Cider with Roadies illustrates that living the life of a rock journalist isn't real life, rather a life lived through others, a life at one remove.
Oh fuck, a part time writer (that's me folks), reviewing a book written by a music journalist. The portents are not good. To be honest, I had misgivings about reviewing it. I mean, writing about rock journalism in itself isn't really that interesting, and if you are a rock journalist writing your memoirs, you are, unfortunately, going to have to mention your work at some time.
Luckily, "Cider with Roadies" isn't wholly dedicated to "Lunchtime o' Booze" journalistic reminiscences. But, if you decide to read this book, I feel it is my duty to warn you that they appear. For the record, these reminiscences will normally chronicle 'incredibly talented, young and spunky' writers, sitting in a pub, being recklessly bohemian (yet professional), discussing the weighty issues of the day. Such as whether to give the Wonder Stuff a front cover. Take it or leave it.
Rather, it is Maconie's descriptions of growing up in his home town, Wigan, and the successive teenage musical revelations he undergoes whilst living there that really bring the book to life. And, let me warn you, he started early. This is a man who 'saw' the Beatles when he was three years old; taken by his mother of course, so he wasn't that precocious. However, at this point, it does rankle that my parents didn't show similar foresight and take me to the Faust tour in 1973. Anyway, I digress.
Maconie charts his youthful infatuations with T-Rex, Northern Soul, Prog Rock and Punk, whilst getting on with the serious business of being a Wiganer, which can have its grim moments. Some of these 'Paul on the Damascus road' revelations are brilliantly described. Take this description of John Mclaughlin, guitarist from Mahavishnu Orchestra.
"There was a strange bloke playing the most mental guitar I had ever seen. It had two necks. That's two necks. I was no virtuoso but I knew this was one more than was strictly necessary. It looked more like something you would milk a cow with than a musical instrument. As he played it, its owner- who looked appropriately like a milkman in his white suit and short back and sides- was pulling faces as if he had caught himself in his zip".
Or this description of ELP's Brain Salad Surgery.
"Side two; Karn Evil Nine Three improvisations. Twenty five minutes of frightening quasi operatic electronic hokum about the future enslavement of humanity by a race of hyper intelligent computer-controlled robots. And the world's longest drum solo".
As well as prog rock, the reader is treated to a great chapter on Northern Soul. Being a Wiganer, Maconie could hardly avoid this revolution, even if he'd tried. His description of the clothes, the music, and the atmosphere inside the famous Casino is just fantastic.
"At key points in a track, the whole dance floor would clap their hands in time to a certain pivotal drumbeat, and the crack reverberated round the room like gunfire".
As I stated before, each chapter links a personal development in young Maconie's life to a new musical movement. Glam is big school, Prog Rock is O Levels and teenage angst on wet holidays, and Punk (which inspired the author to form a band, Les Flirts) is linked with violence, (inevitable when Wigan and Punk were socially introduced), and A Levels. The Wigan chapters are great. His journal of university, to be honest, isn't all that different to anyone else's; just a story of shit housing, no money, drab nights spent eating toast whilst listening to Echo and the Bunnymen and Orange Juice. Better moments at this stage are found when he discovers the Smiths. Nothing, I repeat nothing, could be more North Western English than this;
"And so we listened and we loved. It is a sweet, odd tableau, don't you think? A small knot of tipsy young men in long overcoats, standing by a car on a high, deserted country lane listening to the Smiths in the chill November night".
Before the book becomes journo talk, there are other moments to mention. Maconie tells of the mid eighties hell of listening to Radio 1. And further more, listening on the shop floor of a mill in Bolton, where he had found employment. Nothing, I can assure you could be worse, (apart from listening to Radio 1 in the eighties on the school bus on the way to school). He is particularly scathing of Simon Bates, whose ghastly radio show blighted sensitive types up and down the land. As Maconie rightly points out, Bates' mawkish slot "Our Tune" (don't ask why it's called that), could severely dent your faith in the notion of a loving and benevolent God.
Soon after this, the book starts to chronicle Maconie's life as a rock journalist on the NME. And, as I've mentioned before, this part can pass you by in a bloke-ish name dropping blur. There is the odd highlight, notably the author's time on the road with the band Napalm Death, an odyssey that finds Maconie threatening the 'Death's drummer with, (you guessed it), death.
It's a shame that a book, so entertaining and informative in its opening half, should become such a damp squib in its second. Obviously a writer of talent (so sayeth this oracle), obviously blessed with good humour and wit, "Cider with Roadies" illustrates that living the life of a rock journalist isn't real life, rather a life lived through others, a life at one remove. And, therefore, too inconsequential an ingredient to mix into a book. One is reminded of a line from an Anthony Powell novel, where another music critic utters the chilling line to a composer friend, "I obey you with all the proper respect of the poor interpretive hack for the true creative artist". So there.
Words : Richard Foster