The Words of Richard Williams, part 2
By By Simon Warner
Simon: So in 1980 you finished your stint as Editor at Melody Maker.
Richard: I freelanced again. I had written since 1970 for the Times doing reviews. Miles Kington was the Pop Editor in the '60s. When he didn't want to do it anymore he suggested to John Higgins, the Arts Editor, that he might ask me to do some stuff and I had a good relationship with John, so I wrote, y'know...I didn't work for them when I was at Island, but when I was at the Melody Maker and Time Out I did write reviews for him. As soon as I left the Melody Maker I started writing more for the Times. After a few months Harry Evans took over as Editor and he offered me a staff job doing a weekly listings magazine, which was an innovation at the time, because I'd been around, I knew about listings from Time Out. It was called Preview, a tabloid newsprint, but such an innovation that it did not attract advertising, so they changed it. Then Harry Evans went in under rather weird circumstances and Charlie Douglas Home took over and he stopped Preview because that was identified with Harry, and he made it a Saturday "Leisure" section, and he asked me to edit that. So that was a step up, and I was still writing about music on and off and then eventually there was a new daily features page and I edited that. Then Charlie died and Charlie Wilson took over and I became Deputy Sports Editor. Then I became Features Editor when we moved to Wapping. The move to Wapping was not something I apologize for because, I think, despite the fact I hate Murdoch and his works, there was an historical inevitability about it. If Wapping hadn't happened, the Independent wouldn't have happened either. The technology we use here today could have been six years further down the line...what that would have done to the economics of the paper. It sort of liberated everybody, except those who lost their jobs.
Simon: So, by this time did you feel as if you were emerging as a mainstream journalist rather than a music specialist?
Richard: Yes, by that time I certainly was.
Simon: And that particular trend has continued to the present day?
Richard: Yes. Under Charlie Wilson I became Features Editor and then Assistant Editor in charge of features--arts, leisure, that side of things--so I was number four or five on the paper, but eventually I got sick of Murdoch. I could have stayed there forever, no doubt, but I decided that by that point I didn't want to be the editor of a national newspaper for various reasons and I didn't want to work for Murdoch any more so I resigned without anything to go to. But it was the summer when the Sunday Correspondent and the Independent on Sunday were launched, so I went to join the launch staff of the IOS as Sports Editor for the first six months, then I edited the Sunday Review for 2 or 3 years. Editing the Sunday Review was the most satisfying job I could possibly have had in journalism because I could do anything. It was a very, very flexible thing. The only thing people expected of it was to be surprised and pleased.
Simon: It was a very good magazine which I read avidly.
Richard: Writers like Tim de Lisle and Zoe Heller worked for it. But then while I was doing that the Sports Editor lost somebody who was going to Barcelona for the 1992 Olympics and he said, "Do you want a busman's holiday?" He knew I loved sport, always have done. "Do you want to go and do some features at the Games?" I said yes and did the Olympics for a month and finally discovered what I should have been doing for all of my life. I came back and said, "Can I be a sports writer instead of editing the magazine?" and that was it! So I've done far more sports reporting really in the last ten years than I've done writing about music in the last 30 odd years.
Simon: One thing I would like to ask you about is when the UK rock glossy revolution happened in the mid-1980s I would have thought it would have been tailor-made for someone with your talents and experience. I know you have done some writing for the glossies over the last decade and a half.
Richard: By which you mean Q...
Simon: And Mojo and so on...
Richard: I never wanted to go back into music full-time. Now, the further away I get from writing about it the more I listen, not that I ever didn't listen, but I just find myself buying albums--I don't get free records anymore--and I listen all the time, and one of the things I feel quite strongly about is that writing about sport is a lot easier than writing about music.
Simon: I was going to ask you about that because as someone who has been a football reporter and also written about music, I wonder if you find them different beasts.
