Peter Doggett Interview
Peter Doggett is a former Record Collector journalist and editorial assistant turned freelancer and best-selling author. He is probably one of the UK’s foremost chroniclers of pop culture. His tome There’s A Riot Going On, about 60s and 70s rock ‘n’ roll and revolutionary politics, is an incredible piece of work. His latest book is on the Beatles called You Never Give Me Your Money: The Battle For The Soul Of the Beatles.
Can you give me a brief history of your career as a writer/journalist?
Writing must have been in my genes. I wrote my own Noddy and Thunderbirds stories when I was six, seven, eight years old, and it always felt natural to make up stories. But I only realised there was something bigger at stake when I became seriously obsessed with literature – after which I always assumed that I would write the Great British Novel.
The world is still waiting for that one. Instead, I got very lucky: I became an editorial assistant at Record Collector in 1980, when I was 23 and almost the only person in the country who had heard of the magazine. I stayed there until 1999, since when I’ve been freelancing – initially for RC, then for bigger magazines, most often Mojo. And along the way I started writing books, including three that I’m especially proud of – Are You Ready For The Country (2000), There’s A Riot Going On (2007) and You Never Give Me Your Money (2009). Writing books is what I always wanted to do, and now I’m fortunate enough to be able to make a living out of it.
Can you tell me about your experiences working on Record Collector?
It seems like a long time ago, and often it’s easier for me to remember the bad stuff – the ridiculous hours I worked, the enormous stress of running a magazine with a small staff and a smaller budget, the responsibility of everything ultimately resting on my shoulders, the challenge of fighting glossy colour magazines from multinational corporations with a black-and-white mag coming out of a small office in Ealing.
But it was also the best job in the world. I had the chance to help the magazine build from a small A5 publication into an A4 mag that often ran to more than 200 pages. Probably nobody will ever give it the credit, but Record Collector was the first monthly music magazine in the country, the first rock history magazine, and still just about the only one that wasn’t ultimately a slave of its advertising department. In other words, we didn’t have to be nice to major label product in case they took their adverts away, because we didn’t usually get those kind of ads anyway. That left us free to be honest about the music business, something sadly lacking these days.
The core staff during what I think of as the golden era of the magazine – most of the 90s – were wildly enthusiastic about music, completely devoted to what they were doing, and often almost impossible to control. (They know who they are!) And we did some wonderfully off-the-wall and adventurous things, editorially, within the basic context of being a collectors’ magazine.
Your latest book (You Never Give Me Your Money: The Battle For The Soul Of the Beatles) discusses the life of the band from the start of their break-up to the present day. How did you go about researching and then writing such an ambitious project?
I had the idea years ago, and kept it under wraps. I knew it was a good idea, and I knew that I wanted to be the one to write it; but I’d written so much about the Beatles since 1980 that for a long time I couldn’t face the prospect. All that time, though, I kept filing information away. I was a fan, in the first place, so I naturally remembered stuff. I’d had the opportunity to meet and often interview dozens of people who’d worked with and for the Beatles. And I knew where lots of the metaphorical bodies were buried.
It was only in 2008 that I finally felt ready, and sufficiently refreshed, to write the book. By then, it was less a question of doing research (though I was finding new stuff up until the day I handed in the manuscript) than throwing stuff out. If I’d written everything I knew, the book would literally have been several million words long. Instead, I tried to keep the story as direct and urgent as possible, and the book came in at 140,000 words. From the start of full-time research to finishing the book was only a year; but really I’d been preparing for this book since 1970, when I first became a fan.
In terms of each member whose solo music do you prefer?
It always used to be John, but I rarely play his music anymore; writing a detailed critique of his work (The Art & Music of John Lennon) meant that I did a lifetime’s worth of listening in one year. As it happens, I don’t play the Beatles’ stuff much either: I know it too well. For pleasure, I’ll play George (the most consistent of the post-Beatles solo catalogues, as far as I’m concerned) and the best of Paul, especially Ram and Chaos & Creation In The Backyard. But if I hear any track by any of them, it usually brings a smile to my face.
What other books on the Beatles would you recommend?
