Wednesday, 30 December 2009

The Prettiest Stars II

And so the question arises: were Queen a glam act?

Well, not according to the All Music Guide, which claims 'they were at once too heavy and arty to be glam', though that suggests that the (presumably American) reviewer hasn't really got a grip of glam: nothing can be too arty.

But perhaps one should look back at the time they were releasing their first albums. And back then the critics did tend to lump them in, even if only on grounds of the group's name and Freddie Mercury's performances. The great Phil Hardy and Dave Laing, in their Encyclopedia of Rock, written in 1975 just after Bohemian Rhapsody had been released, referred to the way that 'earlier doubts that Queen were simply an androgynous glam-rock spin-off were dispelled.'

So let's look at Queen. This is their closest brush with glam, their Top of the Pops performance of Killer Queen:

And there's certainly something there: a camp little number delivered by a strutting Mercury flaunting his Biba-black fingernails.

But somehow it doesn't really cut the mustard. And to illustrate why I think it fails, here's some hardcore glam - Roxy Music performing Do the Strand on The Old Whistle Test (skip the first 1'20" if you're not interested in hearing why the programme was so damn awful most of the time):

Apart from anything else (wit, irony and so on) there's a key class difference in the lyrics. Killer Queen, as far as I can tell, is about a wealthy woman indulging her fantasies of prostitution; whereas Do the Strand, for all its name-dropping, is aspirational: when Ferry sings 'If you feel blue, look through Who's Who', you know that he's not actually in the book - he's dreaming of the impossible. His escape is also into fantasy, but there's no element here of slumming, as there is in Killer Queen. Roxy's position is closer to a literal version of the Oscar Wilde quote about how 'We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.'

Or to put it another way, Mercury's fur-coat gives the impression that he's part of the social world he's describing, while Ferry is lost in imagined rapture: 'Dance on moonbeams ... in furs or blue jeans.' As the All Music Guide goes on to say: 'they were hardly trashy enough to be glam.'

I know it's not exactly a conclusive argument, but at root there's simply a feeling: Queen weren't really very glam at all, were they?

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The Prettiest Stars I

For various reasons, I've been revisiting the glories of glam rock recently. Not that it takes much to get me listening to the Spiders From Mars, Roxy Music and Cockney Rebel. That brief moment (the period from, say, David Bowie's single Starman in June 1972 through to Mott the Hoople's swansong Saturday Gigs in December 1974) remains the highpoint of British rock and roll, as far as I'm concerned: funny, camp, theatrical, pretentious - it was wonderful.

There's some dispute, though, about who was part of glam. So - for the sake of those with whom I've been disputing - here's some clips of the kind of thing that I think counts:

First, Steve Harley with the first incarnation of Cockney Rebel performing a live version of their debut single Sebastian on German television:

Sadly, it's not the full song (I love the fact that a band considered it reasonable to release a seven-minute song as a first single), but it's magnificent even in shortened format.

Then, slightly more arguably, there's the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, who often got considered as a hard rock act, though surely there's no argument that the drama of this performance of Jacques Brel's Next makes it part of glam? Is there?

Part of what I love about glam was that it was sold records. It was genuinely popular in a way that didn't always make sense. It could be as witty, as weird, as oddball as Sparks and still attract a crowd of screaming teenyboppers. Well, here are the boys making the point in 1975 as they try to deliver a version of the great single Amateur Hour:

And one of the other things I love about glam is that it inspired others to push themselves to new levels. Take Leo Sayer, for example (yes, I know I'm on much thinner ice here). Clearly not a glam star as such, but when he first appeared, the presentation was heavily influenced by the theatricality of the time. And while I know he's never been a critically approved act, if this performance existed in isolation, without the later career, would it not be considered comparable to some of, say, Jobriath's work?

Now to me, that's much closer to the spirit of glam than the likes of the Sweet and Mud, who frequently get associated with the term. Not that I've got anything against either of those bands, mind - it's just that glam wasn't simply a question of dressing up for Top of the Pops: the obsession with style came from within the music, not as a coat of facepaint afterwards. Oh, and the subject of the song draws from the well of glam.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Sherlock Holmes

While I relax from writing for a bit, I've been indulging myself by reading (yet again) some Sherlock Holmes stories. I've been reading these for the last forty years, and they never disappoint.

