Dave Woodhall talks to music writer and now raconteur Mick Wall.
Mick Wall is one of the foremost rock journalists of the past forty years. He’s known the biggest names in the business and witnessed first-hand their legendary behaviour, good and bad, on and off-stage. Some of the best (and most unprintable) stories will be told at the Robin 2 next month when Mick will be on stage to give a first-hand account of life with the legends. Before then we spoke to him about what he’s up to.
“I’ve a new book coming out about Meatloaf called Like a Bat Out of Hell but the show isn’t specifically about that. it’s about everything I’ve done, things I’ve found out when researching books. In collaboration and under my own name it’s about 26 or 27 books and the idea of the show is to tell stories because that’s what I am.
“People get the impression that I’m the world’s biggest rock and heavy metal fan but that isn’t it at all. My books aren’t primarily about the music, they’re about the stories. They’re not fan books, if I’m writing a book on, say, AC/DC I’m not thinking what the AC/DC fan will want to read, I’m wondering what to tell someone who has no idea about the band.
“The big bands do have the best stories. I started out as a writer when i was nineteen. I worked for Sounds and I wrote about all kinds of music but very soon I began gravitating towards the rock bands because they were more fun. I soon found that out travelling up to Bradford on a Sunday in a Transit van with the Lurkers, sitting on a guitar case for five hours then we slept on the floor of a pub after a show that about sixty people had watched. It made for a good story but it was all a bit miserable, then a few months later I was in the back of a limo with Thin Lizzy, off to the Hammersmith Odeon and at the party afterwards there was George Best, Page 3 girls, the place was full of drugs and cases of vintage champagne.
“Now, what shall I write about? Bradford with the Lurkers or George Best and cocaine? It’s a no-brainer and as the years went by it became my specialist subject. Kerrang! magazine started in 1981 but just before that I’d been PR for Virgin records, dealing with bands like Simple Minds, Human League and Japan. I’ve worked in a very broad spectrum of music.
“But when Kerrang! came along it was the first magazine to deal with that particular genre. Before that there were music magazines but it was a melting pot. Kerrang! was in colour, it was purely about metal and rock bands. The artists were huge all over the world, they had absolutely no pretentions of being relevant to politics and culture, they were just there to rock, to drive a Rolls Royce into a swimming pool and cycle down a hotel corridor. That seemed incredibly fertile territory to write about. And that’s what the show’s about – re-telling stories and particularly the ones that can’t be published. Lawyers for book companies are very, very conservative, they won’t take any risks whatsoever.
“I’ll be telling some stories especially focused on some of the great Midlands artists – I have some lovely stories about Judas Priest, Ozzy Osbourne, Led Zeppelin, Lemmy, who was born in Stoke on Trent. It’s always been a real music heartland. Then in the second half the audience can ask questions. Because I got into the business so young and I didn’t really have another job, I was never in awe of any of these people. It’s about their personalities and the ridiculous things we got up to and kept coming back for more.”
You seem to have had a few career changes – writing, PR, a few other things like cooking burgers – so talking about them does seem to be a logical progression.
“I never cooked burgers, I was a dishwasher. I had to work my way up to what they call a number two, the assistant to the bloke who flipped the burgers. I prepared the bun and he placed the burgers on the bun. It came about when I was 21. A year or two earlier I’d become a partner in a PR firm called Heavy Publicity. We did Black Sabbath, the Damned, Journey, Blondie, plus another fifty bands you’ve never heard of.
“Unfortunately after a couple of years we’d snorted away all the profits – that was my first encounter with cocaine – and I went very quickly from having a flat in West Hampstead with a garden so big that the local school used it for their fetes, with a driver, a secretary and the rest, then the firm was out of business, the building had burned down and I was washing dishes in a burger restaurant for £10 a night. Partly by choice, I didn’t want to work for bands anymore. You’re their PR bitch and it’s a thankless task except for the money so I spent some months washing dishes and getting off with waitresses.”
“My ambition was always having the best time possible, getting as out of it as possible, with zero responsibility, and that’s really hard work. In those days because of what I was writing, this was before the music industry as we knew it died, there was so much money in the business. Rock in the eighties was the biggest-selling music in the world yet you couldn’t hear it on radio. Tommy Vance for two hours a week on Radio One and that was it, yet these bands were out-selling everything that was on radio so the record companies had no option but to spend these lavish budgets on the music press.
