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Journalist for Plague Lovers: An Interview with Simon Price

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The short URL of the present article is: http://www.walesartsreview.org/86zYt

 

There’s something resplendently bereft about a British seaside town during the bleakest of Winter months, a leaden-skied backdrop to a sea of deserted amusement arcades, padlocked beach huts and sporadic teenage heroin use; and whilst the Georgian splendour of Brighton and Hove is an honourable exception to this generally impregnable rule the brittle sequestered skeleton of its once magnificent West Pier remains an image wholly emblematic of the lyrics to Morrissey’s paean to coastal desolation, one where ‘every day is silent and grey’.

It is a wintry Tuesday afternoon in Brighton when I arrive to meet, and share something slightly harder than ‘greased tea’, with Wales’ most prominent (and certainly most recognisable) music critic; a man for whom an entirely different seaside town, one six or seven miles to the west of Cardiff, first meant home.  Now a permanent resident of the thriving bohemian enclave that Brighton has become, the Independent on Sunday’s pop critic, award-winning live reviewer, and alt-pop club DJ-for-hire, remains a prominent, suitably striking, and periodically scathing character on the British alternative music scene.  Though the Sussex sky remains resolutely grey, the utterly unexpected release of a new single (the first in ten years) by David Bowie earlier that day casts a golden shaft of warming light upon not just this most overcast of days, but across the whole of the prevailing cultural landscape.

On pressing matters of this nature Simon Price is a media ‘go to’ guy’; so intrinsically linked is he to a British art-pop lineage that has its roots in the creative and artistic genius of Bowie but which over the decades has seen its branches extend outwards to embrace acts as diverse as Siouxsie & the Banshees, The Human League and Ladytron.  Though very much a gunslinger-for-hire on days such as these, the most basic of Google searches of Price’s name attests to the prominence of his tightly bound relationship with Manic Street Preachers; an association best compared to that of Tony Parsons’ own with The Clash, and one that remains fundamentally key to his public profile, both as a respected critic and a politically-driven working class Welshman.

 

‘People stared at the make-up on his face’

 

It’s probably fair to say that Simon Price doesn’t look much like most music journalists.  So much so that given the seemingly perpetual ‘de-Bowiefication’ of British pop music, the persona and public image of the scarlet devil-horned, self-styled ‘atheist, lefty, 80s throwback’ is something of a man somewhat out of step with the contemporary world of workaday commercial pop music, let alone the world of music journalism – ‘Bowie’ rhymes with ‘snowy’ by the way; like a lot of things, Price is very particular about this.  In much the same way that the bands he has always gravitated towards appeared destined ‘to escape the suburbs by sheer force of will and by flamboyant display’ his own modus operandi involved the repudiation of the cultural and societal trappings that surrounded, and often suffocated, him as a South Wales teenager.  In Price’s case the suburbs were those of Wales’ capital city.  A pre-‘cult of Gavin’ Barry boy and the son of a music-obsessed father who forged his own successful career as a radio presenter and producer for both Red Dragon Radio and BBC Radio Wales – a man who passed on the glittering baton to his son at an early age, not least via a premature, unplanned and potentially defining exposure to the rat-a-tat rantings of punk poet John Cooper Clarke at the Cambridge folk festival.  The writer speaks with much love and gratitude when he fondly describes the congested record-laden walls of their 70s family home as acting as ‘our own form of central heating’ and his vivid pre-teen memories of first hearing The Specials and Madness during a balmy Summer evening spent eating chips at Barry Island funfair.

Some years later, his recollections of that universal teenage torment – that of ‘fitting in’ – are not quite so tender: “I always felt slightly oppressed by the Welsh idea of manhood – what it meant to be a man – and a lot of that was bound up by the sport of rugby. I no longer viscerally hate it as a sport as it’s no longer oppressing me in the way it once did – the idea that to function as a man you needed to be a beer-drinking, meat-eating, art-hating, fighting Welsh brute, and I never wanted to grow up to be one of those.  I remember my elders always encouraging me to play a bit of rugby, to ‘put hairs on my chest’ – ‘it’ll make a man of you’ – well I never wanted to be that kind of man so I looked to other things, like pop music”.

