Industry Profile: Barney Hoskyns
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Barney Hoskyns, co-founder and editorial director, Rock's Backpages.
Despite being often undervalued, the field of rock music journalism is populated by the writings of some of the most imaginative—if not dangerous, and rebellious--minds of our time.
This includes: Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, Jon Savage, Nick Kent, Julie Burchill, Robert Christgau, Charlie Gillett, Chet Flippo, Dave Marsh, Philip Norman, John Tobler, Glenn A. Baker, Nick Hornby, Richard Williams, Keith Altham, Nick Tosches, Charles Shaar Murray, Greil Marcus, Mick Brown, Mary Harron, Paul Morley, Mary Harron, Jerry Gilbert, John Mendelssohn, Robert Palmer, Richard Williams, Bill Flanagan, Richard Cook, Lenny Kaye, Glenn O'Brien, David Fricke, Gina Arnold, Gerri Hirshey, Nelson George, Joel Selvin, Simon Reynolds, Dave Laing, Lenny Kaye, Caroline Coon, Chuck Eddy, Ben Fong-Torres, Cameron Crowe, Mark Kemp, Simon Frith, Bud Scoppa, Ken Barnes, Glenn O'Brien, Dave DiMartino, Alan Betrock, Michael Lydon, Barbara Charone and others; as well as the late Lillian Roxon, Timothy White, Ian MacDonald, Dave Godin, and Penny Valentine.
Most of these scribes are archived in Rock's Backpages, the online library of rock journalism that celebrates its 10th anniversary this month. The archive—which spans five decades--is an invaluable research tool for academics, journalists, filmmakers, and fans alike.
Co-founded in 2001 by British author/journalist Barney Hoskyns, the archive contains nearly 20,000 articles from over 500 music journalists, and is culled from such publications as: Melody Maker, New Music Express, Disc and Music Echo, Zig Zag, Rolling Stone, Sounds, Crawdaddy!, Creem, Circus, Fusion, Goldmine, Trouser Press, New York Rocker, Snifflin’ Glue, Uncut, and Q.
Also available are audio clips of such music personalities as Hank Ballard, Richard Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Tim Buckley, Mick Jagger, Ray Davies, Arthur Lee, David Bowie, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Levon Helm, and Beck; as well as such music industry figures as Ahmet Ertegun, Jac Holzman, Mickie Most, Chips Moman, Tom Dowd, Greg Shaw, Charlie Gillett, and Bill Graham.
Rock’s Backpages recently launched a new Backpages eBooks division which consists of two series: “Backpages Anthologies,” which collects key interviews and other articles about important acts, that gets under way with “The Bob Dylan Electric Omnibus” and “The Nirvana Electric Omnibus”; and “Backpages Classics,” which kicks off with releases of out-of-print titles by Simon Reynolds (“Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock”); Hoskyns (“Glam! Bowie, Bolan and the Glam Rock Revolution”); Bud Scoppa (“The Byrds”) and John Pidgeon (“Rod Stewart and the Changing Faces.”)
In 1979, while studying English literature at the University of Oxford, Hoskyns began working on a book titled “The Cult of Pop.” While doing research in New York, he met then music journalist Davitt Sigerson, who encouraged him to contact Melody Maker editor Richard Williams on his return to London. Williams had editor Ian Birch assign him some reviews.
A year later, when he left Oxford, Hoskyns was hired by Phil McNeill as a staff writer at NME.
In the ‘80s, Hoskyns quit his job as staff writer at NME to research his book “Say It One Time For The Brokenhearted: Country Soul In The American South” released in 1987.
Hoskyns went on to write for British Vogue, where for five years he was a contributing editor, and for The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Observer and Arena. Between 1993 and 1999, he worked as associate editor, and then U.S. bureau chief at Mojo, also contributing to Harper's Bazaar, Interview, Spin, and Rolling Stone.
In 2000, Hoskyns became senior editor of CDNOW in London, leaving to co-found Rock's Backpages.
