It will probably surprise very few of you to learn that I originally got into this business we call show intending to ‘do something’ in music. It will probably surprise even fewer of you to learn that I ended up getting precisely nowhere with this ambition.
That’s why, unless I’m offered the kind of advance that even Mick Jagger collaborating with John Lennon would consider a bit much, you’re never going to hear songs like Out Of The Trees, The Watchmaker’s Daughter or Leave Us Not Little; or the ‘multitracked’ – with two radio cassette recorders – cover of the theme from The Adventures Of Sir Prancelot; or the Stock Aitken Waterman-inflected synthpop suite for two Yamaha Portasounds recorded one afternoon in the school summer holidays, and given the working title ‘Old Muir’ after the headmaster of Erinsborough High in Neighbours; or the album-length abstract sound collage fashioned from radio dials, tape recorders playing BBC Sound Effects albums, battered children’s singalong records and a home-made tape loop featuring two and a quarter seconds from Doctorin’ The Tardis; or the pastiche seventies cop show theme worked up with a friend who specialised in buying up analogue synths at a time when you could pick them up for pennies but later sensibly pursued a career in academia; or any of the demos of varying quality and worth made by Helen And The Hallucinations, The Beth Buchanans, The Marvellous Mechanical Mouse-Organ, The Invisible Trumpton Fire Brigade Band or Anita’s Sound Lab.
There’s a simple enough reason for this lack of success – I just wasn’t good enough at ‘doing something’ in music. I could bash a tune out of several instruments (and several things that technically weren’t), and had enough ideas to fuel a small subcontinent of Super Furry Animals b-sides, but I just wasn’t cut out for the discipline and restraint – not to mention the need to kowtow to ‘local legends’, pretentious tossers and slippery lunkhead venue staff who were apparently to be automatically afforded deference – involved with being in a band. Or being a functional solo artist, for that matter. It didn’t exactly help matters that I was obsessed with ridiculous instruments like the Stylophone, the Theremin and the Casio SK-1 at a time when they were the preserve of novelty-leaning musical pranksters rather than highly sought-after retro high watermarks of pretentiousness that hipsters have special pockets sewn in to their jackets to keep at hand at all times in case of ‘space noise’ emergencies. I was closely involved enough with the ‘scene’ to be the first person to hear the first demos by a now internationally successful band, but not enough for anyone to actually want me to be in their internationally successful band. I tried producing, promoting, managing… nothing seemed like the right fit. The only thing directly associated with music that I was any good at, it seemed, was ‘crate-digging’ and playing records, which is literally just using someone else’s music. What I was good at, though, was talking about and writing about music, and that’s basically how you’ve ended up here.
There’s a long, long history of stop-started musical endeavours, but the truth is it became more stop than start a very long time ago. Although I recently visibly startled a more musically successful friend by picking up his guitar and idly rattling through the whole of Accept Yourself by The Smiths, I do tend to keep my musical exploits very much to myself these days, limiting myself to the occasional hammering out of The Way It Is by Bruce Hornsby And The Range on unattended public pianos, party piece displays of my medley of the sad piano version of the Blackadder Goes Forth theme and Nut Rocker, and somehow spending someone else’s birthday meal co-writing a song about Kryten finding some film trims. There isn’t really any sort of an interesting story in all of this, though – mostly I was just there. If I’d made up part of the cast of characters that ‘inspired’ Caitlin Moran’s How To Be Famous, while I probably wouldn’t be hung, drawn and quartered like the majority of the male figures, I’d certainly be making a nuisance of myself on the sidelines with a Melodica.
If anything, Mark Kermode had an even less malleable and less timely musical ‘vision’ than mine, but it was one that he stuck to with absolute unwavering persistence, keeping up his rattle and rolling side career to increasing popularity even when he was already spending the majority of his time forcefully extolling the virtues of Dougal And The Blue Cat and The Devils. Fortunately, he actually has an interesting story to go with it. How Does It Feel? inevitably starts with a film – the splendid Slade In Flame, where the book also gets its title from; probably the definitive document of ‘The Seventies’ with the grim grimy reality and the shiny fun artifice presented side by side as if nobody saw any distance between the two – but for the majority of the time these obsessions turned professions are entirely separate from each other. From playing in prog-inspired school bands with a frighteningly young David Baddiel, through serious post-punk endeavours tempered by decidedly less serious post-punk comedy acts (including a priceless stunt mid-Seasons In The Sun which is sidesplittingly funny even just written down), into permanently bruised hands and larking around on daytime television with Wide Awake Club-friendly skiffle full-throttlers The Railtown Bottlers – who were, it’s often forgotten, the house band on Danny Baker After All – it’s very much about forging a separate and credible musical identity.
It’s only with the formation of the terrific The Dodge Brothers – accomplished and authentic enough to record a rapturously received album at the legendary (and, it transpires, nerve-wrackingly awe-inspiring) Sun Studios on prehistoric equipment, yet informed enough by Mark’s better-known antics to forge an acclaimed sideline in providing live improvised accompaniment to silent westerns (incorporating – at last – a Theremin!) – that the two really coalesce, and they do so to brilliant effect on a procession of suitably cinematic-sounding albums. How Does It Feel? starts and ends with Mark onstage with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, poised to play the theme from Midnight Cowboy live on a chromatic harmonica when he’s only ever played a diatonic. Does he manage to pull it off, or does it end up sounding a lot more like Florida Fantasy? You’ll have to read the book to find out. Just be grateful nobody shoved me up there with an electric sitar and demanded the theme from The Adventures Of Sir Prancelot.
As you’ll know if you’ve read my feature on the books that have had the most significant influence on me as a writer (which you can find here), Mark’s previous published efforts charting the ‘Reel Life Adventures Of A Film Obsessive’ are witty, informative and thrillingly opinionated works telling often mundane stories with humour and style, with plenty of enthusiastic cinematic diversions covering everything from Jeremy to Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers. How Does It Feel? does exactly the same for the parallel career that most of the audience for his film shows and writing probably weren’t even aware of; without spoilering anything, the moment when he finally ends up collaborating with a longstanding unlikely musical idol courtesy of a bizarre anecdote about his earlier musical efforts justifies the book on its own, as does the best kicking of increasingly indefensible windbag Morrissey you’re ever likely to find. It’s a belting story of sex and drugs and rock and roll with very little sex, barely even a whiff of drugs, and rock and roll in purely its most literal sense, and will strike a chord – though probably not an especially ‘muso’ one – with anyone who tried and failed (and tried and failed and tried and failed and tried and failed and triiiiiiied) at chasing the dream of pop stardom. Even if they weren’t any good at chasing it to begin with.
Mind you, I say I was never any good at it, but I was once very heavily involved with an actual NME Single Of The Week. But that’s another story.
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You can find more about Mark’s Radio 1 days, including his stints on Cult Film Corner, The Guest List and The Antique Records Road Show, in Fun At One – The Story Of Comedy at BBC Radio 1. Fun At One is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
The Books I Couldn’t Help Thinking About is a feature about the books, magazines and sleevenotes that have had the most significant influence on me as a writer, including It’s Only A Movie by Mark Kermode; you can find it here.
You can hear more about Skyman, a long-forgotten show by Mark’s old Radio 1 colleague Mark Radcliffe, in Looks Unfamiliar with me as the guest here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.