From Bey to Prince to Mariah, Sylvia Patterson's quizzed them all and navigated some dicey waters. She talks frankly here, plus read an exclusive extract from her book.
Sylvia Patterson, left, with Jarvis Cocker. All photos courtesy of the author.
“I'm just going to walk to my window to shut the bloody traffic out!” says Sylvia Patterson, over the phone, from the house in London. It’s a spot she managed to buy with inheritance money, having spent most of her days living hand-to-mouth—just one aspect of her life which she shares in her first book, the brazenly titled I'm Not with the Band: A Writers Life Lost in Music. Patterson, if you're not familiar, is (and listen this isn't supposed to read like a press release it's just fact so shush your mouth and trust me) one of Britain's #GOAT music writers. It's taken her 30 years of rock 'n' roll trench warfare to believe she has something worth saying. Spoiler: she does. And, oh that she'd have done this sooner, I might have read it as a warning sign and never embarked upon this treacherous path. Assertions that she once hadn't had a day off in over 10 years, or that there were times when she simply “cared too much” resonate in both frightening and comforting ways. Like rock 'n' roll itself, to say that music journalism is a career is a myth, and in I'm Not With The Band there's a Bible to collect its teachings.
Here Patterson tells the tragic story of music journalism over the past three decades at legendary (legendary like The Beatles, not “legendary” like Richard Ashcroft) publications (note: not “brands” for Pete Doherty's sake) such as Smash Hits (RIP), The Face (RIP), The NME (RI-Free!), and Glamour and Q too, via the personal history of a defiant cultural commentator who refused to be told what to think and how to write it all down. It contains interviews—nay joustings—with some of the world's biggest entertainers (dead and still-breathing), including Johnny Cash, Beyoncé, Madonna, Oasis, Led Zeppelin, Prince, Amy Winehouse, Adele, U2, and George Michael. Patterson has lived through the eras, from the days when you had free reign to write whatever piffle you wanted—even make up words (Imagine! Having some fun with grammar, without having to be ZaYn MALik!)—to an age where controversy rules, social media polices your every assertion, and subsequently the relationship between writers and bands has become a nightmare war of attrition, as opposed to a harmless slanging-match, or sometimes even, WTF!, a friendship.
Patterson documents the light, the dark, and the really dark. She writes about her alcoholic mother, her own miscarriages, shady dudes, silly adventures abroad (Jamaica with the Happy Mondays, brace yourselves), and the premature death of a beloved peer. Not to mention the near loss of her own arm, a sacrifice she's made to teach all who haven't already realized that a music festival, plus molly, plus VICE’s Andy Capper do not a safe space create.
It's all gloriously here. So too is the time she tried to follow-up on an interview with Simply Red's Mick Hucknall by personally traveling across country to deliver a copy of the printed article to her crush herself (“Stars” might be a tune but seriously Sylvia what were you thinking?).
It's a hoot, as funny as it is depressingly bleak. Little wonder Patterson's a Pulp fan. As someone who used to work as a sub-editor at Q Magazine where Patterson still contributes (I was there from 2008-2012: Beady Eye, and the Arctic Monkeys Suck It And See years), after which I then ran away to her former alma mater the NME (2012-2014: Noel Gallagher solo and the Arctic Monkeys AM years), I was only too happy to pick her brains about the whole thing…
Noisey: I absolutely adore your book, Sylvia. Bravo.
Sylvia: Blimey, it seems to have meant a lot to music journalists of your generation. It's interesting to me that you guys are all in agreement with a lot of it. You weren't even there in the olden days!
Who was the first band you ever interviewed?
Alien Sex Fiend was the very first proper print interview for the dreadful Etcetra magazine. I was so terrified I drank two pints of Carlsberg Special with lime before I went into some Student Union. They were incredibly rude to me. I had to ask all these Smash Hits-esque questions. Nick Fiend took my piece of paper off me, and read out the list, which included 'Is your flat clean?' He thought it was pathetic. And he was one of my heroes!”