Among the books the prolific Hoskyns has written over the years are: “Waiting for the Sun: Strange Days, Weird Scenes & the Sound of Los Angeles”; “Glam! Bowie, Bolan & the Glitter Rock Revolution”; “Across The Great Divide: The Band & America”; “Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters & Cocaine Cowboys In The L.A. Canyons”; “Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits”; and the novel “The Lonely Planet Boy: A Pop Romance.” He also co-wrote with Mark Larson, “Mullet: Hairstyle of the Gods.”
Why should anyone care about rock journalism?
Why should they care? Because they should care that the best writing on rock from the past really did convey some of what was happening in music, and the changes that were going on. It communicated the real excitement, and the nature of the music and the phenomenon as it was unraveling.
So that’s one answer to the question—to say that there was a kind of halcyon day of rock writing where everything was sort of being made up as it went along.
A bigger answer would be to say that critical writing and response to any art form is almost as important as the art form. It is vital that we don’t lose that critical perspective; that people write as intelligently as possible about what is really going on when somebody is making music or painting a painting or writing a novel.
Music journalism has changed over the years.
I think that what has changed is that the individual voice—the subjective approach or experience of a writer responding to music and counterculture—is kind of what is gone.
Is there good writing on music taking place today?
Of course, there is, but not in mainstream medias. It might be good, but it is very…everybody ends up writing in kind of the same way. It is really only online--in blogs, and within the more iconoclastic nooks of the internet--that you will find people who have nothing to lose. You will find writers who have nothing to lose. Whether anybody is reading them, I don’t know. But gone are the days, I suspect, and this isn’t an old reactionary ranting—when a “Noise Boy” could just free associate in print.
NME (New Musical Express) had real power in the ‘80s. I was able to write pieces about bands that I had been flown half-way across the world to interview, and write about them in distinctly unflattering ways. The record company might have huffed and puffed and threatened to pull its advertising, but knew that it never could. Now it can.
At the end of the day, we became a service industry. That’s what we have become. Very few writers sort of say, “I’ve got two or three thousand words on X and I am going to say that I think their new album is shit.”
Is the story about your review of Pulp’s “This Is Hardcore” album in 1997 for Rolling Stone true? That it was rejected because it wasn’t favorable?
Yeah, that is true. There are far more egregious examples than that. That was kind of a weird one because it wasn’t someone slagging off one of Jann Wenner’s best friends, the Rolling Stones or whoever. It was a band that I liked that was tremendously hip, but the record just didn’t sit well with me. But Rolling Stone needed to be in the Pulp camp at that point. They didn’t need someone weighing in with a three star reviewing saying that it was a “troubled record” and “it doesn’t quite work” and “it’s not as a good as the last record” or “Jarvis Cocker is an interesting guy but…” They just needed a four star review. They didn’t get it from me so they went to the next guy who would give them that.
You once wrote: "The sad truth is that rock journalism has become little more than a service industry, with scant critical autonomy and even less responsibility to its readers. We have all, in our different ways, colluded with the entertainment machine in its canny efforts to dictate what music sells."
I think (the decline) was slow, and it happened in the ‘80s. Pop culture, the musical underground---the extent that it was an underground at all at that point—it became assimilated, and thus commoditized to the point that it was ubiquitous.
At the beginning of the ‘80s if you were living in Britain, you still had to read the NME to get the low-down (on the music scene). By the end of the ‘80s, you could get something of the low-down on everything that was going on in pop culture from most newspapers, most magazines, and from television, radio and, of course, eventually from the net.
During the course of the ‘80s, (rock music’s appeal) went from kind of underground fandom or tribal allegiance to everybody buys 10 albums a year—everybody’s a rock fan now. Many people who don’t really know about it or care about it very much, they go out and buy their 10 albums a year. Dire Straits or whatever it might me. To me, that is really what happened.
In the ‘80s, People magazine and the TV news magazine show “Entertainment Tonight” changed how celebrities were reported on in North America. In the U.K., the fanzine Smash Hits, and the daily newspapers did the same.
Another way of précising it is to say that capitalism got its grubby hands on everything that was magical, elusive and different about the original counterculture. Therefore, it became dumbed down very profoundly in that (‘80s) decade.