On this occasion, I'm aided by a fine new book, The Sherlock Holmes Companion: An Elementary Guide, written by Daniel Smith and published by Aurum Press. It's a beautiful piece of work, with fabulous illustrations, including this film poster from 1922:

At only £20, it's a perfect gift for the Sherlockian in your life. And if you don't have a Sherlockian in your life, then maybe that means there's an opening there for you.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Brewer's - a termination

I'm still not entirely clear what's happening to the great old imprints of Chambers and Brewer's, as their parent company seeks to save money, but my brief involvement appears to be at an end. Earlier in the year I signed a contract to produce a book for Brewer's, but I have this morning received formal notification that the contract has been terminated.

It's a great shame, not merely because I thought it could have been a good book, but much more importantly because it displays little faith in the future of the imprint. Brewer's has played a central part of the literary life of the country for nearly 140 years - it would be dreadful if such a fine legacy were to be thrown away now.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Rock and Roll in South Wales

The exhibition of Harry Hammond's photographs is moving on from the O2 Centre, as it starts touring the country. And from next Saturday, it will be on view in the Millennium Centre in Cardiff.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009


Chambers are one of the great names in publishing, and they've been based in Scotland for the best part of two centuries. More recently, they took an even more cherished imprint, Brewer's, under their wing in Edinburgh.

Now their parent company, Hachette UK, wants to close down the Edinburgh office, which will see a large number of staff laid off, and the identities of Chambers and Brewer's diluted.

I have a personal interest, since I have a contract to write a book for Brewer's, but even beyond that it seems to me the move by Hachette is another symbol of the growing homogenization of the publishing industry, and it's at least worth registering one's opposition.

So do feel free to sign this petition calling on Hachette to reconsider their decision.

Friday, 9 October 2009


I'm much amused to be told that I now have my very own page on the excellent IMBd site.

I use IMBd on an almost daily basis, since it's one of the best online reference sources, but as I don't subscribe, I've never understood the percentage figures they quote at the top of each page. However, no doubt it's very good news that I'm up 147% in popularity this week. Whatever it means.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

The Summer of 2009

It’s been an awful long time since I posted anything here (though strangely the world appears to have continued turning in my absence).

The reason for the prolonged absence is that I’ve been extraordinarily busy writing a couple of books, and I find it increasingly hard to write in more than one medium at a time. I get so involved in the project I’m on – not to mention the day-job of writing games – that everything else takes back-seat. Consequently I’ve been neglecting everything else, from emails to blogs.

The first book that will emerge from this period of work is a sequel to Halfway to Paradise: The Birth of British Rock, which came out last year telling the story of rock and roll in Britain from 1954-64. The new book, due out from V&A Publishing next Spring, is My Generation: The Glory Years of British Rock, covering 1964-74. It’s centred on the photography of Harry Goodwin, the resident stills photographer on Top of the Pops for its first decade, including this shot of David Bowie and Mick Ronson miming to Starman in 1972:

Put together by the usual team – design by Isobel Gillan, editing by Clare Collinson, all under the direction of Mark Eastment – this is going to be a fine-looking book, I think. And it’ll be accompanied by an exhibition at the V&A, which will then tour around the country.

Talking of exhibitions, the photos of the great Harry Hammond are currently on show as part of the British Music Experience at the O2 Centre in London. I haven’t been to see it yet, but no doubt it’s very wonderful indeed. That exhibition will also be touring the country shortly – dates to be confirmed, but Cardiff next, I believe.

Around the same time as My Generation comes out, there will appear (I hope) my sequel to Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s. Predictably, then, it’ll be about Britain during the Thatcher years. I’ve only just submitted the first draft of the text to my editor, Graham Coster at Aurum, so there will be more work to be done before it’s all wrapped up, but it’s been a major undertaking by my standards, the longest book I’ve ever written.

And finally, to wrap up my current book production, I’m signed up to do a book with Brewer’s. But there are upheavals at the parent company that owns this venerable imprint, so I’m not sure how that’s going to work out.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Social Living

My attention has been drawn to a website I didn't previously know, called, which seems to be a site for readers to talk about books. Anyway, there are some very kind reviews of my book Crisis? What Crisis?, so I thought I ought to mention these splendid people and give them every encouragement.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

The Prisoner (slight return)

Stories about a remake of the 1960s TV series The Prisoner have been circulating for almost as long as I can remember, so one learned some time ago to take them with a pinch of salt. But now that they've released a trailer, I guess we can now genuinely refer to the forthcoming movie.