The title sets the tone for the book—you're not on-side with the stars…
Hahahaha! It really does. It's 30 years next year since Pamela Des Barres' book I'm With The Band. Around about 2001, I fell out with the NME because everything was starting to turn to shit, and I had an idea for a book called exactly that, being the counter of how things were in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. I went to see a publisher who looked at me like I was mad and told me I'd have to write about myself, which I was never gonna do. “Go away and write a book about growing up in the 80s in Scotland.” I said, “No chance!”
What changed and suddenly made you comfortable to write your own story?
In 2014 the time was right. Things had got colossally more grim. I was willing to weave myself in, my family gave me their blessing and I just thought— “What are you so frightened of?” It's just reality. People who are severely obsessional music types tend to be running away into the world; cracked backgrounds all over the place. We're geeks for a start. The public have an idea that it's non-stop glamour, that we are privileged. I wanted to say, “Nah, it's not like that!” If you're gonna choose this precarious profession then you have to be prepared for chaos. Because that's what it is.
Indeed, it's bonkers. What are some of the things you wish you knew in advance of it all?
If I'd have known what was coming I'd have never have done it! Bloody kaleidoscope of insanity? No way! It's a cautionary tale. Would I have been put off? I wouldn't have believed it. It's quite important to be naïve and to allow these chaotic things to happen to you because life is like that for everyone. Any career could end up going down several different wrong cul de sacs.
Music means everything to me. Why do you think it can be such an addiction, so much so that it takes precedence over having a “normal life”?
Well, music flamed in me to an almost psychotic level. I remember being in a dodgy flat in Dundee, absolutely skint. We were listening to Annie Nightingale on Radio 1. She was talking about the Sisters of Mercy playing and I couldn't go. I picked up this radio and I smashed it against the wall! It was the absolute epicenter of everything. We're colossal romantics, very idealistic, and quite highly strung, aren't we? Music gave me my new family, it gave me my world view. I listened to John Peel and that was university for me. Flash-forward to the part of the book where I'm writing my resignation to NME and I was still like that at the age of 36. That is insane!”
Your NME resignation letter is quite something—you wrote that you considered it to be “The End,” that the magazine had lost its sense of direction and that it was having an “identity crisis.” I wonder whether the problems facing print press always existed. Obviously they're worsened by the fact half-a-million people don't buy their choice mag now, but some debates were always there: who's the reader, what should be on the cover etc? Every year another beloved title folds…
Absolutely. In some ways, I feel that I haven't gone far enough in this book because of some of the horror stories I've heard from people of your generation. It's worse. Whether it's writing tabloid nonsense or having zero freedom to do anything creative, it's staggering to me. It's not doing the bands any good, nor the publications any good. The mags are still hurtling towards The Dumper. VICE and Noisey are getting it right, engaging with the world, but not the print press. Why? Where are all the clever people? Editors only care about appeasing their masters. That's not the spirit!
In the book you write almost apologetically that you cared too much. To me it's the music lovers who should be leading the charge…
It's the accountants and the bean counters making all the decisions, and that goes for just about everybody that works in the arts. It's just one bottom line. I worked for The Face, for example. That magazine didn't exist to make money, per se. That magazine existed to pioneer and lead culture as well as to reflect it. The minute The Face became about the money they put David Beckham on the cover and it didn't work because, hey waddyaknow, the readers of The Face aren't interested in a celebrity like him. So it folded.
The rock stars themselves seem to be as much to blame. You portray Ed Sheeran as meticulously business conscious in the book. Corporate entities fronting as rock stars…
It's true. Ed Sheeran felt sorry for me in my idealistic old school way. Rock stars actually want to be involved in business now. I don't understand it. They want to know all about numbers for everything, and to be any other way they think is a mug's game. They don't want the chaos of letting go of the reins, living for the day and dreaming. You know, perhaps they have to be vigilant about making money because there isn't any about!”
Well, the pressure of trying to be successful in music now is higher than ever. Do you think that's what's fundamentally changed the relationship between journalists and musicians, too? Our autonomy is a threat to a business model now, not just a rock star's ego?
We are not trusted on any level. I have lost count of the amount of times that someone will say in an interview—“Oh well you just can't trust journalists, can you?” They come at you with a default position of immense suspicion. They know that whatever they say they're talking to the global microphone, and it's been that way for a long time, but it never used to be quite as negative. No matter what you write, there's a whole internet culture that guarantees everything to be taken out of context. Everything is sensationalist and negative and that means the relationship is now ruined. Someone like Beyonce – why would she ever do an interview again? She won't. She's not gonna want to have you walking into a room and asking – 'So whatdid happen in the lift that time with your sister and your husband and that bollocks? People want gossip now, not jokes. The jokes are gone!