I will take my own experience as a starting point.
When I began writing at NME, there was still room to be gloriously pretentious and almost inscrutable in the pages of NME. (French literary theorist, philosopher, critic, and semiotician) Roland Barthes was frequently quoted by people like myself indeed; and certainly Paul Morley and Ian Penman were writing these sometimes brilliant, if abstruse works on a lot of rather fumbling pop groups who probably didn’t really merit it, and wouldn’t have really understood what these writers were talking about.
Nonetheless, there was a real reaction to all of that. What kicked in was Smash Hits. It kicked in for young folks, “Shut up you pretentious old gits. Pop music is just about haircuts and…” It was almost back to bubblegum. It was back to “What’s your favorite color?” Everything had sort of come back full circle. Asking Nick Heyward or Nik Kershaw or Nick Somebody else what their favorite color was.
There was then the emergence of commercial pop music in the U.K., with Haircut 100, Kajagoogoo and others.
Yes, but the chicken and egg thing is interesting isn’t it? What comes first and all that? That new pop. The sort of synthy, sassy haircut pop was sort of a reaction in some ways to post punk (music). It was a reaction to gloomy old Joy Division, and company. It was a bit like glam rock coming out (in the ‘70s) as a reaction to poker-faced, pompous progressive rock with the younger kids saying, “We just want to have a bit of fun.”
And that just became amplified by the MTV video revolution.
Suddenly, everything just became almost about appearances. Everything was synthetic and ‘80s and quite mercenary. Any profound spiritual or musicological dimension went out of the window. And, in parallel with everything else, it (music journalism) became much more personality fixated. Suddenly, reviews got shorter; and profiles and interviews got longer. What then started to really happen was the back-story. In terms of things like Simon Cowell and “X Factor” today, the back-story became more important than the music. Publications like Q and, indeed, Rolling Stone fell into line with that. There wasn’t analysis of the work as much as "here’s another extraordinary or hell-raising story about a band that has just tumbled out of rehab."
Music journalists were once generalists covering all musical genres. Today, one sees very little coverage of blues, country, heavy metal or Americana in the mainstream press. Coverage is celebrity-driven.
It is the way that capitalism--in its brilliant, furtive covert way--slices up the demographics; slices up the markets; feeds you what it thinks that you want instead of saying, “Turn the page, here’s a piece on Merle Haggard,” and then the next article is on New Order or something.
Mojo magazine will do that.
You do but, of course, Mojo is backward-looking. It’s nostalgic. I love it, of course. I was involved with Mojo from the get-go, and it’s very dear to me. I like very much the fact that there may be an issue with the Upsetters and Saxon in it.
Rock's Backpages is a commercial site to make money for writers and itself?
Yeah, it is a commercial site, and that is it in a nutshell.
When you co-founded Rock's Backpages what was it about for you?
My honest answer is that it was an opportunity back in the dot.com era, during the dot.com madness, to create something that might make some money. It has made a reasonable amount of money, and we manage to keep going. The bigger answer is that I love this stuff, and the idea of housing this kind of stuff under the same roof—whether it’s “Metal Mike” Saunders (critic and singer of the Californian punk band Angry Samoans) writing about the Sonics or (Atlantic Records’ co-founder) Ahmet Ertegun talking about Chuck Willis—was something worth attempting.
Who uses the library?
In a nutshell, it really isn’t for the casual fan although there is a good helping of free content. We do have a premium model, but that model is an iceberg with a tiny little bit of free content above the surface, and there is a wealth of stuff that is invisible to the naked eye. Our principal revenue stream comes from academic institutions of all stripes and hues, from Harvard to the tiniest little college in Scotland or Finland.
People doing research for books and thesis papers?
Yeah, it’s essentially students. Of course, journalists do subscribe, film makers, the BBC, and there are corporate subscribers. Kind of the backdrop of what we have been talking about, and the way the culture has changed, in a sense there can be no more ironic statement about it than all of this insurrectionary stuff that was going on is now fodder for quiet study in university libraries. People are writing thesis about Malcolm McLaren and situationism. And why not? It’s interesting stuff, and it tells us about people, culture and civilization.