“But – the Melody Maker and the NME hated rock music. They ridiculed it, they wouldn’t review it most of the time, then suddenly there was this thing called Kerrang! that wrote about nothing but their music. I’ve got so many gold records from band like Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Metallica, Bon Jovi, all because they got their launchpad by me writing about them. Then I got a TV show on Sky called Monsters of Rock and again I was the only one playing their videos. And so they’d send me around the world, sometimes for three weeks at a stretch, until finally I moved to LA in 1988.
“I had the proper lifestyle – the condo, it seemed the normal thing to go out every night and see Ozzy, Axl, Slash, that was was West Hollywood was like at the time. It was an incredible time; not only telling these stories but to be a part of them. I was living the life of Riley. If it ever looked dodgy though, I thought that I could always go back to washing dishes. I look back now and I wince at some of the opportunities that have slipped through my fingers because of either stupidity or simply not paying attention.
“I didn’t care, I just wanted to carry on writing these stories and living this lifestyle. I didn’t get married until I was forty, I didn’t become a dad until I was 42, so I was carrying on living this carefree lifestyle until one day it all caught up with me and my life changed.”
It’s a part of rock legend that you were featured in the Guns’n’Roses song Get in the Ring, from their 1991 album Use Your Illusion II. Have you got bored talking about the incident?
“Yes, in about 1992. I always tell the truth, which means I always give the same answer. Its not an either or, it’s I travelled round the world for five years. I was their go-to guy, their man when they were in trouble. There were many things that I would never write about Guns’n’Roses because I said at the time I wouldn’t. They can be very personal or very sensitive, we’ve all done things we don’t want the world to know about. I knew and I helped them before they were famous, throughout all the personnel changes. Then there comes an interview that Axl doesn’t like, and I’ve still got the tape, but it caused this big rift.
“I’m hardly in an exclusive club because Axl falls out with everyone. There’s no-one in the band apart from him, he kept firing the replacements and took thirteen years to finally release Chinese Democracy. This is not a guy who had a row with me and he put my name in a song. We never had a row – we parted on good terms, I showed him the interview and asked him if there was anything he wanted taking out – but you talk to Slash, any of the band, their management and anyone who ever worked for them and they all tell the same story.
There’s some crazy rock stars but Axl isn’t one of them. Axl has deep, serious frailties and issues. The whole not going on stage on time, not turning up for things, and inevitably people like me might think he’s an arrogant diva but he’s none of these things in truth. He’s really troubled and like a disability, you can’t poke fun about it and you can’t tell him off for being like that. It’s the way he was brought up and the way he is. He’s not playing the song live anymore, he’s put it behind him.
“Whenever Slash and I meet up we’re still friends, but Axl said that he hoped Slash got cancer. Compared to that, wanting to kick my bitchy little ass is nothing, So many musicians want to do that but to hope Slash gets cancer just shows the depth of his pain, his trouble. It’s beyond some journalist who wrote something he didn’t like.”
You say you’re bored with the Axl Rose story, and that’s understandable, but is there anyone you could be asked to write about and you ‘d say no, because there’s just nothing else than could be said about them?
“Well, that’s a good question. You can get people who weren’t there tapping into the market for other people who weren’t there but in my case the ones I write about have careers that go on for decades. For example my Led Zeppelin book came out in 2008 and they haven’t played together since, there’s been some back catalogue come out but that’s it, yet I have a new version of the book soon and there’s 40,000 words of new stuff in there. People came forward after the original was published, telling me things that go back to when the band was first formed all the way to the 02 concert in 2007 and the past ten years that have made me ethink and filled in a lot of the blanks so that they make sense. It’s very rare that as the years go by there isn’t any new material to add.”
Is there anyone you haven’t written about that you’d like to?
“Thin Lizzy, Deep Purple, I’d love to write a book about the RollinG Stones. There’s been many about the Stones but I think I have a take on it that no-one else would have. The trouble is the market. I could write about anyone, but is it going to sell? I could write a great book about Def Leppard, right from their early days, but publishers aren’t interested. I’m married with three kids at school and could I afford to spend nine months on a project that won’t sell? There are some great books that could be written but is there anyone who’ll pay me to write them?”
I’ve got this image of your Robin performance and the ultimate revenge – a roomful of musicians sitting there in stony silence then writing scathing reviews.
“I hope not. I hope we have a laugh, I don’t intend to sit there posing, I intend to have a good night.”