Word Interview #4 – Paul Du Noyer

Paul Du Noyer pic

I meet Paul in the centre of Liverpool, in the café at Waterstones. I point out an instructional book about becoming a music journalist and he remarks on its bad timing now there’s barely any financial incentive in choosing it as a career.

Back at Paul’s flat near the Albert Dock, he tells me that he prefers being interviewed to interviewing  – and that Cilla Black was his last interviewee in the final days of Word magazine. And speaking of that august periodical…

You were involved in Word magazine from the beginning. What do you remember about those days?

I worked at the old publishing company EMAP with Jerry Perkins on its digital publications’ websites. Dave (Hepworth) was working with us sometimes and Mark (Ellen) was somewhere else. All four of us had worked together in different bits of EMAP over the years, chiefly Q and Mojo, so we all knew each other. Around the same time we were all becoming increasingly disenchanted with the company. Jerry was the first to leave, he sounded Dave out and he was planning to leave as well. They went and formed a company called Development Hell with a view to launching new EMAP titles. By coincidence I was approached at that point by Paul McCartney to do another tour magazine which we’d previously done through EMAP. I suggested to David and Jerry that perhaps they could do them and use the money to help them set up. They did and that gave them some of the start-up finance for what became The Word. Dave and I spent a few months working up ideas for a new title which at one point was going to be called Satisfaction. Suddenly Mark was also available; he came over and joined us and we all worked together on it. He joined on a full-time basis but I stayed part-time because I wanted to carry on writing books. He became the full-time editor at that point, I was the reviews editor and general assistant.  We finally settled on the magazine’s title: The Word – well, Word at first.

Whose idea was the name?

Probably Dave’s. I don’t remember being around when the decision was made. After it was launched I worked there for a few weeks each month. I also wrote some longer pieces for it.

Was the ethos of the magazine something that you’d worked out between the four of you?

I think the hope was that it would be something broader than a general music magazine – really it was an echo of what we’d attempted with Q in 1986. In its early days it was meant to be, as the tag-line said, about “Music and More”. Lots of film and book coverage, an overview of popular culture I suppose. As time went by, Q tended to focus increasingly on music and those other things started to fall by the wayside. The idea of Word was to return to that idea and be rather more literary; books were going to be quite a big area of focus. So that’s what it became, though the reality is that a music cover is always going to appeal to far more people than anything else. Movie covers are quite attractive but there’s no real access to anyone in the film business for a magazine like ours. We tried to be ‘music plus’.

I liked all the little, niche articles and the sense of irreverence. I’d grown up with Smash Hits in the early 80’s and I could see Mark and David’s humour running through Word.

It was very much like the early Q, again started by Mark and David and they brought me in as third man. Their background was Smash Hits and mine was the NME. A lot of the writers we recruited were the same mixture so it was the old NME tradition meeting 1980’s Smash Hits – with hilarious consequences!

Tom Hibbert was a great figure at Q. He’d cut his teeth at Smash Hits and he was an old Grateful Dead fan, a real kind of ‘Withnail and I’ figure; a mischievous old hippy who loved pop music in a completely un-abashed kind of way. That conflict of types and attitudes was very productive and a similar mixture was evident at the launch of Word.

The next big development was the addition of Andrew Harrison. He, like all of us, had been at EMAP and joined fulltime as a deputy to Mark.

Tell me more about your role at the magazine. What did you like about being Reviews Editor?

It was a gig I’d done before at the NME, Q, Mojo and at the launch of Heat magazine. I always liked it because it’s the Reviews Editor who tends to work with the freelance contributors. I loved that aspect, helping to develop the new writers. It’s an important job because you’re the ‘Recruiting Sergeant’ for the magazine. You help to generate the next wave of feature writers. In general the good writers who we used a lot at NME, Q and Mojo started with reviews.

I was working part time so I could concentrate on finishing my book Liverpool – Wondrous Place. I had a look around for someone to replace me on the reviews desk. Amongst the mountain of submissions that we used to receive every week was a fanzine about London called Smoke, submitted by one of its editors, Jude Rogers. I thought it was so good that I’d have a chat with her over coffee and sound her out – although, bizarrely, I didn’t know she was a she until I met her. In my head, Jude was a boy! By a freakish coincidence she’d also sent applications to Dave and he’d noted her down as someone worth meeting up with too – which shows the quality of her work. We appointed Jude as Reviews Editor and she did a fantastic job.