Like many of us who grew up in South Wales in the 70s and 80s, our TV aerials pointing defiantly towards Bristol, the notion of the Welsh language, and ‘Welsh-ness’ itself, outside of the world of sport, was an almost archaic notion.  Price was no different.  In common with the John Cales and Molly Parkins of this nation, his antennae sought out London; the city where in the 1980s the streets were seemingly paved with pop stars – a myth seemingly perpetuated by the writer’s own chance meeting with ABC’s Martin Fry at the Oxford Street branch of HMV, having broken away from a school theatre trip to the Barbican centre:  “I always knew I wasn’t going to stick around in Wales and let it define me in the way that it had so many others.  People like Martin Fry, Morrissey and Boy George gave me something else to aspire to and because of the culture I was interested in I just knew that I had to get away”.

 

‘Bevan tried to change the nation / Sonny wants to turn the world’

 

Having passed though the halls of University College London and the offices of London Student, a publication renowned for acting as a breeding ground for future journalists, Price landed a job at Melody Maker having cut his teeth as their Paris ‘stringer’ during a period of study abroad.  It was at that paper that his relationship with the nascent Manic Street Preachers was initially forged, a seemingly unavoidable collision of minds given their shared experience of having grown up in Wales at a time of political strife, an unerring belief in the primal power of pop music to effect change and a mutual love of public provocation and Boots No7 eyeliner.  It was a relationship that would eventually culminate in the publication of Everything, Price’s toweringly definitive treatise on the band, its heritage and resultant cultural impact; a book so beloved that it led the band’s singer James Dean Bradfield to proclaim that, “even the bullshit is brilliant”.

Over 20 years after that alliance was first tentatively formed the writer is still refreshingly uncompromising about his own take on their status as an utterly unique cultural phenomenon: “The Manics aren’t just a rock’n’roll band, they’re life changers”. He recalls their emergence with affection.  “They came along during the John Major era, at a time when people had been bored away from politics.  Thatcher had been such a cartoonishly divisive figure that by the time of Major it was almost as if people couldn’t be bothered anymore.  So to have a band like the Manics come along with such an intelligent and articulate critique of present day political reality was really thought-provoking, and in the same way that The Specials and The Style Council were politically formative for me, I know that that this was equally the case with the Manics for people ten years younger than me, and they continue to be.  Just like being Welsh at the time wasn’t fashionable, being political wasn’t either and the Manics have always cared about the bigger political picture in a way that seemed occasionally baffling at the time.  With something like ‘Nat West-Barclays-Midlands-Lloyds’ we wondered at the time why they were on about high street banks, it seemed like really obscure stuff, but now you look back and think, my god, they really saw this coming.  They were spot on”.

 

 

For Price, it wasn’t even the music that initially turned him on to the band.  “Their interviews were just the funniest, most inspiring thing for months and months, before I’d even heard a note of their music.  I’d read their interviews and think fucking hell, that’s the band for me!  I quickly became a convert and when I first met them I just really got on with them.  I remember Nicky Wire asking me ‘why’s your make-up better than ours?’ after a gig and it was little things like that that we just began to bond on.  Maybe because we come from similar backgrounds in Wales they were possibly a little less suspicious of me than they might otherwise have been of English journalists and they let me into their circle a little bit more.  So throughout the 90s I’d been there for a lot of the stuff that was eventually described in the book, and if I wasn’t, I knew people who were there”.

I ask him whether with the passing of time he feels a certain weight of responsibility within the realms of Manics fandom given the vociferous devotion of so many of the band’s acolytes, his own elevated profile and his more direct access to the band.  “I suppose so.  I find it quite difficult when people ask me the Richey question because I feel that a lot of people want me to give them the hope of saying, yeah, I feel he’s still out there.  It is nice to have people come up and talk to you at gigs but as a writer you should never allow yourself to get too close to a band, whoever they are, because one day they’re going to bring out a shit record and if you’ve got any kind of integrity you’re going to have to say so.  You should never fool yourself into thinking that you’re properly the friend of any band; you’re just not”.  Nevertheless, his resolute belief in the band’s ability to continue to inspire remains.  “As much as I’ve said that I believe the Manics to be life changers I’m also aware there’s only a certain period of your life during which you can have your life truly changed and I really hope that the Manics can somehow keep finding new generations of young people to do that for, even if it’s only through their old albums”.

Though I, and others, may have interpreted the band’s subsequent revisionist approach to flying their nation’s flag as a defiantly working class act, Price is evidently much less comfortable with it:  “The Manics feel differently about the Welsh flag than I do. ‘Cool Cymru’ was an adjunct to ‘Cool Britannia’ and the whole Britpop thing and it all seemed a bit mindless to me.  The first step of national pride, and to me the most valid part is the refusal to feel shame about where you’re from, but by the same token how can you feel pride about achievements that have absolutely nothing to do with you?  If you happen to love the place you grew up in then great but I think that feelings of pride are the first step towards feelings of superiority and I’m opposed to nationalism of any sort.  I don’t support the Catalan cause in Spain, I don’t support petty nationalism anywhere.  Coming from a Marxist political background I’d rather do away with national boundaries altogether rather than impose smaller and smaller sub-divisions”.

