From Beatles to Bassett: the journey of a rock-turned-travel writer

19 May

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Every music fan has a cool answer to the questions ‘what was the first record you bought?’ and ‘what was the first band you saw live?’ Often these answers are subject to some level of historical revisionism.

For rock critic turned radio presenter Stuart Maconie there is no need to distort the facts: the first band he saw live was The Beatles.

As he admits in his 2004 sort-of-autobiography Cider With Roadies, he doesn’t remember much about the gig. He was three years old and was taken to the concert by his mum.

“Obviously I was destined to be a music journalist. It runs in the family”

When he came to write the book, he decided to talk to his mum about the concert.

The interview, published in the Q and A style beloved of music journalists, is hilarious, and when Maconie opens his set at the Swindon Festival of Literature by reading it, he has the crowd in stitches (in fact it’s so good I’ve reproduced it below).

His mum remembers very little about the actual gig – what The Beatles sang, who the support act were – but has a vivid memory of queueing for the tickets, what the weather was like, and where they went for tea afterwards.

“Obviously I was destined to be a music journalist. It runs in the family,” muses Maconie in the book.

The first and last time Maconie visited Swindon until this afternoon, he tells the audience at Old Town’s Arts Centre, he was at the railway station. “I saw Princess Anne,” he recalls. “Does she come to Swindon often?” he asks, and then peering into the darkness from the stage he enquires “Is she in today?”

He says that getting a job at the NME was like being handed the keys to the sweetshop, but aside from the Cider With Roadies extract, he talks little about his time at NME, Select, Q or Mojo, other than to reference the Great NME Strike of 1993 when discussing the Great Strike of 1928, one of the ten pivotal moments in recent British history, according to Hope & Glory.

In fact, the journalist who coined the phrase Britpop and wrote the official biography of Blur spends as much time telling hilarious anecdotes about his other passions – fell walking and football – than he does talking music.

A Wigan Athletic supporter he declines to mention his team’s exit from the FA Cup at the hands of Swindon Town in January, until pushed, when he jokes that the result “makes Swindon better than Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and all the other teams we beat this season.”

His raison d’être for being in Swindon, of course, is to promote his new book, Hope & Glory: A People’s History of Modern Britain.

“Hope & Glory is about ten sexy, sensational days that changed the course of British History, and gives me the chance to riff on about stuff that interests me,” he says.

In the book, Maconie picks a day from each decade which he reckons exemplify the pivotal social and political moments in British history, from the death of Queen Victoria (subject of eight assassination attempts – did you know?) to New Labour’s election victory.

These days, Maconie is more travel writer than rock critic, but while other travel writers go to the far-flung corners of the earth, Maconie takes a flask (and a spotlight) to British towns and villages. His 2007 travelogue Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North gave a humorously honest account of his home turf, while Adventures on the High Teas: In Search of Middle England was Britain’s best-selling travel book of 2009.

He continues in the same vein in Hope & Glory. His account of the docking of HMS Windrush in 1948, which brought 450 men from the Caribbean to help repair post-war Britain, sees him visit Thetford – where a third of the community is Portuguese – as he explores the topics of immigration and multiculturalism.

Meanwhile, the chapter on war takes him to villages that lost all of their men at the Battle of the Somme, as well as to Swindon’s near neighbour, Wootton Bassett, where the dead of our most recent military adventures were repatriated.

Like his other books, Hope & Glory is a light and pacey read, even when tackling the most serious subjects. And, as you would expect from an author who won an edition Celebrity Mastermind in 2009 (specialist subject: 20th century British poetry) and who was made a Doctor of Letters in 2011, Hope & Glory is peppered with fascinating facts that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else.

Let’s hope, then, that those facts contain more substance than one Maconie invented for NME’s spoof Believe It Or Not column in 1990.

The ‘fact’ that Blockbusters presenter Bob Holness played the famous saxophone solo on Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street followed both the musician and the presenter for years. When Rafferty died in January 2011, and again when Holness died a year later, the rumour surfaced again – an urban myth that, unlike its subjects, might never be laid to rest.

Gerry Rafferty – Baker Street

An extract from Cider With Roadies, 2004

Naturally, I have many reasons to be grateful to my mother but none more so than taking me to see The Beatles. Down the years, I’ve relished that moment in pub conversation when someone says ‘OK, what was the first band you ever saw live?’ and after others have chipped in with Haircut 100, Carcass or the Icicle Works, I sip thoughtfully at my beer and say, ‘Oh, Focus at the Southport Theatre, 1974 … unless you count The Beatles of course.’

And who doesn’t count The Beatles? The most important pop group ever, perhaps the most important cultural force of the twentieth century, harbingers of global change. And I saw them. Thanks, Mum.

My memories of the show are a little vague. I’d only been walking upright for a year and my vocabulary at the time wouldn’t have stretched to ‘amplifier’ let alone ‘Aeolian cadences’. So in order to evoke the experience for you, dear reader, I thought I should really interview my mum on the subject. What follows is an interview with her in the Q & A format beloved of well-established music journalists since (a) it affords direct access to the subject unmediated by the writer’s implicit or explicit bias or subconscious shaping or editing; and (b) because it’s a piece of piss. Here it is, conducted by phone in September 2002 and presented here pretty much in full:

Q: Was it big news when The Beatles came to town?

A: I’ll say!

Q: How exactly?

A: It was in the papers and everything.

Q: Were you a Beatles fan?

A: Oh yes. Well, actually I preferred Cliff. But The Beatles were, you know, very good.

Q: How did you find out about the show?

A: Erm, it must have been in the papers.

Q: Was there a support act?

A: Pardon?

Q: Was there another group or singer on as well?

A: Oh, I’d have thought so. Can’t remember who though.

Q: And what did they play, The Beatles?

A: Oh, you know, all the hits. Beatles stuff.

Q: And what about the crowd. Was there screaming?

A: Screaming! God, you couldn’t hear yourself think. You loved it. We had you stood up on the back of the seat in front of you, dancing.

Q: So how did we get the tickets?

A: Ah, right, well. I was working part-time at Eckersley’s Mill in the afternoons so we were able to go along in the morning. You had to queue up. It was chilly and actually very foggy, early autumn. Me and you, your Auntie Kathleen and her neighbour’s little girl. The queue stretched all the way down Station Road and it was very cold as I say and just opposite the ABC there was a little café. Always open. People used to call in when they came out after the pictures. So the people waiting for Beatles tickets started to go across for a coffee to pass the time in this enormous queue. You’d save the place of the person behind you and they’d go off and get a drink and a warm and then when they came back, they’d do the same for you. I remember what you had – a milky coffee and a piece of toast, and they let you use the toilet. And then after The Beatles show had finished, we went to that chippie by your nana’s, the one behind Madge Makin’s pub.

So to recap: I went to see the most important pop group ever. And I know pretty much bugger all about it; songs played, support act, notable moments, solos, banter, choreography, etc. Nowt. But we do know, thanks to my mum, a great deal about the weather conditions, our own circumstances, what refreshments were consumed prior to the show and where we ate afterwards. Obviously I was destined to be a music journalist. It runs in the family.  

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