How much does it cost to subscribe to Rock's Backpages?
An individual subscription is £120 a year.
A corporate subscription?
That varies. For academic institutions, it is all pegged to FTP or full-time population. So a major American university will pay upward to $2,000 to $3,000 per annum. A small college will pay maybe $800 or $900 per annum.
How many people work at Rock's Backpages?
There are five of us involved on a day-to-day basis, but it really comes down to myself and Mark Pringle who are running the nuts-and-bolts of the site every day. We have an office in Hammersmith in West London. It’s just about big enough to accommodate our physical archive. It’s a two room suite; with one of the room with the archives; and the other with Mark and I.
A cottage industry.
It was a labor of love for a long time. Against all odds, we have survived. Against all odds we make a little bit of money that we generally plow back into the business to keep it going and expanding.
How many articles in the archives?
We are just closing in on 20,000 after 10 years. I wish we had the resources to jump to 50,000 or 100,000, but it’s slow, and it’s arduous. It’s been a slow organic evolution. We’ve got 500 writers now on the site. If one could wave the magic wand and digitalize and proof-read and upload everything that those writers have done we would probably have a half-a-million pieces on the site. We are adding writers all of the time. We are always keen to bring in writers, especially from areas where there are little lights on. We can’t quite cope with the number of writers that want to come on board. We are always playing catch-up.
The articles are from so many different sources.
We have many thousands of publications represented on Rock's Backpages. I like the diversity of it. I like the fact that we have pieces from Ramparts and pieces from sort of anarchical fanzines from the early ‘80s. We’ve also quite a few New York Rocker and Snifflin’ Glue pieces as well. So it’s a very broad church. There are Q&As from Sniffin’ Glue that are pretty illiterate, but they have historical value because it is Joe Strummer talking before the Clash has broken. Not everything on the site is deathless prose but we wouldn’t put anything on there that didn’t have redeeming value.
Do you have physical copies of the articles?
We’ve got quite a few bound volumes. We have added to the archives by buying up collections from eBay, and we are always being offered magazines by our writers. We have managed to build up a nice archive. But it’s still a drop in the ocean. There is still so much more that we can add to the digitized library itself.
The writers represented own their work?
We are getting into interesting grey thickets there. As far as we concerned, we have identified writers who worked as freelancers, and it could be argued that they own the copyright in their work, and we leave everything else alone.
There was little intellectual discussion of pop music until the mid ’60s.
I think surely, Larry, the parallel again, was with the music itself. That prior to, shall we say “Rubber Soul” and “Highway 61 Revisited,” the music wasn’t taking itself that seriously. Broadly speaking. I would say that those were the first two coherent pop or even rock albums. Roughly speaking, pop music evolved into an identifiable art from circa ’65 onward.
As a result, you then got university educated people responding to pop music in ways that they previously hadn’t. It had just been (viewed as) disposable froth. However seismic the impact of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard was, it was still seen as just an eruption of teenage energy. There wasn’t much (critical reporting). There was some critical response to that, but it was really the sort of (within) the pin-up era of the early ‘60s. But the Fabian era had finally gone, and the Beatles began to take themselves seriously as songwriters. Then we get the Paul Williams, the Greg Shaws, and so forth who started to attempt to write intelligently about this new art form.
Before that there’d be the odd article in Esquire like Tom Wolfe’s 1964 article on Phil Spector, "The First Tycoon of Teen.”
Yes, Tom Wolfe or Al Aronowitz who was doing pieces as early as ’63 and ‘64 on The Brill Building writers, and then on the Beatles and on Dylan and so forth.
The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, and later Pink Floyd forced writers to be more intelligent about what they wrote. The Beatles were no longer happy with, “John, what’s your favorite color?”
