HYMNS FROM A HAUNTED TEAROOM
HYMNS FROM A HAUNTED TEAROOM - Mick Mercer in conversation with Alex Ogg . . .
An interview with Mick Mercer, legendary journalist, veteran of the punk and Goth wars, most closely associated with the latter genre through a series of books he’s written documenting the phenomenon. He’s also plied his trade in an underachieving punk band (compulsory pre-qualification for journos of the era) and fanzines (ditto – in this case the splendid Panache fanzine). He subsequently wrote extensively for the Melody Maker and edited ZigZag, one of the scrappiest, most amusing and intermittently best-written magazines ever.
Alex encountered him at various points on these travels, before they recently came together to work on the Dancing Did’s CD retrospective for Cherry Red – the artists concerned being the man’s all-time favourite UK band (and one of Alex’s favourites too). Which led to other matters of joint interest, and eventually this interview.
OK, Mick, where were you born and raised? Family background, if you will?
MICK MERCER: I was born in 1957 in Middlesex, where I spent all my childhood. From about six months old I was raised in a place called Stanwell, with Heathrow Airport’s cargo area at the end of my road. When she wasn’t looking after my three elder sisters or me, my mum worked in offices in Staines (one of the two nearest towns, Ashford being the other, where I eventually attended the local grammar school). Having been a radio operator in the army my Dad worked for the GPO in their telegram service. But, sensibly realising there was little future in that, he switched to working at the airport and eventually ended up running part of the control tower. Being an airport worker we got access to slightly better housing, as this whole estate only appeared originally to attract a workforce when Heathrow was first built.
Stanwell itself was just shops and the sprawling council estate, with buildings reflecting the different eras in which they’d gone up, so it did have some kind of lopsided charm. But the real treat was Stanwell village above it, which went back beyond Tudor times. Only a few old buildings remained, but the village itself was sleepyville, with its own blacksmith, and a fantastic church. I did all the usual boyhood things with my mates (of a William Brown character) but really Me + Graveyard = Childhood Happiness.
When did you first become embroiled in music, what were your favourite artists as a child, and what were the first pieces you wrote about music?
MICK: To be honest I really despised it, because I hated Sixties music, apart from The Monkees, which was more TV entertainment to me. My sisters played music, and loved The Beatles, Stones and anyone else big at the time. They also loved boys and started bringing home Hell’s Angels, Skinheads and Hippies, so the scope of the music changed, from Hendrix to Ska to Marley, to rubbish like Bad Company and Led Zep. I still hated it. As a child I loved TV – Man From U.N.C.L.E, Munsters, The Addams Family, Thunderbirds, The Avengers: classics all.
Then I saw Alice Cooper do his famous ‘School’s Out’ performance on TOTP and thought, ‘ah, something for me!’ I nicked all his records and was pretty much happy with that. I didn’t then start investigating anything else really. I watched Whistle Test occasionally, and was attracted by the New York Dolls, as real energy was there which I found absent in the other things shown, and I remember one show where the Dolls and footage of an early Alice appearance (‘Under My Wheels’) was shown the same night. I guess that may well have been a pivotal moment? Before Punk happened there was very little else which drew me to spend money on music apart from early Kiss. Alice/Kiss, it’s not too big a leap is it? In fact as Kiss ripped him off and the energy of the Dolls too, it’s well nigh mandatory!
At school there were three blokes – Paul Abey, Nick Bishop and Colin Ridgway. I think I first became aware of the music papers through them. I’d steal anything with Alice in it, but never buy music papers. If I remember correctly Colin was virtually addicted to the NME crossword, and one morning a week we would spend a whole ‘lesson’ in the library going through either NME or Melody Maker. None of it interested me, except for the coverage of new bands coming out of America which Melody Maker always had, although I think it was all done by a journalist called Chris Charlesworth, who I would actually meet much later on.
My exposure to music, and reaction to it, still came either from TV like Whistle Test, where I picked up an interest in Bonnie Raitt, or recommendations from Paul, Nick and Colin, such as Emmylou Harris. I was also fascinated by Funkadelic and Parliament, because of the visuals again, which must have clearly indicated character to me, after Alice and Kiss.
All three of them started driving (which I would never dare with my atrocious eyesight) and we started going to gigs regularly in London. Paul had a friend who worked at a ticket agency I think, so we’d get freebies or cheap entry to some, including the Marquee. It was mainly earnest pub rock, spectacularly boring. Funk bands were the best, as they weren’t trying to be anything. Flossy (Cado Belle/ Kokomo) or sweaty (FBI), they were a million times better than the Groundhogs and Budgie or the (unbelievably) nth division Groundhogs and Budgie copyists going around. Then again, I guess they were still all better than the Prog dross. Whatever we saw wasn’t much cop. Punk was waiting and until it came I guess the best I saw (apart from Kiss, Bonnie Raitt, Maria Muldaur, Warren Zevon and Emmylou) was a London funk lot with an African swing to them, called Clancy.
I like the fact that you were so appalled by some of the pub rock bands - when these histories are reassembled, there's often a chronological line that places punk etc after pub rock, and I think that was true for many people, but it wasn't a universal experience.
MICK: When Punk happened I’d left school. Paul had seen the Pistols at the Marquee and found them amusing, and I was working in a dole office with two blokes, called Neil and Jonathan, who were also into music. We’d scour the press, picking up references to The Damned or Stranglers. Before ‘New Rose’ came out the nosiest record to be had was Eddie & The Hot Rods’ ‘Teenage Depression’, better than anything else around.
By now I was spending money as I was working, and mainly been catching up on things like Stooges and Mott The Hoople, available in local second hand shops. I’d been going to town since I was early teens, around 1972/1973, because I was into comics. My parents thought I’d gone to Hounslow to play snooker, but I’d be in Soho or round Camden. I didn’t realise there were maps, so I used to get the tube to Leicester Square and then ask directions everywhere, which worked. I knew Soho market.
A weird bloke named Graham, who was a soul-boy come lout, as often happens, also worked with us and had seen The Stranglers and Damned. He brought in a copy of Sniffing Glue and suddenly we just knew that’s what we ought to be doing. I’d done a fanzine about my school for a few years, but it was just one copy, which got passed around. I used to go into the school office early before the place was technically open, steal old copies of the school magazine, cut out teachers heads from photos and stick them on nude bodies out of mags I'd liberate from local newsagents - standard stuff, but fun. Doing actual copies to sell was something else, but with the people mentioned I’d gone to school with, and worked with, Panache fanzine started. It was mainly Punk but we’d mention Michael Chapman or Rory Gallagher. Anybody that wasn’t a tosser.
I mainly laid it out as nobody else wanted to, and can’t remember what my first piece of writing was. Possibly a Patti Smith bootleg review? I don’t even remember what my debut review was for Record Mirror, which was the first piece I got into a music paper. Pissed off by some points made by the writer Rosalind Russell about the Adverts, I wrote to her about it. She was brilliant, asked to see Panache, then recommended I do some writing. So I did, although looking back I clearly thought little of the task as I didn’t do much and yet they would actually have happily taken virtually everything. Alf Martin was the best editor imaginable.
Mick also had a dalliance with a ‘band’. Of sorts.
MICK: 1977 and me, Jorn and Neil, all of Panache, formed a band, Spermatic Chords. One disastrous rehearsal in a place down Lewisham and we then restricted ourselves to rehearsing at Jorn’s house, although he often went out, even though he knew we were laboriously going over there. A strange man.
Somehow the idea kept alive and Eric, who became a Panache man, joined on dynamic drums, and Nick joined on bizarrely skilful bass with Neil now officially guitarist, as Jorn vanished. I ‘sang’ (ahem!), but also provided bass on the first two songs. We did a few gigs (1981), including supporting The Cravats and The Dancing Did, and then changed our name to Cadaver Finesse (1982). We added a second drummer, Paul. Eric was left-handed, Paul right. Together they’d create a drum sound unlike that which you’d normally hear, like a monstrously, impossibly dextrous single drummer playing the same thing, apart from the floor toms. It was weird post-punk stuff, but people seemed to like its adventurous spirit even though it was slightly shambolic, and all went well with more gigs, until people started bickering. I couldn’t stand the aimless approach and it fell apart, which was a shame as Neil was shaping up to be quite an inventive guitarist and the rhythmical approach was exciting.
