Friday, 9 May 2014

The Journalism Years

Disclaimer: Today's piece is rather long. It does contain, however, a few amusing tales of a trainee wannabe journalist covering the music 'scene' of a small provincial area which may, or may not, bring a smile to the faces of those who make the effort to to read it.

TheRobster takes no responsibility for those readers who, having taken the time to read the whole thing, fail to find anything of interest within it. But thanks for bothering...

After a period of time on the dole, I found myself skint, bored and itching for a new challenge. True, my social life was at an all-time high, but I felt my life stagnating somewhat. My work on the fanzine with Higgz had inspired me to seek a career in music journalism. That, though, was easier said than done. I made some enquiries – it seemed that Uni was the only realistic route, but I was seriously under-qualified, academically at least. Therefore I decided on a different tact – work experience.

I approached my local weekly paper, the North Devon Journal with a portfolio of the stuff I’d been working on with Higgz and asked if there was any opportunity for some work experience with their editorial team. My luck was in – at that precise moment, one of them was about to go on maternity leave. By sheer chance, it happened to be the person who wrote the local music column ‘Wavelength’. Not only was it my lucky day, but theirs too. I agreed to work a couple days a week for expenses only.

Like most things I do, half-arsed wasn’t my style. I threw myself head first into the task and within a few weeks I was not only filling my allocated space, but was asking for more! I made sure my name was known amongst local bands, promoters and venues. I attended gigs every weekend and listened to every demo tape that was sent in the post. Impressed by my effort, the Deputy Editor approached me a couple months in and made a proposal. There was an opening for a junior reporter. I’d get a salary, full training, professional qualifications (if I stuck at it) – the lot. I would continue being the Wavelength scribe, but I’d now have to broaden my horizons – going full time and writing ‘proper news’ as well.

Opportunities like this are rare.  Anyone who has ever tried breaking into journalism will tell you how competitive it is. They usually won’t even look at you if you don’t have a degree. I don’t need telling how lucky I was, but I also maintain it was my willingness to work for nothing, my enthusiasm and my success at turning Wavelength into a two-page spread that clinched it for me. I was a raw talent that they decided to take a chance on.

Wavelength became my adopted child and I was very proud at what I was doing. If I’m being honest, the news, court reporting and advertising features were all of a much lesser significance to me than Wavelength. Of course, I put a lot of effort into all my articles, but Wavelength was where my heart was and where my inspiration came from. I had a lot of fun doing it and became a bit of a minor local celebrity. Whenever I showed up at gigs, people wanted to talk with me. I met a lot of really cool people. Inevitably, I also came across some who wanted to give me nothing but a hard time, and admittedly, I sometimes made trouble for myself.

When local metal band Shea gave me a copy of their latest EP to review, I described singer Rachel’s voice as sounding like a broken lawnmower. That didn’t go down too well, with one particularly disgruntled fan becoming rather aggressive towards me at a gig a few weeks later. I also made a faux pas when reviewing a local festival. I knew the members of Saturday Night Beaver really well and also quite liked them as a band, so I’m at a loss to explain why I wrote that they just “trudged through their usual set”, especially as singer Oz dedicated one of the songs to me. I got some well-deserved flack for that one, and I’m not sure I was ever forgiven.

Perhaps even more interesting than the Saturday Night Beaver feature I wrote in 1995 was the adjoining gig round-up article published alongside. See who was due to support Torrington band Electric Orange before an injury-forced cancellation... yep, that's THE Muse! How times change, eh?

I was the scourge of mediocre pub covers bands though. To me, they lacked any kind of creativity, imagination or musical passion. As good musicians as many of them were, to just play the same old tired songs again and again (Mustang Sally was on all their setlists) was just lazy and predictable. One band, the appallingly named Pelvic Thrust won a Battle of the Bands competition much to the utter derision of the majority of those present. I didn’t hold back when it came to the write-up:

“To say this result is a travesty doesn’t do justice to how ridiculous the whole thing is. If Pelvic Thrust really is the best band North Devon can offer, I hereby resign and will be on the first plane to Outer Mongolia in the morning.I strongly suspect, however, that I’ll be back writing about some good bands in this column again next week.”

As expected, the howls of protest against my words were equally rabid:

“Pelvic Thrust won because they were the best band on the day. If you can’t handle that, get on that plane to Outer Mongolia. I’ll pay for your ticket myself – one way, of course!”

