Late in 1988, Smash Hits ran a typically swizzaway interview with short-lived Eurodance sensations Milli Vanilli. Gamefully chortling – or if you prefer ‘laughings’ – at their own absurdistly flawed battles with English as a second language, ‘Rob’ and ‘Fab’ gleefully informed listeners that they liked to eat ‘ananas’ and ‘mice’, recounted how ‘the nurses in the child-house’ had used them as ‘a football’, refused to be cast in any film that would depict them as ‘crocks’, and lamented the precarious physical condition of ‘the fat one’ from The Fat Boys. Although it would no doubt be looked on less fondly from this distance, it was a harmless bit of nonsense where the ‘victims’ were in on the joke, and gave rise to – as pretty much anything did to be fair – an affectionate if caustic running gag motif in Smash Hits. As it did with the Ver Hits-addicted youngsters in my family, who still send cards from, and attribute badly worded texts to, ‘Rob’ and ‘Fab’.
It’s this interview that opens I’m Not With The Band, Sylvia Patterson’s searingly honest and indeed searingly funny account of her life in music journalism. In case you hadn’t quite picked up on it – which would be surprising, as it’s as obvious as spotting Marc Almond in Pervy ‘So’ho – Smash Hits in its mid-to-late eighties majesty had a huge influence on my writing style, not just in terms of twirly-wirly-‘spook’-plane-to-the-rescue-tacular maltreatment of language but also the ability to spot why certain people and reference points were inherently funny. So many throwaway bits of nonsense are drilled word-imperfect-perfect into my memory From The History Of Rock’n’Roll Part Three: Elvis Presley to The Upper Bubblington Village Fete (both of which, incidentally, you can find in my heavily Hits-indebted piece about Now – The Summer Album), so you can blame Bitz, Mutterings and Reg ‘Reg’ Snipton And His Useless Toadstool for that business with that Michael Parkinson photo.
More realistically, however, you can probably blame Sylvia and her anarchic approach to entertainment journalism, which I followed from Smash Hits into NME – where the still-striking cover photo, taken as part of her bizarre quest to pass herself off as Alex James from Blur for an evening, originally comes from – on to Loaded and Neon and beyond. It’s thrilling to find so many of those memorable interviews, features and encounters recounted with the benefit of hindsight and lashings of often hair-raising behind-the-scenes backstory, but I’m Not With The Band isn’t all laughs. Or even laughings.
As well as covering her problematic upbringing and troubles in adult life with a commendable combination of wit, understanding and harrowingly relatable detail, Sylvia also knowingly charts the depressing rise of celebrity culture and the detrimental effect it has had on us all. At the start of the book, she’s able to ask even the most inaccessible of global megastars ludicrous questions just to see their reactions, and if they weren’t amused then the joke was on them. By the end, she’s being physically ejected – by men – from interview rooms after deviating by one word from a list of pre-approved banal prompts about nothing. There’s also room for rumination on Twitter outrage, following her own experiences after being left in the firing line by a pop star who refused to hold their hand up for an ill-advised thing that they’d said, and conversely a couple of occasions when owning your own words and admitting when you’d got it wrong was the best course of action for everyone. Well, apart from Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Throughout it all, Sylvia keeps returning to poor old Milli Vanilli, and the more innocent time when she could provoke them into an endless stream of gibberish about bikes with ‘big banana seats’ and everyone saw the funny side and they still kept on selling records – and Smash Hits kept on selling full stop – regardless. After all they had sold the most records on cassette single in the world but didn’t want anyone to know as they were very quiet persons who did not like to brag.
Not long afterwards, for the hideous crime of not having sung on their own records, ‘Rob’ and ‘Fab’ became the victims of international outrage while the actual industry types who perpetrated the entire scam walked away unscathed. Their career was wrecked, and ‘Rob’ later took his own life, and that was 1990; one really does shudder to think what would happen to them now. There probably aren’t many places that you’ll find a good word said about Milli Vanilli now, but this fantastic book celebrates them and so many others from an era when even the most zzzzzzzzzzztastic of mainstream plank-spankers could seem, well, almost fun. And maybe, just maybe, the more we get to look back and see where we’ve got a bit lost, the more likely it is that everything might start to swing back in that direction. How’s about that then, ‘Albert’?
You can find more swingorilliant features on eighties pop music in my swizzaway ‘anthology’ The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.