Richard: Very, very different. With sport you are not trying to convey the abstract all the time, not trying to tell people what colour a note is. I found writing about music...eventually I didn't exactly run out of words, but I had a sort of exhaustion and I wanted to stop or cut right down on that. But with sport you always get a result, it happens in front of you, it's physical, you can see it. Sport reveals character so it's interesting to write about. The way people play a game is generally the way they are as a person and you can't say that about music. Stan Getz made the most beautiful sound in the history of music but he was the biggest bastard God ever created and you can't correlate the two things at all. Hendrix and Coltrane made very violent music but they were very peaceful men, so you can't write about their music in terms of them or them in terms of their music. It would be very, very misleading.
Simon: What do you think about the Marxist critic like Terry Eagleton who feels that football, for instance, has been the most damaging issue or obstacle to social progress because men like you and me and millions of other men, principally, sublimate all their energies into this rather inconsequential pursuit?
Richard: He may very well have a point. It's a sort of opiate of the masses. But there'd always be something given the development of the consumer society. You could say the same about shopping; I think shopping is probably far more damaging than football in that respect. Shopping's a sport now, isn't it? It's a kind of sport and an entertainment. More people do shopping than go to football matches, but largely for the same reasons: to fill our time with something enjoyable.
Simon: In fact, last Sunday, I was travelling in a taxi through north Manchester quite early, and I saw hordes of cars. I thought it was huge gathering of the Catholics of North Manchester gathering for an early mass. But no it was a car boot sale, the new religion maybe.
Richard: I like the fact that sport, like the best music, has an element of indeterminacy to it. You don't know what's going to happen when you walk in, unlike a film. The outcome of the film has been determined by some idiot scriptwriter.
Simon: And also, these days, by audiences at test screenings, which is depressing.
Richard: Terribly depressing. With sport you really don't know what's going to happen. You walk into an empty stadium and for the next five hours it will be filled by 100,000 people and something fantastic will happen. I love that whole sensation; I like writing about it--it's never the same twice. People care about it so they want to talk about. I don't just do football; I do all sorts of things with enormous pleasure, and because I drive around a lot I can listen to even more music in quite good conditions, in a car.
Simon: The CD player in the car is a great thing isn't it...
Richard: And I still try to listen to as much music as possible, but I am not competent to judge death metal or hip hop.
Simon: You maybe mean nu-metal!
Richard: I mean nu-metal, yes! Now I've a son of 15 years old who lends me his Rage Against the Machine and My Vitriol CDs.
Simon: Rage are Interesting, I think.
Richard: Yes, it's all interesting but I don't like it very much. Yet I do feel there is as much good stuff out now as there ever was, if not more.
Simon: It's also because the industry is now geared up to re-issue, re-package, re-sell in an irresistible way. I bought Neil Young's Decade the other day, three LPs now in a two CD set.
Richard: And you've probably got everything on it
Simon: But you can't resist it. I want that to play in the car!
Richard: I came back from Japan from the football World Cup having to throw away trousers, shoes, all kinds of things, in order to get all the CDs in...and I've got almost all the stuff, beautiful re-packages and so on!
Simon: It's an extraordinary trick the recording industry has managed to pull off...
Richard: I do find with music--music has always moved me. That was the important thing about it, but it moves me even more than ever now. I think I'm more likely to be touched by it.
Simon: Just two or three closing questions. Would you be interested in commenting on Simon Frith's assessment of you as the best pop writer on this side of the Atlantic. Do you feel as if this is praise indeed?
Richard: Yes. In my time I was right more often than anybody else. I was not wrong very much. If that is the criterion then fair enough. I think Nick Kent was a wonderful writer, Charlie Murray was a wonderful writer, Michael Watts was, a few others...I don't know if I was as good as that. They somehow got themselves into a position where they could devote the time to concentrating on long pieces very successfully and I never did that. I don't think that I had a portfolio nearly as good as theirs. When I did Long Distance Call, that was an attempt to adjust that. I tried to find the things that had lasted and add some new ones and give an account of myself as a music critic.
