In Their Own Write Paperback – 9 Nov 2001
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The music press is an astute commentary on contemporary culture. In its time it has spawned prodigious talents who have helped advance - and destroy - new cultural trends. Gorman's latest book, written with contributions from Cameron Crowe, Mark Perry, Chrissie Hynde, Tony Parsons and Garry Bushell, is the first complete account of this phenomenon - from NME and Melody Maker in the 50s; the explosion of new American formats in the 60s with Rolling Stone and Interview; the Punk explosion in the 70s; through Details, The Face and I-D et al and the 80s obsession with materialism and consumer power; to the 1990s with the boom of 'laddism' and the launch of Loaded, Q, Mojo and Smash Hits. Film directors Cameron Crowe (Rolling Stone) and Michael Winner (NME), megabucks screenwriter Joe Estzerhaus (Rolling Stone), to pop stars such as Bob Geldof and Chrissie Hynde, songwriter Don Black and writers such as Julie Burchill, Tony Parsons and Lester Bangs have all emerged from this media background. A fascinating work of remarkable insight, the story ends on the brink of a new media age.
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It's not, of course, and the great irony surrounding In Their Own Write is that you'd think Gorman's literary format of choice - the oral history - would be tailor-suited to the subject. There are some loud, boisterous voices jostling to be heard on these 400 pages. To his credit, Gorman conducted interviews with scores of participants, from Meltzer, Greg Shaw and Lenny Kaye to such celebrated UK mavericks as Mick Farren, Tony Parsons and Vivien Goldman, additionally tapping secondary sources for quotes from more elusive personalities including Jann Wenner, Nick Kent and, er, Bangs.
The book's central flaw is the lack of expository narrative linking the quotes; only quirky subheadings break up the topics or eras. With a dizzying array of personalities and oftentimes overlapping time periods to juggle, readers unfamiliar with the original publications themselves (Creem, Bomp, Record Mirror, New Musical Express, etc.) won't get the requisite you-are-there feeling. The quotes read colorfully enough, particularly the segments on the fierce rivalries between the UK weeklies during Punk's heyday. But the book is ultimately no more than a huge box of snapshots dumped onto the floor and then assembled into a more-or-less linear order.
Among the other drawbacks: The U.S. press gets short shrift after its `70s golden era, as if to suggest that Gorman was unaware there was a thriving fanzine underground in the `80s or (more likely) that he feels music writing is a spent force on these shores. There's not a single photo in the book; given the volume and velocity with which many of Gorman's subjects erupt, one would love to see if, for example, NME maverick Nick Kent, depicted along rail-thin, wasted-rock star lines by his peers, fit the bill. (He did by the way: see the photo accompanying a review of this book in the December issue of Uncut.) And the book's general attitude of "gee, we did lots of drugs and got away with murder!" consistently gets in the way of the reader determining how and why the music itself excited and motivated the writers. But hey, at least we know they all worked in "horrible" offices and that respected author Barney Hoskyns was a heroin addict.
In summary, better places to start your own inquiries would be Abe Peck's Uncovering The `60s: The Life and Times of the Underground Press, which provides context within which the music press would emerge and Robert Draper's Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History Book and Jim DeRogatis' Lester Bangs bio Let It Blurt (neither are overviews but have terrific behind-the-scenes material), combined with rock criticism anthologies such as Meltzer's A Whore Just Like the Rest, Nick Kent's The Dark Stuff and Nick Tosches' The Nick Tosches Reader. (There's also a great rock lit archival website [the internet].)
All that said, as a longtime fan of rock-lit hagiography, the book kept my attention riveted -- kinda like driving past a bloody wreck on the highway and you can't help but staring.
It's true that Gorman's book focuses more on UK rock writing, but I've always found that to be its major attraction. I can't think of another book that covers the UK rock press to anywhere near this extent, thus Gorman's work fills a major void. No, it's not a definitive history of the music press, but it's a marvelous supplement to the three books Mills mentions. Draper's "Rolling Stone Magazine" is essential reading, and DeRogatis' "Let It Blurt" covers the Creem story (as well as the life of the only rock critic who's warranted his own bio--not that others aren't deserving). Mills was also very astute to point out Abe Peck's "Uncovering the Sixties," which indeed provides helpful context.
I also agree with Mills that some more of Gorman's own words might help tie his book together. Also, the bibliography in the back of the book is hardly what it could've been. A Greil Marcus-style annotated bibliography (like the discographies of "Mystery Train" or "Stranded") would've been especially useful.
That said, "In Their Own Write" really should be read by anyone interested in rock criticism. There are so few books about the profession itself, and Gorman's deserves to rank with Draper's and DeRogatis' as cornerstones.
I'd agree with Mills critique in but one respect: it IS fascinating, but mainly for the little nuggets which have been dropped in there: The beatles publisher tried to sell their music rights in 1964 because he thought the bubble ahd to burst, Uk critic Charlie Gillett being welcomed by John Lennon in LA, who appeared to know all about him, and the best one - that Danny Fields alleges he and Pete Townshend were boyfriends.
Rolling Stone has now picked up on this and Pete doesn't seem to have a problem (see latest RS), though beware: Fields says he can't remember saying it. Nevertheless, for those who have wondered about the world which informs pete's writing down the years, it's an insight.
So on an anecdotal, "wow never knew that" level In Their Own Write deserves 5 stars.
As an intellectual overview of the music press it doesn't cut it. No Simon Reynolds, William Shaw, Chris Heath, John Harris or any of the real heavyweight stars who have brought a solid critical perspective and opinion to the music press (at least here in the UK) over recent years.
Still and all - it's nice to get the inside dirt once in a while!
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