The silliness does seem to have died, like the nicknaming you speak of. How Smash Hits would call A-Ha's frontman, “Morten 'Snorten Forten Horten' Harket.” Have the mags just lost confidence?
It wouldn't be allowed now. That language would be called incomprehensible. Everything is dumbed down. Nuanced ways of writing are not encouraged. One of the most important things about being a writer is your voice because otherwise what is the bloody point? When I think about the freedoms I had it's like a dream. That all started to go in the early 2000s. I was at the NME from 1994-2001. The first time I was ever briefed formally was in 2001, seven years into the game. Oasis hadn't done an interview together for five years—it was a big deal. I was taken for a briefing in the pub. Then 9/11 happened and the briefing went straight out the window. Who cares about “taking them to task” for Be Here Now? All through my NME years in the 90s I could do whatever I wanted. Completely unheard of now.
Considering you had that freedom, were there ever pieces you were scared of being printed?
Never! I've only ever tried to destroy someone's career once in my entire life. It was completely justified. Do I even wanna give him the oxygen?
Brian Molko from Placebo. The most condescending, creepy, paranoid, slippery goblin of a man. The bee in his bonnet all came from some NME review of one of Placebo's singles, which had been written by Daphne & Celeste. They commented on a photograph of him; “Who is this guy? He is ugly unto the realm of the beast.” He was convinced Daphne & Celeste had been forced to say this, that NME had it in for him. He was behaving like a 14-year-old boy. I just wrote it as it happened. Brian sacked his PR over it. Then the PR rang me up and thanked me! Hahahaha!
Brilliant. What other bits did you miss out?
There was a huge chapter all about Radiohead. I did a big Thom Yorke interview for NME, the first in five years, after Thom Yorke and NME had fallen out with each other. It was hilarious because he was slagging off all these readers who had written in to Angst (the NME letters page). He was so angry it tipped over into sheer hilarity. What a funny man. There was also a huge chapter about the tragic downfall of Evan Dando and Pete Doherty. Maybe I'll write the B-sides one day!
Are you encouraged to see more women in music journalism nowadays?
Well, I never felt like I was coming at anything from a female perspective. I was expected to do the comedy stuff. They'd send me off to interview the most serious people in the world to see if I could get some jokes going and it worked to my advantage. In as much as the boys could be very forensic, trainspotting types and still are, you'd find that women weren't as interested in being reviewers. There was one time when someone told me, “You only got the NME job because you're a girl,” which was incredibly rude. But other than that… Here's a massive namedrop for you. I went to interview Paul McCartney once and the first thing he said was, “Oh! I wasn't expecting a woman!” It was just his reaction, because—guess what?—most Beatles heads tend to be men.
Towards the end of the book there's a story about the fallout of an interview with Adele that exploded online. The tabloids focused on an in-jest quote about how her tax bill was so high she was “ready to go'n buy a gun and randomnly open fire with my eye closed.” Do you think that musicians have a right to be more paranoid about what they say these days?
Social media means they're constantly attacked. Fame has become hell. If you're creative you tend to be sensitive. The joy has gone for the pop stars. Lily Allen once told me that the negativity becomes unbearable. Bricks come flying through your window and people can be awful. Just attack attack attack! What happened to Adele—afterwards people wrote these reactionary pieces about “fat ginger crooner Adele who says she's going to buy a gun…” What would be the purpose of those pieces? That's just incredibly rude. And the pop stars are just expected to take it.
Do you think cultural commentary is still important?
Oh it always has to be. Whether it's actually able to be as truthful as it was is debatable. The young are interested in their culture. Debates are happening everywhere. It should be the most vibrant time for commentary, but it's stifled by fear and that's the most spectacular and tragic irony of our times. Keep fighting for the freedom. It's worth it. You guys are in control now, so fight the fucking power, man. Here's to the right! Fuck the wrong! That's what Stuart Braithwaite from Mogwai once said—and I'm standing by that statement.