After it was over Eric went on, with Goodnight Forever and Big Sur, but the rest of us didn’t. At least I know where the tapes are buried.
Any chance of hearing any MP3s of this stuff, Mick?
MICK: Spermatic Chords or Cadaver Finesse MP3s? When I say ‘not in this lifetime’, that’s the optimistic version.
I've just looked up Spermatic Chords and there's loads of links to gynaecologists. I had no idea. I've also just pulled out the only copy of Panache I have to hand. It was the sixth anniversary issue, with bits on the UK Decay split, postcards from the Dancing Did, etc, and a very funny picture of the then alarmingly overweight Ian Botham in Australia with an arrow pointing to his belly ("The Sydney Hill"), Tom Vague's review of the year 1982 (one of "only five albums of merit" - Shalamar), and a 'Son Of Punk’ Debate featuring the fictional contributions of Messrs McLaren, Bushell and Penny Rimbaud ("Please refrain from writing on the wall").
Panache definitely had a house style - biting cynicism about the music industry with lots of humour, but a real love of the bands/causes that it took to its heart - even if those involved in those bands (Abbo, the Dids, etc) merited plenty of gentle sarcasm about their own travails - and seemingly enjoyed volleying it back over the net when they could (see Did's Timmiepoos postcard, Abbo's tour diary etc).
MICK: The later period Panache issues you see were done by Kim Igoe of Action Pact and me. I did the Goth stuff, he did most of the Punk, and provided the cartoons. He lived up the road from me, and while he could easily have done his own successful zine, I liked the fact he enjoyed Panache and we just naturally worked together. Before then it had mainly been me from the period where Panache was done by Betta Badges, as I'd maintained more of an interest in it.
To begin with it was anyone I knew who wanted to be involved. The major thing was we simply didn't care what anyone else thought. While we were excited Punk had arrived, it didn't mean you just jettison bands you were already interested in. So in the early issues Jorn would review bootlegs of the Pink Floyd psychedelic era as he has a bit if of a Syd fetish. A guy called Pete Ragdale did something on Nick Drake, Neil was well into the folkier stuff Linda Ronstadt did, and it was just as relevant to us as Iggy, the Damned or Runaways. Any artist who wasn't remotely bothered by commercialism was what swayed us, and we'd also cover some of the post-pub rock bands who then emerged during Punk, such as Stukas, Bernie Torme and Plummet Airlines.
It was the work of a group of us then, because my school friends had all gone on to university; Paul in London, Nick (Captain Hairdo) in Leicester; Colin in Nottingham. So they gave it a decent geographical spread as well. But as time went by they had work commitments, and I didn't. So it started falling more into my hands, and I also started exerting more of a stylistic influence over it, because nobody ever suggested artistic ideas, I just found pics and abused them as I had done at school, and it was my humour used in captions.
It sold well at gigs, and in shops, or through little ads in the music papers. Eventually Betta Badges offered us their classic deal whereby they'd print and sell what they wanted and keep the profits, but we could buy back as many as we wanted at print price, and sell them ourselves, which gave us extra money at gigs for drinks. So - bit of a result, and God were we frequently pissed! That happened around issue 10 or 11, and while Jorn and Neil were still chipping in, I'd often have to goad them, and eventually stopped bothering and just pushed on with it myself.
I wasn't ever sarcastic towards the bands, per se, just that this was the overall flavour, so any questions might involve a bit of that style, and the bands would enter into it happily. The tone of Panache was often preposterous, and people seemed to like that. There was also the fact that I carried on never caring what others thought, believing I was 100% correct. Years later a bloke at Melody Maker wandered into the office, realising who I was for the first time, and said, 'Ah, Mercer, the only one here who knows anything about good music!' I could understand why he was taking the piss, given how I criticised the other writers, but my reaction was, 'Yes, you're right. For once.'
Panache had attitude. As it should.
You continued to do Panache while working as a paid journalist for various music papers/mags. I imagine that this is actually fairly unusual.
MICK: To me it was normal, as Panache was my concern.
In most cases, it seems, fanzine writers used their magazines as 'apprenticeships', and wound them up as soon as they got a paying gig at the NME/Sounds/Melody Maker, etc. It reminds me a little of all the independent bands saying we'll never sign to a major, we want to be in control of our own destiny, etc etc, until Mr Big Record Label A&R Blokey offers them a cheque, and they renounce everything they said before. Practically everyone in the music press in the early 80s, at least, seemed to have come from that sort of background. Why was it important to you to keep Panache going?
MICK: I think many of them used zines in exactly that way, which is a perfectly sound way of doing it because it allows you to show a whole raft of reviews and interviews to somebody like a reviews editor. They then get not only an idea of what you can do, but what you’ve done and how determined you are. It gives you a step up the ladder at the start, but to suddenly then drop it when so many elements of what a fanzine is can’t be satisfied by working as a freelancer, always mystified me. But I have never asked anyone why they dropped their zines, so I don’t actually know what other people got from their zines.
You kept Panache going all the way up to 1992. Was there something liberating about being able to write for it, rather than, say, Melody Maker?
MICK: The Maker were okay to me overall, but it was wrecked by self-indulgence. 50% of the writers were people like me who simply wanted to write about bands, but the other 50% were in charge. These were people who wanted to write about themselves or, more embarrassingly, wrote deliberately in a way they felt would guarantee eventual acceptance on the Sunday papers, and then there were the writers who believed they’d found a ‘new way to write about music’. Absolutely! Intellectualising already eclectic bands that few people were interested in was an amazing move. At a time when there were more bands, labels, venues and a live audience actively interested in music than ever before, readers were subjected to the Cult Of The Personality among writers. Not once did it occur to these journalistic pioneers that people buy the papers for the bands that are included. They’re really not paying to learn anything about some deluded writer. Readerships plummeted.
I wasn’t that bothered. I’d started freelancing at Record Mirror, and ZigZag, where I was briefly made editor by its demented publisher. From there I moved to Melody Maker, but ZigZag returned under a new publisher and I edited that for three years, 1983-1986, as I did Siren for a year between 1991/1992. I never thought of anything as permanent, except for Panache.
I see myself as a writer, not an ego and/or money-motivated hack, and I believe you need integrity, which many of the chosen ones at IPC simply lacked. My fanzine allowed me to write about music without worrying if the piece would be hacked to bits, or ignored completely in favour of the latest review about a band the editorial heads had decided was cool. Editing music mags was different, as I was able to encourage other people I knew shared my passion for music to write whatever they wanted (within bounds of decency). Whereas working for a music paper was just a way of earning a living, and if you let the politics of the place get to you it could turn you off music, so I never once tried to get on with any of the people in charge.
I liked Allan Jones, the editor, and the news team of Carol Clerk and Mat Smith were always brilliant, but it was the others who determined how well you did and I never once went cap in hand to any of them. I think it’s a shame they weren’t up to the job, as by the start of 1992 when they replaced me on the Gig Guide (which was the main work I was doing there then) the decline of the paper was so extreme nothing people did later could save it.
Now there’s only a kid’s version of the NME, which means nothing. The Internet actually weakens bands chances of success because they’re up against thousands of others. Papers weren’t important to me, but they could have been handled so much better and still be with us today, providing a central focus for new bands. I kept Panache going until 1992, then felt it had reached a plateau. I reinvented it briefly online with Issue 666, and then livejournal from 2001, followed by THE MICK. [That] became the new Panache, just done differently.
I loved ZigZag in just about all its incarnations (though it was only retrospectively that I found about its mid-70s years etc). It just happened to cover more of the music that interested me from 79 onwards than anything else did (in the UK, anyway). In a way, it seemed like a halfway house between fanzines and 'grown-up' rock criticism, and was all the better for it because it retained some of the enthusiasm. Of course, it always seemed on the verge of financial extinction, and sometimes you'd pick up a copy and the pages would be back to front, etc.
