The Books I Couldn’t Help Thinking About

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If you’ve been reading my new book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, then you might well have seen the lengthy piece about the substantial influence that sadly defunct pop magazine Smash Hits had on my sense of humour, my style of writing, and, well, just on me in general. Right up until the disastrously reined-in 1992 relaunch (so it wasn’t ‘ruined’ by Kate Thornton like you and Skeletor think), I devoured every last word of every last issue every two weeks. Even the pieces on bands I neither liked nor was interested in, purely because I enjoyed how they were written about. In fact, I can recall the derisory writeups on pop hopefuls who had got on the wrong side of Ver Hits like Simon Andrew, The Red Guitars and, of course, ‘Belouis’ ‘Some’ better than I can the ones about artists I actually liked.

Smash Hits was just one of dozens of pronounced and in many cases all too obvious influences on my writing style, though, and while I’m never exactly backwards in coming forwards about my sources of inspiration, it seemed fitting to talk about ten of the books that have had, in various ways, the strongest influence on what eventually became Can’t Help Thinking About Me. It’s not a complete list, nor even a definitive one – so sorry to anyone that I’ve left out – but at least it doesn’t have Doctor Who Brain Teasers And Mind Benders on it.

The Complete David Bowie by Nicholas Pegg

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Very few ‘Definitive Guides’ to an artist’s entire output are anything of the sort, omitting obscurities and rarities, relying on second-hand opinions about less regarded works, and never lowering themselves to consider anything so base and lowbrow as the wider cultural context and their subject’s positioning within it. This, however, covers everything that David Bowie ever did – and I mean everything, right down to unreleasably bad outtakes like Rupert The Riley, his cameo in ITV comedy drama Full Stretch (which even people who watched it had forgotten about), and that time he decided to try designing wallpaper for some reason, not to mention a complete guide to cover versions from Nirvana taking on The Man Who Sold The World to a French language rewrite of The Laughing Gnome, and any and every namecheck in films, comedy shows and song lyrics – with exhaustively researched background detail and balanced and rigorous critical evaluation. Tin Machine are presented as a timely experiment rather than a baffling aberration, the three notorious eighties albums are led by their highlights ahead of their brutally admitted shortcomings, Absolute Beginners is a decent film swallowed by its own ludicrous hype, and, love them or hate them, the sixties albums aren’t going away and there’s nothing you can do about it. The author’s own tastes and objective questions of quality and success are treated as entirely distanced from each other, and so much attention is given to the ongoing ‘story’ of David Bowie that it’s actually possible to read it from start to finish. This is quite simply the best reference work I have ever read and as much of a Bowie trainspotter I might well be, the pieces I’ve included in Can’t Help Thinking About Me – and so many others besides, including many that have nothing to do with David Bowie – simply would not be what they are without Nicholas Pegg’s groundwork. I’m actually in the acknowledgements of the most recent edition – see if you can work out what for – and I could not be prouder of this fact.

Didn’t You Kill My Mother-In-Law? by Roger Wilmut

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In treating comedy – something that had previously been the sole preserve of far from factually coherent ‘nostalgia’ pieces – with the same sort of scholarly level of research and analysis as Modern History in books like The Goon Show Companion, Tony Hancock – Artiste, From Fringe To Flying Circus and Kindly Leave The Stage!, Roger Wilmut broke new ground and did much to change the ‘rules’ of how seriously popular culture should be regarded. It was his late eighties effort Didn’t You Kill My Mother-In-Law?, however, that had the biggest impact on me. Chronicling the rise of the Alternative Comedy crowd at a time when most viewers would still have written a stern letter to Points Of View at the mere mention of their name (and if you think that’s an exaggeration, it’s exactly what happened when Rik Mayall presented Jackanory while this book was being assembled), it’s an invaluable record of their rise through Fringe Theatre and long-forgotten makeshift comedy clubs from before any of them really had a chance to rewrite history; you’d be surprised by how many little-remembered names are are given are given as much prominence as French and Saunders and Fry and Laurie, and how many of their early television and radio appearances remain elusive even now. All of Roger Wilmut’s books have been a huge inspiration to me to be honest, though I should also single out Tony Hancock – Artiste, a title that reflects the introduction’s blunt statement that “it is not the brief of this book to enquire into his private affairs, except in so far as they directly affected his work; mention has to be made of some of his difficulties, but the details have been aired often enough – what matters is the legacy of his work, much of the best of which still exists”. A valuable and much-appreciated lesson, even if he was wrong about The Wrong Box.