I still did a lot of writing for them though I’d stopped editing sections and going into the office except for social occasions. It was about a two-hour commute from where I was living so I didn’t fancy the office life much. Having said that, it was a joy working with Mark, I always loved that.

Where did you first meet Mark?

We’d originally met on the NME. We’d started as freelancers there at about the same time, around ’78 or ’79. Mark left quite soon after to join Smash Hits and I stayed on until ‘85. Although our professional paths diverged, we kept in touch and stayed good friends which is why he and Dave contacted me when they were starting Q.

That must have been an exciting time to start at the NME. How did it feel then?

Funnily enough, the perspective at the time was that we’d just missed the golden age. Looking back now, it was the era of Joy Division, the Bunnymen, post punk and new wave but then the concern was that we weren’t selling as much as we had in the Seventies, at the height of punk itself.

How did you react to the recent news about the NME becoming a free paper?

I did feel a bit sad and would prefer to see it thriving – but I’m just thankful that it still exists really. It’s an approach that’s worked for Time Out  and The Evening Standard in London. It’s strange to think back to the week by week savagery of our rivalry with Sounds, Melody Maker and Record Mirror and the fact that the entire sector has been wiped out.

What are your favourite memories of Word?

I just loved the experience of going into the office and working with Mark which I’d been doing on and off since the late 70’s. When he and I became junior freelancers at the NME, they would sometimes assign the two of us the features that no-one else wanted to write. We’d do things like compiling the quotes of the year and just seemed to bounce off each other. I liked his dedication and ability to be simultaneously focussed on the job and yet be able to talk the most astounding bollocks for hours on end. I wouldn’t have thought it possible to achieve both things but somehow he did it. When I say bollocks, I just mean the kind of things we’d say to each other to keep ourselves amused – possibly very clever bollocks but stuff that came very easily. It was a kind of well-informed whimsy that felt very natural to us.

We hoped our idea would come to the attention of a few thousand readers who shared the same kind of sensibility. I think that it did connect in the early days of Q and Mojo, though not so much with Word as times and less-favourable external circumstances had changed. There were forces gathering which were too large for us to overcome.

There was a lively online forum which helped to develop the loyal relationship between the readers and magazine. There just weren’t enough of them I suppose.

The readership was great and it was fascinating for me to watch the forum grow.

Did you ever go on it yourself?

I never did. And I still don’t go online much. I mean, I used to read it but, rightly or wrongly, I didn’t think it was the writers’ place to weigh into any discussions – we already had our shout in print. If someone asked me something directly I’d reply but otherwise I didn’t post. It was the most delightful thing to watch this community evolving. There’s a general rule of thumb that everything on the internet starts out well and turns to shit but thankfully that never happened. I know that there’s even a latter-day manifestation, the Afterword, that’s defying the laws of the internet by remaining civilised!

My last job at EMAP, after we’d launched Heat magazine, was to manage the digital music division with Jerry Perkins. We oversaw the launches, or relaunches, of all the company’s musical websites. It included Smash Hits, Q and the Kiss FM radio station. I’d been dying to get involved with the internet for years because I was intrigued by the editorial potential but once involved we discovered it was going to be incredibly difficult to make it pay. It’s a conundrum that still faces people. You can do all kinds of exciting things through the medium of the internet but how do you make it sufficiently profitable to pay people, to attract the quality of writers you desire and to create and harness authentic communities of users or readers?  I found, very quickly, through the sites for Smash Hits and The Box that it was easy to acquire thousands and thousands of users but how did you ensure that this online discourse was going to remain suitable for young users? Unless you can monitor absolutely everything, which takes enormous reserves of manpower, you can’t make sure that it stays within acceptable boundaries. That was a continuing nightmare, not so much at places like Q and Mojo which have an older and more level-headed readership who tend to self-police.