I'm interested in the culture of the place. I spoke to your old friend Nick Burt [a former member of the Outpatients who sold ads for ZigZag) a while back about his days there, and it sounded like a circus. People off their head on drugs, desperate late-night pasteboard sessions, scamming advertisers to get some money in and keep things going for another week . . . I guess you had to be a (fairly) young man to survive it all. What are your favourite stories from the ZigZag days?
MICK: It's not easy to remember a lot of it. It was a weird time. You earned so little you would often only be there a couple of days a week, so when you were there you worked like a nutter! ZigZag was a total disaster zone. Obviously I recognised the magazine was the only true middle step between fanzines and mainstream stuff like the papers that we had. It also had great spirit under Kris [Needs], and I’d written in a few times suggesting bands to be covered., and had a reply back from Kris suggesting I work for them, as I’d sent him Panache.
I hadn’t really thought of doing anything about it, when I was in Ladbroke Grove collecting some Panaches from Betta Badges and made my usual stop at Mike’s Café, where I bumped into the ludicrous Julius Just, publisher of ZigZag. He saw the fanzine and started talking, and I was amazed because this man was so transparently untrustworthy, like a younger, more charming George Cole character. He recommended I pop up the office and see the place and chat about some freelancing, so I did, confident I would be ripped off.
It was a right old tip of a place, with a front counter, as it had been a shop originally. I don’t think there was any heating, as I remember it got freezing downstairs. It was dark and shabby, but so what? I wasn’t living there. I freelanced for maybe a year and eventually got made editor when they kicked Kris out. Kris asked us (mainly me and secretary Louisa) what we thought about this, as though there was any alternative, and we told him we’d presumed this might happen, and we didn’t really think we would last very long anyway. Taking over would be a very brief thing. I suppose we felt some allegiance to readers by keeping it going. (I’d been planning on leaving anyway and wanted to try Melody Maker, which had far better writers than NME.)
Nearly all the time I was there I was also working part time in a kitchen at an old people’s home to earn money, because when you saw a cheque at ZigZag it then bounced for weeks and weeks. Nobody got paid regularly and people truly hated Julius, deeply, and quite madly. Kris getting the sack had been coming for a while as he and Julius never got on from anything I’d seen, but we never really knew why. Kris said once that he’d regretted choosing Julius as a publisher but beyond that we never found anything out as Kris was so rarely there. None of us were there regularly, because we couldn’t actually afford to be, not even Nick Burt or his predecessor Patrick. If Kris did come in he wasn’t likely to then sit down and explain in detail how it had all gone wrong, so it was a bit of a mystery to us, other than deep-rooted, seething loathing. I saw Robin Banks pissing in Julius’ whisky, which I guess happened a lot.
Mention his name to Kris and I bet he makes the sign of the cross. Or other hand-related gestures.
KRIS NEEDS: When I took over Zigzag it was in the spirit of it being a magazine started by fans because they couldn't read about the music they liked anywhere else. And, quite simply, they wanted somewhere to ramble and enthuse as long as they wanted without being curtailed or interrupted. It was with this trust that I was handed the keys to Zigzag in mid-1977 by Pete Frame, the man who started it and to whom I probably owe the fact that I'm here writing this. I got my whole writing style and attitude to the music business from Frame. In other words, don't give a fuck about what the business thinks or decrees, just go on about the music you like. I duly did this between mid 1977 and whenever it is that I got stifled, edged out and eventually killed off by that utter dickhead tosser Julius Just - the antithesis of Frame's original vision.
MICK: What was being the editor of such a title like? It was very relaxed or chaotic. Staff turned up and were introduced one day, then vanished the next. Pages would be in the wrong place, photos of one band turning up in another feature by mistake and proof corrections too expensive to be made properly. Creditors at the door, the ZigZag club being opened (illegally – no music licence!) and run illegally (oops! – a month’s bar takings vanished from the safe), and all the money being sucked out of the magazine to pay for it by the look of it.
It was cool though. Bands dropped in for a chat. Youth from Killing Joke constantly, doped out beyond belief, and insisting Prince Charles would be his publisher if he could only get him to consider his plans for an illustrated alphabet (!). Kirk Brandon, Andrew Eldritch, even Seething Wells trying to interest me in a trip to Sheffield on the grounds that “all the skins are anti-nazi!” (Really? How fascinating) The place was certainly lively, and you could drag bands to cafes and pubs easily. Most importantly, it was a magazine people respected, because they knew it was run by writers, purely for the love of music, and nothing else.
I never stuck around for late night sessions having made the mistake of offering to help with layout one time. That was surreal enough. I was trying to explain to my fiancée how archaic things were back then just the other month and she was at a loss to empathise, as it’s too far removed from what we do nowadays. Back then you laid it all out in narrow strips of text actually stuck down onto page plans with column grids, and headlines were done by letraset. Any excess gum used to stick text down you cleaned off using a ball of cowgum, a bit like you can use bluetac now. Cowgum made a squeaky sound on the pages as you cleaned it all up, and I was there with Julius who was rubbing/squeaking away and somehow it sounded like farting, which made him snigger. Now once is amusing, twice familiar, third time you wouldn’t react, but Julius just (ho ho!) kept on sniggering for hours, like a Beavis or Butthead before his time.
I remember it being too cold at times. The amiable Pete Erskine (RIP) had turned up at one point and was running a well intentioned but ultimately farcical Freelancing course, doubtless one of Julius’ bright ideas, which he taught in the basement, as an unfortunate few gathered down there with him, full of optimism. I wonder whatever happened to them?
We used to trick Julius. We’d noticed he grandly threw in facts about new bands and genres when talking to people, in person or on the phone, implying he was au fait with the underground but basically things we had mentioned only the day before, so we knew he was eavesdropping intentionally! So we started holding deliberately false conversations with each other whenever he appeared and lurked around listening, and sure enough the next day he would be blithely predicting to someone that Bluebeat was going to be the new Punk. Bloke was an idiot.
Perhaps the weirdest thing about Julius was one day I went in and he'd gone grey! You hear about this happening but I'd never seen it before. I did wonder if he'd always been dying his hair and then forgot, but surely you wouldn't suddenly find that the existing hair dye drained away during the course of a night? While ZigZag was finally going bust he moved to a small office in Victoria and called me in one day as though nothing had ever happened and asked if I felt like running the mag some more! Totally deluded. Since then he's done many things but supposedly he's in PR, but try finding a website for any firm he works with. Also, what sort of person removes themselves from Friends Reunited (He was there, Peter Julius Just, but no longer) other than someone who realises it's best if he can't be easily found?
KRIS: Julius took advantage of poor saps who wanted to get into the music business and work for a top-flight mag. I'd already praised Mick Mercer's Panache 'zine in Zigzag and met him one day when he was sat behind a desk in the office. Julius had no control over me, I came in when I liked. All I cared about was getting the mag done and the best chance of doing that was as far away from his as possible. Mick was controllable and liked safer groups. Julius had someone to get his claws into. My days were numbered....
It was all my fault that Julius Just ended up taking Zigzag from the wonderful but chaotic Phoenix team. Chrissie, Eric and Jill came from the 60s underground but adapted to the 70s with the same tolerant and lovely attitude. Unfortunately, the 70s thought different and, being the editor and the youngest, it was placed on my head to choose who would take Zigzag over to stop it fading into oblivion. It was JJ or the marketing man from the Conservative Party. In retrospect, even that would've been better. Julius Just was a simpering, clueless, backstabbing, lying, cheating proto-cunt. A villain bent on draining the mag's resources into his dinner party visions of grandeur. The scum-sucking embodiment of all things King’s Road. We hated him. He was a figure of fun. He hated me and banned me from the office while he told his trained Mick Mercer what to do. Fortunately, Mick was a lovely guy and knew a bullshitter when he saw one. He knew but was powerless. I did the mag at home in Leighton Buzzard. Julius got in layout men who didn't have a clue. They came from the same farm. Mick liked new groups and got them in there. Who wouldn't? I did. Then I decided we needed to know where all this came from. Who were the original punks. We needed to piss in Julius' whisky, sellotape cardboard into his ear-piece, play his head until he went grey. Mick sat their and took it while I got banned from the office and relegated. There were also the ZZ parties which Julius insisted on putting on this dodgy band he managed called Beast. He insisted they go in the mag too, which he did on several occasions when advertisements were scored on the promise of editorial [So that did happen frequently!].
