MARK BLAKE has an impressive 20-year career
in music journalism
and is currently editor-in-chief
of IQ and Mojo's special edition titles.
He's also found time to write a book about
Pink Floyd, a mighty 418-page tome which took
almost two years of research and involved venturing
to the dark side of the wall to interview almost 100
of the band's friends and industry colleagues, and which uncovered more than a saucerful a secrets!
GET READY TO ROLL! brings you 'the inside story of Mark Blake'.
• • • • •
First of all, congratulations on the great reviews you've been getting for Pigs Might Fly - The Inside Story Of Pink Floyd. It's been cited as the most definitive and comprehensive work on Pink Floyd that's ever been written - mainly due to your extensive research in previously unchartered waters (no pun intended). How easy was it to encourage the bandmembers' friends, families, roadcrew etc to talk openly about their experiences with the band? And in what way were the responses affected by the timing of the book, i.e. post-Live8 and Syd Barrett's death?
In some cases it was easier than I expected it to be. I backed off from chasing a few people straight after Syd Barrett died, but found that some of his contemporaries were still quite willing to talk. One or two people mentioned "closure", which sounds very worthy but certainly worked in my favour. Who knows? The designer Storm Thorgerson was hard to pin down, and I quite came to enjoy our cat-and-mouse exchanges. Storm very graciously rolled over in the end though. A few people turned me down. One potential interviewee's wife phoned me to explain in no uncertain terms that her husband would not be doing an interview.
In America, the book has an alternate title - Comfortably Numb. Why so?
The book has just been printed in the USA by Da Capo Press under the title 'Comfortably Numb'. This was the working title for the book, until we found the cover shot and came up with Pigs Might Fly. However, the Americans were very sold on using the original title. It's one of the most played rock songs on US radio and there's instant recognition among music fans. So who am I to argue?
Pink Floyd more than most bands were perceived to be elusive and enigmatic. As your research progressed did the band members become more 'human' to you?
I have always been intrigued by the personalities behind Pink Floyd, because I think they had a huge influence on the music. I never bought into the lazy critical description of the band as "anonymous". I've always been fascinated by these buttoned-up, repressed Englishmen; probably because I am one myself.
Did your opinions or preconceptions of them change during that time?
My perceptions didn't change while doing the book. My interviewees ended up reinforcing those perceptions!
Because of the conversations you had when researching the book, there is much in Pigs Might Fly that's never been published before - things which even the devout Pink Floyd fans wouldn't have known. At the outset, who was the book aimed at (casual PF fans, devout PF fans, people who read music biographies generally, etc?). And as time went on and so much interesting behind-the-scenes info came to light, did the target change?
Ultimately, I want to sell as many copies of the book as I can, so I want it to appeal to all of the above. I was striving to write a human-interest story but with enough minutiae and previously untold stories to interest the most obsessive Pink Floyd fan.
What feedback have you had from Pink Floyd fans about the book? And from the bandmembers?
Most fans have been very positive. I had a nice e-mail on Boxing Day from someone who had been at school with David Gilmour, and had enjoyed the book. He also took the time to point out some of my cock-ups. I haven't had any feedback from the band, and I didn't expect any.
Without giving away too much of the plot tell us some of the surprising things that you learnt.
Mainly that nobody really knows for sure what happened to Syd Barrett. There is an incredible amount of hearsay and bullshit still flying around about Syd. So many people I spoke to offered conflicting memories or opinions. I think a lot of the Barrett story is now confused by the fact that some of the people around him have no wish to discuss their foibles and misdemeanors from some 40 odd years ago.
Having spent the best part of two years working on Pigs Might Fly, are you Floyded out, or can you still listen to their music with the same enjoyment as before? Which are your favourite Floyd albums, and is that choice still the same as before?
I still enjoy the music (surprisingly). My favourite albums are probably Wish You Were Here and Dark Side Of The Moon. It was interesting to listen to The Final Cut again, for the first time in years, while researching that part of the story. You can really hear the anger.
Any other books in the pipeline? Who would you like to write about next?
I have some ideas, but I'll keep schtum for now…
Any plans to write fiction?
Some wags might argue that my Pink Floyd book is a great work of fiction...
Re your work on magazines, how did you first get into music-journalism, and which magazines have you written for over the years?
I've written for Q, Mojo, Kerrang!, Music Week, Creem and Billboard, among many others. I also used to write the music reviews in Penthouse when their critic went AWOL or couldn't be bothered.
I started out writing for a heavy rock magazine called Metal Forces in 1988. They had their offices in a hovel near Great Portland Street, London. It was great fun, enlivened by the magazine's deputy editor Jerry Ewing, who would often work an all-night shift, knocking out all the features he hadn't gotten around to writing the day before the magazine was due to go to press. So it wasn't unusual to turn up for work and find Jerry comatose under the desk in his sleeping bag. When he awoke, Ewing would spend the rest of the morning, shuffling around the office still in the bag, barking orders and holding forth. It was like being harangued by a large, hairy slug.
