In the 1970s, when Mark Kermode first picked up an instrument, the UK record business was a very different place. There were five weekly music papers — NME, Sounds, Melody Maker, Record Mirror and Disc. Around 15 million people tuned into Top of the Pops every Thursday; Radio 1 reached more than 20 million listeners a week, and chart 45s could sell 500,000 copies. Today, the idea of schoolchildren saving up their pocket money to buy the latest single feels as if it has long since gone the way of other formerly popular activities such as stamp collecting and origami. The times, as Dylan almost remarked, they’ve been a-changin’.
‘As a teenager, I wanted to do two things,’ says Kermode. ‘To become a pop star, and to watch movies.’ These days he is best known as a film critic — a career he explored in a previous autobiographical volume, It’s Only a Movie: Reel Life Adventures of a Film Obsessive (2010). But his entertaining new book is a wry memoir devoted to four decades of mostly failing to fulfil that other youthful ambition. It was not for want of trying.
Others in the past have felt the need to choose between two divergent potential careers: in the 1790s, the future Duke of Wellington burnt his violin to concentrate on military matters. Kermode, however, has pursued a dual path, and his growing fame as a critic sometimes gave him television exposure for his music. As he points out, a fair few examples of this have surfaced on YouTube, but sadly, no one seems to have had a camera handy in the mid 1980s when Mark’s Manchester University group Hopeless (formerly Herpes One Hundred) treated an audience of students to a rousing version of ‘Seasons in the Sun’ by Terry Jacks, coughing up fake blood from capsules they had been chewing: ‘The floor was awash with slimy red drool, a sea of sticky nastiness.’ It is not for nothing that he regularly cites The Exorcist among his favourite films.
From building his own electric guitar while at school using a template given in Everyday Electronics magazine, via a revolving series of teenage bands, some of whom split up before actually playing a show, to the heady excitement of door-stepping David ‘Kid’ Jensen at BBC Broadcasting House, Kermode eventually found his true calling when he switched in the 1980s to playing upright bass and developed a serious skiffle habit that has lasted to this day.
In the early 1990s, he ran the house band on the BBC TV show Danny Baker After All — a gig he landed after reviewing films on Baker’s BBC Radio 5 show. One week they backed Suggs from Madness covering a Morrissey song, apparently a conciliatory gesture following missiles thrown when the former Smiths frontman appeared in front of 37,000 people at the 1992 Madness reunion in Finsbury Park. Kermode blames this on Morrissey having ‘misjudged the crowd’ — a view first put forward at the time by the NME — but I was the drummer in the opening band onstage that day and for the whole of our set we too were pelted with rocks, coins and bottles by shaven-headed thugs who seemingly couldn’t bear to wait another couple of hours for someone to come on and sing about how baggy their trousers were.
Today, any musicians able to stump up the fee can rent the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis overnight, once it’s closed to tourists, but most are not trailed by a film crew plus a documentary team from BBC Radio 2 like Kermode’s band The Dodge Brothers in 2012. Full marks, however, for admiring the pictures on the walls of the pioneers who made the studio famous in the 1950s, such as Elvis, BB King and Jerry Lee Lewis, and then taking down the glaringly out-of-place one of Bono from U2 because, as Kermode said at the time: ‘I’m not spending two evenings in Sun with a bloke in a stupid hat and a mullet haircut looking at me.’
This is a book which is happily content to move from one episodic reminiscence to the next. You don’t have to be a skiffle enthusiast to enjoy it, but obviously it presupposes a basic interest in the twists and turns of the author’s life. Overwhelmingly, what comes through with every anecdote is the author’s genuine enthusiasm for music, much of it these days of the pre-1960 variety, although the book’s title is taken from a 1975 single by Slade. Many people who’ve kicked around in bands will recognise a lot of the situations here, generally rendered with self-deprecating humour: the dodgy equipment, the dodgy clubs, and especially the dodgy promoters. Musicians mostly do it for the love of it, even if sometimes a punter after the show might simply tell you, as Kermode once found while playing a Mersey ferry: ‘You’ve had your fun. Now fuck off.’