Price’s own insights into his nation’s place in the whole scheme of things are undeniably defined by the time and the place in which he began to flex his own political muscle.  Whilst his own feelings of what it means to be Welsh appear to have been latterly strengthened by what he describes as “the patriotism of the exile” his recollections of the 70s and 80s exemplify a nation that would be unrecognisable – and unthinkable – to those who didn’t live through that particular period: “Growing up in Wales and being British in the first place, you almost feel that even though the Empire was over and done with it’s like you’ve somehow got some kind of winning ticket, that you’ve grown up in one of those places that, at least, for a time was the absolute centre of the universe; and Wales felt like a little forgotten annexe to that.  I could actually see England across Barry docks from by bedroom window and it seemed strangely exotic by comparison.  We couldn’t even receive BBC Wales and as a consequence, whilst I knew exactly what was going on in Avonmouth and Chard, I couldn’t tell you anything that was going on where I lived.  The only time that Barry was ever on the telly was when the dock offices burnt down – it took a fire to get us on TV!”

The notion of social class when discussing what it means to be Welsh is never far from the surface, and in this Price is no different; if anything it is his class consciousness, much like the Manics themselves, that defines and drives his own cultural radar.  “When I first came to London I suppressed it for a while, just in order to fit in.  The university I went to was full of Oxbridge rejects which if you think about it are the worst possible people – they’re posh and they’re thick; they’re just the worst people on earth.  I surrounded myself with these people and in order to fit in I started taking the edges of my Welsh accent and tried to sound like them.  When I started in music journalism in the late 80s and early 90s being Welsh literally made you a laughing stock so I suppose I didn’t mention it much.  Nowadays people seem to find the Welsh accent an attractive thing, through people like Rhod Gilbert and the whole Gavin and Stacey thing they just feel warmly towards Welsh people”.  He adds, with a laugh, “I don’t feel the need to hide my Welsh accent anymore.  In fact, maybe I put it on a bit”.

The band’s unexpected post-BRITS assault on the mainstream brought with it a new kind of fan; the kind for whom libraries provided boredom rather than power, and who bellowed out the chorus of  ‘A Design for Life’ without any hint of irony.  Price has similar misgivings about that whole period.  “If you write a song with a chorus that says ‘we only want to get drunk’ then you’re asking for it to be misinterpreted.  You can’t then go crying because people have taken it the wrong way.  You’ve got to factor that in”.

For a man who clearly adored that glorious, yet narrow, pre-Britpop window of art-pop renaissance typified by the likes of Saint Etienne, Denim and Suede the oncoming steamroller of Britpop, and the emergence of the Gallagher brothers in particular, must have felt like a particularly unwelcome kidney-punch for a man who clearly despises the notion of boorish artlessness in all its forms“My answer to the question who I preferred, Blur or Oasis, was always Pulp.  Yet the phenomenal rise of Oasis meant that the bands were no longer chasing us, we were chasing the bands, and for the first time in my memory the record companies were holding all of the cards.  It effectively meant that if the NME or The Maker wanted access to either Liam or Noel then the record company would say that if that’s the case then you have to be nice about our other shitty little bands, and once you’ve crossed that line there’s really no going back.  Something terrible happened to music halfway through Britpop and I really hated some of the things that went on during that period.”

Even now, his frustration is palpable: “Oasis were endorsed by a lot of people in the music industry who really should have known better.  I saw people around me pretending to be thicker than they were, intelligent people who suddenly began acting like ape-men.  I found it really depressing that people were willing to dumb themselves down for money and it affected everything.  In a really bad way.”  So much so that the prevailing culture of payola and deference ultimately culminated in the writer opting to leave the paper he had once cherished.  “Not long after I left they went to an A4 glossy format, an indie Smash Hits, which I always found really patronising.  Smash Hits was always very good at what it did, and it certainly wasn’t a dumb paper so you don’t seek to imitate Smash Hits by being deliberately stupid.  When the (Manics) book offer came along for me the Melody Maker just wasn’t the same paper anymore and I was frankly glad to be out of it.  That was my ticket out, and I took it.  It was a tragedy really.  It was the oldest surviving music paper in the world and it just got flushed down the toilet due to a deluded editorial policy that completely failed to understand why people were buying it in the first place.  The people who bought The Maker bought it because they appreciated the quality of the writing.  They didn’t buy it because they wanted to read about ‘Ash going to Legoland’ or ‘Zoe Ball playing darts with Melanie C’, which is what it turned into”.

