It’s a strange sensation to be asked by a publisher to look back at your past if you’ve always lumbered on without so much as a glance in the rear-view mirror. Yet for some reason I kept everything – postcards, letters, photos, diaries, and notebooks from when I worked at New Musical Express
, Smash Hits
and presented Radio 1 programmes and the BBC’s TV rock show The Old Grey Whistle Test
You remember what you thought about the world at the time, and then you factor in how it looks from the vantage point of Mount Middle-Age. Back then you just did stuff. Now, years later, you start to understand why. It’s fascinating. Here are five things I came to realise about the funny old journey of life:
The Fifties were tough
They were, though obviously I didn’t know it at the time. Even in leafy, middle-class Hampshire you could still feel the shadow of the Second World War. I was born in 1953, the youngest of four, and our garden was full of chickens and vegetables as there wasn’t a wide variety of food.
A regular ‘treat’ was rubbery white tripe baked in milk – eeeeeew! – or stuffed ox hearts and turnips (which I loved). Any leftover meat was put in a hand-cranked mincer screwed to a table-top and reappeared in endless shepherd’s pies; any uneaten veg – a morsel of carrot, a spoonful of peas – was put on saucers in the fridge where it would sprout luxuriant mould and be thrown away three weeks later.
Clothes, too, could be chucked out only when they physically fell apart, another hangover from the war.
My mother seemed to spend every waking hour darning, sewing or knitting, or scrubbing laundry on a washboard and suspending steaming towels above the coke-fired boiler, which had to be ‘riddled’ every few hours and its trays of hot coals carried perilously to the shed outside, showering everything with a thin layer of ash.
We got a glimpse of the sparkling future when my father invested in a new-fangled spin-dryer, a tall, tube-like contraption. You stuffed it with dripping clothes, pressed a button and it wobbled giddily round the kitchen, clanking and shuddering, before crashing onto its side, water gushing from a tube that was meant to be in a bucket.
The other hint of the colourful new world ahead was the arrival in our hometown of Fleet of spaghetti, long sticks of dried pasta from Italy sold in blue paper packages. There were rumours, too, that we’d be getting a Chinese restaurant, like they had in Guildford, or one of these Indian places serving something exciting called ‘curry’.
I thought fish and chips was exotic, eaten straight from the grease-pooled pages of The Hampshire Chronicle
, so I simply couldn’t wait for the Sixties to get started.
The older you get, the more like your parents you become
The afternoon peace in our house was routinely shattered by the sound of my father bellowing from his study, a soulful human wail, a wounded cry of anguish and despair.
‘Who’s got my scissors?’ he’d roar. Or ‘Who’s pinched my stapler?’ Or ‘For heaven’s sake, where’s the ruddy Sellotape?’ And I would lollop downstairs with the treasured article and hand it back with a hollow laugh – ‘Keep your hair on, Dad!’
Never in a million years, I told myself, would I become one of these tragic, middle-aged types for whom items of stationery – or their ownership, ‘my stapler’! – had even the faintest significance.
But here’s the bad news: exactly 20 years later, my own house began rattling to a similar sound. After rummaging through my desk drawers, beads of perspiration popping from my brow, a vein in my neck like a drainpipe, I would charge to the bottom of the stairs, puce with anger, and demand the return of some crucial piece of equipment like a pencil-sharpener as, without it, my world was falling apart. I had become my own father.
And this is nothing compared with the scene in my book where Dad would ruin our weekly viewings of Top of the Pops
by wandering in to turn the volume down and ask loudly if Dave Davies of The Kinks was a boy or a girl, a ruse superbly engineered to drive my sisters and me stark raving mad.
A ploy, I might add, that I used on my own children later, sending them spinning into paroxysms of rage and giving me immense satisfaction in the process. It’s your God-given right as a parent to annoy your offspring as much as your own folks annoyed you.
Smell conjures memories more vividly than sight or sound
Re-imagining the smell of pink Germolene, or the wet-dog-and-diesel scent of a Bedford Dormobile, or flower-filled meadows by the seaside, or the tingling aroma of sherbet sucked through a liquorice tube, or cinemas clogged with pipe smoke, or bloater paste on crumpets, or the tang of warm vinyl and the hot valves of a record-player, all of it brings back the past as if it were yesterday. Far more so than photos.
If I see an old black and white snap of a beach holiday it reminds me of that specific instant – that day’s clothes, the mood of the moment, the buckets and spades, the dog we used to have. But if I remember the smell of vegetable soup in a vacuum flask still tinged with yesterday’s instant coffee, or the whiff of cheap suntan lotion, or the taste of Scotch eggs and ginger beer, then a whole landscape of recollection comes flooding back, richer and more vivid than, say, one particular day in 1965.
