'We are the super fans': Meet the devotees whose dedication harks back to more innocent times
They are adorned by tattoos... They have shrines full of memorabilia...Some even treasure the sweat of their pop-star heroes...
Sunday 06 May 2012
There's Spotify and YouTube. There's Twitter recommendations and blog aggregators. There's the annual "new big thing" hype parade and the ever-more-crowded festival season with its ever-more voluminous bills. Listening to music has never been such an easy and inclusive pastime – and if you want to show your appreciation for what you're listening to, then why not just hit that "like" button on your Facebook news feed?
But what about "loving" music? And by that we mean the kind of passion that is active, enduring and, most importantly, focused. After all, in the age of the iPod "shuffle", where we tend to pride ourselves on the diversity of our music tastes, for better or worse, the concept of ardent devotion to one choice act seems even more anachronistic than listening to an album from beginning to end. (OK, tweenie Beliebers with the lungs of gallstone-inflicted-howler monkeys excepted.)
All props, then, to those of us who are still prepared to take our fandom that extra mile. Extra mile, did we say? A whole marathon course, more like. Here, we profile "super-fans" of four of the acts set to dominate headlines over the summer. Not that all our subjects would necessarily warm to the moniker; but from fansites to scrapbooks and globe-trotting concert-going to multi-decade memorabilia collections, their extraordinary enthusiasms are clear to see.
James Harknett, 39, east London
"I HATE the word fan," says James Harknett, who'd rather be seen as a "Madonna expert". The spray-tan artist's affiliation to the Queen of Pop is, to be fair, a bit more evolved than the odd tour T-shirt: his home is a treasure trove of almost 10,000 pieces of Madge memorabilia, from magazines to film costumes to his most treasured possession: a bracelet she wore in the "Material Girl" video. Then there's the tattoo – an M embedded in the Kabbalah Tree of Life, a symbol from her 2001 Drowned World tour. "Not that I'm into Kabbalah at all," he says sheepishly. "I just thought the image was cool, and it's on the top of my arm, so [generally] you can't see it."
Harknett was a song-and-dance-obsessed 11-year-old living in East Anglia when the diva released her debut UK single "Holiday" in 1984. "It changed everything," he says, captivated as he was by her voice, "naughty" image and consummate performance. "I lived for the next single, the next video, the next photoshoot. I just wanted to have everything." And, thankfully for Harknett, Madge has provided the goods. "People talk about Madonna the marketeer, which is right," he says. "She's been very canny at licensing her image over the years, so there's a lot of amazing stuff." Harknett's husband is accommodating of the Madge mania, even if he doesn't share it. "He appreciates her music and fashion, but thinks she's an appalling person – a cold, ruthless, deluded bitch," he chuckles. "But if he despised her that much, he wouldn't be able to live with me."
But above all, the show's the thing: Harknett travels the globe to see the star and managed 18 dates of her "Sticky & Sweet" 2008 tour. He hopes to top even that at this year's world tour, though he says the Hyde Park gig on 17 July – her only date in this country – is the one "I'm not even really thinking about. It's too vast and the crowds in England aren't as good as in the States."
Though he has never formally met his idol, Harknett savours an "unguarded moment" he enjoyed with her as a guest at the London premiere of her directorial debut, the Wallis Simpson biopic WE. "I was in my seat and she walked in and stood nearby. When the lights went down, I gave her a round of applause and she came over and said, "Thank you."
And perhaps the ultimate proof of his loyalty to this VIP? "I think Swept Away was brilliant," he says.
Madonna begins her 2012 world tour in Israel on 29 May
The Stone Roses
Paul Stevens, 33, East Sussex
He wasn't at Spike Island and never made it to the Haçienda; hell, Stevens wasn't even aware of the Mancunian quartet when they launched into the rock stratosphere with their self-titled debut of 1990. Rather it was their notoriously difficult second album, 1994's Second Coming, which sparked the then-15-year-old's love for the band. "My friend David introduced me to it and we played it until [the tape] skipped. [David's] dad was a church minister, and one of my favourite memories is borrowing the keys to the church and playing it through the PA at full volume. It was all very biblical, perhaps a little sacrilegious, given songs such as "Breaking into Heaven", he chuckles. No sooner had Stevens started worshipping at the Roses altar, however, than they combusted amid intra-band feuding. "I remember when it was announced that [guitarist] John Squire had left. It was a pretty emotional day."
But Stevens wasn't about to let his passion wane, and decided to delve deep into the recesses of their back catalogue. Despite their meagre output, he now owns around 2,000 Stones-related records, while non-audible curios in his collection include a sherbet fountain emblazoned with the title of singer Ian Brown's 1999 solo single "Love Like a Fountain". "It's stowed in a plastic bag. You wouldn't want to get too near it."