The funniest thing was Pete Frame still on the masthead of the magazine he'd created and loathing the grey, drudge-haven it had become. A front for the illegal Zigzag club. Zigzag was Pete's mag, then mine. Mick knew what to do with it and was stopped by Julius Just. A man so despicable that revenge was wreaked for years and now he's consigned to that elite gallery of the truly despised. I used to go round his house in Glebe Place off Kings Road and was happy in the knowledge that I knew his female staff [and house] a lot better than he did.
MICK: I never knew Kris thought that, and I'm sorry if he thought that. I can understand him thinking I wasn’t as sussed about Julius as him. But if it seemed that way it wasn’t actually the case, because I never believed Julius and simply enjoyed myself. I always appear docile to everybody, but I knew there was no future there. Julius was no leader of men, or even a shrewd businessman. As Kris said, Julius was a figure of fun. We built a giant stick insect our of cardboard tubes in the basement to represent him, like a wicker man, with a hairdryer for a penis. Of the younger writers Kris was probably closer in musical interests to someone like Marts (RIP), who was into the rock and roll and rockabilly side of things, where I was into the newer Punk bands, Post-Punk and Goth. I could do full page or double page articles on Panic Button (pre-Sex Gang), The Cravats, Ski Patrol, Carpettes, Action Pact, three pages on The Dancing Did! None of these were safe groups. I think the safest person I ever interviewed was Paul Weller. Oh, I did half a page on Roger Taylor once. What an arse he was! Really, I was doing exactly what Kris had done when he first started there, covering anything good I saw coming through. Julius threw a few hissy fits trying to get us to cover certain bands, but we’d ignore him, as anyone would. I had a few discussions with secretary Louisa about it, as she also wrote for the magazine, and we’d both got bored by the summer and contemplated leaving before Julius kicked Kris out and had already planned my exit, dreaming of a world where you actually got paid. Looking back you’d think a club opening would have lifted the atmosphere and spread some optimism but it was just such a depressing place by then. I didn’t ‘sit there and take it’, as I barely noticed Julius. In fact as the opening of the club neared he seemed to spend more time out of the office, or upstairs, hiding! The 'revenge' thing is true and funny. Years later he tried to be the money man for a social centre which was to be started in the defunct Rainbow in Finsbury Park and would have seen the council there pumping in a fortune. Somebody involved in the project was suspicious of Julius wanting to be involved and tracked me down to see if I could provide a character reference. I was only too happy to oblige.
Being somewhat mystified by Kris’ comments I checked the most pertinent issues. If you look at the covers of the last six issues Kris did - Duran Duran; Toyah; Pretenders; Debbie Harry; Theatre Of Hate; Clash - compared to the only six I was properly in charge of – Japan; Bauhaus; Kim Wilde; Paul Weller; Mick Karn; Theatre Of Hate - there really isn’t any great difference. When Kris was away there was a tacit agreement I, as his assistant, could approve certain things for definitely being included. So I’d do left-field indie/punk stuff, and get Marts onto the rock n rolly stuff. When me and Louisa took over we simply brought more brand new things through, giving double page spreads to bands on their first single, and let go of the old guard a bit. We thought it best to have the mag reflect what we were seeing at the smallest gigs, which is what I then continued doing later on.
Kris is bound to have felt passionately about ZigZag, being something he joined when it was a noble magazine, that he helped re-shape into an even more positive direction, so he truly cared and wanted to somehow see it regain that old status. I couldn’t feel that way as it was something I, and anyone after me, walked into to discover a shambolic organisation that Julius has single-handedly steered nose-down into the ground, leaving it wracked by ill-will, where we were all relentlessly ripped off. I don’t think anyone was ever manipulated by Julius in terms of what went in the mag as I can’t imagine he’d have dared make his own suggestions because that would have been like granting everyone a licence to laugh at him there and then. The bloke who took over from me, Paul Barney, was as meek as they come and even he told Julius where to stick it after a while. Julius may have felt he could control people, in a glorious Machiavellian way, but we all just ignored him. The word twat was actually invented for him.
I cared about Panache, while ZigZag was an enjoyably chaotic, odd experience running parallel to it. Of course when I started ZigZag 2 under a new publisher I cared as much about that as Kris did about his version. Swings and roundabouts really, and we all got kicked out of the park eventually
KRIS: Eric, Chrissie & Jill ran Phoenix, a distribution company based in Talbot Road - the same offices JJ took over. They mainly handled underground mags like Oz, Friends, etc and comic books. And I wish I'd raided their basement more! Basically, old hippies but very nice and let me continue what I'd started when Frame handed me the mag in mid 77. Then Graham Andrews, a Reading printer, who had been publisher, he passed it to Phoenix. They were disorganised and that's when I had to decide who was going to take ZZ off them in early 1980.
My first correspondences with Mick were him trying to get me to feature more new bands. Being an old fucker [for those times!] I still went with the people I knew [Clash, Pistols etc]. I just said, 'Well you do 'em then' and he did. He was an amenable guy who Julius probably thought would be a lot less trouble than me and easier to manipulate to his scurrilous strategies. Me and Mick hated the ZZ club and the way it sucked all the money which could have been spent making the mag look better. It certainly took a dive in presentation and printing quality when they came in.
There are still the niggling, pleasantly presented undercurrents that Mick thought I was too stuck in trad rock 'n' roll [not the case, one of my fave groups was Suicide but I was getting into hip-hop] and I didn't rate the faves he wanted to get in. There might have been elements of that - each to their own etc - but I believed they should all be covered. I was still letting John Tobler do Mike Nesmith in July 1977 along with Worried, Preston's new groups he'd see at local youth centres. The magazine wasn't going stale before he took over, it was being internally eroded by Julius.
MICK: I remember Nick Burt entertaining himself by making phone calls to people claming to be radio station holding quizzes with great cash prizes, letting them go all the way then hitting them with a final question so weird even he didn’t know the answer. While I can’t remember the exact dimensions my favourite trick of his was ringing someone to confirm delivery of the thirty foot (or thereabouts) swiss roll they’d ordered, and not to worry if they’re weren’t in, as it could be left outside. He also phoned someone to get more details about a 100mph wind they’d ordered.
I remember the slightly crazed original secretary Mary, and how we got packed off to Bognor one day to ‘push’ the magazine, in what was supposed to be only the start of daring publicity jaunts, visiting potential advertisers, looking for editorial tie-ins. We met a man running a studio, in which a teacher and choirboy were recording a duet and looking like a legal case about to explode, then we got pissed in a pub with some local band. We got back to ZigZag around ten and visited the West Indian restaurant directly opposite the office, which had framed prints of all the films the guy who ran it had been in during the 40’s and 50’s. Very strange place. Mary later did a one-off fanzine to commemorate this daft day’s endeavour, called Trapped In Bognor.
How do you think the magazine changed under your stewardship, apart from in terms of music taste?
MICK: Kris had lost heart for a good few months during 1981. He actually looked miserable and only perked up when he knew he was going on tour with someone, as though needing an excuse to be away from the office. It’s no wonder the mag did become a little stale before I took over and flooded it with new bands, as was required. Then, just as we thought would happen, I got told not to come beyond the front counter and was Editor-at-a-distance. By the late Spring of 1982, I’d gone too. I had encouraged other writers to get involved, like Tom Vague, Tony D, even Julianne Regan turned up, introduced by her friend Marina Merosi. I looked for like-minded people. I turned away any egomaniacs.