So I turned, as one does, to, home of Ivan Radford, a critic who's always worth reading, to see what he has to say, and he sounds a note of sensible caution: 'It's actually looking quite awesome. Although it could still turn out absolutely terrible - these things usually do.' He's probably right.

Of course, those of us with a fondness for Portmeirion, where the original series was filmed, are going to regret the change of location, because the real star of the piece was the Village itself. But no doubt the film will generate yet more interest in the place.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Beyond Biba

Five years back - seems like longer - ACC published a book by me about the Biba shops in west London in the 1960s and '70s. It went very well (still available in paperback), and somehow Biba never quite goes away, even though it's nearly 35 years since the last of the original stores closed.

So, just to round up a couple of bits: Le Figaro in France has a piece on the subject; some friends have written a musical about Biba (tracks available for download); and tomorrow I'm going to the V&A where there's a screening of a documentary titled Beyond Biba, which apparently tells the story of what the founder, Barbara Hulanicki, did after the shop closed.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

The Light Programme

The first episode of Stand Down, Margaret was a fine piece of radio - a beautifully edited collage of interviews, music and archive tape. The second and final episode is on Radio Two this evening, at the later time of 11 pm.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Stand Down Please...

More on Stand Down, Margaret - the Radio 2 series starting tonight and continuing next week - here's an article by presenter Jeremy Vine.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Stand Down, Margaret

What should be a fine two-part series about political pop music in the 1980s starts on Radio 2 on Tuesday 16 June at 10.30 pm. Titled Stand Down, Margaret, produced by Kate Willgress and hosted by Jeremy Vine, the only thing likely to spoil it is hearing me pontificating about the period.

Monday, 1 June 2009

The Book Depository

The excellent people at The Book Depository have been kind enough to put online an interview with me about my book Crisis? What Crisis? I think it's quite fun, covering everything from David Cameron to the Wombles.

My thanks to Mark Thwaite for his enthusiasm and encouragement.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Fallen Svengalis

I’ve been so immersed in the past this month, frantically writing away on a new book, that I completely failed to notice the death of Tam Paton, the former manager of the Bay City Rollers.

Now, I know few people had good words to say about Tam – particularly those musicians who he managed – but I always had a bit of a soft spot for him. He was a very visible media presence when I was young, and a couple of years back I spoke with him for the book Cult Rock Posters 1972-1982, that I did with Roger Crimlis.

What impressed me most was his commitment to keeping total control over the image of his charges: ‘I had to control it,’ he said, ‘because I was aware that all I had was an image.’ So he would destroy all the discarded negatives from a photo session to ensure that only approved shots could be published. And, he said, he monitored everything: ‘I used to keep in control of the fan club at the same time. We used to ask who their favourite Roller was, and when I found any member of the Rollers was falling behind big-style, I would then concentrate on them, getting them press, photographing them, trying to push them ahead.’

He was never given as much credit as he deserved for his ability to manipulate the media.

It all ended in scandal, of course. And in the courts.

Which reminds me that I met Jonathan King this week. Another fascinating man from the neglected side of rock and roll history – the missing link between Larry Parnes and Malcolm McLaren.

He’s written and filmed a rock opera about the trumped-up charges he faced and the outrageously long sentence he received, a copy of which he was kind enough to give me. Titled Vile Pervert, it’s available for viewing on his website and it has some good stuff in there, including the wonderful Johnny Reggae, as well as new songs – There’s Nothing Wrong with Buggering Boys is a particular gem.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Beyond a Joke

In case you’re sorting out your viewing for the bank holiday weekend, may I direct you to Beyond A Joke, on ITV3 at 9pm, Monday 4 May. It’s the first of a five-part series about sitcoms in the 1970s and 1980s and, amongst all the proper people who should be there talking about the subject, there’s also some contributions from me, making asinine comments.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Recession - The Queen Speaks

I’ve been immersing myself recently in the 1980s for a book I’m working on. Which means that, while I’m a little out of touch with the details of the current recession, I am at least up to speed on the two Thatcherite recessions.