The internet remains a completely fascinating conundrum and the challenges that flummoxed us fifteen years ago are still to be solved. It’s amazing how quickly the net has moved on in that time and yet we’re stuck on the same questions. We were attempting to launch music websites before iPods or iTunes had been invented but the future was utterly unforeseeable. We were trying to strike up an alliance with HMV who would put CDs into envelopes and post them to your house; it seems so quaint now. We didn’t know that somewhere in California, someone was devising a little white plastic thing that would utterly change the whole basis of music.

In the early issues of Word magazine, there’s a section called Doctor Digital which tries to explain the new technology of MP3s and digital music players to the readers.

Well, we had this idea, with each magazine that launched, that there was a piece of technology attached to it. Q coincided with the time when CDs were starting to alter people’s perceptions of using music. With Mojo it was the era of the reissue and the boxset and they were beginning to become a huge part of the market.  You’d walk into a record store and see a vast section given over to curated box sets and the magazine attached itself to that. With Heat magazine we had a stroke of luck; we would have had to close the magazine down as it was doing so badly but then Channel 4 launched ‘Big Brother’ and an era of mass celebrity journalism exploded, saving the magazine.  Heat went on to stoke the fire of celebrity culture, albeit with a slightly knowing and distanced take on it. For Word, obviously, it was the invention of the iPod which changed the way that people thought about, consumed and categorised music. Mark was always a bit of a Luddite but Dave was interested in that area and Andrew was a self-confessed geek.

Speaking of iPods, you took part in some of the magazine’s podcasts. Were they fun to do?

They were but I was never as comfortable with podcasts as the printed word. Mark and Dave are really experienced broadcasters and they find it natural to have an ordinary conversation with a microphone in front of them. It’s not my background; I always consider myself purely as a writer. At least with writing you can work on what you say and hone it. I can write pretty quickly but I seldom do it completely off the top of my head. So I always enjoyed it but felt such an amateur compared to those two.

Do you still regularly read or subscribe to any magazines these days?

No, I dropped away from writing for or reading magazines completely, pretty much after Word closed down.  I concentrated entirely on book work from that point on. In the past few years I’ve found myself picking up Mojo from time to time and I think it’s maintained a pretty high standard. I’m really proud of it as it’s the one that I invented with help from Dave, and later from Mark. I think it still conforms to the hopes and plans that we had for it.  What would have amazed us when we launched, what we thought was a really good, but niche, music title, was that it would eventually become the largest selling music magazine.

Do you still have any contact with the magazine?

I know some of the people there. Funnily enough, for the next issue (Mojo 264, November 2015) I’ve written a couple of things to go with an extract from my Paul McCartney book. I’m not interested in returning to journalism but I am up for writing the odd thing that interests me.

I gave up reviewing a long time ago as I don’t pay enough attention to what’s coming out now. I got myself taken off all the mailing lists. It’s not possible to review if you don’t know the context of a release; you need to know what the landscape looks like. I don’t – and I’m happy not to! I’d rather learn about other things now and you can’t keep on top of everything. I love music but I like discovering things in an unsystematic way now. I enjoy the randomness of going into charity shops and picking things up because the cover looks funny or something. I love knocking around on Spotify and trying weird new things or classical music which I can enjoy with no obligation to understand or explain to anybody else. I can go back to appreciating music as a purely private pleasure without having to verbalise it in the structured way that critics are meant to; I can have an innocent relationship with music again. That’s the trouble with being a music critic, it summons up the Oscar Wilde phrase, “Each man kills the things he loves.” The more you use the analytical side of the mind, the less the instinctive part of you enjoys the things which used to seem so magical. For a long time being a critic spoiled music for me because everything was bound up in my anxieties as an editor. To this day I can’t really look at a picture of David Bowie or Morrissey or Van Morrison without thinking about how much I used to worry about my dealings with these people and how difficult the whole process was. But I’m over that now, it’s all receded into the past; you look back at the sleepless nights and wonder what the hell it was all about!

Paul’s book, “Conversations With McCartney” is available to buy from the usual outlets.

conversations with mccartney

If you want to hear more about the book, I recommend this podcast conducted by Messrs. Hepworth and Ellen.

Paul’s website featuring a selection of his articles and information on his books is at http://www.pauldunoyer.com

To hear Paul chatting to me on the Charity Shop Classics radio show visit https://www.mixcloud.com/CharityShopClassics/charity-shop-classics-with-paul-du-noyer-show-125/