Dorian Lynskey

Escape into pop

The music journalist is nostalgic for the bad old days of Madonna, Blur and Amy Winehouse — who made far livelier copy than today’s frightened, pampered pop stars

‘How can you come into this room and ask me “What is the purpose of life?”,’ wails Massive Attack’s laconic DJ Mushroom after a typically searching interrogation by the veteran music journalist Sylvia Patterson. In this powerful, enjoyable memoir she fares better with Spike Milligan (‘I wake up every morning and think, “Thank God, another day” ’) and gleans further nuggets of wisdom from the likes of Bono, Diana Ross and David Attenborough. Patterson, primarily an interviewer rather than a critic, isn’t interested in the mechanics of music-making or the record industry but in the fundamental question of why people do what they do. In her hands, music journalism becomes a philosophical investigation, with jokes. Always jokes.

Patterson made her name at the sorely missed pop gazette Smash Hits during its 1980s heyday and still writes under the influence of its conspiratorial intimacy and playful one-liners: Morrissey’s ‘bilious haverings’, acid-house crew D Mob’s ‘yodelsome rave-up palaver’, Prince’s ‘atomic ripple of fawn and mauve’. In his memoir Rock Stars Stole My Life, the former deputy editor Mark Ellen describes Smash Hits as ‘a fond, full-colour mission to squeeze the maximum amount of fun out of everything’. To the wry, confident Ellen it is a brilliant lark but to Patterson the magazine’s madcap exuberance is a matter of life and death.

She takes seriously the escapism of pop because she had a lot to escape. She grew up in Perth with an alcoholic mother, who became ‘Somebody Else Entirely’ when she was drinking and inflicted lifelong scars. Moving to London to take a job at Smash Hits in 1986 is Patterson’s version of running off to join the circus: ‘Life was euphoric.’ Music, to her, is a transcendent miracle and the people who make it are characters in an absurdist soap opera.

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