 

‘I could do with the money / I’m so wiped out with things as they are’

 

For a man in the regular employ of a national newspaper and whose Manics tome was touted as ‘the fastest-selling rock book of all time’, and ‘the rock book of the decade’ by The Guardian, it came as something of a shock to learn that the writer had recently considered terminating his entire journalistic career in a Maoist act of cultural self-sabotage, so frustrated was he by the apparent failure to maintain a viable and regular income stream within the prevailing environment of the print industry.  So how near did Price actually come to getting a (whisper it) ‘proper job’, and what advice would he give to young aspiring writers considering a career in music journalism?  He laughs, “I’d tell them, just don’t; don’t even think about it!  Or at least if you’re going to, then make sure you have some kind of escape plan.  The truth is that music journalists don’t actually make a lot of money and as far as me getting a proper job goes, it may still come to that.  The problem now is that publications assume that they can get content for free, and they assume correctly.  They might not get very good content but they do get it for free.  These days everyone thinks they’re a journalist, certainly anyone with a blog thinks they’re a journalist, and the desperation of people to work as unpaid interns means that the baseline has completely changed.  People even have to pay now for the privilege of being a work experience kid!  Which ultimately means that only people from privileged backgrounds can get their foot in the door.  How fucked up is that?  It perpetuates a system where the only kind of people who can afford to be journalists are upper middle class people who view journalism almost as a hobby, like some kind of gap year”.

The light of personal experience that he shines upon the harsh reality of simply ‘getting by’ is a sobering, and occasionally tragicomic one: “The life of a music journalist is a weird kind of duality.  The example I always come back to is when I went to Los Angeles at a time when I was effectively living in the Four Seasons, Beverley Hills, on Depeche Mode’s credit card.  The interview kept getting postponed, something I now know to be as a result of Davd Gahan’s heroin addiction.  I was travelling around LA in a complimentary limo, shopping, and going to clubs for free.  It was great.  But the unfortunate punchline is that when I got back to London and my bedsit in Tufnell Park, the gas had been cut off because I couldn’t afford to pay the bill.  So you have access to, in terms of being a working class lad from South Wales, unimaginable glamour, but you don’t have anything solid, or financially concrete to show for it”.  When pressed on the notion of ‘an escape plan’ he adds, only half-jokingly you sense, “Don’t do what I did and get stuck in it forever”.  You can fully understand Price’s evident frustration that a man as intellectually creative and opinionated as he has almost fallen by the wayside in terms of media profile and presence when compared to his one-time journalistic peers at both Melody Maker and the NME, the Maconies, Quanticks and Morans of this world.  “I feel like I should have got some last helicopter out of Saigon while I still could.  I don’t know what that helicopter would have been but I remember that when I was at The Maker in the 90s and the likes of Steve Lamacq and Andrew Collins began to get jobs in the media it seemed as if much of that was to do with the NME being the much more famous magazine.  I was quite resentful of that because I really did, and still do, want a piece of that action.  When I see my contemporaries popping up on the likes of BBC4”, he says with a knowing grin, “I do often feel, to quote the old Motown soul record, it should have been me”.

Whilst Simon Price is unlikely to sign up to the weary old maxim that writing about music is like dancing to architecture, he does scoff at the notion that music journalism should be in any way about telling people what, and what not to like: “Anyone who pretends that music journalism isn’t anything other than subjective is a pompous fool and a liar.  Whatever some people might claim, you cannot write objectively about music.  Music is a sonic code that moves the human emotions and to try and react to that in some kind of dispassionate, detached, scientific way is dishonest, which is why I don’t think it’s egotistical to use first person pronoun in your writing.  I think it’s actually quite humble to do so; and I think that when people write in this kind of authoritative, impersonal style, that’s far more arrogant”.

For Price, the apparent dilution of the value of the written word, certainly from a critical perspective, appears to have made him even more protective of, and impassioned about, an art form that has defined the perception, discernment and dreams of millions and decades of music fans.  “Because the music press no longer gives people the music – because they can find it anywhere – and it certainly no longer breaks news, what we provide is ways of listening, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious; ways of interpreting things.  Anyone can tell you that there’s a new David Bowie reissue out and point you towards where you can download it but it takes a really good writer to tell you what it means, what it stands for, and perhaps most importantly where it fits in.  In the end, that’s what we’re for”.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis

 

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