Exactly. Another way of framing this is to say that the artists, the fans and, therefore, the writers on pop culture were growing up. They were growing (away) from sort of teenage frivolity, and disposable experiences. That is sort of what “Rubber Soul” is all about. The Beatles started out with “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and by “Rubber Soul” they had experienced loss, heartbreak and the things that one begins to apprehend as one grows older.
Also, most music critics then started off as a music fan and wrote about music in the early part of their careers as fans. Like people write in fanzines today.
You are exactly right. Fandom is a great part of what turns somebody into a music writer.
In the ‘60s, there wasn’t a stable structure for young music writers to plug into. The dailies generally cared little about pop music. Britain had Melody Maker, and NME with Sounds, Let It Rock, and Zig Zag coming later on. In America, there was Hit Parader, and Paul Williams’ Crawdaddy! with Rolling Stone, Creem, and Circus coming afterwards.
The real breakout for music journalism was Rolling Stone in 1967. It was like the stone being thrown into the pond.
Absolutely. There is no doubt that if Paul Williams had been more ambitious, aggressive or, perhaps, cannier, he could have been Jann Wenner (co-founder/publisher of Rolling Stone). Jann’s stroke of genius was to say, “Let’s create a magazine where writers can write about everything that is happening, counter culturally. Not just the music. This will be a forum for really long think pieces about everything; about the music; about Viet Nam; about Lyndon Johnson and that bursts into all sorts of areas, including sports.”
Jann grasped the zeitgeist in a way that Paul, who was more scholarly, and who was immersed in the idea of the artist as auteur, did not. He just didn’t see that big a picture.
["Crawdaddy!,” created by Paul Williams in 1966, pre-dating both Rolling Stone and Creem, is regarded as the pioneering magazine of rock journalism.]
While they may not admit it, Rolling Stone greatly influenced NME, Sounds, Creem and so on.
Absolutely. One cannot overestimate the ripple effect, the importance of that magazine. The quality of the writers that Jann Wenner pulled into that publication was amazing. It is still phenomenal. It’s the greatest pop and rock cultural organ ever created.
After Rolling Stone came along, there were Richard Goldstein and Robert Christgau writing in the Village Voice; Jon Landau in The Boston Phoenix; and such influential British publications as Zig Zag, and Let it Rock emerged.
And that was my way in for sure. My own epiphany was in about ’72 or ‘73 when I became a fully-fledged consumer of pop. We couldn’t easily lay our hands on things like Rolling Stone let alone Crawdaddy!
So I started off with the weeklies (Melody Maker, NME and Sounds).
The first inkling that I got that you could write intelligently about pop culture, and all sorts of thing could be addressed and written about intelligently, was through Let It Rock.
Let It Rock was particularly interesting to me. I loved Zig Zag because I was knee-deep in a very West Coast phase, and then plunging into (music by) the Grateful Dead, and the Quicksilver Messenger Service and David Ackles and all that sort of stuff. But it was Let It Rock that then opened everything out, saying, “Look we can have a piece here about the Grateful Dead or Steely Dan, but we are also going to have quite a big piece here by Phil Hardy on Ricky Nelson.
There was a real sense of…maybe, scholarship is lightly overstating it, but I felt I began to start to see how rich the history of pop music already was and began to understand about doo wop, blues and western swing. All of this stuff found itself in Let It Rock. Zig Zag was more esoteric. It was like Arthur Lee or Phil Lesh every other issue. It was very California centric.
Charlie Gillett, who wrote “Sound Of The City,” one of the most important books about popular music ever, was a contributor to Let It Rock.
“Sound Of The City” (in 1970) was my Bible. It was absolutely my Bible. That is how I grasped the rudiment of the American pop industry. (Learned) how the record companies had worked. Learned about Atlantic Records, and (producer) Huey P. Meaux and all of it. It was extraordinary. One of the loveliest things we have in Rock's Backpages is an audio of Charlie doing interviews for that book with people like Ahmet (Ertegun). There’s quite a long interview with Ahmet talking about Ruth Brown, Ray Charles and Herb Abramson, his original partner in Atlantic, talking about the formation of Atlantic.