And in Gyles Brandreth’s excellent volume of diaries, Breaking the Code, there’s a fine passage where he’s trying to make small talk with the Queen in 1990. He mentions the recession, and she replies:

‘We do seem to get them every few years – and none of my governments seems to know what to do about them.’

Plus ├ža change...

Thursday, 19 March 2009

An Historical Dinner

I went last night to the Jolly St Ermine’s Hotel as the guest of the Historical Association Dining Group, who are a splendid and very welcoming collection of people. As the name of the group suggests, we had dinner, and then I gave a short talk on the 1970s, which I enjoyed greatly, regardless of anyone else. Not the kind of thing I’ve ever really done before, so I was grateful to have the opportunity.

My thanks to Edward Towne and Peter Titley in particular, who invited me and were so hospitable, and to those who bought a copy of Crisis? What Crisis? afterwards.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Paperback Crisis

The paperback edition of my book Crisis? What Crisis? has just arrived, and I think it looks splendid: a better cover than the hardback, and yours for only £8.99, published by Aurum Press.

I'm particularly grateful to Sam Harrison for putting this together and for his enthusiasm.

Also, while I’ve been away for a few days, The Guardian has published the Harry Hammond obituary I wrote. My thanks to Diana Gower.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Wendy Richard

Sad to note the passing of Wendy Richard, something of a British institution. Before Eastenders, before even Are You Being Served?, she first made her name in 1962 with the #1 hit Come Outside, recorded with Mike Sarne.

And here the two are, photographed by Harry Hammond (© V&A Images), as featured in my book Halfway to Paradise:

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Robert Elms

Thanks to everyone who made complimentary comments about my appearance on Robert Elms’ programme on BBC London today. And, of course, to Mr Elms himself.

I’d been on his show before, with Roger Crimlis, to promote our book Cult Rock Posters 1972-1982, and there are few broadcasters who are more fun to chat about the 1970s with. Which is what we were doing today, with me promoting the paperback edition of Crisis? What Crisis? Due out next month, it is.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

More Harry Hammond

To complete my register of Harry Hammond tributes, there’s an obituary in The Times that’s worth your attention. My thanks to James Owen for his careful work. And thanks too to Mojo who noted his passing.

Friday, 20 February 2009

The Last Word

Just for the record, the Radio 4 programme The Last Word, including a short tribute to Harry Hammond, is due to be repeated on Sunday evening and is available online.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Farewell to Harry Hammond

It’s been a week dominated by the late Harry Hammond. On Tuesday I went to Leamington Spa with Mark Eastment and Andrea Stern from the V&A for Harry’s funeral, which was deeply moving. My thanks to the family for their kind hospitality.

And today I’ve been at Broadcasting House, talking about Harry with Matthew Bannister for his Radio 4 obituaries show, The Last Word.

And, while on the subject of obituaries, it’s nice to see that Harry’s passing is noted by the American magazine Cashbox.

Here, just to add to the record, is one of my favourite Harry Hammond photos (©V&A Images), showing the great Jerry Lee Lewis in all his glory:

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Harry Hammond obituary

There is a very fine obituary to Harry Hammond in today’s Daily Telegraph. It’s really good to see the massive contribution he made to the development of rock photography being accorded the respect it deserves.

My thanks to Harry de Quetteville and Roger Wilkes for their help and courtesy.

In tribute to both Harry and Buddy Holly, here's a photo of the latter taken by the former (© V&A Images), which is on view in the Buddy Holly exhibition at the Proud Gallery:

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Harry Hammond

I’m very saddened to hear that Harry Hammond died yesterday.

Harry was, of course, the first great rock photographer in Britain, responsible for so many of the iconic images of the late-1950s and early-1960s, from Bill Haley to the Beatles.

I had the privilege of working with Harry on a book of his rock and roll photos, published last year as Halfway to Paradise. It was an extraordinary experience, going through the vast archive of his work that is held at the Victoria & Albert Museum – we barely scraped the surface with the images we were able to include.

In the course of researching the book, I spoke to a number of people about Harry and no one had a bad word to say about him. His enthusiasm, the respect he showed his subjects, and his long years of experience (he had started his career back in the 1930s) won him many, many friends.

Andrew Loog Oldham: ‘Of course we remember Harry. He always stood out a way from the other snappers who loathed us, wished us no good and could not wait to get back to snapping Vera Lynn.’