It was a great time, because back then record companies still had enough money to fly you around the world to interview their bands, even when you worked for what might politely be described as a "small circulation title". What I remember most from that era is the incredible contrast: getting off a first-class flight with Bon Jovi after fine wines, gourmet dining and Heather Locklear… only to catch a bus at Heathrow Airport to be taken straight to the dole office.
How do you think music magazines will have to change in the long-term to compete with the speed of the internet?
I think one of the biggest mistakes all music magazines made in the 80s and 90s was not engaging closely enough with their readers. I worked on one title in which the reader was often referred to as 'Joe Cunt', which did us no favours in the long run. That said, I'm of a generation that wants both mediums. So while I love the speed and access of the Internet, I still want a magazine that I can carry around with me. If I find an article on the Internet that I want to read, and it's more than 1000 words long, I'm still tempted to print it out. I appreciate that in a few years' time this might make me sound as antiquated as someone walking in front of a motor car waving a warning flag, but so be it. I want depth and critical insight, and I don't think you always get that from the Internet.
Tell us some of your most embarrassing journalistic incidents. Ever had a momentary lapse of reason?
Hah! One of my first assignments was to review some of the rubbish bands performing at a rock festival in, I think, Workington. The PR company had laid on a coach and hotel accommodation for a whole bunch of hacks. All I had to do was turn up at 7.30am outside the Hammersmith Odeon to board the coach. Normally I am a punctilious timekeeper, but, unfortunately, the night before I had become a trifle refreshed in one of my local pubs. I awoke at 7.10am in a cold sweat and had to hire a cab to get me to Hammersmith. I paid the driver extra to break the speed limit, while I cleaned my teeth hanging out of the window on the A40. When I arrived I was confronted by a coachload of my disgruntled peers and elders, most of whom didn't have a clue who I was. I offered my embarrassed apologies, only to be confronted by Malcolm Dome who came back with the cutting reply: "Nice to know we've got professionals on the job". I seem to recall having to sleep in someone's hotel bath that night as some kind of penance. Though not with Malcolm.
And what have been your favourite interviews, the ones you felt were the most satisfying from the angle of getting the most information and with the best rapport.
Interviewing musicians is never easy. You're sat in a room - or on the end of a phone - with someone who nine times out of ten is a complete stranger, and, nine times out of ten, you are having to ask them about the drugs they've taken, the people they've had sex with, their last nervous breakdown etc etc… I've never found it a particularly comfortable process. I guess every now and then you find some spark, some common ground. The best policy is silence: if you stop talking, they often feel the need to fill the gap and end up blurting out more than they meant to. I enjoyed meeting and interviewing Keith Richards. That was entertaining. But rather than remember the good ones, I prefer to remember the bad. They're usually funnier. I have interviewed countless idiot heavy metal bands, and most merge into one: I can't recall the name of the singer who started dry humping the cardboard cut-out of Kylie Minogue in the reception of MCA Records when I'd turned up to interview him. There was also the bassist in a long-forgotten rock band who started sobbing in the back of a taxi because he told me he was "too fat and ugly to pull chicks". This was in Wolverhampton, on a rainy Wednesday night about 15 years ago: one of those moments where I wished I still did a proper job.
When you're interviewing rockstars do you prefer a face-to-face interview where you can bounce off each other and get a good rapport going - or a telephone interview where you don't get the eye-contact but maybe get what eye-contact doesn't always produce, i.e. the 'anonymity' of the confessional-box where
people tell you a little bit more down a phoneline because they feel less exposed?
It's always better to do an interview face to face. You can see the (often bloodshot) whites of their eyes.
Who are your favourite bands, and why? And what would be your top five Desert Island Discs?
Led Zeppelin without a doubt. So far ahead of the game it's embarrassing. Their reunion show in December 2007 was the finest gig I have ever been to. So let's just go for Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin IV, Led Zeppelin II, Presence and Led Zeppelin III.
Tell us about the other books you've been involved with.
Prior to writing about Floyd, I edited two books that came out under the Mojo banner: Dylan: Visions, Portraits And Back Pages, and Punk:The Whole Story, both published by Dorling Kindersley in 2005 and 2006, respectively. These gathered together some of the best articles from Mojo's archive and also contained a load of previously unseen photographs. But full marks to my friend and colleague Dave Brolan for this. Dave is a Picture Editor and worked on both titles. They wouldn't have happened without him.
What are the proudest moments of your career?
I would have to say the Pink Floyd book. But, to be frank, most of my so-called career has felt like one long confidence trick perpetrated on editors, readers, musicians etc.
What's next for Mark Blake? And what would you like to be doing in 5 years time?
Last time I was asked what I would like to be doing in five years' time, it was 1980 and I was sitting in the career master's office of my West London comprehensive secondary school. I had long, curly hair and a bright purple Rush badge on the lapel of my school blazer. I didn't have a clue then. Today I would say that in five years' time I'd like to have the hair back again – but you can keep the Rush badge.
© Get Ready To Roll - 11th January 2008