Simon: There was also--although there isn't a cynical note to your writing--that slight snipe about NME picking up on the Elvis piece, a piece of fiction in fact. That would have been a dream session with Jerry Wexler and so on... [The piece referred to here is a fictional account of Presley returning to the recording studio in the mid-1970s with an all-time great production team and a gathering of red-hot session-men to lay down some new, high quality material, a genuine case of what might've been--Simon.]
Richard: It was a lovely thing to write. You could do that for everybody, but nobody had at that point. I really enjoyed that. That was when I was at Time Out and was writing a column for Ray Coleman. Another one I wish I could find was one I did when "Anarchy in the UK" came out. I did a column that was set in the year 2000 or it might have been 1996, 20 years hence, in the form of inter-office memos from a record company--Virgin A&M Polydor, a multi-corporation of the future--saying can't we persuade Johnny to leave his Malibu beach-house and his Hollywood actress wife. I'd used Rod Stewart's life as a template and transposed Johnny Rotten to it...
Simon: Uncannily true.
Richard: Uncannily--down to the blonde actress. That was good fun.
Simon: You've mentioned some of the English writers you favour. Are there any Americans you've read and enjoyed?
Richard: Yes, I like Nick Tosches a lot, I like and admire Peter Guralnick, I admire Greil Marcus without always liking what he writes, Robert Christgau, Stanley Booth I like very much, although he does not write that much now. Rhythm Oil is a collection of his pieces. Lots of jazz writers--Nat Hentoff, Leroi Jones, Martin Williams, all those people. Those are the people that I learnt from.
Simon: In 2002 there is this burgeoning rock print scene, all sorts of things happening. I know that Melody Maker has died which must have given you the most dismal feeling.
Richard: I was pleased, actually. I thought it should have been put out of its misery quite a long time earlier. I thought it had lost its meaning, lost its purpose. I thought it was sad to see it drifting into just triviality, really. Its time had gone, I'm sorry to say, but there we are. I felt relief.
Simon: But in terms of the magazines that are now on the shelves, Mojo, Q--there are lots of magazines that cover rock music including NME of course. Do you have any sort of assessment of the state of rock coverage today?
Richard: I have very little time for anything I read about music at all. Mojo has some good historical pieces and it has some great critical writing as well sometimes, but I think most people have just wandered off into a set of imperatives that aren't mine. I read about the new Springsteen album and how wonderful it is or how it's at least a slightly flawed success, and I think there's one decent track out of 15. What are people doing with their ears? I think they are hearing what they want to hear. They want to think that something is a good idea. Nowadays you are so surrounded by things that are really nothing more than an assembly of attractive ideas. I read about the Coral and I read that they are a mix of Brian Wilson, bits of Burt Bacharach, lots of things that I like. But I know now or I have a pretty shrewd idea--and this is very unfair on the band because they are not that wonderful--what to expect. But I've been burnt by that so many times in the last two years by critics writing things like that. I go out and slam down my £15--and it isn't any good. So there's nobody actually now who can make me go out and buy a record.
Simon: No critic?
Richard: Absolutely not.
Simon: How has the rise of the net affected your life? Do you think that web coverage of music is...
Richard: I don't have an MP3, I don't do any of that sort of thing at all; probably wish I did.
Simon: What about e-zines that cover music--do you check any of those out? Perfect Sound Forever, Kinda Muzik, and so on...
Richard: Spectropop is one that I read on a daily basis. It's a site originally devoted to early Sixties American pop music--of the Spector, Brill Building type and I just happened upon it about 18 months ago. It's just absolutely delightful. It's much, much broader now, all kinds of things can find their way into it. It leads you in wonderful directions and you learn about things you didn't even know existed within your sphere of interest and sometimes broadening it. So I do read that every day--it's very good fun. The other website I always read is Rock's Backpages, Barney Hoskyns's archival site. But they're the only ones I look at regularly. If I am pursuing some line of enquiry then I will obviously go to the net. But I do tend to read a lot of biographies. I have got a lot of them waiting to be read, mostly jazz. I just read a big new Chet Baker book, I've got Gil Evans waiting. I read Ben Edmonds's book on Marvin Gaye--most of what I consider to be the best work is in books now.