Anything by Derek Taylor, first of all. Mark Lewisohn’s stuff for its impeccable research. The Lennon interviews with Rolling Stone and Playboy. Richard DiLello’s The Longest Cocktail Party. Michael Braun’s Love Me Do. And the Beatles’ own Anthology book, although like Bob Dylan’s Chronicles it needs someone to write a detailed, page-by-page critique of what it says and what it leaves out.
Is there anything left to be said about the Beatles that hasn’t yet been written about?
We’ll find out when Mark Lewisohn publishes his epic three-volume biography! In my book, I say that the Beatles’ story has become a 20th century fairytale, which can be interpreted and retold endlessly, so I am sure there will always be Beatles books. I’d love to read a really in-depth biography of George, but it would be difficult for someone to write one without the co-operation of his widow, which would probably compromise the author’s independence.
If I have any really good ideas, I’m keeping them to myself! In lots of ways, I feel as if You Never Give Me Your Money should be my final word on the subject, as it is the culmination of a 40-year obsession. But I wouldn’t rule out writing something about them again.
How long did it take you to write the tome There’s A Riot Going On? And what was your research process like for that one?
That book started out as a non-music project, about the history of the black power movement in the USA. I probably did a couple of years’ research into that, before it became obvious that I should really be writing about the idea I’d had a decade or more earlier – a history of the collision between rock music and revolutionary politics in the late 60s and early 70s.
That initial research wasn’t wasted, as it meant that I already had a very deep grounding in black power politics before I started working on Riot. Of all the books I’ve written, however, that took the most work, and not just because it was the longest (250,000 words). I had to read hundreds of books and plough through thousands of newspapers and magazines before I could write a word. The whole thing probably took five years from start to finish, which made no kind of sense in financial terms.
Do you always have projects in mind or do publishers approach you with ideas?
Almost always the ideas are mine, though I’m open to helpful suggestions. I have a long list of books I’d like to write one day, and I’m ready to be surprised by new ideas as well.
Do you have a literary agent or do you approach publishers yourself with ideas?
I’m lucky enough to have a very hard-working agent, who forces me through the process of fine-tuning my book proposals like an old-fashioned schoolmaster. I’m told that having an agent is pretty much compulsory these days, at least with major publishers, unless your reputation speaks for itself.
Which music books would you recommend?
God, there are so many. I enjoy reading almost anything, especially if it’s a story that hasn’t been told before. As a pretentious literature graduate, I was blown away by Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train. I love Robert Christgau’s Consumer Guide books, even though his taste and mine have grown wider apart with each passing decade. My friends Johnny Rogan and Clinton Heylin have each written some essential biographies on some of my favourite artists, among them Dylan and the Byrds. Looking randomly around the room as I type, I can pick out Mick Brown’s book on Phil Spector, Al Kooper’s autobiography, Will Friedwald on Frank Sinatra, Jeff Tamarkin on Jefferson Airplane, Peter Guralnick on Elvis, Colin Harper on Bert Jansch, plus some weird and wonderful titles from the distant past, like Karl Dallas’s Singers Of An Empty Day. When I put my anorak on, I’m a sucker for reference books too – chart facts and figures, collections of album reviews, that kind of thing. If I could only keep one music-related book, though, it would be Derek Taylor’s Fifty Years Adrift.
Who are your favourite music writers?
As above, really, plus there are people like Mark Paytress, Simon Reynolds and Barney Hoskyns, who are always worth reading regardless of the subject. I grew up enjoying the giants of the 70s music press: Chris Charlesworth, Nick Kent, Roy Hollingsworth, Michael Watts, Ian Macdonald.
What is your record collection like?
Not as big as it was: I gave a lot of stuff away to charity shops a few years back. Because I was editor of Record Collector for so many years, people always assume that I have a collection of fantastically rare stuff, but I really don’t. I do, however, have enough Dylan, Willie Nelson, CSNY, Sinatra and Jerry Lee Lewis albums to last anyone a lifetime.
What is your opinion on the current state of music journalism?