While primarily known as a radio host in Britain, John Peel wrote columns for Disc & Music Echo, and the International Times. He was so very influential at the time.
Yes, indeed. He was hugely important to me. I know he wrote stuff and I read stuff occasionally. He wrote in Gandalf's Garden (a short-lived British magazine in 1968 and 1969 that emphasized the more mystical side of the hippie movement) and things like that.
Outside of just the immediate area of rock journalism per se, obviously Peel was a conduit for so much. There was rarely an evening that went by without my ear pressed to the transistor radio to hear his show that started at 10 o’clock. That was just an introduction to so many different things. It was very eclectic. One assumes it was all denim-and-jeans music, and polytechnic progressive rock but, of course, he was playing a little bit of everything. He was very open, and receptive to all sorts of music.
Ralph Gleason as columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle, and as founding editor of Rolling Stone, played a similar role in America.
Absolutely. Yes, we must not miss his name.
Jon Landau's article in The Real Paper in 1974, where he claimed "I saw rock and roll's future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen”; followed by his subsequent transition from rock critic to producer and manager; led to some critics saying, “See how important we are. We broke Bruce Springsteen.”
Certainly, the Landau article was unique in American pop music writing.
It certainly was but, of course, the timing was right. We did need a future of rock and roll at that point. And America rock and roll needed Bruce Springsteen. It might have been somebody else.
Around the same time, Robert Christgau in the Village Voice wrote about the “Rock-Critic Establishment” somewhat suggesting that the rock critics were as important as the acts. Pretty damn pretentious.
I think that you are probably right. The sort of symbiotic relationship between bands and writers has always been central to the whole discourse, and the whole culture. But any writer must know that he can’t be as important as the act because the act is the chicken that comes before the egg. Without the act, you probably have nothing to write about.
A different time when many writers were close to the artists that they were covering.
I think that there was more symbiosis between writers and artists at that time. It was a more of a closer community. As we all know, there is not the same access today. There are all these layers between the writer, and the artist. Everything is so sort of PR-spun and controlled now. I think that one of the joys exhuming much of what we put on Rock’s Backpages is that there was then a sense that a writer could kind of burrow into the milieu; be there; be in the dressing room; and almost be kind of an adjunct to the band. You got a kind of fly-on-the wall reportage then that you rarely ever get these days and isn’t really required or demanded or even seen as necessarily desirable.
It was as if the journalists were embedded in artists’ careers.
Exactly. There was an embeddedness.
Also such rock stars as Patti Smith, and Chrissie Hynde started off as journalists.
There is a whole list. There is a parallel is there not, with the Cahier du cinéma (the French New Wave) with (directors) Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, François Truffaut and others (that began as critics for the famous film magazine Cahiers du cinéma)?
Nouveau vague came out of an elegant critical stance. It is generally a fascinating area to explore in all of the arts, that relationship. When the critic, when the commentator steps into the arena, and risks becoming an artist themselves. There are a lot of examples in rock. Then there’s Lenny Kaye who has done both. He’s done both (careers) in parallel for many years. I imagine in his mind that he’s probably 50% Patti Smith’s guitarist; and 50% Lenny Kaye, the writer.
Bob Geldof wrote for the weekly publication Georgia Straight in Vancouver.
Bob Geldof? Did he? That I didn’t know. I knew that Bob did some rock journalism but I didn’t know he had done some work for the Georgia Straight. Who knows? Maybe we can persuade Bob to have some of those pieces.
[In the mid ‘70s, Bob Geldof came to Vancouver looking for work. According to “The Last Streetfighter,” a 1999 documentary by Tony Wade on the history of the Georgia Straight, Geldof was hired by publisher Dan McLeod for a job in distribution, stripping the covers off magazines.
Geldof soon made his way into the editorial side of publication where he wrote, photographed, and edited. Returning to Ireland in 1975, Geldof joined a band called the Nightlife Thugs which became the Boomtown Rats.
Another contributor to the Georgia Straight in the early 1970s was Courtney Love’s father, author Hank Harrison.]
Where are you from originally?