Do you still believe in heroes?
Yes! We're human beings, it's been in us since the Incas. We're inspired by extraordinary humans who live among us and give us templates to build our own ideas and passions. That will never die. I hope that the cynical times don't ruin that; that people just don't want to tear people down. These are humans who do extraordinary things. They make truly incredible contributions to the sum of human happiness through phenomenal music that touches us all.
Will Oasis reform?
Ahahahaha! I wouldn't bet ma house on it!
And a Smash Hits question from the old biscuit tin… Do you like sardines?
Sylvia: “Hmm. Bit fishy. I'm more of a mackerel woman! Ha!”
In this extract Sylvia—who was a ginormous Joy Division fan since her teens—has been dispatched to LA in the summer of 1986 to interview New Order for cheeky pop bi-weekly Smash Hits. The plan was to drive from LA to Santa Barbara to watch the show and then head up to San Francisco with them the following day. But her assignment didn’t go as planned. By this point the band barely ever gave interviews and frontman Bernard Sumner was in no mood to play ball. In fact the first words out of the then 30 year old’s mouth to young Sylvia were: ‘Ask us anything horrible and we’ll break yor fookin’ legs.’ Below in an abridged extract from I’m not with the Band, is what followed this opening gambit.
‘Ooooh, this is my third hangover today,’ he drawled, in the detached Mancunian way. ‘And I’ve been sick.’
Me, in cheery voice: What were you up to last night?
‘Oh, we write our lyrics in the middle of the night.’
He turned back to his journal and ignored us, exchanging derisive snorts with nearby bassist ‘Hooky’, instantly confirming their legendarily ‘uncooperative’ ways.
Next morning, as New Order prepared to drive to Santa Barbara, we found Barney with a breakfast bagel by the pool of our hotel and duly sidled up. Accompanying him/them on the drive would, surely, be the obvious interview opportunity? ‘No,’ he dismissed behind his shades, ‘because there’s no room for you in the car.’
Soon, at the venue, we’d be further ignored before soundcheck, see their show, and eventually loiter around their dressing room, which was buoyantly fizzing with an opportunistic coterie of undeniably Foxy Ladies. ‘I didn’t ask them back,’ sniffed Barney, snatching my Sony Walkman tape recorder and switching it off. ‘I don’t want you going on about the girls, it’s nothing to do with me, I didn’t let them in.’
Eventually, around midnight, he conceded to an interview in my chalet back at the Sunset Marquis, a hush-toned, cynical affair, mostly about his aversion to fame. After forty minutes he sloped away to a party in the chalet next door.
Around 3 a.m. your somehow genuinely startled pop reporter was stirred awake by the unmistakable sound of a rock star having sex with two groupies, as was clearly audible the moment I placed a bathroom glass to my chalet wall and strained for the very best listen. The next morning, with Barney gone, I heard the girls giggling and knocked on their door, was invited in by two gothy late teenagers, and interviewed the pair for a lark – none of which could be printed.
In October 1986 the Smash Hits article appeared with the headline: ‘Ask us anything horrible and we’ll break your legs!’ Its ‘highlights’ included Barney Sumner’s loathing of clichéd rock ’n’ roll behaviour (‘I could have milk bottles full of drugs, warehouses full of women, but do too much of anything and it’ll do your head in’), his refusal to confirm he had a girlfriend back home (‘that’s my private life and I’m going to keep it that way’), and a psychedelic meander on how reading a Huckleberry Hound book aged ten convinced him to never work for The Man (fair enough). The story also comprised the ‘comedy’ tale of the thwarted reporting the Smash Hits two had endured, featuring some blaring innuendo concerning our foxy young friends. ‘Ten minutes later,’ nudge-nudged the article, ‘some very un-male-like giggling can be heard resounding through the walls – is Barney having some very restless dreams? The next morning, two American foxtresses are spotted scurrying gleefully along the hotel balcony holding aloft a pair of very horrible shorts bearing a striking resemblance to Barney’s very own. How very very “strange”.’
I'm Not with the Band: A Writers Life Lost in Music is out now via Sphere.
Eve Barlow quite likes sardines, and despite all warning signs suggesting it's a very bad idea is going to continue being a music journalist. She's on Twitter