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Noodles and Ketchup Alan Rider exhumes the rotten corpse of the music business with Telegraph music journalist and author of 'Bodies', Ian Winwood

Noodles and Ketchup

Alan Rider exhumes the rotten corpse of the music business with Telegraph music journalist and author of 'Bodies', Ian Winwood

by Alan Rider, Contributing Editor
first published: May, 2024

approximate reading time: minutes

"Not everyone in music falls prey to the dramatic circumstances I write about, but what does happen is that it marks everyone in in some way or other. They are permanently tattooed by the experience."

Ian WinwoodLong time writer for Metal magazine Kerrang! and current music correspondent for The Telegraph, Ian Winwood has been in the business of writing about music for a while, having interviewed, and been behind the scenes with, some of the biggest guitar bands in the world (Nirvana and Green Day amongst them), and also been threatened by others to “snap his neck like a twig” in revenge for a negative review, a risk he is prepared to take for his art. More recently, he has become known as the author of best-selling book ‘Bodies’, which lays bare the price of fame extracted by a predatory and uncaring music business, which routinely chews up and spits out young lives, dreams, and futures, without regard. It makes for dark, if entertaining, reading and Ian is well qualified to comment, having struggled with, and conquered, a drug habit himself, whilst watching fragile rock star egos around him implode with disastrous effects for those concerned. It holds a grim fascination, and Outsideleft felt compelled to touch base with Ian at his Camden flat to talk more about that, and also muse together about how things have changed in today’s music biz, yet the same pressures and insecurities remain, or are even magnified.

OUTSIDELEFT: A little bit earlier, when we were chatting, we touched on an article you wrote for The Telegraph where you described yourself as a best-selling, but broke, author. Is the writing business a bit like the music business in the way creatives are treated?
IAN WINWOOD: There is a sort of Venn diagram between the experiences that I write about in 'Bodies' and the experiences I've had as an author, and the experiences that other authors that I have spoken to have also had. There is a lot of common ground, and quite a big overlap. It's occurred to me more than once that I could very easily write a similar kind of book to 'Bodies' about the experiences of authors, but without perhaps the sex and drugs and the chaos of rock and roll. I guess I could also do one for actors, too, and probably no end of creatives. As with musicians, authors are very much at the bottom of the heap in an industry that wouldn't exist without us. I'm not Robert Harris, but 'Bodies' is still in the top 30 on Amazon. That's 25 months after it was published, so I'm sort of in the top 5%. It has attracted enough word-of-mouth recommendations to keep it going. Nonetheless, I feel, and I know music makers feel, that we’re an unimportant cog in our respective industries, and that sort of leads to feelings of powerlessness and a lack of agency. Every author that I know recognises that on some level, including best-selling authors. It's a tough field to work in, and earnings by authors have fallen by 61% since 2005.

OL: It feels like there are definite parallels between the sort of situations that you're writing about in 'Bodies' and the exploitation that authors, and probably other creatives, experience. The reason that 'Bodies' has become a sleeper hit, is because it resonates with a lot of people. Even if they're not at a stage where they're about to enter into that industry, they recognise the experience and the risks and they sympathise with it. I'm just wondering if maybe you might have put some people off starting a new band after they read your book?
IW:
I'd hope not. When I was writing it, I would never have been so presumptuous as to think ‘oh, how is this going to affect the industry’? All I wanted to do was tell the story as I knew it. It's obviously quite a dramatic book.  I spent so much time obsessing over it, and in a way, I'm still kind of obsessing over it, and my thoughts about it have continued over the two and a half years since I finished it. Of course, not everyone in music falls prey to the dramatic circumstances I write about, but what does happen is that it marks everyone in in some way or other. They are permanently tattooed by the experience. An example at the less dramatic end of the narrative would be bands who broke up after a couple of years, having been through the industry experience. 

