Remembering a life in rock in the pages of a magazine

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Former editor of The Word, Mark Ellen talks to Duncan Seaman about his music memoir Rock Stars Stole My Life.

A CHILD of the Sixties, Mark Ellen grew up in a house with three older sisters infatuated with pop music.

It was, he admits, “an incredible central plank to my appreciation of music” and shaped the way he was later to write about it in magazines such as the NME, Smash Hits, Q, Mojo and The Word.

When he worked at the NME in the late 1970s, he struggled to fit in with “a male preserve where everyone was obsessed with the folklore of music”. As pop became all-pervasive in the 80s, he edited Smash Hits and could often be found “hunched over a light box” looking at photographic transparencies of groups “trying to decide which one was the hunk”.

“I was well equipped to do that growing up in an all-girl household.”

At the age of nine Ellen’s favourite band had been The Kinks – principally because their guitarist Dave Davies was “a flamboyant character who had the longest male hair in Britain”. His father, a former paratrooper who had lost a leg fighting in Normandy, strongly disapproved. “He thought they were appalling poppinjays, preening gadflies. He’d fought in the Second World War, he did not think he’d fought it for buffoons like this.”

Yet Ellen was undeterred. By the turn of the 70s while at Oxford University he played bass in the band Ugly Rumours, then fronted by a young Tony Blair.

The future Prime Minister may not have had a fantastic voice, Ellen says, but he was “a terrific showman. Ellen soon realised he was never going to be a rock star himself – the only songs he’s written were “absolute drivel” – but, as music was “something I was passionately excited about”, he wanted to write about it instead. Thus began months of bombarding magazines with reviews.

Eventually Record Mirror gave him a chance – reviewing the then hot new band Elvis Costello and the Attractions. At the end of the show Ellen was physically accosted by Costello’s manager Jake Riviera who, unbeknown to the writer, had a beef with the magazine. At the time, Ellen admits, it was frightening but in retrospect he realises “to have had your head smashed against a wall for Record Mirror did me a favour”. He immediately cut his hair and got rid of his green velvet jacket. Soon afterwards he joined the NME but struggled with the factionalism in the office and the failure of some to realise the album-based music world they wrote about was “going through a terrible spiralling decline”. Ellen jumped ship to Smash Hits, where the outlook was considerably sunnier.

“The NME would ask questions that had no right answer – even about groups they liked,” Ellen recalls, “at Smash Hits we invented questions that had no wrong answer like ‘What colour is Tuesday?’ It could lead to revealing answers often.”

In the following years he went on to launch the likes of Q, Mojo and the much-loved The Word, as well as present The Old Grey Whistle Test and, famously in 1985, Live Aid (“It was completely terrifying,” he remembers of a broadcast that ballooned in scale. As he handed over to Chevy Chase and Jack Nicholson for the American leg, he remembers thinking “How did this happen? I’m introducing them over here? What went wrong?”)

The closure of The Word in 2012 may have hurt but Ellen remains proud of its considerable achievements over 10 years. He’s been reminded of them recently while writing his memoir, Rock Stars Stole My Life.

“It was interesting to go back and look at those magazines. Even if you did not like any of the acts on the cover you would still buy then and they would keep you entertained and amused.”