Moranthology by Caitlin Moran

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Whenever I mention liking Caitlin Moran, I tend to get a barrage of shouty comments either from men who assumed that because I like The Champions I was leading their campaign against something or other where nobody actually knows what it is, or over-politicised types who don’t follow me but want me to be absolutely clear that she has transgressed Rule #4586 Section 8 Paragraph Blah Di Dah Di Dah of some rule book nobody had told me I needed to read and is therefore persona non grata and would I mind retracting the statement with immediate effect or Hamburglar will have won. Well yah boo sucks to the lot of you, I think she’s a great writer with an inventive turn of comic phrase and expert judgement of how much of yourself you should put into a piece about a straightforward topic, and you may as well tweet at me demanding that I stop liking Captain Zep – Space Detective. Yes I know people already do that. That’s precisely the point. Anyway, as well as finding it a rattling good read, I particularly enjoyed Moranthology on a structural level, not least the way in which it grouped seemingly unrelated short pieces into themed sections and arranged them with a logical thematic flow. You probably won’t be too surprised to learn that it was my single biggest influence in editing Can’t Help Thinking About Me, and the main reason why I just couldn’t quite shoehorn in those pieces on This Life and Ask The Family. Well, if you want a Moranifesto-style Volume 2 with them in, then you know what to do.

Time Screen

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Not strictly a book – well, not a book at all – but just as significant as anything else on this list. Time Screen was essentially a late eighties Cult TV fanzine that broke through to a wider audience and gained both the readership and the backing to adopt high production values; there were plenty of those around in the late eighties, of course, but Time Screen‘s key distinguishing feature was its content. Where other fanzines existed to revel in scurrilous gossip, fling out ‘controversial’ reviews or simply retell storylines in a bland and unexciting fashion with dubious use of punctuation, Time Screen concentrated on the story of how and why these programmes came to be made (and in many cases came not to exist in the archives any more); focusing, as lead writer Andrew Pixley later put it, “on anything you couldn’t find out simply from watching a videotape”. Time Screen didn’t just look at the obvious likes of Thunderbirds, The Prisoner and The Tomorrow People (though I’d argue that even they weren’t that ‘obvious’ back then, despite having last been sighted on screen only just over five years previously), it also introduced me to more esoteric delights such as Ace Of Wands, Arthur Of The Britons and The Corridor People, all the way to the likes of Counterstrike, Space School and Turn Out The Lights, many of which there isn’t really much left of beyond the title. Facts and statistics were fashioned into a proper narrative, but it wasn’t all dry historical detail; this was a fanzine after all, so there was also a fiendishly difficult quiz, thrillingly exhaustive lists of tie-in novels and records, the decidedly less reverent column It’s Only A Time Flight Script, an almost comically precise Errata column, and a lively letters page where many now-familiar names traded factual discoveries and debated mysterious production decisions. Believe it or not, there was a time when this was actually a controversial approach, and it wasn’t unusual to hear fans snort at Time Screen and scoff that they ‘didn’t care who the studio manager’s cat was’; they were wrong, though, and Andrew went on to become arguably the most significant historian of Doctor Who with his legendary Archives/Fact File feature in Doctor Who Magazine. There can’t have been many teenagers who were as obsessed with Pathfinders In Space as they were with Belinda Carlisle, but I would wait as excitedly and obsessively for the latest Time Screen as I would for Smash Hits, and I was far from alone in that. So it’s not a book, but maybe it’s about time it was compiled into one?

Paisley Pop: Pye Psych And Other Colours by Rob Chapman

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Another that’s a bit of a cheat, as this was the inlay card in a CD compilation, but it did later lead to a spectacularly good full-length book, which you can read my extremely impressed thoughts on here. At a time when if you wanted to know anything about sixties pop music beyond Freddie And The Dreamers and Susan Maughan you had to go trawling through densely written features full of catalogue numbers, irrelevant recollections of the plumbing at live venues, unsatisfying bitterly recounted reasons for lack of chart prowess, and bizarre personal reminiscences from the writer that nobody asked for, Rob dispensed with all of that in hilariously blunt fashion, declaring that all that matters are the actual interesting details, mainstream cultural context, and direct personal connections with the music like, say, if you’d been caught trying to shoplift one of the singles that you’d included on the compilation. The rest you can just fill up with jokey references to Ivor The Engine and how bad The Troggs’ lyrics are. For someone who was already quite fed up with boring drone-voiced sleevenotes with a casual and scattershot approach to reaching the wordcount as measured in centimetres – “b-side was Salamanda Palaganda indeed – the idea that you could be both interesting and funny, or even irreverent, about this most scholastic and reverential of subjects was a complete revelation. I read and re-read those sleevenotes, at least once while Mark Radcliffe was doing much the same thing on Out On Blue Six (in fact, I originally bought the album after hearing him play I Wish I Was Five by Scrugg), and life for the poor old Walham Green East Wapping Carpet Cleaning Rodent And Boggit Extermination Association would never be quite the same again.