I was planning to include a band in the book called The Blackout. Some of your readers might know who they were. They were a band from South Wales, but the reason I didn't put them in the book is because I had the Lost Prophets doing the same sort of thing, but with a much more dramatic experience. The Blackout went to Los Angeles and recorded an album, and I remember going to Tokyo to interview them and they looked so grey. The music I could take or leave, as I said, actually, about the Lost Prophets too, but they were fantastic people. They were young lads from The Valleys, South Wales, from a post-industrial town, which I could relate to, because I came from a post-industrial town, and they were just so much fun, so lovely, and kind, and boisterous in the best kind of way. They drew a crowd of a few 1000 people when headlining, but they also went as tour support to My Chemical Romance, and I remember seeing them at Wembley Arena and they got a really great reception. It's tempting for them, and other bands like them, to think all that cheering is for them, but it's not really. It's a good-natured crowd, who are happy to be at Wembley Arena, and they're just enjoying themselves. I think that is evidenced by the fact that a couple of years later, they were unable to raise the funds from a record company to record an album, so they had to crowdfund it. After that, they just ran out of steam.

Shaun Smith [Blackout singer] is a lovely lad and a very charismatic singer, a very capable, charismatic 'Rock Star', really. Then suddenly, he is back in Cardiff, with no band, and no money, and it is like Henry Hill at the end of Goodfellas, when he's in the witness protection scene, saying "it's the life that I miss. I went out for spaghetti marinara, and I got noodles and ketchup instead" and Shaun must have been thinking "Oh, my God. I’ve played in Tokyo, I've played at Wembley Arena, and now I haven't got a job and I'm broke". If it wasn't for some of the guys from Dirty Sanchez - I'm not even sure what Dirty Sanchez is! - asking him to manage a tattoo parlour, he doesn't know what he would have done. So, it's marked him in that way. You see numerous examples of bands, though, who have who have dissolved in what looks to me like very regrettable circumstances, yet it doesn't take much to get them back together again. It's a compulsion.  Once it's bitten you, it's very difficult to let go.

OL: There are so many bands that have re-formed, going right back to the '70s, or even '60s.  A lot of bands had a modicum of success and then split, but in the intervening years, their reputation starts to increase and people get nostalgic about them, and then they reform. There's a huge list of people that are playing the nostalgia circuit in order to feed that compulsive need you talked about. In some ways, it feels a bit like a hamster wheel.  I talked to Gus from the band Boy Harsher a while ago, and he was saying that after every show someone comes up to him and says "you really rocked tonight" and he knows that the next week they will be saying the same to a different band, so there is always that pressure to do better than last time to keep up. For mid-level bands, touring and selling their merch is the only way they can generate any income, so they have to keep on touring all the time.
IW:
There has been reports recently about bands at club level actually losing money touring, even as headline groups. I rather blindly assumed two years ago or three years ago, when I was putting the book together, that the live circuit was solid ground, that it was dependable. Now even that seems less so. We are facing, I guess, a demographic time bomb. If you think of the stadium tours, for guitar-based music, you've got AC/DC. Well, I'd be very surprised if they went out on tour again. You've got Pearl Jam, who might have another good 10-15 years in them, and you've got Green Day. You've got Springsteen, but there's no getting away from the fact that he's 75. You know, these are people that are older than I am! The only 21st century guitar band that has ascended to stadium level is the Arctic Monkeys.

OL: Maybe Muse too? Mind you, most of those huge bands are in their 60s and 70s, aren't they?
IW:
So the decision might be made for us, that the rock age at least is coming to a close, because if nostalgia is the market leader, by definition, those bands are likely to be early middle aged at least.

OL: And yet, still they keep on re-forming! In the book you talk about somebody who was previously in a band, but ended up working in a dull ordinary job and was looking back and thinking ‘what did I do with my life’?
IW:
That was Lawrence from The Fearless Vampire Killers. Ruth and I were getting our marriage licence approved at one of the registry offices in the borough of Camden. He was the Registrar and had been disinterested to the point of rudeness up to that point, until he looked at my passport and said "you reviewed my band". I thought this really could go either way! We got talking and it turned out I had reviewed them favourably, or at least somewhat faithfully, which was a relief. He cut a sad figure, and said sometimes he worked in the office that overlooked KoKo, down by Mornington Crescent station, and he'd look out and see the crowds queuing up to see Creeper, who were similar to Fearless Vampire Killers, and he just thought ‘my god, what have I done with my life?’. Then, after the book was published, the Fearless Vampire Killers got back together, and I went to see them play at The Dome in Tufnell Park, and he was like a rock star again. It's like I said, it's very difficult to leave all that behind.