Following the Roses has been more than an idle hobby for Stevens. Since 2002, he has set up a stable of Roses-related websites, a project which has helped him through hard times, including periods of unemployment and depression. Last year's reunion announcement also inspired him to crack on with a long-gestating book project, setting history about the band against his own experiences of their music, such as rediscovering Second Coming after meeting his now-wife Mel in 2007. "Being madly in love, in that first stage of romance, [I found] all these new meanings," he says.
Stevens plans to end the book at the point of this summer's Heaton Park gigs, with him watching "their triumphant comeback, fingers crossed". At which point, he also expects to experience some kind of closure on his years of devotion. "Maybe after this I can take a step back [from the websites] and concentrate on enjoying time with my young daughter."
The Stone Roses play Heaton Park, Manchester, from 29 June to 1 July
Sir Tom Jones
Ann Hughes, 70, North Wales
Ann Hughes has been happily married to her husband Daffyd for many decades, but that's not to say she hasn't been able to accommodate another man in her life. "Around town, people call out, 'Here she is, Mrs Jones,'" says the great-grandmother from Nefyn, Gwynedd, of her local renown as Wales's greatest fan of The Voice.
Greatest, and, surely, longest-running: she first clapped eyes on Jones in 1963 when he was frontman of beat group Tommy Scott and the Senators. "They had to take the microphone off him, because his voice was so powerful. I thought, 'Goodness me, he's too good to be here; we're going to be seeing a lot more of him.'"
And see a lot, lot more of him she did: more than 250 concerts and counting, though the stage-front regular can't choose a favourite. There was the London Palladium in 1965, where he wore a Wales cap she gave him; the Manchester Apollo in 1987, where he bent down and kissed her before declaring, "I hope my mother-in-law isn't here tonight"; and his 65th birthday concert, when he looked at her and said, "Thank you" after singing her favourite song "I'll Never Fall in Love Again". And has there been any knicker activity? "I've not thrown them at him – he doesn't like that," Hughes says sternly, "though I have held them up, and he's taken them off me, wiped his brow and given them back."
Said sweat-laurelled undergarments are now in her Tom Jones "shrine", a room devoted to her memorabilia. As well as all her LPs and tour programmes, Hughes' pieces include such rare items as a Tom Jones garter and a bust from Pontypridd's famous Groggs hand-sculpted figurines shop. There are also 45 signed photographs, though they're trickier to get hold of these days – something Hughes believes is down to his management being more interested in "the younger fans".
Still, that's in no way deterred her from championing the Welsh lothario: in 2001, she began a letter-writing campaign to get him a knighthood, which lasted till the government handed him one in 2006. She only hopes she can meet him properly one of these days. "To shake hands with him, perhaps have my photo taken with him, would be the icing on the cake." And if not, well, he's always there in spirit. "If it's a gloomy, rainy day, I'll go up [to my shrine], switch a record on, give Tom a dust, and say, 'You've done a good job on this, Tom.'"
Jones's new album, 'Spirit in the Room', is out on 21 May
Jessica Druett, 25, York
Last year sprang few greater musical surprises than Steps' comeback: just when the group seemed destined to be a garishly coloured footnote in 1990s pop-culture history, the newly reformed band stormed back into the limelight with a reality TV show and a greatest-hits album that got to number one. But perhaps it's always been easy to underestimate these avowedly uncool popsters, whose passionate fanbase includes restaurant duty manager Jessica Druett. Druett got into the band in 1998 when given their debut album for Christmas. Soon enough, singles and DVDs were collected, dance routines were learnt, and posters were plastered across bedroom walls. When the group split in 2002, she says, "It felt like part of my childhood had gone."
The one thing Druett didn't get to do first time around was see them live; now, though, she's determinedly making up for lost time by going to six dates on their new tour. When we speak, she is working hard on a scrapbook to present to them at the Manchester concert, comprised of photos and thank-you messages from members of the Ultimate Steps fan website. These fans have become just as important to Druett as the band themselves; over the past decade, she has developed online and offline friendships with fellow devotees from Birmingham to Scotland. Not that the world of Steps fandom is wholly sweetness and light, with debates kicking off on subjects such as the sound quality of the band's new live CDs. "But when we were teenagers, we definitely used to argue a lot more," she says. "I think all of us have grown up."
As Druett sees it, the band's continuing appeal lies in their "nostalgic, old-school vibe" and an unabashed sense of fun. Then, of course, there's the dancing. "In Newcastle, I turned around [to the audience] and got a great photo of everyone doing [the routine] for 'One for Sorrow'. There's something really cool about seeing all these people doing the same moves." As for her favourite member, she says it's Claire [far right in the picture], without a doubt. "A lot of the messages in the fanbook are for her, and I think that's because she's such an amazing role model. She's been up and down with everything, and has such an amazing voice. She [shows] you don't have to be skinny to do what you want in life."
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