KRIS: If I looked miserable it was because between 1977-80, I laid out and wrote much of the magazine at home. It was purely a selfish thing of seeing your baby taken away and systematically destroyed with the glaring typos, columns cow-gummed so the stories made no sense and sometimes feeling like a stranger in a strange land in the office when I was supposed to be the editor. On a personal level, I was happy as fuck. My divorce came through and I had loads of dosh, [which I promptly lost managing punky-reggae outfit Basement 5]. It's just the magazine looked terrible, no matter how great the menu. Oh and 'safe' was the wrong word and I knew it would hit a nerve with Mick, as his bands were never 'safe'. I just meant that little-known hopefuls were a lot easier for Julius to ignore than Lemmy coming in the office [later wanting to break his arms for what he did to me!]. Or The Clash crew, or Youth, who I moved in with round the corner in 82. In a nutshell, Mick and me got on, respected each other's tastes and wanted to put them in a great magazine. We were scuppered.
I didn't know Mick was banned from the office too! As my contributions got whittled down to Overseas Editor, etc. I was not allowed behind the barrier one day. It might have been me and Banksy pissing in JJ's whisky one Christmas! [And he took a sip} Also, I had a set of ZigZags, which I brought in to reprint for the 100th issue. Julius kept them and I wasn't allowed to take them back. But now I'm starting on what a slime he was again. Mick saw a lot happen on Ray Street as editor. For a little while the mag looked OK again, but the new publisher Paul Flint was a bit of a shark too. Under both rules, getting paid was always a problem, especially with Julius’s equally appalling cohort Dicken holding the purse strings.
While Mick regained Zigzag, I went on to edit Flexipop!, ironically turning it into Goth central cos by then I was helping run and DJing at the Bat Cave. Putting Aleister Crowley on the cover was the death knell.
The mag was never going 'stale' just before Mick came in. It was happening right up to the point when I had the layout duties taken away. My favourite of all was Christmas 79 which managed to carry the world exclusive previews of Metal Box and London Calling plus Patti Smith, Destroy All Monsters, the Jam, the Damned, Rico, Abba, the Modettes, the Flowers, Hackney punk and a Detroit roundup. A short while later Juliues came in [so i was wrong saying it was mid 79, his first isue was early 80]. By July I was no longer laying it out. It was certainly going the wrong way in June 81 - I was still the editor, Mick was assistant ed and Duran Duran were on the fucking cover! By November 82, Alf Martin was editor.
MICK: By ‘stale’ I never meant I felt that when I joined the mag! I meant it had gone off in few months before I got made editor, as the atmosphere also got deader in the place, which is why I mentioned he'd only seemed happy when off on tour. In fact I remembered something yesterday. One of the few high points at that bleak time were the regular visits of the perpetually weary Christophe, a lovely bloke who’d been left in charge of overseeing building work at the ZigZag club before it was ready to be ‘opened’. He’d trudge in hoping to find Julius, to pay the workmen. He knew a hopeless venture when he saw it but somehow always managed an ironic laugh and raised our spirits somewhat.
JULIANNE REGAN: I'd written a few pieces for ZigZag while Mick was at the helm and he'd 'auditioned' me for the job over a few milky coffees in a greasy spooner and I bluffed that I know 100% of the bands he was talking about when I knew about 50%. I'm sure he knew but was too much of a gent to challenge me. And then one day, some time later, having done a few interviews with bands like Gene Loves Jezebel and Waster Youth, I'd gone down to the office to see if there was any unpaid work to be done. Julius said: 'I'm sure a nice girl like you would simply love to interview Martin Fry, wouldn't you?' I was out of there like a shot.
Lovely. Was that a typo on Waster Youth [Wasted Youth] by the way? They were, erm, well known for their ‘habits’?
JULIANNE: Waster Youth is a typo and a Freudian slip. Mick is a bloody legend and a top bloke and it's about time someone penned a few words about him. His obituary will be too late for him to enjoy! Although he's such a Goth he'll find a way to read it from beyond the grave.
Can I use that?
JULIANNE: Feel free, as long as you don't think he'll balk at being called a Goth!
I’m hoping he’s not precious about such things. Anyway, back to our main feature with Mr Gothy-kecks himself.
MICK: When I became Editor of ZigZag again in 1983 under a new publisher I made it totally representative of what was happening live, gathered together the very best fanzine writers, found Kris again, and it was a lively magazine, run far better. The only problem was there weren’t any good advertising managers like Patrick or Nick around, and so the mag always floundered. We had one main bloke, Simon, who I’m afraid I always said was so poor at it he couldn’t sell his soul to the devil.
You’re right though – you need to be young to tolerate any of this, because you regard it all as a part and parcel of The Adventure, and it was. Anybody sensible would avoid such circumstances, but then they’d miss out on the fun.
Money, we had none, but fun we had in abundance.
I later found myself reunited with Alf Martin, who decided to put out the magazine Punk Lives. I rounded up a few like-minded writers for him. It limped along happily for about ten lively issues, until Alf had to accept it would never sell enough to become profitable. Most old school punk fans wouldn't have wanted it, having no real interest in the class of '82, 3 or 4. Most Anarcho fans would have been fervently anti-commerce, and most Oi fans were too thick to work out how to get into a newsagent. I guess it was probably doomed form the start, but well worth a shot.
The thing I was going to say was your point about 'personality writers'. I concur and can think of several awful examples. But essentially I believe that there is a responsibility to engage with the subject properly on behalf of the reader. Further, the writers who deviate from this the most tend to be our worst music journalists, because they'd actually, of course, much prefer to be writing novels or screenplays. I'm not saying writers should be invisible or lack attitude, or that I don't have strong preferences for certain journalists and will favour one's opinion on something over another's.
MICK: I didn’t have a problem with Simon Reynolds, as a prime example, taking his studious and almost abstract slant on things, or Everett True having an obsession with sub-grunge no-hopers, but when Simon then inspires a load of sub-Reynolds, the style is replicated pointlessly. It’s the editor who should step in and tell the other people to stop being pretentious.
Simon himself will know his approach would never appeal to the Average Music Paper Reader, but that didn’t particularly matter, as he was one of many different writers, and all of those working together made it varied and interesting. But when the paper [Melody Maker] started to fill with certain ‘types’ of writing it became a problem. We had the Legendary Stud Brothers who were brilliant, but then others tried emulating, or out-attitudeing, which looked embarrassing. The self-indulgence grew and grew, and someone like Everett wasn’t properly controlled by the editor. There’s just no point constantly writing about bands, and filling the paper with a hefty percentage as a result, that the readers wouldn’t be getting a chance to see. Then there’d be the dreaded ‘think pieces’, which you’d flick past with a sense of relief.
I think a lot of them were doing things for effect, which was tedious and immature in an uninteresting way, and some were trying to implant into music papers content traditionally found elsewhere in artier magazines. It didn’t work. Readers started drifting away, and you can’t reverse disenchantment. All my friends were very intelligent, and mad about music. I don’t know of a single one who continued buying the Maker.
A paper works (and survives) best when it relates to reality. The writers are supposed to be there who can pick up on what’s happening live and reflect that it in a lively and interesting way. They don’t sit there and pompously try and set some musical agenda. That’s laughable. What happened at Melody Maker also happened at NME but to a lesser extent, because the self-indulgent aspect was kept more in check there. NME is still around, albeit in a disgraceful form, and Melody Maker went down the toilet. Big surprise!
The other thing which did for the papers was another step away from reality when certain male journos started having midlife crises and wanting to write about dance music, to show how cool they were. They started covering club stuff best left to actual dance magazines who did it so much better. Giving live music fans even less for their money wasn’t the most brilliant of ideas.
You've seen both sides as a writer and as an editor. Did you ever get a submission for ZigZag (or maybe later for Siren, etc) that you thought, this is fucking awful.
MICK: Yes. That’s what bins are for.
Or, perversely, something that you thought was good, but just wasn't right for the profile or readership of the magazine.
MICK: Not really. I found the good people came to us because they felt they’d fit. If there was something unusual I would still try to fit it in. We had an actual psychologist or psychiatrist approach us about writing things and we used some of that towards the very end of ZigZag. I encouraged writers to write about artistic things other than music if it would clearly relate to something people could understand.
