’ outlines what it’s like to live and breathe music. It has certainly been tough remaining true to her school. But in documenting her journey Patterson also reaches the places other music biogs don’t reach. She’s like a big sister reporting from the front line of the pop biz – you’re always rooting for her, no matter how dark things get.

She also raids her cassette box to sprinkle in hilariously candid interviews with almost all the major pop players of the last four decades: Barney Sumner, Mick Hucknall and George Michael in the 1980s, Richey Edwards, Liam Gallagher, Shaun Ryder, Blur, Jarvis Cocker, Paul Heaton, Bobby Gillespie, Westlife, Page/Plant, Madonna and Prince in the ’90s, U2, Johnny Cash, Beyoncé (sample question: ‘Now you’re working with Jay Z and loads of tough guys, you’re hanging out with ex-drug dealers – how does your mum feel about Jay Z’s background?’), Kylie, Mariah, Britney, Eminem, Lily and Amy in the noughties. She captures exactly what it’s like to meet these people and asks all the difficult questions.

Witty and humane, never boring, occasionally hilarious, at times deeply affecting, Patterson’s book is up there with Giles Smith’s ‘Lost In Music’ (perhaps consciously referenced in the title) in documenting a troubled love affair with this thing we call…pop. We await Mike Leigh’s film adaptation.

‘I’m Not With The Band (A Writer’s Life Lost In Music)’ is published by Sphere/littlebrown.

Sylvia talks about the book in this Word podcast.

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Fuzzbox: Self! Self! Self!

fuzzbox_big_bangThe 1980s are littered with bands who started out with the noblest of indie intentions, but then got seduced and/or corralled into major-label action. And they didn’t come much more indie than We’ve Got A Fuzzbox And We’re Gonna Use It, the Birmingham-born-and-bred, all-female, John Peel-endorsed quartet which formed in 1985.

By 1988, though they had enjoyed a lone top 40 single, you probably wouldn’t have put much money on them making a claim for serious stardom. But against all odds, they spent most of 1989 as proper pop stars…

fuzzbox-smash-hits

Too young to appreciate their early stuff, I had only ever known their ‘pop’ period. But I hadn’t thought about them for over 25 years until the other day when I heard their 1989 single ‘Self’ on Absolute 80s. I was immediately impressed and intrigued; an irresistible slice of post-Frankie, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink pomp-pop, ‘Self’ features swooning synths, powerhouse drums, strident, Claudia Brucken-esque vocals, a brilliant chorus and even a saucy Brian May guitar solo. How did they do that?

It was all so different back in ’86. Their first UK single, a double A-side of ‘XX Sex’ and ‘Rules And Regulations‘, appeared on Vindaloo Records and reached number 41 in March of that year. In December, debut album Bostin’ Steve Austin was released, spawning hilarious first UK Top 40 single ‘Love Is The Slug’.

Further single releases included ‘Rocking With Rita (Head To Toe)’, featuring a version of ‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’ on the B-side, and even a cover of ‘Spirit In The Sky’.

Clearly a change of direction was needed. Apparently it was WEA A&R gurus Rob Dickins and Bill Drummond who masterminded the band’s assault on the charts, recommending a shortening of their name to Fuzzbox, bringing in songwriter Liam ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ Sternberg, putting more focus on lead singer Vickie Perks and recruiting session keyboard player Andy Richards to produce the Big Bang album.

Richards’ credentials were exemplary – prior to ’89 he had played on no less than eight ’80s UK number ones: Frankie’s ‘Relax’ and ‘Two Tribes’, George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper’, Chris De Burgh’s ‘Lady In Red’ and the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘It’s A Sin’, ‘Always On My Mind’ and ‘Heart’. He had also recently produced Prefab Sprout’s ‘Hey Manhattan‘.

And, in the short-term, Richards did a sterling job – Big Bang went top 5 and Fuzzbox were pop stars. Three singles from the album got into the top 30 – the infuriatingly-catchy Sternberg co-writes ‘Pink Sunshine’ and ‘International Rescue‘ as well as ‘Self’. But the fourth single, a cover of Yoko’s ‘Walking On Thin Ice’, flopped, as did later stand-alone single ‘Your Loss My Gain’. Warners pulled the plug, probably prematurely.

But the story doesn’t end there. Fuzzbox made a comeback in 2010 with a spiffing cover of M’s ‘Pop Muzik’ but sadly lost founding member Jo Dunne in October 2012. After a brief hiatus, they reformed again in 2015 and have just finished touring with The Wonder Stuff. Their YouTube channel claims they are officially the most successful British all-female band. Dispute it at your peril…