I don’t see as much as I used to, because I don’t have to. The average standard of writing in the monthly magazines is way higher than it was 20 or 30 years ago; there’s a bottom line of solid professionalism there that didn’t exist in the distant past. But at the same time there’s much less risk-taking. I wish that one of the monthlies would be brave enough to stand up and expose record company hype, and the madness of music-biz politics, the way that the underground press would have done 40 years ago. Otherwise – well, there is music coverage everywhere these days, which makes it very difficult for magazines to stand out. By the time you get to Mojo or Uncut, you often feel as if you’re already read ten different versions of the same interview or review, either online or in the daily papers. But they both do a valiant job of fighting their way through the overkill of new releases every month. I also have a soft spot for The Word, which seems like the perfect magazine for a dentist’s waiting-room – a 21st century Readers Digest for ageing rock fans, if you like.
What do you think the future is for printed media, specifically music magazines?
Books? They’ll battle on until the last reader has been drowned in a tidal wave of tweets and e-mails. Magazines? Doomed, I fear. How can any monthly or even weekly compete with the Internet, which is updated every second?
Which music magazines do you read regularly?
Mojo and Record Collector, because they come in the mail. The Word and Uncut, when they grab me with something I haven’t read anywhere else. And the Dylan magazine Isis, because I’m still obsessed.
Which artists have given you the best interviews?
The best? Well, my all-time favourite experience was sitting around a table for the first time with Crosby, Stills and Nash, just because of what their music has meant to me since I was a teenager. Elvis Costello provided the best copy, because he talks 200,000 words an hour, and it was a three-hour interview. Ray Davies, whom I’ve interviewed many times, is the most challenging and therefore most interesting subject, as he’s almost impossible to pin down. Often, though, it’s the people you least expect who turn out to be the most fun – record producer Don Was, for example, Eric Burdon of the Animals, or country legend Waylon Jennings, people who have amazing stories and aren’t afraid to tell them.
And the worst?
Mark Knopfler was a classic. He hardly said a word when the tape recorder was on. It was only when I got back to the office that I realised he’d been ‘exposed’ that morning on the cover of The Sun. He must have been waiting for me to ask him about his marriage, and I only wanted his Bob Dylan stories.
The late blues guitarist Jeff Healey was fantastically dull, god bless him. Former Stones manager Andrew Oldham, in the days before he cleaned himself up, had drunk so much wine that he could not make it through a coherent sentence. Cliff Richard wouldn’t stop quoting his chart positions from round the world, as if he was obsessed with his own success. But the most disappointing experience for me was interviewing Peter Holsapple (at one time the fifth member of REM) and Chris Stamey. They had been the mainstays of an obscure American band called the dB’s, and I loved their music – around 1981 they were as good a live band as anyone in the world. Years later, they were promoting a duo album, so I was looking forward to meeting these guys. And Stamey was pathetic – absolutely refused to talk about anything apart from their rather mediocre new record. Holsapple was very sweet, but Stamey just wouldn’t co-operate, so I took the only revenge I had: I didn’t write about them. Twenty years on, I haven’t listened to Stamey’s music since. How difficult is it to be polite to a journalist who actively likes your stuff, for god’s sake?
Are there any artists you’d still like to interview?
Yes, but they’re mostly dead. Anyone got Duke Ellington’s number?
Can you recall some of the best gigs you’ve been to throughout your career?
CSNY in Dallas, 2002: the culmination of decades of fandom, and it was better than I could ever have hoped. I’ve seen Dylan about 60 times, and some of those shows have been remarkable – Hammersmith in 1990, Portsmouth in 2000, even as recent as Brixton in 2005. But the Roundhouse gig this year was a disgrace. Willie Nelson at about three in the morning at a tiny club in Nashville, playing a borrowed electric guitar with a pick-up band. Rufus Wainwright at Dingwalls, just before the Want album came out. Paul McCartney at Westcliff-on-Sea Pavilion. Carl Perkins with George, Ringo & Eric Clapton at the shooting of a TV special in 1986. Keith Richards and band at the Town & Country Club. Patti Smith in 1978 and at the Serpentine Gallery when she re-emerged 15 years later. Plus any bluegrass act I’ve ever seen at the Station Inn in Nashville, my all-time favourite venue. The loudest band I ever saw were the Clash; the most disappointing, and I tried several times, were REM; the most boring were the reformed Steely Dan.
Do you have any other projects on the go?
Yes, but I’m not telling you what they are!
Interview by Neil Daniels 2009