Ouch! Letter of complaint (which I still have)
in which the complainant states he
"[does] not expect to get treatment like this".
He also claimed I "suppress through
mocking and criticising the tastes of others",
while calling my own views "disgusting".
Then there was the time I let rip on One Way Out, a band of middle-aged blokes who wore leather trousers and played Flying-V guitars. They were playing at the Newmarket Inn for the landlord’s birthday. And yes, they trudged through Mustang Sally. By now completely bereft of anything to say about such bands that I hadn’t expressed dozens of times previously, my review consisted of a cutting parody of ‘How to be a pub band’, which included such points as:

Wear spandex trousers, ensuring the obligatory cucumber is in place;
Play Flying V’s. Nothing says serious rock musicians more than a Flying V;
Integrate long guitar solos into every single song.

A band member responded vehemently to the paper's Managing Editor, calling me (among other things) childish, patronising, spoilt, offensive and aggressive. In spite of this, my editor wrote back defending my stance as fair comment. Truth be told, I was none of those things the band member accused me of being, but I was perhaps mischievous, naughty even. But by this point I was becoming rather exasperated by the whole thing and couldn’t be arsed being nice or objective just for the sake of it. Ironically, the other band who played that show was Shrug, the band I would subsequently join as lead guitarist (that story’s to come next week).[1]

I should point out here that there were some excellent pub bands around too. Bob White and the Southern Cross were superb, clearly influenced by the likes of Dr Feelgood and early Captain Beefheart. They also wrote and played original material which was clearly in their favour. Then there was the Torrington punk supergroup The Desperate Men, comprising members of Naked i, Electric Orange and Sweet Thangs. They played raucous covers of punk classics and non-punk classics that they ‘punked up’, all while dressed like the Reservoir Dogs.

Strangely, I also got flack when I was positive about some bands. I purposely showed a lot of support for young bands, and one local promoter in particular used to strive to offer any new young band the chance to play his events. Peter Wilcox, aka ‘Tiny’, operated under the rather dubious name of Fluid Emissions. He would hold regular shows at a host venue, putting on three or four bands at a time. He would charge a couple quid admission and use the cash to fund future gigs, transport costs for the bands, publicity material etc. He also released two CDs compiling specially recorded tracks by bands around at the time.

Many of the acts became known as ‘Tiny’s bands’ as they would rarely play unless Tiny put them on. As you would expect, many were short-lived, one or two moved on, and quite a few hung around for a while, forming an integral part of the North Devon music scene.

One band that seemed to provoke a particularly spiky response from people was the Jellybabes. The Jellybabes were four 16/17 year old girls who played the type of punk that was dubbed ‘Riot Grrrl’ by the music press. This term described a movement of mainly all-female bands that made angry, noisy punk-influenced music, chief protagonists being L7, Bikini Kill and Babes In Toyland. Up to that point, females were either fronting otherwise all-male musicians, or sang backup vocals. But these girls were not only ridiculously young, but came armed with guitars and drums, snarly vocals and *shock-horror* - their own songs! For this alone I loved them. Here was a band who had to be nurtured and encouraged, and I made it my mission to write about the Jellybabes at every given opportunity. Needless to say, this didn’t go down terribly well. There were those who clearly didn’t get the style of music they played and criticised their musicianship. But there were also those critics who tried – unsuccessfully – to disguise their blatant sexism. There was no doubt a few blokes felt threatened, a point the girls confirmed to me on one of the numerous times I spoke to them. My encouragement and positivity towards them was, thus, taken as me wanting to get them into bed! This was the attitude that female artists faced even at that level. From what I understand, not an awful lot has changed in the intervening years.

I also incurred the wrath of a band called Rug, though this was entirely their own doing. They were fronted by a guy called Marcus who worked at Up Front, one of Barnstaple’s indie record shops. He would always pop into the Journal’s offices on a Monday, just before Wavelength’s lunchtime deadline, to let me know about the band’s gigs for the following week. I often had to pester the subs to try and squeeze these dates into the Gig Guide which had more often than not been set out by this time. One particular week, Marcus didn’t make it in until Tuesday, a day late. Rug’s gigs thus did not make that week’s Gig Guide. From that moment, I was public enemy number one. There was a feeling amongst one or two bands on the scene that Rug were becoming rather full of themselves. Record companies had shown an interest in them and they were recording an album. I had personally found them all to be great guys, good fun and generally rather humble. Marcus in particular was very amiable and funny. That was at least until Rug didn’t make the Gig Guide that week; that’s when they showed their true colours.

