Manchester based author and television producer David Nolan has written about the Sex Pistols, Ed Sheeran, Damon Albarn, Tony Wilson and others. He has made documentaries ranging from The Smiths to the free festivals of the 1970s to the present day, and even turned Morrissey into a cartoon character. His latest music biography is about Nottingham’s very own Jake Bugg, and I caught up with him at the end of his media junket day in Nottingham.
You’ve written a lot of music biographies and made documentaries, what prompted you to write about Jake Bugg, a relative newcomer compared to some of your subjects?
The trick with these kinds of books is timing, no point in writing too early because it won’t have any impact. There’s no point writing too late or you’ll look like you’ve missed the boat. As much as I’d like to say it was down to me deciding to write a book, I was contacted by the publisher who said “we think something is happening in Nottingham with Jake Bugg, do you want to write a book about it?”
So it was written to order?
It’s a commissioned book, as much as I admire someone who will write a book and then look for a publisher; I do it the other way round. Although to be fair I turn down more books than I do. Mainly because the music is evil and I won’t have anything to do with it, or there’s no story. In this case I think it’s a great story and my musical choice is skinny lads with guitars so it’s perfect for me. There is a proper story there; if you and I were talking four years ago and you said that the next big thing was going to be teenage, twangy, Johnny Cash, rockabilly, country stuff…ridiculous. So that story in a lot of ways is that in this day and age of… he’s the opposite of everything that should be popular. But you have to ask yourself why, so for me that’s where the story is, because on the face of it it makes no sense. The rockabilly, twangy, East Midlands, so it’s about ‘why’ and ‘how’. Then there’s the underlining story of the apparent underperformance of Nottingham music as far as the outside world is concerned. The third thing then is, if it’s just him, some good selling albums, and some middling selling singles then essentially he’s the 2013/2014 Paper Lace and it has no meaning. The very fact that you and I are talking here now and there are four Nottingham acts in the Top 40 means that it has had an effect, so even if you don’t like him (Bugg) or his music, it has had that effect.
Nottingham’s music scene has a collection of people; myself, Dean, Mark Del, Simon Wilson, who could have all done this. Do you as an outsider you’ve had an advantage?
I think it is (an advantage) actually. Here’s a funny thing, if you or Simon or Mark or Dean or anyone else had got on a train to Manchester, and said that you’d like to write a book about the music scene, we would have told you to fuck off. Then we’d have put you on the next train, because Manchester is very insular. One of the best known books about the Manchester music scene is Manchester England by Dave Haslam, and there’s a whole section of Manchester who won’t have anything to do with it because Dave wasn’t born in Manchester, that’s how harsh it can be. So yes, the thing is with me is that I’ve got a background and a bit of pedigree, but the main thing is I’ve no axe to grind. Secondly I don’t owe anyone anything so there’s maybe things that I can say and write about that won’t affect my future standing. I can say what I want and it’s down to me.
I lost my standing a long time ago…
But you know what I mean, I don’t have to worry that management won’t like it, or that it’ll damage my ability to get people to come on the programme or the podcast or newspaper, I don’t have that, I can write what I want. That book has had barely a word changed in terms of the publishers, it’s my book. I wanted a glossary of terms in the back, and it’s got a glossary of terms in the back. I wanted a soundtrack listing to go with it, and I got it. It’s purely what I wanted to write. I think it’s fair, it’s my experience of it and what will be really nice is if years to come, people look back on it not as ‘the Jake Bugg book’ but think of it as that record of what happened, 2011, 2012, 2013…
You mention Mike Atkinson writing an article for The Guardian which did have an effect because we were (musically) underachieving, and that article did wake up the rest of the country, not overnight but it did have an effect.
Yes and you can’t bullshit that through, you can’t just say “I’ll buy that because it’s from the same postal district as Jake Bugg”, that’s bollocks. So it has to be something, in the book I’ve laid the timeline out; so it went from those early Maze gigs, Zoe Kirk’s piece (the This Is Live online video series), The Post, then it was Mark Del, then Dean. Laying it all out so no one could argue about it. One of the things on the timeline was Mike’s article, so again I was thinking ‘I’d like to mention that, but I didn’t want to just quote from the article, I wanted to find out why the guy wrote it so that’s why he’s in there as well. Even things like everybody mentioning Paper Lace, I wondered what Paper Lace thought about it, so I tracked Phil Wright down and asked him what he thought about Jake Bugg because everyone’s talking about him but he hadn’t had the chance to make his point, so there’s a nice bit of context there. There’s a classic story about them visiting a pressing plant and there were three machines doing ‘Billy Don’t Be A Hero’ and the fourth one was doing Paul McCartney’s new single, that’s how big it was, when records were records. I’m a man of a certain age so I remember seeing them on Top Of The Pops, now we’re looking to the future and if you asked people who we’d be talking about in May. We’re talking about Indiana, Kagoule, St Raymond, they were right, those are the bands of the now, of this week.