Were you capable of sharp words if a writer scuppered a deadline?
MICK: Ha! I used to lie to the worst repeat offenders. They got different deadlines to everyone else, at least a week in advance of when I needed something.
I guess I'm interested in how a fairly free-thinking journalist from the punk days, and if I might say so, one who has a very good reputation for encouraging and helping out young and aspirant writers, came to terms with actually having to get things finished/published etc?
MICK: I used to be perfectly straightforward with people on deadlines. I’d explain how we really did need it in, and then in certain cases ask to know what was so time-consuming in their lives that they felt they were unable to comply with my request? That seemed to work best, by actually saying, you have four days, what are you doing between now and then which is distracting you, and you’d normally find they couldn’t get out of anything. People only ever really needed minor shepherding. This is in the days before email of course, and normally it was just that they didn’t want to come over to the office and hand something in. Lazy bastards! When someone wanted something from me finished on time, I could be every bit as hopeless. That said, I never missed a deadline once when I worked on papers or magazines. If a half-wit like me could do it, then so could they.
Also, we had such amazing writers, as far as I was concerned. It wasn’t just me or Kris banging away, we had a glut of passionate writers people most people will either remember or still see writing for broadsheets now: Tom Vague, Antonella Gambotto, Robin Gibson, Mr Spencer, Mick Sinclair, Jon Wilde, Barbara Ellen, William Shaw, Richard North, Tony D, John Robb. Laid out most stylishly by Caroline Grimshaw (and promptly ripped off by everyone else directly afterwards), but also by 60’s-obsessed guitarists Nick Jones (The Playn Jayn) and Bob Kelly (The Ashes).
This was a better gathering of young talent on one title than any of the music papers could muster.
The ‘bin’ thing – I can’t imagine you being so harsh!
MICK: The bins would only be called into play if was some complete rock drivel somebody sent in. Others would be treated sensitively, and I would sometimes do a full edit on their piece, and send it back explaining where they had failed.
The best way was always to say – ‘imagine this piece was written by someone else’. Now, remove all the comments, and especially any clichés, you have seen other people use in their reviews. What remains is individual thought, so build on that. I wouldn’t encourage people beyond reasonable expectation though. If they genuinely weren’t good enough I would ask them to try again in six months or so.
I couldn’t help but mention that Mr Julius sounded an awful lot like my old magazine boss, Lee Wood, of Raw Records/Spiral Scratch infamy (and yes, he really did have it in for me). In fact, I seem to remember trying to get Mick to write a Dancing Did memorial piece for that band in Spiral Scratch, which I was co-editing at the time. It never happened, sadly, though he did send me some live reviews of Daisy Chainsaw, Suck Henry and others.
MICK: My only encounter with Lee was at the Falcon. I had spoken to him on the phone, and someone pointed him out at a gig. So I walked over simply to say hello. The conversation went something like this:
Me: Lee! Mick Mercer . . .
Lee (not looking round): I’ll get you your money.
Me: (perplexed): I haven’t written anything for you!
That sounds very much like Lee. At this point I got Mick to refresh me about the timeline and chronology here. It goes something like this. ’82 he got the push from ZigZag (“not before I’ve done a pop paperback – The Human League by Peter Nash – P.Nash – Panache – seriously!”). He started freelancing for the Maker before being brought back to the ZigZag fold as editor, turning it into “Goth central”. Between then and its closure in 1986, he continued to freelance for the Maker, but also did a couple of months at the NME, which he found “dull”. He was still working for the Maker when he published his “Gothic Rock Black Book” in 1988 (this one concentrated on the bigger bands on the scene). He began editing Siren magazine while doing the second “Gothic Rock” book, with Siren’s publisher, in 1991. He was still doing the Maker gig guide, “but was so bored I wasn’t even submitting reviews. I also wasn’t actually wanted there any more”.
“Gothic Rock” is much recommended, though of course, it’s out of print. It’s full of wisecracks, sidetracks, and, refreshingly for someone taking an encyclopaedic approach, it just gives up when it dawns on the author that he has pursued the subject as far as can be reasonably expected. Instead of dancing around the fact that large parts of a band’s output were utterly unlistenable, he makes their lack of fitness for purpose apparent, often in the most colourful of terms. And yet, he will write at immense length and with great affection about bands you have never heard of. So you end up cowed by his zeal and find out something about them, which is surely an excellent state of affairs. Thing is, Mick’s not always RIGHT about them being any good, but just occasionally he’ll turn up a gem for you.
MICK: What’s this mystifying idea that I might not always be right about something? An extraordinary claim!
Incidentally, I almost didn’t get the Gothic Rock Black Book. Omnibus Press offered it to Mat Smith who was honest enough to suggest he didn’t know enough about the genre and recommended me. I went up there and it was Chris Charlesworth in charge of it all, who’d been the first music journalist I ever took notice of! They allowed me access to their basement where I could borrow any clippings I needed. There were rows and rows of huge filing cabinets all up to above head height and stopping just short of the ceiling. I had to use the step ladder to open up a top drawer, and somehow got myself wedged on the top of the cabinet, squashed under the ceiling. I had to wiggle my way along a complete row of the cabinets before I could drop to the ground. Luckily nobody came and in and saw me. It wasn’t an impressive start!
Siren made a great change from London, being so much more relaxed. I was required to be in Birmingham maybe ten days a month. It was a bit of a Kris situation there I guess. Sheldon Bayley had started the company, publishing games, comic and film magazines if I recall, but then somehow some other people who did map publishing (a surprisingly lucrative market, considering all the little ads used in foldout regional maps!) got involved. What they then did with it wrecked everything Sheldon had built up. Sheldon was a really inspired, funny bloke. He was a Goth, big on The Mission and Sisters, but open to everything else. He popped into the Maker pub one day having phoned me up. He wanted me to do a Goth book for him and to consider editing a monthly music mag, which I agreed to do, because he was just so obviously the sort of person you want to work with. And I loved the idea of working for someone who wasn’t a suit.
The offices up there were nice, although things seemed a bit schizoid, and that was down to the other directors of the company being suits personified (Good name for a firm!) I got lots of good freelancers off the papers to write for it, and some classy photographers, and it seemed to be doing okay but hit the small magazine wall of about 15,000 sales out of 25,000. (ZigZag usually did the same.) Without an advertising budget and a way to get good distribution you can’t compete. Retail checks we did showed it would sell just as many as Select wherever it was in the same shops, and it outsold Vox everywhere, but we only got it into a fraction of the shops those titles reached. Then I started hearing that freelancers weren’t getting paid.
I did what I could but eventually told most people (some individuals have complained that I didn’t tell them all) that if they didn’t want to continue contributing, I’d certainly understand. But I also had to tell them that I was 100% convinced the people there were trying to ensure the mag kept going, and it would all work out. In that I was right. There was almost a feverish desperation to keep going, with one director even trying to sell his collection of vintage cars, and I think we know why. Sheldon hadn’t got a clue what their hidden agenda was, as it turned out they regularly met behind his back, but whatever it was, it was illegal, big time.
When they finally admitted the company was finished we all broke in one night and went through the computers, and found the company owed over a million. At worst Siren could only have been losing them a few thousand a month, especially as they weren’t paying people – so where had this huge debt come from, as the map side of things was still ongoing and profitable? Something very dodgy had taken place. The advertising manager was apparently last seen leaving town actually pursued on the motorway by local gangsters and one director had a car set on fire and rolled down to explode in the side of his house.
Very strange times. Sheldon got saddled with a large private debt as well which must have taken an age to work off, but me and him tried to work on some ideas for a while before finally giving up. I have very fond memories of him and the staff there. He’d drive like a maniac through Birmingham to get me back to the station for my train, and we always had a good time in the office. Doing ‘Gothic Rock’ with him was really a joy, sitting up into the night working on the captions was particularly funny. The suits ruined it. How unexpected! Then someone turned up to buy it - ‘Cowboy!’ Sheldon predicted, accurately - and as part of the deal it was mandatory that I remained as editor, to which I reluctantly agreed. ‘Won’t be with him long!’ I predicted, accurately. Siren ended up being produced near Stevenage by some bloke I can’t remember the name of.