OL: The rewards aren't necessarily financial now, are they? Having made a career elsewhere, they come back into it because they love it, and they love doing it. They know they're not going make any money doing it, really.  Maybe a few quid here and there, but ultimately, it's not a profession, it's an enjoyment.
IW:
Yes, it is, and I guess if you go back for a second bite of the cherry, you're better able to navigate those things. I still wonder whether the dream is still alive in a sense. Other than doing this for the joy, every band, I think, quietly asks themselves why they are not more commercially successful than they are? Even bands, perhaps, who are filling Tottenham Hotspur stadium, are still wondering why it can't be greater?

OL: Part of that might be ego as well, because in order to get up on stage, they need to have an ego, and there's a need there to be liked. They're desperate to be liked, they're insecure. It's a hand-to-mouth existence for most bands and unless you've really built up a good legacy, each gig doesn't actually count for very much, as the nature of everything nowadays is much more transient. So, you've got to keep producing things at volume all the time to maintain that level of interest. The sharing, almost oversharing, culture that we've got now, where every aspect of your life is public property, seems to be a necessary thing for all bands. Do you think that's going to increase the pressure on them and the pressure on their mental health?
IW:
This has been a thing, yes, but I don't know about mental health. People have attached the mental health tag to Bodies, and I understand why, but there is a part of me that recoils slightly from the term 'mental health', I guess because I'm not medically qualified to write about that field. I prefer to think of it as a book about people's lives, and my own life, and about exploitation and unhappiness and the normalisation of chaos, really, and that's something that the music industry certainly does. The term 'music industry' is actually a little bit of a misnomer now, because in terms of its presentation, in terms of an artist's presentation, music is only the engine now. It probably has been really since the advent of MTV in the 1980s, when suddenly, music makers were required to think of themselves in more than a musical sense and also think of themselves in a presentational sense, whereas previously, they'd only have to do that in photographs and on stage. Suddenly, it was a visual medium as well. Now of course, with social media there is the direct communication between an artist and the audience. When I was growing up, unless the member of the band was the singer, I really didn't know what their voices sounded like.  I didn't know what their speaking voices sounded like. Now they're speaking directly to their audience, or prospective audience, through Instagram, through Tik Tok, there's all sorts of things we know about them. So, it's changed the game. I don't know if it's changed it for the better, or for the worse.  It’s not something that I have really considered, but it's definitely changed. In that sense, they can't stop doing that constant updating. The making of the music itself, is much less constant. That's definitely a factor. The time spent between recording albums seems to be increasing, a trend that really started in the late '80s. Then, there would be an urge for a band to release an album a year, or an album every two years, but now that is unusually frequent. Gaps of three, four, or five years, are more common

OL: I can’t completely agree with that, because many artists are extremely prolific, perhaps not at the higher level, but at the mid and lower levels, because the technology now allows them to produce all the time. I know plenty of people that will do three, four, albums a year, and they'll be doing other things in between - collaborations and stuff like that. They have to generate this volume, because it's small amounts they're selling through Bandcamp, at gigs, etc, so they have to keep that going. If they only released new material every four or five years, they would be out of business completely.
IW:
I will defer to your superior knowledge in that regard. Inevitably, my filter for music is that I'm looking for things that I might be able to write about professionally, and no one would commission me to write about those artists. So unfortunately, I overlook them, but that is interesting to hear.

