Please give us a ‘summary CV’ of your writing career and highlights.
I fell into writing by accident. Ever since I was very young and obsessed by songs such as How Much Is That Doggy In The Window? music has been my main obsession. My father played piano in the local working men’s club and bought me a toy one, and one day introduced me to the drummer there, Jeff, who played a red sparkle kit and gave me a pair of drum sticks. Years later, my Mum bought me a small kit to go with the sticks and a few years after that I started playing in bands. That was my main goal, really, although somehow I ended up doing a degree in economics and politics. I spent most of my student grant on a bigger kit and missed lectures owing to rehearsing with the band. After graduating I found myself virtually unemployable, not least because at interviews most prospective employers seemed to suss out that my dream job was playing drums in New Order, rather than working for them. The dream job never became available – it still isn’t, although when Steve Morris finally steps down I will of course be putting myself forward. In the end a mate of mine said, “Look, all you’re interested in is music. Why don’t you write about music?” It was glaringly obvious that he was right, but it had never crossed my mind. When I grew up reading NME, I was interested in the bands, not the bylines. However, I gave it a go and after a stream of reviews were rejected by NME I found myself getting one published in Melody Maker. I wrote the odd piece for other magazines as well, but MM proved a primary outlet for the best part of a decade. I wrote my first live review for the Guardian around 1995 or so and have written for them ever since, regularly since 1999. I’ve interviewed the likes of Robbie Williams, Roger Daltrey and Bryan Ferry and have had escapades ranging from watching UFOs in the Nevada Desert to seeing the band I was writing about carted off by soldiers in Pakistan. I wrote The Fallen – Life In And Out Of Britain’s Most Insane Group about exactly that and The Last Champions – Leeds United and the Year Football Changed Forever about the 1992 title winning LUFC side and the fateful last few weeks before the arrival of the Premiership would start to transform the game beyond recognition.
I can’t say there’s never been a dull moment along the way because there’s been plenty, but it’s been a rollercoaster ride and is clearly what I always wanted to do, even though I didn’t know it.
What’s your official job title, if you have one? I always feel slightly uneasy calling myself a writer, but IS what I do for a (near) living after all.
The Guardian website calls me a “music critic”, which doesn’t really cover everything I do but I’ll take it.
What, in addition to your ‘day job’ (which is what exactly?) are you working on at the moment?
I have two day jobs now, really. After over 20 years as a purely freelance/contracted journalist, I was asked to fill in when someone left at Huddersfield University, lecturing in music journalism. I had never lectured or taught before in my life but found it very rewarding, and by way of various twists have ended up doing it part time, for half the year. It’s true that teaching (and marking, and prep, and the requirement to study for various qualifications) takes over your life and I do miss the more freewheeling life I had before. I barely have time for anything now. On the other hand I’ve discovered I really like working with young people. Nobody ever taught me to write – my “education” was writing essays etc. for my degree, being very good at English from an early age and seeing countless gigs from my mid-teens on. I always try and stress to students that the course is just a part of it: character and gumption are things you can’t teach and I think you need an element of obsession to be a writer.
How are sales for The Fallen and for The Last Champions? Did you enjoy writing one more than the other? I know you are a devout Leeds fan but are The Fall your favourite band or was it more a case of them being a bloody fascinating subject to write about more than loving their music?
The Fallen was very well-received and did really well in music book terms. The Fall aren’t my favourite band but always in the top three or four offer such dynamite material for a writer. I wrote the book by accident after interviewing Mark E. Smith for the Guardian and the paper asking for one or two of his old musicians to talk about the singer. “One or two” became an 18 month mad odyssey that ended with me outside what may or may not have been the terraced house of a drummer who left the Fall after an onstage punch up in 1998. At one point, The Fallen was outselling Cliff Richard’s new autobiography on Amazon so for that hour or so I could say I was “bigger than Cliff”!
The Last Champions sold mainly to the Leeds United hardcore, which was disappointing, to be honest, Rob, because it’s a story of heroism, dedication, sacrifice and the end of an era that I had hoped would cross over to the more general reader. JK Rowling needn’t have too many sleepless nights. Maybe some day someone will make a film of it and cast an appropriately gritty northerner in the role of Sergeant Wilko. It could be the football version of The Great Escape!
Do you set yourself a To Do list each year or half-year? And do you have a list of future projects? Let us know what they are too, if you’re willing to confide.
I’ve been telling myself to “get more organised” for as long as I can remember, but this job/life is usually more about flying everywhere by the seat of your pants. I rarely know what I’m doing more than two or three days in advance, which plays havoc with your social life. “What social life?” I hear my other half cry. This year, I’m hoping to finish my PGCHE teaching qualification course, start a PhD based on The Fallen (which means I will actually become a Doctor of the Fall) and play some gigs for the first time in years, with Refuel, a spiky, post-punk pop power trio with harmonies.