When Siren folded in 1992 (at exactly the time your narrator submitted his first article for them – coincidence?) it meant that Uncle Mick lost about 10 grand in unpaid royalties.
MICK: I spent a month at the ‘new’ publisher’s place, but realised they were con men. I was checking pages for issue one when I saw the advert for my replacement! Also, after being immensely relieved at not staying with the cowboy organisation doing Siren 2 (which only lasted a few issues in 1992) I worked as assistant editor or something, on an Indie magazine being done by the Metal Hammer office in Hammersmith, called Indiecator, around 1993. Weird set up there. Run by crooks as far as I could see, with a nice staff being stitched up. After six months of giving in work and not receiving a penny, I decided that was it for me and music freelance work. Fuck the lot of them. I did some fanzine work for free and most stuff I write now I do for free.
I remember Indiecator. Some of the writing was a bit patchy, wasn't it? I also though the 'Pacman' logo was entirely inappropriate.
MICK: Indiecator was a weird mag – the Indie scene, as seen through the eyes of a load of well-meaning rock blokes? Very odd. It was cobbled together, seemingly clueless, and yet somehow quite charming.
He lost the Maker gig guide job too, but then got a job with PolyGram. He then spent a good three or four years as paid A&R rep for an American label who never signed anyone. I remember ringing Mick up during this period and asking him if he wanted some work at an encyclopaedia I was working on. He didn’t, as it happened, but he described this bizarre career turn. After many years in the trenches working all hours for fly-by-nights, he was now in the position of being paid to do absolutely, or almost, nothing. I remember him saying that the American label wanted him to keep an eye on things, to tell them what was hot - always on the basic understanding that they would never sign anyone. Must have been a pleasing sinecure for a while.
MICK: The A&R job came my way through Nick Gatfield, formerly of EMI. I’d recommended various bands to him for free while he was there, including a few who’d become very successful, so when he got the chance he got me to work for him. It was a label in the States called Atlas, and he was meant to find bands who would be good in both countries but never did anything with my recommendations. It died the death eventually. I’d had a chance to work for London when Nick nabbed me, and I don’t think it would have been any different with London who had a shocking knack of ruining the exciting bands they signed.
Actually that ended embarrassingly. It turned they’d written to me, explaining it had ended, but I’d not got the letter. I was still invoicing them for wages for a couple of months, mystified that I wasn’t being paid. Other people knew, but I didn’t! So, no change there then.
For family reasons I needed to go down the coast for a bit and help out my parents. While it was frustrating having to revert to a more sedate lifestyle I found that when all the stress had ebbed away I was itching to get on with things, and virtually start afresh. The Internet has never been quick enough to deliver what I want to do artistically at any one time, so everything takes forever and I have grown fatalistic, taking my time now over just about everything. When people were raving about it in 1997/1998 as its growth rate rocketed I thought it was garbage. I wanted what we have more or less now, as nothing I wanted to do was easily possible back then. Infuriating! I also think I inadvertently got lucky, as most people I know who remained in London now hate it a great deal and want to leave, while I have very little inclination to go back there at all. It seems to be heaving, and very smelly.
I had, unfortunately, split up Joan after sixteen years, just before I moved down, who had always been supportive of my work, and actually helped edit some of my books. We’d even worked together as she was a photographer (Beattie Bundle). In Chichester I met a pocket-sized former Sri Lankan nun who I almost married. But I mainly spent my time getting back the rights to my Goth books, transferring the various things I’d written into workable text, scanning my vast collection of negatives and eventually starting regular reviews on livejournal when that started.
If you didn’t know it, Mick’s a bit of a hoarder. He has a vast archive of writing, pictures, you name it, all available for your perusal on CD-ROM at modest prices (including the various out of print books, and he’s considering putting together a compendium of Panache material).
MICK: Then I met Lynda. She’s a singer of Operetta, Opera and other musical styles I know thankfully little about. I photograph shows she directs locally, mainly of the worrying Gilbert & Sullivan variety, and fear I am turning into Miss Marple. Or Richard Briars. You know what I mean? Anyway, once again I have been lucky enough to find someone supportive of what I do. She may not understand it, but she actually enjoys accompanying me when I photograph churches (I have a pet project whereby I aim to photograph every church with a graveyard in West Sussex and Surrey), if only because she was demented enough as a teenager to go bell ringing. She has her own obsessions, with the G&S and Les Mis, so she understands the strength of feeling I have for mine. (We also have 1% of the Holy Grail if Rat Scabies and Push ever find it. I have a certificate to prove it!) I moved up to near Gatwick to live with Lynda and five cats in 2006, and gave up smoking (which I bitterly regret). I think everyone should smoke.
Oh, jeez, thanks Mick. I’ve just given up again. Thanks for reminding me. Spinning back a while, The Hex Files, which was more a compilation of resources than a straight narrative, came out in 1995 and, of course, the publisher went bust and he lost 10 grand in royalties. So, once again, no change there then.
MICK: When Hex Files came out there was also a German label who did a Hex File [compilation] series [a trick Mick had pulled off before for Jungle]. The first two volumes were lovely, but I didn’t like the way I found that they’d treated some of the bands, taking forever to pay their advances. So, as it stated in the contract that a new volume could only come out with my say so, I had no intention of allowing Nova Tekk a third volume. They wrote to me saying they’d be interested and I said no. Imagine my surprise when a third, crappier volume came out?
His fourth book, 21st Century Goth, was published in 2002, and is essentially a guide to web resources for those interested in Goth (bands, clubs, people, sites etc). I haven’t read this one yet (unlike Mick’s other books) but I’m sure it’s as useful a resource as the reviews would suggest. He does mention in the blurb that there’s also a couple of interviews because he couldn’t resist playing about with the layout. Mick never could resist playing about with layouts. Since then he’s been editing and publishing his own free online magazine, THE MICK. I kind of look at THE MICK as a composite of Panache and ZigZag with a nice crisp layout (though there’s still the odd ancient photo re-captioned for its merrymaking possibilities, of course). There’s a broad sweep of Gotherama covered; literature and films in addition to reviews of colourfully monikered East European sorts. And there’s pictures of cats and Victorian ladies with no clothes on (well, a few can’t hurt). So there’s the CV. I’ve left out his days as a moped stuntman, conversion to Odinism and his brief stint opening the innings for England on a tour of the subcontinent, because that would just get confusing.
MICK: All Odinists are wankers! I started doing THE MICK a few years ago and it got delayed a bit last year when I became quite ill. But since I have found out what allergy lay behind it, I’m fit again and raring to re-design THE MICK and get going on it properly this summer along with other projects. Lynda has sensibly got me quite ordered about the way I do things, so I will finish my first self-published novel this summer, part of a ten-book series. (I want to do two a year, basically.)
Then I am considering other self-published works, re-doing the Punk and Goth History series I have made available on CD-Rom as books, but having bought the Linda Rowell photo archive I can now make them look amazing. I’ll be doing a series of books (and CD-Rom pdf versions) of the various club nights run at the Bull & Gate when I spent the best part of a decade there. I have all my work from ZigZag and Melody Maker days to sort out and put together in book form. So far all I have done is separate out the Punk and Goth material, but there’s a ton of Indie too. A new book on Goth. A series of books planned for a few years’ time which I am gradually compiling to do with Punk and Goth, but that’s all a massive undertaking, quite literally, as we’re dealing with hundreds of musical corpses. More of this, more of that. I’ve never been busier. There’s never been so many good bands around, there’s never been so much potential to be able to do things before and take control of them. Fuck freelancing, instil total independence! It was the best of days, it was of the…erm, even bester of days. And don’t quote me on that.
And now, Ain’t Nothin’ But A G-Thing. Yup, the Goth question.