OL: You write about music and bands fairly exclusively and people clearly have this insatiable appetite for reading about music.  I'm thinking, isn't the music enough? Why isn't the music enough? You talked about how bands now have to present a lot more than just the ability to play an instrument, or to hold down a tune, bash a drum kit, warble into the mic, or whatever. They need to do a lot more than that, and people are very interested. That's given you a market obviously for your writing for The Telegraph and new books, but why do you think people are so interested in reading about music rather than just listening?
IW:
Because I think that the connection between the vessel of music is so direct, and so immediate, that you feel an attachment to the people who have made it. If you think about it, the two, if not THE two, most pivotal moments in the history of Rock and roll, was Elvis - you'll have to look up the show - Merle something, I think - in the 50s [Elvis's controversial appearance on The Milton Berle Show in June 1956 that earned him the nickname 'Elvis The Pelvis'], Springsteen writes about that in his book, and the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.  Both of those were artists playing music, but they were playing music within a visual setting. So perhaps it's always been about more than music. Or perhaps it's always been particularly powerful when it's when it's more than music. I think it's understandable for a variety of reasons that people want to know more in a way that they wouldn't perhaps when it comes to an author. For example, Thomas Pynchon is one of my favourite authors, and he's never given an interview. People don't know what he looks like. There is a mystique in that. Then again, that sort of mystique is a visual aspect as well, so I think the two have always gone hand in hand. It tends to be that older people don't get into new bands so much. There are some that do, and make and make the effort to do so, but the trajectory tends to be that you make your firmest musical allergic allegiances when you were an adolescent and in your early 20s. You want to know everything about these bands. So I can name the studio where 'Master of Puppets' by Metallica was recorded. I know that ‘Spike’ by Elvis Costello was recorded at four different studios, and I can tell you the cities that they were recorded in. Music just lends itself to that sort of absorption. The term 'fan' of course, is a diminution of the word 'fanatic', and it is, I think, only in music that the word 'fan' is applicable in a non-derogatory sense. I might rush out to see a new film by Scorsese or David Cronenberg, but I'm not sure that I consider myself a fanatic. I'm just a keen admirer of their work, but I am a fanatic of certain bands. I think that the fact the singers are not actors, they're telling you a story through song. they're revealing something about themselves through song, it is natural, and inevitable, that you would like to know more and I think that's always been the case. As we march through the 21st century, new technology is just a furtherance of that, and I think it's a bit of a blind alley to wonder about questions of things getting better or worse. It's just a new avenue.

OL: It's an enabler, isn't it?  I guess music also forms a soundtrack to events in your life, and if you're following a band, you're going to see that band play multiple times. You probably wouldn't go and see a film four or five times at different cinema halls across the country, you just wouldn't do that. The fact that they're performing in person too is important. A film director is not personally there showing you his film, whereas the band has to be there to do the gig, so you've got that direct connection there as well. There is also curiosity, and voyeurism to a certain extent.  That's your business, isn't it? because people are reading what you're writing about these bands. They're curious to know, and you're their representative.
IW:
When I became a music journalist, I was a gatekeeper between the band and the readers, and as a band, if you didn't get endorsement through the exposure of the music press, it became very difficult to make your mark.  Now, I'm not really necessary, I'm not needed at all. I sort of welcome that actually.  All I can do now is tell a story, and I've sort of become like an artisan, I suppose, in the field of music journalism. That's my purpose now - observing and commenting, and all I can do to justify my existence, not as an author you understand, but as a music journalist, is to write something that is readable, on its own terms, and to a standard that is beyond someone who doesn't write for a living. The music industry itself, and the music magazines too, are engaged in an exercise of collective delusion, collective denial. Bands continue to make albums, when the form itself is probably, if not dead, then certainly changed beyond all recognition. They are doing it out of force of habit, and PR Agencies are sort justifying their existence by getting their artists placed in what few magazines remain, and increasingly on websites. I do wonder how much this stuff is actually necessary anymore. I might be being pessimistic, but the direction of travel is not promising in that regard. The idea that potential listeners would look at what a review said in the way that they would now with a film review, as a steer as to whether they would buy the album, you don't have to do that anymore. Why would you read an album review, if it weren't for the joy of reading itself? You don't need my permission anymore to go and buy an album, because you're not actually spending money on it, and you can find out about it elsewhere. I think that the cards have yet to have reset on exactly what this new world of journalism is.

