I'm not with the band - Sylvia Patterson
I'm not with the band - Sylvia Patterson *****
Maybe it's because we're close to the same age, but I was won over to Sylvia Patterson's memoir of her days as a music journalist by a statement early in the book I'm not with the band; "The post-punk era, roughly '78 to '83", she opines "was arguably the most richly dynamic of all musical time". You don't need to take Patterson's word or mine to see the validity of this viewpoint, as the current BBC Four re-runs of Top of the Pops from this period at the very least highlight the contrast between what came before and what we now know followed. Unfortunately, Patterson's career as a music journalist starts out on Smash Hits in 1986, by which stage pop music was in terminal decline or had at least stagnated into manufactured pap of Stock Aiken Waterman, Bros and Brother Beyond.
Or had it? Patterson's memoir presents a welcome opportunity to re-evaluate a period of pop music neglected for the nostalgia for the boom years of the late 70s and early 80s charts and if it certainly highlights its failings, and the failings of music journalists to alter the direction music was taking (their influence remains a matter for debate), Patterson's memoir nonetheless manages to put into perspective an era that was far more significant than you might imagine. Even as she bemoans and eviscerates the industry establishment and pop royalty for failing to live up to the promise of Revolution promised by her heroes, Patterson's interviews with some of the biggest names in the music industry (still) show how the stars have become reduced into blandness and seduced by the obscene amounts of money to be gained by playing the game and adhering to the new cult of Celebrity Culture.
Since many of those figures are still around - Bono, Beyoncé, Prince (at the time of writing the book), Madonna - there's evidence in the longevity of such artists that the celebrity lifestyle does their careers no harm. But what of the music? And what of the Revolution? Is being the voice of youth - disaffected or even celebratory - not incompatible with a multi-millionaire celebrity lifestyle? How did we even let our musical heritage get to such a point? I'm not with the band doesn't perhaps have all the answers, but the examination of the main suspects, the good guys and the bad guys, the Man, the Industry and the PR team, all figure in Patterson's book, and it's only by looking back on those star encounters from a new perspective that some of the reasons for the decline starts to become apparent.
Drugs inevitably are also one of the main culprits, fuelling the creative energy of the Brit-pop and Madchester scenes of the nineties in the Stone Roses, Blur, Pulp, Oasis and the Happy Mondays and communally bringing together the youth of the day into the euphoric celebration of it all, but drugs inevitably would also play a significant part in its downfall and in the subsequent decline of youth culture. Patterson revisits the interviews she made with the bands during this period as a writer for the NME, and the sometimes superficial and jokey questions put to the artists - a hangover from the banality of the Smash Hits school of music journalism - does nonetheless cause the reader to re-evaluate some of the major players. There are no startling new revelations here, but sometimes you can see through the arrogance and the pose to what the musicians believe really matters and the conflicted view they inevitably reach when the Industry demands compromise.
Patterson questions - when not pre-submitted for approval and censored by the PR teams - do attempt and in some cases succeed in getting beneath the image to the person beneath and what drives them. In the cases of Bono, Madonna and even Westlife, the suspicion often gives way to a grudging admiration for how they've adapted to the changing times to thrive, and there's a level of personal interaction - notably with Prince also - that allows Patterson the freedom to probe at sore points, sensitive areas and personal disagreements over the nature of their craft (on both sides) that another interviewer might not be able to do with such ease. The observations on and from Damon Albarn and the Gallagher brothers, for example, present a refreshingly different perspective on the received Blur/Oasis dichotomy we've come to accept, and the Noel Gallagher rant alone is worth the book's RRP.
Patterson doesn't find the same ease of conversation with the hip-hop artists of the day, and the connection starts to break down further when faced with the stony wall of controversy-averse, wholesome image and brand protection of Kylie, Britney Spears and Beyoncé. Even here however and within these failures, Patterson searches for the 'real' and the 'authentic' and finds that the dangerous conflicted spirit of Richey Manic still resides in the likes of Eminem and Amy Winehouse, bringing with it its own problematic self-destructive urges. Not everyone might agree with the musical qualities of the artists she picks out for special examination during these years, but in the safe sea of James Blunt, Snow Patrol, Coldplay and Westlife, Patterson's observations and questions reveal unexpected personality traits and responses to the changing musical landscape manufactured by the Industry.
If there is one aspect that proves difficult for the author to view objectively and from a distance, it's her own part in the history of the music industry during this tumultuous and - looking back on it now - just as richly dynamic a period of music as that of golden '78 to '83 period. Patterson's own life is of course wholly intertwined in the whole scene, albeit a more modest contribution and one that certain doesn't bring with it fortune and fame. In the more reflective closing chapters, seeing the collapse of the music criticism in the printed medium and confronted with the backlash of unintended consequences, the author is forced to recognise that music journalists collectively might also have to take some of the blame for what has happened in the music industry. If artists have failed to live up to the unreasonable standards that music journalists held them to and feel the pressure of a 'build them up and tear them down' attitude, it's no wonder that the Industry has sought to protect their highly lucrative 'investment' and gone on to manufacture their own glamourised image of perfection to sell to the public.
But that's more a sign of the times than it is a consequence of music journalism. You can't really blame music journalists for the decline in political awareness and social responsibility in the wider world any more than you can blame the artists for not living up to the ideals of the post-punk generation. It might not look like Revolution - quite the opposite in fact - but Revolution can take many forms. This wider view of the world peeks through every now and again in the author's reflections on her own personal and family life growing up in Perth in Scotland and in her precarious hand-to-mouth existence as a freelancer in London. It's not there to provide a little bit of autobiographical background to make the book a more personable read, it's part of this firm belief - one for which I'm not with the band makes a great case - that, for better or worse, music must reflect the times we live in, and the two - music and life - are inseparable.
I'm not with the band by Sylvia Patterson is published by Sphere on 16th June 2016.