London-born, bred and educated. My parents had a cottage in Suffolk which is a couple of hours out of London. I spent time there listening to a lot of records, and had a lot of fantasies about pop music out in the back of the American beyond.
Considering that you were already interested in a career writing about rock music, was studying English literature at Oxford stifling?
Yeah, it was a slightly schizophrenic time for me. I had one foot planted analyzing the poetry of W.B. Yeats and another foot planted in fantasies of degenerate rock and roll. Around that time I became very obsessed with America. All aspects of American pop culture. I went to New York in ’77 for the first time and went back every year, really.
If you were studying English literature, what were you intending to do in life?
I don’t really know. I was ill-prepared to go out into the real world from university. It came as a bit of a shock to me. I thought that I would coast into something. I knew that I wanted to write and/or be a film maker or something. I knew that I loved music, and I knew that I wanted to write. I sort of got a break through Davitt Sigerson who was a friend of a friend. I was in New York in 1979, and he said, “When you go back to London, see Richard Williams at Melody Maker. So I did some things for Melody Maker.
[Journalist and author Davitt Sigerson was president of Polydor Records in 1991; president of EMI and Chrysalis Records in 1994; and chairman of Island Records from 1998 to 1999.]
You were in America researching a book, “The Cult of Pop.”
Yes, in fact, I was there reading and buying books at Strand Books. Extensively researching this ridiculous book. I was beyond pretentious. I didn’t really have an idea or a clue of how to write or put a book together. I had some bizarre thesis about pop and what it meant in terms of everything from Warhol to Bacharach. It never got done, but it was something that I was able to use as a calling card. Eventually, it got me into NME. It ended up on the desk there of a guy there who kindly commissioned me to do reviews and that led to interviews. That was Phil McNeill.
What had happened at Melody Maker?
I did some things for Melody Maker in 1980, and then they went on strike. I came down from Oxford thinking that there might be a gig for me and they all had walked out. Then it took a few months for me to get my foot in the door at NME. My unfinished manuscript wound up on the desk of Phil who sent me to review Adam and the Ants which were just about to explode, Top of the Pop, fantastically.
What was your first impression of New York?
Oh, I was just thrilled and terrified in about equal measure. In terms of sensory overload, it was everything that I had anticipated and more. I suppose that I have never quite got over the shock of that. It still shocks me as a place whenever I go there. It is just so off the scale of humanity. (When I first went there) you were in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” The moment you got in the taxi at the airport you were just in (Robert) De Niro’s head. It was fantastic.
New York is not a place that I am ever going to have an easy relationship with but like everybody here (in the UK), I was infatuated with the idea of New York. That’s everything from The Brill Building via Phil Spector through to the New York Dolls and Television and all of that.
You hung out at CBGBs?
Absolutely. I went to New York every year from about ’77 on.
Did you then get to know American writers like Robert Christgau and Lenny Kaye?
That came a little bit later. I made contact with those people significantly later when we were starting RockBack Pages. When I was working for Mojo as their correspondent in the second half of the ‘90s, I made connections with a number of New York writers. I was living up in Woodstock, and I was often coming into the city and meeting people like David Fricke, Anthony DeCurtis, Lenny Kaye and Bill Flanagan.
Do writers represented in Rock's Backpages have full access to the site?
Absolutely. We made that decision very early on. It’s the principal perk of the job. You don‘t have to do anything (to assign articles). We will do all of the hard work. If you want to assist us and send up photocopies and so forth, great; but the moment that you have Rock's Backpages, you get the rest of the site.
We will try and make you money as we go along. We will license articles, and you will get 50%. You will make some money out of subscriptions over the course of time, but that’s slow. I like to think that is a no lose situation for a writer because they get all of their (articles) organized in a nicely navigable way. If it is sitting in their cuttings book or in the attic, it’s achieving nothing for them.
Rock's Backpages recently entered the e-publishing field.
