Rock Stars Stole My Life by Mark Ellen

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The Observer, March 2015

Mark Ellen surveys the happy youngsters comfortably cavorting at Glastonbury, marvelling at Primal Scream beneath a harvest moon. “You bastards,” moans the music journalist and editor, recalling his nascent festival experiences in the early 1970s, of trench foot, scurvy and Van der Graaf Generator. “You don’t know how lucky you are.”

Still, there’s a misty-eyed reverence for the past in Ellen’s entertaining memoir of five decades surrounded by music – which is to be expected. This, after all, is the man who launched Mojo magazine after realising there was a potential readership who liked music that was “magical and built to last”. For Ellen, the magic began with the discovery of the Beatles and the Kinks, Small Faces and Chicken Shack. Like a character from Jonathan Coe’s novel The Rotters’ Club, his comfortable 60s and 70s adolescence discussing the meaning of prog is ditched for a squat in Battersea, where he begins to pen florid gig reviews for Record Mirror and NME.

Whether by luck or talent (Ellen bashfully proposes the former, but there’s no denying his formidable magazine craft), he was in the right place at the right time. He experienced NME in its late 70s heyday of Burchill, Parsons, Kent and Shaar Murray. He worked on Smash Hits! in the glorious 1980s, gleefully firing Shakin’ Stevens towards pop’s “dumper”, and then co-anchored Live Aid. Ellen hit it off with Noel Gallagher, and Mojo gave Oasis their first monthly magazine cover, in 1994. The rock anecdotes from these eras should be spectacular, and the build-up to Live Aid in particular is fascinating, but they’re wryly enjoyable rather than hugely revealing… except when Lady Gaga takes off all her clothes in front of him.

In fact, though Ellen reveals a touchingly nerdy delight in meeting his heroes, the people around the music are far more intriguing. Tony Blair is the frontman of his Oxford University band, Ugly Rumours, beginning every sentence with “guys…” and imploring them to practice more. Ellen co-habits another squat with soon-to-be-seminal photographer Anton Corbijn, whose self-belief is intoxicating, and shares a tearful glass of wine in the early hours with John Peel, as they discuss the brilliance of Lonnie Donegan – the same Peel who felt mildly threatened by Ellen taking temporary charge of his show years before.

Tears – exasperated ones, this time – almost flow as Ellen bookends Rock Stars Stole My Life with the tale of excess that was Rihanna’s 777 tour, which he covered for Elle by getting four hours sleep, and no quotes, in a week. He is simultaneously appalled and enthralled by the madness of it all… the very definition of a music fan, in fact.

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