Cliff Richard: ‘Today’s paparazzi seem intent to present their subjects in the worst possible light. In the days of Harry Hammond, photographers only wanted to show the best of you. I guess that’s why it was always such a pleasure to have Harry around.’

Despite the upsetting news, I’m pleased that the book came out while Harry was alive – he was very happy with the wonderful reproduction and the high quality of the printing, and said that his work has never been better represented. Our thoughts now are with his widow, Peggy.

This is a shot of Harry reflected in a mirror, while taking a picture of Alma Cogan (© V&A Images):

Friday, 23 January 2009


We’re now just a couple of weeks away from 3rd February, the day that marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Buddy Holly.

To commemorate the greatest loss that rock and roll has ever suffered, the Proud Gallery in London is staging an exhibition of photographs of the great man, running from 29th January through into April.

And amongst the pictures on display are some of those taken on Buddy’s 1958 British tour by Harry Hammond, as featured in my book, Halfway to Paradise. As a bonus, here’s one that I’m particularly fond of, but which didn’t make it into the book (© V&A Images):

Since I wasn’t actually born when Buddy died, I came to his work rather late, and did so via the pop music of 1975. That year both Mud and Showaddywaddy had hits with his songs (Oh Boy and Heartbeat respectively). Intrigued, I went back to the source and discovered the most wondrous collection of songs I’d ever heard. I still remember hearing Peggy Sue for the first time and being blown away by the sudden break into falsetto, as though his exuberance could only be expressed through the most extraordinary vocal contortions.

I have yet to hear a better body of work in popular music than those 100 or so tracks that Buddy laid down in a tragically short period. The sheer range of his material, his restless curiosity about what could be done in a recording studio, continues to fascinate me, and I continue to wonder what else he might have achieved had he not died at the age of twenty-two.

There haven’t been very many individuals working in rock who can genuinely be considered as great artists, judged by the same standards that apply elsewhere. Elvis, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie come to mind, but not many more. Despite the brevity of his career, Buddy Holly is in the same category.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009


Heard on Radio Five Live on the BBC this evening: ‘Welcome to the first Five Live Sport of the Obama era. We’re coming to you live from Washington and Old Trafford…’

Over-egging the pudding? Just a tad.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Proff Reading

What’s wrong with publishers these days? Don’t they employ copy-editors anymore?

I’ve just been trying to read Griff Rhys Jones’s childhood memoir Semi-Detached. But I couldn’t manage it.

I started halfway through, because I wanted to read about Jones’s musical tastes as a teenager in the late-1960s, and on consecutive pages there is a reference to Alexis Korner as ‘Alexis Corner’, and a description of Joe Cocker – surely one of Sheffield’s most famous sons – as a ‘Nottinghamshire groaner’. And then, on the next page, he says that the part of north London where I happen to live, Chalk Farm, is in ‘central London’.

At which point I stopped reading. It was getting too irritating.

I don’t blame the author. Mistakes happen. But publishers are supposed to check this sort of thing. I’ve got the Penguin re-print, but I assume the same errors are in the Michael Joseph hardback edition. And they really ought to know better. It’s all cost-cutting, I guess.

So, while I’m on the subject, I ought to thank the various copy-editors I’ve encountered over the past few years, who have (I hope) prevented similar mistakes on my part from making it into print: Jon Butler, Merlin Cox, Elizabeth Imlay and Vicki Vrint. And, in particular, thanks to Clare Collinson, who helped on Halfway to Paradise and Magic Gardens, and who has been the best copy-editor I’ve ever worked with.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

This Bear is Mischievous

It’s difficult to know quite what to think about the news that there’s to be an authorized sequel to the Winnie-the-Pooh books. On the one hand, we’ve survived for eighty years with just the two books of stories, and those of us who love them continue to return on a regular and frequent basis to the texts.

Then again, does it make any difference? There already exists a massive collection of unofficial spin-off works, taking Pooh into everything from Latin to leather, and the word ‘official’ in this context is frankly meaningless – neither AA Milne nor Christopher Robin Milne is any position to authorize anything, and no one else’s word is worth tuppence.

But, on the other hand, there is the fact that the man chosen for this task is David Benedictus. And I’ve had a fondness for him for some time. Apart from anything else, one of his early novels has perhaps the greatest cover illustration of the 1960s:

There’s a new angle for Pooh in there somewhere, surely?