Their album was self-released and titled ‘Ideas Above Stations’, apparently a swipe at certain people who thought they were bigger and better than they actually were. “They know who they are,” read the accompanying press release. The joke amongst other bands was that it was a self-titled record!

My Rug article was innocent enough at the time, but looking back, it's ironic in so many ways - both the headline and the placing of the Gig Guide being the most striking!

Mrs Robster was particularly fond of a band called Crack who had two bass players and made a spectacular noise. I did a feature on them for the column one week; they all came round my house for the interview and got me absolutely trashed beyond belief! That was the most fun piece I ever wrote, I tell you. When a record company who wanted to sign them thought there were obvious drug connotations to their name, they changed it to Tide. The record company didn’t sign them regardless and they split shortly after. 

Wavelength wasn’t just about music though. I also dabbled in politics. During the time I was there, the abhorrent Tory government (is there any other kind?) was bringing in a new Criminal Justice Act which sought, amongst other things, to persecute those members of society who chose not to conform. Travellers and ravers were the main targets, but it soon became apparent that anyone out for a Sunday afternoon stroll could fall foul of its absurd restrictions on our ‘rights to roam’. While the law passed through with ease, I certainly stirred up plenty of debate in the sleepy backwaters in the arse end of the country, with plenty of people I really didn’t expect to support my views (including MPs and magistrates) telling me how they had been swayed by my articles. I was particularly proud of the reaction I received from local Tories and the police. They saw me as nothing more than a militant troublemaker, a stirrer, a rabble-rouser. I just saw myself as someone who told the truth, who broke ranks from the general conservative tendencies of the provincial press and stood up for the little guy. Once you do something like that of course, your card is marked. Not that I gave a shit of course, these were exactly the sort of people I wanted to upset; I succeeded.

Sadly, nearly two decades later, nowt much has changed in either our politics or media…

I quit journalism after a couple of years. Once again, reality set in and I realised there are always wankers who can’t wait to bring you down. Management changes resulted in our left-leaning News Editor being sidelined to make way for a yes-man, and a new power-dressing female Deputy Editor made her presence well and truly felt, putting a stop to oiks like me writing subversive articles that made people actually think and challenge their perceptions (one of her first offerings was to pen a leader which totally contradicted every point I had made against the Criminal Justice Act. No prizes for guessing which side of the fence she was on!) I was also threatened one night in a pub’s toilets by a guy who took exception to being named in a court article that appeared in the paper. He was up on a charge of being in possession of a Class A drug with intent to supply. Sadly, he had neither the intelligence nor the commonsense to work out that I had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the article. I was a mere junior reporter so made no editorial decisions whatsoever; I had also been in Portsmouth for three months doing my journalism studies so wasn’t even in the area when his case came up! I didn’t quit my job because of him – people like that just made me feel better about myself – by that point I’d already been strongly considering my position. But threats of violence I can well live without, particularly when I didn’t much care for the job any more. My work was done; it was time to move on.

  • Treacle – Jellybabes (from the second Fluid Emissions sampler ‘Junior 2’) - will re-up byr request
  • King Slinky – Crack (also from ‘Junior 2’) - will re-up byr request
  • Mustang Sally – Wilson Pickett[2] (from ‘The Wicked Pickett’)

[1] I did eventually make peace with One Way Out in rather odd circumstances. One night, after a Shrug rehearsal, we went for our customary few beers. The Newmarket was hosting an open mic night – and guess who the ‘house band’ was? That’s right, and they were insistent that I join them for a rendition of Mustang Sally! To be fair, they were great sports. I murdered both Mustang Sally and Get Back before they stepped aside and let Shrug play a song.
[2] The song still fucking grates with me, but the great Wilson Pickett singing it softens the torment somewhat.

1 comment:

  1. I did read the hole thing and found it quite entertaining. I have worked for newspapers since 1988 or so, albeit on the "other side" of the wall---advertising---, and have seen many changes and could relate to all you went through. My best friends, those folks that I had the most in common with, were often the cartoonist and the dining and entertainment editors. The shift from a true local product with integrity and creativity into a corporate behemoth hell hound that chews people up (good people) and spits them out as numbers is a hideous trend and something I believe has led to the industries troubles. Arrogance is also a factor, and we are our worst enemies: "Craig's List? Who the hell is Craig? Who in their right mind is ever going to place a free classified ad?, said every corporate Publisher in the world, circa 2006...anyhew...I especially enjoyed the part about deadlines. No one knows what kind of an effort it takes to put out a daily paper other than those who've worked for one. Fantastic article, well done, and thanks!