Try it. It conjures up the great march of the decade itself. You don’t just remember the time, you remember the times.
You were never as miserable as your diaries seem to suggest
Who would want to be a teenager again? All that self-doubt. All that insecurity. All those fashion faux-pas committed in a pathetic attempt to make yourself look hip and irresistible. That’s the impression my old diaries give, but let the record reflect that this was a skewed and deliberately gloomy version of what life was actually like.
Diaries tended to be written when you were on your own, and as the whole point of being a teenager was not being on your own but, in my case, clattering down Fleet High Street with a big gaggle of rowdy, heat-seeking mates in a collective effort to squeeze the maximum amount of fun out of anything in our path, then – by definition – sitting in your friendless bedroom writing your diary usually meant something was amiss.
The gang had forgotten to ring me, or maybe they were going to Richard Swetenham’s house in Church Crookham to listen to Sgt Pepper
and he thought I was a twerp so I wasn’t invited.
I filled my diaries with reams of self-pitiful prose about girls who didn’t fancy me, and how maybe all the lonely people like The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby
and the forlorn, homeless sorts in Simon and Garfunkel songs were having an even worse time than I was. And how it probably didn’t matter anyway because a hit record called Eve of Destruction
by someone called Barry McGuire said we were all doomed, as some sinister figure like a James Bond villain was about to extend his bony hand to press a button releasing ‘H-bombs’, which would wipe out the entire planet, possibly starting with Hampshire.
What I learnt from my diaries was that the good times – and there were a lot of them – simply never got recorded. If they had been, I’d have found an entire page about the unforgettable thrill of inviting my fellow teenage Christmas post deliverer, the gorgeous Caroline Hector, for a drink at The Oatsheaf and how she actually turned up. And she was wearing a felt hat, a silk scarf and flares and looked like Dusty Springfield.
What was wrong with any of that? Nothing. In fact, in many ways, my life’s been downhill ever since. But did I write about it? No, I didn’t. I was too busy quacking on about war being a bad thing, and how my rotten parents kept telling me to get my hair cut, and how unfair it was that I’d been all the way to the sports shop in Aldershot on the bus to buy a pair of white gym shoes like the ones John Lennon was wearing on the cover of Abbey Road
and they’d sold out and wouldn’t have any more till Tuesday.
The golden age of rock music is over (and we were lucky to be alive during it)
My memoir is about my love affair with rock and pop music and a lifetime squandered listening to the stuff when I should have been doing something useful such as trying to understand the share index or opening a donkey sanctuary. When I was 15 I could quote whole chunks of records by useless hippie bands such as Hookfoot or Atomic Rooster but I couldn’t name the Chancellor of the Exchequer – a situation that’s barely changed, I’m ashamed to say.
But if there was ever a time to be obsessed by rock music then clearly it was the Sixties and Seventies, when a dazzling array of acts charged boldly across uncharted territory and made records that were fresh and wildly original. I don’t doubt for a second that today’s teenagers like Jake Bugg or the Arctic Monkeys as much as I liked The Byrds and Led Zeppelin, but I’ve yet to meet one who doesn’t also listen to The Beatles, The Stones and Bob Dylan and wish they could have seen them, too, back in the days when their singles turned the whole world upside down.
But a major change has occurred in my lifetime that has made it harder to fall as deeply in love with music. Once it stopped arriving on a physical object – a vinyl disc, a cassette, a CD – it was harder to feel as strongly about it. If virtually everything you might want to hear is free and just one click away on a computer, do you ever really feel as connected with it as when you had to physically track it down and buy it, and own it, and bring it home and search its sleeve for illuminating clues while you sat up all night listening to it?
I played my Leonard Cohen albums till I wore them out: they got tinny and faint and I had to go and buy another copy. Music was hard-won in those days. Can you care about it as much if you don’t have to work for it, if it’s just some invisible file in a hard-to-imagine digital sound-cloud?
I also realised that you’re less likely to be besotted by music if it’s made by people younger than you are. You can admire it, you can respect it, you can enjoy it, but can you adore it in the way you adored records when you were young and everyone was older than you were? Our bond with rock music was mostly formed in the white heat of adolescence. The trick, I guess, is to try to extend that adolescence for as long as possible.
Rock Stars Stole My Life! A Big Bad Love Affair with Music by Mark Ellen is published as a hardback and eBook (both £18.99) by Coronet. It’s also available as an audio format read by the author (£19.99)
There are great pics and more music memories from Mark Ellen's book on Tumblr. Click here to see more >>