Book review: Rock Stars Stole My Life! by Mark Ellen


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The Independent Culture

Long before “tough love”, there was “tough fun”, rock festivals endured by the generations too young for conscription but who grew to maturity before the mobile phone could organise them. Floundering at some befouled Seventies mega-event, a young Mark Ellen was inspired to enlist in the music press after spotting a hack-infested compound which boasted “facilities”. On such whims are careers launched, although the decades he spent editing, sometimes founding, several hugely influential magazines are continuously understated in his memoir of a life spent as a music journalist, one of the unteachable in pursuit of the unquotable.

Unsurprisingly, it’s knowingly ridiculous, and very funny. Ellen, an instinctive master of the English middle-class self-deprecation that proved so successful at Smash Hits and Q, has always had an eye for the absurd. During his days as a freelance at NME, he saw the editor, Neil Spencer, demonstrate his perfect white-rasta patois by announcing “I an I step out feh sandwich”. (Spencer was later appointed The Observer’s astrologer. Feh real.) When Ellen becomes a presenter of the revived Old Grey Whistle Test, a rumour circulates among his old schoolmates that he secured the job after “he dropped his trousers for Elton John!”.

He’s barely surprised. Such misapprehension is apparently as normal for boarding school men as the unusual career path of the singer of his college covers band, although Tony Blair’s incursion into the author’s youth is deemed unworthy of a mention on the jacket. Blair was always fated to go far, what with his fancy ideas about “rehearsing” and “promotion”. Whether he got Ellen’s vote remains unrevealed.

The author’s own steely enthusiasm was better suited to pop life than mere politics, where valuing novelty over substance does lasting harm. Eventually, a new generation of corporate suits sucked the fun out of periodical publishing, so Ellen and David Hepworth founded Word, a spirited attempt to provide something worth reading. Their gamble that its audience would prefer the opinions of name writers to hearing directly from their subjects proved unsustainable.

The title is a misnomer though. It was the invention of modern celebrity culture that stole the life of a man who started out when pop media consisted of news print, records, and their sleeves. By the time Ellen finds himself on a 777 jet dragging Rihanna around the world, he’s well aware that should it disappear from the radar the world would carry on regardless. This is the story of Sisyphus in reverse, chasing a snowball of trivia down an endless slope, thankfully told by someone who doesn’t regret a minute of it.