Random Precision: Recording The Music Of Syd Barrett by David Parker

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At completely the other end of the good writing about music scale, David Parker’s book set out to ignore all of the prurient and exploitative (and mostly demonstrably untrue) gibberish that’s been written about ‘Mad Genius’ Syd Barrett and concentrate on the cold hard facts of his musical career and what ‘story’ they could tell us. Where others preferred to devote ludicrous amounts of pages to ludicrous stories about buying all the penny chews in Harrods and secretly writing Hands Up for Ottawan or something, he went rifling through dusty old paper files and scribbled out notes on empty tape boxes in the hope of learning what was recorded and when. Along the way he uncovered details of long-forgotten television and radio appearances, abandoned songs that even the band couldn’t recall, and definitive details of what Syd did and didn’t play on A Saucerful Of Secrets, which was more than anyone else had ever managed. There are joyous moments, such as when he spoke to the wife of the session musician who played tuba on Syd’s second solo album, or contacting the Salvation Army in the hope of identifying the musicians who contributed to Jugband Blues and finding himself speaking to a fellow Pink Floyd fan who was thrilled by the idea, and some less joyous ones as well; the sober and downcast account of the ‘depressing experience’ of listening to the uncompleted minimalist r’n’b-influenced recordings for the projected 1974 album says more about Syd’s decline than any amount of wittering about ‘acid visionaries’ ever could do. Some scoffed that it was “about as interesting to the general reader as a bus timetable”, but that’s missing the point; a real and fascinating story did emerge about life as a serious musician in an industry that was still geared exclusively towards variety and pop music. The touring schedule alone would be enough to put you off dreams of chart stardom. Crucially, it didn’t purport to be the last word on the subject, freely flagging up factual gaps and discrepancies, educated guesswork, unsolvable contradictions and good old fashioned mysteries, and tacitly encouraging the reader to build on his work. Incidentally, one person who didn’t scoff and did build on his work was Rob Chapman, who went on to do an actual proper Syd Barrett biography, which attacked the ‘legends’ of bizarre behaviour with logic and first hand sources and asked outright why everyone seemed so sure about their veracity when nobody can say for certain who plays what on half of The Madcap Laughs. A question that, amazingly, there doesn’t seem to be an answer to.

Fist Of Fun by Stewart Lee And Richard Herring

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I’ve been a fan of Rich and Stew ever since writing to them on noticing that Radio 4 satire show Week Ending suddenly included a baffling reference to sixties pop singer Elaine ‘Spanky’ McFarland and two new names in the writing credits – a true story, though they doubtless wish it wasn’t – and I honestly don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a tie-in comedy book more than this one based on their Radio 1 and later BBC2 series (which you can read a lot more about in a certain book called Fun At One). Fuelled by their own childhood disappointment at eighty four million page three joke efforts filled with gag-free full page photos, it’s a comedy book that for once does not waste a single millimetre, right down to the scribbled one-liners literally squeezed in at the very foot of the page. There’s no filler and no repetition and every page is more full of laughs than it has any right or reason to be. Its influence on me goes way beyond this, though, and their understanding of why certain people and things are inherently funny in their own right, and which arcane references (such as Plastic Bertrand appearing “on BBC TV’s Summertime Special with some balloons falling on him”) will work as gags without explanation have a lot to answer for. Especially if you’re the Walham Green East Wapping Carpet Cleaning Rodent And Boggit Extermination Association. From the ‘Pop Fact’ about The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band that’s basically just Stew begging for copies of Bob Markley’s solo material, to footballer Godfrey Humphrey who hates football but chooses to play it well as a sophisticated satirical attack on the game and its fans (however the joke is on him, as he’s Millwampton’s most popular player), to the line-up of attractions at West Norwood Rat Day, there’s barely a joke in it that hasn’t found its way into my normal everyday conversation, to the extent that I continually had to credit them with the invention of gags in the footnotes. Also, the piece on Railway Station Graffiti, which was what gave me the idea for Can’t Help Thinking About Me in the first place, probably wouldn’t exist without the ‘Punk’s Not Dead’ joke. I should also put in a mention for Richard’s original Emergency Questions book, and Stewart’s The ‘If You Prefer A Milder Comedian, Please Ask For One’ EP, as they were both highly influential on – or if you will, directly ‘borrowed’ from for – the book’s structure. Literally sub-Kenny Everett whimsy.

