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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Tom Hibbert: ’80s Agent Provocateur

Maggie and Tom, 1987

Maggie and Tom, 1987

The PR boom that had swept the music business in the 1970s really hit its stride in the 1980s. MTV launched on August 1st 1981 and ensured that artists’ images were just as important as the musical package. In fact, a good image and strong video could sell an artist all over the world without any need to play live.

At the same time, the tabloid press had cottoned on to the power of music biz celebrity; columns like Bizarre and The 3am Girls, both of which featured in The Sun newspaper, were huge successes and reiterated that the public’s appetite for showbiz stories knew no bounds. PR and tabloid journalism were in their heyday, and they could make or break a career.

So thank goodness there was a writer like Tom Hibbert around. He cut through the PR schtick and exposed the chancers, pretenders and prima donnas of the ’80s for what they were, and in the process wrote some of the most pithy and hilarious music articles of all time. With his shoulder-length hair, ever-present fag/pint, disarmingly faux-naif style and penchant for obscure psych bands, he was always going to be more comfortable in the late-’60s than the preening mid-’80s (apparently he only really rated Iggy Pop, Jerry Garcia, Syd Barrett and Ray Davies from the ‘pop’ world).

Q Magazine, Issue One, October 1986

The first issue of Q, October 1986

Later, with his work on Smash Hits and particularly Q Magazine, he invented a whole new, much-imitated lexicon of music journalism. He would begin pieces with expressions like: ‘Phew, rock’n’roll, eh, readers?’ David Bowie was rechristened as The Dame, Cliff as Sir Clifford Of Richard, Paul McCartney as Fab Macca Wacky Thumbs Aloft and Freddie Mercury as Lord Frederick Lucan Of Mercury. The gentle piss-taking was quite a change from the reverential Melody Maker/Sounds era. When commissioned to write a biography of Billy Joel, Hibbert apparently wrote most of it about Joel’s almost totally unknown psych band, The Hassles, and dismissed the rest of his career in the final chapter!*

Tom hit his stride writing the notorious ‘Who The Hell Do They Think They Are’ articles in Q which generally exposed and belittled the more gullible, self-important celebs of the ’80s, usually from the world of music. He was given a right bollocking by Jerry Lee Lewis after one too many questions about The Killer’s rivalry with Elvis:

‘Don’t nit-pick me, boy! You mention Elvis to me again, you keep digging me about that and I’m gonna kill you, so help me God!’

Ringo_Starr_(2007)

He pulled off a similar trick with Ringo, ignoring instructions from the PR and asking repeated questions about The Beatles. Mr Starkey could contain himself no longer, bawling:

‘You’re talking shit!’

Tom also elicited some seriously weird recollections from Chuck Berry and Yoko, and managed to nail topless-model-turned-pop-star Samantha Fox, Bananarama, Bros and Gary Glitter with his disarming, give-’em-enough-rope-to-hang-themselves style. He flew to Brazil and tracked down notorious train robber/friend of the Sex Pistols Ronnie Biggs, and – perhaps predictably – got along quite well with him.

At the height of Q’s popularity in 1987, Tom was given the dream gig: an audience with Thatcher. She obviously thought this would be a golden chance to woo the nation’s ‘youth’ but came nicely unstuck when she gleefully revealed that her favourite singer was Cliff and favourite song ‘(How Much Is) That Doggie In The Window’. You can read the interview here.

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Tom also interviewed actor Rupert Everett in 1987, at a time when the thespian was trying to reposition himself as a credible pop singer. Hibbert’s preamble to the interview ran thus:

He wears the soiled leather jacket and the shades (on this drab and rainy day) of the rock star, but his attempt at the street-damaged look is foiled somewhat by the poise and delivery of the effete and English ac-tor. Close your eyes as he talks and you might imagine him to be dressed in a velveteen smoking jacket, and that it were a delicate ebony cigarette holder he was chewing on rather than a lettuce and tomato sandwich…

Later interviews with Status Quo, Boy George, Roger Waters, Television and Jonathan Richman make me chuckle to this day, and some of them are in this collection.

Son of esteemed historian Christopher Hibbert, Tom was born and brought up in Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. His early career involved writing for home-improvement periodicals and playing guitar in a few unheralded bands. Sadly, Tom died in September 2011 at the age of just 59, his rather unhealthy lifestyle finally catching up with him. But as John Lydon told Tom during a Q interview in 1995, ‘You’re rather squalid, but I enjoy that. Ha-ha-ha-ha!’

*I need to verify that…