Alex Ogg talks to John Robb – author, musician, journalist – about his new history of Manc-rock in a rocksbackpages exclusive.
It’s actually 25 years since I last interviewed John (then of the Membranes) for my fanzine. In subsequent years he has gone on to front Goldblade, write a series of books, and if there’s any music journalist extant who is more prolific, I don’t know of them.
This is your second oral history John following on from Punk Rock, but you’ve also written more conventional narrative-based books. What, to your mind, are the advantages and disadvantages of each approach? What are the nuances involved in building a quote-based book that maintains pace and development, etc?
What really works with an oral history is that you get closer to the truth; there is less of a temptation to rewrite the story to fit in with the linear, shrunken story. All music scene histories shrink as time goes on and are built around a handful of key events and bands, missing out on unlikely sources and personalities. An oral history opens these out again. It was important to get different voices into the narrative as these people often get ignored. I like the way it feels like you are in a room with all these voices telling you what happened. I think Manchester, like punk, suits oral history- the people are impassioned and great talkers and have a real sense of pop culture and their reasons for being involved. The drawback is that you have to try to fit these voices into some sort of narrative – you have to get the quotes into the right order to tell the story! I think the oral history paces itself though, and the storytellers have their own unique energy. The main disadvantage is that you become a chronicler and it’s not as creative a process as writing yourself. You are a collector of quotes and stories – a custodian of the spoken word. It leaves you itching to write and wallow in your own turn of phrase and get the art buzz from the word flow- the footnotes that appear at the bottom of the page are just not enough space for personal creativity!
What’s your working methodology on a book like this? I think that would be of interest to other writers. How hard is it to be focused on a single project when you’re obviously doing other things at the same time? Do you have a team of researchers and transcribers (ha ha, I think I know the answer to this one…)
Unfortunately it’s just me and it’s an insane schedule. I’m permanently on my laptop tapping away – transcribing the tapes takes forever! Some of the interviews were 4/5 hours long so you can imagine how long it takes to transcribe them! It costs a fortune to get someone to transcribe for you so unfortunately it’s one of those things you are stuck with! I’m a focused person and if something needs to get done it will get done even if five things need to get done at once. Halfway though the book you just think about how great it will be to hold the finished item at the end as some sort of insane motivation. It’s a matter of just getting the interviews finished and then transcribed and then worked into the book. And if that means they are getting done in the back of the van on the way to a gig or in the dressing room or in the sleeping bag whilst sleeping on someone’s floor, then so bit it. I’ve transcribed tapes in motorway service stations and in airport lounges all over the world. It’s a bit more exciting than sitting in some plastic bar, and as I don’t drink, it gives me something to do and harnesses the infernal energy into something useful.
Which rather leads us into… you’re a writer AND musician. Do you think that gives you a greater insight into what makes musicians tick when you’re writing about them? If you were forced, at gunpoint, to choose one over the other, which would it be? (Fence-sitting not acceptable).
It’s not a greater insight- it’s a different insight. There is a certain understanding about what you have to go through as a musician and other musicians do relate to that. Also you know a lot of the people from the other side of the fence, so to speak, having shared rehearsal rooms and venues etc with them over the years. Playing live to a wild crowd having a great time is the greatest feeling in the world. Sitting at a laptop doesn’t seem to have the same physical rush! Plucking songs out of thin air is an amazing feeling and when that song connects with people it’s really thrilling. It’s an instant hit.
Let’s talk Manchester. What’s your personal take on why so much great music came out of there? I know you’ve got Tony Wilson’s sagacity (superior taste/record collections) and also people like Bruce Mitchell talking about the history of the city in terms of politics and demographics. What would you identify as the key factors?
There are several factors. It’s a very welcoming city- waves of immigration have left chunks of the city with an open attitude to outsiders. Its also a big city – bigger than its official population figure of 400 000. In reality there about three million people in its catchment area and surrounding towns – that’s a lot of people and a lot of potentially good musicians! There was always a very broad-minded thing going on with a myriad of bizarre influences mashing together. Even on the initial punk scene with Buzzcocks’ art rock and Slaughter and the Dogs, northern soul and Bowie mash ups. The fact that it was the second punk city gave it a head start for modern times. This was also arguably the biggest black music city in the UK. Not because of the bands it produced, but more in terms of music that people were listening to in the clubs in the 1960s – the coffee bar culture that was crushed by the cops and then by a million tons of concrete when they built the Arndale shopping centre. But there was enough time for the idea of northern soul to be invented here. Being the world’s world first industrial city helped- it became a magnet for an immigrant population bringing lots of different flavours and ideas. There are plenty of stories of street musicians from Italy and other European countries playing home-grown music and polkas in all night street parties. A tough city needs entertaining! The black American service men at nearby Burtonwood air base brought their record collections to town in the forties and this helped to infuse the city with a taste for black music. In the post punk era the city also had a big media centre with Granada and this helped to give bands a platform. It’s hard to over-estimate the power of Tony Wilson’s ‘So It Goes’ TV show- the first TV programme to show the Sex Pistols in the world two months before the Bill Grundy incident. These things have got to affect young minds. The media has always been big and nationally influential in Manchester and there was always a huge student population bringing new ideas and enthusiasm to the city…
Speaking of Tony W, to paraphrase him, he once talked about ‘printing the legend’ rather than the truth. How do you, as a writer, strike a balance between using material that makes for eye-popping copy rather than establishing the veracity of everything?
The truth is weirder than fiction – Tony was just playing when he said that. He knew that people like Sean Ryder have a better story than any PR could ever make up. Most of the stories of Manchester are real. I know, I’ve seen most of them! The legend is reality and that’s the beauty of the story.
Who were the most satisfying/revealing interviewees for the book? Who surprised you with the depth of their insight, etc? Who are the people in this story who maybe don’t get the credit they deserve?
Johnny Marr is a walking pop culture dictionary and so is Ian Brown. Noel Gallagher is a genius interviewee but most northern bands can talk for ever about pop music and pop culture and be brutally honest – a dream for the interviewer. I included lots of smaller bands. Slaughter And the Dogs made some great records and were a big influence on Johnny Marr and the Stone Roses. The Chameleons were one of the biggest bands in the city in the eighties. I covered the roots of the hip-hop scene and how it affected lots of the city’s eventual key players. There’s a big chunk of stuff in there about the breakdancers. I also covered a lot of the clubs apart from the Hacienda that were key in that period in the city but often get left out of the story.
Give me five Manchester records you couldn’t live without.
Buzzcocks: Spiral Scratch’. Arguably the one true punk record
Stone Roses: ‘Stone Roses’. Classic guitar anthems
The Fall: ‘Grotesque’. A grubby and imaginative freak world
Black Grape: ‘Reverend Black Grape’. Glorious comeback
Oasis: ‘Definitely Maybe’. If you grew up with glam rock you would understand this record properly.
The Smiths: ‘How Soon is Now’ for the guitar and the poetry!
John Robb – no harder working journalist in pop music. Even if he can’t count for toffee.
The North Will Rise Again is out now through Aurum Press