That’s Me In The Corner by Andrew Collins/Cider With Roadies by Stuart Maconie/Showbusiness – Diary Of A Rock’n’Roll Nobody by Mark Radcliffe/It’s Only A Movie by Mark Kermode

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I can have four entries in one if I want. I mean, come on, I’ve just published a five hundred plus page book, so I think I get to decide here. All of the above have written a number of outstanding books, but I’d pick these four titles in particular, for the shared manner in which they depict the authors as being involved in significant cultural events (oh and Napalm Death throwing some food at a wall) without ever trying to make themselves the focus of them. From elderly relatives listening to your post-punk packed early radio shows to being with an eccentric director when out of nowhere somebody suddenly shot him in the leg, from being sent excrement in the post by a band who preached tolerance and decency to using the fact you were interviewing INXS to jump the queue at the passport office, from tackling the fact that you were in an early line-up of a band that went on to become hardcore racists to pointing out that being labelled as not a ‘proper’ journalist in a world of ambulance chasers and phone hackers is not so much of an insult after all, all of them are crammed with simultaneously hilarious and affecting anecdotes which serve as a reminder that what makes it onto the printed page is often only really half the story. Also, I’ll never cease to be alarmed by how closely Mark Kermode’s list of favourite films tallies with mine.

The Incredibly Strange Film Book by Jonathan Ross

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It’s all too often forgotten – especially in the light of some later antics – that at first, Jonathan Ross was seen as far more of a quirky pop culture-literate documentary maker than a talk show host. Many of those earlier efforts – Fab Facts, Americana, For One Week Only, his cash-in comedy book and stint hosting what soon became The Evening Session on Radio 1 – are barely remembered now. The most important of these to me, however, was The Incredibly Strange Film Show, a series of clip-saturated off-the-wall documentaries that introduced a generation of viewers to the then almost impossible to get hold of movies of the likes of John Waters, Doris Wishman, Ted V. Mikels, Herschell Gordon Lewis and – of course – Russ Meyer. None of which had any lasting effect on me or my original Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! quad poster, obviously. Leaping across several genres that you most definitely would not have found on rack headers in your local Blockbuster, the accompanying book was not so much a movie guide as it was an account of Jonathan Ross’ life in pursuit of the weird and wonderful (and sometimes not so wonderful) corners of cinematic history. Facts on films and interviews with filmmakers that you wouldn’t have come across anywhere else at the time intermingled with memories of treasured sleazepit cinemas, odd encounters at memorabilia fairs and money handed over to dubious characters at ‘the market’, and all of it recounted with a balance of coherent argument against censorship for censorship’s sake, and healthy disdain even for movies he really, really loved. Because let’s face it, none of them are exactly ‘art’. Most startling at the time was the chapter on ‘Video Nasties’, then a recent enough phenomenon for the name to still send a shiver through most readers but one which he remembers as simply “sheer heaven to be alive”. I later did my dissertation on the Video Recordings Act, and through the miracle of modern technology, Jonathan actually helped out with the research and ended up being cited in the bibliography. The Internet was a smaller place then.

Yeah Yeah Yeah – The Story Of Modern Pop by Bob Stanley

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If you’ve been following Bob’s excellent series of archive pop compilations (and indeed his work as one third of Saint Etienne), then you’ll be aware that he’s a pop historian without equal, going even beyond the usual parameters of stunning b-sides and offbeat flop singles to unearth actual hits that have been entirely forgotten, novelty records by celebrities with impressive production values, slinky groovers from the unlikely world of ‘sexy’ sixties revue bar discs and so much more besides. His excursions into the decade or so of hits before The Beatles apparently invented pop music are especially impressive, notably on compilations like Songs From The Lyons Corner House and Songs For A London Winter. This book ties all of those observations and theories into a coherent history of pop music that places the ‘greats’ in their wider context, stripping away myth and assumption and never being afraid to throw in personal opinion, notably the refreshing lack of regard for The Dave Clark 5. And if you have no idea why I found that especially welcome, then maybe you’d better get around to reading Can’t Help Thinking About Me. Though read all of the above too, obviously. But run up to the newsagent for the new Smash Hits first, won’t you? Even if they did ‘ruin’ it.

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You can get Can’t Help Thinking About Me in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. See, there’s no excuse now!

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.

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