Top positive review
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Nice guys can finish first
on 31 May 2014
I bought this having heard the author interviewed on the Danny Baker show. I didn't really know who he was but thought it sounded like fun. It was only when I saw the picture on the front of the book in the Kindle store that I recognised Mark Ellen. My impression of him has always been of a enthusiastic, slightly naff, but engagingly so, puppyish figure. That very much accords with the picture he paints of himself in this book. And yet, if the picture is an accurate one, then puppyish enthusiasm has enabled Ellen to be a driving force behind large parts of the music press from the 80s onwards, Smash Hits, Q, Mojo, Select. Add to that, for example, a significant involvement in Live Aid and you have what looks like a very successful career. Live Aid is perhaps illustrative of the whole. One was aware of the hiccups on the day, but overall the impression was of the might of the BBC getting behind a hastily constructed event. Ellen's picture is of a BBC which "didn't do" rock music and so handed the job to the amateurish Whistle Test team. The analogy provided is like asking Radio Cambridgeshire to cover the General Election.
Throughout his career Ellen has met enthusiasts for particular genres, prog, punk, rave etc etc but his own enthusiasm seems to be for popular music as a whole, in any form, any genre, with the possible exception of Cowell manufactured acts. His story starts with a pretty conventional middle class childhood in Hampshire from which the rock music scene was an escape from what he saw as stultifying boredom. Indeed, the theme of father/ son relationships, while not central to the book, is a pleasing and eventually touching background thread.
Having spent late teenage years travelling to festivals, and living in a half hearted commune in France, Ellen went up to Oxford, where amongst other things he was a member of a band called Ugly Rumours. As has been frequently documented, the charismatic but slightly self obsessed singer was one Anthony Blair.
After Oxford, enthusiasm, coupled with real determination, lead to Ellen's association with most of the major British music publications of the last two decades of the 20th century. Starting with a near life threatening encounter with Elvis Costello for Record Mirror, he moves on to NME in the Tony Parsons, Julie Birchall era where his uncynical enthusiasm seems somewhat at odds with the prevailing mood, although he does find a kindred eclectic spirit in the afore mentioned Baker.
This isn't, however, an unerringly positive account, Ellen does on occasion channel his enthusiasm into delivering a damn good kicking. The 70s and 80s Radio 1 pop DJs get a particularly vigorous shoeing, with Dave Lee Travis right on the end of the author's toe cap. Other particular targets are Roy Harper and Jimmy Page (jointly) and Van Morrison.
Inevitably the book contains plenty of celebrity anecdotes, but Ellen's do tend to have the irresistible merit of being funny, interesting, or indeed both. Some fine examples include a surprisingly feisty Sheena Easton, a down at heel Meatloaf, an insecure John Peel, an uninformed Su Pollard, an unashamed Rod Stewart and a remarkably deshabille Lady Gaga.
The final major anecdote is about being on a whirlwind world tour with Rihanna. In some ways Ellen uses this as part of his transition into being a grumpy old man, bemoaning the sense of entitlement of young journalist and the commoditisation of music. But even then, he can't give up his essential niceness, finding a way to recognise that the spoilt diva is under enormous pressure which goes a long way to understanding and even forgiving her brattish behaviour.
So, all in all, this is a thoroughly entertaining memoir, more about music journalism than about the music business itself, although the two are, of course, inevitably close, and the author comes across as a pretty decent chap, a good old english amateur succeeding through a combination of hard work and love for his chosen profession.
A final sign of the overall warmness of the book. In the mid 80s Ellen married Clare. For the rest of the book I found myself worrying when the split would come, showbiz lifestyle and all that. But it doesn't, and the dedications at the start suggest they are still happily together.