OL: You've done quite a lot of reviews of bands and releases over the years; positive ones, and probably negative ones as well. Has anyone come after you because of a bad review?
IW:
I wrote a negative feature about Nickelback in 2002, that was received so badly that Chad Kroeger, the singer, challenged me by name to a charity boxing match from the stage every night on the group's arena tour that that winter. So that was quite extreme. Dave Mustaine from Megadeth said he'd snap my neck like a twig! David Draiman from Disturbed said that he would beat me within an inch of my life and happily serve the prison sentence. and it's not unusual to have that happen [the bad reaction, I assume, rather than the bloody violence!]. As a younger man, I used to be quite a blood thirsty music journalist, and I will defend that instinct, but I don't have it so much anymore. I have always thought that the job, at its simplest, is to is to make the distance between what I know and what I think, and what I'm able to tell the readership, to be as thin as possible. I was consciously reacting against music journalists, who wanted to be close to bands, and wanted to be part of the team. I always thought, and still think, that my first responsibility is to the reader, particularly back then when I was implying that they should spend their money on the stuff that I was writing about. That was very important to me. I didn't want to be considered 'reliable' by artists, so I would often turn on artists that I had previously been very positive about, even some of my favourite artists. I've written negative things about Green Day. I've written negative things about Frank Turner. I just don't ever, and I still don't, want to be regarded as house trained!

I think the unavoidable truth, though, is that music is no longer the vanguard that it once was, for artists, or for audiences. When you were living in the 1980s, or the 1970s, if you wanted to insert your voice into the public bloodstream, particularly when it came to punk and punk rock, the fastest way of doing that was learning to play your instrument to a functional level, and putting out an EP, single, or an album on an independent label, and boom, you were in there. The Buzzcocks did it that way, for example. The immediacy of that was the same for the audience as well. Now, that's glacially slow. You know, you can go viral on social media in the space of an hour. What has been lost, is that music is just now among the firmament, and for people who love music and who truly, truly, love music, the culture of identifying with bands still exists, it's still there for people that want to seek it out, but it's no longer the first port of call.  If you want to share your opinion or thoughts, you can do that quicker on Tic Toc than you can write even the fastest song. The game has just changed completely, and music has to accept that.

OL: We could talk all day about that, and about the advent of AI, but just to finish off, the music press as it was back then was powerful, and a bad review could actually harm people's careers and therefore have a very negative effect personally. So, by being a reviewer, are you potentially a part of the problem that you're writing about?
IW
: Yes, potentially, I am part of the problem. I do bear that in mind much more these days, that if I write something negative about someone, that might have a detrimental effect on them. I think it's quite easy to mitigate that, though. For one thing, don't punch down, don't unload your guns on a young band, that's just starting out. That's just bullying. You can write negatively in a constructive way, but if an artist is willing to let their music be heard before it's released by music journalists, and critics, in order that they give their opinion, then we are being invited to give our opinion on that work. I don't really think it's my business to it to imagine the effect that that might have on them in a worst-case scenario, but as I said, you can mitigate it by not taking cheap shots, but at the same time telling the truth as you see it.

Being a music journalist clearly hasn’t got any easier over the years.  Neither has being an author, even a best selling one, but Ian’s honesty, realism, and experience has given him a unique and uncompromising insider/outside view that promises his next book is likely to be every bit as compelling as ‘Bodies’.


Essential information
Main image on this page by Paul Harries
‘Bodies’ is available in an expanded second edition from the usual online sellers and real bookshops everywhere.

Alan Rider
Contributing Editor

Alan Rider is a Norfolk based writer and electronic musician from Coventry, who splits his time between excavating his own musical past and feeding his growing band of hedgehogs, usually ending up combining the two. Alan also performs in Dark Electronic act Senestra and manages the indie label Adventures in Reality.


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