Mark Ellen is a legend of music journalism. From editing Smash Hits and Q magazine, to interviewing the likes of the Beatles and Lady Gaga, to co-presenting Live Aid and being in a band with Tony Blair at university, there aren't many areas of music broadcasting that he hasn't touched. A short paragraph doesn't give justice, but his love affair with rock and roll is documented in his memoir, Rock Stars Stole My Life!
What are you listening to/reading/watching at the moment?
I’m listening to the new album by Oregon-based folk rock magicians The Decemberists. I’m reading a book called Life After Dark by a guy called Dave Haslam about Britain’s clubbing culture as I have to write about for the Sunday Times. And I’ve been watching lots of wonderful unseen footage of The Beatles as I wrote an appreciation for the box-set they released at Christmas. One of the many great things about being a journalist is that you’re constantly being asked to look at new things.
Describe your life in 3 sentences:
It feels rather charmed as I ended up doing what I wanted to do for a living. Plus I write about scuba-diving and cycling which I love. Third sentence: that’s pretty much it.
What's the biggest challenge you've overcome?
What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?
The publisher of Smash Hits – the great Peter Strong - gave me some advice when I was the editor (and still in my 20s). It sounds daft but it totally changed my professional life. He thought I was a bit disorganised – and how right he was – and said "Why don’t you write down everything you have to do each day on a pad beside your typewriter first thing in the morning and only go home when you’ve crossed it all off?" And I still do that today, 33 years later. Often it’s the practical things that make all the difference.
I was at a Private Eye lunch the other day with nine other people and we discovered we were all writing books. All we talked about was what routine we used – not how to write a book in an editorial sense but what system we used to actually produce it. Fascinating and valuably illuminating. PG Wodehouse said a lot of sensible things about writing actually – eg. “the purpose of the first sentence is to make you read the second sentence. The purpose of the second sentence is to make you read the third sentence. The purpose of the third ... etc.” And “all writing begins with the application of the seat of the pants to the chair”. Writing takes tremendous discipline and lots of people want to do it: the trouble *these* days – he says, sounding like a knackered old git – is that there seem to be more people who want to write books than read them.
What do you consider your biggest failure?
I talk too much. But then, if part of your job is broadcasting, you have to practise!
What do you consider your biggest success?
I’ve got this lovely wife and we’ve been ‘going out’ for 35 years and two terrific sons and I’m rather fond of all of them. It’s very easy to get caught up in a career – especially if it’s as engrossing as mine has been – but it’s idiotic to do anything at the expense of your family and friends. I can assure you there are tons of utterly self-absorbed rock stars mooching about in large houses all day inspecting their collection of gold discs who’d swap it all to have their wives back again or to have one of their children admire them.
Who or what inspires you?
I’m very keen on Charles Dickens, Tom Wolfe, Coleridge, loads of musicians and long-distance cycle tours with my old pals. I’m in a jazz group at the moment and we play Gershwin, Fats Waller, Louis Jordan and Duke Ellington songs and I find all those pretty inspiring.
What would you do with your last day on Earth - (logistics no object)?
Cycle across the Pennine Way listening to Duke Ellington secure in the knowledge that, at some stage, there’d be potted shrimps on toast.
Who are your dream dinner party guests?
If this can be from any era ... Gilbert White (the 18th Century naturalist), Eric Ravilious, Woody Guthrie, Mark E Smith from The Fall, Kate Humble, Frank Zappa, Donna Tartt, JMW Turner, Ian Hislop, Joni Mitchell, Chris Morris, Kristen Wiig and George Harrison.
What's number one on your bucket list?
Renting a cottage in the country for a month - with a lot of tea and biscuits and a giant flat screen - and watching Breaking Bad all over again.
Tell us one thing that might surprise us:
Four pop stars have played The Artful Dodger in Oliver! when they were kids - Phil Collins of Genesis, Steve Marriott of The Small Faces, The Monkees’ Davy Jones and Robbie Williams. Actually they’re all artful dodgers so ... not that surprising really.