To an outsider, your position as Goth's premier advocate seems like it came about by accident rather than design. I'm minded of your introduction to the Gothic Rock book where you said something along the lines of 'Oh blimey, this is going to get written on my gravestone now'. My own experience of writing freelance-ish is that you can get pigeonholed easily, and it becomes self-perpetuating. Sometimes that's fine, and sometimes it's annoying. I suspect that you might have different views now you're no longer actively touting for 'paid' work, as that means there's no reason to write about anything you don't want to. So was all this a case of that's where the cards fell?
MICK: The Goth advocacy thing? You’re right in terms of me realising it was, in a career way, a millstone at the time. I hadn’t been bothered before by this when writing about Goth in the papers or for magazines as I was clearing writing about other things too. Doing two books on the subject made me aware that people were likely to focus on this, maybe to the detriment of other things.
I didn’t resent it, as I never planned on remaining a music journalist for ever, but I was aware of it, when I’d never needed to consider anything like that before. I didn’t have to worry about being The Fanzine Bloke on a music paper, for instance, as there were plenty of others. But nobody else was sticking their head above the Goth parapet, and certainly not when I was.
Goth to me was my preferred form of music and imagery, as the general themes and concerns had always been my main interests through life, so sticking up for Goth was never a problem. On one personal level I figured part of all of this should remain personal, as that’s always more enjoyable. Doing a couple of books did make me a risible figure to some on the music papers, there’s no doubting that, but you have to remember that those people were, and probably still are, complete wankers.
In terms of being ‘premier advocate’, as you put it, I’d actually been that in terms of newspaper and magazine coverage of Goth throughout the 80’s anyway, being someone taking it seriously and trying to introduce other people to it. Nobody else in an editorial position across any of the mainstream papers or magazines ever bothered - not one of them. It was just me.
It was where the cards fell though. Rather than me pushing for the books, they came to me, and I never went around trying to shape an image or reputation anyway. That’s for tossers. By the time I came to approach the Hex Files book I had a different viewpoint. I was then consciously hoping to chronicle developments. I’d heard about death threats being made from Goths pissed off with my attitude through the Gothic Rock book, and was then followed, shot at, and run over.
I figured I must be doing something right.
I'm taking it that the goth death threats were tongue in cheek. Well, I hope they were.
MICK: The death threats were presumably real. There were four attempts on my life, or to cause serious injury. One involved a rifle, fired from a block of flats round the back of the Powerhaus. Three involved driving a car at me while either walking, or in a vehicle I was inside, all just round the corner form my flat. When I was run over, the last being successful, everything stopped. And about time, it was getting predictable.
Any idea what the motivation might have been?
MICK: I don’t know. It’s possible I could once have known but being run over involved me sustaining a head injury which I later realised had wiped out some of my early 90’s memory. I kept meeting people who’d met me a few months previous to the injury but I had no recollection of them at all. All very embarrassing at the time.
One of the things I'd say about your writing, though, is that it's never overly portentious. You tend to see the humour in these things, which is self-evident. You must tear your hair out when you encounter Goths who take it all seriously, rather than those who love the melodrama and have some fun with it.
MICK: I don’t tear my hair out when people take Goth too seriously, because I don’t mind if they get things wrong. We all do. If they send me their poetry I can always drop it in the bin. If they tell me, proudly, they sleep in a coffin, I don’t need to let them know I think they’re stupid. It’s none of my business.
Now, this is a doozy of a coincidence, but it does involve a small confession as well as exposition. When not writing spiffing features for Trakmarx, I have been known to while away an hour or two on internet betting sites. I also post on one well-known forum, where occasionally people who know of my writing ask me the odd music-related question. Anyway, while waiting for some of Mick’s replies, a guy I know as Poppydog asked me: “I was reading some CD sleevenotes by a guy named Mick Mercer yesterday, which were a bit bizarre. I was wondering if you knew, or had knowledge of him?” When I said yes, he gave me some more details. “The CD is 'L.A. Rain (The Singles Album)' by The Rose Of Avalanche (released 1997 on Nectar) a mid-80s band from Leeds, that most people would throw into the Goth category. Instead of the usual fawning Liner Notes, he seems to be, at times, cutting and not-to-impressed. It makes for strange and funny reading (a few examples): 'almost entirely absent stage-presence' 'stuck in the past and could presumably offer nothing inspirational for the future' 'must have seemed a good idea somehow...at some time.....to someone' 'sixth form poetry exercise' and many, many more. He does say some nice things and seems to find all their faults quite endearing.”
Ho Ho. I passed this on to Mick, as you do.
MICK: That is weird, but you see what happens when people ask me to write sleevenotes? I didn't actually dislike ROA, because they were having fun, but I thought they were genuinely wasting their actual talent because they were faking at times, with the singer affecting a dire American accent at gigs. It seemed like a completely feeble ironic joke that just didn't impress anyone.
Ah well, a lovely and bizarre story. And I couldn’t help but wish to include it. Not least because it indicates that Mick has never been afraid to call it how he sees it. Poppydog is correct, sleevenotes tend to be universally fawning, as the writers want repeat work. As a further aside Mick’s latest sleevenotes you DEFINITELY need to read. That’s because they accompany the reissue of 2007 - hands down, no contest, contest stopped by the ref to avoid further punishment to its opponents – And Did Those Feet by the Dancing Did, yours in June through Cherry Red IF YOU HAVE ANY SENSE.
INTERVAL OVER. Any clues on why Goth has had quite such a lambasting? I went out to see - god forbid - a Clash Culture show at St Martin's recently. Apart from Bernie Rhodes disgracing himself, it was all about the cut of the cloth, the look, the collision of style and music, blah blah blah. Yet, when you think about it, is wearing black eyeliner and dark clothes any sillier than having a load of pseudo 'meaningful' slogans stencilled on your shirt, or a row of zips and army combats? Aren't we just talking about clothes. Plus, a lot of the punk bands ended up playing in a style that was effectively conservative rock 'n' roll. Most of the bands you seem interested in are at least doing something far distant to that.
MICK: Goth and the lambasting? Really it’s just a bunch of dicks on music papers deciding Goth was risible. Even when the NME did its desperate GOTH magazine special in that expensive Please-Give–Us-Your-Money series they do, they still said it was all an adolescent phase, which isn’t the best way to encourage the readers to buy it.
I think most Goth fashion looks cool. Some looks like a uniform just as Punks of various kinds looked, but most is far more artistic and blends with a person’s obvious tastes ands character which is why this genre lasts – the art is part of your life. You don’t lose an interest in it, you change your tastes and requirements within it. You may not want raging guitar noise any more as you get older, so you go for the neo-classical, the ethereal, the ambient – or vice versa. Maybe the polite, warm and prosaic styles have grown too comfortable, so you switch to Deathrock debutantes and the raw noise excitement.
Goth never deserved the slagging it got, especially as the doom and gloom aspect people used to slap it down over was invented by journalists who hadn’t the wit to accurately assess how lively the majority of the bands were. They set the stereotype going and dullards reacted to it.
I’m too happy to care what others think, that’s the thing! I’m not just writing about the biggest underground scene in the world, I’m covering the most artistic as well. This is where bands go to inordinate lengths to make everything as fabulous as they can without o hope of commercial success. They do it out of a need to do it, out of love, and a desire to share it, and they strive to make it as great as possible. What could be better than that?
Another point on the custodianship thing. When I approached you for help putting together a recent magazine article, there was never a hint of - fuck off, I've spent years working on this stuff without a clueless berk like you chancing along and picking my brains - instead you seemed to welcome the fact that some of the bands you champion might get a little more mainstream attention through it.
MICK: That’s exactly the point, Alex. When people ask I try and tell them, or help. People come to me with school projects or a thesis, I try to help. People need info on records, if I have it, I give it. People say they’re bored with one kind of music, I suggest a few bands. I love it, so I wanted others to appreciate what I regard as worth supporting, admiring and enjoying. What comes around, goes around, in a healthy way. When I contacted people like Rosalind Russell or Kris Needs, they were always genuinely enthusiastic and never had an ego-and-chips on their shoulder. They encouraged you right from the off, and I have always felt exactly the same way that that’s how you should behave.
Alex Ogg – tMx 30 – 07/07
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