Do you think Jake Bugg was representative of Nottingham music for a time?
No. It’s an interesting one that because one of the things that’s been quoted back to me, because I’m from Manchester, is ‘all these bands are different, that Manchester thing, all the bands were the same’, they weren’t all the same at all. The only thing that connected them was they dressed the same, and there’s a reason they dressed the same, and that’s because entrepreneurial clothing manufacturers gave them free clothes. That’s the only reason they looked the same, if the clothing manufacturers had been giving away spandex jumpsuits, the Happy Mondays would have been wandering around Manchester in spandex jumpsuits. So I don’t buy that, that’s the only reason the Manchester bands looked the same is the free clothes. There’s been ‘sounds’ in the past but even that’s been really tenuous, like Liverpool in the early 1980s with that kind of psychedelic thing, The Bunnymen, Wah, Teardrop Explodes and things like that, it’s a very tenuous connection. It’s a bit like saying ‘this postcode has a sound’, nonsense. However if it helps to sell some magazines, or to bring listeners to your radio show or sells a book, there’s a reason for it; the reality is that it’s attention. Lots of places have had it, I’m old enough to remember when Swindon had its moment in the sun, late seventies, XTC were signed to Virgin and all the A&R headed to Swindon because XTC had been signed. If it means that some people who wouldn’t have got attention get attention, good for them. That’s the effect he (Jake Bugg) has had, like him or not, he has changed the way the city is seen and maybe the way the city sees itself.
His legacy is of course the fact that there’s more attention paid to Nottingham as a music city. Do you think that will last? Will people look back on Nottingham in the 2010s in the same way that people look at Liverpool in the 1960s?
The point has been proved, even if it ends, and by its nature it does. I don’t think anyone should beat themselves up in 2015 ‘it’s all over, what did we do wrong’. By its very nature these cycles happen, but the job has been done. The big deal here was if it was just Jake then it’s a one off, it’s a one hit wonder, nobody’s going to benefit from it, but hasn’t (been just Jake) so in a sense that point is done now, this week has proved it so in a sense, job done. Now what happens after that, I don’t know? I think it would be quite nice if the youth of Leicester, Worksop or Mansfield started thinking fucking hell, if those dickheads can do it, maybe we can do it. That’s how things spread out, it’s the classic model; the Sex Pistols model, look at the Sex Pistols in ’76, and you didn’t necessarily go “that’s amazing, I want to do that”, you looked at the Sex Pistols in 1976 and that’s shit, I can do so much better than that. That’s the attitude that takes music forward.
You said that you get asked to write music biographies, but if you could pick your own subject who would you write a book on?
What a brilliant question that is! Fair play to you, I’ve never been asked that before. There’s a book that I’m trying to write at the moment about someone you’ve probably never heard of, but it would be very important to me because I would get a great deal of satisfaction out of it. I think of my favourite bands and maybe I’m the worst person in the world to write about them because if they’re my favourite band maybe my mind’s too coloured. If I love them so much I can’t step back and look at them with a cold eye which you need to do. I’ll find one track that I love on someone’s terrible fourth album and I will champion it until the end. As long as there’s content in them, I just love music books; I’ve got a wall full of music books. I can find a great deal in books even if I don’t like the music, Gary Barlow’s book is brilliant, one of the funniest music books I’ve ever read because he’s so self-depreciating. I’m reading a book at the moment about the Grateful Dead and I don’t really care for them but it’s a great story. So to me if it’s a great story it can override the music in a way. I’d love to write a book about XTC but someone’s already done it, so you’re always looking for the one that someone hasn’t thought of. Maybe someone else will write a book about Nottingham music, but they’ll have to read mine. Then I’ll have to read theirs.
Who’s this person you think I won’t have heard of?
A guy called Jackie Leven.
You’re right, never heard of him.
He was the lead singer of a band called Doll By Doll, who were an extraordinary kind of psychedelic punk nutcase band in the late 1970s. The critics hated him, and they kind of imploded. He then became a solo singer, he became a heroin addict, he was attacked and lost his voice and then he died of cancer two years ago. He just had an extraordinary life, and the people who know him worship him. I’ve spent two years trying to convince his widow to okay the book, and I’ll give it another couple of years, it’s a long game.
Jake Bugg: The Biography (John Blake Publishing) is released on Tuesday 6th May.
Follow David Nolan on Twitter @NolanWriter
Interview by Steve Oliver