We just started dipping a toe in the waters of publishing. It’s early days. We saw that having established ourselves as principal repository for digitalized classic rock writing that it might be nice to do publishing; to bring back outstanding music titles that have been out of print for years. We have just started that. We are anthologizing some of the pieces on Rock's Backpages like Dylan, and Nirvana. The jury is out. This is really long tail economics. We’ve done alright with the Dylan book (“The Bob Dylan Electric Omnibus”) but it’s really about getting the word out there. We are on Amazon and we are looking at different channels to market and distribute e-Books. I don’t know how many of these we are going to do.
There are also now audio interviews available.
We have also have some of our audio interviews as a download product on Amazon. We have over 300 audio interviews of admittedly variable quality, but some of these are very good quality. The jewel in that crown is the very last interview that Jimi Hendrix gave, about a week before his death which was recorded on a reel-to-reel by Keith Altham. That is obviously unique, and fascinating. We have interviews with Marc Bolan and Mick Jagger and we are just about to add a Kurt Cobiain interview with Jon Savage from ’93.
People seem to like this. For students, it’s like going even deeper. We offer something that is an auxiliary resource. It’s not a primary resource like the Grove Encyclopedia of Music, but it’s very useful adjunct for students who want to go deeper; who are prepared to find out what these artists were really saying and what was going on. To actually hear Hendrix speaking in 1970 or Mick Jagger talking in 1973 in some length, this seems to be very popular with the librarians and the electronic resources people. They see it as a great enhancement of the existing library.
Do you have another book coming?
I do. I recently finished a fairly large oral history of Led Zeppelin called “Trampled Underfoot” that will be published next year.
How do you balance the time?
It is very hard. I’ve been lucky. I started doing books early on, and I have been able, thus far, to parlay that into a reasonable living. I have been able to juggle Rock's Backpages with books. But the future is always uncertain. The whole publishing climate, of course, has changed dramatically.
In what way?
Put it like this. I got what I would say was—and this is conjecture—the last decent advance three years ago that I might ever get for a non-fiction book. It enabled me to do well over 150 interviews for this Zeppelin book. It is a big book. It took a lot of work. A lot of research. I simply could not have done it without that advance. If I was attempting to pitch something like that now, what sort of money could I expect? What is the future of non-fiction research at a time when publishers are slashing their costs and laying off people, and running scared in the new world of Kindle? They really do not know what to do. It is frightening.
Publishing has changed that much in three years?
I think that it is changing pretty dramatically. It really is. I fear for the future for non-fiction research. If people are not going to be able to spend two or three years doing hardcore research on something, what kind of books are we going to get? The only people who are going to be able to write or finance their research are people who already have enough royalties coming in from previously published books to plough back into what they are doing now.
Or who are fans.
Of course, fans. But, you and I both know, that mere fandom doesn’t necessarily qualify you (as a writer). Let’s be frank about it. Not a lot of those people can write very compellingly. They may assemble facts—all the facts that you ever want to read—but it doesn’t mean that they create an experience that works for the reader.
There is Continuum Books’ 33 1/3 series written about individual albums.
Oh, they are great. I am a huge fan of those. I know they (Continuum) don’t pay a lot, but they pay something upfront. I’m a big fan of that series. I have read a number of the books. They reflect a continuing interest in a time when the album was almost analogous to a novel—that it tells some kind of story.
The most extraordinary Continuum music book I’ve read is the (2005) book about the “Music from Big Pink”) by this Scottish writer John Niven. It is done as a novella and is one of the most startling explorations about life in Woodstock where I lived. It’s really an astounding sleight of hand. I read it, and I thought, “Who is this guy? “How did he know that Woodstock was like this?” He writes about what really went on behind bucolic surface of the Band, and the sort of burnt-out hippies in the Catskills. That‘s a fantastic example of what music writing could be and can still be.
Woodstock is something that you know about from writing “Across The Great Divide: The Band & America” in the early ‘90s.
I certainly caught the tail-end of that (burnt-out hippie era). There were a few of them lurking around. (Writing the book) is what took me to Woodstock, and I left a piece of my heart there. I don’t miss the commoditization of tie-dye, T-shirt culture; but I miss the beauty of the place; and the surrounding landscape. All of that.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”