Simon: One thing I would like to ask you about is the subject of popular music and the academy. I have worked on a popular music BA for the last eight years. Do you have any feelings about the way academe might be starting to move into this terrain? Is it something you are suspicious of or complimentary of? How do you feel about the meeting of university study and popular music?
Richard: I don't really have any view. It's not the way, the academic way, that I, by and large, listen to music. Perhaps in some ways I wish it was. I would probably write longer pieces. It's probably because it's not how I came to it. It's not how I grew up in it and I am not sure that teaching it to people in that way is a particularly valuable exercise.
Simon: You don't see it as a logical extension?
Richard: Yes, it 's a logical extension. It doesn't mean I have to like it or participate in it. Everything becomes, quite rightly...shopping is a subject of academic study, so why not music? I spent a few days in Nottingham this weekend and one night I just walked around all the places that had been of significance to me and it seemed like a very rich experience, thinking of all these clubs, coffee bars which are other things now. Nottingham's still a great, lively place, but not in that way. There used to be four or five clubs and I just thought of all the things I'd seen, and I thought of how natural it had been. My response to music is, I suppose, intuitive and visceral rather than academic, even though some of the music I like is quite complex, abstract, dry.
Simon: One of the things Simon Frith did say in his book Sound Effects, one of the key texts that addressed popular music as a cultural form in the early 1980s, was that most rock critics were interested in the sociology or the culture of the music they were listening to but had little of the apparatus to appreciate the mechanics of rhythm, harmony and melody, the elements that are integral components. I feel when I have returned to and read your stuff in the last few weeks as if you're quite serious in the way you listen to the music. Would that be fair to say?
Richard: It would certainly be fair to say that.
Simon: Do you understand the music?
Richard: I do, yes, I do. And I'm interested in how it makes me feel. If it was an early Who single, I'm interested in how that made me feel, and I a lot of other kids feel, or what about a Motown record made a lot of us dance at a particular time. But I'm more interested in how it does that musically, I think. That's the underlying core at it. The way that the backbeat and bass line works, rather than something else. That's how I listen to music. I listen to the notes. In my time I have also toyed with the violin, the double bass, the piano, the alto saxophone and the cornet. With the wind instruments I learnt, or taught myself, only just enough to know how they worked. I had piano lessons as a child. And I spent a fair amount of time with the violin and bass, playing in school and county youth orchestras. I also sang in various choirs. So with a bit of guitar and a lot of drums/percussion, I think I have a fairly broad-based knowledge of the mechanics of music. That certainly informs, although it does not determine the way I listen to music. That's really what I'm interested in and perhaps it explains why my real heroes are people like Steve Cropper at Stax, Benny Benjamin and James Jamerson at Motown, and Al Duncan at Chess. Sub-cultural and sociological aspects are always fun, but the only one I was ever really a member of was Mod. And I loved that. That's still how I feel. I liked hippie music but I never wanted to be more interested in the audience than the musician. That's probably a lot of what's happened to music. Not in the case of nu-metal, I suppose, and various others, but clubbing is all about the audience. I'm interested in music that breathes rather than repeats itself according to encoded digital signals.
Simon Warner is a lecturer, writer and broadcaster on popular music matters. He teaches Popular Music Studies at the University of Leeds in the UK and makes regular contributions on radio and television on rock topics. Between 1992-1995 he was a rock reviewer with the Guardian and published the book Rockspeak: The Language of Rock and Pop in 1996. His next title, Popular Music for Beginners, is due to appear though Writers and Readers and a new volume of popular music and literature is in preparation. His monthly column, Anglo Visions, appears in the Chicago-based e-zine Pop Matters.