How the heck do you manage to fit all your writing duties in with having a domestic life?
Domestic life has suffered, unfortunately. If I am awake I am usually at work of some sort and I am forever trying to spend more time with my young son, but he’s a bit too young for gigs yet and recently told me to turn off the War on Drugs album so he could watch Thomas The Tank Engine. It’s a perennial struggle.
Any advice for aspiring journalists (music) or authors?
The best advice I was ever given was from James Brown (Loaded, LeedsLeedsLeeds etc.), who told me not to spread myself too thinly: find one publication you really like and write good copy for them. Nowadays we have the phenomenon of websites etc. who expect people to write for free, so I would tell people to by all means write a handful of such articles at the beginning, to build a portfolio, but no more. Otherwise you’ll probably find you’re only offered unpaid writing work because people know you’ll do it for nowt.
It’s an immense portfolio of interviewees in your two books so far, did you have any memorable incidents during the research/interview process? Is it hard work finding the leads and conducting the interviews?
I tracked down some 40-odd former Fall musicians for The Fallen and then some 20-odd Leeds players and staff for The Last Champions. Sitting in the living room of the last English manager to win the English title (with the club I’d supported since I was nine) was a surreal, pinch yourself moment. Similarly, I was very moved talking to ex-chairman Leslie Silver about his wartime past and hurtling around a Los Angeles golf course in a buggy driven by Vinnie Jones was like being in a Bond film, but with swear words. The unexpected thing about the interviews for The Last Champions was realising that they all had a fascinating story – whether it was John McClelland’s tales of growing up amid the Irish Troubles or Mick Whitlow’s story of being signed from non-League Witton Albion and winning a title medal with LUFC. These were ordinary but extraordinary men, who in turn came together under a very special manager to pull off a once in a lifetime feat: hauling themselves from near bottom of the second tier to win the English title in two and a half seasons is something I don’t think we will ever see again.
Please tell us your favourite books, films, plays, writers, music, HEROES etc., etc. What is it that you like about them?
All the Last Champions for the aforementioned reasons. My all time musical heroes are Joy Division, because seeing them at Leeds Futurama in 1979 (my first ever gig) taught me that music could be much more powerful than mere entertainment and in doing so changed my life. My favourite film is Twelve Angry Men, an old courtroom drama about overcoming injustice and prejudice which I first saw when I was on the dole in the 1980s. The message stuck with me: fight for what you believe in and be aware that there’s often a bigger picture and another story to the one which immediately meets the eye… Favourite books are stuff like George Orwell’s 1984 and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: all the cheery, comic stuff.
I’ve interviewed a lot of famous people and never been star-struck BUT if I ever meet one of my very early childhood heroes – the likes of Roy Wood from Wizzard or Slade’s Noddy Holder – I’ve immediately reverted to my gibbering nine year old self, staring at them like they have come from outer space. Which of course they must have: I mean, they never sold silver boots like that in Clark’s.
In your two capacities, as a FAN and as a writer, what are your views on the events and the characters bestowed on us at Leeds United. Please be as controversial as you like here, it is only opinion after all.
I don’t feel Leeds United is my club any more and I think a lot of fans feel that way at the moment. The last 12 years have seen it stripped of any semblance of a connection with the community. I went the other day to watch us lose to lowly Wigan and the place felt like a shell. I noticed that they’d put the price of coffee up again and cut the number of people selling it. Tiny details that tell the bigger story: mismanagement of epic proportions and people who have done very well financially from contributing to its decline. I miss the feeling of seeing Tony Currie swivel his beer belly to unleash a devastating 40-yarder or Chris Whyte and Fairclough marshalling the defence like a white shirted Maginot Line while the crowd sang “Sergeant Wilko’s barmy army.” They were magical times, when the whole city of Leeds felt properly United, rather than Damned.
What do you like or dislike about writing? Do you prefer words on paper or in e-form?
When Everett True told me that Melody Maker were publishing my review of Drug Free America at Leeds Warehouse in 1989 I was so excited I almost dropped the phone, and I’ve never lost that thrill of seeing something I have written appear in print (or, indeed, online). Ideally things will appear in both formats: I know people who only ever see my stuff if it’s in the printed paper that they buy from the corner shop. Most of my words are produced in a little room with a tree outside, and then fly around the world. It’s thrilling but also a bit scary when you start to think about that stuff, so I prefer to keep my focus on that tree.