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.

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…

No Mullet Required: Nik Kershaw’s The Riddle

the-riddle-54d854ab5fe83MCA Records, released November 1984

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1985

8/10

One wonders how many readers outside the UK will even have heard of Nik. After several years playing guitar in cover bands and fronting East Anglia blue-eyed-soulsters Fusion, Kershaw wrote a few poppy-sounding tracks and suddenly found himself thrust into the solo spotlight.

But he didn’t fool anyone with the snood, fingerless gloves and mullet – it was obvious from the get-go that Nik was a superb musician and songwriter. He had a voice a bit like Stevie Wonder (though my dad rightly identified something Numanoid too), played guitar a bit like Allan Holdsworth and wrote clever, catchy pop songs with prog, metal and funk undercurrents.

He also had some very famous fans in the US including Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. But his image, dreamed up by some wags in MCA’s marketing department, probably didn’t do him any favours – Smash Hits summed it up perfectly, calling him ‘the thinking man’s Limahl’!

The Riddle is probably his best album. It was recorded pretty quickly to cash in on the unexpected success of his debut Human Racing, though featured a fair amount of post-production courtesy of the excellent Peter Collins who later produced Rush’s Power Windows.

The Riddle features a very solid but expressive rhythm section (Elton John sticksman Charlie Morgan and ex-Secret Affair bassist Dennis Smith plus a great guest appearance from Level 42’s Mark King on ‘Easy’). Kershaw’s use of synths was kind of revolutionary, with intriguing sequencer patterns and lots of subtle, almost subliminal pads (dare one posit a Gil Evans influence?).

Yes, The Riddle screams the mid-1980s, but, most importantly, every song on it is memorable and has a very distinct flavour. On a songwriting level, Kershaw always knows how to keep things interesting for the listener. ‘Know How’’s taut, white-funk groove always used to remind me a bit of Talking Heads.

Miles apparently recorded a cover of the very pretty ‘Wild Horses’ which has never seen the light of day. Hollywood-baiting ‘City Of Angels’ and eco-themed ‘Roses’ have more than a hint of Steely Dan about them, partly due to the use of the famous Purdie Shuffle, nicely reformatted by Morgan.

‘Wide Boy’ and ‘Don Quixote’ have lots of interesting melodic modulations under their pop sheen. ‘Easy’ is a brilliant band performance and crafty composition with a nutty middle eight, while the closing ballad ‘Save The Whale’ is also musically rich and lyrically well-intentioned if naive. And though the title track divides opinion, to say the least, check out its two-chords-per-bar middle-eight for a great example of Kershaw’s craft.

The cover photo was taken at Chesil Beach in Dorset. The Riddle peaked at #8 on the UK Album Chart and went multi-platinum. The lead single was the title track which reached #3 in the UK. ‘Wide Boy’ peaked at #9, whilst the third and final single release ‘Don Quixote’ got to #10. Three top 10 hits from a sophomore album – pretty damn good.

Nik was massive for approximately 18 months. He played Live Aid in July 1985 but then waited until autumn 1986 to follow up The Riddle – probably a mistake. The screaming girls were growing up fast or moving on to a-ha. He was developing as a musician and songwriter but gaining a much more ‘selective’ appeal, in the words of Spinal Tap’s manager Ian Faith.